Why is electoral reform
suddenly an issue?

coverFeb2016During the 2015 federal election campaign, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau vowed it would be the last election under the first-past-the-post (FPP) system, the system that Canada has used since Confederation. Critics say that the winner-take-all nature of FPP is unfair and even undemocratic. The candidate with the most votes in the riding is elected MP and the party that wins the most ridings forms government. Critics argue that results under FPP are unrepresentative of the vote counts and that votes for losing candidates are meaningless. The section on electoral reform in the Liberal platform, Real Change, is called “Make Every Vote Count,” but did not state what would replace FPP, only that “As part of a national engagement process, we will ensure that electoral reform measures – such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting – are fully and fairly studied and considered. This will be carried out by a special all-party parliamentary committee, which will bring recommendations to Parliament on the way forward, to allow for action before the succeeding federal election. Within 18 months of forming government, we will bring forward legislation to enact electoral reform.” Notice the platform does not give any indication, if any, that Trudeau favoured. The Prime Minister later said he favoured the alternative voting system (the political science term for the ranked ballot). Ranked ballots can be used in a FPP or PR system.

What is the difference
between proportional representation
and ranked ballots?

Proportional representation – or PR – would assign MPs to Parliament based on the proportion of votes each party received. There are two forms of PR, mixed member proportional representation (MMPR) and pure PR. Under MMPR, some MPs would be elected under the FPP system and a second set of MPs would be allocated by the percentage of the vote each party receives in the general election (which may allocated nationally or by province or region). In New Zealand and Germany, voters cast ballots for their local MP and for party preference nationally. Under pure PR, there would be no need for ridings and voters would lose “their” MP. Ranked ballots or the alternative vote allows voters to rank the candidates. If no candidate receives 50 per cent of the vote, the candidate with the least votes is disregarded in the next count and the second choices on those ballots are reassigned to other parties, and so on until the winning candidate gets 50 per cent.

How would the Canadian election results
have been different in 2015 under pure PR?

In fact, this is impossible to answer because as Andrew Coyne of the National Post says, change the system and change everything about politics from how the parties run campaigns to the decisions voters ultimately make on election day. Assuming people’s votes did not change, the Liberals would be not have won a majority because they took 184 of 338 seats with just 40 per cent of the vote. They would have ended up with 133, the Conservative would have had nine more seats (108), the NDP 68 (instead of 44) and the Bloc and NDP would both have significantly increased their representation. As the National Post reported following the election, “there would be no Liberal landslide with proportional representation.” Some people see the election results as unfair because they are unrepresentative, but defenders of FPP say winning a majority requires broad, national support and wooing a broad swathe of voters. Exaggerating the results could be seen as a feature, not bug, of the system by lending greater legitimacy to the winning party.

Are there problems with PR?

Many critics will point to the unstable nature of governments in systems that use PR (Italy and Israel are common examples) because it is difficult to win a majority and small parties hold the balance of power. Another problem is in how MPs are selected. Under FPP, the voter is represented by an MP, and there is a connection between those privileged to hold office and the citizens they represent, whether or not an individual marked the ballot for the eventual winner. Under PR, the MPs are taken from a party list, breaking the direct connection between electors and the elected. This lack of personal connection between voters and MPs may lessen the accountability of MPs. Relatedly, there is a concern that MPs will be (more) beholden to the political parties and their leaders and not voters. Under the MMPR there is also the possibility of creating two classes of MPs, with one set elected at the riding level and another taken from party lists.

Are there problems with ranked ballots?

It is more difficult to make the case against ranked ballots. Pundits believe that ranked ballots benefit parties in the political middle because it is more difficult for parties on the right or left to win 50 per cent of the vote in a majority of ridings. This might explain why the Liberal government are pushing electoral reform: to ensure their dominance in Canadian politics and marginalize the NDP and Conservatives. If this is true, electoral reform would be politically unfair. However, it is difficult to argue that ranked ballots are undemocratic. Supporters of ranked ballots argue they could have the advantage of making politics more civil by incentivizing campaigns that pull in more voters than merely the party’s base because candidates would need the support of other party supporters to get past 50 per cent.

Why are opponents of electoral reform
calling for a referendum?

The Conservative Party and some advocates of change (like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation) say that while the Liberals had the plank about electoral reform in their platform, they did not campaign on it and the media ignored the issue. Voters did not know what they were getting into voting for reform because Trudeau did not indicate which new form of electing a government his Liberals were likely to push. They also say that voters should have the ultimate say in how they elect their governments.

Haven’t voters rejected
electoral reform before?

There have been electoral reform referenda in British Columbia in 2005 and 2009, Prince Edward Island in 2005, and Ontario in 2007. Each time voters rejected changing the electoral system. Advocates of electoral reform say it is because voters did not understand what they were voting on, but it is more than likely that many voters are content with how the composition of legislatures are chosen.

Can the federal government unilaterally impose electoral reform?
Is a constitutional amendment necessary?


The constitution may require amending depending on the sort of reform proposed. Many legal experts think that a ranked ballot does not fundamentally change the electoral system, but that PR does. Lawyers Yaakov M. Roth and Jonathan E. Roth wrote in the Toronto Star that the 2014 Supreme Court reference case on senate reform requires that fundamental reform “can proceed only with broad provincial consensus” and thus unilateral change might be “legally futile” and face a constitutional challenge. They observe that Canada has “no single comprehensive constitutional text” but rather “a far-flung collection of imperial and Canadian statutes, conventions, and unwritten principles,” and that a single parliament cannot alter these. The Supreme Court in the senate reference case, Roth and Roth argue, explained that democracy and the rule of law, as parts of the our “constitutional architecture” cannot be overridden by “simple majority rule” and require broad national consensus. The Conservative Party of Canada and possibly one or more province, is likely to challenge the constitutionality of electoral reform. If the Trudeau government does not plan to hear back from their consultative process for 18 months and it takes time to debate and vote on the change in Parliament, a court challenge could prevent the next election from being carried out under the new electoral rules.

How does electoral reform
affect pro-lifers?

Parties such as the Christian Heritage Party and New Reform Party of Ontario (formerly the Family Coalition Party) at the provincial level, could theoretically benefit from electoral reform and both parties favour shaking up the system. A note of caution, however, is that many PR systems require a minimum level of support (usually five per cent) that these parties are not garnering at this point in time. At the CHP annual general meeting in 2014, Irme de Vries gave a presentation in favour of the ranked ballot, and she correctly argued that one cannot assume that voting patterns would stay the same under a new electoral system as citizens might vote differently with incentives to make their ballot choices meaningful. This is possible. Campaign Life Coalition argues that while pro-lifers could make some gains in legislatures with smaller parties winning a handful of seats, it is likely that the influence pro-life voters have in the mainstream parties will be lessened as party elites control the MP list and the connection between MPs and voters is broken. On balance, we think the harm incumbent in the loss of democratic connection between voters and MPs and the loss of influence within parties outweighs the benefits to be gained by electing a handful of pro-life MPs in these parties.

What are your thoughts on electoral reform? Please let us know by sending us a letter to the editor.