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Canada’s Failing Electoral System

Markham, ON. 17 Dec 2021


Mimi Lee's comment on the electoral system - The House of Commons chamber. By THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
The House of Commons chamber. By THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

A recent survey by Angus Reid Institute indicated that 3 in 5 Canadians prefer a “proportionate outcome” to the outcome they are left with now. Unfortunately, this is not the first time we as a nation have voiced our disapproval. Civil society has been calling for “electoral reform” for a long time, and we haven’t got much to show for it.


Remember Prime Minister Trudeau’s promise from 2015? The one where he promised that the 2015 election would be the last one to use the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system? I thought it was a pretty good promise for a politician to make. It was the kind of social change that most voters could get behind. Indeed, 63% of voters in 2015 cast votes explicitly for parties that said they would “make every vote count,” a useful shorthand for enacting voter reform. So, why exactly are we still using the FPTP system more than half a decade later?

What is First-Past-the-Post in the current Electoral System?


First Past the Post or FPTP, as it is often referred, is like a horse race. Every voter gets a ballot with the names of each candidate and the parties they represent. The candidate with the highest number of votes wins the riding, and represents said riding in the House of Commons. Once this is finished, the House votes on a party leader to elect as the Prime Minister; traditionally, this is expected to be the leader of the party with the largest percentage of House seats.


There are some quirks of the system that are worth noting. First, an MP Candidate does not need 50% of the votes in a riding in order to be elected; a prospective MP can win a riding even though a majority of said riding voted for literally anyone else. As long as they have the most votes in their riding, they have the right to represent the riding in the House. The winning party, similarly, does not need to have 50% of the seats of the House in order to form government. If their leader is already Prime Minister, he will remain as such until another party leader gains the confidence of the House. There are other technical wrinkles, such as the role of the Governor General in electing the Prime Minister, but such things are beyond the scope of FPTP.

So, what’s wrong with Canadian's Electoral System?


At first blush, it’s hard to see the problem. You vote for the party you want on the local level, and the party that does well enough on the local level becomes the ruling party. In theory, that should be checked out. In practice, however, FPTP has multiple flaws. There’s a reason why 63% of voters in 2015 wanted a party that would make every vote count, and it’s that under our current system, most votes don’t. There is no better highlight of this than the fact that Trudeau’s Liberal Party received only 32.2% of the vote in the latest election cycle in 2021, down almost 4% from Stephen Harper’s minority government in 2006. That means out of every 10 Canadians, a whopping 6 people didn’t vote for Trudeau.


You may argue that this is simply a problem of vote-splitting; that there are simply too many political parties pulling in too many different directions, dividing Canadians to the point where it’s inevitable that a government squeaks into power without the support of a majority. I reject this argument for two reasons. First, it assumes that homogeneity in our political parties is a benefit and not a drawback. Secondly, and more importantly, it simply isn’t true. FPTP as a system is biased in favour of big-tent, well-established parties who can appeal to a wide voter base. Until recently, that meant that the Liberal and Conservative Parties commanded the lion’s share of Canada’s political stage. That they both failed to eke out more than 40% of the voting base suggests a serious internal failure.


Mimi Lee comment on - Many Canadians are frustrated as the will of the major voters were not represented in the election results
Many Canadians were frustrated as the will of the major voters were not represented in the election results (Photo by Ghaith Harstany on Unsplash)


And, of course, there’s the matter of voter choice. Under the current system, your vote counts towards both the MP that will represent your riding and the leader that will represent your nation. If you like one but dislike the other, that’s just too bad. If your vote goes towards a candidate that loses, despite the winning MP in your riding receiving only 40% of the total votes of the riding, you now have no representation. It’s no wonder this election turned out the way it did; FPTP is a masterclass in political disenfranchisement.



Proportional representation? Is that a better choice for Canadian's Election?


Naturally, there are known alternatives to FPTP that have been bandied about by politicians talking about electoral reform for years. Of particular note is proportional representation, a system wherein political parties earn seats in the House of Commons proportional to the percentage of the popular vote they’ve been entrusted with. Given that 83 countries around the world utilize proportional representation, compared to 58 that still use FPTP, it’s hard not to think that Canada’s electoral system is falling behind.


Typically, proportional systems allow parties to put multiple candidate names on the ballot, allowing voters to pick those who they feel represent their interests best. In some proportional systems, voters may also rank their ballots, which would allow voters to pick a first, second and third choice of candidate. But whether or not a proportional system includes ranked ballots, proportional systems effectively end disenfranchisement; rather than needing to vote strategically, voters can place their vote – or votes – for the candidates or parties that they honestly most support, and the results will accurately reflect the will of the public.


There are also different “systems” under proportional representation. The one I (and the Green Party of Canada) prefer is Mixed-Member Proportional Representation system (MMPR, or the Mixed Member Proportional, MMP). Under this system, each voter gets two votes — a Party Vote and an Electorate Vote:


Mimi Lee's comment on  Electoral System - FPTP vs MMP by CUPE
FPTP vs MMP Electoral System - by CUPE

Download the PDF from CUPE


The Party or ‘Values’ Vote - The Mixed-member Proportional Representation System (MMPR)


Under a MMPR system, voters would get to cast two votes during an election. First, voters get to vote for which party they would like to represent them on a national level, making this vote largely the deciding factor of how many seats a party gets in Ottawa. Parties with a bigger share of the Party Vote get more seats in Parliament.

The Electorate or ‘Local’ Vote (Vote for a candidate)


Voters would then get a second vote to select who they would like to represent them within their own local riding. This is called the Electorate Vote. The candidate with the most votes in the Electorate Vote becomes a Member of Parliament (MP).

There are, of course, critics of proportional representation systems. Consider, however, where we are now. If this election has shown anything, it is that we cannot continue with FPTP as a system. Our votes should matter, and if Mister Trudeau has any respect for his nation and his countrymen, perhaps he will consider implementing such a practice in the next election cycle.


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