Electoral Reform: Changing the way government is elected
Justin Thompson, CBC News Online
A growing chorus of voices in Canada is calling for electoral reform
that would change the way Canadians vote in federal and provincial elections.
The concern is that representation in government under the current electoral
system is not an accurate reflection of the actual vote. Currently, all
provincial and federal elections use the first past the post system whereby
a candidate runs in a riding, generally as a member of a political party,
and if he receives the greatest number of votes he is declared the winner.
First past the post (a.k.a. plurality-majority)
Proportional representation refers to
an electoral concept in which political representation is a closer
reflection of actual votes cast. In its purest form (rarely used),
the electorate vote for political parties instead of candidates and
representation in government is an almost exact reflection of votes
Awards a seat to the person who runs
in an election and wins the most votes in an electoral area. A majority
vote is not required to win – the candidate just needs to get
more votes than his opponents. This is the primary concern of electoral
reformers. They say candidates can be elected even though the majority
of the electorate did not vote for them.
Countries where in place
Countries where in place
- New Zealand
- United States
- Great Britain
Critics argue the system is flawed because it allows candidates (and,
by extension, their parties) to win a disproportionate amount of representation
in provincial or federal parliament. The system enables the current Liberal
government to lead the country with 57.1 per cent of the seats in the House
of Commons, even though the Liberals garnered only 40.8 per cent of the
In a report to the federal government in March 2004, the Law Commission
of Canada said the present system produces "exaggerated majorities" and
contributes to regional disparity, leaving large areas of the country with
few representatives in the governing party.
According to the LCC and a number of voters groups, the answer is proportional
representation – a type of electoral system used in various forms
by most Western democracies with the notable exceptions of Canada, the
United States, Great Britain and India.
Proportional representation – PR for short – is an umbrella
term used to describe a family of electoral systems in which representation
in government is tied, in part at least, to the percentage of votes won
by each political party in an election. Along with the LCC, which is looking
at electoral reform at the federal level, five provinces are investigating
what it would take to adopt some form of proportional representation in
their own provincial elections (see list below).
Many variations of PR exist and we’ll explore some of more popular
forms below, but the system which seems to be gaining the most acceptance
in Canada is the mixed member proportional model which
is being used in New Zealand. This system combines proportional representation
with the first-past-the-post system; so 41 percent of New Zealand’s
120 members of parliament are indirectly chosen by proportional representation;
the rest are elected directly using first-past-the-post.
Here’s how it works:
Voters are presented with one ballot with two votes on it. The first asks
the voter which political party he or she would like to see form the next
government. The percentage of the popular vote won by a party dictates
the number of seats it gets in this section. So if a party gets 25 per
cent of the popular vote on this section of the ballot, it gets 10 seats.
The seats are filled by members chosen by the party. These are known as "list
On the second part of the ballot, the voter chooses the candidate he or
she would like to represent their electoral area as member of parliament.
The winner of each electoral area is decided using the first-past-the-post
method, meaning the candidate with the greatest number of votes is elected.
In New Zealand, there are 69 MPs elected this way – they are known
as "electorate MPs."
Proportional representation at the provincial level
The B.C. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was legislated into
existence in April 2003 to conduct public consultations into the electoral
process in that province. Comprised of two citizens from each electoral
district, the assembly is an independent body that will take until the
end of 2004 to study proportional representation around the world. Any
recommendations will be put to the B.C. voters in a referendum in 2005.
The McGuinty government is looking into the possibility of adopting a
modified form of proportional representation. Ontario’s minister
responsible for democratic renewal,
Michael Bryant, says the idea is to keep the first-past-the-post system
and add in an element of proportional representation. In March 2004, Bryant
told the Globe and Mail the proposal would be "a way of improving
the chance of having [the] voter’s choice reflected in the legislature."
During the 2003 Quebec election, all three major parties came out in support
of adopting some sort of proportional representation. In his inaugural
speech to the Quebec National Assembly in June of that year, Premier Jean
Charest said he was committed to introducing a more proportional system
of representation. The government is expected to introduce a mixed member
proportional electoral system in 2004.
The province established the Commission on Legislative Democracy to conduct
public consultations and examine the possibility of reforming its electoral
system. The commission is due to release its report late in December 2004.
Prince Edward Island
In 2003, the provincial government established an independent commission
to look into electoral reform. In its report, the commission said the mixed
member proportional system (modelled after New Zealand’s system)
would be the best fit for the province. During P.E.I.’s 2003 election,
the NDP said it would implement proportional representation if it became
the next government.
Other forms of proportional representation
PR (Open list): Voters choose political parties based
on candidate lists fielded by each party. They can then choose candidates
from those lists. Seats are allocated to each party based on the proportion
of the popular vote received.
PR (Closed list): Voters choose political parties based
on fixed candidate lists fielded by each party. As with the open list variant,
seats are allocated to each party based on the proportion of the popular
Single transferable vote (Ireland, Tasmania, Australian
Senate election): Voters rank candidates on a preferential ballot, allowing
them to vote simultaneously for candidates of different political stripes.
This method has the potential of pitting candidates from the same political
party against one another.
This system has already been used in Canada. At the provincial level, Calgary
and Edmonton MPPs were elected this way from 1926 to 1959. And the new Conservative Party of Canada used a single transferable ballot in electing its new leader, Stephen Harper, in March, 2004.
CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external
sites. Links will open in new window.