Canada voted, but your vote may not count… again

How likely do you think it will be that the Liberals bring in electoral reform in this term? Your first two guesses don’t count.

A graph comparing the percentage of popular votes won by each party in the 2021 federal election compared to the seat count.
Fair Vote Canada (Colour code: Liberal–red, Conservative-dark blue, Bloq–light blue, NDP–orange, Green–green, PPC–purple.)

So, one more federal election, one more failure to get the results we voted for, one more missed opportunity to change our archaic and unfair electoral system.

You may remember the last real opportunity.

In early 2015, the Liberals were in deep electoral doo doo. The party’s already shaky support in public opinion polls was cratering, thanks in part to their opposition to the Conservative government’s anti-terrorism bill.

Justin Trudeau seemed destined to join the likes of Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff as the latest Liberal losers to perennial Prime Minister Stephen Harper, becoming yet another one-term Liberal-leader asterisk in Canadian political history.

But suddenly, out of nowhere, our then prime-ministerial-wannabe (who is now our third-term prime minister), pulled a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket out of his back pocket.

His magic words? “2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.”

Justin Trudeau declared it thus. And declared it. Over and over. According to the opposition, he said it at least 1,800 times in the leadup to the October 19, 2015, vote.

Electoral reform became a concrete pillar in that year’s Liberal election platform.

It worked. And no wonder.

Canadians were clearly looking for a bigger something new and different that year. Although the Liberals weren’t the only party promoting electoral reform in 2015 — “63 per cent of voters cast ballots for parties that said they would make every vote count” — Trudeau’s promise captured the popular imagination. As Trudeau himself noted in a slightly different context: “Because it’s 2015.”

The idea wasn’t even all that new. There had already been more than a dozen “previous studies and consultations that all recommended adding proportionality to the voting system.”

Globally, proportional representation reality was far from radical. More than 80 per cent of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — a collection of close to 40 “advanced” countries who all describe themselves as democracies — already had some form of proportional representation.

Canada?

Using Canada’s skewed political math, 39 per cent of voter support often equaled more than 50 per cent of seats in the House of Commons. In the 70 years since World War II, in fact, there had been 16 “majority” governments in Canada, only four of which had earned more than 50 per cent support among voters.

In 2015, of course, Trudeau’s Liberals themselves would go on to win just 39.5 per cent of the popular vote but 54 per cent of seats. As Kelly Carmichael, the then-executive director of Fair Vote Canada, put it starkly in Policy Options in 2017, “a mere 4.6 million Canadians [of 17.4 million voters out of a national population of nearly 36 million] voted for the 184 Liberal MPs who currently hold power.”

And yet… there’s the sandpaper rub in the snake-oil Liberal reform promise.

The Liberals won that year — as Liberals often do — precisely because we have a first-past-the-post electoral system.

Which led — as it so often does with eyes-always-on-the-prize Liberals — to a post-election, post-haste Liberal retreat.

The Liberals did appoint an ass-covering all-party Special Committee on Electoral Reform. It spent $600,000 holding hearings in every province and territory across the country, occupied 217 hours in committee meetings and compiled a 333-page report “recommending major changes to the country’s voting system,” including a national referendum on switching to some form of proportional representation. Some percentages worth noting from that process:

  • 80 per cent of citizens who attended committee-organized town halls asked for proportional representation;
  • 88 per cent of experts who made submissions to the committee (and indicated a system preference) recommended proportional representation;
  • The committee’s own survey found 71.5 per cent of Canadians wanted a system that “respected voter intention where the proportion of overall votes match the percentage of seats in the House of Commons.”

The Trudeau government’s response? The report was “largely rejected by the Trudeau government within hours of its release,” reported the Hill Times.

Trudeau claimed there was no consensus — see above — and therefore he wouldn’t go forward with any sort of electoral reform at all.

And he hasn’t. In our most recent election campaign — the second since his original promise — Trudeau insisted, for photo-op purposes, that he remained open to getting rid of the first-past-the-post system, but it was no longer a priority since there was “no consensus.”

“If ever there is more of a consensus,” he declared two days before Canadians went to the polls, “it could be interesting to follow up on, and I’d be open to that.”

How open? Consider once again the results of the 2021 election. This time the Liberals actually lost even the popular vote. They got 33 per cent compared to the Tories’ 34 per cent but will get to form the government because they spread their vote more “efficiently” over the country’s 338 ridings. The Tories racked up huge majorities in a limited number of western ridings, winning just 119 seats, while the Liberals managed to snaggle just enough votes to win in more different ridings, winning 158 seats.

How likely do you think it will be that the Liberals bring in electoral reform in this term? Your first two guesses don’t count.

Support for other parties is just as skewed but in different ways. The NDP won 17.7 per cent of votes cast but ended up with just 7.4 per cent of seats. The Greens got 2.3 per cent of votes cast but just 0.6 per cent of seats. Maxime Bernier’s right wing People’s Party, on the other hand, won 5.1 per cent of votes but got no seats at all.

Wait a minute! If there was simple proportional representation, that means the right-wing, anti-vax fringe PPC could end up with 20 seats! Who wants that?

Not me, but I’d rather have those marginal views represented in the House of Commons where they can be countered than in the streets where their fringe frustrations can grow unchecked.

Besides, as Fair Vote Canada, a lobby group for proportional representation in Canada, points out, simple proportional representation in Canada — a geographically huge country with many regional interests — would not be the most likely-to-be adopted system to accurately reflect the country’s political views.

Instead, Fair Vote Canada’s experts prepared two simulations of the 2021 election outcome based on the most commonly recommended proportional representation systems for Canada: mixed-member proportional (MMP), or single transferable vote (STV).

The short explanations:

  • Single Transferable Vote: several local ridings are merged, and voters collectively elect several MPs using a ranked ballot (allowing them to mark candidates 1, 2, 3 etc. in order of preference).
  • Mixed Member Proportional: voters elect both a local MP in a larger riding using first-past-the-post and one or more MPs that serve the entire region. The regional MPs, selected by voters from an open list, compensate for the distortions of the first-past-the-post results and ensure that the overall seat totals for each party more closely reflect their share of the popular vote.

The envelopes please:

Graph comparing 2021 election results under first past the post with those under a single transferable proportional system.
Fair Vote Canada

And Mixed Member Proportional:

A comparison of the results under first past the post and mixed member representation.
Fair Vote Canada

In the second scenario, the Liberals would still win narrowly. In the first, the Tories would win, also narrowly. In either case, they would need the support — as the Liberals do now — of some combination of smaller parties to effectively govern.

The big difference — and it is big — is that all the parties’ seats in parliament would more closely reflect our support for them.

In a democracy, can that be a bad thing?

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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