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Reducing Canada’s Democratic Deficit Through Electoral Reform

Canada is by many standards a mature liberal democracy, characterized by a number of features that conform to what we would expect of today’s democracies. As Robert Dahl would argue, no country meets the ideal of democracy; what most of us would consider to be democracies are in his view polyarchies that fall short of the democratic ideal on some maximalist indicators, thus providing the theoretical grounds on which criticisms of Canadian democratic governance rest. Nonetheless, the robust rule of law, protection of individual rights and liberties, the freedom of assembly, an open press, a competitive political system and other basic liberties all confirm the characterization of the Canadian polity as democratic.

Over the years, however, certain criticisms have been leveled at the Canadian political process, including but not limited to the over-centralization of power in the prime minister’s office, unelected senate, and the majoritarian electoral system. These perceived shortcomings of Canadian democracy by academics and policymakers alike, in conjunction with declining voter turnout rates and participation in political parties, and low political trust – telling indicators of a process of political disengagement and apathy[1] – have constituted what has been termed the “democratic deficit.” This has been particularly vindicated in the recent waves of street discontent, youth mobilization and participation in various occupy protests. Aucoin and Turnbull define the democratic deficit as “the gap between what Canadians expect of their political institutions in terms of democratic governance and what they perceive as reality.”[2]

This recent disaffection has been particularly poignant with regards to Canada’s first-past-the-post, single-member constituency electoral system. Vilified by some on the grounds that it is unrepresentative and thus diminishes the importance of Canadian votes, many have advocated in favor of replacing the electoral system by a proportional representation configuration which would alleviate many of the ills of Canadian democracy. The adoption of PR will substantially increase political engagement and produce a more consensual and deliberative form of democracy, which comports more with the other advanced, mature democracies of the world.

With the majority election system, only one member of parliament is to be elected per constituency. Simply put, the candidate with the most votes wins the election – regardless or not if there is an absolute majority. While one of the values of such an electoral system resides in the fact that it is more conducive to a stable parliamentary majority for the government, it is unlikely to represent a pluralistic modern society.

One of the flaws of FPTP is that it marginalizes smaller parties, as they have virtually no chance to win a mandate unless there are some constituencies with a population having political views differing much from those in the rest of the country. Because of such a configuration, parties will unite tightly to have a serious chance of winning, thereby creating a polity that is composed of two major parties.

Because FPTP does not translate seats into votes proportionally, it has been attacked on many grounds. One of the most significant is that it exacerbates regionalism. There is no incentive for parties to campaign outside their secured region, since FPTP is inclined to create regions where one party dominates or is expected to win a majority of votes. During the 1997 elections, the Alliance received a million votes and won two seats, while the Liberals got twice the votes and 50 times more seats.[3]

In Quebec, this regionalized exacerbation is further conditioned by the regional concentration of the Bloc Québécois, which receives a disproportionate amount of seats compared to its votes. Distortion of voter preferences was apparent in the 1988 federal election, when the government that endorsed free trade with NAFTA won, despite the fact that most people voted against it.

This electoral design is a disincentive for political parties to win votes in areas that they traditionally do not win, since in the absence of a majority, votes are wasted. This is the second line of critique that has been leveled against FPTP. “If you did not vote for the person who won, your vote doesn’t count. Canada is one of only five democracies left in the world that use this archaic electoral system.”[4] Electoral systems can frame incentives for parties as they outline the rules of the game.

In a FPTP system, parties only devote their resources on voter strongholds, thus attending to the interests of regional constituencies, ignoring the grievances of other regions where the party has not consolidated any support and thus undermining national unity.

Studies have demonstrated that many of the symptoms of Canada’s democratic malaise are attributable to what seems like a flawed FPTP electoral system. Milner, citing the seminal work of Arend Lijphart, finds that other electoral systems like PR lead to higher voter turnout.[5] A proportional representation system features several members of parliament that are to be elected per constituency. Each political party presents a list of candidates and voters select a list, that is they vote for a political party. Parties are assigned parliamentary seats proportionally to the number of votes they receive. Milner argues that low Canadian voter turnout (two-thirds of registered voters) is an implication of wasted votes from FPTP, contributing to the alienation and disenfranchisement of an electorate behind votes that failed to translate into any seats.

Because winning a majority in a constituency is crucial to gaining seats in FPTP, those votes for which a party has no serious chance of contending, are simply wasted. This means that large segments of the population (sometimes more than 50 percent) effectively have no impact on the outcome of an election.[6] FPTP has also been associated with a diminished competitive political process.[7] Issue-specific parties that focus on environmental or linguistic matters, for instance, are marginalized, since even if they enjoy support from a cross-section of the population, they are unlikely to win seats if their support is not concentrated to make-up a majority in at least one constituency.

For example, in the 2011 federal election, the Green Party only gained 0.3 percent of seats, despite receiving 3.9 percent of votes. FPTP has also been inveighed against for contributing to the underrepresentation of women in parliament, which is approximately twenty percent.  The current electoral system inaccurately mirrors the Canadian demographic, even with regards to minorities.

Many scholars and policymakers have proposed to adopt a PR electoral system in order to rectify the roots of the democratic deficit. It is argued that PR will produce a more democratic form of governance that more accurately represents the population. One of the reasons is that PR increases the number of parties represented, thus giving voters more choice; the implication of that is higher voter turnout.[8]

Comparing PR and FPTP in a study revealed that there was a 10 percent discrepancy in voter turnout in favor of PR.[9] Thus, with higher voter turnout PR contributes to a more functional government that is legitimate. Concerning how FPTP excludes smaller, issue-centric parties, PR would give them an opportunity to translate their votes into seats, even if they failed to secure a majority in any riding. This would be more representative and better reflect the diversity of Canadian political opinion. With the removal of wasted votes, and the diminished importance of geographic or regional strongholds to the outcome of an election through PR, votes will count more and have more value in determining the parliamentary composition.

After the election, PR will promote a political climate amenable to collaboration, coalition-making, and deliberation[10] – thus reducing the political polarization associated with FPTP. Political parties in power will focus on long-term issues of national importance in an environment of cooperation rather than one of polarization. Nonetheless, PR makes the outcome of a majority government harder to achieve, producing weak and ineffective coalitions, sometimes leading to political paralysis and dysfunction. Another drawback, which would not be as much of a concern in Canada as in Europe, is that PR would serve to include extremist voices with narrow agendas.[11]

It is time to rethink our assumptions about electoral systems and provoke debate about whether or not other systems like proportional representation could alleviate our democratic deficit. Though the adoption of PR could bolster Canada’s democratic credentials, and mitigate a lot of disaffection about Canadian governance, it is not the panacea for the democratic malaise. A number of other reforms must be considered and studied before the democratic deficit can be fully and comprehensively redressed.

PR is not the silver bullet to Canada’s democratic deficit. Nevertheless, PR would produce a more representative parliament, reduce regional polarization, increase political competitiveness, and increase the perception of citizen participation and thus democratic engagement. This would have the implication of increasing political trust in the political system. Though PR will not solve the other problems in Canadian democracy, it will give us a far more democratic framework in which to address them.

Without a doubt, the democratic process in Canada could be reinforced and further legitimated with much needed reform. Nonetheless, the very persistence of a “democratic deficit” is perhaps a problem of expectations and unrealized gains; it is surely a stepping-stone for more profound change.

– Saladin El Ayoubi

[1] Matthew Mendelsohn, “Canadians’ Attitudes Toward their Representative Institutions: A Review of the Public Opinion Data” [unpublished document]. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Management Development, 2002, 7

[2] Peter Aucoin and Lori Turnbull, “The Democratic Deficit: Paul Martin and Parliamentary Reform,” Canadian Public Administration 46 no. 4 (Winter 2003), 436

[3] Judy Rebick, “PR Can Help Solve Canada’s Democracy Deficit,” Policy Options (July-August 2001), 16

[4] Ibid.

[5] Milner, 8

[6] Anthony Westell, “Proportional Representation – Why Not?” Literary Review of Canada 13:3 (2005), 1

[7] Andre Blais and R. K. Carty, “Does Proportional Representation Foster Voter Turnout?” European Journal of Political Research 18:2 (1990): 167-81.

[8] Blais and Carty, 1, 9.

[9] Ibid., 8

[10] Ibid., 8

[11] This is the case in Israel where ultra-religious extremist parties hold disproportionate power and contribute to the fragmentation of parliament by acting as the fulcrum of the coalition’s viability.


(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Suresh_|=k, Creative Commons, Flickr)

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One comment

  1. You argue for multi member constituencies but single member constituencies (SMC) have many benefits – the SMC is geographically the smallest constituency so it helps keep politics and campaigning local, and simplifies and strengthens the relationship between the MP and their electorate.

    Talk of redrawing constituency boundaries and sizes is contentious and acts as a barrier to electoral reform.

    Direct Party and Representative Voting is a PR voting system that requires no changes to constituency size or boundaries.
    It makes Parliament more ‘party proportional’ in its voting and thus changes the relationship between the Government and the other parties, but also changes the relationship between Parties and their MPs, and between MPs and their constituents. It gives MPs more independence from their parties, but also makes them more accountable to their constituents.
    Introducing the new system would require very little change either for voters or administrators, and thus the cost and disruption of the change would be low.
    It would be worth modifying it for use in Canada.

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