Canada Could Finally Get the New Electoral System It Deserves

Posted by Molly Rockett on September 22, 2015

By Robert Buderi

The pressure is on in Canadian politics for a new, better, form of electoral representation. Both of the two major opposition parties, the New Democratic Party (NDP), and the Liberal Party, have recently announced their plans to completely change the federal electoral system should they be elected.

While many voters in Canada and the U.S. (which uses the same system) do not focus much on the type of electoral system used in their country, the system has a massive impact on the value of their votes and who wins election. The current system used to elect legislatures in Canada uses is winner-take-all plurality, known in Canada as “first-past-the-post.” In this system the electorate casts ballots indicating a single choice for their most preferred candidate and whichever candidate wins a plurality of votes (the largest number of votes) wins the seat, irrespective of whether they are the first choice of the majority of voters.

Winner-take-all plurality is actively excluding millions of voters from representation every Canadian election. Many districts (called “ridings” in Canada) are contested by four or five candidates. In a riding with 5 candidates, a politician could win only 35% of the vote, but win the election. This would mean that 65% of voters in that seat preferred a candidate other than the winner and are not represented in Parliament. The leader of the Liberal Party Trudeau himself was elected with only 38% of the vote in his riding, Papineau. Across each riding in the country, this adds up. In the 2011 Federal Election, the Conservative Party obtained only 40% of the national vote, but won 54% of the seats in parliament. This put in place a majority Conservative Party government and Prime Minister for whom 60% of voters voted against. Indeed in every recent federal election, the winner-take-all system ensures that around half of all votes cast do not count toward any representation in parliament.

Unsurprisingly many (especially young) Canadians have become increasingly disillusioned with the political process. Voter turnout has been “falling steadily” in a “prolonged” decline over the last three election cycles. Given the number of wasted votes (estimated to be just under half in 2011), those who feel as if their votes do not count have good odds of being completely right

What are the current plans for electoral reform?

Both the NDP and Liberal Party have a lot of planning and research to do before finalizing the details of their proposals for a new electoral system. The Liberals policy is to commission a select committee of parliamentarians from all parties to develop the exact proposal, which would be released within 18 months of a Liberal victory. Based on prior policy proposals by the Liberal Party, it is likely that the new system would include ranked choice voting; in which voters rank choices so that most votes end up counting even if a voter’s first choice loses.

The NDP likely favors the establishment of an Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system--the system used in Germany and New Zealand. MMP would give electors two votes, one for a local representative, and another for a prefered party. The goal would be to facilitate local representation, but also to allocate seats proportionally to parties based on percentage of popular support nationwide. There are still many details to be worked out and a long way to go before either party is ready to legislate reform. Yet, the fact that both major opposition parties are running on a platform of reform is a big deal in and of itself.
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