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Reform of the Electoral System

The single member plurality system used in all Canadian federal and provincial elections has many strengths but also reveals serious weaknesses in producing legislatures that reflect the choice of parties made by the voters.  Also, recent Canadian elections have witnessed a significant fall in voter turnout, which some say indicates that structural changes are needed in order to encourage greater participation.

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 last one held under the current voting system. The government has promised a parliamentary committee would hold hearings and recommend a replacement system in time to introduce legislation within 18 months of the Liberals coming to power.

Virtually every election provides fresh fodder for calls for electoral reform, to ensure that representation in Parliament reflects the wishes of voters. The most recent election in 2015 provided the Liberals with every single seat across the four Atlantic provinces, despite about 40% of the region's voters supporting other parties. In the 2004 election, as well, the Conservatives won about 93% of the seats (13 out of 14) in Saskatchewan, even though they only got 42% of the vote.

Since 2000, there has been significant movement towards electoral reform at both the federal and provincial levels. In early 2004, the Law Commission of Canada issued a report recommending that the federal electoral system be changed to a mixed member system that allows for more proportional representation of parties in the House of Commons. However, since neither the Liberals nor Conservatives were in favour of electoral reform, the Commission's proposals languished at the federal level.

Until the 2015 election, electoral reform was most seriously pursued at the provincial level. British Columbia broke new ground on this issue with the creation of the Citizens' Assembly in 2004. 160 citizens were chosen at random - 2 from each riding and 2 from the aboriginal community - to meet and debate the merits of changing the provincial electoral system. The Assembly met for several months in early 2004 and then set out a series of public consultation meetings.  In the fall of 2004, the Assembly decided to recommend that BC should adopt the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. The Assembly's report, Making Every Vote Count (pdf - 1.9MB) was released in December 2004. The recommendation to adopt a new electoral system was put to the voters in a referendum question at the May 2005 provincial election. In order for the measure to be acted upon, the government raised the existing referendum legislation to require a successful vote to achieve 60% support across the province, including 50% support in 60% of the ridings. The referendum results fell just short of the main criterion, with 58% support province-wide, although all but 2 of the ridings saw at least 50% support for adopting STV. With the widespread dissatisfaction that a strong majority was still not accepted by the government of the day, the premier agreed to a second vote to be held four years later along with the next general election. By that time interest in electoral reform had fallen off the the vote was almost 61% in favour of the current system.

PEI voters recently rejected changes, after several years of study had culminated in a 2005 plebiscite. The PEI Electoral Reform Commissioner recommended in 2003 that some element of proportionality be added, but he did not make specific recommendations. After  the Commission on PEI's Electoral Future reviewed the matter, issued a final report, that recommended the province adopt an MMP system with two ballots. It suggested that the selection of the 27-member house be divided between 17 to be elected by SMP and 10 to be filled from party lists; in theory the list seats are top provide 'full compensation' to ensure that a party has a total number of seats in the house that is proportional to its share of the votes. The proposal was put to the PEI voters in a plebiscite on November 28, 2005; the PEI government adopted the BC thresholds, requiring 60% support province-wide plus 50% support in at least 60% of the ridings. When the votes were counted, however, 64% of the PEI electorate voted against the proposal; only 2 of the 27 ridings saw a majority in favour of electoral change.

The Commission on Legislative Democracy in New Brunswick recommended that the province adopt a Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system as well as moved to elections being held on a fixed 4-year schedule. Their final report was issued in January 2005 and recommended that there be 36 single-member ridings and 4 multi-member ridings with a total of 20 seats filled through a PR party list system. Although then Premier Bernard Lord had announced that a referendum would be held at the same time as municipal elections in the spring of 2008, his party lost the provincial election in 2006 and the reform proposal never got put to a vote. Ironically, the 2006 elections resulted in a Liberal government coming to power with a majority of seats despite having won fewer votes province-wide than the Conservatives.

Quebec has created the Ministry for the Reform of Democratic Institutions. Under this initiative, a public consultation process, called the Estates General; a report of the findings was published in 2003, as was a survey of opinion on democratic reform of those attending the session. Serious debate was launched with a draft bill (English text) proposed in December 2004 that would see radical restructuring of the electoral boundaries and methods of election. There would be 75 single member ridings roughly based on the current federal boundaries, plus another 2 rural single member ridings.  In addition there would be 24-27 "districts" that would each cover 3 of the regular ridings, and every district would have a further 2 district seats. Voters would only cast one vote and the district seats would be compensatory; the filling of district seats would be based on the shares of the party vote in the combined single-member ridings for that district, and filled from party lists. See the working document and the summary for an overview. In 2005, a special committee of the National Assembly discussed the proposal and reiterated the desire for change, with agreeing on the details. In late 2006, the Minister announced a further round of consultations with the Director General or Elections and with members of the National Assembly. However, a provincial election ensued in March 2007 and no formal move had been undertaken to change the voting system by late 2007.

In Ontario, the government set up the Democratic Renewal Secretariat and proposed that elections be held on a 4-year cycle starting with the first in October, 2007. As well, the government created a Citizens' Assembly, similar to BC's, to examine electoral reform. 52 women and 51 men were selected and held a number of sessions and public hearings between October 2006 and May 2007, when they released their report recommending Ontario adopt a Mix-Member Proportional system.  This recommendation was rejected by over 63% of Ontarians who voted on a referendum question held in October 2007, at the same time as the province's general elections; only in 5 of the 107 ridings did a majority favour the new system. In addition, a Citizens' Jury will examine election finance issues.

The Library of Parliament has published research papers that provide useful background on the Canadian electoral system and on alternative electoral systems.

Strengths of Single Member Plurality (SMP)

There are several direct advantages of using the single member plurality system. First, it is far more likely to produce majority governments in a competitive multi-party system where no one party is able to dominate.. In the 16 federal elections held between 1965 and 2015, 10 have resulted in majority governments, even though the winning party won a majority of votes only once, in 1984. Majority governments are said to provide stable government and allow direct accountability to the electorate. In contrast, partners in a minority or coalition government can either point fingers at each other or each claim credit at the next election. 

SMP 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 that any other candidate in the district.
 Disadvantages of SMP Systems

The are a number of disadvantages to the SMP system. The most important is that a party's share of the votes only rarely bears any semblance to the share of seats they win. A candidate only needs one more vote than her or his opponents. The winner's votes beyond that number are "wasted" while the votes for all the other candidates do not help in electing other members of their parties. 

Examples of vote/seat distortion abound in Canadian elections.  The clearest example is found in the 1987 New Brunswick provincial election, in which the Liberal Party won all the seats in the legislature on the strength of about 60% of the vote. The other 40% of the electorate were left with no direct representation of their policy interests in the legislature. 

In the 1997 federal elections, two other serious problems emerged.  In Ontario, the Liberals won 99 out of 101 the province's seats. However, a bare majority of voters had voted for other candidates. In PEI, the Liberals won all four seats on the basis of about 45% of the vote.

In the 2006 New Brunswick, 1998 Quebec, 1996 BC, and 1986 Saskatchewan provincial elections, parties won a majority of seats even though they had placed second in the overall province-wide total of the votes.

The distortion in vote and seat share can be seen in the following charts of selected elections:

1997. 1993, & 1988 Federal Elections

1997 & 1993 Alberta Elections

1986, 1991, 1996, and 2001 BC Elections

See also the provincial discrepancies in the vote/seat shares of parties in the 1997 federal election on the past elections page of this site.


Alternative Electoral Systems

There are several alternatives to SMP that are used in various countries around the world and are reviewed in the Library of Parliament's paper on alternative electoral systems.

Some countries, such as Australia and France, use majority systems that aim to ensure that the winning candidate has received some sort of support from a majority of voters. These are usually single member ridings and can either be by preferential ballot or multiple rounds of voting.  In the Alternative Vote system, a voter ranks the candidates on the ballot paper according to their preference: their first choice gets "1", the second choice "2", and so on.  When all the first choice votes are added up, a candidate is declared a winner only if they have a majority of the first choices.  In the event that no one has a majority of first choice votes, then the candidate with the least number is dropped off the list, and their ballot papers are examined to redistribution according to the second choice marked on the ballot.  These votes are then added to the remaining candidates and added up to see if anyone has a majority.  The process of eliminating a candidate and redistributing their votes is continued until one candidate emerges with a majority of votes.  The French use a double ballot system, where one round of voting is held in single member ridings; if a candidate receives a majority then they are elected.  If not, then a second round of voting is held a few weeks later, with lower ranked candidates eliminated.

The most popular systems are proportional representation systems. There are several varieties, but all attempt to translate a parties share of votes into a roughly proportional share of the legislature's seats.  The most common is a party list system, where political parties prepare a ranked list of candidates with up to as many candidates as there are seats in the legislature. On election day, the voters vote for the party of their choice and the total votes for each party are added up.  The parties are then declared to have won a number of seats in the legislature  that is roughly proportionate to their share of the votes; most countries have some threshold number of votes (i.e. 3 or 5%) that a party must win in order to qualify for seats.  There are two variations on basic PR systems:

- the closed list works strictly with the list of candidates as ranked by the parties, and the seats are filled from candidates drawn from the top of the list and working down. States that use this system include Israel, Italy, and South Africa

- the open list system allows the voters to vote for a candidate and the candidate's final position on the party's list of candidates is determined by the overall number of votes he or she has received. This system is used in a number of countries, including Belgium and Austria

The success with which a PR system provides parties with a share of the seats that is proportional to their vote share is dependent on several factors including the number of parties that fall short of the threshold and whether the votes and seats are counted up either nationally, provincially, or regionally.  In counties such as Israel or the Netherlands, where the votes are added up and distributed nationally, the large pool of seats allows a closer relationship between seats and votes.  Many countries, however, divide the pool of seats into smaller regions with a smaller set of seats (for example from 5 to 20). The smaller the number of seats to be shared, the more likely distortions are likely to occur in competitive, multi-party elections. In addition, there are several mathematical formulas that can be used to allocate seats among the parties and each imparts a certain distortion into the process.

The single transferable vote (STV) system has not been widely adopted around the world, but its profile has been raised in Canada since the BC Citizens' Assembly recommended in 2004 that the province should adopt STV instead of SMP. The STV system raises the probability that the main parties share of seats in the legislature will be somewhat proportional to their share of votes.  In this system, a country or province is divided into smaller regions, and several members will be elected from each region.  From the voters' perspective the system is similar to the alternative vote system, since voters rank the parties or candidates in order of their preference (e.g. 1, 2, 3).  Initially all the candidates first preferences are counted up in order to see if any have achieved the "quota" of votes needed to get elected. This quota is determined by a mathematical equation that is based on the number of valid votes cast and the number of seats to elected in the region.

  Number of valid votes        + 1  =  Quota
(Number to be elected) + 1

For example, if 100,000 valid votes were cast and there are 3 seats to be filled, then the quota is calculated in the following way to be 25,001 votes:

 100,000 + 1 = 25,001
   3 + 1 

Anyone who is receives enough 1st preference ballots to meet the quota is elected.  Otherwise, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and the 2nd choices that voters marked on those ballots are then distributed among the remaining candidates. The process continues until all the eligible seats are filled. There are, however, very different ideas about how to distribute the "surplus" of votes cast for a candidate once they meet the quota - see David Farrell's article (pdf) on Australia's 1983 electoral reforms for an explanation.

It should be noted that the STV system does not guarantee proportional results, and sometimes allows the leading one or two parties to completely dominate the seats won in a region. Minor parties with 10-15% of the vote, for example, may be left without enough votes to reach the quota needed to win seats. The main strength of the STV is that voters can rank order the individual candidates - although the STV system used for Australian Senate elections permits voters to simply mark their ballot in favour of a whole party rather than have to mark individual candidates' names. As well, the size of the region from which members of the legislatures are elected may be smaller than those used in party-list PR systems.  STV is used in Ireland, Malta, as well as for several state-level elections in Australia and for the Australian Senate elections

Germany, New Zealand, and Russia are examples of countries that use some form of the mixed member proportional (MMP) system. It is a popular choice, being used in 29 countries in 1999. Some seats are contested on an SMP basis while others are apportioned to the parties on proportional bases that vary according to the number of seats reserved for this purpose. Voters can have two ballots - one for the their choice of individual legislature, and another vote for their choice of party for the second set of seats. In Germany and New Zealand, for example, half of the legislature is elected by single member plurality and half are drawn from the party lists.  The party list half are allocated in a manner that tries to provide a party with a total share of the seats in the legislature that is roughly proportional to their share of the party-list vote. A number of counties in the former Soviet Union adopted forms of MMP, as has Japan. However, the relative portion of seats devoted to SMP elections and those chosen by by PR do vary widely.  Plus, there can be variations about the objective of the seats assigned from the party list.  They may, as in the case of Germany & New Zealand, be distributed in order to ensure the total share of seats a party wins (including the SMP & party list seats) is proportional to the party's share of votes.  Or, the party list seats may be awarded with so that only the party-list seats are proportional to the share of votes; the number of seats won by SMP would be irrelevant in this case. It should be noted that the single-member ridings may also be elected by a majority system, such as the Alternative Vote. There are many variations possible in mixed-member systems, including the proportion of the house which is elected by each system (i.e. it could be a 75-25 split instead of 50-50).


Resources on Electoral Systems

The now-disbanded Law Commission of Canada's archived electoral reform site provided a good range of research papers on election issues, in addition to its final report.

Institute for Research on Public Policy has published some interesting material on electoral reform, particularly in connection with its Governance Project.  In addition, the July-August 2001 and September 1997 issues of Policy Options contains many articles debating the relative merits of reforming Canada's electoral system. Broader discussions of elections are also found in Richard Johnson's Canadian Elections at the Millennium (pdf) and in Paul Howe's and David Northrup's Strengthening Canadian Democracy: The Views of Canadians.

The Australian Electoral Commission provides a good overview of all the different electoral systems which includes a chart of which countries around the world use which system.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance provides a detailed Handbook of Electoral Systems Design.

Further useful information can also be found at:

Electoral Reform Society (UK)

Fair Vote Canada

New Zealand Mixed Member Plurality electoral system

New Zealand 2001 Parliamentary Inquiry into the MMP System (pdf)

UK Report of the Independent Commission on the Voting System (Jenkins Report)


I welcome any feedback and suggestions for fresh material to add to this site -

Andrew Heard
Political Science Department  --  Simon Fraser university