What’s wrong with Canada’s voting system? Why do we need a new one?
Canada uses a voting system based on a “winner-take-all” principle. In recent elections, upwards of half of all voters cast ballots that are not converted into representation – meaning they cast ballots for losing candidates in ridings across the country. In the 2015 federal election, over nine million ineffective votes were cast.
As a result, many voters feel that their votes do not matter. This structure also means that our voting system routinely results in “majority” governments in which a party with a minority of votes gains control of the parliamentary agenda.
We need a modern, proportional voting system that will respect voter intention, make every vote count, deliver fair results, and help us elect a legislature that reflects the preferences of all Canadians.
Which voting system changes are being considered by the federal government?
The Liberal Party campaigned on the promise that the 2015 federal election would be the last one using our current system of first-past-the-post to “Make Every Vote Count.” Following the election, the new Liberal government confirmed this commitment in its Speech from the Throne. To honour this commitment, the Liberals promised to set up an all-party committee to study and consult Canadians about how to reform our voting system. They cited ranked ballots and proportional representation as options to consider.
What is first-past-the-post?
First-past-the-post is a “majoritarian” voting system - also referred to as a “winner-takes-all” system. In each electoral district (riding), the candidate with the most votes is elected the Member of Parliament, whether or not he or she received a majority of votes. Ballots cast for other candidates do not go towards electing anyone.
A small number of countries use this voting system. It is ill-suited to modern, diverse and multi-party democracies. The world’s top democracies use a form of proportional representation.
What is proportional representation?
Proportional representation is based on the principle that the seats a party has in a legislature should reflect the percentage of votes cast for that party. So if a party earns 39% of the votes, it should get roughly 39% of the seats. In this way, proportional systems also aim to provide representation for most voters.
There is a family of voting systems based on the principle of proportionality. Countries can and do design or alter a system of proportional representation to meet their unique needs, such as ensuring that voters can elect a local representative in their home riding.
How many countries use a proportional system?
Over 90 countries use a proportional voting system, including 85 per cent of OECD countries, such as Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, and Denmark. In fact, among the top 10 countries in The Economist’s Intelligence Unit rankings, eight have built proportionality into the voting systems used for their main legislative chambers.
Why would a proportional system be good for Canadian voters?
Proportional representation makes the choice of every voter count so the electoral results are more fair and democratic. Using a model suited for a large, vast country such as ours, Canadians would also be able to elect a local representative, while at the same time seeing their political party preference represented in Parliament. This means Canadians would no longer have to vote for a party they do not prefer in order to prevent another party from winning.
Research also indicates that there is a strong correlation indicating that a proportional system would contribute to increasing voter turnout and improving the number of women in the legislature.
What about a ranked or preferential ballot?
A ranked ballot is not a voting system - it is a feature that can be part of a majoritarian “winner-take-all” system or of a proportional voting system.
Using a ranked ballot in single member ridings, such as those we have today, is a variation of first-past-the-post. It would continue to waste about half of votes cast, produce distorted overall results (false majorities), and replicate many of the problems experienced under our current system.
A ranked ballot can also be built into almost any proportional system, such as Single Transferable Vote or Mixed Member Proportional.
Would a proportional system increase voter turnout?
Research shows that voter turnout is five to 7.5 per cent higher on average in countries that use proportional representation to make every vote count. In Canada, this could mean between 1.3 million and 1.8 million more votes cast, based on the 2015 number of eligible voters.
Would we still be able to vote for a local representative in a proportional system?
Experts recommend proportional models for Canada that include local MPs tied to a geographical area. Under Mixed Member Proportional, voters would elect a local member and a regional party member. Under Single Transferable Vote, voters would elect several local members within a larger electoral district.
Would Canada have stable government if we had a proportional system?
Research shows the countries using proportional systems have elections no more frequently than countries using winner-take-all systems. This includes politically stable and economically strong countries such as Germany and New Zealand. A proportional system would likely mean more coalition governments, which give politicians an incentive to work together and cooperate.
Can a proportional system contribute to electing a more diverse Parliament?
Proportional representation is strongly correlated with better representation of women. Research finds countries that use proportional representation can see up to eight per cent more women in their legislatures compared to first-past-the-post systems. In fact, of the countries that have more than 30 per cent women in their legislature, the majority use PR.
Under proportional systems, parties run more than one candidate on a ballot. This creates a natural incentive to offer more diversity to voters and to move away from the current practice that sees parties often running the safest or most “electable” candidate in a riding.
Aren’t proportional representation voting systems confusing and fragmented, with too many parties in the legislature?
Our current first-past-the-post system does not have a monopoly on simplicity. In fact, the mechanics of proportional representation system, based on the basic principle that the level of support a party receives should be reflected in the number of seats allotted to them in a legislature, can be simple and straightforward with a ballot to match. Of course, every voting system takes some getting used to, but Canadians would quickly learn the new system, just as the citizens of over 90 countries that use proportional representation have done successfully.
Under PR, Canada would probably see a few new parties elected to Parliament, reflecting the preferences of Canadian voters. But it is unlikely that the number of new parties would be of consequence, disrupt the parliamentary agenda or speed up the electoral cycle, given that a minimum level of support is generally required to win a seat in most countries that use PR.
And remember: most of the world's top democracies -- Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and many more - use proportional representation and perform exceptionally well without holding frequent elections.
Is it legal to change the voting the system without a referendum?
Almost every country that has adopted proportional representation has done so with a simple majority vote in the legislature. Only two have brought in a system of proportional representation by referendum - Switzerland in 1918 and New Zealand in 1996.
How should the federal government consult with Canadians about improving the voting system?
The federal government should fulfill its commitment to listen to Canadians. Some options include: a citizens’ assembly, broad public consultations, electronic consultations and public policy conferences.
Should we have a referendum to decide on changing the electoral system?
Holding a referendum is unnecessary. Evidence shows that a referendum would not necessarily generate meaningful deliberation. It could turn consideration of complex issues and questions into black-and-white choices that polarize Canadians. Holding a referendum also sets up a process that would be biased toward the status quo, and yet the government has already promised to fix our broken electoral system. So now is the time to develop a process to consult Canadians about the best way to do that.