Justin Trudeau has pledged that 2015 would be the last time Canadians elect a federal government using the first-past-the-post system. But if the prime minister-designate is truly committed to electoral reform by the next election, the clock is ticking.
While it may not seem like one of his more pressing issues, Trudeau has said he would introduce legislation on voting reform within 18 months of forming a government, based on the recommendations of an all-party parliamentary committee to study alternative voting systems, including proportional representation and ranked ballots.
That timeframe may be overly ambitious, suggests David McLaughlin, who was deputy minister to the New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy.
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McLaughlin figures it would take at least a year to conduct that kind of a review, with a countrywide referendum possibly following in the second year. And that doesn't include the time it would take to actually pass the legislation.
But a change to Canada's voting system does not necessarily require any constitutional considerations — only an amendment to the Canada Elections Act through Parliament. Trudeau's majority government has the votes to pass this, but the amendment would still likely entail parliamentary hearings and face opposition from the other parties, in particular the Conservatives.
'He's got to get going'
If a new system is chosen, new electoral boundaries would likely have to be drawn, a process, depending on the change, that could take a year. Not to mention the time Elections Canada would need to launch an information campaign.
'In my mind, it is simply anti-democratic to allow a minority to rule over the majority.' – Prof. Andrew Heard, Simon Fraser University
"If he wants to do it, he's got to get going," McLaughlin said.
Trudeau could save time and forgo a referendum. And electoral reform initiatives in Ontario, B.C. and P.E.I. in the past have gone down to defeat.
"I think that would tell us how committed [Trudeau] is to it. Because if he goes the referendum route, it pretty much says he wants it to fail," said York University political science professor Dennis Pilon, an expert in electoral reform.
It's a fair question, as the Oct. 19 Liberals may not be as excited about electoral reform as the Oct. 18 Liberals. Changing the voting system may have seemed like a swell idea at a time when winning a 184-seat majority was a pipe dream. But a change in the system, for example to full proportional representation, would mean a net loss of about 50 seats for the party.
There are benefits to the current plurality system. It produces more stable governments, more parliamentary majorities — which in turn make governing more effective and productive. A switch would likely create more coalitions and increase the frequency of elections.
But advocates for reform, like Simon Fraser University political science professor Andrew Heard, say the current system distorts election results, since the share of seats a party wins is seldom proportional to its share of the votes.
"This is profoundly unfair. A multi-party system like ours also means that a party can command a majority in Parliament despite winning only about 40 per cent of the vote. In my mind, it is simply anti-democratic to allow a minority to rule over the majority," he said.
Trudeau has indicated his support for a ranked ballot system, where voters pick the candidates on a ballot in order of preference.
In this system, all the No. 1 choices are added up. If a candidate has a majority after the tally, they are declared the winner. If not, the candidate with the lowest vote total is knocked off, and their votes for other candidates transferred based on the ranking preferences. A winner is declared when a candidate finally reaches a majority.
The problem, suggests Heard, is that "by the time you get to third and fourth preferences you're getting a pretty tenuous connection to somebody."
Proportional representation, where parties are awarded seats based on the popular vote, is often seen as the most fair, the most truly representative of the voters' wishes and the approach most championed by smaller parties. It works quite simply — receive 40 per cent of the vote, receive 40 per cent of the seats.
Detractors say it opens the doors to too many fringe parties although this can be remedied by setting a threshold, meaning a party would have to attain a certain percentage of the popular vote in order to get any seats.
Many political scientists seem keenest on the mixed member proportional (MMP) system, like they have in Germany and New Zealand, which combines proportional representation with single member ridings. Voters would be asked to vote twice: for the candidate and for the party. So if a party won 20 per cent of the vote, but its candidates only won 15 per cent, the party would top up its representation in the House with extra MPs.
There are different ways that could be done, but if the extra MPs are drawn from party lists, some argue it could create a two-class system of representatives — those who were actually voted in by the public and those chosen by the party.
"The plurality system undeniably benefits the Conservative Party at this particular junction," Pilon said. "Right now, the problem for the Conservatives is they don't have as many vote switchers as other guys"
"So the ranked ballot would benefit the Liberals the most because it would funnel support from both directions to that party. Proportional representation would definitely benefit the NDP and the Greens."