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Electoral Reform

Electoral reform refers to the ways that people work to change the existing electoral system to make it better in some way; more democratic, more streamlined, more accessible. There have long been concerns about the democratic nature of Canada’s electoral system–the single member plurality system–and how frustrated Canadians feel about the potential election of a government with relatively limited popular support. Proponents of electoral reform often seek to implement a system that more accurately represents the popular vote and avoids the problem of so-called wasted votes. Some of the proposed alternatives include the ranked ballot system, list-based proportional representation, single transferrable vote systems, and various configurations and combinations of these systems.

Poster reading “Make Every Vote Count” at a rally in Guelph Ontario, as part of the February 2017 National Day of Action for Electoral Reform. Credit: Ryan Hodnett (via Wikimedia).

Federal Attempts at Electoral Reform

There have been a wide range of attempts to shift how Canada’s elections are conducted away from the longstanding single-member plurality system, although electoral reform is notoriously challenging given that there seems to be a lack of political will, and because referenda are often called for, requiring a great deal of energy to go into education and mobilization on the part of would-be reformers. As early as 1921, a Parliamentary committee examined the possibility of proportional representation, proposing a referendum on the matter. Another special Parliamentary committee was held in 1936 on the same issue, which recommended against electoral reform. A number of Royal Commissions also took up the matter, including Pépin-Robarts Commission (on Canadian Unity), the MacDonald Commission (on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada), and in the 1992 Lortie Commission (on Electoral Reform and Party Financing). These Royal Commissions all suggested some measure of proportional representation.

In 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party ran on a platform which included replacing the single-member plurality system by 2019 (a view also included in the NDP and Green Party election platforms). To this end, the LPC made it clear that the 2015 federal election would be the last one occurring under the first-past-the-post system. A parliamentary commission was formed and ultimately recommended a referendum that would have asked Canadians if they wished to change to a proportional representation system. The recommendation did not align with the Liberal Party’s interests of both avoiding a referendum and shifting towards a ranked ballot system. With the recommendations different than the Liberal Party’s desired outcomes, the government abandoned its pursuit of electoral reform at the federal level.

Provincial Attempts at Electoral Reform

At the provincial level, there have been a number of provincial attempts at electoral reform, including several referenda. In New Brunswick, there were plans for referenda on electoral reform in both 2008 and 2019, although neither came to pass due to changes in government. In Prince Edward Island, after decades of considering potential reform there was a non-binding referendum on replacing the single-member plurality system, which did not pass.

British Columbia. British Columbia has been subject to more activity on electoral reform than any other province, with three referendums since 2005. In the first case, a citizens’ assembly recommended proportional representation based on a single transferrable vote system, and the proposal was put to a vote in a 2005 referendum that took place in conjunction with the provincial election. Although there was majority support (57%) for the proposal, the government had set a threshold of 60% for implementation, and thus the result was deemed non-binding and not-adopted. The second case occurred in 2009 (in conjunction with British Columbia municipal elections), and saw only 39% support for reform. New mobilization around proportional representation in the province led to a new referendum in 2018 although the proposal was again defeated, with only 38.7% support. The partial success of the 2005 referendum can be, at least partially attributed to the work of the Citizen’s Assembly that was formed to study the issue of electoral reform and to proposal an alternative. The formation of the Citizen’s Assembly, the and seeming legitimacy of the process by which the proposal emerged likely bolstered support for reform.

Ontario. In Ontario, there were significant efforts, including a Citizens’ Assembly and subsequent referendum (held in conjunction with a provincial election) in 2007 which sought to replace the single-member plurality system with a mixed-member proportional system, but only 37% of voters supported the reform. The Citizen’s Assembly tasked with making a proposal for reform in Ontario was not given the same institutional support as had occurred in British Columbia, leaving it with fewer resources, less attention from the public and media, and less legitimacy. Like British Columbia, there was a high threshold for implementation, and it seems that the referendum for electoral reform in Ontario did not stand a chance.

Is There Support for Electoral Reform?

The nature of referendums also makes electoral reform challenging. Referendums require organizations to support one side of the debate and to make the case for change or to maintain the status quo. Typically, it easier to maintain the status quo, especially when there is no consensus on the reform side about what electoral system should be adopted. This makes it difficult for reformers to build a broad enough coalition to both educate and persuade the public about the benefits of reform.

Still, despite historic and contemporary attempts to change electoral systems for Canadian elections, it is not clear that Canadians are that interested. While there are strong pockets of support for reform, it is low on the list of priorities for the general population. The consultations conducted by the federal government in 2016-2017 included a (widely critiqued) survey of over 380,000 Canadians, which found that 67% of Canadians are somewhat or very satisfied with the way democracy works. Another study conducted in 2016, this one by the Angus Reid Institute, found that only 37% of those surveyed were in favour of changing to a different electoral system, and 66% said changing the way Canadians vote was either a lower or very low priority.

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Contributors: Christopher Drummie, John Jeffrey, Keegan Reynolds, Thomas Leonard, Morris May, Deanna Merriam, William Mizuik, and Dymond Stevens