Can Justin Trudeau fix the vote with electoral reform?

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals want to change the way parliamentarians are elected. But who really wins with electoral reform?

(Chris Wattie/Reuters)

(Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Only a few years ago, the movement to scrap Canada’s old winner-take-all system for electing members of Parliament and provincial legislatures seemed to have run out of steam. Between 2005 and 2009, in three separate referendums—first in Prince Edward Island, then in Ontario and, finally, in British Columbia—electoral-reform proposals all went down to defeat. In Britain, voters in a 2011 referendum also rejected a chance to overhaul the traditional “first-past-the-post” system, in which the candidate who attracts the most votes becomes MP and the rest get zilch. If the traditional way was still good enough for the birthplace of the Westminster model, any newfangled alternatives didn’t appear to stand a chance.

But Justin Trudeau has reignited debate about changing the way Canadians select their federal representatives. In a sweeping speech on the theme of “fair and open government,” the Liberal leader promised last week that, if he wins this fall’s election, he will convene an all-party committee to study the options, then enact some replacement for first-past-the-post within a mere 18 months. In an interview with Maclean’s, Trudeau left no doubt that Liberal strategists have absorbed the hard lesson taught by the string of referendum losses suffered by advocates of new ways of voting. “We’ve committed to strong, open consultations,” he said. “But it hasn’t gone unnoticed by people that electoral reform has had a lot of trouble getting through plebiscites.”

Related: John Geddes interviews Justin Trudeau on electoral reform

Reaction to his vow to put an end to the only way Canadians have ever chosen their parliamentary representatives was surprisingly muted. Perhaps that was because Trudeau’s electoral-reform pledge came bundled with no fewer than 31 other promises, covering everything from banning partisan federal ads, to updating the way question period works, to appointing equal numbers of women and men to his cabinet. Any one of these platform planks is worthy of heated argument. None digs as deeply, though, into the roots of Canadian political life as the prospect of selecting MPs in some novel way.

Asked why he thinks the time is right for reform, Trudeau pointed to declining voter turnout (down to 61 per cent in the 2011 federal election, from 75 per cent of eligible voters in 1988) and discontent over the fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives managed to win 54 per cent of the seats in the House with just 39 per cent of the popular vote in the last federal election. Trudeau wouldn’t say, however, what sort of reform he’s leaning toward. Instead, he proposed a wide-open “national engagement process” to study ideas “such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting and online voting.”

The items on that short list of reform ideas can’t be assigned equal weight. Mandatory and online voting are intriguing in their own right, but they could be made part of just about any electoral system. That leaves ranked balloting and proportional representation (PR) as Trudeau’s main options for replacing first-past-the-post. Experts point out that those two models don’t really have much in common. Far from being variations on a single reform theme, they are entirely separate propositions, each designed to remedy a different perceived problem.

It was a version of PR that Ontario voters rejected in the province’s 2007 referendum. The proposal then was to have voters cast two votes, one for their local member and another for a political party. The legislature would have been made up of some members representing their ridings, in the familiar way, and others, their party’s share of the vote. In B.C., voters rejected a version of preferential voting in 2009. Under that proposal, voters would have ranked candidates on the ballot, with their second and third choices being counted only if their first-choice candidates were dropped from the ballot due to lack of support. Tallying would go on in this way until a winning candidate had a majority of the votes.

Jonathan Rose, a political science professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., was the expert adviser to the citizens’ assembly that devised the PR system put to a vote in Ontario. “Trudeau has picked two very different models,” Rose says. “I think it’s a bit confusing; they are not equivalents.” He says PR is meant mainly to solve the problem of small parties failing to gain seats that reflect their share of the overall vote. Ranked balloting, also called preferential or alternative voting, is designed, he says, to “convey legitimacy” on the ultimate winner in any constituency.

Rose says the experience in Australia, which uses a version of ranked balloting, shows that the candidate who gets the most first-place choices ends up winning most of the time anyway, so election outcomes are not much different than they would be under first-past-the-post. For that reason, he doubts ranked balloting will attract as much support among Canadians as some version of PR. In fact, it’s already the preferred option of Fair Vote Canada, a lobby group for electoral reform, and is the official policy of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Green Party of Canada Leader Elizabeth May.

Related: Paul Wells on Trudeau’s reforms: three ‘ifs’ and a set of Ginsu steak knives

NDP MP Craig Scott, Mulcair’s critic for democratic reform, says the Liberals have in the past shown a pronounced and, in his view, opportunistic, preference for ranked balloting. Scott contends that a party occupying the centre of the ideological spectrum might strategically hope to gain more second-choice votes than might its rivals on the left or right. In other words, he suspects Liberals will choose ranked balloting in a bid to gain a built-in advantage in future elections. “The fact is, if there’s a party that stands for a lot, and you can never quite tell what it stands for, then it’s going to collect votes from the right and a few votes coming from progressives,” he says. “And that’s why, frankly, they prefer it.”

But Trudeau says a similar suspicion is cast over the NDP and Green preference for proportional representation. As parties whose popular-vote shares have historically been higher than their proportion of seats in the House, they have a vested interest in a voting system that would fix that problem. “Rightly or wrongly, that’s the perception people tend to have [about] positions like this,” Trudeau says. “We want to make sure there is all-party, open debate, discussion drawing on experts looking at international models, making sure that we’re actually digging into what’s the best for Canada [in future]—and not what’s best for a particular party that happens to wield power at this particular moment.”

The Tories, however, argue that the provincial referendums have already proven that Canadians are content to stick with first-past-the-post. “Every time Canadians have voted on this, they chose to keep the current system,” said Minister of Employment and Social Development Pierre Poilievre, who also has responsibility for democratic reform in Harper’s cabinet. “We will continue to respect the democratic will of Canadians.”

But proponents of electoral reform refuse to accept the conclusion that the provincial votes settled the matter. They stress that British Columbia actually held two referendums. In the first, conducted in 2005, the Yes side fell only 2.3 points short of the 60 per cent threshold set by the provincial government for bringing in preferential voting. The outcome was so close that a second referendum was held in 2009, but the Yes camp faltered, securing less than 39 per cent support on its second try. Not surprisingly, critics of first-past-the-post tend to point to that first result as a true sign of underlying discontent with the old system.

Related:How to fit in and stand out in Quebec

In Ontario, only 37 per cent of voters supported mixed-member proportional representation in the 2007 referendum. But Marie Bountrogianni, who was responsible for the referendum as former Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty’s minister for democratic renewal, says reform would stand a better chance of gaining popular approval today. Bountrogianni, now dean of continuing education at Toronto’s Ryerson University, says many more Canadians tend to go online for information now, which would make it easier to explain a new way of voting and to build support. “It was complicated to me, and I was living and breathing it for two years,” she says of the proportional representation model proposed in Ontario back in 2007. “So I think there would have to be an education process of some sort, and then a vote.”

That last part could end up being the sleeper issue in any new push for electoral reform. “If you’re going to totally change the election system—and I’m a Justin Trudeau supporter—I think it would have to be a referendum,” Bountrogianni says. Rose agrees. “I think it shouldn’t be a blue-ribbon panel deciding this, or politicians,” he says. “Whatever decision is reached, it should be put to a national referendum for approval.” So far, Trudeau doesn’t see it that way. When it comes to changing the way Canadians vote, a big part of the battle to come could be over whether they should get to vote on it.


Can Justin Trudeau fix the vote with electoral reform?

  1. Trudeau’s idea of electoral reform is a lottery. A Parliamentary Committee will guide him after the elections. As for the preferential voting system, this is the ultimate lottery model. It is bad enough that most Canadians are not sufficiently well-informed to know the differences among 4 parties. With preferential voting, Canadians would have to get well-informed about each of the candidates, and such information would not be readily available on national and local news. Thus what one ends up with is a Canadian Idol contest. I can see why Trudeau who prefers not to represent anything in particular — other than a meet and greet photo-op personality — would like this model. One only has to look at the extremely low turnout for school board elections to grasp why choosing among unknown candidates rather than among political parties is a recipe for disaster. Once again, Trudeau proves himself to creatively ambiguous. It carries through in all of his policies, like leaving it to the provinces to lead on climate change!

  2. Let’s have the education start now, and let’s have it start with you, John Geddes.

    Did you even ask Fair Vote Canada to comment on this article? After all, you do say they are the lobby group for electoral reform, so maybe they spend a moment or two thinking and talking about it. They would have told you, first of all, that the B.C. model was a version called STV or single transferable vote, which is both a proportional system, and uses a preferential ballot. BC was required to attain a 60% threshold (they got 58%) and this requirement was set by a majority government that won with less than that. There’s fair. Women got the vote without a referendum. You didn’t have to be a landowner to vote, without a referendum. We didn’t have a referendum for this system in the first place! And, New Zealand brought in PR without a referendum, the kicker being “up front.” The referendum was held 20 years after bringing it in, and they chose to keep it. Human nature, after all, tends to vote against change on everything.

    I don’t exactly know why you, John Geddes, is invested in the status quo, I do understand why most media, which would include Maclean’s and Rogers, are invested in it. Easy to see when you look at the endorsements of most media at election time. But, electoral reform of the proportional variety is much more non-partisan than that. It simply supports equal and effective votes, where all votes count. No bonus seats, and no deprived seats.

    And now I think you should ask your editors to invite Kelly Carmichael of Fair Vote Canada to write an opinion piece in rebuttal. Equal time.

    • Spot on “Serenity”. The BC vote was very close despite the fact the “No” campaign did there best to confuse voters and say it was complicated.. Sure it wasn’t the simplest method by once implemented would have been much more “democratic” than the garbage we have now. I think everyone was surprised it was as close as it was considering this.. If brought up again I see it going thru.

    • Oops.. Should be ‘Spot on “2Jenn…”‘

  3. Liberals have been promising electoral reform since 1921. Thus this is an empty Liberal promise as per usual.

    • When you cannot criticize the policy, it is best to blame the current leader for the flaws of all those who came before him.

      Reeks of desperation…

    • Not to mention PM Jean lived off the 39/40% vote – but when the Conservative’s do it its anti democracy…

  4. The Ontario 2007 referendum was not on the non-partisan model designed by the Law Commission of Canada, where voters can vote for both a local MP and their favourite of their party’s regional candidates. It was on a model with closed province-wide lists, which not even the NDP supported. The NDP favours a model like the Law Commission’s: no closed lists, every MP has faced the voters and is accountable to the voters in a riding or region. Fair Vote Canada also says: no closed lists, all MPs must face the voters and be accountable to voters.

    Can partisan suspicion be cast over the NDP preference for proportional representation? As Tom Mulcair says “Had the 2011 election used proportional representation, despite the NDP’s electoral gains, New Democrats would have actually had fewer seats in Parliament. Even still, we believe that democratic reform is critical to improving the health of Canada’s democracy. For New Democrats, it’s a matter of principle. Proportional representation would better represent Canadians across the country.
    Liberals would have seen better representation in the Prairies and even the Conservatives would have been better represented in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. The NDP would have done better in Saskatchewan and the Green Party would have made gains in many places, electing more than just one Member of Parliament.”

    • And Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party in the UK, recently affirmed that her party would vote to adopt proportional representation as a matter of principle, despite having done better under single member plurality than they would do under PR (see http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/the-snp-would-vote-to-introduce-proportional-representation-at-westminster-nicola-sturgeon-confirms-10223302.html).

      “I believe strongly in proportional representation. I believe there should be a direct relationship between the percentage of votes a party wins and the percentage of seats they win in whatever parliament the election is for,” she said. “The polls suggest that my party might do well under first past the post on Thursday but I think if you believe in something in principle you should believe in that regardless of whether your party benefits from the current system. I support PR in principle, it’s in our manifesto, and the SNP would vote for it.”

      Nice to see people with integrity expressing support for a key democratic principle independently of how they themselves might fare under the system.

    • Wilf,

      As I understand it, the NDP say they are proposing an Open List, but are actually proposing a Hybrid List.

      Open List systems have unordered lists. The candidates with the most votes get elected first.

      Both Closed and Hybrid List systems have political party ordered lists. Candidates get elected based on where they are on the list.


      The idea of an Open List, with Pure PR List or MMP, is that the voters get to decide who from the party list gets elected.

      To do this, the list must be randomized, so that Alan Able doesn’t have an alphabetic advantage. Voters tend to vote for candidates at the top of lists.

      If the list is ordered by the political party, the same issue arises. The party’s preferred candidate’s at the top of the list will have an advantage, which may be contrary to what voters want. Therefor, the order of candidates on the ballot should be randomized.

      Candidates are elected based on the number of votes they get.

      With Open Lists, candidates have to focus their attention on the voters to get elected.


      The idea of a Closed List is that the party orders the list and the candidates who get elected are taken from the top of the list. The party naturally puts its preferred candidates at the top of the list.

      For the list seats, voters don’t get to vote for candidates. They can only vote for the political party.

      In this case, candidates desperately want to be at the top of their party list, so they focus their attention on their party, not the voter.

      Candidates are elected based on where they are on the list.


      As I understand it, the NDP’s version of MMP has a party ordered list with “above the line” voting. This means that, if a voter doesn’t have a preference (too many candidates, too far away, lack of interest, poor party and candidate communication), they can just vote for their preferred party, and accept the party’s list order.

      With a Hybrid List, voters can also vote for their preferred person from the list. If enough voters vote for that person, they can move that candidate up the party ordered list. (The Law Commission report, describes this complex process for those who are interested.)

      Realistically, the party ordered list will prevail, with few if any alterations because most people will just vote “above the line” for the party’s list.

      Candidates are elected based on where they end up on the modified party list.

      With Hybrid Lists, the candidates’ primary focus has to be the party, to get a top spot on the list.

      It’s important to be clear about what is being proposed. Hybrid Lists are not Open Lists. Not even close.

    • Wilf,

      The Law Commission (4 people) recommendation was based on the premise of “adding an element of proportionality” to our current system. From the start, the Commission was focused on MMP, which by definition adds an element of proportionality to our current FPTP system.

      The Commission rejected STV, without further examination, because it didn’t think Canadians would accept multi-member districts.

      The Law Commission recommendation predates the BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

      The BC Assembly rejected the Law Commission’s premise and recommended STV which combines a preferential ballot and multi-member districts.

      The BC Assembly was comprised of 160 randomly selected voters, who met for almost a year learning about electoral systems, consulting with the public and deliberating what to recommend,

      In the first referendum, when there was plenty of information about what the Assembly was and what its recommendation was, almost 58% of voters wanted STV. And STV had over 50% support in 77 of 79 districts.

      Further to this, academic studies showed that the more voters learned about STV, the more popular it got.

      This result shows that Canadians are open to the idea of multi-member districts and all the benefits that they bring to our democracy.

      Because the Law Commission excluded STV based on the incorrect idea that Canadians wouldn’t accept multi-member districts, the Commission’ recommendation cannot be taken seriously.

      By the time the second referendum was held, the public had forgotten about the Assembly and it’s recommendation. A campaign of fear and misinformation by some slick former NDP advisors was too much for an amateur and poorly run pro-STV campaign.

      Like the Ontario referendum there was almost no money available for education before the vote.

      At the time, it was clear that the NDP didn’t want STV because they only came to power in BC when the centre/right vote was split by two parties. STV would have allowed these two parties to come back together as a coalition of the right.

      The federal NDP promise to bring in MMP, if they win a majority. But if they win under FPTP, is it really likely that the power people within the party will allow a change to a proportional system? That would be a very easy promise for them to break.

  5. I admit I have yet to study either option, but one thing I think about the ranked ballot is, at a minimum, it should leave more people feeling like their vote matters, and in turn therefore increase the voter turnout.

    If my second choice won, I would probably feel satisfied.

    • I’m an enthusiastic supporter of ranked balloting for more of less that reason – it eliminates, or at least minimizes, the issue of ‘wasted votes’ that is inherent in FPTP. Additionally, unlike PR, which is a revolutionary change, ranked balloting is an evolutionary change.

      OTOH, I have a major problem with PR because it does away with direct representation. MMP voting attempts to address that to some extent as a portion (half?) of MPs would still be directly elected. However, if FPTP is retained for electing them, then one is still left with the wasted vote problem. As well, PR would, I imagine, make it much harder to form majority governments, thus potentially resulting in minor parties having clout disproportionate to their support by virtue of being a necessity in a coalition government.

      Having said all that, I tend to agree with Bountrogianni, any proposed change should really be put to the people who have to live with it. It’s impossible to see how a Trudeau government could claim a mandate for electoral change, which is a very, very big deal, without specifying the exact nature of that change prior to the election. And if the specification isn’t there prior to the election, then IMO a referendum is needed to legitimize the change.

      • And this is why we need the all-party committee. Because, you may be interested in the Jenkins model, which combines the features of open-list MMP with a ranked ballot. Or the single transferable vote may be to your liking, which is exactly the same as the ranked ballot as far as voting itself is concerned, but with multi-member ridings, which allows the proportional effect as well. By itself, a ranked ballot does little and can even make the distortions worse.

        • Thank you for pointing out the Jenkins model. Despite my reservations concerning PR, I would be supportive of this particular hybrid approach.

          FWIW, I live in BC and did indeed vote for BC-STV – even had my first and last lawn sign put up in support of it.

          My only real concern with Jenkins and multi-member STV is that they would be much harder to sell to the public than a switch to pure ranked ballot due to the fact that they are more complicated. I believe that’s what did in BC-STV.

  6. Canada desperately need one of the many systems of proportional representation that are are available (yes, there are many ways to do it). I am so tired of having a minority viewpoint, whether that be Harper Conservatives or Wynne Liberals or Notley NDP, make policy that the majority of people voted against.

    And no, we don’t need a referendum. Referendums are NOT the Canadian way. There have been only three national referendums in Canada (prohibition, conscription, Charlottetown), and they weren’t exactly models of success. We haven’t had referendums on going to war, on women’s suffrage, or same-sex marriage. We didn’t have a referendum on first-past-the-post. Why expect one for PR?

    The consultation process MUST be transparent, involve both experts and citizens, and be seen by all to be legitimate. But a referendum is not necessary.

  7. Funny the Libranos haven’t gotten elect in the last couple of elections, of course the system needs changing so they can…….

  8. Good article, especially in pointing out that AV (disproportional ranked ballots) is not significantly better than first-past-the-post. That Trudeau and much of his party prefers AV is hardly surprising – he wants a chance at being the single winner “dictator for the decade” however unfair that might be to Canadian voters. With PR each party would get their fair share of power after every election, rather than one of the two biggest parties taking turns at hogging all the power – unearned – with their fake so-called “majorities”. Canada has had more elections since WWII than Italy, with nutty partisan policy swings after every single-winner regime change rather than sober incremental progress by a proper proportionately representative governing assembly. As an MP elected under the current system or someone getting rich in it at the public’s expense, of course you’d want to keep the status quo or something very like it (av). As the electorate – we-the-people, demanding PR should be a no-brainer. MMP and other candidate systems of PR are easier to understand than a hockey season and will force our governing assemblies to be responsive to the public and actually represent us. Until power is earned in proportion to how we all vote, we Canadians will not have realized our Charter Right to fair elections.

  9. Prof. Rose is wrong when he says that “PR is mainly meant to solve the problem of small parties failing to gain seats that reflect their share of the overall vote.” Absolutely not – our current Single Member Plurality system denies half the voters their charter right to effective representation – whether we’re talking about Conservative supporters in downtown Toronto, Liberal and NDP supporters across the prairies, or, yes, Green supporters almost everywhere. PR is primarily a means to secure effective representation for all voters of every political persuasion everywhere, half of whom are currently unrepresented in Parliament.

    And so Trudeau is equally wrong and misleading when he claims that the NDP and the Greens have a vested interest in switching to proportional representation. Since PR will treat all parties equally, rather than creating an outcome biased towards the larger parties, it will simply remove the unfair advantage the Liberals and Conservatives have historically benefitted from. It is therefore the Liberals and Conservatives who have a vested interest in retaining the existing system.

    And this debate is not about what’s “best for Canada”, as if we’re merely talking about preferences, though the political science literature is clear that PR systems deliver equivalent or better economic performance while significantly improving voters’ satisfaction with democracy. Rather, it’s about a core civil right. Our section 3 Right to Vote is one of the very few non-overridable rights. That is, unlike even our equality right, our right to vote is not subject to the ‘notwithstanding’ clause. We are entitled to effective representation (as stated by the Supreme Court on multiple occasions) – a right half the voters are currently denied.

    It is for this reason that the discussion about a referendum is so misleading and distracting. Our civil right to effective representation cannot be made subject to a referendum. Voting reformers are all for public engagement and even a referendum between voting options that satisfy the criterion of effective representation, but are opposed to the idea of a referendum between an option that gives us effective representation and one that continues to deny us that right. Proponents of electoral reform are therefore perfectly correct to “refuse to accept the conclusion that the provincial votes settled the matter” – would anyone today claim that women’s right to vote should not have been granted simply because virtually all early referendums on this issue (in the USA) went against them? Of course not. Women had a right to vote all along, and it took time for men to accept this and grant them this right without requiring approval by referendum. In our time, it will soon be widely recognized that all voters have a right to effective representation and that this needs to be enacted through a form of PR voting. In time, people like Harper and Trudeau and Bountrogianni and Rose will also come to accept that this is true and that holding a referendum on our civil rights is not only not necessary, but simply not acceptable.

    Antony Hodgson
    President, Fair Voting BC

  10. Voting is not the only means of political expression; it is just the easiest.

    Don’t focus solely on one day every five years as your expression of democracy. You can still meet with your MP (or have a phone conversation, send a letter (free postage), organize a rally, etc.) on any of the 1,459 days between elections.

  11. It’s reassuring to know that readers are keeping their eyes on the ball. Leif Harmsen and Antony Hodgson raise an important point: whatever else we require our electoral system to do, it has to square with our Charter Rights as Canadians. By that measure, any system that privileges some of us while penalizing others by according greater or lesser value to each of our votes can hardly be considered legal, let alone a legitimate electoral option.

    That we are still using such a system is excusable only insofar as it predates and hasn’t yet been tested against our Charter of Rights. What possible excuse can there be though for staking those hard-earned rights on a referendum? Or should we subject our entire Charter to referendum, one right at a time?

    In recent years at least ten independent formal commissions have examined our electoral system, each of them consulting with experts and groups of informed but otherwise ordinary citizens alike, and each of them concluding that our country would be better served by some degree of proportional representation. Conversely, not one referendum on the question has required any Canadian to be even passingly informed about anything at all. So far as that goes, we’d be reckless to rely on a referendum to determine whether our species should breathe oxygen and walk on two legs.

    No more referendums, please. But by all means let’s oblige our government to uphold our rights by initiating an open, transparent, and informed process towards giving every Canadian an equal and effective vote. Let’s get on with the grown-up practice of democracy.

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