Is Quebec ready to adopt an electoral system that fairly represents women?

In December 2005, Quebec became the first province to formally introduce a bill to change the electoral system when the Liberal government tabled its Avant-projet de loi sur la Loi électorale – its draft bill on electoral reform. Subsequently, a Special Parliamentary Commission on Reform of the Voting System, joined by a gender-balanced eight-person Citizens’ Committee, heard from individuals, groups and communities in various regions, attracting the largest participation of any public consultation in the history of Quebec. In the spring of 2006, the Citizens’ Committee and the Parliamentary Commission presented their divergent conclusions, and the minister in charge of electoral reform is expected to table his revised bill this fall.

The new prominence of electoral reform on Quebec’s political agenda in the last few years presents a historic window of opportunity to enhance the inclusion of women within democratic institutions. In an effort to seize this window of opportunity, the Collectif Féminisme et Démocratie (CFD) was created in 2002 as a strategic site of reflection on women’s citizenship and electoral system design. Its main objective has been to bring feminist perspectives on democracy to the core of the public debate on political representation and democratic reform. The CFD’s vision of an inclusive, diverse and vibrant democracy is grounded in the experiences of its members in dialogue with the wider Quebec feminist movement. Its membership includes feminist activists, political scientists, women with experience in elected office and individuals engaged in a wide range of civil society and women’s groups. Its 15 to 20 core members have led workshops on democratic reform for more than 2,000 women and have reached a wider segment of Québécois women through e-networks and a dynamic website.

The CFD understands that responsibility for the underrepresentation of women and ethnocultural diversity within political institutions cannot be borne by individual candidates. Rather, it insists on public recognition of the ongoing systemic sexism and racism influencing current electoral practices. In 2005, Canada’s provincial/territorial legislatures averaged only 17.5 per cent women, and Quebec was the only one that had achieved the minimum 30 per cent target set in 1995 by the United Nations. The National Assembly’s record on ethnocultural diversity is even worse. Consequently, the adoption of an electoral system that is designed to systematically overcome the underrepresentation of women and ethnocultural diversity is crucial. Our current electoral institutions are also systemically biased toward bipartisan politics. Hence the CFD has campaigned in favour of an electoral system based on compensatory proportional representation to systematically rectify these biases and attain fair representation.

The Quebec government’s draft bill sets out a form of compensatory proportional representation, but it differs significantly from the form supported by the CFD. The bill is found wanting in light of the key representational goals underlying the position of the CFD:

•   proportionality of seats to votes cast,

•   equality between women and men,

•   inclusion of Quebec’s ethnocultural diversity,

•   expression of political pluralism,

•   recognition of Quebec’s regions.

In what follows, we present the CFD’s critique of the draft bill and set out its counterproposal of an electoral system that more effectively balances the five representational goals. We conclude by briefly evaluating the influence of the CFD – and the feminist movement more generally – on the current debate.

The draft bill

The government plan calls for a compensatory mixed-member proportional electoral system, with 75 seats (60 per cent) elected under the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, and the remaining 40 per cent (50 seats) allocated through a proportional (PR) system that corrects distortions generated in the FPTP system. Voters would cast one vote, which would count both toward determining the winner of the FPTP seat in their riding and toward the distribution of the PR seats. The PR seats would be allocated on a regional basis, with 24 to 27 districts composed of an average of five seats each (three FPTP seats plus two PR seats).

The draft bill also includes a general commitment to achieving equity between men and women, and proposes two financial incentives to encourage political parties to increase the number of candidates who are female or of minority (nonfrancophone) origin. Parties would receive a top-up on their annual reimbursement from the government if they field more than 30 per cent female candidates and more than 10 per cent minority candidates. In addition, female and minority candidates receiving at least a certain level of popular support would receive a top-up on the reimbursement of their individual electoral expenses.

There is common some ground between the government and the CFD. Both acknowledge the need to correct for the inadequacies of the current electoral system, including the unfairness of the systemic underrepresentation of women and ethnocultural diversity. Both favour a compensatory mixed-member proportional representation system with a minimum of 40 per cent PR seats. But their proposed solutions differ significantly.

Feminist electoral system design

Number of votes

The CFD is highly critical of the use of only one vote to determine both FPTP and PR seats. This contradicts the very logic of a mixed-member system as it is used elsewhere: to allow for the expression of divergent, if complementary, representational goals. While the FPTP riding lets voters choose candidates according to local interests or personal popularity, the PR seats facilitate expression of support for a party’s political vision, program and electoral team. In practice, the restriction to one vote results in the preferences expressed for the PR seats becoming dependent on the vote cast in the local riding, which tends to favour the dominant parties. The CFD recommends that the bill be amended to allow for two votes.

Balancing territorial, social and ideological representation

In light of the five representational goals identified, the CFD strongly questions the coherence of the system of regional-level compensation proposed for the 40 per cent of seats elected by proportional representation. By so prioritizing territorial representation, the government significantly handicaps the ability of the mixed-member PR model to adequately express the other important aspects of modern citizenship: proportionality of seats to votes, ideological plurality, gender and ethnocultural diversity.

With respect to the first two concerns, the proposed microregions (five seats per district) entail an effective threshold of roughly 15 per cent to achieve representation. This leads to a significant number of wasted votes and distortion of the popular will, which the bill was meant to correct, and is far higher than the thresholds used in most PR systems: between 2 and 5 per cent on a national basis. Under the proposed system, smaller parties would likely only field candidates in the urban centres where they have a chance of surpassing the 15 per cent threshold, so that voters outside these centres would have fewer electoral choices. In addition, the resulting seat distribution would continue to diverge significantly from the popular vote.

International research clearly points to the advantages of long party lists. Studies by leading political scientists show the need for a minimum of 10 to 15 list seats for a substantial number of women to be elected.1 The same logic applies to the recognition of ethnocultural diversity on party lists. It is true that the government must attempt to find a delicate balance between multiple, and often conflicting, interests. Nevertheless, the CFD believes that these could best be harmonized through the use of Quebec-wide lists rather than the proposed microdistricts. After all, territorial identities are already represented through the 75 local ridings.

A Quebec-wide list will be conducive to election of more women, but its effect will be limited by the informal power dynamics among factions or personalities: those who manage to “negotiate” their way to high positions on lists tend to be of the dominant sex and cultural group. It is thus no surprise that more than 100 countries use some form of quotas to bolster the presence of women and minorities in the candidate recruitment processes, and as candidates in competitive positions. The law in Belgium, Costa Rica, France and South Korea, among others, regulates the distribution of list positions to prevent political parties from placing women at the bottom. Even Britain, which uses FPTP, has passed a law to allow for positive measures promoting gender-balanced candidacy.2

To ensure balanced representation, the CFD recommends Quebec-wide compensation for PR seats combined with legislated guidelines for the composition of party lists. Specifically, the 50 list positions would be filled by 25 candidates of each sex, whose names would be “zipped” (alternate female/male); include a minimum percentage of candidates of diverse ethnocultural origin in winnable list positions; and have representation from each of the 17 administrative regions of Quebec in the top half of each party’s list. Lists could be rejected for noncompliance.

The ideal of equality

The CFD applauds the government for having formally acknowledged women’s underrepresentation as a democratic deficit. However, despite the commitments in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform for Action and the guarantees in the Canadian and Quebec Charters of Rights and Freedoms, the “ideal” outlined in the draft bill curiously affirms the need for “equity” rather than equality. The CFD recommends a formal commitment to achieving equal representation of women and men in the National Assembly.

Results-based rewards

By offering financial bonuses on the basis of candidacy, the draft bill recognizes the gap between the legal ideal of political equality (the right to vote and stand for election) and the practical inability of individuals to exercise these rights equally when it comes to competing for elective office. In this way, if only hesitantly, it reveals as myth the claim that electoral competition functions strictly according to an objective standard of “merit.” However, instead of formally institutionalizing equality and diversity within the very design of the electoral system, the draft bill awkwardly attempts to “add women (ethnoculturals) and stir,” as an afterthought. Financial incentives are proposed for parties that recruit at least 30 per cent women candidates, but the two largest parties have already roughly met this benchmark in previous elections.

As a further indication of the lack of conviction behind the government’s efforts toward gender equality and ethnocultural inclusion, the bonus funding is crafted as an “incentive” that political parties may simply ignore without penalty. The CFD has noted the irony in the contradiction between the government’s decrying the persistence of systemic discrimination against women and ethnocultural candidates and its shifting responsibility to a third party – political parties – whose track record has been far from pristine. More perverse still, parties recruiting the minimum 30 per cent female and 10 per cent ethnocultural candidates will receive the extra public funding even if they continue to discriminate against these candidates when it comes to allocating winnable positions.

The CFD challenges the idea that using the law to promote inclusive electoral teams constitutes unwarranted “interference” in internal party functioning. This view does not acknowledge the third wave of democratization being advanced on all continents except North America. Political parties receive significant public funding and are already required to submit mandatory annual reports to Elections Québec concerning fundraising activities and campaign spending to ensure transparency. In short, there is a gap between the government’s diagnosis of ongoing systemic discrimination and the systemically ineffective measures it proposes as “correctives.” As is now accepted in Quebec’s pay and employment equity laws and as has been mandated under article 190 of the Beijing Platform for Action, the Quebec government has the democratic responsibility to adopt legal measures to promote a gender-balanced and ethnoculturally diverse legislature by design, and with every election.

In addition to institutionalizing legal guidelines for the composition of party lists (described earlier), the CFD recommends that a bonus be paid to parties that elect a minimum percentage of female and ethnocultural candidates to the National Assembly. To ensure that this will function as a real incentive toward further progress, it recommends that the minimum percentages be set at 35 per cent (5 per cent bonus), 40 per cent (10 per cent bonus), and 45 per cent elected women (15 per cent bonus). Further, instead of the draft bill’s current definition based on language, the CFD calls for a definition, similar to the one used for employment equity, that can truly benefit racialized citizens, immigrants and citizens facing multiple forms of discrimination.

Since the draft bill does not provide any guarantees that the parties will make the needed efforts to democratize their internal processes, the CFD calls for a legal requirement that political parties adopt an “Action Plan on Gender Equality” and an “Action Plan on Ethnocultural Diversity,” whose content and implementation would be decided by each party. Political parties would have a legal obligation to report to Elections Québec each year on the implementation of these action plans and on the use of their top-ups to that end.

The influence of the CFD

In four short years, the CFD has enjoyed tremendous success in its efforts to raise awareness and place the issue of women’s representation on the agenda of the Quebec feminist movement and allied organizations, as well as on the radar screen of the current government. Its insights and proposals have been developed and deepened in conferences, forums, workshops and public debates on women’s representation, voting systems, democratic reform and related issues. In the process, the CFD’s analysis and proposals have gained credibility with many civil society groups. The CFD played a major mobilizing role in bringing women across Quebec to participate in the Special Commission. An indicator of the success of the CFD’s “100 Voix de Femmes pour la démocratie” campaign, the commission received formal briefs from more than 125 women and women’s groups. Women thus made 34.5 per cent of all interventions – a historic achievement for participatory democracy.

15 Table_1As we write, we await the tabling of the final bill on electoral reform. Only then will we know the effects of these various inputs and interventions. But we can get some idea of what to expect from the CFD and allied civil society organizations’ influence on the content of the Parliamentary Commission and Citizens’ Committee reports, as set out in Table 1.

The Québécois feminist movement as a force for democratization

The perspectives advanced by the Collectif Féminisme et Démocratie reflect contemporary feminists’ growing determination to move beyond the dichotomy that places individual rights in opposition to the shared political community. Instead, Québécois women and men of diverse sexual-social orientations and ethnocultural, religious and regional backgrounds and affiliations are engaged in multiple communities and place importance on several markers of their identity, each of which requires formal representation. The fundamental 21st-century challenge to representative democracy in Quebec can thus be better understood as an invitation to deal more honestly with the highly complex territorial, ideological, gendered, ethnocultural and other social identities through which equality and liberty express themselves.

In legislating gender parity on the boards of crown corporations, Finance Minister Michel Audet has courageously taken up this invitation. In the political sphere, the CFD urges Québécois society to likewise take collective responsibility for the ongoing subtle discrimination toward those who do not fit the dominant profile of “homo politicus.” The CFD understands that the systemic underrepresentation of women and ethnocultural diversity stems from a centuries-long legacy of state-sponsored discrimination that silenced the political voices of women and racialized citizens. We need to be reminded, in 2006, that women’s right to vote was deliberately abolished by Quebec’s political forefathers in 1875.

Equality and liberty have only been advanced through popular mobilizations that seize rare windows of opportunity to formally enshrine democratic practices. Electoral reform is one such historic moment in the evolution of the Québécois political community. Political leaders of all stripes are aware of the consensus within the Quebec feminist movement, and civil society more broadly, on the democratic need to diversify the bodies and voices empowered to represent the aspirations of Quebecers in the National Assembly. The ball is again in the government’s court. As political scientists and feminists, we hope that it will have the wisdom to heed the calls from civil society to institutionalize inclusive, egalitarian practices reflecting the rich diversity of Quebec’s contemporary body politic.


1 Wilma Rule, “Parliaments by and for the People: Except for Women?”, in Wilma Rule and Joseph F. Zimmerman, eds., Electoral Systems in Comparative Perspective: Their Impact on Women and Minorities (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 15–30.

2 See