As BC is facing the possibility of electoral reform, Lucas is here to tell us about the history of the vote in Canada (and possible alternate voting systems)! Yes, some of them are more complicated, but which one do you think is the most fair? Let us know in the comments!
Citizens from all democratic nations often take the act of voting for granted; simply filling in a piece of paper and placing it in a cardboard box often seems like a necessity rather than a privilege. However, voting was not always so automatic a task, and even today, Canadians face the difficult problem of considering whether our way of voting is actually the most fair.
History of the Vote in Canada
The first elections held in Canada occurred before it even became a nation – residents of Quebec (then known as New-France) selected representatives, or syndics, to sit on a colonial council as early as the 17th century. The role of the syndic was to simply act as a messenger between the people and the council. Eventually, citizens were allowed to choose a few council members who could make decisions.
The section of Canada under British rule began to hold parliamentary elections in 1758. However, the elected assembly members weren’t very powerful, as various other councils and houses had veto power over them. Elections were usually held in a public area, where choices would be declared verbally. Interestingly, from 1791 until 1849 in Lower Canada, women were actually allowed to vote – if they met the property and income rules set out by the government.
After the Dominion of Canada was formed, various voting practices we use today were put into place. However, some ‘tactics’ used by parties to try and convince voters to choose them would be considered very questionable today. For example, since the party in power had the right to hold elections, they would visit different ridings on several different dates, starting with the ‘safest’ ridings (sections that they would easily win). This method would convince the more undecided ridings that the ruling party was stronger. In 1872, the Conservative party held an election for three months! Eventually, after the first Liberal government came into office, they passed more strict and transparent voting laws: elections would occur on a single day, and the votes would be through a secret, written ballot. Fraudulent voting was still prevalent, however, and candidates would try to ‘purchase’ votes through giving outlandish meals and resources to citizens. Companies were also incredibly partisan: one Montreal manufacturing business stated that “we feel it is only fair to notify employees that, in case of a change in government [to Conservative], we will be unable to guarantee the wages you are now being paid; neither will we be able to guarantee work of any kind to all the employees employed by us at this time.”
Rampant racism was also a systemic part of Canada’s voting system: Indigenous and Chinese people were banned from voting in British Columbia. It took until 1918 that women were allowed to vote in federal elections, and until 1929, after the famous Persons case, for them to be permitted to sit in the Canadian Senate. The last province that granted the right for women to vote was Quebec, in 1940.
In 1982, Pierre Trudeau maneuvered his way to creating one of the most important documents in Canadian history, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the document, Section 3 declares that “every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.”
The Current Voting System and Other Proposed Systems (see this set of videos for a more in-depth discussion)
Around 25 years ago, the idea of electoral reform was pitched to the government. By this point, the issue wasn’t about who could vote, but how Canadians could vote. Below is a breakdown of the current voting system, and other proposed plans:
First Past the Post: used in Canada, USA, France, and Britain.
- All representatives (or MP’s) are selected from geographically created ridings.
- The MP who receives the most votes from the residents of that riding wins the riding.
- Each riding won by an MP gives one ‘point’ to the party they belong to.
- All the total riding ‘points’ are added together, and the leading party becomes the governing party of Canada – with exceptions! If the leading party holds less than half the ridings in the country, and therefore less than half the seats in the House of Commons, it may be difficult for them to take power. In this case, a number of options could occur, similar to the 2017 BC Provincial Election and 2008 Federal Election.
This system has been in use for hundreds of years under British and French rule. Since a whole nation is condensed into a few hundred seats (338 for Canada), the whole voting process is much simpler, and the winner-takes-all fashion of the riding system helps more majority governments come into power. The largest issue with this system of government is that a party doesn’t need more than half of the votes overall to form a majority government. For example, in 2015, only 40% of Canadians voted for the Liberal Party, but since they won more individual ridings, Justin Trudeau took power with 54% of the seats. Also, the concept of ‘strategic voting’ is favoured under the FPTP system. If someone’s favourite party has very low support nationwide, they can give their vote to another party that has a higher chance of winning.
Let’s consider a hypothetical situation, where a Green Party supporter named Steve was voting in the 2015 election. He knows that Elizabeth May has no chance of becoming Prime Minister, and also hates the Conservative Party. So, he gives his vote to the Liberal Party instead and helps Justin Trudeau win the election, because Trudeau’s ideas are more similar to the Green Party than the Conservative Party. This is the basis of strategic voting, and is commonplace under the FPTP system.
Alternative Voting: used in Australia
- Similar to FPTP, voters choose candidates in their riding, and the party with the most ridings won becomes the governing party.
- However, the majority of voters are better represented in this situation:
- Instead of choosing one candidate, voters rank the candidates.
- If one party receives more than 50% of the voters’ first choice, they win the riding.
- If not, then the candidate with the LOWEST amount of votes is eliminated. Then, the second choice of the voters who chose the lowest-ranking candidate is calculated, and added to the other competing parties.
- If one party now has more than 50% support, they win the riding. If not, the process is repeated again with the candidate with the next-lowest number of votes.
Alternative voting is seen as a major alternative to the FPTP system, because the party with the most support (usually the first or second choice) will win the election. However, a major deficiency about alternative voting is that smaller parties still aren’t well-represented, because the candidate with the lowest amount of votes automatically loses. Also, more neutral parties have a massive advantage, since having more second-place votes from parties that are eliminated can add up. In Canada, the Broadbent Institute calculated in 2015 that the Liberals would have won 217 seats under the alternative voting system compared to the 183 that they actually received.
Party List Proportional Representation: used in Austria, Belgium, Finland, Norway, Russia, Switzerland, Denmark, South Africa, Netherlands, and Switzerland.
- Rather than voting for candidates in their region, voters choose a party on a ballot.
- The party receives the number of seats completely proportional to their votes.
- In closed-vote party list PR, the members are ranked on a pre-determined list by the party, with the highest-ranking members receiving first priority for seats.
This kind of voting is more accurate to what the voters want, because votes will directly result in seats. However, this would make for more minority governments, which will make law-making incredibly difficult. Also, voters aren’t choosing candidates that are from their riding, which means that some regions might receive more attention than others.
Single Transferable Vote: used for Australia’s upper house, and Ireland. [Editor’s note: This is the system that BC had a referendum on in 2004.]
- MULTIPLE MP’s are elected in a riding.
- Parties can run more than one candidate in a riding.
- Voters rank local candidates on ballots, similar to FPTP.
- Candidates win seats by reaching a set-number of votes, or a quota
- If a candidate meets the quota outright, they win one spot.
- The extra votes (i.e. from the quota number and up) are divided among the other parties, through the second-choice ranking mechanism outlined in the Alternative Voting system.
- If no other candidate has won, the lowest-ranking candidate is eliminated, and the ballots are spread again to the other candidates through second-place votes.
- The process is repeated (candidates above the quota passing votes down, and eliminated candidates passing votes up) until all the seats for that riding are filled.
Probably the most complex proposed voting system, the Single Transferable Vote allows for more fair representation, because votes are being distributed from the candidates receiving the most and the least votes. Additionally, parties can run multiple members, meaning that if a riding is dominated by supporters of a single party, they can win more seats. However, that also leads to possible infighting inside a party.
Mixed Member Proportional: used by Germany, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, South Korea, and several other countries.
- Each candidate has two votes:
- The first is under the exact same system as FPTP.
- The second is for a specific party, which then distributes seats to its members based on an algorithm.
The Mixed Member Proportional system is seen as one of the best alternative to Canada’s current FPTP system. Not only are the results similar to the number of citizens that actually voted for a party, but voters can still choose members in their own ridings. Opponents state that the system can be difficult to understand.
Various proposals for electoral reform at the federal level have not come to fruition. In 2015, Justin Trudeau was elected on the promise that the Liberal Party was “committed to ensuring that the 2015 election will be the last federal election using first past the post.” The notion was supported by all parties. However, the specific kind of new system was hotly contested, as the Liberal Party supported the Alternative Vote, which would have possibly earned them 34 more seats in the 2015 election had the system been implemented. Other parties supported systems that favoured Proportional Representation. Ultimately, the issue was unceremoniously dumped from the Liberal government’s mandate in February 2017.
Canada has had a long and adventurous history with voting rights. A little more than 100 years ago, women and members of most minorities couldn’t vote, meaning that the voices of only a single demographic – rich, influential, white men – could have their voices heard. And although it’s a stretch to compare it to today’s situation, the fundamental and undemocratic issue of our voting system undermining the choices of citizens remains. In order for Canada to be able to tout the fact that we are the most democratic country in the world, we must first be able to ‘walk the walk,’ and overhaul its voting system.
And it probably won’t be very sunny.