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Electoral Insight - Reform of Election Financing: Canada, Great Britain and the United States

Electoral Insight – May 2002

Choice of an electoral system Recent developments and increasing dialogue in Canada

Choice of an Electoral System
Recent developments and increasing dialogue in Canada

Marc Chénier
Legal Counsel, Elections Canada

On November 27, 2000, in polling stations throughout each of the 301 electoral districts across the nation, Canadian electors faced lists of candidates for their electoral districts. Voters marked a ballot to indicate their choice among the candidates, some of whom were identified on the ballot as nominated by a registered political party, some who were identified as independents, and others with no political affiliation. The process for determining the results of a federal election is set out in the Canada Elections Act.

At the close of the polls in the electoral district, the deputy returning officer and poll clerk in each polling station began the process of counting the votes cast by electors during the day. After they finished counting the votes in their respective polling stations, the deputy returning officers each filled out a Statement of the Vote, which was subsequently sent to the returning officer.

From these Statements of the Vote, the returning officer tallied the votes obtained by candidates throughout the electoral district. Once the votes were tabulated, the returning officer completed the writ, declaring the candidate who obtained the greatest number of votes to have been elected. In essence, this is a single-member plurality system, also known as first-past-the-post (FPTP), and has been used for federal elections in Canada since Confederation.

While most Canadian electors have cast a ballot at a federal election at one time or another, a recent IPSOS-Reid survey commissioned by the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) has, nevertheless, demonstrated low levels of knowledge among the Canadian electorate about the system used to elect members to the House of Commons. For instance, in this survey, carried out in April 2001 among 1 000 electors across the country, half of the respondents believed that a candidate had to obtain over 50 percent of the votes cast in an electoral district to win the election. Similarly, 47 percent of respondents believed that, to form the government, a party had to get a minimum of 50 percent of the national vote.

In the context of this generally low level of knowledge, there has been increasing movement in the past year towards beginning an informed debate on the choice of an electoral system, and towards seeking an alternative to FPTP. This increased interest has manifested itself in coverage by the media, studies by and the introduction of bills in provincial legislatures and Parliament, strategizing by components of the civil society, argumentation by academics in the field of political science, and the filing of a court application challenging the constitutionality of FPTP. Some noteworthy developments in the past year with respect to the choice of an electoral system in Canada are outlined below.

In the House of Commons, a private member's bill, Bill C-322, was introduced and read for the first time on March 29, 2001, in the first session of the 37th Parliament. This bill proposes that a committee of the House study the issue of choosing an electoral system and prepare a report. Subsequent to the tabling of this report, the bill proposes a national referendum on a specific alternative to FPTP, before or concurrently with the next general election.

This bill is the latest in a series of private member's bills addressing the choice of an electoral system. Other private member's bills promoting alternatives to FPTP have died on the order paper at the dissolution of sessions of Parliament since the 1993 general election. That particular general election marked the beginning of a new era of representational regionalism in Canada, which has fuelled debate on changing Canada's electoral system.

Some opponents of the first-past-the-post system contend that it fails to provide equal voting power to all electors.
Some opponents of the first-past-the-post system contend that it fails to provide
equal voting power to all electors.

On the provincial scene, during hearings held by the Prince Edward Island Legislative Assembly's Special Committee on the Election Act, seven of the fifteen presentations made to the Special Committee promoted the establishment and/or further examination of the implementation of a system of proportional representation for that province. The Special Committee was established by the legislature on June 9, 2000, to undertake a review of the Election Act in light of concerns expressed by Islanders following the province's 61st general election.

In its final report, tabled before the Legislative Assembly on April 27, 2001, the Special Committee recommended that Elections PEI commence as soon as possible a review of the systems of proportional representation now existing in other jurisdictions. The Special Committee recommended that after this review, Elections PEI make a report on its findings to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, who would then table the report in the House.

Moreover, the Special Committee suggested that, after members examine this report by Elections PEI, Islanders be broadly consulted on a specific system or systems. The Special Committee noted that "this approach [would] ensure that Islanders have ample opportunity for meaningful input into the way in which they return members to the Legislative Assembly to represent their interests."

The past year has also been characterized by increased advocacy of alternatives to FPTP by components of the civil society. Fair Vote Canada, created on August 1, 2000, has undertaken a campaign to focus public discussion on reviewing Canada's electoral system. This non-partisan, membership-based organization has devised a campaign strategy to mobilize public support for the implementation of a more proportional system of representation in Canada. The organization has undertaken to:

  • capture the attention of both the public and the media;
  • sustain a civic dialogue and an open, objective education process;
  • create a climate where change is perceived as possible and desirable, and then inevitable; and
  • conclude with a meaningful consultative process in which Canadian citizens themselves decide upon the appropriate reforms through a national referendum.

This campaign was launched at a national conference held in Ottawa on March 30 and 31, 2001, entitled "Making Votes Count". The conference was intended for information sharing, consultation, discussion and feedback.

Another non-partisan organization, the Mouvement pour une démocratie nouvelle, has focused on the issue of choice of an electoral system in the province of Quebec. The association recently began a petition to request that the National Assembly review the issue and hold public hearings on reforming the electoral system to implement one based on proportional representation.

At another conference held in Ottawa on May 2 and 3, 2001, academics and other interested individuals were invited by the IRPP to discuss the choice of an electoral system. During the course of the "Votes and Seats" conference, many panellists argued that the Canadian FPTP system has broken down, due to the inability of the system to deliver on the promise of a consolidation of the vote in favour of a clearly identifiable alternative to the government. According to these panellists, this failure is attributable to the fact that there is fragmentation of the opposition in Canada along linguistic and regional lines. Further, some panellists argued that FPTP leads to disproportionality between the votes cast for each political party, and the number of seats the parties occupy in the House of Commons. While some of the panellists conceded that the fact that a political party can obtain a majority of the seats with a minority of the votes leads to more stable governments, they also maintained that this is not necessarily a desirable result. These participants contended that disproportionality, and the "artificial" support for the government thereby obtained, leads to less government accountability.

Canada's House of Commons, Ottawa

Other panellists focused their arguments against FPTP on academic studies that suggest women, Aboriginal electors and other geographically dispersed minority groups are more likely to be under-represented in a legislature elected through FPTP than through a more proportional system of representation. Papers presented at the conference by academics and other panellists were published in the July-August 2001 issue of the IRPP's journal, Policy Options. During the course of the deliberations, the Executive Director of the Law Commission of Canada noted that the Commission would soon be putting the issue of electoral reform on its agenda, and that it would make subsequent recommendations to Parliament. On September 7, the Commission and Fair Vote Canada announced a partnership to examine voting system reform. They said they would study the experiences of other countries and hold a constituencies forum to solicit public input and develop a strategic plan. More information can be obtained by choosing Electoral Reform on the Commission's Web site.

At the time that the IRPP conference was underway in Ottawa, a notice of application was filed in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Toronto by the Green Party of Canada and its former leader, Ms. Joan Russow. Through this application, in which the Attorney General of Canada and the Chief Electoral Officer are named as respondents, the applicants challenge the use of FPTP in federal elections on the grounds that it violates rights guaranteed to Canadians under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Three arguments are put forward by the applicants in the Russow case. The first of these centres on the contention that in instituting FPTP, the Canada Elections Act does not guarantee equal and effective representation, contrary to section 3 of the Charter, which guarantees the right to vote. The applicants argue that FPTP fails to provide parity of voting power or effective representation to the large number of Canadian electors who support national parties that do not win an election, and whose supporters are not concentrated in one region of the country.

In support of this allegation, the applicants note that, while receiving approximately the same number of votes as the Reform Party and the Bloc Québécois at the 1993 general election, the Progressive Conservative Party elected only two members. The two other parties obtained 54 and 52 seats respectively. The applicants contend that the deviation in terms of votes required to be elected led to under-representation for supporters of the Progressive Conservatives to the tune of 2 226 percent.

The second line of argument used by the applicants to challenge FPTP centres on the allegation that this electoral system increases the under-representation of women, Aboriginal people and other regionally dispersed minorities, contrary to section 15 of the Charter, which guarantees to every Canadian the right to equality. The applicants argue that since Parliament is the fundamental social institution of the greatest importance in Canada, the inequality engendered by FPTP is a profound affront to the dignity of the groups who are under-represented under its application.

Finally, the applicants argue that FPTP also infringes equality rights guaranteed under section 15 of the Charter because it affords discriminatory treatment to supporters of small nationally based parties, such as the Green Party of Canada. This party has never elected a member of Parliament, despite having support in many electoral districts across the country. According to the applicants, this differential treatment is substantive discrimination because it interferes with the freedom of individuals to express and find representation for their public values and beliefs.

The applicants are requesting that the sections of the Canada Elections Act instituting a FPTP system for federal elections be declared unconstitutional, pursuant to sections 3 and 15 of the Charter, and therefore null and void by application of section 52 of the Constitution. However, the applicants also request a suspension of this declaration for a period of two years to allow Parliament sufficient time to study alternatives with a view to selecting the more proportional model that is most suitable to Canada's constitutional traditions and political needs.

At the time this article was written, a hearing date had not yet been set for this application. Moreover, the Attorney General of Canada had not yet filed a factum, and it was not known what position the Government would take on the application.

While the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada was named as a respondent in the Russow application, his Office has not taken a formal position on the issue. It is the Chief Electoral Officer's mandate to administer the provisions of the Canada Elections Act as adopted by Parliament, and as interpreted by the courts. The choice of an electoral system is an issue that must be left for Canadians to decide.

Clearly, dissemination of information on the various options will result in more informed discussions. The choice of an electoral system is fundamental to the democratic process, and ensuring that Canadians understand the current process, as well as the characteristics of other options, is desirable. It was with this objective in mind that the choice of an electoral system was addressed at the June 23, 1999, meeting of the Chief Electoral Officer's Advisory Committee of Political Parties. During this session, three Canadian political scientists were invited to present papers to the representatives from the registered political parties. Summaries of the three papers appeared in the first issue of Electoral Insight (Vol. 1, No. 1, June 1999), and are accessible on Elections Canada's Web site at


Electoral Reform Issue in Canada, IPSOS-Reid survey commissioned by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, April 2001.

Bill C-322, An Act to provide for a House of Commons committee to study proportional representation in federal elections, 1st Session, 37th Parliament, 2001.

Prince Edward Island, Legislative Assembly, Special Committee on the Election Act, "Final Report" in Daily Journal of the Legislative Assembly (April 27, 2001).

Votes and Seats conference, organized by the IRPP, Ottawa (May 2 and 3, 2001).

Factum of the Applicants, Russow and Green Party of Canada v. Canada (A.G.) et al., Ontario Superior Court of Justice, court file No. 01-CV-210088. Available for viewing at


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.