Reforming the Canadian Electoral System


The current electoral system in Canada is a product of a series of electoral changes that have always taken place since the foundation of the Canadian confederation in the mid 1880s. During the early years, the rights of individuals to vote were significantly limited as only white males had the right to vote but only after meeting certain requirements. A secret ballot was unheard, and it was only after a number of changes were implemented that all social groups in Canada were given the right to vote. Even after these changes, electoral partisanship, as well as cases of electoral frauds were rampant and further reforms became necessary for the Canadian electoral system to gain legitimacy and support among the citizens. Canadian electoral system is currently based on the federal constituencies each of which is entitled to elect their parliamentary representatives (Lavoie and Lemieux, 3). In this system, candidates who meet the Canadian electoral criteria are free to participate in the process and only the individual who won the biggest number of votes becomes the elected representative.

Generally, Canadian electoral system has been subjected to periodic reforms and frequent minor amendments in an attempt to improve some aspects of Canadian voting processes and conduction of elections. An important challenge in this regard is that new challenges always accompany the electoral changes and therefore the system should be continually reformed to meet new challenges and circumstances (Boyer, 13). There are however a number of alternative voting systems that can be used to ensure fair representation of groups and parties. This paper critically examines the nature of the Canadian electoral system, as well as the necessary reforms needed to improve its popular support and legitimacy.

Aspects of Canadian electoral system

Canadian electoral system is largely based on the single member plurality (SMP) system which was inherited from its former British colonial masters. The system dates back to several years before the formation of the Canadian confederation. Some of the common features of the Canadian electoral system include election candidates to represent designated geographical areas popularly known as” ridings”, counting and tallying of the votes casted on the basis of the districts as opposed to the parties of the candidates (Dyck, 622). Finally, a candidate only needs a simple majority over the other candidates in order to be considered a winner, even if the winner has a small percentage of votes. This system has however been heavily criticized for its winner takes all way of judging victory. Critics argue that if the winner takes over the whole system, it may result into unfair representation of the various social groups, but it may also bring into power unstable minority participation in government. For example, a candidate can win even with barely 25% of all the votes casted, while the small parties may end up with no seats in the parliament.

On the other hand, the Canadian electoral system has also been accused of being undemocratic and unrepresentative in many aspects. Although the Canadian single member plurality representative system used in both, the federal and provincial elections has some advantages, it has also revealed some weaknesses with regard to the equal representation of the Canadian voters in their parties. The major reasons for the low voter turnouts in the last few decades has largely been attributed to unfair representation, electoral partisanship, as well as cases of electoral frauds that are associated with SMP system. Consequently, there has been some growing discomfort especially with regard to the general perception of the entire electoral system in the eyes of the Canadian public. This is particularly evidenced with the decreasing voter turnouts in the recent Canadian provincial and federal elections. Proponents of the Canadian electoral system however argue that it is an effective system which can be used in producing stable governments in a multiparty democracy, like Canada. Single Member Plurality systems are also thought to provide effective platforms for community representations although this is not usually the case.

Some of the common flaws in the Canadian electoral system include the fact that the party share of votes casted may not correlate with the number of seats they win in the parliament (Courtney, 44). Another disadvantage is the wastage of votes as the winners only require an additional vote over their rivals to be considered the winners. The rest of votes accumulated beyond the opponents may therefore be considered wasted. Additionally, although the system has the tendency to bring majority governments to power, SMP also has a tendency to unfairly reward the larger parties while, on the other hand, making it difficult for the small parties to receive any seats. For example, during the 2004 Canadian federal elections, the Green party did not acquire any seats and yet it garnered 4.3% of all the popular votes casted. In this regard, it is not uncommon under the current Canadian electoral system for parties or candidates to win the majority seats and yet fail to have the majority of votes casted.

Despite its advantage of producing more stable governments with strong opposition parties, voters who belong to the smaller parties have been increasingly discouraged by the Canadian electoral process. There is also some evidence of under representation of women and the other minority social groups in the current SMP electoral system. Consequently, many of the today’s proponents of Canadian electoral reforms argue that the single member plurality electoral system is no longer relevant to the contemporary Canadian society.

The kind of reforms needed to improve the Canadian electoral system

There are several necessary reforms to improve the electoral system, as well as other democratic institutions in Canada. Generally, there are a number of alternative electoral systems that can be used to ensure proportional and fair representation of citizens with regard to allocation of seats and the filling out of the ballots. If implemented, such a system will ensure equitable distribution of political seats among the parties as opposed to voting of individuals as representatives. A proportional representation system will also ensure that the number of seats in the parliament for each party correlates with the percentage of votes that the party acquired.

Additionally, there is also a need to introduce a system where by the riding districts are allowed to elect more than one representative depending on their geographical and population size. For example, the issue of wasted votes in the current SMP electoral system can effectively be solved using a single transferable vote system (Pilon, 23). This is an example of a preferential system of voting whereby the voters are allowed to rank their preferred candidates in their order of preference. Single transferable system of voting also ensures equal and proportional representation at both, provincial and federal levels. On the other hand, to ensure that the elected candidates are elected through absolute and not simple majority which is used in the current system, alternative vote system can be employed to enable voters rank all the candidates running for the elective posts in order of their preferences.

Other reforms are also needed to enhance fair party representation in the Canadian politics which is currently unfairly dominated by the two major parties (Liberals and Progressive Conservatives). This domination has particularly resulted from the fact that SMP electoral system has a tendency to unfairly reward the larger parties while, on the other hand, makes it difficult for the small parties to receive any seats. Reforms should therefore be directed towards ensuring fair representation of the smaller political parties in the House of Commons (Boyer, 14). Another important factor that has called for the reformation of the electoral system in Canada is the rapidly declining voter turnout particularly in the federal elections. The major reasons for the low turnouts are because people have lost faith in the elections due to the unfair representation, electoral partisanship, as well as cases of electoral frauds. Consequently, further reforms became necessary for the Canadian electoral system to gain legitimacy and support from citizens.

In conclusion, the single member plurality (SMP) system used in the Canadian electrical has indicated a number of flaws ranging from “vote wastage” to proportional representation of parties and social groups in the legislature. Comprehensive reforms are therefore necessary to ensure a more proportional representation and regain the confidence of the voters in the electoral system.

Works Cited

Boyer, J, Patrick. Political Rights: The Legal Framework of Elections in Canada, Toronto: Butterworths, 1981. Print.

Boyer, J., Patrick. “The Case for Election Law Reform,” Parliamentary Government, 8.2 (1989): 13-16. Print.

Courtney C. John, “Recognition of Canadian Political Parties in Parliament and in Law,” Canadian Journal of Political Science, 11.1(1978): 39-48. Print.

Dyck, Rand. “Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches,” 6th ed. Toronto: Nelson Education, 2011. Print.

Lavoie, Marie and Vincent Lemieux. “The Evaluation of Electoral Systems”, Canadian Parliamentary Review, 14.3 (1984): 2-5. Print.

Pilon, Dennis. The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada’s Electoral System, Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications, 2007. Print.

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