The Liberal party and incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made some big promises on the campaign trail. On election night we outlined how those promises relate to climate, environment, science and transparency in Canada.
But Trudeau also promised to make sweeping electoral reforms that would make the 2015 election the last of its kind.
Under a grand “Restore Democracy in Canada” 32-point plan, Trudeau promised to end Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system and overhaul the electoral system within 18 months of being elected.
The Liberal party platform promised to establish an all-party committee that will 'fairly study and consider' proportional representation, mandatory voting, online voting and preferential or ranked ballots.
What are Proportional Representation and Ranked Ballots?
Under the current first-past-the-post system, the country is divided into 338 ridings. Within those ridings, which hold a roughly equal number of people, voters select one Member of Parliament to represent them.
“It’s a ‘winner takes all’ system,” Wilfred Day, electoral expert from Fair Vote Canada, told DeSmog Canada.
This means that even if a fairly large proportion of the popular vote goes to any given party, they may not win representation in parliament. Take the Green Party, for instance, which earned 3.5 per cent of the popular vote this election, but only one seat in the House of Commons. If seats were divvied up proportionally based on popular vote, they'd have earned 11 seats — not to mention the fact that if every vote counted, far more people would be likely to vote and vote their conscience.
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“Look at Alberta, where unless you’re voting Conservative, you’re wasting your time; you may as well stay home,” Day said.
In the Calgary Bow River riding, for example, Conservative candidate Martin Shields won with 77.4 per cent of the vote. In the Battle River-Crowfoot riding next door, Conservative candidate Kevin Sorenson won with 81 per cent.
In a very different situation, the Quebec riding of Montmagny-L'islet-Kamouraska-Rivière-Du-Loup saw a near four-way split between Conservative candidate Bernard Généroux with 29 per cent of the vote, Liberal candidate Marie-Josée Normand with 28.5 per cent of the vote and NDP candidate François Lapointe with 24.2 per cent. Bloc Québécois candidate Louis Gagnon trailed closely behind with 16.1 per cent of the vote.
“Fifty-one per cent of votes cast yesterday did not help elect anybody. That’s what happens every election in Canada and that happened again yesterday,” Day said.
“It’s never a waste to cast your ballot but in this system your vote is disregarded.”
Proportional representation, on the other hand, would represent constituents in Parliament in a way that proportionally mirrors how they voted.
Rather than ridings being represented by a single MP, who may have been elected with less than 50 per cent of the vote, geographical regions would be represented by a number of MPs that directly reflect how voters in that area cast their ballots.
Every vote, in essence, would count.
Fair Vote Canada gives a detailed outline of different varieties of proportional representation used around the world.
Ranked ballots, also called preferential ballots or alternative voting, allow voters to rank candidates according to preference. The candidate that secures the majority (over 50 per cent) of the first-place votes wins. In the case that no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the votes, the candidate with the lowest first-place votes is eliminated from the running, with their second-place votes being added to the totals of the candidates still in the running. This happens until a candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote.
Ranked ballots are used in many jurisdictions around the world and have been used internally in both the NDP and Liberal parties to select party leaders. Ranked ballots have also been at the centre of some controversy in Toronto with city councillors going back and forth on the issue.
The CBC reported in 2013 that Justin Trudeau supported ranked ballots, although the Liberal party platform did not indicate a strong preference for or against ranked ballots. In a statement to Fair Vote Canada, the Liberal party said on the general issue of electoral reform “a study must be undertaken without any preconceived notions of what the best solution would be.”
Day said he doubts the Liberals will push for ranked ballots because the change could appear self serving. He said ranking systems tend to benefit centrist parties, or second-choice parties, rather than marginal parties. So preferential voting would be great for the Liberals, not so great for the Greens.
“A preferential ballot…is the same system as today — winner takes all,” he said.
“I’m doubtful the Liberals will try to go for the preferential ballot because it’s too obviously a partisan fix rather than a democratic reform. A democratic reform, of course, is to make every vote count equally.”
How Would Proportional Representation Have Changed Last Night’s Results?
Critics of our current system say that the first-past-the-post metric distorts election results.
Last night’s election won the Liberal party 184 seats in the House of Commons, a solid majority given only 170 seats are needed to form government — yet the Liberal party only earned 39.5 per cent of the national vote.
Similarly the Conservative party in the 2011 federal election won only 39.62 per cent of the vote but won a majority with 166 seats (less seats were required then when only 308 total seats existed compared to our current 338).
In this election, the Conservative party won 99 seats, the NDP 44, the Bloc Party 10 and the Green party one. If proportional representation were in effect, the results would have been drastically different.
In Atlantic Canada, for example, where the “crimson tide” first appeared, the Liberals won every single seat.
If votes were represented in proportion to how they were cast, the NDP would have won six seats and the Conservative party seven seats. If proportional representation were in effect, it is likely one Green MP would have been elected in New Brunswick.*
Nationally, under proportional representation (presuming voting stayed the same, which would be unlikely), the election would have resulted in 135 seats for the Liberal party, 109 for the Conservatives, 68 for the NDP, 15 for the Bloc and 11 for the Greens.
That would mean the Liberals would need either the Conservatives or the NDP to pass a bill, and Justin Trudeau would be the Prime Minister with a minority government.
How Could Proportional Representation Change Canadian Politics?
Proponents of proportional representation argue this kind of electoral reform could reinvigorate Canadian democracy.
Importantly, the system would give voters a sense that their votes actually meant something.
“The difference is that if every vote counts equally everyone is represented in Parliament equally,” Day said. “This gives the majority of voters a voice. The government actually represents the majority of voters.”
Day said under proportional representation this election would have resulted in a majority coalition, where representatives from all parties would be able to represent their constituents.
Parties and MPs would need to work on legislation that is palatable to a larger cross-section of society. Rather than appealing to one sector of society, say oil and gas under the Conservatives, bills would be required to serve the interests of local communities in addition to businesses.
Under proportional representation “you could potentially have a strong, stable majority coalition government that represented the majority of voters,” Day said.
“That’s what a lot of people were hoping would happen this time. But instead you get another majority government with 39.5 per cent of the votes.”
Day concluded: “The Conservatives have engaged in all sorts of voter suppression techniques. But the winner takes all voting system is the ultimate voter suppression scheme: it throws 51 per cent of the votes in the garbage.”
Want more details on proportional representation? Check out this Fair Vote Canada video featuring York University associate professor of political science Dennis Pilon:
* These figures have been updated.