Anything but Fair: The Sad Tale of the Canadian Election System

Posted by Sarah John on October 16, 2015

If the current predictions are on the mark, there will be a new minority Liberal Party government in Canada on Monday evening (19 October 2015). Eric Greiner’s Poll Tracker at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation currently (13 October) projects the Liberal Party will win between 110 and 150 seats, likely besting the incumbent Conservative Party government. While such a result in Monday’s election will be a relief for some, including those who have adopted the mantra of “Anyone but the Conservatives” (ABC) and created ABC Facebook pages left,right, and center, the results will likely once again highlight the inadequacies of a system that uses winner-take-all in single-winner districts.

Wreaking Havoc with Winner-take-all  

Vote ABCCalled “first-past-the-post” in Canada (although my colleague Rob Richie prefers "top of the heap" as a more accurate metaphor), winner-take-all in single-winner districts is responsible for a multitude of perverse and unfair phenomena. It awards seats to parties in proportions that bear little semblance to their overall vote share. It locks many voters out of a meaningful vote on account of where they happen to live—especially for those who live in Alberta, where the Conservative Party easily won 27 of 28 ridings (the Canadian term for “electoral district”) last election. Even though drawn by independent boundary commissions, in 2011 more than a third of the districts in Canada were uncompetitive and won by a margin of more the 25%.

Most significantly in Canada, winner-take-all in single-winner districts results in vote splitting and enables the spoiler effect to wreak its havoc in competitive districts where more than two candidates run. In the 2015 Canadian election, all but one riding (Labrador) is being contested by at least four candidates, which is surely a good sign for democracy.

With multiple candidates, however, winner-take-all in single-winner districts often elects candidates who win with much less than 50% of the vote. Candidates who appeal to similar voters divide the vote, often leading to the election of a candidate that the majority of the electorate dislikes. For example, in 2011 in the riding of Vancouver South, Liberal Party incumbent Ujjal Dosanjh was defeated in a five-way race by the Conservative Party candidate, Wai Young. While Young was the only right-of-center candidate to run in Vancouver South, the left side of politics was split between four candidates, including Dosanjh, who collectively won 56.8% of the vote. This cuts across both sides of politics; indeed, the leader of the Liberal Party Justin Trudeau himself was elected with only 38% of the vote in his riding, Papineau.

The susceptibility of winner-take-all in single-winner districts to vote splitting and the spoiler effect forces voters into an unacceptable “catch-22”-like position of having to decide whether to vote according to their conscience or strategically choose the lesser of two evils.

A Risky Plan: Strategic Voting

The problems of vote splitting and the spoiler effect are so extreme in Canada, that a series of organizations have sprung up encouraging Liberal and NDP voters to vote strategically for the non-Conservative candidate with the best chance of winning and, even, to “pair off” and swap votes with voters in other strategic ridings.  More than 80,000 people have signed a pledge declaring that they will vote strategically for the non-Conservative candidate with the best chance of winning. This movement is understandable but most unfortunate because strategic voting, rife in winner-take-all with single-winner districts, is a risky task. As the Globe and Mail observes, “to cast their ballots strategically, those voters first must determine which party has the best chance of winning – a difficult task that involves more than a little guesswork.”Voters should not find themselves forced into deciding either to weather the risk voting strategically or see their least preferred candidate win.

Vote splitting affects results in many individual districts, with over half of seats up for election in 2011 being won with less than 50% of the vote. In the aggregate, winner-take-all elections increasingly catapult  a government that the majority of Candidate voters did not vote for (and, perhaps, had voted against) into power. In the 2011 Federal Election, the Conservative Party obtained only 40% of the national vote, but won 54% of the seats in parliament. Voting splitting among voters on the right, with the emergence of the separatist Bloc Quebecois in Quebec and the breaking away of the Reform Party from the Progressive Conservative Party in western Canada, helped ensure unbroken Liberal Party rule between 1993 and 2006. Similarly, the left is increasingly split between the New Democratic Party (NDP), the Liberal Party and the Greens, which has helped ensure the victory of a right now more united under the Conservative Party.

Whichever party—the Liberal Party, Conservative Party or, in an upset, the NDP—wins the 2015 election, they will take the reins of government without having won a majority of the vote. If the Conservative Party beats the odds and emerges victorious again in the 2015 election, Ipsos polling indicates we will see not only a government for whom most did not vote, but one that is not wanted by a majority of people.

Identifying Voter Preferences

The most recent Ipsos poll asks voters to nominate which party they prefer and then goes on to ask voters, “assuming you can't vote for your first choice, which party would you support as a second choice? Using this data, we can see that, of the three political parties with a shot at forming government, the Liberal Party comes out ahead. In a two-way race, the Liberal Party wins 55% to 45% against the Conservative Party and 55% to 45% against the NDP. Meanwhile, the Conservatives are the least popular party, losing to the NDP in a two-way race 47% to 53%.


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Clearly, winner-take-all in single winner districts is not working for Canadian voters. As Robert Buderi recently discussed, both the NDP and the Liberal Party have promised reform if elected. The Liberal Party would likely include ranked choice voting, in which voters rank choices so that most votes end up counting even if a voter’s first choice loses. This single reform would go a long way to fixing what ails Canadian elections and relieving so many Canadian voters from the impossible situation they now face between conscience and strategy.

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