Unfair Elections: Canada and Electoral Reform

Canada’s recently elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised many changes following his Liberal Party’s victory, which ended 10 years of Conservative rule with a commanding majority in Parliament. Trudeau has promised to address many liberal Canadians’ priorities, including raising taxes on the rich, increasing government spending on infrastructure projects intended to boost Canada’s struggling economy, and the legalization and regulation of marijuana. One of the more surprising items on his reform agenda is electoral reform.

Canada currently uses the “first past the post” or “plurality” voting system, similar to the process used for state and federal elections in the United States. In this system, the candidate with the highest number of votes in a certain district wins the seat. This winner-take-all approach, while easy to understand, has some serious drawbacks. It allows for a party to win a majority of seats in Parliament while winning a substantially lower percentage of the popular vote—which is exactly what Trudeau’s Liberal Party did in Canada’s recent election. In order to win a district or riding, a candidate needs to have more votes cast for them than for anyone else. In a two party system like the one in the United States, this translates to majority rule, but in a multiparty system like Canada (five parties won seats in Parliament in the federal election last fall), a candidate can win substantially less than half of the vote and win the seat. For example, a Liberal candidate could win 30 percent of the vote in a specific district, with the rest of the vote split between other candidates. In this election, the Liberals won 39.5 percent of the popular vote, but managed to pick up 184 out of the 338 seats, or 54.4 percent, a 14.9 percent difference. The plurality system is not a faithful representation of the will of the people, and the distortion gets worse in a multiparty system like Canada’s due to the dilution of votes between more political parties.

Trudeau believes that the drawbacks of the plurality system—disproportionate representation and strategic voting— warrant reform. He asserts that as a modern democracy, Canada should embrace a system that better reflects the will of the people, one that encourages them to go out and vote for the candidate or party that they believe in. Although Trudeau has not made any specific proposals, he has created a multiparty committee to make a recommendation.

The plurality system has several key drawbacks that warrant the consideration of these alternative electoral systems. First, disproportionate representation discourages voters from coming out to the polls. If a Canadian voter who supports the Liberal party knows that their riding leans heavily Conservative, then they will be less likely to go out and vote because they believe their vote is meaningless. This same conundrum exists in the United States: Democrats in heavily Republican states like Texas and Republicans in liberal havens like California will display similar tendencies. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where the party that is perceived to have an advantage will win because supporters for the underdog party won’t bother to vote, ensuring a victory for their opponent.

The plurality system also has another major drawback: the third party problem. The presence of more than two choices warps voters’ true preferences and encourages strategic voting. This creates a situation where voters must choose between voting for their preferred candidate and voting for someone other than their first choice in order to prevent an undesirable outcome. For example, in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, George W. Bush won 48 percent of the vote, Al Gore won 48 percent of the vote, and Ralph Nader won 3 percent of the vote. Most Nader supporters preferred Gore to Bush, so in a race without Nader, Gore would have been expected to win. The presence of the third option changed the group’s overall preferences from Gore to Bush, even though Nader’s supporters would have preferred a Gore victory. In the 2000 election, a Nader supporter who voted for Gore to prevent a Bush victory would be an example of strategic voting.

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a perfect voting system. Economist Kenneth Arrow, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, mathematically proved that no voting system can exist that meets three criteria of fairness. Arrow’s impossibility theorem states that it is impossible for any voting system to give all voters equal say in the outcome (i.e. not a dictatorship), be Pareto efficient, and not violate a principle called independence of irrelevant alternatives (IIA). Pareto efficiency is a state where no one’s welfare can be improved without negatively impacting anyone else’s well-being. IIA essentially states that the presence of a third option should not alter your preference between two other, totally separate, choices. In politics, IIA manifests as the third party candidate problem.

One potential solution is a modification to the plurality system called instant runoff voting (IRV). It is a preferential system where voters rank their candidates in the order they prefer, instead of simply voting for one winner. If no candidate has a majority of number one preferences, the lowest placing candidate is eliminated, and his votes go to the second choice of the voters who selected him as their first option. This system eliminates the issue of strategic voting. If IRV had been in place for the 2000 presidential election, all of Ralph Nader’s votes would have gone to Al Gore, who would have been the Nader supporters’ second choice, and Gore would have won the election by a comfortable margin.

Another option is to choose a system that aims to achieve proportional representation, such as the single transferrable vote (STV) system. STV maintains direct election of representatives by increasing the number of representatives in each district, which necessitates either the consolidation of ridings or a drastic increase in the size of Parliament. Voters rank their preferred candidates, and once a candidate has received enough votes to win one of the seats, the rest of their supporters’ votes get transferred to their second choice candidate. This process repeats until all seats have been filled. In contrast to the plurality system, STV ensures that every vote in an election counts.

Canada needs to embrace a new electoral system as an improvement over the plurality system. The plurality system is too simplistic for a modern democracy. It discourages voter participation and doesn’t encourage voters to show their true preferences. The instant runoff voting system, then, is the best option for replacing the plurality system in Canada. IRV would retain the same ridings as the current system, so there would not be an expensive and contentious redistricting process. Trudeau agrees with the need to retain local representation and told the Canadian Press in December 2015, “The fact that every single politician needs to earn the trust of a specific group of constituents who cover the broad range of Canadian public opinion strengthens our democracy.” Retaining local accountability is a key feature of representative democracy, and IRV maintains this crucial link between the voters and their elected officials.

One of the main advantages that instant runoff voting has over the plurality system is that it encourages voters to express their true political preferences. IRV eliminates the necessity of strategic voting by ensuring voters that their vote won’t go to waste if they vote for a smaller party candidate who they prefer to a big party option. This would allow smaller parties to flourish, creating more opportunities for coalition governments and compromises that reflect the interests of a larger segment of the Canadian electorate.

Instant runoff voting has already been successfully implemented around the world. It is used to elect members of Australia’s House of Representatives and Senate, as well as presidents in Ireland. In the United States, it is used for mayoral and city council elections in cities including San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis, and St. Paul. IRV is also used to determine the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture. IRV is an intuitive, easy to use system that has been proven effective in many different circumstances, at a local, regional, national and nongovernmental level. It is a robust system with many advantages over the winner-take-all system currently in place, and it would serve Canada well.

Canada should embrace electoral reform as a measure to strengthen its democracy. Although no system can be perfect, both the instant runoff voting and single transferrable vote systems are substantial improvements over the plurality system that is currently in place. IRV in particular would provide a significant improvement over the plurality system, while not imposing the same transition costs that STV would. While neither IRV nor STV is as simple as the winner-takes-all system currently in place, both systems would improve Canada’s democracy because they reduce incentives for strategic voting, thereby better reflecting the beliefs of the citizens, and encouraging voter turnout by ensuring that every vote has an impact on the results of the election.

Michael Fogarty

Michael Fogarty '19 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at michael.fogarty@wustl.edu.

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