An Overview of Possible Electoral Systems

UPDATE:  February 13, 2017:  Andrew Coyne, National Post – Don’t fear Trudeau’s proportional representation bogeymen

September 17, 2016:  Éric Grenier, CBC News – Electoral Reform could have a big impact on Canada’s smallest parties

October 19, 2016:  Andrew Coyne, National Post – Is Trudeau trying to pull a fast one on electoral reform?

In the October, 2015 federal election, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party promised that it would be the last using the “First Past the Post” electoral system. If not “First Past the Post,” what other electoral systems might Canada use?

The call to reform Canada’s electoral system (Single Member Plurality, “First Past the Post”) is based on the simple democratic principle that the percentage of seats that a party has in the House of Commons should fairly reflect the percentage of votes the party received in the election.

That’s not the Canadian experience, because of distortions caused by “First Past the Post.” The Liberals have 54% of the seats (184) in the House of Commons, but received only 39.5% of the vote. The Greens have just .3% of the seats (1), despite winning 3.5% of the vote. And, the Bloc Québécois won just 1.2% more votes than the Greens, but has 13% of the seats (10). Today’s House of Commons does not fairly represent how Canadians voted in the October 19, 2015 election.

The Liberal Party understands the democratic deficit caused by “First Past the Post.” So, good to their word, the Liberal Government convened an all party “Special Committee on Electoral Reform,” to consult with Canadians and recommend a better electoral system for Canada. The committee will present its final report no later than December 1, 2016.

There are many electoral systems in use around the world, but only four (or variants or hybrids of them) could be used in Canada without amending the Constitution. They are:

1. Single Member Plurality (SMP, “First Past the Post”)
2. Instant-Runoff Voting (IRV), also known as Alternative Vote, Transferable Vote, Ranked Choice Voting, Preferential Voting, and Preferential Ballot.
3. Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
4. Single Transferable Vote (STV)

Most Canadians are familiar with SMP, “First Past the Post.” It’s the system used today in almost all Canadian elections federally, provincially, and municipally. Many Canadians are less familiar with the remaining three so the deserve some explanation.

Instant-Runoff Voting (IRV), sometimes called preferential ballot, is, according to reports, preferred by the Prime Minister. It is mentioned specifically in the Minister of Democratic Institutions’ Mandate Letter from the Prime Minister, “I will expect you to… consult on electoral reform, including preferential ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting and online voting.”

This is how IRV works. Rather than a voter marking their ballot by putting an X beside one candidate’s name, the voter ranks the candidates in order of preference from “1” to how ever many candidates there are. To determine the winner, all the first preferences (the 1s) are counted and if a candidate receives 50% of the votes cast plus 1 (a simple majority), he or she is elected. If no candidate receives a majority, a second round of counting takes place.

For the second round, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and the second preference of the people who voted for them are allocated to the remaining candidates. This process of eliminating the candidate with least votes and reapportioning their votes according to voters’ preferences continues for as many rounds as necessary until one candidate emerges with 50% of the votes cast plus 1.

IRV is not an electoral system. It’s a counting method. IRV as envisioned by the Prime Minister is nothing more than “First Past the Post” with a different counting method. Because it’s a counting method, IRV or preferential ballots are used in electoral systems other than “First Past the Post,” such as Single Transferable Vote. IRV does not ensure that the number of seats a party has in the House of Commons is proportional to their overall vote. According to Fair Vote Canada, “The last 12 [election reform] commissions in Canada – including citizens and experts – looked objectively at [IRV] and rejected it.”

If the Liberal Government chooses IRV as the new electoral “system,” it will likely not be supported by the NDP or the Greens. Both parties are insistent: whatever new electoral system is used in Canada it must include an element of proportionality. Both Mixed Member Proportional and the Single Transferable Vote offer that.

There are many variants of Mixed Member Proportional, but they all have one thing in common. Each voter has two votes: a “candidate” vote and a “party” vote. The voter casts one in favour of an individual candidate and the other in favour of a party. A voter could, for example, cast their “candidate” vote for the Conservative in their electoral district because they’d been a champion of local issues. They could then cast their “party” vote for the Green Party because they want more MPs in the House of Commons fighting for good environmental policies. Of course, the voter could cast both of their votes to favor one party and its candidate.

In jurisdictions that use MMP, such as Germany, New Zealand, and Wales a number of seats in the legislature are usually allocated to MPs elected by “candidate” votes, and a number of seats that parties fill based on their “party” vote. The Law Commission of Canada in its 2004 report on electoral reform recommends that two thirds of the House of Commons seats be allocated to directly elected MPs and one third to those appointed by the parties. In Canada this would require either increasing the number of MPs in the House of Commons, and leaving the current electoral districts unchanged. Or, the other approach would be to leave the current number of MPs the same, but reduce the number of electoral districts to about 225 and enlarge them, and then add 113 MPs selected by the parties in proportion to their election “party“ vote.

MMP is an electoral system that has been recommended by many over the last four decades, including the Law Commission of Canada, the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, and the Quebec Citizens Committee.

The Single Transferable Vote is a proportional election system. Proportionality is achieved by using electoral districts that elect more than one representative (usually three or more) and the preferential ballot discussed above under IRV.

While there are, as with MMP, variants of STV, they all work in much the same way. In Canada, if STV were adopted, the current number of seats in the House of Commons would remain the same, but the number of electoral districts would be reduced by about two thirds to, say, 90, but they’d also be increased in size. Each of the new 90 electoral districts would send three or more MPs to Ottawa. Let’s use Vancouver to show how this would work in practice.

Currently the City of Vancouver sends six MPs to Ottawa from the electoral districts of Vancouver Centre, Vancouver East, Vancouver Granville, Vancouver Kingsway, Vancouver Quadra, and Vancouver South. Under STV, the six electoral districts would be combined into one electoral district. Let’s call it “Vancouver.” The voters of Vancouver would then elect six MPs from Vancouver to send to Ottawa.

To elect their six MPs, the voters of Vancouver would have a ballot that listed all the candidates running in their electoral district. They’d be listed on the ballot according to political party or as independents. The parties would, likely, run multiple candidates, hoping to send as many of the six MPs as possible to the House of Commons.

As for the voter, they rank the candidates who they want to see elected from “1,” their most preferred candidate, to “10,” if that’s how many are running. The voter can rank as few or as many as they like. They can vote for all or some of the candidates a political party is fielding or spread them over many parties and independents as they like.

It’s in the counting of STV ballots where STV differs so much from other systems and provides the proportionality that makes it so democratic. Unlike other systems, it’s not necessary that a candidate win a majority of votes to be elected. What they must win is, in the case of Vancouver, 1/6th of the votes, what’s called the “quota.” Once a candidate secures a quota of votes, the remaining votes cast for that candidate are allocated to other candidates according to the voters’ preferences. In STV, no votes are wasted. All the votes are awarded on the basis of voters’ ranked preferences until 6 people are selected who each has won the necessary quota of votes.

STV is widely recommended because it is seen to be fairer to independent candidates and smaller parties. It’s currently used in all or some elections in Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, India, Pakistan, Australia, and in some New Zealand regions and municipalities. In 2004, the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform recommended STV.

What electoral system will Canada adopt?

If the Liberal Government’s final decision on electoral reform is based on general agreement among Canada’s major and smaller political parties and the expert testimony it hears, there are only two choices available to it. They happen to be the same ones recommended by almost 40 years of commissions and citizens assemblies exploring electoral reform. They are Mixed Member Proportional and Single Transferable Vote.