Electoral Reform for Canada
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.com. I've written a fair bit about electoral reform on this blog, so here is a list of some ideas for electoral reform that I think could work in Canada.
Both first-past-the-post (FPTP) and proportional representation (PR) are fundamentally flawed to the point where I believe that a change from the current system is necessary for Canada, yet a change to PR would not necessarily entail a change for the better. At the end of the day, however, every electoral system is either one or the other: The make-up of parliament will either be determined by the winners of individual elections, or the proportion of the popular vote won by each party.
All of the proposals for electoral reform seriously considered by nation-states either entail a switch from one system to the other, or a switch to some kind of variation of one or the other. These variations can be instrumental in making either system work. In this article, rather than weighing the merits of FPTP vs. PR, I will list some variations or "add-ons" that I think could improve either system for Canada.
1. Provincial Proportional Representation
The number one loser of a national system of proportional representation would be the Bloc Quebecois. Most Quebecois, whether they support the BQ or not, believe that Quebec has unique interests that need representation in parliament. More broadly, a switch to PR means that localities lose their representation in parliament (as there is no longer any need for ridings). Electoral politics loses its local flair.
This is a significant loss under PR, and one well worth avoiding. A provincial PR system means that each province keeps its current number of seats (121 for Ontario, 78 for Quebec, etc.) and assigns them based on the proportion of votes in that province. This means that there are still MPs from Quebec, if not an MP from Argenteuil--La Petite-Nation.
In the 2019 federal election the difference between a system of national PR vs. provincial PR would not have been significant for the BQ. Winning 32 seats under FPTP, they would have only won 26 under national PR, and 25 under provincial PR. Regardless of whether the system of proportional representation is based on the provinces of the nation, the BQ would suffer losses.
However, keeping provincial representation would confer other benefits. Rather than needing to cross the 5% threshold of votes at the national level in order to win seats, parties would need to cross that threshold in various provinces if they hope to win seats. The Greens, for example, did not cross 5% in Quebec, meaning none of Quebec's 78 MPs would represent that party. Thus, parties are punished for ignoring certain provinces.
This is effectively hedging between a system that privileges parties with a regional focus and one that ignores them. Still, it makes more sense for Canada than either FPTP or national PR.
2. Mixed-Member Proportional Representation
This change entails either changing the number of seats in the House of Commons or changing the number of ridings. Essentially, a FPTP vote is conducted, and most of the seats in the House of Commons are filled in the traditional way. Then, a certain number of extra seats (extra either because of fewer ridings, a bigger House of Commons, or both) are filled in such a way that the final results are reflective of the popular vote. Most of the time, this system also involves voters being asked to mark down two choices on their ballots: Their vote for a local representative, and their preferred party.
For example, the NDP would have gotten a significant number of these extra seats were this system in place in the 2019 federal election, as they significantly underperformed their popular vote proportion in the House of Commons.
This proposal takes the advantages of PR (a parliament that reflects people's votes) without the accompanying blow to local representation: Every single Canadian can still have a local representative. However, it is very difficult to implement. How should ridings be re-drawn? I think this question should be avoided altogether, because the ridings that are most susceptible to being redrawn are the ones that are most densely populated. We should not re-draw Nunavut or Labrador, yet we should not be combining ridings in Toronto if they are already statistically underrepresented compared to those less dense ridings.
Rather, I would just expand the House of Commons, adding however many seats would allow a proportional distribution in parliament. It may even be worth investigating the possibility of adding and taking away seats based on the results of each election. Seats could be added and taken away based on how disproportionate the FPTP results were. In this scenario, the complicating factor is not the need to redraw any lines, but renovating parliament hill.
3. Ranked-choice Voting
This would be the easiest and most impactful reform for Canada. More than regionally concentrated parties being overrepresented, or regionally diffuse parties being underrepresented, or even governments that lost the popular vote, Canadian electoral politics is plagued by "strategic voting."
Ranked-choice voting solves that problem: Want to vote for the NDP, but don't want the Conservatives to win your riding? Instead of voting Liberal, you can put the NDP first, and the Liberals second. If the NDP don't have a shot at winning a majority of votes, they will be eliminated from the race and your vote will transfer to the Liberals. Here's a great video explaining the whole system.
With ranked-choice voting, everyone can vote their conscience, without fear of accidentally electing someone they dislike. This reform, more than any of the others, would be a boon for Canadian democracy. The only potential downside is the cost of running ranked-choice elections, a cost that Canadian politicians such a Ontario Premier Doug Ford have already shown themselves to be unwilling to pay.
4. First Nations Electorates
New Zealand's general electorates (left) and Maori electorates (right). Photo from KiwiKidsNews.
New Zealand has had Maori electorates in place since 1867. The creation of "First Nations ridings" involves the creation of new ridings that cover the nation and overlap with existing ridings. Thus, all of Canada is covered by both a general riding and a First Nations riding. For example, a riding could cover the territories, and the northern parts of B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario.
There would not be very many of these ridings, in New Zealand there are seven out of the 70 directly elected seats designated as Maori electorates. In Canada, the proportion of directly elected seats that are from First Nations ridings would be even lower, as First Nations people make up a much smaller percentage of our population than the Maori do in New Zealand.
Come election time, those with Indian Status could opt to vote in either their general riding or in their First Nations Riding. This gives First Nations people more direct representation in parliament. It would obviously be controversial, as many people would see this system as conferring special privileges to certain groups, when everyone is supposed to take part in democracy on a level playing field. However, just as it is important to give local communities representation in parliament (one of the main justifications for keeping FPTP), it is also important to give distinct communities united by something other than location representation.
All of these ideas for reform are variations on either FPTP or PR. Some, such as Mixed-member proportional (MMP), include elements of both. Even in the case of MMP, while there are local elections, the make-up of parliament is determined by the proportion of votes won by each party, thus making it a version of PR.
Each of these reforms improve the electoral system when compared to traditional FPTP or PR. If I had control of the Canadian electoral system, unlimited resources, and voters that were very open to change, I would implement them all in one way or another. Here is what the electoral system would look like, what I'm calling "ranked-choice, mixed-member provincial proportional representation" system (RCMMPPR) or just the "franken-system."
Under the franken-system, every voter goes to the polls and fills out a ranked ballot upon which are listed the candidates for MP in their riding. First Nations voters can opt to vote in their First Nations riding as opposed to their general riding. Each person ranks their favorite candidates, and the votes are tallied using the instant-runoff method: The party with the least first place votes is eliminated, and all of those ballots transfer to their second choice. This process repeats until one winner is declared for each riding.
However, there are still a number of empty seats in the House of Commons. These seats, while not assigned to any particular riding, are all assigned to a particular province. They are filled such that each province's seats are reflective of the number of first-place votes won by each party in that province. Parties that do not win 5% of the vote in any province are assigned none of that province's extra seats. Some provinces with very few seats to begin with, such as P.E.I. or Newfoundland, will have no extra seats.
This franken-system, in my opinion, effectively combines all of the reforms listed above. MMP and a provincial PR are combined by having the extra seats assigned by each province, which also avoids the awkward situation of not knowing what to call MPs that fill extra seats (the speaker can invite "the representative from Quebec" to speak, for example).
Ranked-choice voting and MMP are combined by having the first-choice vote on every voters ballot count as their "party vote." An issue arises here if someone wants a representative from one party in their riding, but favour another party overall. These voters have a difficult decision to make. However, given that there are probably very few such voters, it is simpler to avoid having two choices on every ballot, and assume that a voter's first-ranked candidate also represents their preferred party.
Furthermore, in countries with MMP, parties have taken advantage of the two-choice ballot. A mainstream party can make a deal with an ideologically similar fringe party in which the mainstream party endorses the leader of the fringe party in their local election, and in return, the fringe party encourages voters to give their party vote to the more mainstream party. This is exactly the kind of inter-party horse-trading that arises under proportional systems that it is best to avoid.
The only complication with the franken-system (other than that it is very, very complicated) is that First Nations ridings will not fit cleanly within provincial and territorial borders. Therefore, it is not clear in which province a First Nations voter's first-choice vote affects the extra seats. This is a fairly minor problem, with many simple solutions.
This system is, at its core, a proportional system. The seats are assigned both based on the proportion of votes and based on the winners of local elections, but in the end the make-up of parliament is determined by the popular vote. I believe that overall, PR is fairer, and with the reforms I've listed above, many of its problems could be avoided. Every Canadian still has a local representative and parties still need to pay attention to the interests of provinces. Furthermore, as parties can form minority governments without forming coalitions in Canada (as the Liberals did in 2019), inter-party politics will not take center-stage in a race for a majority coalition.