Resolved: "First past the post" elections undermine Canadian unity

Over in the thread on the Canadian Election, the issue of “first past the post” elections versus proportional representation briefly came up. I think that the issue merits its own thread.

Here’s my position. The FPTP electoral system is detrimental to Canadian unity and should be replaced with a system that has elements of the current riding system, plus an element of proportional representation.

The FPTP system has the problem of electing majority governments that don’t have majority voter support, but that’s not the issue I want to address. My point is that it sends grossly lopsided provincial contingents to the Commons, which in turn aggravates regional antagonisms.

For example, during the Trudeau period, the Grits consistently swept Quebec, taking almost all the seats, even though there was always a substantial vote for other parties. Those election results magnified the influence of the Quebec MPs in Ottawa, and also triggered regional resentment out west, because the huge block of Quebec MPs gave the Liberals an almost insurmountable lead.

Similarly, for the past ten years, the Liberals have had a stranglehold on Ontario, with similar results.

And it works the other way as well, by magnifying the appearence of regional opposition. Alberta is the best example of this. It consistently sends a block of right-wing MPs to the Commons, giving the impression of almost unanimous opposition to the Liberal governments, increasing the popular impression that Alberta has nothing in common with the centre. Yet, as with Ontario and Quebec, in every election in Alberta there are respectable numbers of votes cast for the Liberals or the NDP, but never concentrated enough to elect more than one or two members.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t want a pure proportional representation system, like Israel, which grossly magnifies the political importance of small parties. The best approach would be to blend the two systems, along the German model. I understand that in Germany, each state is divided into individual ridings which elect members by FPTP, but there are also additional seats for members-at-large in each state. Those seats are allocated according to the vote ratios for each party in each state, so that the overall delegation of a state is closer to the the proprotion of votes cast.

If that system were in place in Canada, a party could almost never sweep the larger provinces and get a tremendous block of seats. Even if a party got the majority of the votes in a particular province, there would almost always be a some MPs from other parties. That would reduce the influence of individual provinces and force all the parties to try to attract support across the country.

So, waddya think?

I’d agree that the FPTP system produces exaggerated majorities. However all the PR systems I’ve read about seem to remove the immediate accountability of the MP. If the current MP has no tie to his/her rising, but is rather appointed to the region through a closed or open list then where is the accountability to the riding? How would their voting record or public stances impact the potential re-election?

Personally I prefer the idea of Single Transferable Ballot (STB). Say we have a riding with 4 competing members (A, B, C, and D). All voters would rank their preference. In say my case, D, A, C, B. Once all votes are totaled the results are C 30% A 25% B25% and D 20%. No majority. Now the votes assigned to D are removed and the voter’s second choice (again in my case A) is rationed out. Now C 35% A 35% B 30%. Repeat as necessary to arrive at a candidate that best represents the riding.

I suppose you could also weight the votes i.e. first choice = 1 vote, second = .5 third equal .25 and forth = .125. At the end of the night you’d simply total them all up and the winner is the one with the biggest number of votes.

In this way uneasy Liberals could vote NDP first and then have Liberal as a second choice, Green as a third and Conservative as a fourth.

While it look complicated its not. Voters simply rank the candidates and the tabulators simply enter the values. It’s a simple exercise for a computer to sift the numbers. It also maintains the immediacy of a local candidate running for your vote; and suffering if he/she fails to deserve it.

I’m still not convinced the system needs to be changed.

I see two key flaws in your analysis:

1.) In terms of the Bloc being “over represented,” the problem isn’t the voting system, its that we have provincial parties running in a federal election. If anything, all Canada has done is proven that multiparty systems don’t work. The reason we don’t have Proportional Representation isn’t our voting system, its our party system, in that the parties are not proportionally representing themselves.

From what I’ve studied, it surprises me that we don’t have an Ontario Party, that promises to milk the country and feed Toronto, allowing the extras to go to Thunder Bay etc. As long as they ensured they had all of the votes in Ontario who cares about the rest of the ridings? Heck, they could probable pull a few from the boarders…

To get away from the regional fractioning, we need to ensure that all parties running are equally represented across the country.

2.) Just under 10% of the country lives in Toronto, and 33% of the country lives along the Windsor-Montreal corridor. With population concentrated like that, its not surprising that we end up with regional fights. But what do you suggest? Proportional representation is going to TAKE votes from PEI…

The US struggles with almost the opposite problem in that NY and California are vastly under represented when voting for the President. Since each states gets just one electoral vote.

Grey, I also think the Single Transferable Ballot sounds nice but in reality is a bit silly. If a person wants to vote NDP, why on Earth would they say their second choice is Conservative? I don’t mean to imply that that’s what you said. But the STB system would work nicely in a 10 party system, but not 4. I’d consider the STB system if it only allowed a second choice, but honestly, to say, “well, if A doesn’t win then I definitely support B, but if he doesn’t win I guess I’d want C, and if he doesn’t win that I think D should probably get the seat.” Well DUH, if the first three don’t win then OF COURSE D get it. Sorry, but I’ve heard people about this before and it always strikes me as a bit too wishy washy.


No, they get a number of electoral votes equal to the number of Representatives and Senators they have. In other words, it’s pretty much proportional to population. California holds more than ten percent of the electoral votes.

I think we would be better off with a hybrid system based on the american model. Retain the house of parliament, and the senate , but make direct elections for the cabinet and add the judiciary.

With a more stream lined procedure for elections , having it either every five years , or every four years ,on a set date. And at least tryin to take away the shackles from back benchers that want to be able to move up , from the party whips.

Its not really what you mentioned ,but its tied in as well.


I’m not sure, I’d imagine they would rather support the Liberals. The point is that it effectively combines our current system with a built in run off between candidates. It’s an evolutionary development rather than a radical shift. Besides, all the candidate names are on the ballot anyway.

Northern Piper is right. The fact that there are liberal/conservative residents in the regions currently dominated by the Tories and Grits skews the national perspective. Albertans look at the results and see that the East has completely rejected the party that emerged from the west. This isn’t true. The old Alliance party picked up a significant percentage of votes out here but that didn’t translate into seats. Likewise with the Liberals out west. A continuing polarization destroys trust. If we can’t trust each other then there can’t be compromise. Without compromise within the federation, the whole thing falls apart.

There’s still quite a difference left over by that “pretty much”. The low-population states all hold a disproportionate amount of the electoral votes. That makes it appealing for a party to focus disproportionately on issues that are especially important to low-population areas. Since those states are predominantly in the West, rural, often lower-income, usually socially conservative, that gives that segment of the population disproportionate power - enough to tip an election.

grey, here in Massachusetts, some municipalities have ranked ballots for local elections like in the system you describe. Unfortunately, they tend to fall victim to voter confusion and to the prevalence of “bullet ballots” - that’s where, if your primary interest is in getting a particular candidate a seat, you vote *only * for that candidate. Since the others get fewer votes of their own that way, you help your own guy more than if you fill out the ballot completely.
Just an outsider’s question: Is that lack of unity a product of the FPTP rule, or is it because the (non-Liberal) parties themselves don’t try harder to appeal outside their bases?

Well, I would prefer an open list, not a closed list. In some p.r. systems, the parties each submit their list of candidates for the p.r. list, which in my opinion gives the party way too much power. That would increase party discipline tremendously.

An open list can be set by the electorate themselves. Suppose a province has 10 members at-large. Each party nominates up to 10 candidates for the at-large seats, but doesn’t have the power to rank them. Voters get two ballots - one for their local riding, which would still be FPTP, and one for the at-large candidates. On the at-large ballot, they would have to vote for one and only one candidate, which is a vote for both the party and the particular candidate.

The at-large ballots get counted in two ways. First, the at-large ballots get counted by party. The votes for all the Liberal candidates are totalled together to establish the total Liberal support, the votes for all the NDP candidates for the NDP support, and so on. Suppose of all the at-large ballots, 50% voted Tory, 30% Liberal, and 20% NDP. In a province with 10 at-large seats, the Tories would get 5 at-large seats, the Liberals 3, and the NDP 2.

But how do you establish which candidates get the nod? The ballots now get counted another way. Since you vote for an individual, the voters establish the ranking of the candidates for each party. If Jane Doe for the Liberals gets more votes than any of the other Liberal candidates, she’s #1 on the Liberal list. Rene Dumont got the second greatest number of votes amongst the Liberals, so he’s ranked #2. Bert Horowitz came in third amongst Liberals, so he gets the last of the three seats. jack Smith came in fourth among the Liberals, so he doesn’t get elected.

By this apporach, the voters themselves establish the ranking of the party’s candidates on the list, so they can punish an at-large MP they don’t like, and reward an at-large MP they do like.

There are other ways to respond to Grey’s concern, like term limits for at-large MPs. You could provide that you can only serve one or two terms as an at-large MP, and then aren’t eligible to be nominated in the next election, but not have any term limits for the riding MPs. The at-large MPs would have an incentive to get general personal support so that they could try to get elected as a riding MP. That would mean that the at-large MPs would be a chance for junior people just coming into the system to try to get a toehold, especially candidates who are a bit out of the mainstream.

You’ve obviously not heard of “Anyone but Trudeau!” which was a voting mantra in western Canada in the 70s!


There’s also such things as Red Tories (fiscally conservative, socially progressive), and Blue NDPers. They can sometimes have more in common with each other than with Liberals, and vote accordingly.

I would say it’s much more complex than just FPTP - there are significant regional differences in Canada. My position is that FPTP aggraavates the situation, by magnifying the apparent differences and obscuring the actual commonalities.

The Bloc obviously has no intention of appealling to anyone but their own base. The accusation can be levied at the other three parties as well not to the same degree as with the Bloc. The other three parties normally field candidates in every single riding and on paper try to appeal across the country.

They can each be criticised, though, for how seriously they actually try to do so. I would not exempt the Liberals from this criticism. They have a consistent pattern of implementing policies that are wildly unpopular in western Canada (NEP in the 70s, gun control in the 90s), and then not getting many western seats. As long as they hold central Canada, they don’t need to get western seats. (I’m not sure of the numbers, but I think at the depths of Trudeau’s period, the Grits held something like 2 seats in all of the western provinces - both from Manitoba.)

Northern Piper basically said what I had scratched out.

2004	Seats	Pop	%Seats	%Pop	Delta
bc	36	4.09	11.69%	13.17%	-1.48%
ab	28	3.06	9.09%	9.86%	-0.76%
sk	14	1.02	4.55%	3.29%	1.26%
mb	14	1.15	4.55%	3.70%	0.84%
on	106	11.87	34.42%	38.23%	-3.81%
qu	75	7.4	24.35%	23.83%	0.52%
nb	10	0.76	3.25%	2.45%	0.80%
pe	4	0.14	1.30%	0.45%	0.85%
ns	11	0.94	3.57%	3.03%	0.54%
nl	7	0.53	2.27%	1.71%	0.57%
yk	1	0.03	0.32%	0.10%	0.23%
nt	1	0.04	0.32%	0.13%	0.20%
nu	1	0.02	0.32%	0.06%	0.26%
	308	31.05	100.00%	100.00%	

Simply by winning a bare majority in Ontario and Quebec gives you control of 90 seats. The fact that FPTP allows for asymetric wins simply compounds the issue

This race for the NDP leadership was done by a ballot system like the one Grey suggests, with all members voting rather than delegates. It worked wonderfully – there’s a real feel that we got the leader we wanted. I’d love to see that as the national system.

I think Declan may also be on the right track with a hybrid system, but I would suggest replacing the Senate with an elected body based on popular vote, while tying MPs in the lower house to ridings. Hell, we may as well be doing something with the Senate, seeing as we’re paying for it.

The problem isn’t selling proportional representation to the public – I suspect most Canadians would favour some form of PR, if they thought about the idea. The problem is implementation. The Liberals have the most to gain from this system, and they’ve been in office for a decade.

The Reform Party/Canadian Alliance spent all those years “uniting the right” to take advantage of this fundamental flaw in our voting system – put a right-wing party in power by decreasing the number of choices, so that if most Canadians vote left, a right-wing party could still form the government. I know a few NDP supporters who voted Liberal last election out of fear of potentially crowning Stockwell Day PM.

For the record, in the 2000 election, the Liberals carried off 161 seats, the Alliance 58, the Bloc 44, the NDP 19, and the Conservatives 15.

If seats had been assigned on the basis of popular vote, it would have been 123 Liberal (a minority), 77 Alliance, 32 Bloc, 26 NDP, and 37 Conservatives.


I juxtaposed the 1997 election results with the 2000 popular vote numbers.

The first set of seats (numbers won) should read 172 Liberal, 66 Alliance, 38 Bloc, 13 NDP, and 12 PC. Which is even worse. The NDP would have doubled its seats, and the PCs would have tripled theirs.

The second set of seats (by popular vote) is accurate. I should have mentioned, though, that there would be two Green Party members and a Marijuana Party member or two there as well

Trying to frame everything in terms of a right-wing conspiracy is perhaps not the most accurate way of putting things. The effort to unite the two parties was a reflection of the simple fact that they USED to be one party, more or less. the Reform party was created by the implosion of the Progressive Conservative party in Mulroney’s second mandate. The Conservatives, Hamish, are not evil.

And wasn’t it you who just told us all in another thread that the Liberals are right-wing? Obviously, the Conseratives are running against them, too. If the Liberals are not “left” then it’s quite impossible for the “majority of Canadians” to vote left, so it’s silly to claim that’s why the Conservatives merged. They quite obviously merged primarily to beat the LIBERALS, who you claim aren’t left-wing.

As to the issue of PR:

  1. The solution here is not to screw around with the way the House of Commons is elected. PR would create as many, if not more, problems that it would solve. It puts minor parties in the position of being able to manipulate government policy, takes away the benefits of local representation, and can lead to government instability.

  2. The solution, IMHO, is a check and balance to the House.

  3. Therefore, we need an elected Senate, or

  4. Get rid of the Senate entirely, make Canada a republic, and elect the Governor-General.

Will any of this happen? Nah. It would require a Constitutional amendment. Fat chance of that.

Though I’m not a Canadian I do have an opinion about voting systems. For single-seat elections, in general, I think FPTP sucks. My favorite is approval voting since you can never hurt your favorite candidate’s chance of winning by voting for them/ranking them higher than others. Otherwise, instant runoff voting is awesome; single transferable vote, as another poster mentioned. Wikipedia has some really great information on voting systems, and their various problems.

Why is that a bad thing?

Sometimes it’s not, but it can be. Imagine a situation where the party that finished fifth in the election can dictate government policy by getting itself into a coalition with a minority government. If they can sustain that, it’s that a ripoff for the supporters of parties that did better in the election?

Of course, you say, that sort of thing wouldn’t last forever; each election will shift the dynamics. But isn’t that also true of the alleged horrors or FPTP in Canada?

I would argue that the method of electing the representatives using a STB method avoids the issue of massively re-jigging the electoral system. Canadian political evolution is just that; evolution. If it requires large massive jumps in policy or tradition we tend to avoid it.

You could almost argue for provincial PR elections though I’d doubt that the provincial government in Quebec (though elsewhere too) would be eager to see a new provincial level representative within the federal framework. It also avoids re-jigging the Charter since we could introduce it as a criterion for PM appointments. 5-10 years later then officially change it if you have to.

Am I allowed to mention GAAP as a default budget consideration? Yeah, I know, I’ll put it with the pony.

Whoa! Provincial PR Senatorial elections.

The Reform Party and the Alliance never made any secret that the reason they wanted to merge was to beat the Liberals. Beat the Liberals how? If you added together popular support for the two right-wing parties, you wouldn’t have come to a majority.

However, once you factor in vote-splitting between the then-centrist Chrétien Liberals and the NDP, it’s quite conceivable that a single right-wing party could be the “first past the post” in many ridings. This was, in fact expressly stated by many members of the Alliance. One example, taken from New Winnepeg:

To illustrate how this works, you don’t have to look any farther than our neighbours to the south. As any anti-Nader Democrat can tell you (or, for that matter, anyone who’s looked at the vote totals), if Nader’s supporters had voted for Gore, Gore would have won more than just the popular vote.

It doesn’t make logical sense. If I were a Red Tory, I would’ve been very upset by the merger. It’s no surprise to me at all that Scott Brison defected, and that Joe Clark is sitting as an independent. They were both fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

Yup. Fiscally conservative is, in my books, still conservative.

They ain’t perfect when it comes to things like gay marriage, but I wouldn’t call them right wing in those areas. But any party with Martin’s notions of economics is a right wing party.

Again, it’s no surprise that Keith Martin and Scott Brison have found such a warm welcome in that party.

Besides, all this is moot. Except for in the last couple of months, the Liberals were lead by Chrétien, a centrist.

You’re grossly simplifying the issue.

To wit:[ul][li]The Liberals under Chrétien were centrist. Some people voted for them because they liked their politics, some people were afraid vote splitting would put Day in power, and some people have been thinking of them as a left-wing party since Trudeau.[/li][li]Chrétien was elected. Martin was thrust into power by the mechanics of his party. The only people who voted him in were the people of Westmount Ville-Marie.[/li][li]In Canada, right wing and left wing (or degree of right wing) are only part of the equation. I suspect a right wing BCer is more likely to vote Alliance, and a right-wing Ontarian may be more likely to vote Liberal[/ul][/li]
IMHO, one of the possible spoilers in this election will be a right wing split, if fiscal conservative voters go Liberal this election. Martin knows this, and that’s why he’s playing to left – more money for health care (but who was finance minister when most of it was cut?), and national day care. He’s had ample opportunity to prove his supposed progressive values, and I haven’t seen it. I have little doubt it’ll be more of the same if he’s elected.

It’s a possibility if there’s a minority government. The NDP has set a condition of holding a referendum on proportional representation as a requirement for forming a coalition with the Liberals. The other parties should do the same.