Overview: First Past the Post (FPTP) is Canada’s current electoral system. Voters in each riding vote for one candidate in that riding. Whoever has the most votes is elected as the MP for that riding.
What family does it belong to? Non-proportional.
Where is it used today? It is used in 58 countries, including the United Kingdom, the US and India.
How does the system work for voters? People vote for one candidate to become the MP in their riding. Candidates are normally associated with a party, and the name of their party now appears on the ballot with the name of the candidate.
How are the ballots counted? Whoever wins the most of the votes (a plurality)—even if he or she doesn’t receive more than 50% of the votes (a majority)—becomes the Member of Parliament for that riding, and represents it in the House of Commons.
What do ridings look like? There are 338 ridings across the country, with an average of about 100,000 Canadians in each. Some riding populations deviate greatly due to the distribution of Canada’s population in places like the North.
How are Parliament and government formed? How is the prime minister selected? The party that wins a majority of seats normally forms the government, with the party leader as prime minister. If no party wins a majority, the prime minister at dissolution may try to form a minority or coalition government that has the support (also called “confidence”) of a majority of MPs. If they cannot, the governor general invites the leader with the largest number of seats in Parliament to try.
Also known as: FPTP; single-member plurality, plurality system
What does it mean…
1. For campaigning? Campaigning is split between the national race, focussed on the party leaders, and the 338 local races in ridings across the country. While the national party offices closely control election strategies and the party leaders attract significant media attention, local candidates can still shape their own campaigns. They have considerable incentive to go door to door and get to know their constituents and the local media, particularly in close races. Additionally, independent candidates who are unaffiliated with a party can mount campaigns in ridings (though they are rarely successful). In close riding races, a relatively small number of voters become strategically important to the outcome. Likewise, in close national elections, a small number of “battleground” ridings become important in determining the result.
2. For vote choice? Voters choose one candidate, whether that person is affiliated with a party or an independent. Voters therefore weigh the personal characteristics of the candidate, as well as the appeal of their party affiliation and electability when casting a ballot.
3. For local representation? FPTP ensures that after an election, a particular MP is the voice for all voters in the riding. Accordingly, all voters can turn to an individual person if they have a concern about how the federal government is working. While everyone has a local MP to turn to, voters may feel less represented if their MP is not from their preferred party, particularly if they support a small party that won few or no seats overall in Parliament.
4. For parties in Parliament? FPTP favours “big tent” parties with sufficiently broad appeal to win the support of a significant proportion of the electorate—though not usually a majority of voters nationwide. Small regional parties with support concentrated in specific ridings can often win seats as well (e.g., consider the Bloc Quebecois in the 1990s). Small issue-based parties, whose support is spread across the country, are less likely to win seats. It is very difficult for fringe parties to win seats.
The significant influence of the party leader on local electoral success often helps to strengthen party discipline among MPs within a party.
Increasing diversity in Parliament depends on more women, visible minorities and other diverse Canadians running and winning the local party nomination—a process managed internally by political parties.
5. For governing? A single party often wins more than half of the seats in the House under FPTP, forming a majority government. Majority governments can usually enact legislation without difficulty. The prime minister must maintain the support of the MPs in their own party on confidence motions like the budget or the speech from the throne. When no single party wins a majority of seats, it is referred to as a minority government. Opposition parties have more influence on the governing party under these circumstances. This is because they can threaten to withhold support for confidence motions. To receive this support, the governing party may need to compromise on legislation and policy, though it may not need to enter into a formal coalition with another party to do so. Formal coalitions, which function like a majority government so long as they stay together, are also possible.
What would the ballot look like?