15 September 2011

The best voting system for Canada

We have seen four provincial referendums recently offering alternatives to the First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system and all failed to bring about change. A major reason for the failures may very well be the systems offered.

In B.C., a citizens’ assembly recommended the Single Transferable Vote (SVT) system and a citizens’ assembly in Ontario and a commission in Prince Edward Island both recommended the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system.

In order to see why these may have been poor choices, we need to keep two things in mind. First, the merit of the system proposed, and second, the marketability of that system to the electorate. There is, in other words, no point in recommending an excellent system, or at least excellent in theory, if the voters won’t accept it.

Let us ask first what Canadians would want in a new voting system. I suggest it should satisfy at least the following criteria:

1. Be fair to all voters (and political parties).
2. Be sensitive to the regions.
3. Provide equal opportunity to all potential candidates.
4. Provide local representation.
5. Enhance the power of voters over parties.
6. Be easy to understand.

Some of these have little to do with the theoretical merit of the system but are of vital importance in selling the system to the citizenry. Local representation, for example, is of limited value because most people vote for the party, not the candidate, yet the idea remains dear to the hearts of many voters. Not being easy to understand may not be a handicap to a good system, but it is a major handicap in selling it.

The citizens’ assemblies and the commission did a good job of choosing systems of merit, as we would expect from people who considered voting systems thoroughly, but failed when it came to marketability. It would seem the two choices appealed more to students of electoral systems than to the average voter.

The choice in B.C., Single Transferable Vote, maximizes the power of the voter but, unfortunately, presents about the most complicated ballot one can imagine. I may be underestimating the average voter, but I think he or she just wants to go into the booth and make an X (it’s getting increasingly difficult to get them to do even that), not engage in a convoluted analysis comparing candidates.

I was once a fan of Mixed Member Proportional, the choice offered in Ontario and PEI, but have increasingly come to dislike it, largely for its two classes of candidate, one elected by FPTP, the other from party lists. Many people are suspicious of the list candidates because they are chosen by the parties rather than the voters, a criticism that doesn’t stand up to analysis but seems tenacious, nonetheless.

I have come to believe that a simple PR system may not only be a very good system, but may be the easiest to sell. The only change from the current system would be multi-candidate constituencies.

To see how a simple system would work, consider my home city, Calgary. Calgary currently has eight constituencies, all of which elect Conservative MPs. Under simple PR, Calgary could be one constituency with each party presenting up to eight candidates on their list. Calgarians would still elect eight MPs but, if the popular vote were distributed as it was in the last election, elected would be five Conservative MPs, one NDP, one Liberal and one Green. Not only would the four parties—and Calgary voters—be represented fairly, but all six of the above criteria could be met.

As a PR system it would satisfy Criteria 1. PR systems also tend to provide better opportunities for women, thus helping to meet the biggest challenge of providing equal opportunity for potential candidates, i.e satisfying Criteria 3. The candidates would be local, therefore satisfying Criteria 2 and 4. Indeed this system would substantially improve local representation. Currently, NDP, Liberal and Green supporters have no meaningful local representation in Calgary. Under simple PR, they would.

Regarding Criteria 5, many voters are uncomfortable with PR because it presents lists of candidates and that makes them feel they are losing power to the parties. In fact, PR can increase the voter's power over FPTP. The simple PR ballot can be set up in two ways: the voter chooses a party or the voter chooses a particular party candidate. Under the first setup, the five Conservatives elected in Calgary would be the first five on the Conservative party list, i.e. they would be elected according to the party's ranking. Under the second setup, however, the five Conservatives elected would be the five who got the most votes—in other words, the party offers the voter a short list from which to make the final choice. This gives the voter more power than he or she has under FPTP where the Conservative voter’s only choice is the candidate offered by that party (of course, he or she can abandon his or her philosophy and vote for another party).

And finally, simple PR satisfies Criteria 6—it is easy to understand. The only significant change from FPTP is multi-candidate constituencies rather than single-member constituencies, and the voter is required to do no more than mark an X. If we want to sell PR to Canadians, this may be the way to do it.


  1. Conservative supporters should absolutely love the party list idea. Conservative candidates are selected by Party Headquarters in defiance of anything members of a local riding association might say.

  2. I would be happy with an open list voting system where voters may choose one candidate from a party list. If a voter only chooses a party, then the candidates with the most individual votes from that party will be elected.

    I would accept MMP. However, I know that this system gets abused in Italy as political parties set up decoy parties so that the single member riding votes will not affect the list votes. I can see this system being abused by political parties in Canada.

    STV is a great system. But it is complicated for voters who may only be familiar with a couple of candidates or just a party label. I would be happy to support it. However, I will also support an open list system used in some European countries.

  3. I voted against the MMP in Ontario. I feared the Conservatives, cynical as they are, would put forward a list that would look like the lineup for Sun News, extremists all. Without the need to tend to a constituency those jerks could spend all day, every day grinding Parliament to a halt. NO Thank you!

    Of course other parties might list extreme candidates and abuse the system too.

    I am baffled by your statement "Many people are suspicious of the list candidates because they are chosen by the parties rather than the voters, a criticism that doesn’t stand up to analysis but seems tenacious, nonetheless."

    Elucidate please.


  4. Re my statement "Many people are suspicious of the list candidates because they are chosen by the parties rather than the voters, a criticism that doesn’t stand up to analysis but seems tenacious, nonetheless."

    When people vote for a party list, commonly the winners from that party are those the party has placed at the top of its list. This gives many people the impression that the winners are being chosen by the party, not the voter. There is some truth in this, but it overlooks the fact that all candidates are chosen by the party under FPTP as well. Nonetheless, some people persist in believing PR offers less choice than FPTP.

    As I explain, under PR, the ballot can be set up so that the voter can not only choose a party but a particular candidate from that party. Thus the voter has greater choice than under FPTP.