Last week the Liberal government abandoned their campaign promise to reform the federal election system. While it didn’t garner as much media attention as less important but more sensational political moves to the south, for those who are passionate about the reform it created another layer of cynicism about Canada’s prime minister.
Justin Trudeau first committed to replacing the current first-past-the-post electoral system in June 2015, shortly before the federal election campaign but maintained it as a big part of his campaign through elections.
His government’s first throne speech promised that the Liberals would “take action to ensure that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.”
The Liberal’s ironically named A Fair and Open Government agenda, which outlined goals for their government says, “We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.”
And according to multiple speeches made by Trudeau, he would create a special, all-party parliamentary committee to study alternatives to the current first-past-the-post electoral system.
But the Liberals have reevaluated their plans. Maybe it’s not such a big deal to some. Maybe the young, inexperienced voters actually did vote for Justin’s hair and not his policies.
But for others, it is a big deal. It is for Elizabeth May who, almost in tears, called it the worst betrayal by her government in her adult life.
It is for the tens of thousands of educated voters who actually hoped to see this as our last first-past-the-post election.
Seeing the commitment dropped has incited criticism from many.
NDP member and reform critic Nathan Cullen said “What Trudeau proved himself today was to be a liar, was to be of the most cynical variety of politician.”
Even some Liberal MPs expressed frustration at the change of plans.
But the change of heart shouldn’t really be a surprise. NDP MP Craig Scott told Macleans in 2014 that in a House of Commons motion that would make 2015 the last election to be conducted in a FPTP system, Justin Trudeau actually voted against the motion. Yet, during his campaign period, Trudeau built that exact reform position directly into his platform.
A petition to the Government of Canada for electoral reform has gained significant traction and collected over 75,000 signatures. Cullen, who started the petition, and many others hope to see a different kind of electoral system for the next federal election.
So what are our options?
First Past the Post (FPTP)
- Whoever gets most votes in a riding wins
- Has been used in Canada for 149 years — entire voting history
- Simple system
- Often leads to majority
- sometimes incites “tactical voting”
In a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, the candidate with the most votes, regardless of percentages, wins their respective ridings. In a two-candidate system, winners are clearly decided. But, too many candidates or parties running can convolute the method.
The clear benefit of the FPTP system is it’s easy to understand. Vote counting is simple and requires very little ballot processing compared to other systems like ranked ballots.
In multi-party systems like Canada, it also tends to produce a majority government, which has its pros and cons. For good or for bad, a majority government is more likely to implement policies that align with the ruling party’s platform.
The system also has its share of criticisms. FPTP fosters a sense of need for “tactical voting” — voting for whoever is most likely to win against the party you don’t like. This means that the party or MP you actually identify with may not receive as many votes because they make a poor opposition. Often people feel that a vote for any other candidate than the dominant two (sometimes three) parties is a wasted vote — a spoiled ballot. An example would be that you support the Green party, but you don’t like the Conservatives so you vote for the lesser of two evils, the Liberals hoping that at least they’re not Conservatives. Because of this tactical voting, FPTP systems tend to ultimately become two-party systems.
Another major negative to the system is a majority of votes is not needed to build a majority government.
In 2011 the Conservative government received less than 40 per cent of votes nationwide in the federal election but secured for themselves a majority seating in the House of Commons. They took hold of 166 of the 305 seats, 54.4 per cent of the house.
The concern with a majority government from a minority is easily illustrated. Assume that a 35 per cent vote elects a candidate because the rest of the votes are spread across multiple candidates. Only 35 per cent of the voters are represented. But what if that elected candidate was the last choice, or least favoured candidate of over 60 per cent of voters? Their first choices may vary, but their second choices might all be the same.
Proportional representation (PR)
- Ensures equal representation — X per cent of votes equals X per cent of seats
- Some PR methods are used within parties to elect leaders
- Tends to create government coalitions
- May not see a geographic link between representatives and constituents
- Societies that use it as opposed to FPTP score higher in the UN Human Development Index
Proportional representation is often the favoured alternative to the first-past-the-post system. While it has received a lot of praise, especially from smaller parties, it can become a more complex system because of its multiple ways of implementation.
In one of the simpler methods of PR, ballots are cast for a party (not an MP) and parties are allotted seats in the House of Commons proportionally to the percentage of votes they received.
Simply put, ballots are cast to decide which parties and in what percentage they fill the House of Commons. If a party receives 35 per cent of votes across the country, they’ll fill 35 per cent of the House.
But that 35 per cent isn’t necessarily made up of candidates from your riding, leaving your riding potentially without representation. In a “party list” PR, a list of party members is presented and members will be chosen top-down on the list. If NDP gets 15 seats, only the first 15 MPs on the party’s list will sit in the House.
Accordingly, this system often sees most of its support from small party supporters. PR is highly praised by Green party members.
In the last federal election, the Green party received 3.91 per cent of the popular vote and one seat in parliament. If the last election used a PR system, the Green party would have gathered for themselves 11 seats.
In fact, it’s possible that parties like Green would have received even more seats if the election was held as proportional representation. Elizabeth May, and others, have affirmed that the Liberal party did as well as they did not because of widespread support for their policies but because they were the best opposition to Harper’s conservatives. PR voting takes away the need to vote strategically because a vote for the party goes to the party.
Mixed member proportional representation (MMP)
- MMP is used in New Zealand, Germany, and Scotland.
- Went to referendum in Ontario but was voted down
- Hybrid, two-tier where a vote is cast for party and for an MP
In this system, another form of PR, a voter casts two votes, one for a local candidate and one for a political party. The local candidate would be elected in a typical FPTP manner and would represent their electoral district. The second ballot, for a party, would determine what percentage of total seats (local and party list) should be assigned to each party to ensure representation based on percentage.
In 2007, the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform of Ontario proposed an MMP system. In Ontario in particular, the proposed legislature would have 129 seats consisting of 90 local members (70 per cent of the legislature) and 39 seats of party list members (30 per cent of the legislature). The electoral reform went to referendum, and was shot down with 63.13 per cent voting no.
The benefit to MMP is that it doesn’t force voters to cast a ballot for an undesirable MP in order to elect their favoured party (or vice-versa) like FPTP. Instead it allows a vote to be cast for both the local electoral district representative and for the party.
But there are potential negatives of MMP too, one of which is that it rarely forms a majority government. In the event of multiple minority party governments, smaller parties can form alliances, or coalitions, with other small parties and hold the government to ransom in exchange for compliance on certains issues. Trading a vote on one issue in exchange for influence on other issues may push through policies that don’t represent the majority of voters. In essence what this would look like is my five friends will vote yes on your pipeline if you vote no on reducing carbon tax.
Single Transferable Vote (STV)
- Tends to be difficult to explain
- Is considered a preferential voting system (ranked ballot)
- Candidates must meet a “quota” of votes to be elected
- Eliminates “wasted” votes
- Provides an approximate proportional representation with a ranked ballot
Single Transferable Vote (STV) is another kind of proportional representation system for multi-member electoral districts. STV provides an approximate proportional representation through a ranked ballot and because of that gives more votes to a candidate that voters actually support. A major point of criticism is that STV tends to be difficult to explain and understand because of its complex ballot counting system.
To cast a ballot, the STV system has voters rank their riding’s candidates in order of preference. The voter ranks candidates from most prefered to least prefered. During the count, candidates are chosen or eliminated during each round of counting. The first round of first preference votes requires that the candidate meet a minimum quota of votes (say, 50 per cent). If the first pick candidate meets and exceeds the quota (60 per cent of the vote), they fill the first position of the riding. The number of votes over the quota (10 per cent in our case) are then transferred to the voters’ second preferences. This will continue until all seats for the respective riding are filled, moving on to third and fourth preference if necessary.
The benefit of this system is like PR, STV eliminates “waste” votes. Because candidates may be elected on “transferred” votes (not necessarily as a first pick), it also means that candidates often campaign to a broader audience to collected second and third rank positions. A potential downside to this is it brings all parties towards the centre and can eliminate radical opinions that don’t appeal to a broad voting population. It has also been suggested that apathetic voters may check off preference arbitrarily after they’ve selected their first choice.
In 2005, a referendum was was held to adopt the the SVT system in B.C. The vote was held in conjunction with the B.C. Legislative Assembly election. It saw a 57.69 per cent vote in favour of the adoption but didn’t meet the 60 per cent majority requirement to pass. In 2009 a second referendum was held, again with the provincial election. Only 39.09 per cent voted in favour of changing to the SVT system and again it didn’t pass.
Preferential voting (PR) or Instant-runoff voting
- Australia uses the instant-running voting system
- Preferential voting has never been used federally in Canada but was used for two provincial elections in B.C. in 1952 and 1953, in Alberta in 1926, and Manitoba from 1927 to 1953
- Ballots are ranked in order of preference
- Can avoid “split votes” by gaining support from like-minded voters
Preferential voting (PV), also sometimes called ranked ballot, or instant-runoff voting, is a system used to elect a single representative from a list by ranking them in order of preference. While there are different methods for counting ballots, they essentially all ultimately lead to one winner from a pool of multiple candidates.
PV shares similarities with STV in that candidates are ranked. The difference is in the way that PV votes are counted. When ballots are counted, all the first picks are added up. If an absolute majority is obtained than that candidate wins the riding. However, if a majority is not met, the candidate who received the fewest votes is dropped. The votes for that candidate are then redistributed amongst the second choice for everyone who voted for the eliminated candidate. Ballots are recounted to achieve a majority. If the majority is attained the winner is declared, if not the process repeats, dropping the next candidate with the fewest votes and again the votes are redistributed.
PV, like PR and STV, has the ability to avoid vote splitting or “the spoiler effect.” If two candidates share similar views, they have the potential to split their voters between the two candidates. Even if their supporters make up a majority together, when their votes are spread across two or more candidates, what can happen is a less popular, but unique candidate may secure a larger percentage of votes.
The PV system eliminates “throw away” votes. Because candidates can be ranked, there is a greater likelihood of a candidate being chosen that is supported by the most amount of people. But again, just like with STV this voting system has the tendency to encourage campaigning towards the middle.