Why and How Canada’s Electoral System Affects the Strategic Voting Effect

Eleanor Hayward submitted the following Research Essay for McMaster University Political Science 2D03: Canadian Democracy on November 20th, 2017 to Professor Peter Graefe & Teaching Assistant Rachael Barnett.

Figure 1:

Source: (CBC, 2015)

Election policy is an essential component of representative liberal democracies, providing a system to select citizens’ best delegates for the lower bicameral legislature. In Ottawa, Ontario the institutional House of Commons (HoC) stands as an arena for 338 Members of Parliament (MP) to debate significant issues and create policy for our nation state. From the campaigning candidate pool of various parties, more than 35.9 million eligible Canadians (Population Pyramid, 2015), select politicians to embody the people’s will. The legal mechanism we employ is a legitimately fundamental element which measures public opinion, translating votes into representative governing shares to execute political power creating law in the name of the public’s greater good. This is the foundation for each bill proposed and amended, each with proponents and opponents discussing pros and cons to negotiate and manufacture the will of Canada’s free electorate across ridings from coast, to coast, to coast.

Significant research and consultation has been undertaken to explore free and fair voting processes. This paper descriptively examines the pros and cons of Canada’s current federal electoral system, and alternately forms of more Proportional Representation (PR) with examples from international experience. A pertinent summary of Canada’s history and present position aims to brings the reader to date on this vital topic of democratic representation. In addition, reflection through the framework of information gleaned from McMaster University’s political science curriculum is explored with analysis of data from various reputable resources plus popular social media in assessment of public opinion contrasting the official government narrative. Themes of power in discourse and extent of minority inclusion are strung throughout from a perspective of democratic service.

Existing Institution—Single Member Plurality by First Past The Post

The electoral system currently employed is referred to as a First Past The Post (FPTP) race of Single Member Plurality (SMP). Proponents claim it provides constituents with localized support to efficiently usher along parliamentary matters, especially with majority governments. Elected representatives are reportedly transparent and accountable to the mercy of voters’ pen-strokes against them next election.

This “winner takes all” approach is sufficiently democratic in principle having served since Confederation and many Canadians accept this account; this perspective is questionable considering a minority of voters regularly manifests “false majority” governments. It’s downright confusing why a plurality counts as an applied expression of a majoritarian system. A plurality means that whichever party gets the most votes wins the contest, not actually by winning a race to fifty-plus-one percent as the common preconception of the term “majority” suggests.

By distorting election results, FPTP creates both over and under-representation of particular parties. The party leader with platform politics elected is First among Members and responsible to appoint colleagues in service as Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries, with the Governor General’s (GG) blessing. Under the responsible government model, this Cabinet is held to a convention of collective responsibility in presenting legislation; all caucus members are strongly encouraged to toe the party line, as long as the Prime Minister (PM) holds confidence of the HoC. While the significance of this will be expanded upon with a specific example in reflection and analysis, suffice it to say that power is consolidated in this executive, requiring checks and balances to maintain democracy.

Opponents of the SMP system consider Duverger’s Law (Orvis & Drogus, 2018, p.307), with both mechanical and psychological effects, which argues a disproportionally-powerful two-party system is bound to emerge and perpetuate with one party holding control (Pappalardo, 2007).

Psychologically, eligible voters are left holding their noses in ballot boxes and strategically select their representatives by striking their ballot against the candidate they do not want, instead of going with their morals to choose a candidate who truly reflects their values. By mechanical effect “wrong winners” can occur, for example two candidates in different districts can receive the same share of votes, one wins a seat while the other doesn’t. Moreover, many votes are systematically disregarded by FPTP. This set of factors attributed to FPTP marginalizes minority representation, namely of women and indigenous peoples in the HoC, when parties tend to select candidates who are more electable, potentially instead of the best qualified person for the job (Niagara Council of Women, 2017).

These challenges are summed up by rational theorists, explaining there is no rational reason for people to participate with time or money in political activity, because there is little significant influence on outcome. These characteristics collectively lower voter turnout, aggravating a collective action problem among the distracted electorate. When actions have little or no effect, all may then fail to act and all may suffer adverse consequences which may entail losing control to the elite (Orvis & Drogus, 2018, p. 284), affecting democratic representation. 

FPTP is known to inflame partisan differences, aggravating an adversarial forum for contentious politics. Meanwhile proponents of PR suggest this alternate system penalizes politics of division, as candidates court second and third choice preferences from voters. Cross-party dialogue is given impetus, furthering legislative civility and collaboration [All Votes Count literature]

Proposed Reform—Proportional Representation

Let us explore the various options of PR first from its’ opponents’ perspective, noting they are often proponents of FPTP. It can be argued PR is a hopelessly complex approach which may needlessly confuse the voting public in ballot boxes. Results lead to inefficient minority governments and often the need for coalition support, which can blur the lines for public accountability. Government would be inherently fractured and therefore more likely to be unstable. It is argued the HoC becomes vulnerable to divisive extremist parties given a more powerful voice where negotiations may necessitate concession detrimental to leading party values. Proponents of FPTP argue change in the direction of PR is irresponsible and risky since democracy is already being served, public consultation demonstrates interest for electoral reform does not exist, and other parliamentary issues are more pressing.

Opponents of FPTP are often alternately proponents of a more proportionally representative system, which offers improved access for minority voices, creating opportunity for shared political power with reinforced cooperation to achieve consensus. In comparison to plurality systems, PR is likely to produce characteristic multiparty systems, often broad and inclusive coalition governments, with more equitable executive-legislative power relations. [ https://muse.jhu.edu/article/225619/pdf ]  

Examples include open and closed-list systems, from moderate to extreme implementation, with hybrid models available in between. Italy and Isreal are represented with closed-list extreme PR systems most dissimilar to SMP. Parties present a ranked sequence of preferred candidates, and voters select their preferred party as a whole. The pre-decided elected MP’s will receive seats in proportion to their share of the votes, where candidates at the top of the list are selected, while those at the bottom are not at the water mark number, calculating by vote percentages to distribution of seats the party is expected to receive.

Open party list systems scale along several variations from relatively closed, to more moderate or most open, all the way to free/panachage perspective by implementation in principle. These assorted approaches allow voters influence to elect individual candidates from the spectrum of party choices more than closed-list systems do. In some nations, voters may be allowed several votes each to rank individuals and/or their party of preference. Hybrid versions have been crafted between FPTP and PR are often referred to as Semi-proportional or Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) systems. Examples have been evaluated, selected and are commonly employed widely across Europe, while also in Japan and Brazil among other democracies.

Under PR even small parties can gain seats, often with a standard minimal electoral threshold of 3-5% [(Orvis & Drogus, 2018, p. 288) applied. With fewer wasted votes, participation rates are higher in turn. Data from the International institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance show that voter turn out per voting age population in PR systems are significantly higher at 68% to MMP’s 60% and SMD at 59% on average (Orvis & Drogus, 2018, p. 290). Analysis of the World Values Survey demonstrates nations with PR are more tolerant of diversity as well as more likely to adopt progressive social policies including same-sex marriage and those reducing inequality. Proponents argue PR is more democratic and more broadly representative. Canadians in the twenty-first generally consider themselves progressive for women’s rights, yet in 2016 only represent 26% of elected legislature (Orvis & Drogus, 2018). Varying hypotheses suggest political culture and longer lengths of official national democracy can not be discounted, although analysis of the World Classification Table reviewing statistics on women in international legislatures also suggests PR systems are more conducive to electing women than SMP. [comp poli text] Other large-scale quantitative analysis shows higher overall human well-being, when more issues are brought into multiparty arenas creating greater competitiveness, giving incentives for better party performance when in power. (Orvis & Drogus, 2018, p.291)

There is obvious complexity in evaluating and selecting a fair PR system. Early in the twentieth century it was too difficult to manually count ballots (Pilon & Stephenson, 2016, p.12), now the modern advantage of transportation and communication technologies greatly enhance their successful implementation. If public education campaigns are specially crafted to present a clear, simplified process, the argument of complexity is negated. However, the legitimate debate continues, and some history of electoral institutions is presented next.

Canada’s Brief History of Equitable Elections

A concentrated chronological sequence is captured here with effort to facilitate the reader’s comprehension of this complex issue to date. First of all, election systems are not a constitutional issue. Although multi-member districts did exist SMP was the early electoral process of choice as inherited from Great Britain’s Westminster parliamentary model.

From Confederation in 1867, only land-owning Caucasian men were permitted to vote in contribution to this democratic institution, with racial and gendered exclusions (Women’s Suffrage in Canada, n.d.). Eligible voter qualifications changed over time; with some earlier exceptions, women struggled to earn enfranchisement and succeeded with federal legislative changes to include most women in 1918 for example. Individuals living in poverty, men and women of ethnic ancestries then First Nation’s peoples eventually followed. Youth vote expanded when voting age was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen in 1970. The right to franchise was hard-won by many; in each of these achievements there existed divisive opposition (Women’s Suffrage in Canada, n.d.). Franchise reforms strengthened bonds between the people and the government instilling trust that Canadians were more inclusively represented by democratic institutions. (Gould, 2016) The next phase of enhanced democracy comes not with voting eligibility, but rather how cast votes are translated into representative shares of power.

Mackenzie King promised voting reforms while campaigning for the 1935 election, however dispatched the issue to a committee and was forgotten once he was safely back in power (Pilon & Stephenson, 2016, p.13).

Fast forward to the twenty-first century when Liberal leader Justin Trudeau apparently recognized this ongoing inequality by campaigning passionately for federal election since June 2015, originally from a third-place polling position, creating a standard of his party platform promising “We will make every vote count. We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the FPTP voting system…within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.” (Liberal Party of Canada, 2017)

Meanwhile, Ms. Karina Gould campaigned for a seat as MP in her constituency of Burlington, Ontario. Running on the Liberal platform, she was publicly recorded by interest-group Fair Vote Canada (FVC) as supporting proportional representation (2017).

Many citizens were optimistic in turn and supported the Liberal platform. The final results of the 2015 Canadian federal election awarded Justin Trudeau’s Liberals 38.5% of the 17.5 million popular voters, inflated by FPTP to represent a false-majority of 54% for a total of 184 seats. Conversely the Green Party (GP) received 3.5% of the popular vote, yet distorted by FPTP the election awarded GP only one seat. This ineffectively wasted 51% of all votes, which under PR would have translated more democratically represented eleven seats for GP, see Figure 1 for a visual (CBC News, 2015).

Once elected on a crimson tide with a surprising majority government, the new PM was welcomed by the GG with Speech from the Throne on behalf of the monarch: “Let us not forget, however, that Canadians have been clear and unambiguous in their desire for real change. Canadians want their government to do different things, and to do things differently…They want to be able to trust their government,” (Johnston, 2015) In return the PM acknowledged this and pledged: “The government is committed to open and transparent government…The trust Canadians have in public intuitions – including Parliament – has, at times, been compromised… [and] Parliament can restore it,” again specifically stating reform of Canada’s electoral system so that 2015 is the last federal election conducted under the FPTP system (Curry & Galloway, 2015).

Also elected on the red wave, MP Gould readily spoke to the NDP opposition motion of creating the special all-party parliamentary committee on electoral reform on June 2, 2016, she is quoted:

“Electoral reform is the next step in this evolution toward a more inclusive system. We can build a better system that provides a stronger link between the democratic will of Canadians and the election results, one that motivates Canadians to take part, one that reflects our collective values of fairness, inclusiveness, gender equity, openness, and mutual respect…I strongly believe [in] stepping away from the [FPTP] system and embracing a new system that can reflect these values.”

This motion passed, and the committee was launched. Numerous expert hearings, town hall round-table meetings, and website/email questionnaires from mydemocracy.ca consulted more than 360, 000 Canadians under supervision of Minister of Democratic Institutions, MP Maryam Monsef. She was freshly replaced at this Cabinet post by MP Gould, and promises from a third-place platform were abandoned eight months later on February 1, 2017 when, standing in front of media alone without visible PM support, she made her first announcement as Minister presenting her official mandate. Gould concluded that clear preference and necessary consensus on how or whether to change the electoral system did not exist referring to results from the 300-page committee report, stating it would be irresponsible to move ahead on this issue without consensus, so it was not included on her first-place agenda.

This particular example of collective responsibility and party discipline manifested as betrayal to smaller parties namely the third-place NDP and fifth-place GP. These parties arguably lost loyal supporters to strategic votes, believing 2015 would indeed be the last year FPTP was implemented as promised repeatedly, which had evidently back-fired. The mydemocracy.ca survey was criticized as uninformative and vague, not even designed to reach consensus, followed by scathing accusations ensued of intentional blatant deception; when the NDP opposition asked what would be sufficient to continue, the question was largely avoided. The Burlington GP candidate weighed in, commenting from local media that consensus is determined when all parties agree, often with two-thirds majority, after working together to find a solution to an issue underlining it’s not where we start (Fiorito, 2017).

Yet considering both British Columbia and Prince Edward Island are currently moving forwards with PR assessment, electoral reform may not be permanently off the table. Provinces are often incubators to gauge success of pilot projects, for example universal health care initiated by Saskatchewan, which may later be implemented nationally.

Reflection & Analysis

Citizen participation is key to liberally democratic institutions and power can be deceptive. Political theorist Luke categorizes three dimensions of power; first of persuasively influencing someone to do something, second to prevent someone from doing something, and third, power to influence someone to think in ways contrary to their own interests (Orvis & Drogus, 2018, p.8). Giovanni Sartori succinctly referred to electoral systems as “the most specific manipulative instrument of politics.” (Pappalardo, 2007)

Dennis Pilon suggests the public has never been in control of institutions, which have been designed and maintained by the nation’s elite (2016, p.13). Elite theorists suggest this is an obvious challenge for democracy, as elite members of society have much greater access to key decision makers and can therefore more likely to influence policy (Orvis & Drogus, 2018, p.284).

The second dimension of power is applied by pluralist systems with tendencies toward fewer parties holding more representative power, preventing fair participation. This makes democratic opposition more difficult as holding government to account is less likely with fewer parties represented in the HoC (Pilon & Stephenson, 2016, p.13). Perhaps a majoritarian plurality of seats in contrast to percentage of voters’ wishes does present opportunity for efficiencies in the system by allowing the governing party to bring legislation along with less time and debate. However, arguably accomplished in the name of the free people as established by fair elections. Artificial concentration of power can have decidedly undemocratic effects, when the agenda of the majority power passes over the voices of party representatives in minority positions.

The third dimension of power may be less apparent; an informal review of social media websites may reveal where this lies. When MP Gould spoke to electoral form in June 2016, she posted the video to YouTube herself, which received more “likes” at nine thumbs-up, with fewer “dislikes” with only one thumbs-down, suggesting public support for change. Consider another example on YouTube (CTV News, 2017) with Minister Gould’s press conference announcing her new mandate not including electoral reform, which has received thirty-three thumbs-down, and less-than-half as many thumbs-up with fourteen votes. It is assumed by this student these low numbers are unadulterated and generally representative of the public’s opinions, interpreted as disappointment at the government’s official narrative.

In contrast, another video posted (CBC News, 2016) shows footage from the HoC of PM Trudeau’s defense to accusations of abandoning his promise received 28,528 views overall, with 260 thumbs-up and half as many thumbs-down with 125 votes. Why the flip-flop? Although acknowledging this small informal sample, it could be perceived that more partisan interests viewed the latter video of Question Period, and have self-interest invested to keep FPTP as the status quo electoral system in Canada’s HoC. Perhaps Canadians were deceived by the official committee consultation and confused by lack of clear educational materials even if they were in support of more democratic PR, which may exemplify the third dimension of power. Personally, this student cares about the issue, but did create an especially informed opinion feeling unqualified to contribute to the mydemocracy.ca survey in time, while naively believing the leading party’s rhetoric that electoral reform would take place either way. Now a bit wiser, the issue of collective action seems more obviously in existence also considering experience that few people engage with their elected representatives day-to-day.

The first dimension of power seems to be present in the official narrative that the government will take care of the people without them having to do anything, other than vote of course, meanwhile presenting the public weaponized information, with this most easily manipulated instrument of politics. On the up side, in the name of democracy, interest-groups FVC and Democracy Watch have filed a Joint Ethics Complaint against the Prime Minister (FVC, 2017); claiming 88% of expert witnesses to the committee called for a proportional system, according to a detailed FVC compilation. Results are to be determined.

In conclusion, the formal legal electoral mechanism selected provided by Canada’s institutions give distinct incentives to political parties, their leaders and individual voters, so understanding the various opportunities will affect citizen participation (Orvis & Drogus, 2018, p.284). The SMP system of FPTP has been utilized since Confederation; proponents suggest this simple system presents clear vertical accountability, and although ‘winner takes all’, a stable and efficient government is secured to power, and the electorate may vote them out next time if they are not happy with the results. In response, opponents sometimes refer to FPTP to as antiquated notion due for refreshment. They suggest Duverger’s Laws applies with both psychological and mechanical effects leading to strategic voting, wasted and distorted votes, aggravating a collective action problem. Alternately they suggest a more PR system where more, if not all, votes count. Also, governments under PR systems are more diversely representative of women and other minorities with better opportunity to collaborate and cooperate in coalitions. Opponents of complex PR systems press these fractured coalition minority governments are inefficient and unstable, where extremist parties may find voice. Proponents suggest a minimal electoral threshold mitigates this possibility while easing the divisive rhetoric of elite parties in power.

History demonstrates the power of democratic elections. Canadians through time have fought for minority representation, first with access to voting at all, and now reforming the electoral system itself with more proportional representation provides a solution for Canadians’ growing disenchantment with Parliament and apathy to their civic duty. Many people seem oblivious that free and fair democratic representation is on the line, with trust instilled in our national government.


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