Electoral Reform: Canada’s next big issue

An electoral system is a major way citizens interact with their government / Stock Photo

An electoral system is a major way citizens interact with their government / Stock Photo

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to scrap Canada’s current first-past-the-post electoral system, but what’s next? Most Canadians aren’t sure.

An electoral system is one of the primary ways citizens interact with their government. The structure of our political institutions affect how we perceive and interact with them, and the changing of these institutions could have sweeping consequences for how Canadians do politics.

The point is, electoral reform is a big deal. Whatever changes are made in the next few years will fundamentally change the future of Canada.

According to the data, however, it seems as if Canadians have no idea what they want.

A recent report jointly published by the Institute of Governance and the Environics Institute of Toronto explored how Canadians feel about electoral reform. While it demonstrated that many Canadians are in favour of reform, there is no clear consensus as to what system Canadians prefer. It seems most Canadians aren’t really aware of the options available.

The report found 41 per cent of Canadians are in favour of changing the current system, 32 per cent say it ‘depends’, and 15 per cent ‘cannot say’.

Educating Canadians on the importance of this issue, let alone the various electoral systems we have to choose from, is a monumental task. One that is further complicated by lack of agreement among Canada’s main political parties.

The Conservatives want to decide this via referendum, the Green Party and the NDP are firmly in the proportional representation camp and the Liberals have not clearly expressed their desires beyond shaking up the status-quo.

Also of note in the report is that a majority of Canadians are in favour of online voting, with 58 per cent for and 18 per cent against. This was particularly popular with highly educated and high income Canadians.

One of Trudeau’s key election promises was that Canada’s next election would see the end of first-past-the-post. The Liberals have since set a deadline of December 1 for introducing new electoral legislation and created an all-party committee to research and deliberate on the issue.

The Current System

Canada’s current system is known as single member plurality (SMP) and involves 338 constituencies, each of which functions as a winner-take-all horse race. Candidates face off in each of these ridings and whoever receives the largest number of votes wins. The party that has the largest number of seats, again not necessarily a majority, forms government.

SMP often results in a parliament that does not accurately reflect the popular vote. Last election saw the Liberal Party take 54 per cent of the seats with only 39.5 per cent of the vote, while the Green Party had 3.4 per cent of the vote, but only managed to win a single seat.

This happens because votes for losing candidates do not factor into the process, which can lead to unusual circumstances. In 1993 the Progressive Conservatives managed to capture 16 per cent of the popular vote, but won only two seats. The votes of nearly one sixth of the country had no impact of the resulting legislature.

SMP also has a tendency to create majority governments due to how often parties are able to capture over 50 per cent of the seats.

Other Systems

The original survey provided Canadians with short descriptions of four different electoral systems, including the current one and asked them to choose. Below are the descriptions as they were given.

Single Member Plurality (current system). Canadians vote for a single candidate running in their electoral district. The candidate who wins the most votes in the electoral district is elected to Parliament.

Pure Proportional Representation. Canadians would vote for a political party and the number of seats each party gets in Parliament is based on the number of votes it receives nationally.

Mixed Member Proportional. Canadians would have two votes. First, they vote for a single candidate running in their electoral district (like in the current system), and second, they cast a separate vote for a party. The number of seats each party gets in Parliament is proportionate to the number of votes each party receives from both types of ballots.

Ranked or Preferential Ballot. Canadians would rank all of the candidates running in their electoral district from most preferred to least preferred. If a candidate wins 50 per cent or more of the first choice ballots they are declared the winner. If no candidate wins at least 50 per cent, the candidate with the least first choice votes is eliminated from the race. If a voter’s preferred candidate is eliminated, their vote is automatically transferred to their second choice on the list. This repeats until one candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the votes.

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