Only hope for electorial reform?

September 29, 2016   ·   1 Comments

ONE OF THE KEY PROMISES Justin Trudeau made a year ago was that if his Liberals were elected it would be Canada’s last “first-past-the-post” general election.

A year later, the issue is being examined by an all-party Commons committee that initially had a Liberal majority, and what little we’re being told about the deliberations suggests  the committee may recommend either some form of proportional representation or the introduction of ‘preferential’ ballots.

As we see it, neitheroptions holds much promise, and if the issue went to a referendum most Canadians would prefer the status quo. However, so long as we have more than two national political parties we are going to have elections at which governments win majorities despite the fact most voters didn’t support their candidates.

That’s what happened in the last two elections, when the Conservatives in 2011 and the Liberals in 2015 won substantial majorities in the House of Commons despite roughly 60 per cent of the voters wanting other parties. The main reason was that in many ridings the winning candidate got fewer than half the votes, and in some the winner managed to get only about one-third of the votes because there were more that three candidates.

In the last election, voters in the 10 Central Ontario ridings elected seven Conservatives and three Liberals, but only one of the winners – Peter Van Loan in York-Simcoe – got more than half the votes, his 24,058 representing 50.25% of the total. Even the normally solid Tory ridings of Dufferin-Caledon and Simcoe-Grey saw most voters opting for candidates other than David Tilson and Kelly Leitch, with Mr. Tilson getting 46.28% and Ms. Leitch, now a candidate for Conservative leader, receiving 46.56%.

In the new riding of Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte, Tory Alex Nuttall won with 21,091 votes (41.74%) compared with 21,005 (41.57%) for Liberal Brian Tamblyn in a six-way race.

Similarly, in Northumberland-Peterborough South, Liberal Kim Rudd won with 27,043 (42.51%) of the votes, fewer than 2,000 votes more than Conservative Adam Moulton, who polled 25,165 (39.56%) in a four-way race. And in some Quebec ridings, many winners got fewer than one-third of the votes. In Pierre-Boucher-Les Patriotes-Verchères, Conservative Xavier Barsalou-Duval won with 17,007 votes (28.64%) to Liberal Lucie Gagnon’s 16,794 (28.28%), and the NDP’s Raphaël Fortin at 14,454 (24.34%).

Clearly, there is no perfect electoral system. Anywhere that it has been tried, proportional representation leads to a multiplicity of parties and the inability of any one of them to secure a majority of legislature seats. Additionally, it seems to be incompatible with the ridings system, leading to many members being elected from party slates.

In contrast, the preferential ballot would seem to give far too much clout to parties with similar platforms, since voters would be inclined to rank them 1-2. In Canada, that would mean the Liberals and New Democrats would benefit at the expense of the Tories.

In the circumstances, we think the Commons committee should look seriously at the option of run-off elections, particularly in ridings where the winning candidate gets fewer than four votes out of 10. In any run-off system the general election is followed by one in which only the top two or three candidates’ names appear on the ballot. In its simplest form the race is limited to the top two, so that the winner obviously garners more than half the votes.

The main criticism of run-offs is the added time and costliness. However, it strikes us that both problems could be minimized by initially limiting the run-offs to ridings in which the winner failed to get at least 40 per cent of the votes and by having the second round of voting done through use of the Internet and/or phone-in ballots.

Readers Comments (1)

  1. Wilf Day says:

    You are, luckily, misinformed that proportional representation seems to be incompatible with the ridings system, leading to many members being elected from party slates. The Liberals promised We Will Make Every Count (that is, be effective to help elect an MP), and the model designed by the Law Commission of Canada does this: you can vote for a local MP and for your favourite of your party’s regional candidates.

    The way winner-take-all voting divides Canada is obvious, when you remember that the last time Montreal Conservative voters were allowed to elect an MP was 1988, and the last time Liberal voters in Alberta were allowed to elect an MP was (until last October) 2004.


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