Fixing Canada’s Democracy

Why now?

Canada’s new government made a clear commitment during the 2015 election, and again during the Speech from the Throne, to make sure that every vote counts in the next election. Here is the exact quote from the throne speech:

To make sure that every vote counts, the Government will undertake consultations on electoral reform, and will take action to ensure that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.

The Government has formed an all-party Special Committee on Electoral Reform (known as ERRE) to speak with experts across the country and internationally, consult with Canadians nationwide, explore options for Canada, and make a recommendation to Parliament on how to best proceed.

Thanks in part to the efforts and demands of you, Green Party supporters, the Liberals have forfeited their majority vote on the committee and included all parties, with Elizabeth May now being a full voting member and representing the Green Party of Canada.

This is an incredible opportunity to improve Canadian democracy -- making it more inclusive, representative, and fair. In order to ensure that those ideals are met, we have to make sure the Liberal Party holds strong to its commitment to make every vote count.

What’s wrong with the current system?

First-past-the-post (FPTP) is a winner take all system of voting, also known as a “majoritarian” voting system. There are two forms of majoritarian voting -- FPTP and ranked/preferential ballots.

Though majoritarian voting systems work well when there are only two candidates, in a country like Canada – where since the 1920s we have had a multi-party system with three to five national parties winning seats in Parliament – the FPTP system produces very perverse results.

As Andrew Coyne recently put it, our first past the post system:

...allows the minority to rule over the majority. It gives to some voters many times the voting power of others, while giving many others none at all. It ghettoizes representation on regional lines, exaggerating, and exacerbating, national divisions. Sometimes it even results in all of the seats in a region, or all of the seats in a provincial legislature, going to a single party. Any one of these, you would think, should be enough to condemn it. The principles of majority rule or the equality of every voter are hardly trivial matters, after all.

A fundamental principle of our democracy must be that every vote counts equally.

Since the First World War, Canada has elected seventeen “majority” governments, but only four of those governments actually received more than half the popular vote. Retired political scientist, professor Emeritus Peter Russell, has pointed out that only FPTP allows a minority of the voters to elect a majority of the seats. Russell coined the term “false majority” to explain the phenomena of a party getting 100% of the power in Parliament, with less than 50% of the popular vote.

The current Liberal majority is a false majority, with a popular vote of 39.47%. The previous Conservative majority was also a false majority, elected in 2011 with 39.62% of the vote. It is worrying to know that under FPTP every vote does not count equally -- in riding after riding, when an MP can win with 30% of the vote, that leaves 70% of the votes “orphaned.”

This has consequences -- when voters feel that their vote will make no difference to the outcome, they are less likely to vote. Indeed, countries with some form of proportional representation have, on average, 7% higher voter turnout than those voting with FPTP or ranked ballots (i.e. majoritarian voting systems).

FPTP also makes politics nastier. So-called “wedge issues” and “dog-whistle” politics are designed to move people to vote out of fear or anger. Trying to keep your party’s vote solid while using “voter suppression techniques” – even legal ones, such as attack ads – to reduce another party’s vote is reinforced by FPTP voting. Cooperation is also discouraged because to suggest another party has a good idea could risk bleeding your vote to another. As a result, FPTP makes it very difficult for parties to collaborate, simply due to political circumstance.

Considering all that, the question that must be asked is: “How do we reinvigorate Canadian democracy and create a fairer, more inclusive, and more representative system?”

Proportional representation ticks all the boxes.

The Green Party believes that Canada must change to a proportional voting system that fairly and directly translates all votes into representation in Parliament.

The essence of proportional representation is evident in its name: the votes cast for different parties in an election are reflected in the proportion of legislators elected.

The category of proportional representation embraces a wide range of systems, with almost infinitely possible variations to meet national conditions. That is what makes it such an appealing solution; essentially, a proportional voting system can be “customized” to fit the unique requirements of any country, including Canada.

The Green Party would support any reform that satisfies the following three conditions:

  • Any proposed voting system must be proportional. That is, it must ensure that the number of parliamentary seats assigned to each party roughly matches the proportion of the popular vote received by each party.
  • Any proposed voting system must maintain an element of local representation. It is critical that MPs remain responsible for, and accountable to, their communities and constituents.
  • Any proposed voting system must be tailored to Canada’s distinct geographic and demographic demands. That includes – but is not limited to – ensuring that people living in less populous and geographically isolated regions maintain adequate representation, and guaranteeing that First Nations rights remain protected.

There are multiple forms of proportional representation that could be customized to meet these conditions, including Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) and Single Transferable Vote (STV). In addition to MMP and STV, there is nothing to say our government could not create a “Made in Canada” solution that encompasses aspects of one or both of those systems.

A brief explanation of what those three systems might look like:

  • Mixed Member Proportional Representation -- Every Canadian would get two votes. A “party vote” that would determine the share of seats each party would get in Parliament, and a “riding vote” that would decide the candidate who would represent their local riding in Ottawa. In short, all Canadians would still have a local representative who they could contact directly regarding community issues and, in addition, would have a Parliament that more closely represents the intentions of voters from coast to coast. Fair Vote explains one model of MMP in detail here:

In 2014, Craig Scott, MP explained the many benefits of MMP:

In countries where it has been introduced, it tends to reduce partisanship by promoting more collegial cross-party law-making. It helps to increase voter turnout, because people no longer see their votes as “wasted.” It ensures that representation from a region is not dominated by monolithic blocks of MPs from a single boosts the representation of women and of marginalized groups in Parliament.
  • Single Transferable Vote -- The idea of STV is that it is very easy to vote and no vote goes uncounted. The tricky part is explaining it! Under STV, a voter in a “multi-member constituency” has a single vote that is initially allocated to their most preferred candidate and, as the count proceeds and candidates are either elected or eliminated, is transferred to other candidates according to the voter's stated preferences, in proportion to any surplus of discarded votes. In essence, STV combines aspects of ranked ballot with aspects of proportional representation in an attempt to eliminate so-called “wasted votes”.
  • Hybrid System -- A hybrid system could be a perfect option for Canada's unique electoral landscape. Considering constitutional realities and Canada’s unique geography, a hybrid system – that combines aspects of ranked ballot, single transferable vote, and mixed member proportional representation – may be the best option. One example of a hybrid system is the “P3” model proposed by Minister for Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion. It combines aspects of MMP and STV:

What about a referendum?

Do we need to have a referendum on electoral reform? No, because we already did.

In the 2015 election, 62.6% of Canadians voted for a party that explicitly supported and campaigned on electoral reform.

Furthermore, as Spencer McKay noted recently in the National Post:

Referendums in Canada are rare, perhaps because they are not the only way of gathering citizen input on important issues and they can be adversarial and divisive. Such vigorous competition makes sense in elections where parties try to advance different values and interests, but this combative approach doesn’t make sense for finding rules everyone can live with, such as electoral laws...Citizens should play a key role in this process, but a referendum is unlikely to produce the thoughtful and spirited public debate that is necessary to making such a change work.

Are there any constitutional barriers to reform?

This is a new and clever objection being put forward by the opponents of electoral reform.

The Constitution does not enshrine any particular voting system. In fact, the Constitution explicitly recognises that electoral districts and election rules in the Constitution would hold, “only until the Parliament of Canada otherwise provides...”

The Constitution does not commit Canada to vote by FPTP. Only recently have novel arguments been advanced that changing our voting system triggers a constitutional change. Those who argue this claim it to be the case by extension from a line in the original British North America Act: that the new country would have a “Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” But in 1867, when those words were written, the UK still used multi-member ridings. So the FPTP system was not entrenched.

Political scientist Dennis Pilon has researched this issue extensively, now teaching at York University, he wrote a resounding defence of the constitutionality of electoral reform in the National Post (“You can’t hide behind the Constitution to spare us electoral reform.” February 1, 2016).

As he wrote in that piece: “Let us be clear, the voting system itself is not part of the constitution..So if the critics don’t want reform, they should just say that. They can’t hide behind the constitution as an excuse.”

Environmental Benefits of Proportional Representation

In addition to the many democratic benefits of proportional representation, countries that have proportional voting systems also tend to enact better environmental legislation. Research shows that countries that elect governments using proportional representation score higher on a wide-range of metrics, including air quality and food security, and have 117% higher rates of renewable energy use.

Once in a lifetime opportunity!

Our current first-past-the-post electoral system has failed Canadians. From false majorities, to wasted votes, to entrenched partisan division, the weaknesses of our current system are almost too many to count.

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to fix our broken electoral system, and reinvigorate Canadian democracy. Let's make sure that we hold our new government to their promise to “make every vote count.”

Add your name today to support proportional representation.