|You are here: Home > Features > Electoral Reform Movement in Canada
Why is Electoral Reform a Hot Topic in Canada?
from low voter turnout to controversial election results have
pushed electoral reform to the forefront
While the issue has received extensive media coverage as of late,
dissatisfaction with Canada’s electoral system is nothing
new. In the first half of the twentieth century, there were several
efforts to reform electoral systems in Canada. In 1916, the federal
Liberal government appointed a committee to examine electoral
reform. In 1921, a special House of Commons committee recommended
that the ‘alternative vote’ should be used in federal
elections, although no action was taken.
At the provincial level, several western provinces experimented
with alternate voting systems. The two types of systems the provinces
experimented with were the single transferable vote and the alternative
vote. Both are examples of a preferential voting system, whereby
instead of marking an “X” beside one candidate, the
voter ranks the candidates in order of preference. Under the
single transferable vote, the voter ranks the candidates within
a political party in order of preference. Under the alternative
vote, the voter ranks all the candidates that are running in
order of preference. The single transferable vote is a type of
proportional representation system. The alternative vote is very
similar to the first past the post system, except that the candidate
is elected with an absolute majority (instead of merely a relative
majority) of the votes. The following provides an historic overview
of the different electoral systems used by several western provinces:
- In Manitoba, between 1920 and 1955 the single transferable
vote (STV) was used in Winnipeg provincial constituencies.
Between 1924 and 1955, the alternative vote (AV) was used
in rural ridings.
- In Alberta, between 1924 and 1956, the single transferable
vote was used in the cities of Calgary and Edmonton, while
the alternative vote was used in rural ridings
- In British Columbia, both the 1952 and 1953 provincial elections
were held using the alternative vote system.
[To learn more about different types of electoral systems, including
the alternative vote and single transferable vote, see Section
3: What are the Options for Electoral Reform? ]
By the late 1950s, all of these provinces had returned to the first
past the post electoral system.
What is Behind the Most Recent Upsurge in Interest over Electoral
Beginning in the 1990s, there has been much renewed interest in
electoral reform, for several reasons:
- Unfairness in party representation. Historically, Canadian
federal politics has been dominated by two political parties,
the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals. This trend
came to an end in the 1993 election, as the Bloc Québécois
and the western-based Reform Party won over 50 seats each,
while the Progressive Conservatives were reduced to two.
Since 1993, five political parties have competed for the
votes of Canadians – meaning that the tendency of
the first past the post system to over-reward large parties
and under-reward small parties has been increasingly magnified.
Critics of the first past the post system argue that voters
who choose to support one of the smaller parties are not
being fairly represented in the House of Commons.
- Decline in voter turnout. Voter turnout at federal elections
has been declining steadily since the 1988 election. In
a survey for Elections Canada, one of the main reasons
people cited for not voting was the feeling that their
vote was meaningless, since the election outcome was largely
viewed as a foregone conclusion. Electoral reform advocates
believe that people would be more likely to vote under
a different electoral system, where the number of seats
a party wins more closely matches its share of the popular
- Controversial election results. A major reason that electoral
reform has progressed farther in BC than in any other province
is voter anger over the results of the 1996 provincial
election. In that election, the NDP won a majority of seats
and formed the government, even though the Liberals received
a higher percentage of the popular vote. Similarly, in
1998 the Parti Québécois won the Quebec provincial
election, even though the Quebec Liberal party received
a higher percentage of votes.
- Lack of an Effective Opposition. In some provinces, the
impetus for electoral reform came about in the wake of
provincial elections that gave the winning party an overwhelming
number of seats, with the result that there was little
or no opposition. One example is the 1987 New Brunswick
provincial election, which saw the Liberal party virtually
sweep the province, winning all 58 seats. Although less
dramatic, similar results have occurred in Prince Edward
Island. For example, the Progressive Conservatives won
26 out of 27 seats in the 2000 PEI provincial election.
- Organized Lobbying. Since the 1990s, several advocacy groups
have formed to lobby for electoral reform. These include
Fair Vote Canada and its provincial chapters, Every Vote
Counts ( Prince Edward Island ) and Mouvement
pour une démocratie nouvelle ( Quebec ).