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Changing the ballot

Canada is spoiled for choice when it comes to how to change its voting system. The Law Commission of Canada identified eight alternatives when it studied the issue back in 2004. Which you pick depends on what you want from your system.

Canada is spoiled for choice when it comes to how to change its voting system. The Law Commission of Canada identified eight alternatives when it studied the issue back in 2004.

Which you pick depends on what you want from your system. The Law Commission's 232-page report lists a number of criteria for a good system, such as proportionality (does the share of power match the share of votes?), diversity (are the people and ideas of Canadians reflected in the House?), locality (do I have a local MP?), and wastage (does my vote help someone get into power?).

Majority rule?

First, let's get through the options that don't do much for us.

Right now, Canada uses a single-member plurality system, says York University political science professor Dennis Pilon: you mark one X to elect one rep, and the rep with the most Xs wins. As discussed, this “wastes” the votes of everyone who doesn't vote for the winner and rewards parties with more power than their share of the vote would suggest.

Multi-member systems are how cities like St. Albert vote for councillors: six Xs for six reps, top six win. Here, candidates can get in with a tiny chunk of the popular vote, and votes are still wasted. It's also tough to see how this would work nationally, as you'd have to mark 338 Xs for 338 seats.

Majoritarian systems are fairer in that they ensure the winner has the support of at least half of the voters.

The French system works the way party leadership elections work, Pilon says: mark your X, rep with over half the Xs wins; if no one gets that, hold a run-off with the top two.

This sounds great idea until you realize it means having two elections, which is expensive.

Australia has voters rank their candidates instead of marking an X. The person with over half the No. 1 picks wins, and if no one has that, they drop the person with the least No, 1s, redistribute that person's votes to whoever's listed as No. 2, and count again.

The Law Commission reports that this system ensures the winner has broad support, but still leads to wasted votes – if your candidate doesn't get dropped and doesn't win, your votes don't count.

“It's a mild improvement, some would say, over first-past-the-post, but not much,” Pilon says.

Proportional rule?

Proportional representation (PR) is where you get seats in proportion to your share of the vote. The Liberals got 39.5 per cent of the vote last election, for example, so under a pure PR system they'd get 39.5 per cent of the seats (134) instead of the 54.4 (184) they got.

“It's seen as a very just system,” Pilon says – like a bank, you can only cash out as many seats as you put in dollars/votes. The European experience suggests that it allows more parties to get elected and encourages them to run more women and minority candidates to stand out.

Where it falls down is determining who gets what seat.

In France, this is entirely in the party's control: they rank their candidates and run down the list to fill whatever seats they win. That's bad if you want your MPs accountable to a certain region: Michael Cooper might win St. Albert-Edmonton for the Conservatives, but he won't get a seat unless his party ranks him high enough.

Ireland uses the single transferrable vote. Here, voters rank their candidates, and whoever gets over a certain quota of votes (say, 20 per cent) qualifies for a seat. If candidates have more votes than they need, those votes get transferred to their second-place candidates.

The Law Commission liked how this system let voters pick their candidates instead of the parties, but rejected it “at this time” because it was really complex and too big of a change from what we have now.

Why not both?

Pilon, the Law Commission, and Fair Vote Canada recommend that Canada look at some sort of mixed electoral system that combines first-past-the-post with proportional representation.

Wilfred Day of Fair Vote Canada says he prefers the Scottish or German mixed member systems. Here, you have a chunk of local seats and a chunk of regional seats. Voters cast two votes and elect two candidates.

The local seat election works the same as the ones we have now, except the ridings are bigger, Day says. For the regional one, you either vote for a party like in Germany or Scotland (where they use a party list to decide who gets the seat) or for any one of the candidates in your region, as the Law Commission suggests (this can mean a lot of names of the ballot).

The two-vote system allows you to split your vote: if you really like Brent Rathgeber and the Conservatives, you can vote Rathgeber locally and Conservative regionally.

It also gives candidates two shots at office: if the Liberal's Beatrice Ghettuba doesn't make it in locally, she could still get in on the regional ticket.

And it lets you use the regional seats to offset imbalances caused by the local elections, Day explains. If the Liberals got enough votes for four seats and only won two locally, for example, they get two of the available regional seats.

While some critics say that mixed systems are less stable than majoritarian ones, Pilon argues the opposite, noting that Canada has actually had more federal elections since 1945 than most European nations.

“It does take longer to make policy,” he notes, as it's hard to get an absolute majority once you bring in PR, but that creates stability – no majority means you have to co-operate with others.

While there are fans and detractors of every mixed system, Pilon says they're all pretty similar when it comes to results.

“If we want a voting system that matches what Canadians are trying to do with their votes, then any proportional system will do that.”


A previous version of this story erroneously stated that the Scottish system lets voters vote directly for a regional candidate. In fact, the Scottish system is the same as Germany's in that you vote for a party for your regional rep. It is modified Scottish system suggested by the Law Commission of Canada that lets you vote for a specific regional candidate. The German province of Bavaria does this as well. The Gazette apologizes for the confusion.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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