The battle over Canada’s electoral system begins

An expert parses Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef’s approach to changing how we vote

A voter enters a polling station for the Federal Election in Toronto (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

A voter enters a polling station for the Federal Election in Toronto (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Of all Justin Trudeau’s policies, his vow to end the “first past the post” system for electing MPs has the greatest potential for leaving a permanent mark on Canadian democracy. Trudeau first pledged last spring that, if he became prime minister, the 2015 election would be the last one conducted the traditional way, under which the local candidate who gets the most votes goes to Ottawa and the rest get zilch. That promise was included in the Liberal election platform, but didn’t draw much attention during last year’s campaign.

It’s getting plenty now. Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef and House Leader Dominic LeBlanc struck a parliamentary committee this week, giving the MPs only seven months to report back with proposals for a new way to vote. The main options include proportional representation (PR) and preferential balloting. There are endless variations of both ideas, and electoral reform enthusiasts often bemoan the difficulty of explaining them, which they say tends to drive popular opinion toward the status quo.

Under one form of PR, voters would cast two votes, one for their local member and another for a political party. The House would be made up of some MPs representing their ridings, others their party’s vote share. A typical preferential balloting system would ask voters to rank candidates, with their second and third choices being counted only if their first-choice candidates were dropped due to lack of support. Tallying would go on in this way until a winning candidate had a majority of the votes.

Expect months of argument about it all. To begin bringing clarity to the debate, I called Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brian Tanguay, a political science professor who was the lead author of the influential 2004 Law Commission of Canada report Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada. Almost everybody who acquires serious expertise in this field ends up favouring one model or another, and Tanguay is for PR. I asked him to comment on specific points Monsef made this week at a news conference. Here’s what she said, annotated with edited versions of his replies:

Big tents vs. niche parties

What Monsef said: “Our electoral system must ensure that governments appeal beyond a narrow base of Canadians and encourage the building of a national consensus….Elections should unite Canadians and not appeal to narrow constituencies.”

Tanguay’s reaction: “This does seem as though it’s a rejection of proportional representation, or at least a questioning of the basis of PR systems. PR systems translate votes into seats rather simply—a party that gets 30 per cent of the votes gets 30 per cent of the seats, plus or minus five percentage points, or something like that. That allows niche or boutique parties, or whatever you want to call them, to emerge, to focus on particular ideologies, particular ideas, particular constituencies. PR systems just have a different way of going about consensus-building, and that’s through the forming of coalitions.”

Town halls everywhere

What Monsef said: “First, the all-party special committee will invite MPs to host town halls with Canadians across the country and to consider together the democratic principles that should be reflected in our electoral system… The vision we have is 338 reports from 338 town halls, and testimony from witnesses.”

Tanguay’s reaction: “It’s an interesting wrinkle, I’ll give it that. Given the timing of this whole process, it’s a bit disappointing that something like a citizens’ assembly, which produced such good work in British Columbia and Ontario, was ruled out right from the beginning. The results of both the British Columbia and the Ontario citizens’ assemblies [in which groups of citizens studied electoral reform options in depth] were really impressive exercises in a sort of intensive, small-scale democracy.”

Not hitched to a referendum

What Monsef said: “The referendum question is much like putting a cart before the horse… A referendum is one of a number of tools that can be used to engage Canadians in a conversation and I believe in the 21st century we have a range of tools available to us…”

Tanguay’s reaction: “I think this does reflect lingering unhappiness with the referendums that were held at the provincial level, in Prince Edward Island, Ontario and British Columbia. The Conservative party now endorses referendums no matter what, and that can be seen as a way of halting or circumventing election reform. Because what we found in the referendums was that most voters, a large number of voters, did not feel that they knew enough about the alternative systems being proposed to vote intelligently on them. You had this tremendous, substantive work done by citizens’ assemblies being derailed by referendum campaigns.”

So many wonkish questions, so little time

What Monsef said: “We’re confident that the committee… will put their narrow partisan interests aside and bring forward their recommendations so we can bring legislation.  We’re confident we’ll be able to make the timelines.”

Tanguay’s reaction: “Things are getting very tight, and when you work against a tight deadline sometimes it produces work that isn’t the best. That’s the worry. We’re heading into the summer, I’m not sure how much is going to get done then. That puts a lot of burden on this committee during the fall. I’m skeptical, I suppose, about how the minister can come up with legislation that will be in place within the 18-mont deadline that the government gave itself. It does make some of us scratch our heads about why the government has waited so long to start this process.”


The battle over Canada’s electoral system begins

  1. Any country needs to agree on the rules of the game, so they can get on with the playing. If Canada can choose an election system that withstands criticism from all sides, as not only a fair, but a free, and indeed fraternal voting system, then there will be a renewed social contract, a firm basis upon which the nation can progress, without a running partisan Civil War, pulling down everything someone else puts up.
    This happens to be what the transferable voting system provides, as the BC Citizens Assembly report recommended. And which provided good or very good proportional representation, over many years, for Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg.
    Richard Lung
    free e-books: Peace-making Power-sharing;
    Scientific Method Of Elections. (Smashwords.)

    • The BC Citizens Assembly was a tragic waste of time, effort and money. It also managed to set back the progress towards a better system by at least a decade.

      Never again – that’s my hope.

  2. With all due respect, Mr. Tanguay, the BC Citizen’s Assembly proposal was an absolute debacle. Instead of keeping it simple (like the preferential ballot for example) they tried to do a heart and lung transplant on the electoral system. The result was the STV (Single Transferable Vote) which they very dishonestly promoted as being “Simple as 1,2,3”. Then, when the “Simple” idea was challenged they used the argument “You don’t have to understand the inner workings of a car (computer, watch) to use one”. Really? We don’t need to understand how our voting system works?

    The 58% “Yes” vote in 2005 in BC was really a vote for change. I say “change” because every one of my friends who were part of that 58% could not explain what STV was. Yet they had supported it. Which illustrates exactly why you don’t make decisions using referendums; the public doesn’t take the time to inform themselves even though lots of information is available.

    Interestingly enough only 39% voted “Yes” for STV in BC in 2009 when a second referendum on the same question was held. Why the drop from 58%? My feeling is that more voters actually took time to get to know in 2009 what they had nearly passed in 2005!

    I voted against STV because it was a cumbersome, complicated system. But my “No” vote, as part of the 42% in 2005 and the 61% in 2009 who voted against STV, is being misrepresented as an endorsement of first past the post which it was not. I was simply against STV and there was no other option presented to us by the Citizen’s Assembly. And I am reasonably certain that the voters in Ontario and PEI were also simply “against” the only option presented to them as opposed to being “in favour” of FPTP.

    Personally, I am not in favour of proportional representation. On paper it looks fair. But I am not interested in a small party holding the balance of power. Remember the Bloc Quebecois blocking the two committees for assisted dying and finance being set up early in Dec of 2015? Elizabeth May was on side with them as well. That blockage delayed work on those topics until the end of Jan. Canadians interests were certainly not put first by either the BQ or Elizabeth May by doing that.

    I studied long and hard before that vote in 2005 and the preferential ballot was, in my opinion a small, easy change to our current system that made it much fairer. That is why our political parties, including most recently the Conservatives choosing Rona Ambrose, use the preferential ballot to select their leaders. It gives a much more accurate and fair read of the will of the majority. The fact that the political parties select their leaders with this system makes it a little rich for anyone or any party to argue that the preferential (or ranked) ballot is rigged in favour of one party or another in perpetuity. It is in reality a big improvement over our current system.

    • The comparison between elections for single-seat positions (such as party leader and mayor) and legislative body elections is a faulty one. They don’t even come under the same system of government. Single-seat positions are an import from the Presidential system of government – like that used in the US. They are an aberration in a Parliamentary system of government, such as Canada uses.

      There can never be proportionality in a party leader election – there is only one winner. Electing a legislative body should be about choosing representatives, not winners & losers. Hence, proportionality is keenly important.

      Preferential/ Ranked Ballots can be used in any time of voting system – they’re just a ballot. But they are only effective in the election of a legislative body if they are used in a proportional voting system – which generally requires a multi-member electoral district.

      Winner-take-all preferential ballots (in single-member ridings) aka Alternative Vote (AV) is just hyped FPTP which would exacerbate our existing problems and result in more unaccountable majority governments. Voters get placebo votes while major parties squeeze out any party that might split the vote and deny them a majority government. AV has no significant benefit except reducing vote-splitting.

      Small parties cannot hold major coalition partners hostage under proportional representation unless the latter allow it. With the greater voting power that citizens have under PR, they can vote out any party that acts against their interests. More often, PR modifies the untenable positions of “extreme” parties who need to seek consensus in order to have any impact.

      • There were 338 individual single seat selections made in 338 ridings across Canada last October. Choosing Rona Ambrose or any other party leader is no different than the selection of a single representative in any of those 338 ridings across our country. So it is a very legitimate comparison.

        And it is absolutely untrue for you to say that the preferential/ranked ballot/Alternate Vote is “just hyped FPTP which would exacerbate our existing problems and result in more unaccountable majority governments”. The ranked ballot gives a much clearer and fairer picture of what the true majority wants. As well it allows a voter to take a chance on either a new party or the candidate they truly want (hence reduced vote splitting as you mentioned) because they have the comfort of knowing that their second or third choices will still allow them to participate in the selection process.

        As I said, I studied long and hard at the time of the 2005 BC referendum. From that I concluded that I am not interested in a proportional style government. Nor am I interested in our current plurality FPTP system. I liked the ranked ballot because it gave a true majority style government where each candidate, or as many as possible, are selected with over 50% of the vote, whether those votes be first, second or sometimes even third place choices. In effect, it is an instant consensus.

        And of course there can never be proportionality in selecting a leader. I neither implied that nor think that. But all the utopian rhetoric about the benefits of proportional representation that you and other avid PR supporters repeat is just that; theoretical utopian rhetoric.

        I think that it is naive for you to think that smaller parties will not hold larger parties hostage. I just cited an example of the BQ holding up the committees last Dec. We know very well that some leaders will make a deal with the devil just to hold onto power.

        Did it ever occur to you and all the other proportional representation pushers that perhaps the people in BC, Ontario, and PEI just plain DID NOT WANT the proportional representation proposal that was being pushed at them? I hear all these other excuses for the referendums failing. But never do they consider that voters just did not want the choice that was literally being pushed down their throats.

        And of course all the anti-electoral reform supporters misrepresent the “no” votes as being “endorsements” of first past the post which of course they are not.

        I was really frustrated with the Citizen’s Assembly in BC that they alone selected the one and only choice that we had to vote on. It would have been better to have given us a choice between a very simple tweak to our current system (which would have been the ranked ballot) to the more complex proportional types (which could have been MMP or STV). The referendum ballot could have been divided into two parts. First, do you want to change our electoral system, yes or no? Then for those who chose “yes”, the second part could have asked them to choose their preferred system from the two or three choices (the voters could have even ranked them in order of preference). If enough voters chose “yes” then the next referendum could have been between the top two choices for electoral reform if there was not a decisive winner.

        The BC Citizen’s Assembly really blew it as far I am concerned.

        • Your opinion of AV is certainly not confirmed by the experience of Australia for almost 100 years or western Canada for about 50 years, but then how important is history?

          • History is important. So is just plain common sense.

            Anyone who says that the ranked ballot (Alternate Vote) is not an improvement over FPTP is not being honest. Nor is it being honest to say that the ranked ballot favours one party over the other in perpetuity even though there is a lot of rhetoric going around regarding that. If one party is elected because they are the first or second choice of the majority, then that is democracy. The other parties will have to adjust.

            There is a very good reason that all political parties, including the Conservatives, do not use FPTP to select their leaders. And that same very good reason for using the ranked ballot applies to electing a candidate in each of the 338 ridings across Canada. It is simply fairer and more representative of the wishes of the majority.

            When I was doing my homework preparing for the 2005 STV referendum in B.C. I did indeed read up on the Australian experience. As well as the STV experience in Ireland and Malta and other places. I looked in great detail at an STV Irish election and compared the candidates who were in the lead after the first round of counting with those who wound up being elected after multiple rounds of recounts. There was not much difference, if I recall correctly, which really rendered all the recounts, the oversized ridings, and complicated math unnecessary. And, yes, I saw that both the ranked ballot and STV had been used in Western Canadian civic and provincial elections before.

            I don’t for a minute think that the ranked ballot is perfect (neither are the various forms of proportional representations all good or all bad). But I did a fair bit of studying on electoral reform and personally felt that the ranked ballot was an easy to implement, simple tweak to our current system that would have made a substantial improvement. I wasn’t looking for perfect, just better.

  3. Tanguay said: “We’re heading into the summer, I’m not sure how much is going to get done then.”

    Oh, Canada. Nothing important gets done in the winter, because of foul weather. Nothing gets done in the summer because, hey, we all need a break from the foul weather. Nothing gets done in the spring because we have to repair the damage caused by the foul weather in the winter. And nothing gets done in the fall because we’re battening down the hatches for more foul weather to come.

    When does anything get done in Canada, eh?

  4. A referendum is quintessential to the integrity of the process, Ms. Monsef, please let us “plebs” vote before any legislation is enacted!

    • Maureen, how many of those “plebs” will actually have made a thorough and independent study of the question at hand so that they will at least know what they are voting on?

      You are aware that there has never been a referendum (that I am aware of) for any of the other numerous major federal electoral reforms since Confederation. Do you think that women or other races or persons of various religious beliefs getting the vote should have been decided by referendums? Or was it just the right thing to do?

    • We already had a referendum. The Liberal party ran on a platform of “this is the last first past the post election” and “we will have a new voting system in place within 18 months of the election”. The NDP also ran on a change the voting system platform. So when the Liberal party won, they had a mandate to change the electoral system, just like every other government before them had a ‘mandate’ to do what they promised.

      • The Liberals are in a hurry to change this system, most likely to a Preferential Ballot system, because this type voting system benefits the party at the center (Liberals.) If all the voters’ first choice does not result in a winner then everyone’s second choice is taken into account. Thus, those who voted NDP are likely to support the Liberals as their second choice. And those who voted Conservative are likely to support the Liberals as their second choice. So who is most likely to be elected? The party at the center of course. This type of system could actually be a tremendous step backward for democracy.

        • So if more voters select a more centrist party as their second choice and those second place choices combined with the voters’ first place choices wind up giving a particular government a proper majority, then is that not democracy?

          Why do you think that the Conservatives (as do all the political parties) used the preferential or ranked ballot to choose Rona Ambrose? Simply because it is a more accurate reflection of the will of the majority than first past the post.

          There is lots of room for different ideologies in the centre, but what it will help weed out is the nasty, childish, and divisive politics that we have experienced the last few years (think “nice hair” ads, barbaric cultural practices tip line, etc.). Today’s preferred centrist party will not necessarily be tomorrow’s, just like today’s first past the post winner was not necessarily yesterday’s.

          There is only one person in each of the voting booths marking a ranked ballot, so no one is forcing that voter’s hand as to whom they select. It is up to the parties to make themselves earn those first and second place votes.

          • Great questions and points. I would argue that ranked voting is more ideal for choosing a party leader because the candidates hold similar views as they all belong to the same party.

            However, each of the 3 federal parties hold 3 separate ideologies ranging on a scale from left leaning to right leaning. Most importantly, the Liberals are always in the center. Not many voters who did not vote for the central party as their first choice will select the party at the other end of the spectrum as their second choice. Wouldn’t the voter generally pick the next clost party, ideologically (liberal)?

            As I write this though, I could see myself voting emotionally with an anyone-but attitude so who knows! :)

  5. Thanks for the reply, Tim. You make a good point about party candidates holding similar views. However there is certainly a range of views and values within a party as well. I equate Michael Chong, who will enter the CPC leadership race on Monday, with civility and decency whereas if someone like Pierre Poilievre were to enter the race those would probably be the last words that would come to my mind.

    I can’t imagine that ranked ballots would lead to one party (in this case the Liberals) being in power for ever because I would assume that the parties would all adapt very quickly to the new voting system. As I said, I think that there is room in the middle for several ideologies. For eg. big government versus smaller government. However, I do think that the parties would have to be less extreme with those ideologies.

    What has really bothered me is the nastiness that seems to have developed over the last few years. The Rob Ford saga in Toronto, the “nice hair” ads, deliberate wedge issues, the personal attacks etc. I think those kinds of things are rewarded when the vote is more fragmented. And those things, if left unchecked, spread like a cancer. I could see a ranked ballot keeping that kind of thing more in line because as Canadians we have collective views and values, regardless of political leanings, that would not reward that kind of behaviour when even broader support is needed. I would hope anyway.

  6. A good discussion. However, we are not stating from zero. The Report of the Law Commission has never been defeated in any referendum. It meets the test of “make every vote count” which was the platform of three parties winning 63% of the vote. It is not new ground for the Liberals: half of them voted for it on Dec. 3, 2014, despite some not having known before the debate that the motion was actually proposing the Law Commission’s model where you can vote for your party’s regional candidate as well as for your local MP.

    As for the preferential ballot in single-MP districts, being represented by my second choice is the problem, not the solution. We have had more than two parties in Canada since 1921. Voters in Australia have, in the end, two choices. Canada needs more voter choice than that. Surely the Liberal Party will be more respectful of diversity than to impose a partisan fix.

    • The Report of the Law Commission MMP recommendation is not that far off of what Ontario voted on in 2007. So perhaps the exact Report has not been defeated in a referendum but B.C., Ontario, and PEI have rejected the form of proportional representation put to them.

      Regarding preferential ballots, you say that you don’t want to be represented by your “second choice” yet your are in favour of proportional representation that will require cooperation, compromise, and flexibility. So why so inflexible about your second choice?

      If Trudeau decides on the preferential ballot, it will improve our democracy. That is why the parties use it to elect their leaders. It is not a partisan fix and frankly I am tired of hearing that. But I have articulated in previous comments why it is not and won’t repeat it here.

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