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Topic: Should Canada change its electoral system?

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Topic: Should Canada change its electoral system?

Elections are the main way by which citizens participate in the political system.
Suffice it to say, elections are paramount in democratic governance, as political parties
that wish to govern must win the support of the governed. In that regard, elections allow
citizens to exert a degree of control over the government. Without fair rules and
procedures by which votes are translated into political representation, the public would
not view the elected with a sense of legitimacy and will have no confidence in their
decisions. Many have advocated the reform of the Canadian electoral system on the
grounds that it distorts and misrepresents the ideological views of the population. With
Canada’s recent history of low turnout rates and the difficulty in forming strong
governments, these allegations need to be examined. This paper will investigate the
current system and the proposed alternatives with the goal of determining which system
suits Canada the best.



Elections are at the root of representative democracies as they allow citizens to
decide who will represent them in the government. In Canada, federal elections usually
occur every four years, however, an unexpected election might occur when the
government is defeated on the House of Commons. The electoral system determines how
“citizens’ preferences, expressed through votes, are translated into seats in the legislative
assembly” (Kanji, S2-L18). In Canada, provincial and federal elections are based on the
single-member plurality system, also known as the first past the post system. In this
system, the political candidate that receives the majority of the votes in a constituency is
elected to represent them in Parliament. It is therefore not necessary to capture the
majority of the votes to win. In fact, in the most recent federal election in 2011, the
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Conservative Party of Canada was able to win the election with 39.62% of votes and get
54.2% of seats on the House of Commons (CBC News, 2011). As it is apparent, the
composition of the House of Commons depends on how well party’s candidates do in the
308 constituencies. As demonstrated by the preceding statistics, the single-member
plurality system “does not reward parties in proportion to their share of the popular vote”
(Brooks, 2011, p. 324). Nevertheless, this system is able to create strong governments, as
it is able to transform “less than a majority of votes for a party into a majority of seats in
the legislature” (Kanji, S4-L18). However, in the last 19 general elections, 9 were
minority governments (Brooks, 2011, p. 325), thus the validity of that claim is dubious.
During the election year, concerns are often raised about our electoral system.
Last general election was not an exception, and the fact that the U.K. held a referendum
on whether single-member plurality system ought to be replaced with another procedure,
did not help appease the legitimacy concerns over our electoral system. The fact that the
U.K. referendum significantly showed with 67.9% of votes that the population was
against an electoral reform, it did not stop advocates of alternative methods (BBC News,
2011). In Canada, several consequences have been identified with regard to the singlemember
plurality system and its impact on political parties and national unity (Brooks,
2011, p. 325). Firstly, it distorts the vote-to-seat ratio, as a strong national party will
receive more seats than votes, and favors small parties that have a strong regional support
(Kanji, S5-L18). Second, it gives the illusion that some parties are not supported in a
certain regions when “in fact their candidates may regularly account for 15-30 per cent of
the popular vote” (Brooks, 2011, p. 325). Lastly, small parties that are not regionally
concentrated but nonetheless appeal to the interests of a population widely distributed
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across Canada will receive a fewer seats (Brooks, 2011, p. 325). For these reasons,
opponents have long criticized the first past the post system for distorting and
misrepresenting the ideological views of the population, and have advocated a change to
an alternative method such as the proportional representation and mixed systems.
Furthermore, Alain Clairns, a political science professor, argues that the Canadian
electoral system “exacerbated regional and ethnolinguistic divisions in Canadian political
life” (Brooks, 2011, p. 325).As a result, the current electoral system is blamed for our low
election turnout rate as it disempowers voters. Turnout rates for federal elections have
fallen from 79.4% in 1958 to 61.4% in 2011 (CBC News, 2011).However, in Quebec’s
recent provincial election, the turnout rate was 74.6%, breaking the previous downtrend
(Directeur général des élections du Québec, 2012). In turn, strategic voting has become
an answer to some voters. Strategic voting refers to voting for a candidate that represents
the party that has the highest chance of winning against the projected frontrunner
(Brooks, 2011, p. 326). This strategy has been popularized in recent elections. During the
2011 federal elections, anti-Conservative groups advocated voters to “throw their support
behind whichever non-Conservative candidate the group deems most able to win — even
if that means voting for the Bloc Québécois in some cases” (Popplewell, 2011). However,
many have criticized the strategy,and its effectiveness is uncertain (Breguet, 2011).
One alternative is the proportional representation. Under this voting system, the
number of party members elected to the House of Commons is proportional to their share
of the popular vote (Brooks, 2011, p. 325). Supporters claim that it would allow
candidates with distinct ideological points of view to be elected to the House of
Commons. The New Democratic Party agrees because “that such a system could better
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represent the electorate” (Kanji, S7-L18).Although on the surface it might seem like a
fair system that reflects proportionally the popular vote, there are multiple important
caveats. First and foremost, it encourages the creation of small political parties with
narrow interests. While the result might reflect the true ideological positions of
Canadians by electing said parties to the House of Commons, it may further divide the
Canadian society (Kanji, S7-L18). As a result of having many political parties,
proportional representation might produce unstable governments. Indeed, it will be
increasingly harder to form a majority government and coalition governments will have
to be formed more frequent (Kanji, S7-L18). Furthermore, deadlocks will also be more
frequent as “inter-party deals necessary to maintain a coalition government may paralyze
cabinet decision-making” (Brooks, 2011, p. 325).To illustrate, we will use Belgium’s
recent political crises. In their last two elections, 11 political parties were elected to the
Chamber of Representatives (analogous to Canada’s House of Commons), each with less
than 20% of the popular vote. In the 2007 election, it took 196 days to form the
government, and in 2010, 541 days of negotiation before the government was finally
formed in late 2011 (Waterfield, 2011).Finally, proportional representation might allow
extremist parties to be represented in the House of Commons (Kanji, S7-L18).Another
alternative is using a mixed system, which consists of electing half of the members of
parliament with the single-member plurality system and the other half with the
proportional representation. Supporters claim that it would be “more reflective of party
support across regions, reduce regional parties’ need to incite regional resentment in
order to obtain votes, and thus make Canadian politics less divisive” (Kanji, S7-L18).
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The issue of electoral reform ought be approached carefully. Political parties that
fail to gather wide national support, such as the NDP and the Green Party, will naturally
advocate a system that favors their supporters. Furthermore, the negativity effect tells us
people tend to put more weight on negatives events than on positive events, therefore it is
not out of scope to assume that those displeased are more likely to object and demand
reform. Thus, the question of whether the reformists are representative of the population
has to be asked. Moreover, because of regionalism, multiculturalism and changing
demographics, Canada has a diverse population where the risk of potential lack of
consensus on political issue is high.The implementation of the proportional
representation will result in the creation of many minor political parties that will further
divide the Canadian society, leading to unstable governments. While the single-member
plurality system has flaws that distort political reality, it permits our government to
function effectively albeit not always efficiently. As electionsallow citizens to exert some
level of control over the government, citizens should not have a problem expressing their
discontent with government decisions. Therefore, it appears that an immediate electoral
reform is not justified.
To conclude, many have advocated the reform of the current Canadian electoral
system on the grounds that it distorts and misrepresents the ideological views of the
population. While the single-member plurality system has flaws that have an impact on
political parties and national unity, alternative such as the proportional representationdo
not seem to suit Canada’s regionalism, multiculturalism and changing demographics.
Therefore, we do not advocate electoral reform.
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Bibliography
Brooks, S. (2011). Canadian Democracy. Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press.
Kanji, M. (2012). Lesson 18:Elections. Retrieved 11 21, 2012, from Introduction to
Canadian Politics:
https://www.econcordia.com/courses/canadian_politics/lesson18/
BBC News. (2011). Vote 2011: UK rejects alternative vote . Retrieved 11 19, 2012,
from BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-13297573
Breguet, B. (2011). Poll analysis: Does strategic voting work? Retrieved 11 21, 2012,
from National Post: http://news.nationalpost.com/2011/04/29/poll-analysis-doesstrategic-voting-work/
CBC News. (2011). Canada Votes 2011. Retrieved 11 19, 2012, from CBC News:
http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canadavotes2011/
CBC News. (2011). Voter turnout inches up to 61.4%. Retrieved 11 19, 2012, from
CBC News:
http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canadavotes2011/story/2011/05/03/cvelection-voter-turnout-1029.html
Directeur général des élections du Québec. (2012). General elections. Retrieved 11
29, 2012, from Directeur général des élections du Québec:
http://www.electionsquebec.qc.ca/english/provincial/election-results/generalelections.php?e=72&s=2
Popplewell, B. (2011). Strategic voting: It’s not who you like, but who you don’t.
Retrieved 11 21, 2012, from The Star:
http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/974465–strategic-votingit-s-not-who-you-like-but-who-you-don-t
Waterfield, B. (2011). Belgium to have new government after world record 541 days .
Retrieved 11 19, 2012, from The Telegraph:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/belgium/8936857/Belgium
-to-have-new-government-after-world-record-541-days.html

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