A new poll shows the old voting system is pretty popular

Why serious electoral reform is a tough sell

A new poll on changing how we vote shows support for the old way


There’s a new poll out today that probes Canadians’ views on electoral reform, commissioned by the Broadbent Institute, which concludes that the opinion survey uncovered a healthy appetite for change and, more precisely, that what voters really crave is some form of proportional representation (PR).

Since the left-leaning institute enthusiastically advocates for PR—a system where the number of MPs a party sends to the House would more closely reflect its share of the popular vote—that interpretation fits nicely with its policy bent.

Seen that way, these poll findings look like ammunition for PR proponents, notably including the NDP, to use when the new Liberal government sets up a promised parliamentary committee to study fundamentally changing the way Canadians vote.

Looked at closely, though, it’s far from clear that these numbers, gathered by the Ottawa firm Abacus Data, are really as solidly pro-PR as the institute’s take suggests. For starters, the way I read the results, the underlying desire for change of any sort is tepid.

The poll asked respondents to choose among four alternatives to describe their view of the basic issue: Canada’s electoral system needs to be completely changed; the system needs major changes; the system needs only minor changes; or the system is fine as it is.

Only nine per cent thought the system needs a total overhaul, while 33 per cent opted for major changes. I would add those together and conclude that 42 per cent want significant reform. On the other side of the scale, 41 per cent said only minor changes are needed, and 17 per cent are satisfied with the status quo. I would add those together and arrive at 58 per cent being disinclined to support ambitious reform.

But that’s not how the Broadbent Institute sees it. They add the 41 per cent who support only minor changes to the 42 per cent who want major changes, and arrive at 83 per cent favouring reform of some sort. To me, that’s counterintuitive. (I notice that the Abacus report on the poll colour-codes the data my way, using blue for the minor-change and no-change groups, and green for the major-change and total-change groups.)

As well, the poll’s findings on what Canadians value most about the electoral system don’t lean toward deep reforms. (Abacus conducted the survey online Nov. 3-6 with 2,986 Canadians 18 and older.) Asked to choose their five top goals for a voting system from a list of 15, a whopping 55 per cent picked a simple ballot. And the current ballot—mark an X by the person you want as MP—is about as simple as it gets.

The next most popular pick, at 51 per cent, is a system that produces strong and stable governments. This surely does not indicate any deep dissatisfaction with the way our current system routinely awards a strong, stable House majority to a party that only received a minority of the total vote. By contrast, 38 per cent of those polled thought it was important for the number of MPs a party gets to reflect its share of the national vote—the basic aim of PR.

All this is worth thinking hard about because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed that Canadians will never again elect a government the old-fashioned way—just voting for one candidate running in your riding, and whoever gets the most votes becomes MP. Trudeau promises to set up a parliamentary committee to look at other options, and pass a law to make changes within 18 months.

The poll asked Canadians if Trudeau should, in fact, follow through on that pledge. Only 44 per cent said the new government should go ahead with reforms, while 32 per cent don’t really care, and 24 per cent prefer to keep the existing system. In other words, the majority is either ambivalent or opposed to change, although that 44 per cent is a solid base to start from for anyone setting out now to build popular support for reform.

But what sort of reform stands the best chance gaining popularity? The Abacus poll put four alternatives in front of Canadians:

  • The way things are now, often called first past the post, in which the candidate with the most votes gets to be MP, and the rest get zilch.
  • pure PR: vote for a party and that national vote translates into the number of seats in the House.
  • mixed-member PR: vote twice, once for your riding’s MP, and again for a party, and seats in the House reflect the blend.
  • ranked balloting: rank candidates from most to least preferred. If no candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the top picks, the candidate with the fewest is eliminated. If a voter’s first choice is knocked off, their vote is automatically transferred to their next highest choice. This repeats until one candidate gets a majority.

In the poll, 43 per cent picked the status quo as the system they like best, followed by 27 per cent who most liked the sound of mixed-member PR, 17 per cent who preferred pure PR, and just 14 per cent who chose ranked balloting. That certainly makes PR look way more popular than ranked balloting. Still, the status quo is the strongest entry in the field.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. In three separate referendums between 2005 and 2009—in Prince Edward Island, Ontario and British Columbia—electoral reform proposals were defeated. In a 2011 referendum, British voters also rejected a chance to overhaul the traditional system. This record of popular attachment to first past the post is endlessly frustrating to would-be electoral reformers.

That’s the way it is, though. The Broadbent Institute makes the case that its poll shows that PR is the most promising model for reform. But what Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef, the rookie MP assigned by Trudeau to push the reform file, really needs to be braced for is many Canadians remaining stubbornly reluctant to embrace any serious change at all.


Why serious electoral reform is a tough sell

  1. As someone who has been promoting proportional representation for fifteen years, I can tell you that electoral reform is actually a very easy sell. When you point out to people that 40% of the votes gets you 60% of the seats and 100% of the power, that most of us are “represented’ by people we voted against, people get it right away and understand why this is a bad thing. Why are the poll numbers not higher? Most Canadians still do not realize how our current voting system actually works, don’t know that there are other ways to vote, don’t know that most developed countries adopted proportional voting a hundred years ago. But we have made huge progress in the last fifteen years, to the extent that most political parties support proportional representation and our new government has promised us a new voting system. The challenge now is to ensure that the new voting system we get is one that is good for all Canadians, not just one that’s good for Liberals. More info: http://fairvote.ca

    • “most of us are “represented’ by people we voted against” – Funny, my ballot’s never had a spot to vote “against” anybody.

      “Most Canadians still do not realize how our current voting system actually works”, ya, that’s right. People don’t agree with you because most Canadians are just ignorant idiots who have no idea what they’re talking about.

      “most developed countries adopted proportional voting a hundred years ago” – you don’t do your argument any favours my simply making up “facts”.

      • “most developed countries adopted proportional voting a hundred years ago”

        Hmm…which countries? I wasn’t aware there were that many democratic countries adopting that method a hundred years ago. I thought prop rep was relatively recent.

  2. I have an issue with how the questions on this survey are worded.

    Is switching to ranked voting a complete overhaul of our voting system? (Not really. We would still have the same MPs running in the same ridings). Is it a major change? (Maybe). Minor change? (Possibly. You now vote for 1st, 2nd, 3rd the same way you used to vote for just 1st).

    The four voting types puts a lot more detail (read: wordy block of text) on ranked voting – and put it last. Both of those will cause an option to be ranked lower. The author’s interpretation of this question is the problem with FPTP. Less than half the respondents picked one option, which means the majority of people don’t like status quo.

  3. Any time you find something that the kooks at the Broadbent institute are in favour of…..is a pretty good indication that it would cause more problems than it would cure.

  4. A lot of Canadians intuitively grasp that any reform that further entrenches a faction of the hard left can only be detrimental to their future economic and political freedoms, thus the reluctance to move in that direction. Proportional representation only benefits that hard left, that’s why they are the most vocal supporters of it.
    Before we go whole hog on that kind of legislation, Canadians need better information on the influence of unions and their funding of the Canadian equivalent of PAC’s, and foreign funded environmental activists seeking to influence the electoral process and legislative initiatives.
    By submitting to demands of reform that come mainly from the left, we open the door to ever more concerted erosion of basic and essential liberties, which is exactly what the left actually desires.

    • The “hard left” don’t deserve representation. What do they think this is, a democracy?

      • Where did he imply that the hard left doesn’t deserve representation? You seem to conveniently fail to understand his point, that the left is trying to rig the game against the right. How is that in any way democratic?

        • Well, no.
          His point would appear to be that PR would provide the “hard left” with representation.

    • Great post. The Dipper brigade as I like to call them has lusted for power a long time and know they can never ever elect a federal government w/o giving up their socialist ideals. Even that did not work for Mulcair because people did not trust hime to really change the party into a centrist one and voted for the true party of the middle.

      A good example of foreign funding is the big US money on both sides of the pipeline debate. I would suggest the Harper regime benefitted from the pro oil US lobbyists.

      We need a made in Canada voting system bearing in mind we live next to the biggest democracy in the world and have, in reality a sparsely populated Country. We could end up with regional power bases all with differing agendas that do nothing for the nation building a federal parliament is prescribed to do.

  5. There are quite a few things that puzzle me here. It is true that Mr. Trudeau has been elected, but in the aftermath, all sorts of people have expressed their disapproval or dissatisfaction on every one his pledges. They are not with him on F-18 withdrawal. They are not with him on F-35 purchase. They are not with him on his proposed modality of resolving the Syrian refugee crisis. They do not share his vision of the economic outlook for the country. NOT ONE OF THESE OBJECTIONS OR OPINIONS SEEMS TO HAVE INFLUENCED Mr. TRUDEAU. So, why pay heed to them now and only on the matter of election reform? Is it only because, this time listening to them would be politically expedient?

    The system currently in place has withstood centuries’ worth of trials and tribulations. It never posed a problem when those Athenians without any direction, control or prodding, wrote down a name of their choice on a piece of paper and dropped it in a jar. It never produced any agitation in the mother of all democratic traditions, namely England where, every fringe opinion got airing time in the Hyde Park Corner, but only a few people got the cushy job of sitting inside the Parliament. It is being practiced with a lot of complaining but very well by our like-minded allies, Australia, New Zealand, and India, to name a few. The worst of all challenges to the system emerged when in the USA; Mr. Al Gore who won the popular votes was defeated by Mr. Bush, who got more of the Electoral College votes. Well, that was not the first time it happened, but in this instance, there were some allegations of misconduct. Yet the Courts of Law interpreted the Law and everyone was magnanimous enough abide by the law.
    The problem in Canada is unique to Canada only. In any other country, the contestants, once the contest is over, must live as friends and compatriots. Not in Canada though! Here it is not enough to vote for a winner. You must also vote against another person whom you must declare as the enemy of the State. Everyone in between these two must be declared as “Bozos”. There is a specific process that caters to these requirements and it is called “Strategic Voting”. The owners of this informal process are called Trade Unions. Its administrators are called Journalists. There is no other process in the whole world that quite caters to this tedious requirement.

    However, this is not the end of all because this hasn’t work out entirely to our satisfaction. The winner couldn’t move past the 40% threshold despite all the cajoling that went with it – which was essentially the same percentage reached by the previous office holder in an election held under normal circumstances. There are other winning ways practiced to the utmost satisfaction of the operators. In North Korea and China the tally reaches the 99.99% threshold very easily and effectively. In order for that to work, you must merge all unions in a political party called the Workers’ Party. The Workers’ Party will be in charge of the entire election process. They will implement a more sophisticated form of the strategic voting by which all citizens are formally informed well ahead of time as to who the official candidates will be. Voters take the cue, stop their garrulous quarrels and elect the official candidate with whopping majorities. Those who flout the Law are left to face its consequences. A less sophisticated form exists in Russia, where you do not have to swear your allegiance to a Worker’s Party. There, the result is a disappointing 85%-90% vote for the candidate. Additionally, the supposedly 10%-15% opposition also take their role very seriously and dare to challenge the Government by assembling in front of the Kremlin buildings in temperature as low as -40C. At times, during a head-count, these protesters take double apparitions, so that when you count the total number of protesters, you end up a with a figure of 30% – 40% of the total population. This can’t be, this is confusing and this is totally unfair to the Government.
    So, it is obvious that the solution to Canada’s electoral problems lies in enhancing and strengthening the “Strategic Voting”.
    Let us follow the example set by North Korea not the one set by Russia.
    Vive le Strategic Voting! Vive le Worker’s Party of Canada!

  6. The biggest source of parliament’s dysfunction is not how we vote, but with how our candidates are chosen and what they can do after they are elected. It’s always been a problem, but the Harper government brought the issue in high relief with Harper’s centralized control pumped up beyond precedent. When MPs are required to be pre-approved as candidates by the party leader, and can be tossed from caucus for breaking party discipline, all the power is in the hands of the leader. When that leader was Harper, we get parrots repeating talking points, not representatives of those who voted for them. Without changing the first past the post system (with all its obvious flaws in multi-party elections), but instead putting the nomination of candidates completely in the hands of each party’s constituency association, and making the party leader’s position dependent on maintaining the support of the party’s caucus of elected MPs, MPs would be free (and well-advised) to represent the interests of voters in their own ridings, even when those interests were not the ones promoted by the leader.
    Any electoral reform (such as pure proportional representation as defined in the article) that keeps all the power in the hands of the party leader will break what little connection there remains between the MP and voters.

    • You are 100% right when you say that grassroots activism at the electorate level must replace the current process in selecting the candidates. It would serve the candidate well to be aware of the problems that are peculiar to the electorate. In this regard, Harper is not the only guilty party. Not only is that all party leaders resort to this tactic, but very often, they give the safest electorates to the parachuted candidates. I am personally aware of a lady who had put in more than 3 years’ worth of effort to cultivate the Liberal Party affiliations in her electorate which is adjoining mine. Her hope was that since she had built the party from scratch, she would eventually be a shoo-in. It almost did happen when the party branch there elected her as the candidate but was soon overruled by the leader who brought in a star candidate from outside and ordered the process to restart. No need to repeat here that this time, the party faithful lost out to the star candidate.
      Beyond the rectification of this sore point, you arguments don’t advocate anything practicable. In Canada, we are committed to multi-party democracy. The party candidates are favored every step of the way from deposit money to the election expenditure – which fact I would not say is unfair. The parties have to have cohesion. They have to articulate a total vision for the country that would encompass all aspects of social and economic policies. Then there are matters pertaining to security and foreign policy which cannot be shared with everyone, not even the elected members unless they are sworn to secrecy and this privileged group is within a controllable number. While every member has legitimate interest in every activity undertaken by the Government, only some can be ministers. Ministers by themselves are sworn to secrecy and not in a position to compromise State secrets.
      There are only 365 days and convening the House every day for 8 -10 hours is not a possibility – which means not everyone can speak on every one of the topics placed before the House. That would create pandemonium. This means that only a member nominated for this specific subject can be a spokesperson for that subject. There are any number of Parliamentary select committees to alleviate this situation, but given the need for the member to spend some time in his electorate and given the additional fact that these committees cannot be unwieldly, not every single member will become a member of all the select committees. Very often, the accusation is made that a party leader doesn’t give his parliamentarians enough independence to carve out new policies during the discussion in these select committees. No, he cannot afford to do that. The party platform has already articulated certain policy proposals and the party leader can’t afford to let his followers work counter to the original policy proposals and then lose face with the electorate. He is employing these select committee members as his specialists to advance a particular position vis-à-vis opponents and not as someone with delegated authority to do things as they please. You may complain that this does give the party leader extreme authority over his elected members, but what is the alternative here? To bring back Athenian participatory democracy and let pandemonium rein in? Obviously the lesser of the two evils is to let the party leader have his way. He has a million and a half worries in his mind and petting his parrots shouldn’t be one.
      The party members have the right to revolt against their leader at a time and place of their choosing. They do not have to be the parrots all the time Even then, there are no iron-clad guarantees for better behavior by the leader. A case in point is when near the end of Mr. Chretien’s term, the Liberal Party caucus was trying to replace him with Mr. Martin. Even though mar martin had been elected the leader of the party, Mr. Chretien wouldn’t vacate the Prime Minister post. Short of a no confidence in their own government, they could not force the issue. They just had to abide by. These are the perils of multiparty democracy but still worth taking the risk. I must also point out that the most autocratic the party leader is, the best are the chances of implementing the party policies. The ordinary member has had his chances to carve out policies when he attended the party conventions. If it sounds Machiavellian, it actually is!

      • You and I probably disagree on a wide range of things, but your observations here are well formulated and thoughtful. Very well said.

  7. I’m still waiting for someone to explain why we need any kind of electoral reform, aside from “it’ll hurt the Conservatives”. Seems to me the entire purpose of this “democratic” reform is to knee-cap one particular party, which doesn’t strike me as “democratic” in the least. Too many so-called “progressives” in Canada seem to think that outlawing or banning parties you don’t like is “democratic”. I don’t think they get it.

    • I have no issue with kneecapping the current conservatives who in some respects deserve that treatment based on the absence of democracy we saw from Harper through his unconstitutional law changes that were blindly voted on by his puppets.

      Any change does have to take into account that individual MP’s have the power to say and vote what their constituents want and expect from them.

      • The FPTP system has led recently to some very unfortunate results, it has led to the demise of the PC Party and the rise of the Reform/ Harperite/ Conservative Party and further to that party gaining power though a series of shenanigans and vote splitting.

        In the last election it led to people voting for a party that was not their first choice because of a wish to keep the despised Harper party out of power.

        Ranked ballots would address those problems.People could vote their first/second/third choices without fearing that this vote might grease the tracks for a party they did not support sliding into power.

        And maybe the Conservatives or any party that tries to run with the support of a sliver of the population while bending all their energy into splitting the opposition will realize that there is a better way to win power..

        Proportional representation is open to too many abuses and takes power from the voters and puts it in the hands of the party power brokers. It can also lead to the rise of splinter parties, each with its own narrow goals which can hold the balance of power and push the governing agenda to places that are not in the interests of most voters.

    • I’m still waiting for somebody to explain to me how PMs achieving 100% of power with >40% of the vote is democratic.
      But please tell us about this “banning parties” you speak of.

  8. Many Canadians who voted Liberal want assurance that never again will a divisive political leader win 100% of the power with 39% of the votes. And never again will voters have to vote against something, or vote for a less-preferred candidate to block the election of one even less preferred.

    Only proportional representation will respect the wishes of supporters of all parties to cast votes that are not only counted, but count to elect their first choice.

    Instant Runoff Voting (or the Alternative Vote) still means voters are voting against something, voting for a less-preferred candidate to block the election of one even less preferred. It is still a winner-take-all system.

    Only proportional representation will make every vote count.

    • “… , but count to elect their first choice……
      Of supporters of all parties?!?
      This cannot happen under any system, no matter what!
      For that to be a reality, first we need to pass the marijuana legislation and work harder to put everyone’s mind contented and at ease! Additionally we can legislate that no one who hasn’t smoked marijuana at least once in his life be disqualified from being the Prime Minister of the Nation
      A better way exists though! Since it is those interest groups and unions that cry foul with established institutions and that want all these changes, why not give the members of these groups five votes each?!

      • I didn’t mean to say “no one…… should be disqualified……”
        Please read it as “additionally we can legislate that no one who hasn’t smoked marijuana at least once in his life should be allowed to be the Prime Minister of the Nation.”

  9. You cannot and should not make major constitutional changes to our electoral system by polls. Because by so doing the voters would have to perforce be kept from seeing what an administrative disaster PR is for any country blighted by it. Look at them: Israel, France & Italy. You have governments breaking down every few months, new elections, forced, unlikely and unwieldy coalitions. Then in a true national time of crisis, a government cannot govern. Add to this that Canada is not a single united state like these countries, but an already hard-to-govern federation of provinces stretching 4,000 miles across. Try building a national railroad, a highway, or pipelines going west to east and you’ll see what i mean. PR is an idea taught by and salivated over by left-wing community college teachers, but not big thinkers from oxford, harvard or stanford.