Questions and answers on electoral reform

How does the Canadian electoral system work?


The electoral system in Canada is based on a voting system called “first past the post”. In practice, this voting system allows electors to vote a single time for a single person in their riding. The person who wins the election is the one who obtains the most votes, even if he or she wins by a single vote. It happens with this system that people win the election with as little as 30% support in their riding.


All you have to do is obtain one more vote than your opponent to win the seat and represent the riding. The party that obtains the most seats forms the government.

What is wrong with our electoral system?


One of the biggest weaknesses of our electoral system is that it does not represent the popular will. Since it is based on the “winner‑takes‑all” principle, a large number of votes are not converted into seats. For example, in the last election, over 9 million votes had no effect on the results as they were cast for losing candidates in each of the ridings in the country.


Another adverse effect of this system is that it regularly produces false majorities. A false majority occurs when a party receives a majority of seats in Parliament without having obtained a majority of the popular vote. Take the example of the Liberal Party in the last elections; it won 100% of the power with only 39.5% of the votes. Given those results, it is not surprising that many think this system is unfair. 

Source: Broadbent Institute

It goes without saying that our election system is poorly adapted to a multiparty, modern and diversified democracy, such as we have in Canada. That is why we need sweeping reform!

What are the different electoral system models?


There is a great variety of electoral systems, or voting systems, throughout the world. Each democracy has different characteristics and adopts the electoral system that suits it best. Electoral systems can be divided into two broad categories:

- The majority category – based on the concept of a simple or absolute majority. The important thing under that system is to obtain more votes than one’s opponents. The first‑past‑the‑post system in Canada falls under that category. To find out more, click here.

- The proportional category – based on the concept of the proportionality of expressed votes and the related distribution of seats in a legislative assembly. To know more, click here.

It is also possible to combine features of these two categories in order to form a mixed system. To know more, click here.

It certainly is not easy to achieve a “perfect” electoral system, since all of them have both positive and negative features. Every democracy must find the model that best meets its regional, demographic and cultural realities, so that its Parliament is representative, fair and democratic. 

What is proportional representation?


An electoral system based on proportional representation ensures that the number of seats occupied by a party reflects the percentage of the votes it obtained in an election. For instance, if a party obtains 35% of the votes, it should have approximately 35% of the seats in the legislative assembly.


There are several advantages to having a system which guarantees that every vote will be taken into account. If citizens are better represented by their elected representatives, they will have a more positive attitude toward politics and this will encourage their participation. In addition, such a system allows for better regional representation, and allows for an increase in the number of women elected. Several studies show that the proportionality principle has several positive impacts on a democracy.


There is a large variety of voting systems that fall under the proportional representation category. More than 90 countries have adopted one of the variations of that system, such as Germany, New Zealand, Sweden and Denmark. In order to become an expert on proportional representation, consult our “myths and facts” page by clicking here!

What is the ranking ballot system?


Several balloting systems have been proposed to replace our current system, the ranking ballot system being one; it was put forward by the Liberals during the last election. In fact, it is not an electoral system as such, but rather one feature that can be a part of one of the existing systems.


Under this system, a candidate must be elected with an absolute majority (50%+1). For this to occur, the voter uses a ballot on which he indicates his   preferences in order (1st choice, 2nd choice, 3rd choice, etc.). If no candidate obtains 50%+1 when the ballots are counted, the second, third, and fourth choices of the electors will be counted, until a candidate obtains the passing grade.


In the context of the electoral system in Canada, the ranking ballot system would be even worse than the status quo. As Ed Broadbent pointed out, ranking ballot would be the equivalent of our first past‑the‑post‑ system “on steroids”. This system would lead to even more frequent false majorities and would make Parliament even less representative than it currently is. In short, it is a facile solution that would not solve the distortions caused by our current electoral system in any way!

What's going on with electoral reform in Canada?


The issue of electoral reform in Canada is not new: political scientists began to point to deficiencies in our system in 1960! Several governments, both federal and provincial, have already examined the matter and done extensive research. Electoral reform was also one of the key topics raised during the last federal election, on several occasions.


On May 10, after six months of waiting, the Liberal government finally proposed a plan to begin the electoral reform process in Canada. In the initial motion tabled in the House of Commons, the Minister of Democratic Institutions announced the creation of a special parliamentary committee to study electoral systems in depth (once again!). The committee was to be made up of 10 members of Parliament; 6 Liberals, 3 Conservatives and 1 New Democrat. The Green Party and the Bloc Québécois would have be entitled to one member to assist at the committee, but that member wouldn't be entitled to vote. The Liberals had given themselves unfettered control over the outcome of the debate and the ability to dictate the terms of future reform. To know more, click here. 

UPDATE:  After weeks of political claim, New Democrats have secured a significant victory for Canadians in the process of electoral reform. The Liberal government has voted in favor of the NDP's plan to make reforming our electoral system a fair, inclusive process based on cross-party collaboration. The NDP motion establishes a committee to study future voting systems that represents all parties in Parliament and does not give an advantage to any single party. 

Since last June, the committee had 23 meetings and listened to 54 experts. Many subjects were discussed, but one thing has been crystal clear : our electoral system is broken and doesn't represent fairly citizens voices. We have to fix it. On September 19th, the committee has launched a coast to coast to coast 3-week consultation. The members shall present their final report on December 1st. To know more about the Committee study, click here. 


What does the NDP propose?


Electoral reform has been a banner call of the NDP and its members for a long time. In our opinion, the system that would be fairest and best represent the electors’ choice must have some features of a proportional representation system. It is the only model that would ensure that all of the votes would be taken into account and that all citizens would be represented.

Among all of the models that exist, the NDP feels that a model based on mixed proportional system, like the one used in Scotland, New Zealand and Germany would be ideal for Canada. That system would allow citizens to directly elect the member in their riding, while being certain that the number of seats won by each party would by proportional to the percentage of the votes they obtained.

Electoral reform is not a partisan issue. The vitality of our democracy is at stake. Today we have the historic opportunity of reforming our democracy for the better, and we will fight for a fairer and more representative electoral system!

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