Why Canada Needs Electoral Reform

Why Canada Needs Electoral Reform

. 8 min read

The road to establishing democracy in Canada has been a long one, with the first instances of popular elections taking place in what was then the colony of New France, now the province of Quebec. Special members of the colonial council in Quebec City, called syndics, were elected to serve as mediums through which the council and electors could communicate to each other. This purely communicative role was later expanded into that of a full council member. By 1657, it was decreed that there should be four popularly-elected candidates on the council who would be determined by a single-member plurality vote, meaning whichever candidate attained the most votes in their district would win the seat. This foundational mechanism has remained essentially unchanged ever since.

The rest of the political system and electoral conditions have evolved throughout the years, taking on considerable influence from the British following the removal of French governance with the 1763 Treaty of Paris. At the time, what is now Canada was still a collection of separate colonial territories, each with their own methods of governance and organization; it would not be until 1867, the year of Confederation and the creation of the Dominion of Canada, that the territories would be unified. Between these events, one of the main obstacles to democracy was that the upper houses of government, which were appointed, could block legislation approved by the lower houses, which were elected. Although technically still possible, as a bill must receive approval from both houses before it can pass into law, convention strongly dictates that the upper house should approve bills which pass in the lower house.

With the unification of Canada into a single country, uniform standards could then be applied across the provinces, leading to slow and incremental change. Women were given the right to vote in federal elections in 1918, although the franchise would only be formally defined by federal legislation in 1920. First Nations peoples living on reserves were given the right to vote in 1960, and the minimum voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 in 1970. Generally, subsequent attempts to restrict eligible voters due to incarceration, occupation, mental capacity, or other similar reasons have been struck down. With this steady trend towards a more inclusive and fair democracy, it is curious that the fundamental mechanism for electing representatives has not changed since 1657. It seems that after a long period of evolution and modernization, the Canadian electoral system has come to a standstill, leading to increasing voter dissatisfaction and diminishing participation rates which threaten the very foundation of democracy.

Canada’s political system is officially a constitutional monarchy with the Queen of Canada, Queen Elizabeth II of England, a holdover from Canada’s former colonial status, at its head. The Queen’s role, however, is purely symbolic, and she is said to rule but not to govern. The legislative branch of government, collectively referred to as Parliament, is divided between the Senate and the House of Commons, the latter of which is popularly elected while members of the former are appointed. There are currently 338 seats in the House of Commons, each representing an electoral district established through a representation formula outlined in the Constitution. In order to win a seat in the House of Commons, a candidate only needs to achieve a plurality of votes, meaning the greatest number of votes compared to other candidates, rather than a simple majority. This is a single-member plurality system, commonly referred to as first-past-the-post (FPTP). Rather than voting for a political party, voters elect the individual who may or may not be affiliated with a political party. Still, the overwhelming majority of elected Members of Parliament (MPs) are from official political parties, with the party winning the most seats in the House of Commons forming government. The leader of that party is then asked by the Governor General, the Queen’s official representative, to assume the role of Prime Minister and head the executive branch of government. This system prioritizes the party in power holding a majority of seats in Parliament in order to encourage the formation of a strong and stable government. However, in recent decades there have been growing calls for electoral reform due to the recurrent disproportionality of elections and legislature, as well as the exaggeration and perpetuation of regional divisions.

Failures of First-Past-the-Post

The most common grievance Canadians have with the current electoral system is how the legislature consistently misrepresents the popular vote, often quite drastically. In the most recent election for example, the Liberal Party of Canada obtained 46.4 percent of the seats in the House of Commons with only 33.1 percent of the popular vote. This allowed them to form government, despite the Conservative Party of Canada earning a slightly larger percentage of the popular vote with 34.4 percent. This example is far from being an outlier. The FPTP system often produces these disproportionate results; back in 2015, the Liberal Party won a majority of seats in government with only 39.5 percent of the popular vote. Such results clearly do not accurately reflect the will and opinions of the Canadian population as a whole, and they suffer from a lack of predictability. Geography comes to play a decisive role when it comes to political representation in single-member plurality constituencies, and this leads to a multitude of problems. Each party may only run one candidate per riding, a specific geographic division determined by demographic and population size, and electors cast a single vote for their preferred representative in their assigned constituency. The candidate with the most votes wins the seat, and there is no minimum threshold or margin of votes by which the candidate must win over the runner-up. Parties which acquire a significant portion of the popular vote but fail to come in first in a riding get nothing; the votes which go to parties with runner-up candidates are essentially wasted, as they do not translate into any form of representation in the government. This characteristic of the current electoral system often leads to “strategic” voting, where electors cast votes not for their preferred candidate, who could hail from a smaller or less popular party in their riding, but for the candidate most likely to beat their least preferred option. The political landscape thus devolves into a two-party system split between the most established parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, even though Canada possesses a multi-party system with many alternatives. The FPTP system makes it hard for these alternative parties to gain a significant foothold in the House of Commons, despite the popular vote proving that they are, in fact, quite popular.

In addition to the prevalence of strategic voting, the dependence of FPTP on geographically-defined ridings makes the system susceptible to gerrymandering, the practice of defining constituencies in such a way that a specific party is inherently favored due to the distribution of partisan voters. Even without gerrymandering, the small geographic size of many ridings—determined by population density—means that voting populations are necessarily split up, making it harder to ensure an appropriate proportionality between electors and the legislature. In metropolitan areas, ridings usually encompass only a handful of neighbourhoods that are very demographically diverse, whereas in rural areas they are much larger but also more homogenous. Rural areas tend to come off stronger in elections because the voters are more unified, whereas in the urban population vote-splitting is a common occurrence.

For parties besides the Liberals and Conservatives, a very high concentration of regional support is needed for success. The system works in favor of region-specific interest groups, hindering parties with platforms that have more general appeal across the entire country. Case in point, during the 2019 federal election, the were major upsets between the Bloc Québécois, a party which only exists in the province of Quebec, the Green Party, Canada’s dedicated environmentalist party, and the New Democratic Party, a socialist democratic party that is traditionally third-largest in Parliament. The Bloc Québécois secured 7.7 percent of the popular vote while the Green Party obtained a comparable 6.5 percent, but the Bloc Québécois came away with 32 seats in the House of Commons while the Green Party only got three. Even more jarring was that the New Democratic Party earned 15.9 percent of the popular vote, more than double that of the Bloc Québécois, yet they only secured 24 seats. The tactics required of political parties in order to succeed in this system tend to exaggerate and encourage regional divisions across provinces and communities, since parties will often choose to prioritize region-specific issues to secure a voting stronghold. As a result, election results create the impression that Canadians are far more divided than they really are, as small shifts in the popular vote can lead to extreme changes in the legislature.

Canadians Need Change

These are but a few of the well-documented discrepancies continually produced by the single-member plurality system. However, if the government has managed to function so far, what’s the point in changing now? A compelling argument for electoral reform is Canada’s diminishing voter participation, as well as overall low participation from young voters. Between the years of 1945 and 1988, approximately 75 percent of eligible voters cast their ballot on election day. This has since dropped to 60 percent, a trend that shows little sign of reversing. Furthermore, it is especially worrying that this decline is happening in large part due to a lack of participation from young voters, with people in the age groups from 18 to 29 having the lowest voter turnout.

Adopting an alternative electoral system that produces a more representative legislature is one way of tackling low voter participation rates. Studies have shown that proportional representation systems, which aim to translate the proportions which emerge in popular votes into the legislative body, increase voter turnout. It is suggested that one of the main reasons for this increase in participation is that every vote counts towards representation, instead of only the votes going towards winning candidates in individual districts. Currently, people will often decide not to vote if their riding traditionally leans very strongly towards one party, as they see no point in casting a ballot that is unlikely to make a difference.

Another issue with the Canadian political system that could potentially be improved through the adoption of a proportional representation voting system is the underrepresentation of women and minority groups in Parliament. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made headlines when he appointed Canada’s first gender-balanced Cabinet upon his election in 2015, but discrepancies still exist in overall representation. The results of the latest election have only 29 percent of seats in the House of Commons held by women, and although they make up 5 percent of the population, just under 3 percent of seats are filled by First Nations representatives. Studies show that major democracies using proportional representation systems consistently outrank major democracies that still use FPTP in the percentage of seats held by women. In the case of ethnic and cultural minority candidates, they tend to only have strong chances of being elected in ridings with a large minority group population. This is another instance of the primacy and necessity of a high territorial concentration of support, something that is rarely guaranteed in many of the highly mixed and multicultural metropolitan areas where a significant portion of the Canadian population lives.

While retiring the FPTP system has been a significant topic of debate in Canada since the 1990s, the issue gained new momentum during the 2015 federal election. Electoral reform was included in the platforms of all major political parties, with the Liberal Party under Trudeau pledging to ensure that 2015 would be the last federal election to use FPTP. Although the Liberal Party won the election with a decisive majority of seats, electoral reform was dropped from the agenda by 2017. Trudeau justified the breaking of this seminal campaign promise by claiming that Canadians did not agree on which alternative system of voting to adopt and voicing his own opposition to proportional representation. He instead offered the ranked ballot method, where voters classify a certain number of candidates based on preference, stating that it would result in greater political unity for Canadians. This stance drew a fair amount of criticism, mainly because political theorists predict the Liberal Party would benefit the most from a ranked ballot system.

Notwithstanding the lack of consensus on which voting system is most suited to Canada, it is clear that Canadians care about their government and the fairness of elections. The Liberal Party lost its chance to push through reform on its own terms when it lost its majority government in the 2019 election and will now have to rely on cooperation with other parties to pass legislation. Canadians can only hope that the other parties push electoral reform onto the agenda, or else wait another five years for a new government to be elected.

Melinda Meng

Melinda is a Senior Editor, Copy Editor, and Staff Writer for the HIR. She is interested in human rights and international law, and has written extensively on the topic of Canadian politics.