Getting Electoral Reform Right: Proportionality and Local Representation

Updated: Sep 19, 2020

There has been one central theme in discussions of electoral reform within Canada: proportionality and local representation. So far local representation has won out. For Our Future calls for a new system, one that maximizes proportionality without disrupting local representation.

The Current System

Canada’s and every province’s current system, single-member plurality, also known as first-past-the-post (FPTP), has existed since our country's founding. It was handed down by Imperial Britain to all its commonwealth dominions. It prides itself on a few key characteristics. It guarantees local representation and directly elected representatives through holding many individual elections that result in the outcome of a general election.

This in effect also amplifies regionalism because individual ridings (electoral districts) contribute directly to the election of members of parliament that in theory represent their political interests. Lastly, this system generally upholds two dominant parties and creates majority governments, which are valued for their stability.

There have been numerous attempts of electoral reform in Canada including in Ontario, British Columbia, at the federal level, and currently in Quebec. There is a central issue to Canadian electoral reform that has often led to its failure. This is the inability to create a system where proportionality and local representation are both maximized.

Recently, British Columbia’s failure came down to creating three proposals, each having significant pitfalls and none sufficiently addressing local representation. At the federal level, there was significant pushback from rural MPs that creating a mixed-member plurality system would reduce their influence.

Regional-list proportional representation would resolve these issues.

Regional-list Proportional Representation

This system has two distinct features that allows it to maximize both proportionality and local presentation. The first is a staple of proportional representation; the general election entails voting for a party, not candidate, where the percentage of the votes parties win dictate their percentage of seats won.

The second would be a fundamentally new feature of our democracy. By expanding the suffrage of nomination elections to all adult Canadians. As of now the nomination elections are restricted to party members. This would maintain local representation, directly elected representatives, and regionalism.

The Details

Nomination Elections. Under the proposed system, nomination elections for each political party would be held in each sub-district (current ridings) on the same day in which all adult Canadians can participate. This may come to be known as 'Nomination Day' and would come months prior to the general election.

Here, voters would simply rank their preferences of nominees for each party (ranked ballot election). This would allow Canadians to vote for who they believe would best represent their local sub-district from each party, not just the party to which they are loyal. Political parties would retain the right to decide who can be a nominee for their party in each sub-district, thereby ensuring that each nominee adheres to the values of their respective party.

General Election. The general election would be changed to a proportional representation system with new, larger voting districts that represent Canada’s distinct regions. The most important change brought by this new system is that it allows constituents to vote for a party, and not just a candidate. Importantly, to prevent unsavoury political parties from gaining political power a three percent threshold to gains seats would be instituted.

Once the election is over, parties would be granted seats in the legislature in accordance with the regional-list proportional representation system. In each district, the party with the highest percentage of the popular vote would be given the first seat. This seat would be given to the sub-district that the party had its highest percentage of votes within. The party with the second-highest percentage of the popular vote would then fill its first seat under the same method. This would work in a cyclical fashion until all seats are filled. The nominees that won their nomination elections and represented the party that won a seat for their sub-district would become Members of Parliament.

Indigenous Elections. Finally, one of the most innovative elements of this system would be the creation of virtual Indigenous districts that provide greater equity and inclusivity in Canada’s electoral system. Similar to the system for New Zealand’s indigenous Māori people, virtual Indigenous districts would be similar to the regional districts, with sub-districts that better represent Indigenous communities. Under this system, voting method and seat allocation processes would be the same as the nomination and general elections, however it would be exclusive to self-identifying Indigenous persons.

Understanding the Benefits and Costs

This system would create nearly perfect proportional representation (see a model of the 2019 federal election as evidence). This would end a minority seat shares creating a majority government and finally fairly represent the interests of Canadians. The new nomination elections would maintain local representation and regional interests by ensuring that interests will be represented by directly elected representatives. They would then carry these interests into party platforms.

Moreover, there would be other positive effects. This would allow greater involvement of small parties that have the popular support of Canadians, which our current system denies political power. For example, the Green Party won almost 1.2 million votes (6.5% of the total) but was only permitted three seats. Under this system, they would have been awarded 24.

There is ample evidence for higher voter turnout in proportional representation systems, which is vital for a healthy democracy. As for the indigenous elections, introducing this new form of voting is likely to give rise to Indigenous parties and/or independent parties that better represent the political interests of Indigenous peoples.

Now there could certainly be some costs. There would be the loss of independent candidates as running under the banner of a party would be required. Yet, there could potentially be a coalition of independents that run as a party to attempt to elect at least one of them.

Additionally, there could be pushback by political parties because they may argue this could disengage party members as they would lose this privilege and could reduce the amount of money raised traditionally during these elections. On this, there is a strong counterargument to be made that by expanding suffrage more people would become engaged with political parties and could actually lead to more money raised.

How to Legislate This?

As mentioned, electoral reform has failed over and over again. How will this be different? Firstly, the strong evidence that this is a superior system to any proposed should give it a stronger chance to be preferred by Canadians and accepted by political parties. Secondly, there needs to be a groundswell of public support that makes the issue undeniable. This requires insistent messaging of the benefits and simplicity of the system. Too often are the complexity of new systems at fault for disengaging the public.

For Our Future is committed to this messaging. We are partnering with like-minded organizations and organizing an effective grass-roots campaign to permanently shift public opinion in favour of regional-list proportional representation.