Electoral System Reform in Canada Analysis
In recent years, citizens, pundits, and politicians alike have increasingly shared their concerns about the status of Canadian Democracy. Arguably, a single party dominates the country’s political life and monopolizes its politics, rooting out alternative voices, thereby making citizens question the value of their vote. If the election outcome is more of a predetermined conclusion, then the majority will not invest the energy essential to cast a ballot. For instance, in the Canadian federal election of 1997 and 2000, the number of citizens who did not vote exceeded that of those who voted for the winning political party.
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This disturbing fact pointed at basic flaws in the Canadian democratic and electoral system that needs urgent solutions by policymakers and legislators through institutional changes. Electoral system reforms are meant to improve how voters’ desires are expressed in an electoral process. That includes voting systems, vote-counting procedures, eligibility to vote, voting equipment, ballot design, referendum campaigns, and changes to election laws. Some of the widely used electoral systems in the world include the following: Proportional Representation, which includes Party List PR and Single Transferable Vote; Mixed Systems such as Alternative Vote Plus and Additional Member System; and Majoritarian Systems, which include First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), Supplementary Vote, Block Vote, Borda Count, and Two-Round System.
FPTP is also known as plurality voting, simple majority voting, or single-member plurality (Electoral Reform Society, 2010; Piepgrass, n.d.). The system is used across Africa, especially in countries that were once British colonies (Fair Vote Canada Volunteers, 2012), including Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana, and Uganda. The system is also used in the United States to elect Congress. In the United Kingdom, the system is used to elect members of the House of Commons. In Canada and India, FPTP is used to elect members of the Lower House. In the Canadian context, electoral system reforms call for changes in the existing First-Past-the-Post and introduction of an element of proportional representation in a manner that all Canadians are allowed to vote.
Several provincial and national entities promote electoral system reform with the majority advocating for party-proportional representation because most Canadian provinces have more than three competitive political parties. It is in that respect that this paper explores arguments for the electoral reform and maintaining the status quo. To accomplish this, the paper will review arguments for both standpoints.
Arguments against First-Past-the-Post Electoral System
There are several issues in Canadian politics that Liberals, Conservatives, and New Democrats agree on. One of them is the need for a referendum on electoral system reforms. As of this writing, referendums on electoral system reforms had been held in three provinces: Prince Edward Island (2005), British Columbia (2009 and 2005), and Ontario (2007). Despite failing, these electoral system reform referendums have set a precedent of sorts. The lesson from these referendums is that reformers against the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system must do a better persuasion job than in the past referendums.
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During the campaign weeks of the 2015 Canadian Federal Election, most political parties promised electoral reforms. In fact, all the parties in that election had electoral reforms as a part of their party agenda. The Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau as the current Prime Minister promised electoral reforms within the first 18 months of its rule. In the same context, the Conservative Party, which represents the Official Opposition, and the New Democratic Party as the third-largest party also vowed to champion electoral reforms. These promises signified the need to make institutional changes to the existing electoral systems as it reflects the desires of the majority.
Entities advocating for electoral systems reforms in Canada are largely against the existing First-Past-the-Post voting system. One of the arguments against the FPTP voting system is that representatives can be elected by a small percentage of public support because the margin of winning does not matter. What matters in this type of electoral system is that one candidate gets more votes than others. In other words, FPTP has the tendency of producing false majority as noted in the 2011 and 2015 elections where Stephen Harper and Justin Tourneau respectively received the majority mandate with less than 40% of the total votes (The Canadian Press, 2015).
FPTP also limits voters’ choice (Piepgrass, n.d.). The rationale behind this argument is that political parties are entities built on various viewpoints. Therefore, if voters support a political party and not his/her local party candidate, they do not have the means of expressing their view at the ballot box. Since FPTP restricts the voters’ choice of local candidates, representation of special population groups, especially minorities, suffers from biased voting where candidates not from these special groups are most likely to win. For example, in a constituency marked by aggressive male candidates, chances of a female candidate winning or gaining public support are minimal.
In constituencies where a political party has safe seats, any votes for the opposing candidate are irrelevant. Similarly, excess votes for the winning candidate are also irrelevant because they are mostly influenced by the party’s regional popularity. Since weight is placed on party performance, most votes have an insignificant impact on the election because votes cast for a losing candidate count for nothing, especially when the margin of win is small. First-Past-the-Post also encourages tactical voting in the sense that most electorates vote against candidates they dislike most rather than voting for the candidate with the potential of delivering change (Fair Vote Canada Volunteers, 2012). In a multi-party system, third parties that garner significant public support are often disadvantaged. According to Ashton College (2016), FPTP discriminates against alternative or small local parties that often receive low representation in parliament for not winning any ridings despite registering a considerable proportion of the public support. Lastly, First-Past-the-Post encourages centrist policies in the sense that political parties must appeal to the center ground to emerge as winners.
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Instead of allocating parliamentary seats according to the actual public support, the FPTP voting system rewards political parties with public support centralized in geographical areas. That is, the system rewards parties in areas where there are enough votes to win a seat. This system works for small parties, which tend to have support concentrated in some regions. The way electoral boundaries are drawn can have a significant impact on the election result. That is to say, electoral boundaries, especially in relatively small-sized constituencies, can be drawn to favor parties that are regional. Additionally, small constituency results in the proliferation of safe political seats whereby any candidate from the locally preferred political party is guaranteed a position in the parliament at each federal election. As of consequence, voters from a region are not only disenfranchised but also overlooked in policy framing. If some geographical regions are electoral deserts for some political parties, there is laxity within the dominant party and the elected candidate must be active beyond their constituency to have influence within and without their parties.
The Case for First-Past-the-Post (Arguments for Status Quo)
The main attractive features of FPTP are simple voting and counting, as well as a single-member constituency. FPTP is still used in Canada because its opponents are fragmented instead of being unified. Electoral reformers have failed to argue a case meant to win over the public, which has the power to root out FPTP. Instead, separate camps, i.e. Liberals, Conservatives, and New Democrats argue that the system preferred by their party is the best available alternative, ignoring the pros of FPTP. When the proposed alternative voting system is perceived to be complex, many electorates prefer to keep simple existing FPTP systems as noted in the past electoral reform referendums. The proponents of the First-Past-the-Post contend that the voting system produces stable governments (Ashton College, 2016).
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First-Past-the-Post tends to create a two-party political culture. In turn, it produces single-party governments that do not have to be influenced by other political parties to pass key legislations. In the same line, proponents of FPTP argue that resultant governments are composed of members of the parliament who can offer a local or personal touch, which enables citizens to engage actively in government business. Since decisions are highly influenced by the party, voters can clearly express their viewpoint on the political party they are convicted should form the next government. The other argument for the First-Past-the-Post electoral system is that it takes relatively less time to count all votes and work out the winner than Majoritarian and Proportional Representation voting systems. The First-Past-the-Post voting system is simple to understand; hence, it costs little to administer. It follows that the FPTP voting system results can be presented to the public in a few hours after the closure of polls.
Having examined the advantages and flaws of the current FPTP electoral system, it is important to consider some of the alternatives that would be widely accepted by Canadian voters. Firstly, Proportional Representation (PR) would award political parties the same fraction of parliamentary seats as reflected by the popular vote (Fair Vote Canada Volunteers, 2012). That is to say, if a party receives 80% of the popular vote, it will also receive the equivalent percentage of seats in parliament. Evidently, every vote counts, and coalitions are used to strengthen consensus building. Proponents of this alternative contend that it is the most democratic and simple voting system. However, in a conventional PR electoral system, political parties fill parliamentary seats from a list drafted without the voters’ input.
Additionally, forming coalitions or alliances can weaken the parliament and cause instability in the government. The PR system is used in Sweden, the Netherlands, and South Africa. Secondly, there is the Single-Transferable Vote (STV) system, which is based on a preferential ballot. In other words, the electorate ranks candidates instead of electing one member. STV eliminates wasted votes and all votes count. However, the system is complicated and can be time-consuming. In fact, the 2005 and 2009 electoral reform referendum in British Columbia failed because electorates felt that the proposed STV system was complicated and confusing (Ashton College, 2016). STV is used in Malta and Ireland. Finally, the last alternative is known as Mixed-member Plurality (MMP), which is a hybrid of PR and FPTP. In this system, electorates cast two votes, one for the political party and one for a representative. As a result, half of the parliament is occupied by elected members, and the remaining seats are held proportionally by political parties. MMP is used in Germany, New Zealand, and Mexico (Ashton College, 2016). It reflects election outcomes and minimizes wasted votes. Additionally, it provides an MP that has been duly elected by constituents. Most importantly, a voter can choose the most capable Liberal candidate in a riding, while casting a vote for the Conservative Party.
As of this writing, the Liberals’ plan for electoral system reforms does not depict any logic beyond the party’s self-interest. The Liberals have been offering biased arguments that undermine the moral case for electoral reform through a referendum. If the Liberals genuinely believe that the Canadian electoral system (FPTP) does not clearly express the public will, then they should uphold moral and political responsibility by asking the public critical questions via referendum. If they are not ready for a referendum, it is clear that they do not take the problem at hand seriously and their motives should be questioned.
From the discussion above, it is evident that the First-Past-the-Post electoral system is flawed and not suitable for electing a representative government. In other words, the majority of Canadian voters are dissatisfied with the undemocratic aspects of FPTP. For this reason, Canada should have a form of Proportional Representation electoral system and MMP would be a suitable alternative for FPTP. Some of the disadvantages of the FPTP system include marginal constituencies, safe seats, bizarre results, and changes sensitive to the electoral boundary. Under this voting system, voting is conducted in constituencies where a single member of parliament (MP) is elected. Electorates vote for their preferred candidate and the candidate with most votes wins to represent the constituents. The national electoral system anchors Canada’s democracy. Considering the impact, no one political party or government has the authority to alter the democratic system as planned by the Liberal party through the Senate. If the electoral systems are to be reformed, the decision should be made by Canadian voters through a referendum. Canadians have always appreciated the significance of consultative processes where voters get to say their opinion. In fact, all provinces have approached the issue through a referendum and the federal election is not an exception. All in all, the Senate should ensure that voters have the final say regarding the electoral reform.