Electoral System Roundup

Why No Referendum?When Canadians Learn about PR with CGP Grey

Canadians Deserve Better -Proportional Representation - on Canadian Flag backgroundThis is the ninth in the Whoa!Canada: Proportional Representation Series

Rep By Pop

George Brown
George Brown

Canadians have been arguing about how we should vote since before Confederation.

At that time, Upper Canada (what would become Ontario) and Lower Canada (what would become Quebec) had equal representation in government.  When the system was initially put in place, the French population outnumbered the English, but by the time of Confederation, only about 40% were French.  If Upper Canada’s George Brown had his way, the government of the new Dominion of Canada would be elected with Rep by Pop (Representation by Population) in which every vote cast across the Canada would be equal.

Since the regions that were to contemplating federation were unequally endowed in population, compromise was needed, so the decision was made to establish proportionate representation among the provinces.

Every province and territory is allocated a certain number of seats in the House of Commons according to a formula set out in section 51 of the Constitution Act, 1867, along with other historical seat guarantees found in the constitution.”
Electoral Systems and Electoral Reform in Canada and Elsewhere: An Overview: 2.1 Canada’s “First-Past-the-Post” Electoral System

Sir Sandford Fleming
Sir Sandford Fleming

In 1892 the renowned Canadian engineer and inventor Sir Sandford Flemming lobbied for the implementation of Proportional Representation with “An appeal to the Canadian institute on the rectification of Parliament.” Unfortunately, then, as now, powerful forces were employed to preserve the unfair status quo.

Still, the idea of embracing Proportional Representation in order to attain electoral fairness didn’t die out.  Voting reform has moved to the forefront as Canadians have become increasingly aware that our votes don’t count.

Recommended for Canada

Over the years the inadequacies in Canada’s Voting system has resulted in much study.

  1. 1977: Manitoba Law Reform Commission Working Paper on Electoral Reform recommended Single Transferable Vote (STV) in urban areas.
  2. 1979: Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Pepin-Robarts Commission recommended Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) for Canada
  3. 1984:  Quebec Electoral Representation Commission tabled a report recommending Proportional Representation
  4. 2003: Quebec’s Estates General on the Reform of Democratic Institutions recommended Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
  5. 2003:  Prince Edward Island’s Hon. Norman Carruthers Report recommended Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
  6. 2003:  Quebec government study led to a Quebec government recommendation of MMP
  7. 2004:  The Law Commission of Canada 3 three-year study/Consultation recommended Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) for Canada
  8. 2004:  British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform recommended Single Transferable Vote (STV)
  9. 2005:  New Brunswick’s Commission on Legislative Democracy recommended Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
  10. 2006:  Quebec Citizens’ Committee Report recommended Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
  11. 2006:  Quebec Select Committee Report recommended Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
  12. 2007:  Ontario Citizens’ Assembly recommended Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
  13. 2007:  Quebec Chief Electoral Officer’s Report recommended Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)

[Note: For more detail on the list of 13 recommendations please visit  Fair Vote Canada’s Thirteen Canadian Commissions, Assemblies and Reports that have recommended proportional representation Page.

Electoral Systems

We tend to think the ballot has more power than it actually has because it is the public face of the election contest.  It’s our user interface.  Which is why it is important for the ballot to be easy for voters to understand— voters shouldn’t have to come out from behind the privacy screen in the voting station to ask the poll clerk how their ballot should be marked.  Voters need to be able to indicate their preference if they are to have any hope of electing the Member of Parliament that will best represent them.  But the ballot is still just one of the elements of electoral system design.

The procedure by which qualified voters determine who our representative will be is called an electoral system.  The different elements that go together to make up an electoral system determine:

  • the structure of the ballot
  • how votes are cast
  • the way votes are counted, and
  • the criteria needed to win

At this point most Canadian electoral reformers have a very good idea which voting systems are more likely to go over well with Canadians. Because this is such a confusing topic, I have chosen to limit this article to the electoral systems that might be used in Canada.

Plurality or Majority

Only one winner is possible in a winner-take-all voting system. Just as it sounds, at the end of the election contest, one winner gets it all, the candidates who against them are losers, the citizens who voted for them are left without effective representation in Parliament.

First Past The Post • Single Member Plurality

The voting system we have been using federally in Canada since Confederation.  It may appear as if we have one Canada wide election, but in reality we actually elect Members of Parliament in 338 individual winner-take-all elections.

The area within each province is divided into separate electoral districts, or ridings, each represented by a single member of Parliament. During an election, the successful candidate is the individual who garners the highest number of votes (or a plurality) in the riding, regardless of whether that represents a majority of the votes cast or not. The leader of the party that secures the largest number of seats in the House, and can therefore hold its confidence, is generally invited by the Governor General to be the prime minister and form government.”

— Electoral Systems and Electoral Reform in Canada and Elsewhere: An Overview: 2.1 Canada’s “First-Past-the-Post” Electoral System

And, of course, this is the voting system Mr. Trudeau vowed to replace.

AVAVAV (Alternative Vote)
Alternative Vote
Preferential Voting
Preferential Ballot
Instant Runoff Voting
Ranked Ballot
The system is most accepted in single winner elections (as for Mayor or President,) but the system flaws have tends to be found wanting because it doesn’t produce outcomes very different than our current winner-take-all First Past The Post system.

Alternative Vote (AV):
This system is also known as preferential voting.
On the ballot, voters rank the candidates running in their riding in order of their preference.
To be elected, a candidate must receive a majority of the eligible votes cast.
Should no candidate garner a majority on the first count, the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped, and the second preferences on those ballots are redistributed to the remaining candidates.
This process continues until one candidate receives the necessary majority.

— Electoral Systems and Electoral Reform in Canada and Elsewhere: 3.1 Plurality or Majority Systems

Over the years Alternative Vote has been adopted here and there though out the world for varying periods of time.  Here in Canada the province of British Columbia used AV in its 1951 and 1952 elections, and Manitoba used AV in its rural ridings for about three decades ending in the 1950s.

The only country that has used the Alternative Vote system at the federal level of government for any length of time is Australia, where this winner-take-all system was adopted in 1918.  But the 1948 majority government decided to implement the Single Transferable Vote Proportional Representation to its Senate elections.

But a fresh review of the historical record shows that the 1948 decision was really the final stage in a frequently-deferred plan of parliamentary reform that goes back to Federation. Even before Federation, many prominent constitutional framers had expected the first Parliament to legislate for proportional representation for the Senate. Sure enough, the Barton government included Senate proportional representation in the original Electoral Act, but this was rejected in the Senate on the plausible ground that it would undermine the established conventions of strong party government.”
Parliament of Australia: Why We Chose Proportional Representation

A mix of Alternative Vote (majority-preferential) and Proportional Representation (quota-preferential) can also be found in Australia’s provincial Upper and Lower Houses.

Although this system is so little used, the data is fairly consistent.  New and small parties are allowed to participate, but the system is designed to funnel their votes back to the major parties, so although voters may be freer to actually vote for the candidate that would best represent their interests in Parliament, they are unlikely to ever elect them.

Because Alternative Vote raises the bar to 50%+1, Alternative Vote makes it even more difficult to elect women and minorities than under First Past the Post.

Alternative Vote is thought to provide an edge to centrist parties because centrist parties are likely to be the second choice of voters on both left and right.  But this is still a winner-take-all system that leaves too large a proportion of Canadians without representation in Parliament.   Adopting Alternative Vote would give the appearance of change while effectively retaining the status quo.

Does any electoral system have more aliases than Alternative Vote?  Proponents of this system seem to be continually rebranding their favored winner-take-all electoral system, presumably to better market it to voters.  This proliferation of names for the same system adds a great deal to the confusion around voting reform.

You might have noticed that Fair Vote Canada’s Thirteen Canadian Commissions, Assemblies and Reports that have recommended proportional representation Page doesn’t include a single recommendation for Alternative Vote.

proportional representation

Proportional Representation

While Alternative Vote is a single system with many different names, the defenders of the status quo very often give the impression that Proportional Representation is a single electoral system.  This tactic frees them to cherry pick the worst examples of problems found among the 90+ countries that have adopted Proportional systems over the last century or so to “prove” this will happen if we adopt Proportional Representation.

Proportional Representation is not a single electoral system, it is the name given to the family of electoral systems that share the principle of proportionality. The one good thing about Canada’s tardiness in attending the Proportional Representation party is the wealth of data from which we can learn about successes and failures experienced by other countries.  This way we can avoid the pitfalls while cherry picking the features we need to get the benefits we want from electoral reform.

The phrase “Proportional Representation” describes the outcome of elections in which the voting system ensures seats in Parliament are won in the proportion in which votes are cast.  Which is to say 39% of the votes would equal 39% of the power in the legislature.

STVSTVSTV (Single Transferable Vote) ballot
Single Transferable Vote
ranked ballot
Proportional Ballot
Preferential Ballot

At a glance, the Single Transferable Vote looks very much like Alternative Vote.  After all, both systems make use of the ranked ballot.

Very often the proven benefits of STV (the Single Transferable Vote) are mistakenly cited as benefits that would be achieved with Alternative Vote.

Single Transferable Vote (STV):
Citizens in multi-member ridings rank candidates on the ballot.
They may rank as few or as many candidates as they wish.
Winners are declared by first determining the total number of valid votes cast, and establishing a vote quota (or a minimum number of votes garnered); candidates must meet or exceed the quota in order to be elected.
Candidates who receive the number of first-preference votes needed to satisfy the quota are elected. Any remaining votes for these candidates (that is, first-preference votes in excess of the quota) are redistributed to the second choices on those ballots.
Once these votes are redistributed, if there are still seats available after the second count, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is dropped and the second-preference votes for that candidate are redistributed.
This process continues until enough candidates achieve the quota to fill all available seats.

— Electoral Systems and Electoral Reform in Canada and Elsewhere: 3.2 Proportional Representation Systems

In order to retain the size of the legislature, riding boundaries would need to be redrawn, so existing electoral districts would be amalgamated into larger districts.  Voters can vote exclusively for the candidates they feel would represent them best, and partisan voters would have the opportunity to rank the candidates in their favoured party.  Single Transferable Vote achieves proportionality naturally, without giving political parties any extra advantage.

Single Transferable Vote achieves proportionality simply by increasing the number of MPs that would represent each district.  When only a single winner is possible, every party scrambles to run the candidate most likely to win most of the votes.  This generally results in a pretty homogeneous bunch of candidates; in Canada it almost always means a white male.  This is why Canada has such an abysmal record of electing women and minorities to our legislature, in spite of our vaunted multicultural diversity.  Around the world Proportional Representation has track record of electing more diverse governments that better represent the diversity of the electorate.  STV seems to do this best.

As I understand it, the difficulty in applying STV to a geographically enormous country like Canada can be quite a challenge.  In order to achieve a reasonable level of proportionality, there must be a large enough number of enough MPs.  Nine to Twelve member districts would be ideal, but would prove impractical. Such a system would require a fair bit of made-in-Canada tweaking for STV to be made to work effectively across this great nation.

Still, this is the 21st Century.  We live in a time when digital technology has made two way communication with far away people not only possible, but easy. The Internet helps shrink enormous geographic distances into workable communities.

MMPMMPFair Vote MMP mock election ballot
Mixed-Member Proportional
Additional Member System

You may have noticed this is the electoral system that has been most often recommended for Canada in the Recommended for Canada section near the top of this article.  What you won’t see from my list is the many different ways of implementing a made-in-Canada version of MMP detailed on Fair Vote Canada’s Thirteen Canadian Commissions, Assemblies and Reports that have recommended proportional representation Page.

Mock MMPR Ballot #2That’s the thing about MMP, it is an extraordinarily customizable system.  Whenever anyone says, “this is MMP” and begins to explain it to you, chances are they are explaining their favoured rendition of it.  The Canadian Government website’s description isn’t quite right, nor do I much like the UK Electoral Reform Society’s explanation of their version of MMP called Additional Member System as used in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the Greater London Assembly.

What we all agree on is MMP is a hybrid system combining a Plurality and List PR systems, imposed on post WWII West Germany by the Allies.
The ballot comes in two parts, one side contains a list of candidates, and the voter marks an “X” beside the name of the chosen candidate.
The voter is expected to mark an “X” to indicate their favoured party on the other side of the ballot.

Everything is changeable.Mock MMPR Ballot #3

Although the Candidate/Constituency side of the ballot is generally a First Past The Post ballot, it could just as easy be a ranked AV or STV style ballot. The Party side of the ballot also results in MPs, so the proportion of MPs on both sides is variable too.  There might be more party MPs or less, or they could just as easily be the same.

But the most changable portion of the MMP vallot is the Party side.  This is where we get into lists.  There are three kinds of lists:

Closed List MMP
The list of candidates is decided by the party.  The party ranks its candidates in the order in which it wants them.

Open List MMP
Mock MMPR Ballot #4
The list of candidates is included on the ballot, and the elector can vote for specific party candidate they like.  This side of the ballot might be done with an “x” or it might be ranked.

Listless MMP
As the name suggests, this system includes no list, like the Fair Vote mock Election MMPR ballots pictured here.  In this type of system, the candidates on the first side are elected in the usual way, and the list side candidates are determined from among the candidates who were not elected.  The party that needs 2 top-up candidates would get seats for their two unelected candidates who received the most votes.

Former Liberal Party Leader (and current cabinet minister) Stéphane Dion developed his own version of MMP he calls P3

DMPDual-member Mixed Proportional ballot
Dual Member Proportional Representation
Dual-member Mixed Proportional

Dual Member Proportional (more formally known as Dual-member Mixed Proportional) is a proportional electoral system that was created by Sean Graham in 2013 with funding from the University of Alberta’s Undergraduate Research Initiative. It was designed to meet Canada’s unique needs and to bridge the gap between Single Transferable Vote and Mixed Member Proportional advocates.
About DMP

Existing single member electoral districts would be amalgamated into 2 member ridings, so no new seats would need to be added to the Assembly.  Each Party can field up to two candidates in each riding, but voters each cast only a single vote, either for an Independent candidate, or one of two ranked candidates running for a party (or only one party candidate if only one is nominated).

Each district would elect two MPs, the 1st candidate in the party with the most votes would win the first seat, and the second seat would be used to ensure overall proportionality.

A nice twist is that Independent candidates get a little edge; if an Independent candidate comes first or second, s/he will be guaranteed a seat.

This made-in-Canada Proportional system was been chosen to be one of the electoral systems included in the upcoming referendum scheduled to take place in November 2016 in Prince Edward Island.

So there you have it. If you are interested in more detailed information, both Fair Vote Canada and Wikipedia are good sources. Also, check out my PR4Canada resources page (which has a link in the sidebar).

Next up will be my Voting Glossary.


Although I will correct a typo, rearrange text for clarification or clean up other formatting errors without comment, when I make a substantive change to the content of an article published online, I always make note of it, as I am doing here: I’ve removed the following error of fact from the section about AV (Alternative Vote) above: “Since adopting AV, Australians have only ever managed to elect candidates from the three main parties to their House of Representatives.”

Thanks to Geoff Powell of PRSA (Proportional Representation Society of Australia) for pointing out my error:

Adam Bandt (Greens) is the member for Melbourne in the House of Representatives. Independents have been elected to the House, but usually after falling out with the party under whose banner they were originally elected. Greens are making inroads in inner Melbourne and Sydney as these areas become gentrified. Of course Greens get close to their fair share in the [Proportional] Senate despite its malapportionment.”

Thanks, Geoff!

Families of Electoral SystemsWhen Canadians Learn about PR with CGP Grey

Why No Referendum?
Proportional Representation For Canada series so far:

• Proportional Representation for Canada
• What’s so bad about First Past The Post
• Democracy Primer
• Working for Democracy
• The Popular Vote
• Why Don’t We Have PR Already?
• Stability
• Why No Referendum?
• Electoral System Roundup
• When Canadians Learn about PR with CGP Grey
• Entitlement
• Proportional Representation vs. Alternative Vote
• #ERRÉ #Q Committee
• #ERRÉ #Q Meetings & Transcripts
• Take The Poll ~ #ERRÉ #Q
Proportionality #ERRÉ #Q 
• The Poll’s The Thing 
• DIY Electoral Reform Info Sessions
• What WE Can Do for ERRÉ
• #ERRÉ today and Gone Tomorrow (…er, Friday)
• Redistricting Roulette 
• #ERRÉ submission Deadline TONIGHT!
#ERRÉ Submission by Laurel L. Russwurm
• The Promise: “We will make every vote count” #ERRÉ
FVC: Consultations Provide Strong Mandate for Proportional Representation #ERRÉ
PEI picks Proportional Representation
There is only one way to make every vote count #ERRÉ
Canada is Ready 4 Proportional Representation
Sign the Petition e-616
#ProportionalRepresentation Spin Cycle ~ #ERRÉ
• International Women’s Day 2017 ~ #IWD
• An Open Letter to ERRÉ Committee Liberals

and don’t forget to check out the PR4Canada Resources page!



Why Don’t We Have PR Already?Why No Referendum?Canadians Deserve Better -Proportional Representation - on Canadian Flag backgroundThis is the seventh in the Whoa!Canada: Proportional Representation Series

First Past The Post (FPTP)

Although democracy seems like the best form of political system for citizens, there are different ways to go about it, and as with most things, some are more effective than others. England bestowed our single member plurality winner-take-all electoral system on our young nation in our very first Canadian federal election in 1867, and we’ve been using this First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system ever since.  Canada has seen a lot of innovation since then — from automobiles through air travel to space exploration.  Our lives have changed and improved in a wide variety of ways: indoor plumbing, universal health care, the internet — most things have improved and modernized… but not our electoral system.

Like many Canadians I have come to understand the serious democratic deficit inherent in our 18th century voting system, but I’ve had an opportunity to learn about the alternatives over the past few years. As I’ve mentioned before, I hear many of the same arguments against Proportional Representation used over and over again. One of the most pervasive arguments is the one that insists if we switch to a Proportional system it will necessarily be unstable and have to suffer many more elections than we do now.

So let’s compare the Canadian record of elections with countries that use some form of Proportional Representation.

List PR (Proportional Representation)

Spain adopted List PR in 1977. Between then and now, Spain has had 12 elections, in 1977, 1979, 1982, 1986, 1989, 1993, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2011, 2015. During the same time period, Canada also had 12 elections: in 1979, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1993, 1997, 2000, 2004, 2006,2008, 2011, 2015.

Canada v Spain - electoral stability

That doesn’t sound any more unstable than FPTP.  How can that be?  Maybe we need a larger sample… so let’s look at countries that have been using Proportional Representation longer.

Italy started using List PR in 1945, and since that time they have had 18 general elections, in 1946, 1948, 1953, 1958, 1963, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1994, 1996, 2001, 2006, 2008, and 2013

Israel also adopted Proportional Representation in 1945, and since then they’ve had 20 elections in 1949, 1951, 1955, 1959, 1961, 1965, 1969, 1973, 1977, 1981, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 1999, 2003, 2006, 2009, 2013, and 2015

That’s a lot of elections! We wouldn’t want to be running to the polls that often here in Canada, right?

Except… in that same period of time, with our “stable” First Past The Post system, Canada has had even more elections — a whopping 23 since 1945, in 1945, 1949, 1953, 1957, 1958, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1979, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1993, 1997, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2011, and 2015

The reason I decided to look at Israel, Italy and Spain are because these countries are the ones most often trotted out to “prove” just how bad Proportional Representation is.

But I was still interested in finding a Proportional Representation system that had actually had more elections than Canada.  So next I looked Denmark, a country many Canadians admire because of its’ excellent social safety net. Denmark has used List PR since 1953 (but I’m not sure what they used before that). Since 1945, they have had 25 elections in 1945, 1947, 1950, 1953, 1957, 1960, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2001, 2005, 2011, 2015

Canada-Israel-Italy-Denmark - stability graph

Something else to keep in mind is that all three of these countries use List PR, which I’m pretty sure is the oldest form of Proportional Representation– and certainly the most commonly used. The thing that is important to understand is that List PR is one form of Proportional system that nobody is recommending for Canada.

So maybe we ought to  take a peek at the proportional systems that are recommended for Canada, in countries that have a little more in common with us.

Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)

After List PR, Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) is the most common form of Proportional Representation used at the national level around the world, so it’s not surprising to learn that MMP is the system most often recommended for Canada.

New Zealand replaced their First Past The Post electoral system with Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) in 1996, and since then they have had just 7 elections, in 1996, 1999, 2002, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2014 — the same as Canada.

Canada v New Zealand - electoral stability

Using the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system since 1945, Germany has had only 18 elections, in 1949, 1951, 1953, 1957, 1965, 1969, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1983, 1987, 1990 (reunited), 1994, 1998, 2002, 2005, 2009, and 2013.

Single Transferable Vote (STV)

The other form of Proportional Representation that has been considered for Canada is the Single Transferable Vote (STV). This system is not as widely used as the others, but it found a lot of favour here in the BC referendum, where more than 58% of BC voters voted to adopt it. As often happens, the government holding the provincial referendum didn’t actually want to change the electoral system that had given it a disproportional amount of power. Their referendum was designed to fail by requiring a super majority of 60% before BC-STV would be adopted. Last night Dennis Pilon remarked on the irony of BC referendum requiring a higher threshold of support to change its provincial electoral system than had been required by the Quebec secession referendum.

Another country considered more politically fractious than Canada is the Republic of Ireland, where they have been using Single Transferable Vote (STV) since 1945. And yet they have had only 20 elections (to Canada’s 22) in 1948, 1951, 1954, 1957, 1961, 1965, 1969, 1973, 1977, 1981, 1982, 1982, 1987, 1989, 1992, 1997, 2002, 2007, 2011 and 2016

Canada-Germany-Ireland stability graph

Admittedly, I have not made a comprehensive study, but it seems clear Canada’s First Past The Post system is less stable than many Proportional Representation systems.

National Stability with Alternative Vote (AV)

While Canada’s Liberal government has promised to replace our existing electoral system, it has not ruled out adoption of the winner-take-all  Alternative Vote (AV), a voting system also known as “Preferential Voting” (PV), “Instant Runoff Voting” (IRV) and lately “ranked ballot.”

Since 1945 Australia has had 27 elections, in 1945, 1946, 1949, 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961, 1963, 1966, 1969, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1990, 1993, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2013.

FPTP-AV-stability graph

Overall Election Stability

As we can see, Canada’s winner-take-all First Past The Post system has resulted in more elections than many of the least appealing Proportional Representation systems.

The evidence from Australia — the only country in the world to have used Alternative Vote for any length of time — shows the Alternative Vote system is much more unstable than Canada’s FPTP and indeed every  Proportional Representation voting system I’ve looked at here.

This evidence demonstrates the “instability” argument against Proportional Representation is simply not true, and suggests

stability graph-FPTP-LPR-MMP-STV-AV

any electoral system that provides Proportional Representation is likely to result in *fewer* elections than we are used to with First Past The Post.


And if stability is an issue, adopting Australia’s Alternative Vote is far more likely to dramatically increase the number of elections we have.

a horizontal border of red graphic maple leaves

Why No Referendum?

Why Don’t We Have PR Already?
Proportional Representation For Canada series so far:

• Proportional Representation for Canada
• What’s so bad about First Past The Post
• Democracy Primer
• Working for Democracy
• The Popular Vote
• Why Don’t We Have PR Already?
• Stability
• Why No Referendum?
• Electoral System Roundup
• When Canadians Learn about PR with CGP Grey
• Entitlement
• Proportional Representation vs. Alternative Vote
• #ERRÉ #Q Committee
• #ERRÉ #Q Meetings & Transcripts
• Take The Poll ~ #ERRÉ #Q
Proportionality #ERRÉ #Q 
• The Poll’s The Thing 
• DIY Electoral Reform Info Sessions
• What WE Can Do for ERRÉ
• #ERRÉ today and Gone Tomorrow (…er, Friday)
• Redistricting Roulette 
• #ERRÉ submission Deadline TONIGHT!
#ERRÉ Submission by Laurel L. Russwurm
• The Promise: “We will make every vote count” #ERRÉ
FVC: Consultations Provide Strong Mandate for Proportional Representation #ERRÉ
PEI picks Proportional Representation
There is only one way to make every vote count #ERRÉ
Canada is Ready 4 Proportional Representation
Sign the Petition e-616
#ProportionalRepresentation Spin Cycle ~ #ERRÉ
• International Women’s Day 2017 ~ #IWD
• An Open Letter to ERRÉ Committee Liberals

and don’t forget to check out the PR4Canada Resources page!

Canadians Deserve Facts from the Main Stream Media

06 vote_1745
GPC candidate Bob Jonkman casts his vote (2015)

We are beginning to see a proliferation of Main Stream Media “journalism” about electoral reform. Canadian unfamiliarity with other electoral systems makes it incredibly easy for the main stream news media to get the facts wrong, and pass along misinformation as fact when discussing “Proportional Representation” and “Preferential Ballot/Alternate Vote/Instant Runoff Voting.”

Canada’s first federal government was elected with the antiquated First Past The Post electoral system, and that’s what we have used ever since.   Like many Canadians, I’ve spent my life frustrated by unrepresentative and unaccountable governments, watching helplessly at the erosion of many of the things we hold dear.   After having voted all my life without ever electing anyone, I was on the verge of giving up on our hopelessly undemocratic democracy when I discovered that it does not have to be this way.

As it turns out, there are many other ways to have representative democracy.  85% of OECD nations have some proportionality in their electoral systems, and in the wider world more than 80 countries have adopted Proportional Representation.  And since so many countries have adopted the principle that votes should translate into representation, there are plenty of real world examples that furnish valuable information that allows us to see what works and what doesn’t.

Everything has changed so much since 1867, and we’ve adapted to so many things; it is high time our electoral system was modernized.   Just as we have welcomed indoor plumbing and automobiles and the Internet, Canadians can as easily adopt Proportional Representation.   With three of our four major political parties campaigning to get rid of First Past The Post in our 42nd federal election, it looks like we’ve finally found the political will to upgrade to a system that will better serve Canadians.

Although I’m no expert, I have learned a great deal about Proportional Representation from Fair Vote Canada.  Since electoral reform is such an important topic, I have been making notes as I consider how best to share what I’ve learned about meaningful electoral reform.  But John Ivison’s December 4th, 2015 National Post article “Liberals’ electoral reform vow an existential threat to the Conservative Party” required an immediate answer.

By way of refutation, I made some comments on the article.  However, I know how easy it is for comments to get lost, particularly on a contentious issue, so I decided it best to incorporate them here.

“The repeated commitment to look at the prospect of electoral reform, specifically use of a preferential ballot system, represents an existential threat to the Conservative Party of Canada.”

— National Post: “John Ivison: Liberals’ electoral reform vow an existential threat to the Conservative Party


X marks the ballotPeople keep making this unsubstantiated claim about Alternate Vote (AV), the winner-take-electoral system the Liberals call “Preferential Voting” (PV), a system also sold under the name “Instant Runoff Voting” (IRV).  While some people like the idea, this pronouncement is no more than wishful thinking.

The best information we have about AV/PV/IRV comes from Australia, the only country on earth to have stuck with this system for any length of time. Australia uses “Alternative Vote” in their lower house, and has done for decades. What we can see in the Australian example is that AV/PV/IRV has proven to be even more effective than First Past The Post at polarizing a political system into a 2 Party dance of alternating left-right majorities.

At least in Oz they are lucky enough to have an effective proportionally elected senate which has served as a check on majority excesses that would otherwise have occurred there. Although detractors deride it as legislative “gridlock,” the Australian Senate has actually been known to stop bad laws from being passed by majority governments.  As Canadians are painfully aware, we have no such check on bad legislation here in Canada.

The point is that no matter what you call it, the adoption of Preferential Voting— aka Alternate Vote (AV) aka Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) aka “ranked ballot system” — will not disenfranchise the current Conservative Party.  Quite the contrary; the Australian evidence suggests this system would be more likely to entrench the two-party system Canadians have resisted for so long.  Far from being an existential threat, this electoral system would shore up the crumbling status quo at the expense of the smaller parties, freeing up the Conservative and Liberal Parties to govern alternately as they always have.

what do Liberals want?

Working hard on set: Sharon Sommerville and John Dreger
The Foundation” video pitch for LPC Resolution 31

That is the question. The wording in the Liberal policy on which their electoral campaign promise is based is:

AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED THAT immediately after the next election, an all-Party process be instituted, involving expert assistance and citizen participation, to report to Parliament within 12 months with recommendations for electoral reforms including, without limitation, a preferential ballot and/or a form of proportional representation, to represent Canadians more fairly and serve Canada better.
Policy Resolution 31

The Liberal Party is divided on the issue of Preferential Ballot/AV/IRV or Proportional Representation.  While some Liberals prefer the idea of Preferential Voting thinking it will give the Liberal Party an edge, many Liberals support Proportional Representation because they understand consensus government is the only way to a stable government that will be able to make long term policy and pass properly formed laws that will stand the test of time.  Since all the evidence supports the adoption of an electoral system that will ensure Proportional Representation, my Liberal friends assure me their party’s devotion to evidence based policy will win out and Proportional Representation will be chosen for the good of all. The real question may well be whether the new Prime Minister will be swayed by the evidence.

regional representation

Mixed Member Proportional ballot in mock election

Mr. Ivison’s suggestion that Proportional Representation fails to provide “directly elected MPs to represent their communities” demonstrates his failure to understand that Proportional Representation is not the name of a single electoral system. Instead, “Proportional Representation” describes any electoral system resulting in a Parliament that represents voters in the proportion in which votes have been cast.  All that really means is 39% of votes will give a party 39% of the seats.  It will not allow 39% of the votes to give a single party 100% of the power, which is what happens under a winner-take-all system like the one we we have now.

There are many ways to achieve a proportional electoral system. Over the last decade or so ten independent Canadian commissions, assemblies and reports made by Canadians have studied the problem of electoral reform, and *all* have recommended adoption of Proportional Representation.  And of these recommendations, each and every system recommended for Canada includes directly elected MPs to represent their communities.

You can find out more about these recommendations in Wilf Day’s blog Ten Canadian Commissions, Assemblies and Reports that have recommended proportional representation.

Although Canadians tend to have no direct experience of Proportional Representation, there is no shortage of information about the many ways of achieving such a system.  We have the examples of of more than 80 OECD nations that have adopted such systems over the last century or so. If the news media wishes to inform Canadians about electoral options, we would be better served if journalists like Mr. Ivison would provide us with factual information.  The grass root multipartisan group Fair Vote Canada has been studying proportional voting systems for more than a decade and has a great deal of good information on offer on the Fair Vote Canada website.  My local Fair Vote Chapter has a wealth of info online as well.

800px-Borgen_tbane_01For those of you (like me) who often learn best accidentally through good drama, you might want to check out “Borgen,” an excellent dramatic tv political series that plays out in the framework of Denmark’s system of Proportional Representation. Although similar to “House of Cards,” I enjoyed “Borgen” much more, subtitles and all. (You stop noticing them very quickly.) The popular Danish series has spread through the EU, and now North America, and was aired on TVO earlier this year. I hope TVO takes this opportunity to run it again, although it might be better if CBC were to pick it up so the show will be available across Canada. The entire series is available in a DVD box set; even if you don’t want to spring for it, your local library may be interested in carrying it, or getting it in through inter-library loan.

In the meantime, there are many good videos available on YouTube, including these I have assembled into an Electoral Reform Playlist.

do we really want to retain the status quo?

Election Results: 2011 and 2015
39% of the votes = 100% of the power

What Mr. Ivison describes as “strong, stable governments” produced by our “much-maligned status quo” does not reflect the Canadian reality.

What Canadians are accustomed to under our winner-take-all electoral system is alternating “majority” governments with a disproportionate amount of power.

What makes a government strong? Giving a single party 100% of the power based on 39% of the vote gives a single party government the power to dictate terms to the other 61% of Canadians. It that strength? It certainly doesn’t seem like democracy.

What makes for government stability? For many, it means fewer elections. But the fact is Canada has had more elections since 1945 than even the worst iterations of Proportional Representation.

For me real stability is policy and legislation that will stand the test of time….policy that lasts.  And yet the first order of business for our new Liberal majority government is to undo many of the policies implemented by the outgoing Conservative majority government. It is this instability (known as policy lurch) that inclines many Liberals and Conservatives to reject winner-take-all First Past The Post electoral system.  Adopting another winner-take-all system just doesn’t seem to make sense.   If your house is falling down, fixing it, or moving to one that is more solid is a better solution than slapping on a coat of paint.  Switching from First Past The Post to Preferential Voting/AV/IRV) is merely a superficial change like a coat of paint  It might cheer us up because it looks better, but the problems will still be there.

The reality Canadians have today is an electoral system where some votes count more than others, but most votes don’t count at all. If we want real change, we need to choose a fair electoral system that will give us Proportional Representation, because all Canadians deserve an equal and effective vote to give us voice in parliament.


Image Credits

Borgen by Tommeh72 released under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

All other photos by Laurel L. Russwurm are dedicated to the Public Domain via CC0

Election Day & Ballots


Olivia Chow will make a wonderful Toronto mayor. The only thing that scares me is her support for the “ranked ballot” shell game.

Under a winner-take-all electoral system, only 1 candidate is elected to each position, so voters have only have a single chance to elect the candidate who supports the issue most important to us. With such a system, I should vote for John Tory. Although I disagree with the man on every other level, he is the only frontrunner who opposes the adoption of AV/IRV, which has been touted as “the” ranked ballot system.

Strategic Voting

Should I be forced to vote for a candidate I find so repugnant I would cross the street to avoid? We shouldn’t have to even consider such a thing, and wouldn’t if we had a truly democratic system. But we don’t; we have a winner-take-all system that gives a single candidate all the power. With an electoral system that allows more than two candidates, this means a majority of voters fail to achieve representation. Under such a system, what is surprising isn’t that so many Canadians don’t exercise the right to vote, it is that so many of us continue to do so, even knowing that our votes won’t count.

In spite of how absolutely crucial I believe electoral reform to be, I don’t think I could vote for Mr. Tory. I would have to vote for Olivia Chow, in spite of this one important thing on which we disagree. But I’m confident she’s smart enough to see through that and decide to support meaningful reform to Proportional Representation during the course of the consultation process. I’m confident that Olivia Chow wouldn’t close her eyes to new information to continue down the wrong path to avoid the appearance of being “wishy washy.” I don’t know about you, but I would prefer a government that looks at facts and makes policy accordingly. Like many women, Olivia Chow is more of a do-er than a conformer. What matters is to fix the problems.

So, yes, I think Olivia Chow will make a wonderful Toronto mayor, even though she currently opposes what I believe to be the single most important issue at all levels of Canadian politics, namely meaningful electoral reform.

The Truth About Ranked Ballots

“Ranked ballots” are in themselves neither proportional or non-proportional. They can be used in a proportional system, Like “STV” (Single Transferable Vote”) or they can be used in a non-proportional system like “AV” (Alternative Vote) — which is also sold under the aliases “IRV” (Instant Runoff Voting), “Preferential Ballot,” “Ranked Choice Voting” or “Ranked Ballot.” and probably more I haven’t encountered yet. Changing the name doesn’t change the system; it doesn’t matter what you call it, this winner-take-all electoral system will always smell unfair.

The people pushing “The Ranked Ballot System” claim all the advantages of STV (the proportional ranked ballot system that a clear majority of BC citizens voted to adopt) without having backed up such claims with evidence.  Because the truth is, the advantages arise out of a switch to a proportional system, not from the type of ballot.  If your neighbor’s blue painted house is cooler than yours in the summer. your white house won’t be any cooler if you paint yours blue. To make your house cooler, you would need to install air conditioning like your neighbor did.

Although AV/IRV and STV both utilize ranked ballots, the way in which they are employed in the two systems is dramatically different.  AV/IRV eliminates the candidates with less support and transfers their support to the front runners.  STV transfers the surplus support of the front runners to voter’s 2nd or 3rd choice candidates who don’t have enough support to meet the threshold.

But the real difference between the two systems, the most important difference, is that AV/IRV is a winner-take-all system.  We already have an unfair First Past The Post (FPTP) system; the same one we have used since even before confederation.  This kind of system is undemocratic because some votes count more than others, and some votes don’t count at all. In contrast, STV is a Proportional Representation system intended to make every vote count.  When only some people are represented, it’s not really democracy.

Another thing supporters of AV/IRV suggest is that parties are necessary for Proportional Representation.  Because of this, they say we can’t achieve PR at the municipal level because parties aren’t allowed at this level in Ontario. That simply isn’t true.  Not just that parties aren’t involved in our municipal politics, but the truth is that you don’t need parties at all to achieve Proportional Representation. When we are talking about electoral reform, people talk about parties because that’s what we have experience with. Still, Canadians need look no further than our own Nunavut & NorthWest Territories to find working examples of No Party Rule.  Maybe once we have Proportional Representation, we’ll be able to dispense with parties altogether.

“Proportional” just means that voters are proportionally represented by the candidates we select. If 50% of us are women, around 50% of our representatives should be women. If 70% of us don’t want mass surveillance, 70% of our elected representatives should reject laws that would legitimize mass surveillance. A good proportional outcome should have candidates that will represent the spectrum of all our interests.  In an unfair system that elects only a single representative, we choose parties because then we might be able to influence more than one policy– if our choice of candidate is lucky enough to be elected.

With a winner take-all-system, we generally have to pick the candidate we think best reflects our views, often our most important view– and hope she gets elected. THEN we must trust she will govern in ways we find acceptable. Rather than being represented by a single candidate, we would all be better represented by more than one, because we are each more complicated than that.

While I agree with one candidate on housing, I might disagree on transit. By having multi-member electoral districts (where we elect more than one candidate) we can elect candidates who will give voice to all our interests. And once we have such proportional representation, the representatives need to forge consensus in how they govern.

But right now, in your riding, if the candidate you vote for doesn’t get elected, you don’t have any representation at all. (Some people NEVER get representation– after a while they stop voting.)  But if your electoral district would be able to elect 5 or 10 representatives, your chances of representation on at least one level would skyrocket.  Better still, you are probably going to be able to elect candidates who will represent the full spectrum of all our views– not just the views of the winner.

The reality of winner-take-all systems is that, if you are LUCKY, you *might* elect the Candidate that agrees with the single issue most important to you. If you are luckier still, that representative will actually work to resolve that issue to your satisfaction. But if that issue is actually less important to your new representative than it is to you, once elected, your new representative may never lift a finger to deal with your most important thing. So how represented are you then?

No matter what AV/IRV supporters say, my 3rd choice of candidate is NOT equivalent to your first choice of candidate. For instance, if I have only 3 candidates to choose from in Toronto’s mayoral race, if I rank Olivia Chow #1, John Tory #2 and Doug Ford#3, I would not consider myself represented if Doug Ford became mayor. On the other hand, the people who ranked Doug Ford 1st would be ecstatic, not only because they elected the candidate they wanted, but because they can now count my 3rd choice towards his victory, they can now pretend he had actual majority support, and thus, that his government has more democratic legitimacy. But the reality is that he won’t, and a majority of citizens will continue to be unrepresented by the new mayor.

The point of Proportional Representation is that ALL citizens deserve adequate representation, and that is just as important– and maybe even more so– at the municipal level of government.

My fictional example STV ballot
This is my sample STV ballot using fictional characters as candidates, demonstrating how it might work under STV.
My variation would allow all the Independent candidates a second kick at the can, in much the same way parties get one.  As a non-party supporter, I would not be obliged to support any party candidate on the right side of the ballot, but able to give my favourite Independent candidate the same kind of additional support that party supporters get to throw behind their party.

Democracy Theatre

canadian flag banner


In the National Post, Andrew Coyne asks:

“The economy is in good shape, so why is support for the Conservatives slumping?”

I’m making Mother’s Day cards right now so I don’t have time to read the article, but even having only read the blurb, I find myself disagreeing with Andrew Coyne’s conclusion.

The Tories have not gone out of their way to alienate anyone. They are simply doing the job they were elected to do.

The Harper governmenr is doing an excellent job of serving the only constituents they represent. Their party is legally empowered to govern in this way because our inequitable winner-take-all electoral system gives all of the power to the party that secures more seats than any other. 

Ours is not a democratic system. 

The problem with a winner-take-all system like ours is that a majority government is a dictatorship.

 flag smallThe rest of us don’t count any more than our votes do.

That is the reality built into Canada’s winner-take-all electoral system.

Only the elite whose votes elect the government secure representation in government.

The electoral reform Andrew Coyne supports is called “Alternative Vote” ~ although various spin doctors have rebranded it “Preferential Voting” (Liberal Party) or “IRV” (RaBIT). Some people like this alternate winner-take-all electoral system because they believe it will game the system so their party will get the dictatorial power currently enjoyed by the ruling party.

No matter how good the intentions, no matter how benevolent, a dictatorship is not democratic. Every time I hear people slamming Canadians for our low voter turnout it makes my blood boil. It isn’t that Canadians don’t care, it’s that each generation has learned that our elections are as meaningless as the elections in any banana republic.

When most votes don’t count, what you’re left with is really only democracy theatre.

I don’t think we can afford to pay the price demanded by anyone’s defacto dictatorship.

On this Mother’s Day, I reflect on why I write this blog: as a mother, I believe all of our kids deserve to live in a real democracy. But that will only happen with meaningful electoral reform to Proportional Representation.

All Canadians should be represented by our government. 

a horizontal border of red graphic maple leaves

Fair Vote Canada’s Referendum

“A democratic voting system must encourage citizens to exercise positive choice by voting for the candidate or party they prefer. They should not find it necessary to embrace negative or strategic voting – to vote for a less-preferred candidate to block the election of one even less preferred.”

Fair Vote Canada Statement of Purpose

Fair Vote Canada display

Anyone who reads this blog probably knows I support Fair Vote Canada, because it promotes electoral reform to proportional representation.

In response to pressure from a special interest group, Fair Vote Canada is currently holding a nation wide referendum to determine if its membership wishes to break away from its original purpose and instead support a non-proportional “Alternative Vote” electoral system known as Instant Runoff Voting (IRV).

On the face of it, this is an internal issue. If you aren’t already a paid up member, you won’t be able to vote. But that doesn’t mean it won’t impact on the rest of Canada. Over the next few days I’ll be wading through the mailing list discussion that has been taking place around the referendum issues so I can write about what impact this may have.

a horizontal border of red graphic maple leaves