The single member plurality system used in all Canadian federal and provincial elections has
many strengths but also reveals serious weaknesses in producing legislatures that reflect the choice of parties made by the
voters. Also, recent Canadian elections have witnessed a significant fall in voter turnout, which some say indicates
that structural changes are needed in order to encourage greater participation.
The 2004 election will no doubt spark debates about reforming the electoral system to ensure
that representation in Parliament reflects the wishes of voters. While the Liberals and Conservative won a proportion
of seats that is not hugely out of line with their share of the votes (see: election results), there were still some other anomalies worth mentioning. For example, the Liberals won about 93% of the seats (13 out of
14) in Saskatchewan,
even though they only got 42% of the vote. The NDP also received about 5% more votes than in the 1997 election, but ended
up winning 2 less seats. NDP leader Jack Layton has promised to make electoral reform an important condition of support any minority government. More importantly, however, the success and stability of this coming period of minority
government will have a significant impact on Canadians' receptivity to any reform that might lead to much more frequent minority
Since the last federal election in 2000, there has been significant movement towards electoral
reform at both the federal and provincial levels. In early 2004, the Law Commission of Canada issued a report recommending that the federal electoral system be changed to a mixed member system that allows for more proportional representation
of parties in the House of Commons.
At the provincial level, the most significant development has been the creation of the Citizens' Assembly in British Columbia. 160 citizens were chosen at random - 2 from each riding
and 2 from the aboriginal community - to meet and debate the merits of changing the provincial electoral system. The Assembly
met for several months in early 2004 and then set out a series of public consultation meetings. In the Fall of 2004,
the Assembly decided to recommend that BC should adopt the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. The Assembly's report, Making Every Vote Count (pdf - 1.9MB) was released in December 2004. The recommendation to adopt a new electoral system was put to the voters in
a referendum question at the May 2005 provincial election. In order for the measure to be acted upon, the government required 60% support
across the province, including 50% support in 60% of the ridings. The referendum results fell just short of the main criterion, with 58% support province-wide; all but 2 of the ridings saw at least 50% support
for adopting BC-STV. The premier has since pledged to hold another referendum in November 2008.
PEI voters recently rejected changes, after several
years of study had culminated in a 2005 plebiscite. The PEI Electoral Reform Commissioner recommended in 2003 that some element of proportionality be added, but he did not make specific recommendations. After
the Commission on PEI's Electoral Future reviewed the matter, issued a final report, that recommended the province adopt an MMP system with two ballots. It suggested that the selection of the 27-member house
be divided between 17 to be elected by SMP and 10 to be filled from party lists; in theory the list seats are top provide
'full compensation' to ensure that a party has a total number of seats in the house that is proportional to its share of the
votes. The proposal was put to the PEI voters in a plebiscite on November 28, 2005; the PEI government adopted
the BC thresholds, requiring 60% support province-wide plus 50% support in at least 60% of the ridings. When the votes were counted, however, 64% of the PEI electorate voted against the proposal; only 2 of the
27 ridings saw a majority in favour of electoral change.
The Commission on Legislative Democracy in New Brunswick released an interim report in September 2004 that recommended that the province adopt a Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system as well as moved to elections
being held on a fixed 4-year schedule. Their final report was issued in January 2005 and recommended that there be 36 single-member ridings and 4 multi-member ridings with a total
of 20 seats filled through a PR party list system. Premier Bernard Lord has announced that the legislature will pass legislation
to allow a referendum to be held in the spring of 2008 on adopting the new system; the referendum will be held at the same
time as municipal elections.
Quebec has created the Ministry for the Reform of Democratic Institutions. Serious debate has been launched with a draft bill (English text) proposed in December 2004 that would see radical restructuring of the electoral boundaries and methods of
election. There would be 75 single member ridings roughly based on the current federal boundaries, plus another 2 rural single
member ridings. In addition there would be 24-27 "districts" that would each cover 3 of the regular ridings, and every
district would have a further 2 district seats. Voters would only cast one vote and the district seats would be compensatory;
the filling of district seats would be based on the shares of the party vote in the combined single-member ridings for that
district, and filled from party lists. See the French texts of the press release and the Minister's summary for an overview.
In Ontario, the government has set up the Democratic Renewal Secretariat and proposed that elections be held on a 4-year cycle starting with one to be held October
4, 2007. As well, the Premier announced that Ontario would create a Citizens' Assembly, similar to BC's, to examine
electoral reform. In addition, a Citizens' Jury will examine election finance issues.
The Library of Parliament has published research papers that provide useful background on the
Canadian electoral system and on alternative electoral systems.
Strengths of Single Member Plurality (SMP)
There are several direct advantages of using the single member plurality system. First,
it is far more likely to produce majority governments in a competitive multi-party system. In the 12 federal elections held
in the last 40 years, 8 have resulted in majority governments, even though the winning party won a majority of votes only
once, in 1984. Majority governments are said to provide stable government and allow direct accountability to the electorate.
In contrast, partners in a minority or coalition government can either point fingers at each other or each claim credit at
the next election.
SMP also facilitates clear community representation. With the 2004 elections, Canada
is divided into 308 constituencies each with their own representative to speak on behalf of local interests.
Disadvantages of SMP Systems
The are a number of disadvantages to the SMP system. The most important is that a party's share
of the votes only rarely bears any semblance to the share of seats they win. A candidate only needs one more vote than her
or his opponents. The winner's votes beyond that number are "wasted" while the votes for all the other candidates do not help
in electing other members of their parties.
Examples of vote/seat distortion abound in Canadian elections. The clearest example is
found in the 1987 New Brunswick provincial election, in which the Liberal Party
won all the seats in the legislature on the strength of about 60% of the vote. The other 40% of the electorate were left with
no direct representation of their policy interests in the legislature.
In the 1997 federal elections, two other serious problems emerged. In Ontario,
the Liberals won 99 out of 101 the province's seats. However, a bare majority of voters had voted for other candidates. In
PEI, the Liberals won all four seats on the basis of about 45% of the vote.
In the 1998 Quebec, the 1996 BC, and 1986 Saskatchewan provincial elections, parties won a majority of seats
even though they had placed second in the overall province-wide total of the votes.
The distortion in vote and seat share can be seen in the following charts of selected elections:
1997. 1993, & 1988 Federal Elections
1997 & 1993 Alberta Elections
1986, 1991, 1996, and 2001 BC Elections
See also the provincial discrepancies in the vote/seat shares of parties in the 1997 federal
election on the past elections page of this site.
Alternative Electoral Systems
There are several alternatives to SMP that are used in various countries around the world and
are reviewed in the Library of Parliament's paper on alternative electoral systems.
Some countries, such as Australia
and France, use majority systems that aim to ensure
that the winning candidate has received some sort of support from a majority of voters. These are usually single member ridings
and can either be by preferential ballot or multiple rounds of voting. In the Alternative Vote system, a voter
ranks the candidates on the ballot paper according to their preference: their first choice gets "1", the second choice "2",
and so on. When all the first choice votes are added up, a candidate is declared a winner only if they have a majority
of the first choices. In the event that no one has a majority of first choice votes, then the candidate with the least
number is dropped off the list, and their ballot papers are examined to redistribution according to the second choice marked
on the ballot. These votes are then added to the remaining candidates and added up to see if anyone has a majority.
The process of eliminating a candidate and redistributing their votes is continued until one candidate emerges with a majority
of votes. The French use a double ballot system, where one round of voting is held in single member ridings;
if a candidate receives a majority then they are elected. If not, then a second round of voting is held a few weeks
later, with lower ranked candidates eliminated.
The most popular systems are proportional representation systems. There are several varieties,
but all attempt to translate a parties share of votes into a roughly proportional share of the legislature's seats.
The most common is a party list system, where political parties prepare a ranked list of candidates with up to as many candidates
as there are seats in the legislature. On election day, the voters vote for the party of their choice and the total votes
for each party are added up. The parties are then declared to have won a number of seats in the legislature that
is roughly proportionate to their share of the votes; most countries have some threshold number of votes (i.e. 3 or 5%) that
a party must win in order to qualify for seats. There are two variations on this system: the closed list works
strictly with the list of candidates as ranked by the parties, and the seats are filled from candidates drawn from the top
of the list and working down; the open list system allows the voters to vote for a candidate and the candidate's final
position on the party's list of candidates is determined by the overall number of votes he or she has received. The success
with which a PR system provides parties with a share of the seats that is proportional to their vote share is dependent on
several factors including the number of parties that fall short of the threshold and whether the votes and seats are counted
up either nationally, provincially, or regionally. In counties such as Israel
or the Netherlands, where the votes are added up and distributed
nationally, the large pool of seats allows a closer relationship between seats and votes. Many countries, however, divide
the pool of seats into smaller regions with a smaller set of seats (for example from 5 to 20). The smaller the number of seats
to be shared, the more likely distortions are likely to occur in competitive, multi-party elections. In addition, there are
several mathematical formulae that can be used to allocate seats among the parties and each imparts a certain distortion into
The single transferable vote (STV) system has not been widely adopted around the world,
but its profile has been raised in Canada since the BC Citizens'
Assembly recommended in 2004 that the province should adopt STV instead of SMP. The STV system raises the probability that
the main parties share of seats in the legislature will be somewhat proportional to their share of votes. In this system,
a country or province is divided into smaller regions, and several members will be elected from each region. From the
voters' perspective the system is similar to the alternative vote system, since voters rank the parties or candidates in order
of their preference (e.g. 1, 2, 3). Initially all the candidates first preferences are counted up in order to see if
any have achieved the "quota" of votes needed to get elected. This quota is determined by a mathematical equation that is
based on the number of valid votes cast and the number of seats to elected in the region.
Number of valid votes + 1 = Quota
to be elected) + 1
For example, if 100,000 valid votes were cast and there are 3 seats to be filled, then the quota
is calculated in the following way to be 25,001 votes:
100,000 + 1 = 25,001
3 + 1
Anyone who is receives enough 1st preference ballots to meet the quota is elected. Otherwise,
the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and the 2nd choices that voters marked on those ballots are then
distributed among the remaining candidates. The process continues until all the eligible seats are filled. There are, however,
very different ideas about how to distribute the "surplus" of votes cast for a candidate once they meet the quota - see David Farrell's article (pdf) on Australia's 1983 electoral reforms for an explanation.
It should be noted that the STV system does not guarantee proportional results, and sometimes
allows the leading one or two parties to completely dominate the seats won in a region. Minor parties with 10-15% of the vote,
for example, may be left without enough votes to reach the quota needed to win seats. The main strength of the STV is that
voters can rank order the individual candidates - although the STV system used for Australian Senate elections permits voters
to simply mark their ballot in favour of a whole party rather than have to mark individual candidates' names. As well, the
size of the region from which members of the legislatures are elected may be smaller than those used in party-list PR systems.
STV is used in Ireland, Malta,
as well as for several state-level elections in Australia
and for the Australian Senate elections
Zealand, and Russia are examples
of countries that use some form of the mixed member proportional (MMP) system. It is a popular choice, being used in
29 countries in 1999. Some seats are contested on an SMP basis while others are apportioned to the parties on proportional
bases that vary according to the number of seats reserved for this purpose. Voters can have two ballots - one for the their
choice of individual legislature, and another vote for their choice of party for the second set of seats. In Germany
and New Zealand, for example, half of the legislature is elected
by single member plurality and half are drawn from the party lists. The party list half are allocated in a manner that
tries to provide a party with a total share of the seats in the legislature that is roughly proportional to their share of
the party-list vote. A number of counties in the former Soviet Union adopted forms of MMP, as have
Italy and Japan.
However, the relative portion of seats devoted to SMP elections and those chosen by by PR do vary widely. Plus, there
can be variations about the objective of the seats assigned from the party list. They may, as in the case of Germany
& New Zealand, be distributed in order to ensure the total share of seats a party wins (including the SMP & party
list seats) is proportional to the party's share of votes. Or, the party list seats may be awarded with so that only
the party-list seats are proportional to the share of votes; the number of seats won by SMP would be irrelevant in this case.