The benefits and limitations of electoral reform

Paul Howe, Richard Johnston and André Blais, eds., Strengthening Canadian DemocracyMontreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy, 2005. VI + 361 pages.

Henry Milner, ed., Steps toward Making Every Vote Count: Electoral System Reform in Canada and Its ProvincesPeterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2004. 319 pages.

For most of the post–World War II period, electoral system change was a relatively rare occurrence in the established democracies, with the notable exception of France. This pattern of electoral system stability was shattered in the 1990s, however, as an impressive number of countries sought to change the method by which they translated votes into seats, often in response to political crises that threatened the democratic legitimacy of their regimes. Italy, Japan and New Zealand all adopted new electoral systems in the early 1990s. The Labour government in Britain established regional parliaments in Scotland and Wales in the late 1990s and determined that the members of these legislatures were to be elected by means of a hybrid system (mixed-member proportional, or MMP) similar to the one employed in Germany and New Zealand. Other “emerging democracies” in the former Warsaw Pact countries, such as Russia and Hungary, experimented with hybrid electoral systems, as did a number of Latin American countries (Bolivia, Venezuela, Mexico).


Until recently, Canada’s political class seemed determined to avoid a wide-ranging public debate on reform of the electoral system. In 1991, for example, the Lortie Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing issued a four-volume report and published 23 volumes of research studies containing virtually no discussion of the formula used to translate votes into seats in this country. Indeed, the Lortie Commission was specifically instructed, through its terms of reference, not to examine the existing voting system. At that time, much of the political class saw the issue of reforming Canada’s electoral system as peripheral to the national unity crisis then afflicting the country. For the most part, electoral reform was a decidedly minor theme in the political debates of the period.

All of this has changed dramatically in the last five or six years. A series of distorted election results at the federal level, growing concern among political elites with the so-called “democratic deficit,” and the example of other Westminster countries such as New Zealand and Britain that have broken with tradition and adopted new ballot laws have combined to nudge the issue of electoral reform toward the top of the political agenda in Canada. By 2004, five provinces – British Columbia, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Ontario – were engaged in meaningful efforts to reform their electoral systems. Federally, in early 2003 the Law Commission of Canada submitted to the Minister of Justice a report calling for the implementation of Scottish-style MMP. The minority Liberal government of Paul Martin established a ministry for democratic reform and charged the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs with recommending a process for consulting Canadians on electoral reform. For a country that in the postwar period has been among the least inclined of all the established democracies to change its electoral system, this flurry of reform activity represents a radical departure from politics as usual.

For readers who would like to know how a new electoral system might make a modest contribution to reducing Canada’s democratic deficit, or how electoral reforms have played out in other countries, the two books reviewed here provide balanced and accessible introductions to the debate. Both of these books, with some qualifications, accept the proposition that Canada’s electoral system is in dire need of fundamental repair. As Richard Johnston writes in Strengthening Canadian Democracy, “Electoral democracy in Canada is sick.” For Henry Milner, editor of Steps toward Making Every Vote Count, Canada “is becoming a political science textbook case of the kind of distortions that can occur under FPTP .” Both books also pay attention to the limits of electoral reform. Rather than treating a new ballot law as a panacea for our current democratic malaise, the contributors to these volumes are careful to note that some of our political problems – plummeting voter turnout, for instance, and the increasing disengagement of young voters – are likely to defy easy remedy. Electoral reform may have little or no impact on these problems, or it may simply take some time before the beneficial effects of a new system can be clearly felt.

Steps toward Making Every Vote Count is an updated version of Milner’s earlier edited volume, Making Every Vote Count: Reassessing Canada’s Electoral System, published in 1998. Chapters in the book explore three main themes: the pros and cons of electoral reform in Canada, the experience of other countries that have reformed their electoral systems, and the efforts now underway in a number of Canada’s provinces to adopt new laws for translating votes into seats in their legislatures. Strengthening Canadian Democracy brings together a number of studies conducted for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, including a series of papers presented at the “Votes and Seats” conference held in Ottawa in May 2001. It also attempts to move the debate over how to address Canada’s democratic deficit beyond electoral reform by focusing on “other elements of the institutional architecture of Canadian democracy.” It includes Jerome Black’s detailed analysis of the permanent voters’ list now used at the federal level, Richard Nadeau and Thierry Giasson’s examination of the impact of the role of the media in shaping contemporary electoral politics, and a chapter by Matthew Mendelsohn and Andrew Parkin that explores the potential of referendums and other tools of direct democracy to provide citizens with the means to influence public policy.

Milner’s lead essay builds a strong case for the adoption of MMP in Canada. Under MMP, a portion of the seats in the House of Commons – anywhere from one half to two thirds, depending on the proposal – would be elected on the basis of plurality rules in single-member ridings (which would obviously have to increase in size). The remaining seats would be distributed to candidates on party lists according to a party’s share of the national, provincial or regional vote. This second tier of seats would compensate for distortions in the first-past-the-post portion of the vote. In most proposals, each voter would be assigned two votes, one for a candidate in his or her riding, another for a party list. Voters would be able to “split their ticket” by supporting a candidate from one party in their constituency but another party on the list portion of the ballot. This need not be the case, however: the proposal currently under consideration in Quebec would award compensatory seats to the “best losers” in multimember ridings (those with the highest vote totals who did not actually win a seat in the constituency races).

Milner claims that “the real debate about electoral system reform in Canada is, more and more, about MMP.” This was written before British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly recommended that the existing first-past-the-post system be replaced by a single transferable vote (STV), similar to the system employed in Ireland and Malta (the B.C. situation will be discussed in greater detail below). Nevertheless, Milner was probably correct in arguing that by early 2004 a consensus seemed to be emerging among those citizens, politicians and pressure groups in favour of an alternative electoral system that some version of MMP was probably the best choice for Canadians. This is because such a system would in effect combine the best of both worlds: the territorial link between voters and their representatives in single-member constituencies, which is one of the fundamental features of first-past-the-post, and the more equitable relationship between seats and votes that is the hallmark of proportional representation (PR) systems. It would also represent less of a rupture with the status quo than STV, which requires voters to rank-order their choices in multimember constituencies.

According to Milner, MMP would render single-party majority governments a “thing of the past.” For the critics of PR and mixed-PR systems, this is perhaps the most important reason to oppose electoral reform. In their view, the need to form coalition governments under an MMP system would heighten government instability and reduce administrative efficiency. Governments would be less likely to take politically unpopular decisions if their survival depended on retaining the support of their coalition partners. Milner points out, however, that the strong majority governments so beloved of FPTP defenders often produce “narrow, ideology-driven agendas imposed by a governing party with a majority of seats but a minority of votes.” This aptly describes the situation in Ontario politics from 1990 to 2003 and in Quebec and British Columbia since the early 1990s.

Canadian voters appear to be increasingly fed up with the excesses of majority government, with the seeming absence of effective constraints on single-party majorities and the premiers and prime ministers who control them. This was certainly one of the sentiments driving public opinion during the 2004 federal election, when for the first time in recent memory a plurality of voters actually seemed to prefer a minority government as the outcome of the election. A survey conducted by EKOS in February 2004, for example, indicated that 54 per cent of respondents felt that a minority government would be “a good thing,” while only 43 per cent believed that a majority government would be a good thing.1

Louis Massicotte also explores the relationship between coalition or majority governments, on the one hand, and administrative efficiency on the other. He surveys the evidence from countries that employ PR electoral systems and concludes that coalition governments are indeed shorter-lived than those formed under plurality or majoritarian electoral rules. This does not mean, however, that coalition governments are less effective than single-party majority governments or less capable of making difficult decisions or providing good governance. Government decision-making in PR systems, because it requires consensus formation among coalition partners, takes longer than it does in a first-past-the-post system. However, “the decisions so arrived at may prove to be wiser than some decisions taken impulsively by a prime minister after minimal discussion within cabinet.” Massicotte also draws on the pioneering research of Arend Lijphart, who demonstrated that countries with majoritarian governments do not, on average, outperform PR countries on a host of economic indicators, including GDP growth, inflation and unemployment.

Milner contends that MMP would improve the chances for election of women and visible minority candidates, an argument often made in support of proportional representation. This is because the party lists drawn up to fill the proportional tier of seats in the legislature can be used to place candidates from designated social groups in an advantageous position. Some critics have attacked this as a form of “social engineering,” raising the dark spectre of party machines exercising undue influence over who gets elected to parliament. This fear is exaggerated, for two reasons. First, it is possible to reduce or even eliminate the role played by party elites in determining the order of candidates on the party lists, either by making the lists open or flexible – that is, giving voters the opportunity to move individual candidates higher up on the list – or by holding primary votes among party members to assign places on the list portion of the ballot. Second, the single-member plurality system itself places enormous obstacles in the path of women and minority candidates, which can also be seen as a form of social engineering, albeit one that is supported by defenders of the status quo.

Three chapters in Milner’s book marshal evidence to support the claim that MMP would likely improve representational equity in the House of Commons by providing additional incentives to parties to increase the number of women and minority candidates. In her insightful examination of France’s parity law, Karen Bird demonstrates that even a constitutional requirement that parties nominate equal numbers of men and women as candidates for elections to all levels of government can have minimal effect in a first-past-the-post system. In France’s 2002 legislative election, Bird points out, the proportion of successful women candidates increased only slightly from the previous election, from roughly 11 per cent of the total to just over 12 per cent. The country with the most stringent law regulating the nomination of women candidates is still “near the bottom among European countries for the number of women in Parliament.” This is because the parity law only imposes financial penalties on parties that flout its guidelines, which the wealthier parties are happy to incur rather than having to scramble to meet the quotas. Bird concludes that “quotas are particularly difficult to enforce where elections are run using single-member districts … Lists are what matter most for women, along with the assurance that they will be included in electable positions on those lists.”

Bird’s findings are supported by Jack Nagel’s examination of the experience of MMP in New Zealand, a country that adopted the German-style electoral system in 1993 after two national referendums on the issue. Nagel shows that the percentage of minority members of Parliament, including the Maori, has almost tripled in the three elections conducted under the MMP formula. The percentage of women members of Parliament has also increased substantially, from around 21 per cent (just about where Canada is at now) in the last first-past-the-post election in 1993 to more than 28 per cent in 2002. Initially, it was the party list portion of the vote that was most responsible for improving the chances of women candidates. By 2002, however, women held nearly equal shares of the list and constituency seats, suggesting that they can build on their success in the PR portion of the vote to make inroads in the constituency nomination process.

Peter Lynch’s chapter on Scotland’s MMP system, adopted in 1999, presents a more mixed assessment of the success of PR in promoting greater equity in the representation of women and ethnic minorities. Women candidates have fared remarkably well under the new rules: in 1999, 37 per cent of the members of the Scottish Parliament were women, a proportion that rose to nearly 40 per cent in 2003. This compares very favourably to the 18 per cent of MPs at Westminster who were women in 2003. While the electoral system has obviously played a role in this outcome, according to Lynch it has done so mainly by creating “incentives and foster a climate that affected the selection decisions of the parties.” In particular, the Scottish Labour Party sought to achieve gender balance among its candidates by twinning ridings to ensure that equal numbers of women and men were selected as candidates in safe or winnable seats. On a more negative, note, however, Lynch observes that no ethnic minority candidates were elected to the Scottish Parliament in either 1999 or 2003, since they were placed too low on the regional party lists or ran in unwinnable ridings.

On the whole, Steps toward Making Every Vote Count makes a convincing case that electoral reform – specifically, the adoption of an MMP system similar to Scotland’s or New Zealand’s – would, as Milner himself puts it, make a “small dent … in the democratic deficit.” Or, as Massicotte carefully concludes, “In this country and at this time, I believe the benefits of PR outweigh its disadvantages.”

Admittedly, there are still sceptics among scholars and the political class, and they are given a voice in both of these books. John Courtney has chapters in each of the volumes, pointing out that electoral reform can promise a great deal, at least some of which “may be unrealizable and may, in turn, lead to public disaffection with politics over unmet expectations.” Richard Katz’s chapter in Steps toward Making Every Vote Count warns against wishful thinking on the part of electoral reformers and invokes the law of unintended consequences. The decision to change electoral systems, Katz writes, “cannot be seen unambiguously as a decision to improve democracy,” only as a decision to alter the nature of democracy. Ultimately, it will be up to citizens themselves to determine whether they have improved the quality of democratic governance by changing their electoral law. To answer this question voters will be required to choose among competing democratic values – demographic representation versus governmental stability, for instance.

New Zealand’s experience provides an illustration of Katz’s and Courtney’s warnings about both the unintended consequences of reform and the dangers of hyping a new electoral system. In the referendum campaigns that preceded that country’s adoption of MMP in 1993, advocates of reform were probably guilty of overselling the benefits of a new system. The first election that employed MMP, held in 1996, was almost a worst-case scenario for the proponents of reform. As Nagel explains, a minor party, New Zealand First (NZF), negotiated with both the incumbent National Party and the main opposition party, Labour. Only after nine weeks was a coalition government finally formed, with NZF opting to support the National Party, something that enraged most NZF supporters who had been expecting a centre-left alliance with Labour. One year after the election, a solid majority of New Zealand’s voters supported a return to first-past-the-post.

The New Zealand experience also demonstrates, however, that a long-term view is necessary before we can reach an adequate assessment of the costs and benefits of electoral reform. In the elections of 1999 and 2002, MMP performed much more as its supporters had expected it to, leading to a transfer in power and the quick formation of a new centre-left coalition government. Support for the new system has slowly climbed to more acceptable levels, especially among the most informed voters. Nagel’s verdict on the new system is that it has “delivered virtues commonly, but mistakenly, attributed to FPTP – majority rule, moderation, and even (after a false start) accountability.”

If a new electoral system would on the whole be beneficial for Canadian democracy, the crucial question for advocates of reform is: how do we get there? As Richard Johnston points out in Strengthening Canadian Democracy, political actors who are elected under the existing rules of the game are unlikely to be in favour of changing them, even if they were advocates of electoral reform before winning power. Matthew Mendelsohn and Andrew Parkin, in the same book, cite the Labour government of Tony Blair in Britain as “a classic example of how a party’s interest in electoral reform can cool once it finds itself in office with a healthy parliamentary majority.”

Brian Doody and Henry Milner’s chapter on Quebec in Steps toward Making Every Vote Count provides a somewhat depressing narrative of the Parti Québécois’s failure during its nine years in power (1976–85) to implement a new system of PR in the province despite the strong commitment to electoral reform contained in the party program. There is cause for worry that Jean Charest’s Liberal government will also fritter away the opportunity to reform the province’s electoral system, despite an apparent all-party consensus on the issue. Similar outcomes may dash the hopes of electoral reformers in Ontario. There, the besieged Liberal government of Dalton McGuinty may determine that other, more pressing issues – such as the province’s tenuous fiscal situation, the soaring costs of health care (which eat up more than 40 per cent of the provincial budget) or the fiscal imbalance with Ottawa – merit its attention, and that its so-called democratic charter can be sacrificed with minimal electoral cost.

British Columbia has provided electoral reformers with the greatest cause for genuine optimism. There, the Liberal government of Gordon Campbell, elected with a massive majority in 2001 (77 of 79 seats based on 58 per cent of the popular vote), actually initiated one of the most innovative and exciting exercises in public consultation that this country has ever witnessed. A Citizens’ Assembly composed of 161 members – two voters randomly selected from each of the 79 constituencies in the province, plus two members from the Aboriginal community and the chair of the assembly – was established in 2003. This assembly invited a number of international experts to make presentations on the various electoral systems in use in the world today. Public hearings were held throughout the province to solicit the views of as many voters as possible.

In the fall of 2004, the assembly voted to reject first-past-the-post and put to the voters the option of STV as an alternative. The vote on which alternative system would be best for B.C. was 123 in favour of STV and 31 in favour of MMP.2 Many observers were surprised by this recommendation, but it can be explained in part by the fact that STV is the electoral system least favourable to party organizations, and this played into the considerable antiparty sentiment that has characterized political debate in B.C. in recent years. Additionally, however, members of the Citizens’ Assembly interpreted their mandate to mean that the size of the B.C. legislature was not to be increased under any alternative system. They doubted that MMP would be feasible with only 79 constituencies; in the view of many of the participants, the FPTP seats in such a system would become unmanageably large, especially in the northern part of the province.3

Almost 58 per cent of B.C. voters supported the Citizens’ Assembly recommendation in the referendum held at the same time as the provincial election on May 17, 2005. Majorities in all but two of the province’s 79 constituencies were in favour of the new system. This impressive level of popular support for electoral reform, however, failed to meet the absurdly high 60 per cent threshold established by the legislature for determining success. In its recent Speech from the Throne, the Liberal government of Gordon Campbell has acknowledged that politicians cannot simply turn a blind eye to the fact that so many people voted for a new electoral system. It has pledged to hold another referendum in November 2008 at the same time as municipal elections.4 In the meantime, the Electoral Boundaries Commission will be asked to “identify the best and fairest way to configure British Columbia’s electoral districts under the STV model.” In the 2005 referendum, voters lacked specific details about constituency sizes and boundaries, and this may well have undercut support for the new system. The government also stipulates that the same 60 per cent “supermajority” will be required for the referendum to pass; if it does, STV will be used to elect the legislature in the next election, to be held on May 12, 2009.

For advocates of electoral reform in Canada, then, it is both the best of times and the worst of times. The prospects for real electoral change at both the provincial and federal levels are better than at any other time in the postwar era. Five provinces are seriously debating the issue, and the existence of a minority Liberal government in Ottawa holds out the possibility that the major beneficiaries of a PR-based system – the NDP – might be able to extract a real commitment to electoral reform from the government in exchange for its continued support in the House of Commons. However, this historic window of opportunity could be slammed shut in a hurry. If the second B.C. referendum were again to fail to meet the extremely high 60 per cent threshold for success, if the other provinces were to lose their political will and shuffle electoral reform off to the back burner, and if the Martin government were to be replaced in the upcoming election by a majority government not dependent on the NDP for its survival, then Canada could well be saddled with its antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system for years to come.


1 Sample size was 1,020 and the margin of error was ± 3.1 per cent. See EKOS, “Update on the Federal Political Landscape,” February 27, 2004, available online at

2 The assembly’s final report, which details its deliberations and recommendations, is available online at

3 For one insider’s account of the Citizens’ Assembly and its deliberations, see Jack MacDonald, Randomocracy: A Citizen’s Guide to Electoral Reform in British Columbia (Victoria, BC: FCG Publications, 2005), available online in PDF format at

4 British Columbia, Legislative Assembly, 38th Parliament, 1st Session, Speech from the Throne, September 12, 2005, pp. 24–29, available online at