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Electoral Reform for Canada’s Parliament

Electoral Reform
Electoral Reform for Canada’s Parliament
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About the Author

Chris Stoate

Chris Stoate

Chris Stoate holds degrees from Cambridge University and the University of Toronto. He founded and operated LaserNetworks, an international IT services firm in the print space with a significant environmental contribution. Chris has an interest in public education and served on the Halton Learning Foundation Board and the United Way Board, chairing the Oakville United Way campaign in 2012. He has also been an Oakville Town Councillor.

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Justin Trudeau famously said that his first election would be the last under the first past the post system we use to elect MPs.  He did not follow through with Electoral Reform stating that the public did not have a desire for it.  Cynics suggest the existing system worked for him and he didn’t  want to rock the boat.

The same system worked for him again this time around.  With less of the popular vote than the Conservatives, his Liberal Party got more seats, because his votes were better distributed around the country and took more ridings.

With cracks in national unity widening recently both in the West and in Quebec, and  his need to curry favour with other parties to maintain government and enact a legislative agenda, the issue of electoral reform may come back on the table.

Five options for Electoral Reform

First Past the Post – the current system

You vote for your local Member of Parliament.  Whichever candidate in your riding gets the most votes, even if it is not more than half the votes, becomes your MP.  The party leader who believes he can get the confidence of more than half the MPs in Parliament, whether they are in his party if he has the majority of seats, or also in one with some overlap of goals if he does not, becomes the Prime Minister.

Pros

a) Your local MP is elected by you, and you can evaluate the individual candidates yourself when you cast your vote.

b) Only parties with a substantial number of votes in at least one riding get a representative in Parliament:parties that are representative of only a few Canadians do not have representation in Parliament and cannot confuse the process.

c) Has provided Canada with stable government since the country’s inception.

Cons

a) Vote splitting can cause a result that the majority of voters did not want: as in the case of the referendum to name Thunder Bay, where the combined vote for Lakehead and The Lakehead was greater than that for Thunder Bay, but Thunder Bay got more votes than either of the other two and thus became the name of the city.

b) To avoid this, some voters vote strategically. They vote for their second choice so that an alternative they oppose is less likely to get the most votes. For example, an NDP or Green supporter might vote Liberal because of the risk that vote splitting would elect a Conservative, his or her least preferred option. This is voting to block, a negative rather than a positive motivation for casting a ballot.

c) Strategic voting means the true preferences of the electorate are not evident either to the public or to legislators, in the only poll where people are voting with consequences.

d) Substantial groups of voters are not represented: for example, many Albertans voted Liberal and yet there are no Liberals representing Alberta in the current Parliament. In the past this has meant Quebec Conservatives having little or no voice in Parliament, in spite of a significant number of votes being cast for the Conservatives in Quebec.  Nationally, it means that even a party with 10% of the popular vote or more could find itself with far less representation in Parliament, or even none at all.  The Green Party this time around had 6.5% of the popular vote but has less than 1% of the seats in Parliament.

Proportional Representation

In this method, people vote for the party they prefer.  The parties maintain lists of candidates and appoint candidates to Parliament in the proportion of the vote they receive nationally.

Pros

The Parliament represents the views of all of the people. A party with even 1% of the vote will have 1% of the seats. Under this system the Green Party’s 6.5% of the vote would have meant 22 seats:  this could mean the balance of power in some circumstances.

Cons

a) Rarely produces a majority government, so can lead to instability.

b) Small parties can have outsized power if they can use their votes to create a majority for a larger party

c) Members of Parliament are chosen from a party list. Individual electors are not choosing their local representative. Your riding would have an MP, but it would not be your MP in the way it is today, and MPs would not individually have faced the electorate in the vote.

Mixed Member Proportional Representation

You vote for your local Member of Parliament, but some part of the Parliament (typically half) is selected from a list in such a way as to create a Parliament which is proportional to the national percentage vote each party received.

Pros

a) You still have a local MP who is an individual selected in your riding by the voters of that riding.

b) The Parliament represents the views of all of the people, as in pure Proportional Representation

Cons

a) Rarely produces a majority government, so can lead to instability

b) Small parties can have outsized power if they can use their votes to create a majority for a larger party

c) Half of the Members of Parliament are unelected party appointees who have not faced the electorate in a vote.  The party, not voters, assesses their competence.

Preferential Voting with a ranked ballot

This is First Past the Post with a twist:  if no candidate in your riding gets more than half the vote, then, second and if necessary third choices are counted to find the candidate preferred by a majority of voters,

Pros

a) Voting is less likely to be strategic, and voters do not have to choose a second-choice candidate to prevent an even less desired option from winning.  The views of the electorate are visible to the public as well as to the politicians. In the absence of the need to vote strategically, the second and third place candidates might even switch position.

b) All members of Parliament are elected locally by those they represent.

c) All members of Parliament have the support of the majority of voters in their riding and know they did not win by coming up the middle between two candidates who are similar to each other, as in the “Lakehead vs The Lakehead”.

For example, if party A gets 20%, party B 25%, and party C gets 15%, under the current system party B wins.  Under this system everyone’s  second and possibly third choice votes are used to find someone who has more than 50% support:  everyone’s vote matters to the final outcome.

d) Likely to produce a majority.

e) Parties will have to have significant support in a riding to hold a seat in Parliament. Fringe parties are unlikely to have seats and disrupt stable government.

Cons

a) A preferential ballot may be confusing.

b) Counting will take longer

A second round run-off

Again, First past the Post with a Twist.  In this case if no candidate in the riding receives more than half the votes, voters return to the polls to choose between the top two vote getters.

Pros

a) Voting is less likely to be strategic, and voters do not have to guess the outcome or choose a second-choice candidate to block someone else they find less desirable from winning.  They can vote their conscience on the first ballot. In the absence of the need to vote strategically, the second and third place candidates might even switch position

b) All members of Parliament face the electorate in their riding and have to defend both their Party’s platform and their own competence.

c) As in a ranked ballot system, MPs are elected by a majority of voters and can”t “come up the middle” because votes are split amongst their opponents.

d) Likely to produce majorities.

e) Parties will have to have significant support in at least one riding to hold a seat in Parliament.

Cons

a) Increases the cost of running the election.

b) Delays the outcome in ridings without a clear majority on the first round.

In Summary

I think it is time for electoral reform.

A voter should be able to make a positive choice, rather than vote to block and eliminate the risk of a less preferred choice running up the middle between two options. This is exemplified by the “Lakehead vs. The Lakehead” vote which produced the name Thunder Bay.

This failing of our current system hurt conservative voters when Reform and Progressive Conservative split their votes, and hurts progressive voters when NDP, Green, and Liberal split theirs.

Any of the possible modifications to the system I describe here would give greater preference to the popular vote in deciding who governs the country, which in my view would be a move in the right direction.

Whatever your view, express it.  A close advisor to the Prime Minister recently recommended compulsory voting and a ranked ballot, so we know this issue could be back on the table soon.

Write to your MP  and let’s move forward with an electoral system Canadians can have confidence in, and  have had input into choosing.

Your Members of Parliament

Oakville MP – Anita Anand

Oakville North-Burlington MP – Pam Damoff

More articles by Chris Stoate are available on OakvilleNews.Org. You can follow Chris Stoate on Twitter @ChrisStoate.

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