Monday 26 October 2015

Are Canadian Elections Democratic?

Are Canadian elections democratic?  The short answer to the question is “no!” 

Our electoral system is based on the British system which if you listen to CGP Grey's Why the UK Election Results Are the Worst in History you will quickly understand is far from democratic.

To be fully upfront, I did not vote for the Liberal Party in the election of October 19, 2015 but I am relatively content with the results.  However, in light of the disparity between the popular vote and the number of seats won in Canada's most recent election, CGP Grey will have to retitle his post as "Why the UK Election Results Are the Second Worst in History."

Here are the number of seats and the percentage of the vote won by each of the major political parties in the Canadian election:

10 seats1
of vote
of vote
of vote
of vote
of vote

In case the disparity and level of misrepresentation doesn't immediately jump out at you from these numbers; in round numbers:  the Liberals got less than 40% of the votes but over 54% of the seats,  the Conservatives got 32% of the votes but 29% of the seats, the NDP got 20% of the votes and 13% of the seats, the Block got 5% of the votes and 3% of the seats, the Greens got almost 4% of the votes but far less than 1%  (in fact .29%) of the seats.  Or, viewed the other way around, based on the popular vote, the Green Party should have around 3 seats, the Block around 18 or 19, the NDP around 80, the Conservatives 100 and the Liberals 134.  In short Canadians voted for a coalition government, but they didn't get one. 

Much as I hate to be fatalistic, the situation is not likely to change, in the first place because the problem only shows up every four years or so, and afterwards people are likely to say "oh well, the election is over now."  Secondly, and more importantly, the system favours the winning party and they consequently have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are.  The smaller the party the more unfairly the system treats it--another reason the system is unlikely to change.

One glimmer of hope is that one of the first-announced planks in the Liberal Party's campaign was a promise to reform the electoral process.  Here's what the Liberals announced in their campaign literature.  

We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system. As part of a national engagement process, we will ensure that electoral reform measures – such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting – are fully and fairly studied and considered. This will be carried out by a special all-party parliamentary committee, which will bring recommendations to Parliament on the way forward, to allow for action before the succeeding federal election. Within 18 months of forming government, we will bring forward legislation to enact electoral reform. 
It would be very interesting to see this list of measures being implemented, but take note that the promise is only that these measures will be "fully and fairly studied and considered."  (Why do I find myself finishing the sentence with "before they are rejected"?)  A year and a half from now the Liberals will be bringing forward legislation.  Unfortunately, when you promise to "bring forward legislation," you are leaving the door open so you can later claim that "I tried to bring forward legislation but my dog ate it."

Despite my instinctive cynicism on this issue, it is going to be interesting and challenging for a government in power to even begin discussion of these issues.  A typical European format is for each party to present a list of candidates and the number of candidates who become members of parliament (or its equivalent)  is determined by the percentage of the popular vote which the party wins.  I suspect that Canadians will be reluctant to give up the idea of voting for their local riding representative, but the European system ensures that the party has the representatives in government that it considers it's best people.  

Although I must confess that if this system were in place in past elections my favourite two candidates would not have been high enough on the NDP list to get elected:  Pierre Luc Dusseault first elected in 2011 at the age of 19, the youngest ever member of parliament, and re-elected in 2015, and Ruth Ellen Brousseau, the candidate everyone thought was a joke in 2011 when she was elected in a largely French riding despite media claims that she couldn't speak French and the fact that she went on a pre-paid vacation in the middle of the election campaign.  Ms. Brousseau turned out to be a dream MP for her riding and won an easy victory in 2015.

In conclusion:  the system we will be looking for is one that, in the first place, is democratic, so that how people actually voted is reflected in the make-up of parliament, respects regional and even local representation and distribution, and still leaves open the possibility of wild-card outliers being elected.  A lot to ask for, maybe, but in the end we will get the system we deserve--meaning the system we are willing to ask for, to work for, and maybe even to fight for.  Don't let 19 May 2017 slip by without your serious consideration of our "new" electoral process.


  1. The Globe and Mail is already predicting that Trudeau will not be able to enact the proposed electoral reforms:

  2. A recent poll (Ipsos) indicated that 44% of Canadians are in favour of a change to some sort of representational system. 43% of Canadians are in favour of maintaining the existing system. Sounds like a stalemate. However since the 43% believe in the old system, they shouldn't have any problem accepting 44% as a majority. Meaning we can proceed with changes and ignore the 43% minority as the old system would dictate.


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