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Canada’s Electoral System

Canada’s federal elections focus on the election of Members of Parliament to the 338 seats of the House of Commons. Each seat in the House represents one constituency (or “riding” or “electoral district”) and elections occur simultaneously in each constituency across the country to select the relevant representative (with 338 separate local elections). Eligible voters go to a local polling station to cast their ballots on election day (or they engage in advanced polls or mail-in voting) to select their Member of Parliament. Elections must occur at least every four years, but the federal government can call elections earlier if they like.

The Single Member Plurality (SMP) or First-Past-the-Post System

Elections in Canada generally take place using a single member plurality (SMP) system–often called the “first past the post,” or the “winner takes all” system. In this system, the winner of an election is the candidate who receives most votes. Nearly one third of the world uses this electoral system to some degree at the national level, including many former British colonies.

In an SMP system, the candidate who wins need not receive a majority of the votes, only the most among the candidates. For example, in an election with four candidates, the following scenario could occur:

  • Candidate A receives 9% of the vote
  • Candidate B receives 30% of the vote
  • Candidate C receives 30% of the vote
  • Candidate D receives 31% of the vote

In this scenario, Candidate D would win the election (even though 74% of the electorate did not vote for them). Those who voted for Candidate A, for example, might feel like they had “wasted” their vote, because it did not contribute to the winner’s total (or even that of a runner-up) in the election..

Concerns about the SMP System

There are important consequences of this feeling of wasted votes in an SMP system. First, SMP systems may lead to the inadvertent elimination of third-parties in elections because again, voters do not want to “waste their vote” on parties unlikely to hold power. People engage in strategic voting to ensure that one or another of the parties in question wins in their riding, and do not take a chance on newer or less tested parties or candidates. This especially disadvantages a popular third party, such as the NDP. Further, because each constituency holds its own election, strategic voting particularly disadvantages parties that have diffuse support across the country, but do not have a stronghold in any one riding.

Second, because voters may feel disaffected by the sense of “wasted votes” the first-past-the-post system may also contribute to low voter turnout. Many may feel as if their vote is unimportant to the overall election result.

Other electoral systems work to address some of the critiques of SMP.  Proportional systems, for example, can help foster higher voter turnout by increasing representation for minority groups and regional interests). Transferrable vote systems can help people from feeling like their vote doesn’t matter. Canadian provinces including British Columbia and Ontario have considered alternatives to SMP for their provincial systems of voting, and there has also been discussion of the same on the federal level, but change to the longstanding SMP electoral system in Canada has been slow to come.

Further, although Canada’s electoral system has been criticized for its perceived flaws, it has its benefits as well.  To start, proportional electoral systems make coalition governments a necessary outcome for most elections, which can force participating parties to sacrifice some of their campaign promises in order to form the government. As well, because they require negotiation, it can take weeks for parties to reach agreements to form a governing coalition.  Under first past the post, governments also have more democratic legitimacy as they do not have to abandon their platform through compromise as often as under proportional methods.

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Contributors:  Jordan Chapman, Colin Currie, Hayden Lau, Liam Mullin, and James Wells