Electoral reform system in Canada: Comparing systems

During the 2015 Speech from the Throne, the Canadian government announced an electoral reform. What electoral system is at stake? what are the implications for women and minority voters? Following is a summary of major electoral systems with their pros and cons. You can also watch the videos throughout this article.

MAJOR ELECTORAL SYSTEMS

There are three major categories of electoral systems:

  1. Plurality or majority
  2. Proportional representation and
  3. Mixed plurality/majority and proportional representation.

These systems differ mainly by four main points:

  1. The ballot
  2. The number of candidates per constituency
  3. The procedure to determine winners, and
  4. The threshold for determining winners.

Plurality or Majority systems

These systems originate from British parliamentary practice and are found in countries with historical links with England. During an election, the winning candidate is the one who reaps the highest number of votes in an electoral district (or a plurality) or the majority (over 50 percent of the votes cast). This winner-takes-all systems are currently used in Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the United States under several variations: First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), Alternative Vote (AV), Two-Round, and Block Vote.

Advantages of Plurality or Majority systems

  • Easy to use and understand
  • Easy to count and process ballots
  • Single majority government carries the legislative agenda and foster better governance
  • Stronger geographic links between constituents and voters.

Disadvantages of Plurality or Majority systems

  • Disproportion between the allocation of party seats compared to share of the popular vote
  • Tactical voting (voters tend to vote for candidates who are most likely to win) may lead to distorted results
  • Large number of wasted votes
  • Small parties are unlikely to earn seats in the legislature, thus several voices are shut down
  • Low voters’ participation in elections
  • By nominating candidates considered “safe”, these systems may increase the challenges faced by women, Aboriginal people and minority groups in being nominated as candidates and elected as members of the House.

Proportional Representation systems

They emerged in the late 1700s and were first used in Australia in 1840. In these PR systems, a political party’s vote share reflects the seat allocation in the legislature as voters elect more than one representative per geographic area. There are assumptions that, when given the chance, people tend to vote more for females and this might be the same for visible minorities and Aboriginal candidates. These systems are used in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Sweden and Switzerland under several variations: List Proportional Representation (List PR), Single Transferable Vote (STV), and Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV).

Advantages of Proportional Representation systems

  • More flexible thus giving more chances to small parties to be represented.
  • More choices for voters
  • Representation is more proportional and may lead to formation of coalition governments
  • Positions of government reflects better the view of voters
  • Voters feel more powerful because their voices are heard
  • Tend to favour the election of women, Aboriginal and minority candidates.

Disadvantages of Proportional Representation systems

  • method for calculating seat distribution can be complex.
  • Weak geographic link between voters and parties
  • The  Voting mechanisms that require the candidate’s face on the ballot may have a discriminatory effect for women, Aboriginal and minority candidates.

Mixed plurality/majority and proportional representation systems

Originating  from Germany after the Second World War, these systems are often perceived as a compromise between the plurality and the PR systems because they combine elements of both systems. Voters can cast two votes: one to directly elect an individual member to serve as their representative, and a second for a party or parties to fill seats in the legislature as per the proportion of the vote share they receive. These systems are used in Germany, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Philippines, Scotland, South Korea and Wales under two variations: Mixed Member Majority (MMM) and Mixed Member Proportional (MMP).

Advantages of Mixed plurality/majority and proportional representation systems

  • Voters have more choices
  • Election outcome is more proportional and representation in more balanced
  • Small parties have more chance to win seats
  • Possibility of coalition party.

Disadvantages of Mixed plurality/majority and proportional representation systems

  • Difficult to understand
  • Difficult to count ballots
  • Create two classes of members (electoral district versus list)
  • Conflicting interests of the various parties that form the coalition government may hinder governance.

REFORM OF THE CANADIAN ELECTORAL PROCESS

The Canadian electoral process is structured and implemented according to the Canada Elections Act and numerous other statutes, namely the Constitution Act of 1867, the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act, the Broadcasting Act, the Parliament of Canada Act, the Income Tax Act and the Criminal Code. Since Confederation, federal elections in Canada follow the rules of the plurality “First-Past-the-Post”system  where each province and territory is allocated a certain number of the 338 House of Commons seats based on its relative population size.
In analyzing the need to change a voting system, the following must be considered:

  • The type of voting system
  • What the constituency would look like
  • How I would cast my vote and
  • How the votes are counted.

Early initiatives to reform the Canadian electoral system go back to the late 1910s. In 2004, the report on Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada recommended the adoption of a mixed member proportional system. However, in 2007 the report on Public Consultations on Canada’s Democratic Institutions and Practices indicated that, although Canadians were open to changes, they preferred the current FPTP system. In 2015, an electoral reform was announced during the Speech from the Throne followed by a nationwide public consultation in October 2016 and the results of which are still pending.

In parallel, results remain inconclusive for electoral reform initiatives undertaken over the years by several provinces: British Columbia (STV), Ontario and Quebec (mixed member proportional system), New Brunswick (PR).
However, Prince Edward Island has been successful in voting a plebiscite from October 29 to November 7, 2016, based on distortion with their FPTP system. Results were 52.42% in favour of Mixed Member Proportional Representation while 42.84% voted to keep the current FPTP system.

None of these systems is perfect as each carries its own advantages and disadvantages. Advocates of change seek better representation and higher voter satisfaction and turn out. However, opponents argue that outcomes of changes are often unpredictable and, in the absence of evidence, perhaps maintaining the status quo or making incremental improvements might be a better option. My view is that the best electoral system for a country is one that is inspired from best practice and based on principles that are coherent with the values of that country and that best work in terms of democracy.

What is your view? Share it with us in the comment section below.

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