The Canadian Electoral System and its need for Reform

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Through out modern political history, scholars and political leaders have scrutinized existing electoral system and, as a result also debated about the optimal way to translate votes into seats in the most democratic nature. In the recent years democracy and legitimacy within an electoral system are often viewed as the foundation for reform. Thus a growing number of Canadians have begun to question the legitimacy of Canada's first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system and the fashion in which it regionalizes political party representation in Parliament. Under this type of system, the winner in each constituency is the candidate who receives more votes than any other candidate, but not necessarily more votes than all other candidate's combined, which is also known as plurality rather than a majority of votes cast. The electoral system in Canada has provided many majority governments with direct ties between representatives and electors, which have proven to be effective and stable.

However, the forces of a majority government are often offset with its numerous weaknesses, such as promoting regionalism and the misrepresentation of seat allocation in election outcomes. After evaluating Canada's FPTP system and its leading alternative, proportionate representation (PR), mixed member proportional (MMP) under the PR system can be a practical alternative to the first-past-the-post electoral system. The benefits of the PR proportionality and FPTP stability and accountability are achieved, producing a system where the needs of voters are accurately represented in the Parliament through the election of MP's in single member districts. Currently the Canadian electoral system has resulted in a decreasing sense of national unity due to regional divisions which has also been the speculative cause for declining participation in voting, and the adoption of MMP system would present Canadians with an accountable government accurately reflecting the needs and wants of the electorate (Loenen, 1997).

In the last twenty and some years, there has been an increase in public discontent with government, politicians and the legitimacy of Canada's electoral system (Loenen,1997), there still exists many who support an electoral model that continues to produce certainty and solidity in Canada. The Westminster approach of responsible government is based on a stable parliamentary majority, this stability has always been one of the pillars and arguments for the support of FPTP system. For any government to rule effectively it must have support for the legislature but with PR this would be a challenge due to the diffusion of power because there would be minority governments. Right now, legislative majorities have the freedom to carry out policies with the security that there exists little chance that a vote of no confidence will be passed (Library of Parliament, 2001). The direct relationship between representatives and constituencies gives FPTP a type of accountability that other alternatives lack. Responsible government would be undermined if PR were to be implemented because the welfare of the nation and addressing public interest would be more difficult to administer. Another argument for a FPTP system is that it is a relatively simple system, that determines the wining candidate by whoever receives the most votes, and that it is still a reality to a pluralistic system can produce more proportional results than a PR system (Library of Parliament, 2001). It is clear that FPTP is definitely reliable in aspects of stability and accountability and these are the main arguments in defense to proposed electoral reform.

Even thought the FPTP system has produced many majority governments in Canada, representation in Parliament has not met the expectation of society. The process in which FPTP is translated from votes into seats is often questioned, especially in terms of legitimacy and fairness. A major criticism o f the FPTP system is that it encourages regional division. There are tendencies in the plurality system is to "reward" small, regionally concentrated parties (Hiemstra & Jansen, 2002). That is to say it gives parties incentives to maximize regional divisions, creating nation wide party caucuses dominated by only a few regions (Milner, 1999). In the different regions there also issues pertaining to class which further diminish national unity. Regions begin to feel alienated from the federal government (Irving, 1979). Given Canadian regionalism, it is also difficult for national institutions, including political parties, to survive as well as for leaders to discipline poor performance by backbenchers (Irving, 1979). Another troublesome feature of plurality is its tendency to reward regionally concentrated parties that have promoted separatism or a more sectional view of Canada. The plurality system has further increased this negative impact by rewarding the regionally concentrated parties with far more seats than their electoral support warrants (Hiemstra & Jansen, 2002,). The FPTP has also been criticized for its part in the under representation of minorities, especially in ethnically segmented societies. Both these negative outcome of a FPTP electoral system, regionalism and under-representation is a contributing factor for it low position among Western democracies in terms of voter turnout. In the two most recent elections as of March 1998 Canadians had just fewer than 60 percent, making Canada the fifth lowest voter turnout among Western democracies (Hiemstra & Jansen, 2002). Citizens have increasingly become discontent, the proportion of Canadians who felt that "the government doesn't care what people think like me think" rose from 45 percent in 1968 to 67 percent in 1993( The Economist,1999). By 1992 only 34 percent of Canadians were satisfied with their system of government down from 51 percent in 1986 (The Economist, 1999). The perceived illegitimacy of the system fuels growing citizen with discontent with the existing government and electoral system, and consequently decrease voter efficacy (Loenen, 1997).

The downfalls of the Canadian electoral system are that it also directly parties and their representation in Parliament. One foremost criticism of the FPTP electoral system is the tendency to award the party receiving the largest share of the votes a disproportionate large number of seats, leaving the remaining parties with a disproportionate small number of seats. For example, the NDP party has been described as "democratic socialist" that has some support in all regions of the country, but under the plurality system it always receives fewer seats in the House of Commons that its support would justify. In the 2000 federal election, the NDP was reduced to thirteen seats (4.3%) in the House of Commons, even thought the party had actually earned 8.5% of support, spread across the country (Mahler, 2000). This predisposition of over-reward large parties in regions where they have strong support while under-rewarding them where their support is weak, thus Canada often lacks a truly national parties in the House. The FPTP system also makes it tremendously difficult for a new party to break into the system, unless it manages to obtain territorial concentration (Dickerson & Flanagan, 1998). Another direst effect of the system is the fashion that it magnifies small shifts in the popular vote, as experienced by the Federal Conservatives between 1980 and 1984 (Dickerson & Flanagan, 1998). Between those years, support rose from 37.4 percent to 49.9 percent, while the number of seats obtained increased form 103 of 282 (36.4%) to 211 of 282 (74.8%) (Dickerson & Flanagan,1998).

The 1993 Federal elections results have been used commonly to assess the full degree in which the FPTP electoral system can distort election outcomes. Milner (1999) argues that regionalism was even more pronounced in the 1997 election than in the 1993 federal election. Two -thirds of the Liberals' seats came from Ontario, where they obtained 101 of the 103 seats with 48.5 percent of the popular vote. The Reform dominated in the west, the Bloc in Quebec and the NDP and PC in the Atlantic Provinces, the Liberal government owning its majority to a sweep of Ontario and English Quebec. Milner argue that this "quartering" of regions occurred much more as a result of the FPTP than by electoral voting (Milner 1999). If proportional representation had been used in the 1997 election, the results would have been extremely different. The Liberal, Conservatives, and the NDP's would have won seats in all provinces and regions, and the Reform party in all but Quebec. In addition the Green Party would have obtained a seat in both Ontario and British Columbia. The results of the election may be even more distorted going on the assumption that some voter would have chosen not to "waste their vote" on arty like the Green party, and instead for someone other than their first choice (Loenen, 1997). Under a PR system, party supporter would be more inclined to vote for their first choice in ridings where their part stood little or no choice of wining under FPTP, and as every vote counts equally toward electing an MP. This would give the majority of voters a stronger say in the creation of government and consequently would place the tack of forming governments in the hands of MP's who currently hold the power of breaking up governments. The consequences of a PR system would result in incentives to concentrate efforts and resources in all regions. Hopefully, allowing parties to concentrate on the country as a whole as opposed to regions, they would begin to moderate division elements of their plat form and emphasize the unifying ones therefore reducing alienation (Milner 1999).

In the early 1980's, for the first time in history PR was ever given serious consideration. This movement for reform was greatly influenced by the growing dissatisfaction by the Parti Quebecois with its under representation in the Quebec National Assembly led to the establishment of a Ministry of State fro Parliament and Electoral Reform (Milner, 1999). It was in 1982, when a regionally based PR system was recommended, whereby voter in each region would choose a party as well indicate preferences within a list presented to them by the parties, from which the order of candidates would be elected (Milner). This led to an investigation chaired by Quebec's Chief Electoral Officer for reforming the province's current electoral system. A minor variation of the 1982 proposal, in concern to electoral boundaries conforming to smaller, county boundaries, thought while received support among academics and journalist, had very little popular support (Milner, 1994). Although the proposed reform in Quebec was somewhat impeded due to the lack of bipartisan support, some of the mechanisms working against electoral reform should be identified as having the potential to be considered in future proposals. Milner evaluates these obstacles, recognizing the all electoral systems, thought deeply embedded, that legislators have a stake in the system that ultimately elected them. His central argument is the legislators in a single member constituencies under the FPTP system always over exaggerate their personal link to electors, leading them to support the maintenance of the plurality system, whether it be rational or not. Another issue to be addressed is the lack of popular support when the proposed electoral reform was received. This may be the result of insufficient coordination efforts to educate the public, as well as the lack of a positive climate for public discussion due to the division among the caucus itself, thus producing an unresponsive government. Current proposals for reform are a reflection of genuine discontent with the electoral system, and without organized public education on incentives, alternatives, and implication, electoral support will always be lacking (Milner, 1999). Past Canadian experience should be utilized to rectify past mistake to make this endeavor successful. Improvements should be made to increase the rationality that legislators employ when assessing electoral reform, since perceptions are ultimately formed and developed thought existing political institutions. Organized efforts must be made to educate the public on the details of the reform and it implications so that the support for electoral reform is well-informed, accurate and reflective of the wants and needs of the citizens.

As stated earlier, a mixed-member proportional system (MMP) under a PR is suggested as an optimal way to provide the benefits of PR while also allowing citizens to continue having constituency representatives. A main argument for PR is its ability to more accurately reflect the wishes of the electorate through a fair seat distribution in Parliament (Library of Parliament, 2001). The fairness in allowing minority interests to be represented can be seen as a huge step towards increased democracy, as minority status would no longer prevent participation in government. Pr encourages strong political parties, but would also encourage the parties to define their distinctiveness from others in order to attract votes. To complete efficiently, parties would be able to engage in "water-down" politics but be pushed to developed clearer principles and define their policy platforms (The Economist, 1999). This would result in higher voter turnout and many votes would no longer be eliminated or wasted. Due to the resulting diverse representation in the legislature, PR also promotes a cooperative and consensual form of public policy decision making, contrasting sharply with the adverse style of single-member plurality produces. Since PR increases the value of every vote, and possibly the number of parties, election campaigns would have the incentive to put full effort and resources into all regions.

MMP would be composed of a fixed number of members elected in redefined single member constituencies by FPTP, and the remaining elected by a party list representing either the provinces or the country as a whole (Boston, 1987). This system gives each party that receives at least five percent of the popular vote an overall number of seats proportional to its share of vote, limiting the number of parties winning seats approximately four to six. New Zealand's recent implementation of MMP followed a Royal commission on electoral reform and a 1993 binding referendum. 1996 marked the first year the missed-member proportional system was implemented in a New Zealand general election. Although some criticism emerged regarding the length of time for a coalition to be formed, the following general election in 1999 produced a stable coalition within 5 days following the election (Electoral Reform Society, 2001). The Coalition also stated that citizens are now more knowledgeable, as "debate and discussion between parties in and out of government is more common that it used to be and more open" (Electoral Reform Society, 2001). Even though there can be no precise prediction to be made of Canadian success if MMP was to be adopted, New Zealand should nonetheless serve as an example when discussing reform proposals for Canada. MMP has the potential to increase voter satisfaction such as utilizing an open list system where by voters exercise preference among candidates, and the decision to have party lists determined by party members as opposed to party officials (Milner, 1999).

The growing dissatisfaction with Canada's current electoral system has resulted in years of debate over the ideal system to replace FPTP. The misrepresentations caused by the system are evident in the analysis of relative strengths and weakness as well as of federal election seat allocation, leading to a preference among many for the implementation of PR (Milner, 1999). Under PR, MMP retains the little strengths FPTP can claim while providing a parliament accurately reflective of the electorate. It ability to produce a legislature composed of a greater number of women and minorities make it an ideal system in today's emerging society (Milner, 1999). Canadian's high, but unfocused levels of dissatisfaction with the electoral system may give rise to important reform proposals, nonetheless without the proper organized education; it could instead become a mechanism working against electoral reform (Milner, 1999). Repairing Canada's current system with MMP would increase legitimacy and democracy, in the way in which our votes are translated into seats, but public education will be instrumental in ensuring the success of electoral reform. Optimistically, one day Canada will be a country rid any type of political dissatisfaction among all citizens, which is still one of the major challenges in becoming a well functioning modern democratic society.


Economist, The (1999). Comparative Politics, Public Opinion: Is There a Crisis? Connecticut, McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.

Hiemstra, J and Jansen, H edited by Charlton M, Baker P (2003). Crosscurrents: Contemporary Political Issues, Getting What You Vote For. Scarborough, Thomson Nelson.

Loenen, N (1997). Citizenship and Democracy: A Case for Proportional Representation, Toronto, Dundurn.

Milner, H (1999). Making Every Vote Count: Reassessing Canada's Electoral System, Peterborough, Broadview.