Electoral Reform:
Changing the Way Government Is Elected

By Justin Thomas
Published June 1st 2004 in CBC News Online
A growing chorus of voices in Canada is calling for electoral reform that would change the way Canadians vote in federal and provincial elections. The concern is that representation in government under the current electoral system is not an accurate reflection of the actual vote. Currently, all provincial and federal elections use the first past the post system whereby a candidate runs in a riding, generally as a member of a political party, and if he receives the greatest number of votes he is declared the winner.

Proportional representation
(all forms)
First past the post
(a.k.a. plurality-majority) 
 Proportional representation refers to an electoral concept in which political representation is a closer reflection of actual votes cast. In its purest form (rarely used), the electorate vote for political parties instead of candidates and representation in government is an almost exact reflection of votes cast. Awards a seat to the person who runs in an election and wins the most votes in an electoral area. A majority vote is not required to win ��� the candidate just needs to get more votes than his opponents. This is the primary concern of electoral reformers. They say candidates can be elected even though the majority of the electorate did not vote for them.
 Countries where in placeCountries where in place
New Zealand
United States
Great Britain

Critics argue the system is flawed because it allows candidates (and, by extension, their parties) to win a disproportionate amount of representation in provincial or federal parliament. The system enables the current Liberal government to lead the country with 57.1 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, even though the Liberals garnered only 40.8 per cent of the popular vote.

In a report to the federal government in March 2004, the Law Commission of Canada said the present system produces "exaggerated majorities" and contributes to regional disparity, leaving large areas of the country with few representatives in the governing party.
The solution

According to the LCC and a number of voters groups, the answer is proportional representation -- a type of electoral system used in various forms by most Western democracies with the notable exceptions of Canada, the United States, Great Britain and India.

Proportional representation -- PR for short -- is an umbrella term used to describe a family of electoral systems in which representation in government is tied, in part at least, to the percentage of votes won by each political party in an election. Along with the LCC, which is looking at electoral reform at the federal level, five provinces are investigating what it would take to adopt some form of proportional representation in their own provincial elections (see list below).

Many variations of PR exist and we'll explore some of more popular forms below, but the system which seems to be gaining the most acceptance in Canada is the mixed member proportional model which is being used in New Zealand. This system combines proportional representation with the first-past-the-post system; so 41 percent of New Zealand's 120 members of parliament are indirectly chosen by proportional representation; the rest are elected directly using first-past-the-post.

Here's how it works:
Voters are presented with one ballot with two votes on it. The first asks the voter which political party he or she would like to see form the next government. The percentage of the popular vote won by a party dictates the number of seats it gets in this section. So if a party gets 25 per cent of the popular vote on this section of the ballot, it gets 10 seats. The seats are filled by members chosen by the party. These are known as "list MPs."

On the second part of the ballot, the voter chooses the candidate he or she would like to represent their electoral area as member of parliament. The winner of each electoral area is decided using the first-past-the-post method, meaning the candidate with the greatest number of votes is elected. In New Zealand, there are 69 MPs elected this way -- they are known as "electorate MPs."
Proportional representation at the provincial level

British Columbia
The B.C. Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform was legislated into existence in April 2003 to conduct public consultations into the electoral process in that province. Comprised of two citizens from each electoral district, the assembly is an independent body that will take until the end of 2004 to study proportional representation around the world. Any recommendations will be put to the B.C. voters in a referendum in 2005.

The McGuinty government is looking into the possibility of adopting a modified form of proportional representation. Ontario's minister responsible for democratic renewal, Michael Bryant, says the idea is to keep the first-past-the-post system and add in an element of proportional representation. In March 2004, Bryant told the Globe and Mail the proposal would be "a way of improving the chance of having [the] voter's choice reflected in the legislature."

During the 2003 Quebec election, all three major parties came out in support of adopting some sort of proportional representation. In his inaugural speech to the Quebec National Assembly in June of that year, Premier Jean Charest said he was committed to introducing a more proportional system of representation. The government is expected to introduce a mixed member proportional electoral system in 2004.

New Brunswick
The province established the Commission on Legislative Democracy to conduct public consultations and examine the possibility of reforming its electoral system. The commission is due to release its report late in December 2004.

Prince Edward Island
In 2003, the provincial government established an independent commission to look into electoral reform. In its report, the commission said the mixed member proportional system (modelled after New Zealand's system) would be the best fit for the province. During P.E.I.'s 2003 election, the NDP said it would implement proportional representation if it became the next government.

Other forms of proportional representation
PR (Open list): Voters choose political parties based on candidate lists fielded by each party. They can then choose candidates from those lists. Seats are allocated to each party based on the proportion of the popular vote received.

PR (Closed list): Voters choose political parties based on fixed candidate lists fielded by each party. As with the open list variant, seats are allocated to each party based on the proportion of the popular vote received.

Single transferable vote (Ireland, Tasmania, Australian Senate election): Voters rank candidates on a preferential ballot, allowing them to vote simultaneously for candidates of different political stripes. This method has the potential of pitting candidates from the same political party against one another.

This system has already been used in Canada. At the provincial level, Calgary and Edmonton MPPs were elected this way from 1926 to 1959. And the new Conservative Party of Canada used a single transferable ballot in electing its new leader, Stephen Harper, in March, 2004.