Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada

In March 2004, the now defunct Law Commission of Canada issued a report in favour of proportional representation. The Executive Summary follows. The full report appears as PDF (1190K) at the bottom of this summary.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Because elections play a central role in modern democracy, the particular formula employed to translate votes into seats in the legislature assumes special importance. Recently, some countries have questioned their electoral systems and the democratic values that they reflect, and have instituted reforms. Canada, for the most part, has been hesitant to experiment with its electoral system. However, a growing number of Canadians are interested in critically examining the existing electoral system, and many deem that it is time to change the way we cast our votes.

Beginning in 2001, the Law Commission of Canada conducted extended research and a multifaceted public consultation and engagement strategy to gather the insights and opinions of a broad cross section of Canadians on electoral system reform. This Report reflects many of the opinions and ideas that were expressed through this consultation process.

For the past decade or so, Canada has been in the grip of a democratic malaise evidenced by decreasing levels of political trust, declining voter turnout, increasing cynicism toward politicians and traditional forms of political participation, and growing disengagement of young people from politics. However, as the Commission heard throughout its consultation process, many citizens want to be involved, want to have a real voice in decision making, and would like to see more responsive, accountable, and effective political institutions.

While there is no single magic bullet that will instantaneously stimulate Canadians' involvement in the political system, a consensus appears to be emerging among political parties of all stripes, experts in electoral behaviour, and grassroots organizations that electoral system reform is a good starting point for energizing and strengthening Canadian democracy.

In this Report, the Commission attempts to answer several questions about electoral reform. Does our electoral system meet our democratic aspirations? Should we consider reforming the existing voting system? What alternatives could more accurately reflect the style of democratic governance that we prefer? Are these systems adaptable to the Canadian constitutional and political landscape? What should the reform process look like?

To stimulate reflection on and discussion of our system of democratic governance, this Report has several objectives:

  • to understand the historical evolution of electoral reform debates in Canada and how arguments for reform have changed over time, and to understand the factors that help characterize contemporary discussion and debate;
  • to assess the concerns about Canada's voting system, and to establish criteria for evaluating electoral systems;
  • to explore the potential impact of electoral reform on our system of democratic governance;
  • to make recommendations about electoral reform; and
  • to explore how the process of electoral reform might unfold.

Families of Electoral Systems

One of the most common methods of classifying electoral systems is based on their proportionality, that is, how closely the number of seats in the legislature won by a party mirrors that party's share of the popular vote. Using this criterion, there are roughly nine types of electoral systems grouped into three families: plurality–majority systems, proportional representation systems, and semi-PR (proportional representation) systems. This Report examines the advantages and disadvantages, in a Canadian context, of these families and their nine offshoots.

Canada currently uses a plurality–majority system, which ensures that the winning candidate in a riding obtains at least a plurality of the votes cast. It is called a first-past-the-post system because, in some respects, it resembles horse races where the winner is the one who crosses the finish line first.

For many Canadians, this system is inherently unfair—more likely to frustrate or distort the wishes of the voters than to translate them fairly into representation and influence in the legislature. It has been criticized as:

  • being overly generous to the party that wins a plurality of the vote, rewarding it with a legislative majority disproportionate to its share of the vote;
  • allowing the governing party, with its artificially swollen legislative majority, to dominate the political agenda;
  • promoting parties formed along regional lines, thus exacerbating Canada's regional divisions;
  • leaving large areas of the country without adequate representatives in the governing party caucus;
  • disregarding a large number of votes in that voters who do not vote for the winning candidate have no connection to the elected representative, nor to the eventual make-up of the House of Commons;
  • contributing to the under-representation of women, minority groups, and Aboriginal peoples;
  • preventing a diversity of ideas from entering the House of Commons; and
  • favouring an adversarial style of politics.

Its shortcomings can be minimized by adding an element of proportionality to the electoral system—one that more accurately translates percentage of votes won into seats in the House of Commons.

Current Reform Proposals

Contemporary interest in electoral system reform in Canada has been motivated by new Canadian realities: a more mobile and diverse population, a declining voter turnout, decreasing youth participation, and recent election results.

For an increasing number of Canadians, the imbalances in our system of democracy are unacceptable. One of the driving forces for reform is the desire for a system that better reflects the country's diverse population and ideas. Another reason is found in the skewed results of recent provincial and federal elections, which many observers claim deny effective representation. Arguments for reform are also spurred by the belief that it may help improve voter turnout, which has been declining precipitously over the past decade. In the 2000 election, just over 61 percent of registered voters bothered to cast a ballot, the lowest figure for a federal election in Canadian history. Of particular concern is the lack of youth participation in traditional political processes. For example, only about 25 percent of eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 24 cast ballots in the 2000 federal general election.

International precedents have also moved electoral reform up the political agenda in the last decade or so. Included in this Report are lessons learned from the experiences of regions as diverse as New Zealand, Japan, Scotland, and Wales.

Democratic Values and the Choice of Electoral System

What criteria should we use to judge our current voting system? What criteria should we adopt to choose between different electoral systems? How do we determine which system is “better”?

Building on the examples from other countries, existing literature, as well as feedback and input received through its consultation process, the Commission chose ten criteria for assessing electoral systems:

  • representation of parties;
  • demographic representation;
  • diverse ideas;
  • geographic representation;
  • effective government;
  • accountable government;
  • effective opposition;
  • valuing votes;
  • regional balance; and
  • inclusive decision making.

Canada's first-past-the-post system performs poorly on many of these criteria. The Report examines some principal alternatives and improvements to the first-past-the-post electoral system, and assesses their relative strengths and weaknesses against the same criteria.

Electoral Options for Canada

In making its recommendations, the Commission's goal was to balance the benefits of introducing some element of proportionality into the existing system with the capacity to maintain accountable government, most notably as a direct link between elected politicians and their constituents. The Report, therefore, examines alternative systems from the premise that constituencies should stay small enough to maintain the Member of Parliament–constituent relationship. The Report also accepted the premise that there is little appetite for substantially increasing the size of the House of Commons to accommodate a new electoral system. Finally, the report is based on the premise that changes to the electoral system should be made without a process of constitutional amendment. These considerations, as well as our ten criteria, guided this exploration of eight different voting systems.

The conclusion of this survey is that adding an element of proportionality to Canada's electoral system, as inspired by the system currently used in Scotland, would be the most appropriate model for adoption. Its potential benefits include:

  • reducing the discrepancy between a party's share of the seats in the House of Commons and its share of the votes;
  • including in the House of Commons new and previously under-represented voices, such as smaller political parties;
  • electing a greater number of minority group and women candidates;
  • encouraging inter-party cooperation through coalition governments;
  • reducing the huge disparities in the value of votes that currently exist, in which a vote for the winning party is often three to four times more “valuable” than a vote for any of the other parties;
  • reducing the number of disregarded votes, thus increasing the number of “sincere,” as opposed to strategic, votes; and
  • producing more regionally balanced party caucuses.

The Commission, therefore, recommends adding an element of proportionality to Canada's electoral system, and that Canada adopt a mixed member proportional electoral system.

Implications of Adding an Element of Proportionality into Canada's Electoral System

This Report also considers the implications of introducing an element of proportionality into the current electoral system. Of particular interest are the impacts of minority or coalition governments on political decision making, questions about regionalism, the creation of two “classes” of representatives, issues of accountability, and the administrative costs of such an electoral system. The Report contains recommendations for dealing with several of these issues.

The Process of Electoral Reform—Engaging Citizens in Democratic Change

Finally, the Report explores how electoral reform fits within overall concerns about Canada's system of democratic governance. After all, we need to remember that democracy is more than just voting in a municipal, provincial, or federal election. Democracy is also about what happens between elections, how politicians and the electorate relate to each other, and the role that citizens play in their system of democratic governance.

How might the process of reform unfold? Drawing on the results of its consultation process, and the experiences of other Canadian jurisdictions, as well as the experiences of other countries, the Report concludes that it is crucial that citizens be included in an ongoing dialogue about electoral reform, and that the process of reform include a citizens' engagement strategy. Many Canadians are eager to participate in democratic governance, and they need and want information. This strategy should have diverse and broad representation, including representation from women, youth, minority groups, and all regions. It should seek the views of political parties (minority parties as well as mainstream parties), Parliamentarians, and citizens' groups. Any reform process should also include provision for formal review after implementing changes.

Conclusion

Canada inherited its first-past-the-post electoral system from Great Britain over 200 years ago, at a time when significant sections of the Canadian population, including women, Aboriginal people, and non-property owners, were disenfranchised. Throughout the first half of the 19th century and for 50 years after Confederation, the strengths of our electoral system were evident: it fostered competition between two major parties and provided the successful party with a strong, albeit artificial, legislative majority. Territory, embodied in the direct link between the Member of Parliament and his (for they were all men) constituents, was the most important aspect of a citizen's political identity and the pre-eminent feature of prevailing notions of representation.

Canada's political, cultural, and economic reality has vastly changed; the current electoral system no longer responds to 21st century Canadian democratic values. Many Canadians desire an electoral system that better reflects the society in which they live—one that includes a broader diversity of ideas and is more representative of Canadian society. For these reasons, the Commission recommends adding an element of proportionality to our electoral system.

Furthermore, because of its many potential benefits, electoral reform should be a priority item on the political agenda. Overall, the Report recognizes that no single measure will suffice to address the complex challenges facing Canadian democracy in the 21st century. However, it has become apparent that the first-past-the-post electoral system no longer meets the democratic aspirations of many Canadians. Electoral reform is thus a necessary step to energize and strengthen Canadian democracy.

View the full report