What kind of electoral reform do you want? Montreal event lays out the options

Four political scientists will face off against each other in Montreal tonight, each making the case for a different option of electoral reform. Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef is expected to be in the audience, looking on.

Event held Thursday will see academics battle over pros and cons of electoral reform

A special committee on electoral reform has spent several months touring the country gathering input on changing the way Canadians cast their ballots in federal elections. (Peter Power/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's promise to find a new way for voters to elect federal politicians has brought urgency to long-running concerns of political scientists. 

They have noted that Canada, along with many of other countries in Europe and North America, has been experiencing low voter turnout, declining rates of party affiliation and increasing levels of skepticism about politics and politicians. 

Some have even talk about a "crisis of democracy." Changing the way we vote, it is hoped, could help solve some of these problems.

But if we move away from the current "first past the post" system (FPTP), as Trudeau has vowed to do, what will replace it?

On Thursday, four political scientists will face off against each other in Montreal, each making the case for a different option. Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef is expected to be in the audience, looking on. 

Monsef has spent the past several months traveling around the country gathering input from Canadians on the changes they want to see to the country's electoral system.

There was little consensus among those she talked to, Monsef said recently. But the Liberal government will have to decide on an option soon if they want a new system in place for the next election.

Here's an outline of the arguments the political scientists will use to try to sway Monsef.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed that 2015's would be the last federal election under the first-past-the-post system. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Alternative Vote (aka ranked or preferential ballot)

This option has, so far, received a lot of consideration, given that Trudeau himself has expressed support for the method in the past. It was also used by Parti Québécois members to elect their new leader earlier this month. 

Voters using this model have the option of ranking candidates on the ballot. Second, third (and so on) choices are redistributed in subsequent rounds of counting, until one candidate emerges with a majority. 

Marc André Bodet, who teaches at Université Laval, will argue for the alternative vote (AV) at Thursday's event. 

"It is by far the electoral reform that would be the easiest to implement given the [first past the post system] system we currently use," Bodet said. 

Experimental studies conducted recently, he said, suggest AV will reduce disproportionate seat allocation and tactical voting — two common complaints of our current system. 

"The alternative vote maximizes democratic legitimacy of elected representatives," Bodet added. "It pacifies electoral competition by requiring parties and candidates to consider voters inclined to other parties."

Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef speaking at a town hall on electoral reform in Winnipeg. (CBC)

Proportional representation 

This method of electing politicians is popular among those who claim the current make-up of Parliament is unrepresentative of the population at large. 

Under FPTP, not only do minority groups tend to be under-represented, but parties can end up with a disproportionate share of seats in the House of Commons. 

"The main argument in favor of PR is that it is fair," said André Blais, a professor at the Université de Montréal who will chair the debate. "If a party has 20 per cent of the votes it gets 20 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons."

Others claim that the prospect of more equitable outcomes is likely to encourage more people to vote.

At the same time, PR decreases the sense that votes are wasted when a favoured candidate doesn't win his or her seat.

Since seats in Parliament would be allocated proportionally, every vote for a party would influence their seat share.

Experts say the government will have to decide on an electoral alternative soon if it is to be in place by the next election. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Mixed-member proportional

This is a variant of PR, and has been the alternative that the NDP has traditionally advocated. It's also used in New Zealand's Parliament. 

Voters get to chose both a party and a candidate on a ballot. The House of Commons would thus be mostly composed of politicians who win their ridings with a plurality of votes, like the current system.

But a certain number of seats would be allocated based on a party's share of the popular vote, with the candidates taken from a predetermined list.

As such, said Blais, it compensates for one of the criticism often leveled at PR: that it breaks the relationship that politicians forge with the geographical areas they represent. 

First past the post (aka, status quo)

Or maybe there's just no improving on the system we have in place now. That's the position taken by the University of Toronto's Peter Lowen, who lauds its ability to make governments accountable. 

"Canada is a difficult country to govern," Lowen said.

"FPTP has allowed for a 149-year run of uninterrupted democratic elections because it creates incentives for parties to integrate competing regional and social demands, while punishing parties which do not."

Moreover, FPTP's tendency to allot a disproportionate number of seats in relation to vote share can be seen as an asset, according to Lowen.   

"Because FPTP typically returns strong, single party governments, it allows governments the flexibility to respond to changing public opinion," he said. 

The Public Forum on Electoral Reform, organized by McGill's Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship, will be held Thursday at 3625 du Parc Avenue. The event begins at 7:30 p.m.


Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at


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