Democratic Voting Systems Campaign

Advocating for representative, democratically elected, governments

Key Links

Voter Rights Campaign 1993-2011 archive (archive website)

The Opportunity

The pressure is increasing on governments across Canada to make political voting, decision-making, and appointments systems more democratic.

During the 2006 federal election campaign, the federal Conservatives promised that if they won they would pass an “Accountability Act” containing 52 measures to clean up the federal government’s accountability system, as well as implement 5 other democratic reforms.  When the Act was introduced, however, it only contained 30 measures and weakened key ethics rules (To see details about the 30 measures, click here, — To see details about the Conservatives’ broken promises, click here).

In 2006 the federal Conservatives promised to create an independent Public Appointments Commission to ensure that all Cabinet appointments are based on merit, not loyalty to the government. They broke that promise, and many provincial government also don’t have an independent commission to ensure Cabinet can’t appoint party cronies to key positions.

More and more Canadians are realizing that our current election voting system usually produces governments that give one party too much power, and so are some politicians — in February 2012, federal Liberal Party leadership candidates Justin Trudeau and Marc Garneau both proposed changing to a more democratic voting system. Also, many people are realizing that all political party leaders have too much power over the politicians in their parties — from choosing who gets to be election candidates to choosing who gets to sit on committees.

So the pressure is increasing across Canada to make election voting systems more democratic, and to free politicians to represent the voters who elect them.

Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett is planning to propose a private member bill that will require meaningful public consultation before any significant government decision is made.  The basis of this change was first proposed in a June 2001 federal Industry Committee report which resulted in the creation of a government website that contains all key information about all current, past, and planned consultations.  Model consultation standards were set out in the October 2002 Code of Good Practice on Policy Dialogue which was established under the 2001 Accord Between the Government of Canada and the Voluntary Sector.  The federal government is currently considering whether to make these guidelines more enforceable.

In B.C., the now-ruling Liberal Party held a consultation process on changing the voting system, and held a referendum on the issue in May 2005 and in May 2009 (the same time as the provincial election).  In Ontario, the now ruling Liberal Party held a similar consultation process and referendum on changing the voting system.  The governments of Québec and Prince Edward Island have also undertaken reviews of their voting systems.

As with many other policy innovations in the history of Canada, change to a democratic voting system will likely occur in a province or several provinces first, before the federal government finally responds to the widespread call for change.

Other key voting system reforms include fixing federal election dates (archive website), giving voters the right to vote “none of the above” and empower Elections Canada to hold election debates with participation based on merit.


Voting System Reform

Canada has an electoral system that consistently misrepresents the Canadian public and denies Canadians the right to have their vote count!  The system at the federal level, and in all the provinces, is based on the British model known as first past the post (FPTP).

Under this system Canada is divided into a number of single-member voting districts (also known as “ridings”).  At the federal level, there are currently 301 seats in the House of Commons (the elected house of Parliament), and various numbers of seats in each provincial legislature.

In an election, the candidate who gets the largest number of votes in each of these districts wins the election, and a seat in either Parliament (at the federal level) or in the provincial legislature.

Unfortunately, this system can lead to some very surprising, and fundamentally undemocratic, results! The main criticism of the FPTP voting system is that a candidate does not necessarily need to win a majority of the votes to win the seat, and usually, if there are 3 or more candidates in the district, the winning candidate does not win a majority of the votes.  As a result, often political parties in Canada win a majority of seats in an election and form the government and have all the power (because the party controls a majority of seats in the legislature), even though the party only won the support of a minority of voters.

Other common criticisms of the FPTP voting system are that it effectively denies smaller parties fair representation in the legislature, it exaggerates the support of larger parties, and it exaggerates the support of parties that have support only in one province or region of Canada.

In addition, it often forces voters to vote for their 2nd choice candidate in order to ensure that a candidate they definitely don’t like loses.  For example, imagine if a voter has 3 candidates to choose from in his/her district in an election, from political parties A, B, and C, and the voter wants to vote for the candidate from party A.  If the promises and platforms of parties A and B are more similar than then platform of party C, then voters that vote for the candidates from parties A and B may split the vote (for example, 31% for the party A candidate, 33% for party B), allowing the candidate for party C to win the election with support from only 36% of the voters.  The voter can only help prevent party C from winning by voting for his/her 2nd choice, the candidate from party B.

A study by the Institute for Research on Public Policy released in July 2000 found that 49% of Canadians find the current voting system unacceptable, compared to 23% who favour the current system.

A survey conducted in late 2001 by the Centre for Research and Information on Canada found that 37% of eligible voters who did not vote in the November 2000 federal election did not vote because they felt that their vote would have no effect and they did not like the choices of candidates and parties.

As an appointed body, the federal Senate of Canada of course presents a different problem for Canadian voters.  Unelected, unaccountable, and sometimes simply unworthy of the appointment, Senators have more policy-making power than they usually acknowledge, and are less representative than they usually claim.

When the federal government finally tackles the key issue of changing our voting system to ensure a more accurate representation of the popular vote and regional interests in the federal Parliament, turning the Senate into an elected body (or abolishing it altogether) is one of the key changes to be made.