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!

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.