Senate Reform in Manitoba -- The Case for a "Weighted Districts" Model

By Jared Wesley on Mar 1, 2009

In reaction to Stephen Harper's proposals to reform the Upper Chamber, in 2006, the Manitoba Government established an All-Party Committee to investigate the election of Senate nominees.  One week ago, the sub-committee completed a province-wide series of public consultations, during which dozens of citizens made presentations.  Here is an abbreviated version of my own submission.

A Weighted-District-Election (WDE) Model

A weighted-district-election (WDE) would involve selecting Senators on a province-wide basis, while encouraging candidates to appeal to the various communities of interest throughout the province.  Here is how it works:

  • Each Senator-in-waiting is selected on an at-large basis.
  • Manitoba is divided into 57 "voting districts," according to existing provincial election boundaries.
  • Each district is allocated 100 "points" in the Senatorial election.  (E.g., La Verendrye, Thompson, The Maples, like every other constituency, would be allocated 100 points each.)
  • Candidates are awarded points based on their performance - i.e., the percentage of the popular vote they obtain - in each voting district.  (E.g., A candidate earning 40 percent of the popular vote in Thompson would be allocated 40 of Thompson's 100 points.  A second candidate who garnered 25 percent of the popular vote would be granted 25 of Thompson's points, and so on.)
  • The candidate obtaining the most province-wide "points" is declared the Senator-elect. 

The WDE model holds several key advantages:

Representation.  The WDE model blends the virtues of at-large representation with the representation of communities of interest.  The system offers significant incentives for candidates to build province-wide support, rather than focusing on specific constituencies.  For instance, candidates would be discouraged from running an entire campaign within Winnipeg city limits.  To begin, as only 31 of Manitoba's 57 constituencies are located in Winnipeg, only 3100 of Manitoba's 5700 total "points" are located in Winnipeg districts.  Yet, even if a candidate had significant support within the Perimeter, as points are allocated proportionally within each district, it would be very difficult for a single candidate to "sweep" the city.  Instead, the WDE rules encourage candidates to seek support across the entire province, earning points outside their "home" base of support.  Not unlike the Electoral College system in the United States, candidates would be forced to campaign widely.  This could result in broader voter contact and representation, and prevent the "ghettoization" of certain regional interests.[5]

Voter Equality.  The WDE model also blends the principles of "one person, one vote" with the protection of minority interests.  In this sense, the model resembles several "hybrid" systems employed by various political parties to select their leaders.[6]    

Familiarity.  As a side benefit, compared to many forms of proportional representation, WDE would be more intuitive for most Manitobans to grasp.  Several Canadian political parties have employed similar systems to select their leaders, and there are noticeable parallels between "weighted districting" systems and the American Electoral College.

Numbers.  Depending on how many nominees are required at any given time, the WDE model may be used to select any number of Senators-in-waiting.  For example, if three Senate vacancies need to be filled, the top three point-earners could be nominated.  Unlike PR systems, which require multiple seats to be allocated, the WDE model can be used to assign a single seat. 

Boundaries.  As it uses existing constituency boundaries, the WDE system does not require a separate districting process.  Moreover, because it draws on the work of the Manitoba Electoral Divisions Boundaries Commission, the districts are determined in an independent, non-partisan fashion every ten years.  This offers a sense of familiarity, legitimacy, and predictability to voters.

Flexibility.  The WDE model is flexible enough to allow for several variations.  For example:

  • Instead of using Manitoba's provincial boundaries, its 14 federal ridings may be used as a baseline. 
  • Additional "voting districts" may be added to allow for the representation of geographically-dispersed communities.  For example, separate 100-point (or 50-point) districts may be allotted to the First Nations, Métis, Franco-manitobain, or other communities.
  • The choice of electoral timing, formula, and ballot format are also negotiable.  The constituency-based nature of the proposed WDE model suggests that it would work well if harmonized with provincial elections.  However, the use of federal ridings as voting districts would allow Senators-in-waiting to be selected alongside Members of Parliament.  Using municipal boundaries, the process could be harmonized with local elections, as well.  Alternatively, the election could be held as a stand-alone event.  The ballot format may be either categorical (marking an "X") or ordinal (ranking preferences).  The latter would likely involve allocating a district's points as a block,[8] using a majoritarian formula (like AV or a two-stage run-off).[9] 


In the end, the weighted-district-election model offers the benefits of at-large, proportionate representation, while encouraging candidates to reach out to all of Manitoba's various communities.[10]   Each of Manitoba's regions would be represented - not by separate Senators-elect, but collectively - by individuals who draw support from across the province.  Provincialists and pluralists would be satisfied by these conditions.  Considering the ability of candidates to emphasize ideological themes as a means of mobilizing support across district lines, partisans may view the WDE process positively, as well.  Finally, universalists may find merit in the qualities candidates must possess in order to be successful in weighted-district-elections.  To borrow an abused phrase, Senators-in-waiting must truly be "uniters, not dividers" to win under WDE rules; such traits would serve them well in Senate deliberations.  Hence, the weighted-district-election model is the most flexible and widely-acceptable of all the alternatives under consideration.


[1] Under this model, the province would be divided into six separate regions - 1 in the north, 2 in the rural south, and 3 in Winnipeg.

[2] Proportional representation works best (i.e., delivers the most ‘proportional' results) when larger numbers of seats are available for distribution.  Therefore, the most effective use of PR in Manitoba would involve distributing all six (6) Senate seats on at-large basis.

[3] The List-PR system is held as a model in this regard, as it encourages parties to "list" individuals in these categories as candidates for office.

[4] Most PR systems aim to "represent" parties in legislatures, such that their share of seats is "proportionate" to their share of the popular vote.  Moreover, in many List-PR systems, each party controls the content of its "list."

[5] Similar debates surround the issue of "majority-minority districting" in the United States.  Proponents believe that the interests of racial minorities are best served by direct representation in the legislature.  As a result, several states have designed district boundaries to ensure racial minorities constitute electoral majorities in some districts (therefore encouraging the election of an African American representative, for example). Opponents argue this process "ghettoizes" minority issues by focusing the representation of the entire community on a single legislator.  Instead, they suggest the influence of the community is better brought to bear on politics if a number of different legislators must court the "ethnic vote."  For this reason, they oppose the creation of "majority-minority" districts.  While there are merits on both sides of the debate, the proposed WDE system matches the latter, by suggesting Northern and rural interests are best served if all six of Manitoba's Senators must court their regional votes. 

[6] The Progressive Conservative Party used a similar "hybrid" system to select Joe Clark as its leader in 1998, and the Conservative Party of Canada employed it to select Stephen Harper in 2004.

[7] Depending on the specific regulations, voters in these communities may cast a ballot in either their geographic or non-geographic districts, or both.

[8] That is, the candidate with the most preferential votes in each district would inherit all 100 points.  This type of "winner-take-all" formula resembles the one in most American states when selecting delegates to the United States Electoral College.

[9] Some recommend adopting some form of preferential ballot, which would limit the influence of partisanship and enhance the level of collaboration in the system.  One variant would see 3 Winnipeg seats being decided using a single-transferable vote (STV) formula, and the remaining rural seats by alternative vote (AV, also known as instant run-off voting).  It should be noted: similar arrangements were employed in provincial elections in Manitoba, from 1922 to 1953.  Yet, studies show that the use of preferential balloting had only marginal effects on the outcome of each election; nearly identical results would have been achieved using a first-past-the-post system.See Harold Jansen's 2004 study:  "The Political Consequences of the Alternative Vote:  Lessons from Western Canada" (Canadian Journal of Political Science 37: 647-670).

[10] If used in conjunction with provincial or federal election financing laws, the WDE system would also allow candidates from traditionally disadvantaged groups to compete for office.



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Why is the Manitoba Government considering this issue now?

Jared, can you speculate why the Doer government is going through these consultations now? It's been nearly 3 years since the Harper Government proposed senate elections, why the sudden interest?

Why now?

Four key factors are involved in the Doer government's decision to move on this issue, now.

(1)  Harper's actions in December may have motivated the Manitoba government to move on the issue.  In this sense, Premier Doer may have been spurred on by (what he perceived to be) higher public attention to Senate reform.  (If attendance at committee hearings is any indication, this was certainly not the case.)

(2)  Mira Spivak (Ind., PC) will vacate her Senate seat in July (2009).  There is no way that the committee could establish an election process by this deadline.  However, with a solid plan in place, they may convince the Prime Minister to hold off on appointments until an election can be held.  (Given Harper's willingness to fill Senate seats prior to Christmas, they'd better hurry.  It may help to have Stephen Fletcher -- Democratic Reform Minister and Winnipeg MP -- on their side.)  Realistically, however, the committee is deciding upon a process that will decide nominees for future rounds of Senate appointments.  (Barring any [forced] retirements, Manitoba will have one Senate vacancy in 2013, three in 2017, and one in 2021.)

(3)  Saskatchewan moved on the issue of Senate elections earlier last year.  In this sense, there could be a contagion effect at play, as the Doer government seeks to avoid being the only prairie province without a Senate election process.

(4)  Alternatively, the Doer government may be "dumping" this issue in the midst of a recession.  The low turnout at committee hearings may demonstrate that most Manitobans care more about issues other than Senate Reform (and numerous presenters said as much).  The Government has made no secret of its desire to abolish, rather than reform, the Senate.  Nor has it concealed its disdain at reopening the Constitution.  In short, the Doer Government's feelings toward Senate reform are lukewarm at best.  By holding hearings in the dead of winter, while so many other challenges and issues face Manitobans, they may be seeking affirmation of their own position.  Any plans adopted by the Manitoba Government may be viewed as "going through the motions," in this respect.

I think all four of these "drivers" are at play.

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