Liberal caucus meeting site Saguenay a textbook case for electoral reform

One of the agenda items at the Liberals' caucus retreat, continuing today in Saguenay, Que., is electoral reform. This is fitting, as the results of the last federal election in Saguenay present a textbook argument for those who support changing the way Canadians vote.

Saguenay's two MPs - one Liberal, one NDP - were elected with less than one-third of the vote

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at the beginning of a two-day caucus in Saguenay, Que. — where 70 per cent of voters in 2015 cast a ballot for a losing candidate. (The Canadian Press / Jacques Boissinot)

The Liberal caucus retreat continues today in Saguenay, Que. One of the topics bound to be discussed is electoral reform.

Those discussions could not happen in a more appropriate place.

The government has pledged that the 2015 federal election will be the last election decided by the first-past-the-post electoral system. A parliamentary committee has been tasked with coming up with some recommendations on what could replace FPTP.

Maryam Monsef, minister of democratic institutions, told that committee in July that FPTP "is an antiquated system, designed to meet the realities of 19th century Canada, and not designed to operate within our multi-party democracy."

That is particularly apparent in Saguenay, a perfect example of how Canada's modern multi-party democracy, combined with FPTP, can yield some unusual results.

Two ridings cover the city of Saguenay: Chicoutimi–Le Fjord and Jonquière. Both were won by candidates taking less than one-third of ballots cast.

Results of the 2015 federal election in the ridings of Chicoutimi–Le Fjord and Jonquière.

Denis Lemieux, now the Liberal MP for Chicoutimi–Le Fjord, took 31.1 per cent of the vote in the riding last fall, finishing just ahead of the NDP incumbent, Dany Morin, who took 29.7 per cent. The candidate for the Bloc Québécois had 20.5 per cent of the vote and the Conservative candidate took 16.6 per cent.

The number of votes separating first place from fourth was just 6,349. The margin between only the first- and second-place candidates was wider than that in more than half of Canada's 338 ridings.

In Jonquière, the NDP's Karine Trudel was elected with 29.2 per cent of ballots cast, followed by the candidates for the Liberals (28.5 per cent), the BQ (23.3 per cent) and the Conservatives (16.9 per cent). 

In both of these ridings, more than two-thirds of voters did not support the candidate who was elected. Lemieux received 13,619 votes, while 30,186 voters chose someone else. Trudel got the support of 14,039 voters, but 34,064 supported another candidate.

Four-party system in Quebec

This is what a four-party system can produce with FPTP. In total, 23 ridings were won with less than one-third of the vote in the last election. All but one of them (Nanaimo–Ladysmith in British Columbia) were located in Quebec. And five of those seats are currently occupied by MPs who took less than 30 per cent of the vote.

(Nine of these contests decided with less than one-third support were won by the New Democrats, seven by the Liberals, four by the Bloc Québécois and three by the Conservatives.)

The emergence of the New Democrats as a force in Quebec, and the continued survival of the Bloc, has transformed the political landscape in the province. Nowhere else did the fourth-place party take as high a share of the vote as the Conservatives did in Quebec.

The result is what some might consider democratically grotesque: more Quebecers are represented by MPs who won less than a third of the vote than by MPs who received a majority of ballots cast.

Electoral alternatives

Some of the systems being considered by the electoral reform committee could address what some would argue are the distorted results in Saguenay.

In a mixed-member proportion representation system (MMP), Lemieux and Trudel would have still been elected to represent these two ridings as the leading candidates. But the 70 per cent of voters who did not support either of these two candidates would instead see their votes count towards electing additional MPs from a party list.

In an alternative vote (AV) system, voters rank candidates by preference. Votes cast for the least popular candidate are re-distributed according to each voter's next preference. This process continues until one candidate receives a majority of ballots cast.

It is difficult to estimate how the results in these two Saguenay ridings would have played out in an AV system. As support for the Greens, Conservatives and Bloc Québécois was redistributed, in both ridings the race would have likely been a close one between the Liberals and the NDP. Either party could have won one or both of these seats.

But while 70 per cent of voters would not see their first preference elected, a majority of voters in both ridings would be represented by an MP they at least preferred to the other most popular alternative.

In a single-transferable vote (STV) system, the combination of ranked voting and larger multi-member constituencies would result in more voters in both of these Saguenay ridings seeing their ballots go towards electing an MP of their choice.

Whatever option is recommended by the committee or adopted by the government, a change to the electoral system will impact voters in ridings like Chicoutimi–Le Fjord and Jonquière the most. As Liberals reflect on the fast-flowing waters of the Saguenay River, that might give them something to think about.

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


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