Researcher: Ellen Altpeter
What is electoral reform?
Electoral reform is change in electoral systems to improve how public desires are expressed in election results.
Electoral reform is a current issue in Canada, with the Liberal Party winning a majority in the 2015 national elections on a platform which promised that the 2015 election would be the last one held under the current voting system. Prime Minister Trudeau’s Liberal Party has promised that the election that voted the Liberal Party into power with a majority vote would be the last time the current electoral system would be used.
Most Canadians, based on what they know of the electoral system in Canada, believe that at least some changes need to be made, and are concerned about electoral reform:
How do elections work currently?
Currently, elections work using the “plurality voting system”, and more specifically, the “first past the post” method. Each person eligible of voting can vote for only one candidate, and whichever candidate gains the most votes out of all the candidates [a plurality] is elected – they do not need the majority of the votes to be elected, just the most votes. This method is used in all levels of government in Canada, for municipal, provincial and federal, except for territorial voting in territories of Northwest Territories and Nunavut, where elections are held using the consensus government model.
Pros of the “first past the post” system:
- It is far more likely to produce majority governments in a competitive multi-party system where no one party is able to dominate. Majority governments are said to provide stable government and allow direct accountability to the electorate, with one party for the electorate to reward or punish.
- It also facilitates clear community representation. With the 2015 elections, Canada is divided into 338 constituencies each with their own representative to speak on behalf of local interests.
- The system is also easy to understand and administer. A winning candidate only needs one more vote than any other candidate in the district.
Cons of the “first past the post” system:
- Often elected officials represent less than half of the voting constituents in their ridings. They only need one more vote than their rivals to get elected.
- There is often a significant distortion between the share of seats parties win and their share of votes. When the results of all the local contests are added up across a province or region, some parties can dominate while other parties have very few if any seats despite winning significant numbers of votes.
- Many votes are ‘wasted’, which can discourage voters and lead to declining turnout & general alienation.
Other election options:
- Preferential, or ranked, ballot: Voters rank the candidates — first choice, second choice and so on. If no candidate emerges with a majority after the first count, the lowest-ranked candidate comes off the ballot, and their votes are redistributed according to the second choices cast. This continues until one candidate achieves a majority of 50 per cent plus one vote.
- Proportional representation: The percentage of seats a party holds corresponds to the percentage of votes it receives.
- Mixed-member proportional representation (MMP): Voters have to make two choices on the ballot: one for a candidate to represent them and one for a party. Roughly half to two-thirds of seats would be filled by the individual candidates who win their ridings, as in our current first-past-the-post system; the remaining seats would be allotted according to each party’s share of the popular vote, with the candidates taken from a predetermined list.
- Single-transferable vote system: The number of electoral districts is greatly reduced, with each represented by two to seven members. Voters rank some or all of the candidates in order of preference. In the first count, any candidate who has enough first-preference votes is elected automatically. In subsequent counts, the elected candidate’s surplus votes are transferred to the next choices in fractional amounts. After each successive count, candidates who reach the quota are elected, and those who don’t are eliminated.
- P3 (proportional-preferential-personalized): Each riding elects between three and five MPs (determined by population density). Voters rank parties in order of preference, then pick their preferred candidate from their top-choice party. The seats in each riding are distributed according to the party rankings. If any party fails to get enough votes to win a seat, they are dropped off and their votes redistributed according to voters’ second choices.
- Mandatory, or compulsory, voting: Citizens who fail to show up on election day may be subject to a fine. Currently, citizens are not required to vote, or may spoil their ballot.
Municipal governments have used the “first past the post” voting method, historically, however, the Ontario government gave municipalities the option of using ranked ballots in local elections as early as 2018. Under this system, voters rank candidates in order of preference.