Electoral Insight – Review of Electoral Systems
Plurality-majority Electoral Systems: A Review
John C. Courtney
Department of Political Studies, University of Saskatchewan
Plurality-majority systems include first past the post (FPTP), alternative vote (AV), block vote (BV), and two-round (TR). This summary explores their implications for the allocation of seats, regionalism, and the representation of women and Aboriginal persons in Canada.
Three considerations should be borne in mind. The first two stem from the fact that every electoral system contains distinctive elements; the third is unique to Canada.
- Political parties find it "rational" to pursue strategic alternatives that
maximize their chances of winning. Incentives contained in any method of converting
votes into seats differ from one electoral system to another. In Canada, the
principal incentive for any party intent on forming a government is to appeal
to a wide cross-section of voters.
Canada's major "brokerage" parties have sought to accommodate social and regional differences under FPTP. Coalitions have been built within Canadian parties, rather than between them, reflecting an incentive contained in FPTP for parties to minimize inter-regional and inter-linguistic conflicts. It cannot be assumed that the same incentives for parties to broker social cleavages would be present in other electoral systems.
- Voters also have strategic choices. These are influenced by the number of
votes they have been allocated, the way preferences may be ordered, and the
manner of distributing votes among the candidates. Different electoral systems
can prompt different voting behaviour. It cannot be assumed that every voter
would support the same party under one system as another.
- Determining the size of the Commons is a matter separate from choosing an
electoral system. Under the Constitution Act, Parliament has the
exclusive power to determine the number of seats to which each province or
territory would be entitled. No reference to an electoral system is contained
in the Constitution Act.
According to the Representation Act (1985), the number of seats assigned to a province or territory cannot be reduced from what it had been in 1976 or during the 1984-85 Parliament, whichever is less. A 1915 constitutional amendment assured the provinces that they will never have fewer seats in the Commons than they have in the Senate. This "senatorial floor" was included in the Constitution Act (1982) as one of the sections requiring approval by Parliament and all provinces before it could be amended.
Any move to adopt a new formula for allocating Commons seats would require amending the 1985 statute. If the guarantees of the senatorial floor were to be changed, the Senate abolished, or changes made to the number of senators to which the provinces were entitled, a constitutional amendment would be required.
The way in which seats are distributed within the provinces is a function of the type of system used to elect MPs. Single-member constituencies serve as the base for FPTP, AV, and TR. They could continue to be established under the existing Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act (1985) (EBRA). For elections under BV, multi-member districts would need to be created, the EBRA (1985) would have to be altered to reflect the constituency requirements of the new electoral system, and the boundaries of the new and larger districts would have to be drawn.
First Past the Post
FPTP is the most widely used electoral system in the world. In 1997, 68 out of 211 countries, comprising 45 percent of the world's population, chose their national legislatures through FPTP. Canada was one of them. FPTP is a misnomer, for there is technically no "post" for candidates to get by. Very simply, the person with the most votes wins. To win in a two-member contest, a candidate must gain a clear majority of the valid votes cast. When three or more candidates contest an election there is no certainty that the winner will gain a clear majority.
- FPTP is the easiest electoral system for the voter to use and to understand. Nothing is simpler than casting one "X" for a single candidate.
- FPTP is the most familiar of all electoral systems to Canadians. It has been used in all federal and most provincial elections since 1867.
- Vote counting is simple and speedy. Usually, within a few hours of the close of polls Canadians know who their new government and opposition will be.
- In general, Canada's FPTP system has tended to produce single-party majority governments. In the 36 Canadian general elections since 1867, all but eight have brought one party to power with a majority of seats. This is seen as an advantage, because it implies a greater likelihood of government stability than would be found in a coalition government formed of two or more parties.
- FPTP in Canada has favoured broadly-based, accommodative, centrist parties. By winning office with a majority of the seats, a "catch-all" party generally succeeds in creating a coalition of supporters and MPs drawn from different regions, and different linguistic and ethnocultural groups. The government draws part of its strength from being an intra-party coalition rather than a less stable inter-party one.
- Extremist parties have not fared well under FPTP in Canada.
- FPTP is based on geographically-bounded constituencies, each electing a single member. This establishes an obvious, easily understood link between constituents of a district and "their" MP, and stands in contrast to the more complex representational relationships that result from proportional electoral schemes in multi-member districts.
- A government's responsibility and accountability to the voters at election time is directly established under FPTP.
- FPTP has a demonstrated tendency to convert votes into seats in a seemingly
arbitrary and often unfair manner. Canadian history contains many examples
of that. Charges of "unfairness" in converting votes into seats have been
levelled at Canada's system for three reasons.
(a) A party forming a majority government has rarely been elected with a majority of the popular vote. In only three of the 23 elections since 1921 has a party won a majority of the seats and been supported by a majority of voters. The lowest level of popular support to translate into a majority government came in 1997 when the Liberals won 51.5 percent of the seats with 38.5 percent of the vote.
(b) A party forming a government may receive a smaller share of the popular vote but still win more seats than its principal competing party. This has happened three times since Confederation: in 1957, 1962, and 1979. In 1925, the Liberal government continued in office although it won both fewer seats and fewer votes than the Conservatives.
(c) A party winning at least as much, if not more, of the popular vote as another party may end up with fewer seats. In 1997, the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservatives won 19.4 percent and 18.8 percent of the vote respectively, but Reform elected 40 more MPs than the Tories. The Bloc Québécois elected twice as many members as the NDP, but with fewer votes (10.7 percent to 11.0 percent).
FPTP can reward regionally strong parties, penalize nationally weak ones, and discriminate against some, but not all, parties by denying them their "fair" share of seats. Major national and strong regional parties tend to be the principal beneficiaries of the system. All other parties pay an electoral cost by having either too diffuse a support base nationally or too little in the way of regionally concentrated support.
- Electors who support an unsuccessful candidate in a FPTP constituency may
sense after the election that they are somehow "unrepresented."
- The picture painted of a party's support by the number and location of
seats it has won is often a misleading portrayal of the actual level of electoral
support that it received. The results from the 1997 election would suggest
that, because the Reform party elected no members from Ontario, it had gained
little support there, whereas the fact was that almost one of every five Ontario
voters supported the party.
- Once in the Commons, a party with few or no MPs from any region may find
it difficult to support or to understand policies that are of critical importance
to any area of the country from which they have no members. The unrepresentativeness
of party caucuses is seen as a contributor to inter-regional frictions in
- FPTP's tendency to produce single-party majority governments is seen by
some to be an advantage. To others it is a drawback. Favouring a coalition
government that includes representatives from two or more parties, they argue
that a multi-party government represents a larger cross-section of society
and forces compromise among more regionally, linguistically, or culturally
- FPTP does not take a voter's preference orderings into account. The failure
to allow ranking of candidates and the limitation imposed on the voter of
casting a single "X" can lead to perverse results, such as (in the extreme)
the election of a constituency's least preferred candidate.
- Women and Aboriginal persons have never gained seats in the Commons commensurate
with their share of the total Canadian population. The explanation for the
poor showing of women and members of Aboriginal communities is a complex mixture
of social, cultural, and political factors. Both groups were late in getting
the franchise and the right to run for public office: 1920 in the case of
women, 1950 for the Inuit, and 1960 for status Indians. Party structures have
remained overwhelmingly the preserve of white males. This has affected negatively
party recruitment of female and Native candidates for public office.
FPTP limits the entry point for anyone wanting to run for office to a single nomination per party per constituency. Without that nomination and party endorsement, women and Aboriginal Canadians can run only as independent or non-affiliated candidates, and will likely find it more difficult to be elected. The weakness of FPTP on this point is apparent when its record is compared with proportional electoral schemes in some other parts of the world. Proportional systems based on party lists are generally considered to offer incentives for parties to construct socially-diverse lists in order to maximize the likelihood of gaining the electoral support of a wide cross-section of the electorate.
AV is a rarely used electoral system. In AV voters are required to rank their preferences numerically on the ballot paper. The person elected is the candidate gaining a majority of the votes. If no one receives a clear majority based on the first preferences, the candidate with the fewest first preferences is dropped and that candidate's second preferences are distributed among the remaining candidates on the ballot. The process continues until one candidate eventually receives a majority of the original + transferred votes.
- AV ensures a "majority" winner. This may not come on the initial count of ballots, but the gradual transfer of preferences creates a "manufactured majority" winner. AV is less likely to be faulted than FPTP for having "unfairly" converted votes into seats.
- AV allows for the full expression of a voter's preferences by ranking the candidates nominated.
- With the gradual elimination of candidates from a ballot, the votes of several aligned candidates can eventually accumulate to the point of enabling one of them to win.
- AV is based on single-member, territorially-bounded districts. As with FPTP, this makes for clear lines of representation, responsibility, and accountability.
- Based on the experience of Australia's House of Representatives, reasonably centrist and moderate parties can expect to form a majority government (either singly or in close alliance with a coalition partner) under AV.
- For some voters, a rank-ordered selection may not be as easy to make as a single "X." As a preference ordering of a possibly large number of candidates must be completed for the ballot to be considered valid, some voters may be deterred from exercising their franchise.
- AV may be superior to FPTP in ensuring a majority winner but, like FPTP, it too can eliminate the most preferred choice.
- As with FPTP, large national parties and strong regional ones with concentrated pockets of support stand to do well.
- It is difficult to see how women, Aboriginal persons, or members of ethnocultural minorities that have traditionally not fared well under FPTP would do any better under an AV system. The same basic difficulty would remain, that is, of relying on a nominating process which is itself reflective of a larger problem of the political culture.
BV is a variant of FPTP in multimember districts. In 1997, 13 countries used BV. Electors are given as many votes as there are seats to be filled. In most systems, the elector is entitled to vote for individual candidates regardless of their party affiliation. Electors are free to use as many or as few votes as they wish. A variation of BV, called the party block vote (PBV), permits the elector to cast only one vote for a party list of candidates in a multi-member district, with the party receiving the largest number of votes (not necessarily a majority) electing all the members from that district.
- BV permits electors to choose among individual candidates and to cast, up to an assigned maximum number, an "X" for candidates of their choice.
- BV is simple to use and requires no preferential ordering of candidates. It would be familiar to Canadians who live in cities in which multi-member, "at large" municipal councils are elected.
- Under PBV, voters are usually given one vote to cast for party lists of candidates to be elected in the multi-member district. The parties may try to "balance" their lists to include individuals from social or ethnic groups. In Canada, such party lists could be constructed to include women, Aboriginal Canadians, and members of ethnocultural minority groups.
- Whatever Advantages might be achieved with fewer and larger districts would be more than offset by the physical size of the districts. They would be bigger than they now are and the links between constituents and "their" MP less direct than under FPTP.
- BV can produce "super-majoritarian" results where one party can win virtually all the seats in a Parliament without having won much more (possibly even less) than a simple majority of the votes cast.
- BV can be as "unfair" as FPTP. When electors cast all their votes for members of a single party, BV simply repeats the disproportionality feature of FPTP in converting votes in seats. A party's electoral success in different regions of Canada and the electoral success of women, and members of Aboriginal and ethnocultural minority groups could not be assured under BV.
- There is no guarantee of proportionality (converting votes into seats) in BV, nor is there any guarantee that the most preferred candidate(s) would get elected.
TR, the world's third most commonly used system, is also known as a "run-off" or "double-ballot" system. Any candidate gaining at least a clear majority of the votes on the first ballot wins. If no one receives a majority on the first round of voting, all but the leading candidates are eliminated and a second round of voting takes place. The most common form of the second ballot system requires a majority run-off on the second ballot between the top two candidates from the first round of voting. In some TR systems, all candidates receiving a certain minimum percentage of the votes on the first round are entitled to run on the second ballot. When more than two candidates compete on the second ballot, a simple plurality of the vote is all that is needed to win.
- Run-off elections between two candidates produce majority winners.
- The direct relationship between constituent and member is retained, as is the greater sense of government responsibility and accountability that comes from a clearly established representational link.
- TR encourages the creation of coalitions between the two rounds. This can encourage a measure of inter-party or inter-candidate bargaining and trade-offs. These can be healthy in socially and ethnically diverse communities, encourage a measure of openness to public scrutiny of inter-elite bargaining, and help to accommodate inter-regional tensions or rivalries.
- Run-off elections tend to discriminate against extremist parties and favour accommodative parties aiming to construct winning coalitions.
- TR opens up more strategic possibilities than FPTP for both voters and parties. It permits electors to express first ballot true preferences, change their minds between ballots, or cast strategic votes on both ballots. A two- or three-week interval between the two votes enables parties to pursue mutually beneficial coalition-building strategies through policy and organizational trade-offs.
- TR would not be entirely foreign to Canadians who have watched or taken part in party leadership conventions.
- TR places burdens on the political system that are not present in any single-vote electoral system. Operating two rounds of voting increases costs for party organizations and electoral administrations. The additional burden placed on the electorate, in such respects as becoming informed of inter-ballot developments, considering further (possibly unexpected) alternatives, and generally getting interested enough to cast a second vote, helps to explain the typical drop-off in turnout that occurs between the two elections.
- Depending upon the outcome of the first round and the various strategies parties employ in their respective searches for coalition partners, the political and economic systems could go through a period of uncertainty and instability.
- TR does not ensure the distribution of votes into seats in any more proportionate ratio than other plurality-majority systems.
- TR may produce a majority winner, but there is no certainty that the most preferred candidate on the first ballot will even make it onto the ballot for the second round.
- Party coalitions that form for the purpose of winning the second ballot in a TR electoral system are not necessarily going to last once elected to Parliament.
- TR, like other plurality-majority systems, allows as much or as little social diversity as parties wish to encourage or establish at the level of district nominations. There is nothing specific in TR that suggests that in Canada a party would attempt to construct a representative socio-demographic corpus of candidates.
Note: The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.