In the 149 years since Canada became a country, our democracy has evolved—from expanding the right to vote, to implementing stricter regulations around political party financing and adding new electoral districts (also called ridings or constituencies). Yet one thing has remained the same: Every four years or so, Canadians head to the ballot box to vote for a candidate in their local riding. The candidate who wins the most votes in each riding heads to Ottawa as a Member of Parliament.
This electoral system is called “First Past the Post” (or FPTP). Though it’s the system Canadians are most familiar with—it’s used at all political levels across all provinces—it is just one of several electoral systems in operation around the world today. Other countries offer alternative systems for how their citizens vote and how those votes are counted.
In recent years, many Canadians—from elected leaders to academics to everyday citizens—have begun to question how our electoral system itself should evolve or if Canadians should adopt a new system altogether. In the past decade, five provinces have explored changes to their electoral systems. Most recently, the House of Commons has created a Special Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE) in Spring 2016 to review Canada’s national electoral system. On December 1st, the committee released a report titled Strengthening Democracy in Canada.
Why does voting matter?
In a democracy, how votes are cast, counted and translated into power is extremely important to citizens and their governance. Voting allows people to be represented by a group or person of their choice, and have their voice heard. If citizens do not feel that their vote for who governs them is adequately reflected in the results of an election, the legitimacy of government—and possibly for democracy itself—may erode.
In 2015, Samara issued a report card on the state of democracy in Canada. The report, “Democracy 360: A Report Card on how Canadians Communicate, Participate and Lead in Politics,” examined a wide spectrum of data sources and arrived at a sobering result: a meager “C” grade for Canadian democracy. The result reflected the reality that, while our democracy ranks high compared to others internationally, at home there is a sense that politics can work better. There are many potential ways to ensure Canadians are connected to politics, and some people suggest that changing the electoral system may lessen the frustration and dissatisfaction Canadians have with our democracy.
Some frequent criticisms of Canadian democracy that critics link to the first-past-the-post system focus on how majority governments have gained power without a majority of the popular vote, low diversity in the House of Commons, and a decline in voter turnout (a trend that reversed in 2015). Yet dissatisfaction with how democracy functions is not only a Canadian phenomenon. Indeed, countries who use other electoral systems continue to have citizens who express frustration with politics. In other words, changing the electoral system does not guarantee a significant boost in satisfaction with the way democracy works.
Why is this report needed?
As Parliament proceeds with considering electoral reform, it is important that citizens become educated about the options before them. A national conversation about how we, as citizens, choose our representatives is an excellent opportunity to get Canadians engaged—to make democracy more accessible, more familiar, and more relevant to them.
Samara Canada is a nonpartisan charity that is committed to strengthening Canada’s democracy and reconnecting citizens to politics. With this report, Samara aims to provide an entry point for Canadians seeking high-quality, nonpartisan information about the options for electoral reform. Samara Canada commissioned the descriptions of the five systems below from Stewart Prest, a postdoctoral fellow at Carleton University with a PhD in political science.
What’s in this report?
Various electoral systems are used by countries and jurisdictions around the world. The systems in this report are organized into three families based on the outcomes they generate: non-proportional, proportional and semi-proportional (“semi” because the degree of proportionality depends on the design). Five frequently discussed options are profiled in this report, but readers should be aware that the details of each system matter, and significantly impact both the process and outcomes of elections for voters, candidates and parties alike.
"What we talk about when we talk about electoral reform" is an entry point to a discussion on electoral reform. This report strives to provide accurate and essential information about the design and implications of each alternative without overwhelming the reader in detail. For each system, readers will learn about how votes are cast and how ballots are counted, as well as the potential implications for voters, parties and Parliament.
After the description of the options, there is also a Further Reading section, which allows readers to explore some of the other ideas and considerations that are not covered in this report. Additionally, words in bold throughout the text are explained in the Glossary.
What should I think about as I read about the options for electoral systems?
1. No magic bullet: Each voting system has trade-offs. There is no single electoral system that is objectively the “best” system, as each instead brings its own set of strengths and weaknesses. To select the system that works for Canada, Canadians must identify the values we want reflected in our politics and choose a system that best reflects this vision, understanding that no system will be perfect.
2. Stickiness: Change in electoral systems is hard to achieve. Investing the time to find the right system is important because once a system is chosen, it will be hard to change.
3. There will always be winners and losers: Every system for voting takes a different approach to translating citizens’ preferences into a representative government. The choice of a system can significantly affect the result, and no system eliminates the need for Canadians to think strategically about their vote.
Partisan advantage is hard to predict: What electoral system is assumed to work better for one political party over another in the short term may not hold in the long run as parties and candidates adapt their behaviour under the new rules, and new political parties emerge.
4. Party members will matter: The nomination process plays a significant role in determining who will stand for MP as a party’s candidate. Under a new electoral system, parties and their members may need to reconsider their internal roles, rules and processes. Their decisions will shape the outcomes of electoral reform.
5. Long road to implementation: In addition to debating the merits of the best electoral system for Canada, many disagree about the most legitimate process to determine this change. Beyond the process currently being driven by Parliament and government, some have called for a national referendum. Others suggest that the courts will likely be asked to weigh in on the constitutionality of any change.
6. Made-in-Canada solution: Canada’s unique geography, political culture and history will matter as Canadians consider which option will work best here. We can learn from the experiences of other countries, but we should not assume something will work well in Canada because it works somewhere else.
7. Democratic reform is more than electoral reform: While this report considers political reform through a wholesale change of the electoral system, Canadians should also know that there are small changes that could make a difference to how people experience democracy. Dozens of small reforms are being proposed by elected officials and others—changes to electoral rules, parliamentary procedures, party financing and beyond—many of which may be worthwhile considering in addition to or beyond electoral reform.
What should I do after reading this report?
- Get informed.
- After reading the five options for electoral systems below, check out the Further Reading section.
- Sign up for alerts from the House of Commons’ Special Committee on Electoral Reform.
- Talk about the options with friends, family and co-workers. There are lots of trade-offs to consider. Sometimes talking through the options helps!
- Join the social media conversation using key hashtags like #EngagedInER and #CdnDemocracy (championed by the Ministry of Democratic Institutions) and #ERRE #Q (championed by the Commons’ committee).”.
- Consider hosting your own local event on electoral reform. The government has created a step-by-step guide and a calendar to track events.
- Have your voice heard.
- Call or email your MP to let them know what you think about this issue.
- Complete the Government of Canada's online survey exploring the values and principles Canadians share when it comes to strengthening our democracy – including how we vote, mandatory voting, and online voting.
- Learn more about Canadian politics.