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The Right to Have Your Vote Count
Background Paper on Reform of Canada's Voting System

November 2001
(Thank you to Jeff Colgan and Todd Hardy for volunteering their time in researching and drafting this paper)

Many countries have considered reform of their voting systems in the past, and many have put in place a system that aligns with the following principles of a democratic voting system:

Canada's Current System: Undemocratic in Process and Effect
Currently, Canada has an electoral system that consistently misrepresents the Canadian public and denies Canadians the right to have their vote count! The system at the federal level, and in all the provinces, is based on the British model known as first past the post (FPTP).

Under this system Canada is divided into a number of single-member voting districts (also known as "ridings"). At the federal level, there are currently 301 seats in the House of Commons (the elected house of Parliament), and various numbers of seats in each provincial legislature.

In an election, the candidate who gets the largest number of votes in each of these districts wins the election, and a seat in either Parliament (at the federal level) or in the provincial legislature.

Unfortunately, this system can lead to some very surprising, and fundamentally undemocratic, results! The main criticism of the FPTP voting system is that a candidate does not necessarily need to win a majority of the votes to win the seat, and usually, if there are 3 or more candidates in the district, the winning candidate does not win a majority of the votes. As a result, often political parties in Canada win a majority of seats in an election and form the government and have all the power (because the party controls a majority of seats in the legislature), even though the party only won the support of a minority of voters.

Other common criticisms of the FPTP voting system are that it effectively denies smaller parties fair representation in the legislature, it exaggerates the support of larger parties, and it exaggerates the support of parties that have support only in one province or region of Canada.

In addition, it often forces voters to vote for their 2nd choice candidate in order to ensure that a candidate they definitely don't like loses. For example, imagine if a voter has 3 candidates to choose from in his/her district in an election, from political parties A, B, and C, and the voter wants to vote for the candidate from party A. If the promises and platforms of parties A and B are more similar than then platform of party C, then voters that vote for the candidates from parties A and B may split the vote (for example, 31% for the party A candidate, 33% for party B), allowing the candidate for party C to win the election with support from only 36% of the voters. The voter can only help prevent party C from winning by voting for his/her 2nd choice, the candidate from party B.

The Senate of Canada: Even More Undemocratic
As an appointed body, the federal Senate of Canada of course presents a different problem for Canadian voters. Unelected, unaccountable, and sometimes simply unworthy of the appointment, Senators have more policy-making power than they usually acknowledge, and are less representative than they usually claim.

When the federal government finally tackles the key issue of changing our voting system to ensure a more accurate representation of the popular vote and regional interests in the federal Parliament, turning the Senate into an elected body (or abolishing it altogether) is one of the key changes to be made.

The Facts and Figures of Canada's Undemocratic Voting System
Did you know that:

(Electoral statistics source: Elections Canada; J. Murray Beck, Pendulum of Power; Elections Ontario; Government of Newfoundland Office of the Chief Electoral Officer; Canadian Online Explorer Government of Alberta Office of the Chief Electoral Officer; Elections New Brunswick; Elections PEI)

Canada does not need to have such a misrepresentative electoral system! Many of the world's leading countries use alternative democratic models to elect fair and representative governments, such as Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Japan along with over 85 other countries.

International Experience with Alternative Electoral Systems
The table set out below outlines the electoral systems of other countries with more democratic voting systems. See below for more description on select countries: Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

PR = Proportional Representation
MMP = Mixed Member Proportional Representation (a type of PR; see New Zealand below for details)
MMD = Multi-Member District (see Japan, below for details)
FPTP = First-Past-The-Post (i.e. present Canadian style)
STV = Single Transferable Vote

Country Electoral System Notes
Germany MMP An established proportional represenational system
Japan MMD A fascinating system (see case study below)
Ireland STV Requires voters to rank candidates in each riding. After the initial round of counting, the candidate with the lowest vote count is dropped and the ballots cast for him/her are recast according to the voterÕs chosen preference. This continues until one person has 50% support of all voters.
United Kingdom FPTP Is considering a move towards a PR or MMP system
Namibia PR
New Zealand MMP A recent and prominent example of a Canadian (British) style electoral system transformed into a more proportional system
Italy PR
Russia PR 50% of the representatives are elected directly from constituencies, and 50% according to a party-proportional system
Finland MMP
Malta STV Similar to Ireland, but with important differences

(Source: www.aceproject.org)

Electoral Options for Canada
Canada can draw on the wealth of international experience and home-grown ideas to develop a more representative voting system. Set out below are details about some of the systems used in other countries:

Preferential Ballots
An alternative, used in several countries such as Australia, is a voting system where voters rank each candidate in their constituency by order of preference. The basic structure of the FPTP system is kept (that is, one representative is elected per riding and each person has only one vote) but with an important difference: each representative must obtain the support of the majority of voters in their riding. In the event that no candidate in a given riding receives a majority of the votes from the electorate, the candidate with the smallest number of votes is dropped from the ballot. Their votes are then redistributed amongst the other candidates according the second choice of their voters The process is repeated until one candidate achieves a majority of the vote. This system could be advantageous for Canada because it would require only minimal change to the current system while ensuring that the representatives elected to the House of Commons would enjoy broader popular support than they do now.

Two Round Systems
A system similar to preferential balloting is the two round system, used in countries such as the Ukraine and France. Its implementation in Canada would mean that we would again keep the basic structure of the FPTP system but with an alteration. Now, if no candidate obtained an absolute majority of the vote in their constituency, a second ballot would be held but where only the top two candidates (based on the previous vote) would run. This would guarantee that the candidate elected would have the support of the majority of their constituents (this is known as a majority-runoff system). Another variation available in situations when no single candidate held a majority of the votes would be to hold a second ballot but to eliminate all candidates with less then a certain proportion of the total votes (in France this is 12.5%). The results of the second ballot are then accepted, whether there is a majority or not (this is known as a majority-plurality variant of the two round system). Like preferential balloting, a two round system could help to elect Members of Parliament that enjoy a stronger base of popular support than they do under our current system.

A "Hybrid" System
Brooking Institution Fellow Kent Weaver (Policy Options, November 1997) has proposed a system that would increase the size of Canada's House of Commons by 10% by adding so called compensation seats. These seats would be filled from lists established before the election by the parties. These additional seats - allocated to provinces based on population - would, on a province by province basis, be allocated first to the party that had finished first in the national vote until they had achieved a share of the seats in that province equal to their share of the provincial vote. Once this had been accomplished, seats would be allocated to the second party in national vote share, then the third and so on. This system would correct some of the notable flaws of our current system, such as the frequent regional under-representation of the governing party - combating regionalism - and more accurately (but not perfectly) representing the national voter base.

Multi-Member Districts
A system best known in Japan, but which has also been used in Canada (by most provinces at one point, but none currently). Under this system, each constituency would be entitled to elect two or more representatives to the House of Common, while each voter would still have only one vote. The candidates receiving the most votes - equal in number to the number of seats for that constituency - would then be elected. This system allows for a somewhat more accurate representation of voter preferences than under a pure FPTP system and permits parties to run more than one candidate if they wish.

Mixed Member Proportional Systems
Some countries such as Germany, New Zealand and Finland have opted for a system that combines the FPTP system with proportional representation. Each voter would be entitled to two votes: one for their constituency representative (an electorate vote) and one for the party of their choice (their party vote). The constituency representatives are elected based on FPTP by the electorate votes. These representatives would occupy half of the House of Commons. The percentage of the popular vote that each party gets based on the party vote is then compared to the allocation of seats based on the electorate results. The rest of the seats in the House of Commons would then filled by drawing from a list of candidates developed by each party in order to bring the total (i.e. constituency plus list) seats for each party into line with their proportional share of the total party vote. This system therefore allows for both local (i.e. constituency) representation and party representation like Canada has now while also making sure that each party is proportionally represented.

Obviously, none of these options are perfect -- each has strengths and weaknesses compared to our present system and should be evaluated carefully before being implemented in any province or at the federal level in Canada.

International Experience: Some Case Studies

Japan's Multi-Member District System
This system is exactly like the Canadian First-Past-The-Post system, with one important exception: there are multiple members elected from a single district. When voters cast their ballot, they are allowed to rank each of the candidates, and the candidates with the highest vote count win. That is to say that if there are 3 seats available in a given district, then the candidates with the top 3 vote counts win, whether they are from different parties or the same party. This has the advantage that in districts that are close, a candidate from each of two parties could be elected, whereas in the Canadian system the single-constituency rules would more likely result in a one party monopoly (eg. the Liberal control of Ontario). Another advantage to this system is that it allows greater focus on the individuals running for office, since they may be competing against members of their own party for their seat. However, this can also be seen as a disadvantage, since the system allows for greater in-party fighting.
(Source: http://www.aceproject.org/main/english/es/esy_jp/default.htm)

Australian Alternative Vote
This system uses a preferential ballot, where votes are asked to indicate not just their first choice, but their second, third (etc) as well. If no candidate has a 50%+1 majority after the first count, the candidate with the lowest vote count is dropped, and their votes redistributed according to their second choice. This process of dropping candidates continues until one person has a majority, and is declared the winner.

The most graphic example of preference votes directly affecting the choice of government occurred at the 1990 federal election, where the incumbent Australian Labor Party (ALP) was polling badly and looked to be heading for electoral defeat, and where voter support for left-of-centre parties such as the Australian Democrats and Greens reached its height. The ALP, under the influence of senior strategist Senator Graham Richardson, assiduously courted the green vote, both indirectly via interactions with the major environmental lobby groups and directly via media appeals to potential green voters, appealing directly for the second or third preferences of minor party supporters, offering policy concessions on key issues and arguing that the Labor Party was far closer to their core interests than the major alternative, the Liberal/National coalition. This strategy was markedly successful: with minor party support levels at an all time high of around 17 percent, the ALP was the beneficiary of around two-thirds of all preferences from Democrat and Green voters-a figure which probably made the difference between it winning and losing the election. This was thus a 'win-win' situation for both groups: the ALP gained government with less than 40 percent of the first-preference vote, while the minor parties, which did not win lower house seats, nonetheless saw their preferred major party in government and committed to favourable policies in their areas of concern.
(Source: http://www.aceproject.org/main/english/es/esy_au/default.htm)

New Zealand's Electoral System
At least once every three years, New Zealand holds a General Election to choose its Parliament. The New Zealand Parliament is elected using the Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) electoral system. Under MMP, you have two votes: Your is for the party you most want to be represented in Parliament. Your is for the MP you want to represent your electorate. The country is divided into voting areas called , each represented by a Member of Parliament (MP). The candidate in your electorate who gets the most votes will become your electorate MP. You also vote for a that has submitted a list of candidates. Your residential address decides which electorate you will be in. The New Zealand Parliament includes General and . Qualified electors who are a New Zealand Maori, or a descendent of a New Zealand Maori can choose whether they want to vote for a General electorate or a Maori electorate.

Electorate Seats: The MP for an electorate seat is the candidate who wins more electorate votes than any other candidate.

Party List Seats: The number of Party Votes won by each registered party which has submitted a Party List is used to decide how many seats overall each party will have in Parliament. If, for example, the Party Vote for the Grandstand Party entitled it to a total of 54 seats in Parliament and it won 40 electorate seats, it would gain 14 further seats which will be drawn from the Party List of the Grandstand Party. Candidates may stand for Parliament both in an electorate and on their Party's List. As a result, the first 14 candidates on the Grandstand Party's rank-ordered Party List who have not been elected to Parliament to represent an electorate will be declared elected as List MPs.

A procedure, known as the Sainte-Laguë formula (after its founder) is used to decide the number of seats political parties are awarded.

Using this mathematical formula the nationwide Party Vote of each of the parties which qualify for representation in Parliament is divided by successive odd numbers starting with 1 (ie the Party Votes are divided by 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, etc.). The 120 highest results (which are called quotients) determine both the number of seats for each party and the order in which they are allocated.
(Source: http://elections.org.nz/elections/general/govt_elect.html)

Although there are obvious difficulties and hurdles to undertaking changes to Canada's voting system, and the Senate of Canada, the experience of other countries has made it clear that Canada can have a voting system and government structure at the federal level, and in each province and territory, that provides a more accurate representation of the popular vote and regional interests, while still producing governments which are as functional and as accountable as current governments.

One of the biggest hurdles, of course, is that the political party in power in each jurisdiction has little interest in changing the system that has given them, in most cases, majority power even though only a minority of voters actually support the party.

However, the pressure for change, and moves toward voting system changes, is ever-increasing. In B.C., the ruling Liberals promised in the spring 2001 election to hold a consultation process and referendum on changing the voting system. In Ontario, the opposition Liberal Party has promised, if elected in the next provincial election (expected in 2003), to hold a referendum on changing the voting system. And in Quebec, where the ruling Parti Québecois has never acted on its long-standing promise to change the voting system, a group of 100 prominent Quebeckers called for changes in mid-November 2001.

A study by the Institute for Research on Public Policy released in July 2000 found that 49% of Canadians find the current voting system unacceptable, compared to 23% who favour the current system.

As with many other policy innovations in the history of Canada, change to a democratic voting system will likely occur in a province or several provinces first, before the federal government finally responds to the widespread call for change.