The Liberal Party Landslide in Canada: Reform of Winner-Take-All On the Way

Posted by Sarah John on October 20, 2015

Canada held elections for its national parliament on October 19. The elections showed once again how U.S.-style plurality voting breaks down when voters have more choices. As has been true in every Canadian election since 2000, the party that won a governing majority failed to earn even 40% of the vote, and voters were forced into making strategic calculations about whether to vote their conscience or for a candidate who could win.

But based on the unambiguous pledge of Liberal Party leader and incoming Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, Canada has just seen the last of plurality voting. In a speech last June, Trudeau promised to replace plurality, known there as “first-past-the-post” voting, with either a form of proportional representation or ranked choice voting in current single-winner constituencies.

To show why many Canadians are calling for change, here’s a summary of the distortions between votes and seats won in 2015.
The Liberal Party won 54.4% of seats from only 39.5% of the nationwide vote. This is a characteristic problem of Canadian elections. No government has taken office on the back of a majority of Canadian voters since the Progressive Conservatives, led by Brian Mulroney, won 74.82% of the seats in the Canadian House of Commons from 50.03% of the 1984 vote.

Dave Meslin appeared on Canadian election night TV, using Lego to highlight the disproportionate allocation of seats under Canada’s existing plurality system in 2015. Below is a tweet of his creation for Canada’s largest province, Ontario.
(The full video, which was watched over a million times within 24 hours of polls closing, is available here.)

In a vibrant multi-party system, vote splitting and the spoiler effect are regular phenomena. As noted on FairVote’s blog in the lead up to the election, numerous organizations urged Liberal and New Democratic Party (NDP) voters to vote strategically for whichever party could defeat the Conservatives. It seems voters obliged, sacrificing their conscience in favor of strategic calculations about ousting the Conservative Party. In explaining the poor showing of the NDP, the Washington Post observed “Canadians appeared to jettison the NDP in favor of the party they believed could outperform the Conservatives”.

But Trudeau and the Liberal Party platform on fair and open government, committed to ensuring that the 2015 election would be “the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” (To carry out this commitment, the party promised to convene an all-party parliamentary committee to explore electoral reform options, engage masses of Canadians in the process, and propose a new system in the next 18 months.)

Based on its prior policy proposals, the Liberal Party will likely support a form of ranked choice voting (RCV), in which voters rank choices so that most votes end up counting even if a voter’s first choice loses. All of Canada’s major parties use RCV in party leader elections, and the Liberal government in Ontario plans to move legislation to allow all Ontario municipalities to use RCV.

Because the Liberals won an absolute majority of seats, they may decide to keep single-winner districts rather than the multi-winner version that FairVote backs for congressional elections and that earned the support of 58% of British Columbia voters in 2005. If forced to go into coalition with the New Democratic Party (PR), the Liberals may have been more likely to adopt a multi-winner form of proportional representation, since the NDP has long supported proportional representation.

Even though single-winner RCV would not alleviate the country’s problem of seats-to-votes distortions, it still would provide significantly more democratic outcomes than the current plurality system. The spoiler effect would be virtually eradicated. Voters would not be put in the impossible position of choosing between their conscience and strategy. And at least within each district, the winner would be more likely to represent that district’s majority.

The next step is for Trudeau and the Liberals to live up to their commitment for change. Given a string of controversial elections and the realities of its multi-party politics, Canada has a great many reasons for change.
Image Source: Instagram/@justinptrudeau
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