Canada's electoral history from 1867 to today

Could we change our electoral system in Canada and Québec?

par Maurice Y. Michaud (il/lui)

Image courtesy of Elections CanadaSo, Canadians have not always voted using the FPTP system that is the only one in use today. However, few are those who had to learn how to use a proportional system, and most of those people are no longer here to tell the tale. That's a shame.

For indeed, it should be clear from this exposé that I consider FPTP to be an unfair system and I dearly wish that Canadians would finally agree to switch to a form of proportional representation as is the case in most mature and functional democracies. I freely admit to having a very strong preference for one system, namely the com­pen­sa­tory mixed-member proportional (MMP) system which, ironically, retains the FPTP system for the majority of the races and adapts it for the rest of the races. But my reasons for preferring it over a single transferable vote (STV) proportional system, which was used in a limited fashion in Alberta and Manitoba in the early to mid 20th century (and was considered but rejected for adoption in British Columbia in 2005), are very personal in nature:

  1. Because I find the MMP system easier to grasp, I therefore find it easier to explain to the public.

  2. The MMP system would not substantially change the way people vote currently ("Put one X in one circle on each of these two ballots").

  3. It is impossible to develop a simulator of how a past election might have worked under an STV system because voters did not rank candidates during those elections, but I was able to develop an MMP simulator with the caveat that voters could have behaved differently had they been required to vote for one local and one regional candidate by party affiliation. My MMP simulator can be run on 408 of the 465 general elections currently online in this website. (It obviously cannot be run for elections where there was no political party because of that legislature's consensual form of government.)

Setting aside my personal preference, I readily concede that the STV system, if executed well, leads to better proportionality. But then my questions begin as I examine sample ballots, like "What would happen if I accidentally gave the same ranking or 'preference' to more than one candidate? Would that invalidate my ballot?" I can imagine how that could be prevented from happening if the ballot were electronic, like a form one completes online that is "smart" enough to exclude a selection if it was already chosen, but likely the ballots would still be on paper. I could totally see myself mucking up my ballot or, at least, being stressed out not to muck it up, but that could just be me! So, faced with the impossibility of programming what if scenarios with an STV system in mind, I subscribed to the idea that any system that could produce more or even quasi proportional results would be better than FPTP, and a well-designed variation of a MPP system would fit the bill.

One of the only time in recent memory that the proportion of seats and votes was essentially equal with the FPTP system was during the 1998 Nova Scotia general election. Where one seat represented 1.92% of the legislative assembly, the incumbent Liberal Party tied the opposition NDP with 19 seats while the Progressive Conservatives won 14. Had the Conservatives not lost their traditional stronghold of Pictou West to the NDP by a measly margin of 33 votes, the distribution of seats among the parties would have been as proportional as could have been expected and there would not have been a first-place tie.

Nova Scotia Nova Scotia
57 → 1998 :: 24 Mar 1998 — 26 Jul 1999 — Majority Minority  LIB 
Summary Government Opposition Unproductive votes
Party Votes Seats Party Votes Seats Party Votes
# % % # # % % # # %
Parliament: 57   Majority Minority
Majority=27  Ab.Maj.: -8  G.Maj.: -14
Population [1998]: 932,033 (est.)
Eligible: 649,536  Particip.: 69.44%
Votes: 451,024  Unproductive: 3,743
Seats: 52   1 seat = 1.92%
↳ Elec.Sys.:  FPTP: 52  
↳ By acclamation: 0 (0.00%)
Plurality: Votes  LIB  Seats  LIB 
Plurality:  +3,019 (+0.67%)
Plurality:  Seats: 0 (0.00%)
Position2: Votes  NDP  Seats  NDP *
Candidacies: 163 (✓ 52)   m: 131 (✓ 46)   f: 32 (✓ 6)
 LIB  52   NDP  52   PC  52   IND  7  
158,380 35.30 36.54 19
 !!!  26 (50.00%)
As could be expected with the majoritarian "winner [must] take all" mentality inherent to FPTP, however, this government was doomed from the moment it was elected: unstable, it lasted only 16 months. But in a proportional system, elected members are forced to make compromises to represent citizens as they have asked to be represented. The word coalition is dirty only to those who seek more power for their party or themselves.

The reason why a majoritarian system like FPTP gives lopsided results is purely mathematical, as that example of a single 33-vote plurality should make amply clear. In fact, had the Liberal Party's support been (1) very slightly higher and (2) distributed equally throughout the province, it could conceivably have arrived in first place in each of the 52 ridings thanks to a few or several razor-thin pluralities. Already they had arrived within 250 votes of first place in five ridings:

 PC  Chester-St. Margaret's (103)    PC  Digby-Annapolis (233)    NDP  Halifax Citadel (37)    PC  Lunenburg (132)    NDP  Preston (229)
In a system in which the only thing that matters is to come first, all the others are shut out even if, together, they form an overwhelming majority. However, had Pictou West gone to the Conservatives as expected and the five above gone to the Liberals, the final seat count would have been nothing to write about — just another typical FPTP warping:
 LIB  24    NDP  16    PC  12

But will a change ever happen (again)?

Although I was skeptical during the 2015 federal election campaign when the leader of the Liberal Party affirmed that that election would be the last one to be held in FPTP mode, a part of me wanted to believe it would happen. But a larger part of me said to himself, "Easy for the third party in the House to promise that when it'll likely remain in that position," as that was where things looked like they were heading at that point. However, when the Liberals instead surprised us by forming a majority government, my thought shifted to, "There is no way that they'll ever want to change the system now!"

It turns out I was right. After all, who would want to change a system after it had just given you 54.4% of the seats for 39.5% of the votes? But I was wrong to conjure up this too obvious cause to effect reason. It had not crossed my mind that the Liberals had been talking about replacing the FPTP system with one that, just by coincidence, would prevent them from ever again being humiliated into third place in the Commons. When the government announced in early 2017 that it would no longer be pursuing "electoral reform" (or at least the idea of proportional representation as recommended by the Special Committee on Electoral Reform), I then realized that I didn't remember the Liberal leader actually using the term "proportional" during the campaign — just that this would be the last election under FPTP.

Alas, the federal Liberals' preferred system — namely alternative voting — would cause even more lopsided majorities than the FPTP system! To be blunt, I consider their "preference" the height of cynicism for promoting a system other than FPTP that would ensure that their worst fate would be to form the official opposition, for indeed, given that since the early 1960s the Liberal Party of Canada is perceived as the party of the centre, voters who would rank it second could come from either their immediate left or right, while the two other mainstream parties — the Conservatives and the NDP — could not count on being each other's second or even third choice.

Meanwhile in Quebec, not long before the 2018 general election, all major parties except the Liberals who were in power at the time signed an agreement vowing to change to a proportional electoral system. Many observers were surprised to see the Coalition avenir Québec support this idea, as it finally seemed poised to win the upcoming election with the traditional system. When it indeed took power, it began working on making the change (albeit slowly), but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Without much fanfare on April 28, 2021, the minister of justice informed the legislative committee working on the change that the government would not move forward with a referendum on electoral reform in parallel with the next general election in 2022, and that it could not commit to providing an alternate date for the referendum. It is definitely worth noting in this case that the CAQ had won 59.2% of the seats with only 37.4% of the votes in the 2018 election, and already polls suggested that it stood to win an even greater majority in the next general election due not only to its popularity but also the fragmentation and lack of organization in the opposition ranks. Then the 2022 general election came and, indeed, the results were even more lopsided than those of 2018.

The chart above shows the vote distribution by party. But who in their right mind would even dare to argue that how those results translated into seats was an adequate reflection of what voters had expressed in the voting booth?

 CAQ  90 (72.0%)    QS  11 (8.8%)    PQ  3 (2.4%)    QLP  21 (16.8%)    CPQ  0 (0.0%)

As passionate as I am about switching to a proportional representation system, I wonder after shenanigans like these if the more urgent electoral reform should be to prevent elected officials from putting partisan gain ahead of the electoral will of the people. If that could be done, then we could have a serious, non-partisan discussion about how our electoral system could be made to reflect more accurately what voters are saying through their ballots. The last time a jurisdiction in Canada changed its electoral system was in 1991; that is not very long ago on the grand scheme of things and there is no reason why a change cannot be effected again.

Let's take a look now at a few FPTP elections that, on their own, justify abandoning that system.

© 2019, 2024 :: (Maurice Y. Michaud)
Pub.:  9 May 2022 23:15
Rev.: 14 May 2023 08:01