How people elect parliaments
Canadian electoral reform organisations continue to be active in several of the nation’s provinces, despite the disappointment of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau abandoning a 2015 election pledge to secure electoral reform in his first term of government.
After winning a majority of the seats in the Canadian House Commons at the 2015 elections with just 39% of the vote, the Liberal government oversaw a major public inquiry into the electoral system during 2016.
But despite extensive public interest in achieving proportional representation, Trudeau – who personally wished to move to preferential voting in single-member districts – steadily lost his appetite for reform.
By the time the Canadian Parliament eventually debated the inquiry’s report earlier this year, the original Reform Minister had been replaced, and the election promise was officially abandoned.
The extensive report of the Canadian parliamentary committee on electoral reform was shelved by the government earlier this year
Canada was among the earliest of all nations to adopt the use of plurality voting in single-member districts (generally known as first-past-the-post voting), generally adopting the voting system as early as 1841 for the then United Province of Canada.
Britain itself, and other British-empire nations which established elected parliaments, continued to use block voting in two-member (or even larger) districts through most of the 19th century and into the 20th century. The use of some single-member districts steadily became more frequent, but the UK itself only shifted to the general use of single-member district voting for House of Commons elections in 1884-85.
The attention of Canadian opponents of first-past-the-post is now turning to the province of British Columbia, where Premier John Horgan’s incoming New Democratic Party minority government and its Green Party supporters have made commitments to introduce proportional representation in this parliamentary term.
Canada has one of the most extensive histories of electoral reform attempts of any of the British-origin parliamentary systems. Reform of electoral systems has been attempted on numerous occasions, both at the national level and among the ten provinces.
Canada saw national campaigns for electoral reform in the 1920s, 1930s and 1970s.
Some Canadian provinces and cities adopted the use of the single transferable vote (STV), or else single-member district preferential voting, during a few decades of the mid-20th century, but later legislative assemblies reverted to using plurality voting.
But the past few decades have been very active with electoral reform attempts across Canada.
The 2016 national parliamentary inquiry was preceded by a major public inquiry conducted by the independent Law Commission of Canada (2002-04).
Province-level parliamentary enquiries or legislatively established citizens’ assemblies were held in New Brunswick (2004), British Columbia (2004), Quebec (2006), and Ontario (2007). New Brunswick now has a new Commission, launched in late 2016, to again examine electoral system reform.
All of these inquiries have recommended various forms of electoral system change, but none have been implemented.
When the parliamentary going gets too partisan, Canadian governments also like to send the issue sideways to referendum votes of the electorate. Votes related to electoral reform were held in the provinces of British Columbia (2005 and 2009), Ontario (2007), and Prince Edward Island (2005 and 2016).
The referendums in British Columbia in 2005 and Prince Edward Island in 2016 saw more than 50% of electors approve electoral system change, only to see the governments of the day then refuse to proceed.
After the successful 2016 vote in Prince Edward Island the provincial government cited a low voter turnout as a reason to refused to accept the popular preference.
In British Columbia the formerly governing Liberal party was in the habit of declaring that it would only be obliged to follow a result where more than 60% of voters approved of change. The 57% support for a move to STV voting in 2005 was not considered good enough.
Nonetheless, campaigners for electoral reform are pressing on.
The largest reform group is FairVote Canada, which opposes first-past-the-post but takes an open mind on which alternatives to adopt. The organization broadly endorses the single transferable vote (STV) system, the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, and some other approaches to proportional representation.
FairVoting BC in British Columbia is a free-standing organization similar to FairVote. The organization is currently gearing up to work with the new provincial Horgan Government to ensure that their reform promise comes to pass.
New NDP Premier of British Columbia John Horgan (right) governs with the support of the Green Party (Andrew Weaver, left); both parties promised electoral reform at this year’s elections, but they have yet to get to the details
Separate from FairVote’s network are a series of “123” groups, such 123Canada and 123Vancouver. These groups – like many of those active in the United States -– place their focus more on preferential voting rather than proportional representation, so they generally advocate for either single-member preferential voting (the alternative vote, or ‘AV’) of for multi-member STV.
Some provinces also have local campaign groups. The Springtide Foundation in Nova Scotia supports electoral reform. They have recently produced a very readable Better Choices report of reform options not only for the province but applicable to the national level.
In Newfoundland a group called Democracy Alert is advocating for proportional representation.
One key current initiative is the Charter Challenge for Fair Voting, a move initiated by FairVoting BC and the Springtide Foundation to bring the question of Canadian voting systems before the Supreme Court of Canada. Their hope is that prior rulings of the Court supporting fair and equal representation on other constitutional questions can be followed up by a future ruling that first-past-the-post single district voting is actually incompatible with the Canadian Charter of Rights, adopted in 1982.
Finally, Canada has an active community of more voting-method specific scholars and advocates advancing variants of the standard electoral systems. These include STV+ for Canada, All Votes Count, and Byron Weber Becker’s Local PR (each of which has put forward variants of the STV system) and the slightly older Electoral Change for Canada group (which proposed a combination of Condorcet local district elections augmented by an unused-vote top-up system somewhat related that used in Austria.)
(Invitation to readers: this post can be updated to add any reform groups or electoral system proposals not already mentioned, or expand on existing descriptions – simply use the ‘Leave a Reply’ comment facility below for reader-visible comments, or directly email the site author.)
Alternative terminology around the world
The terminology used in Canada for preferential voting systems is not entirely settled, and comparing notes across nations requires some translation of differently used technical terms.
The single-member winner version of voting by ranked preferences has come to be known in Britain and Canada as the “alternative vote” method (AV).
By contrast in the United States the term “instant runoff voting” has become the norm. There almost all current electoral reformers refer to “instant runoff voting” (IRV) and “ranked choice voting” (RCV).
But among the people who currently use these voting methods the most – the Irish and Australians – these terms are not used at all.
The simplest generic description of the ranked choice voting systems is just to call them “preferential”. All preferential voting has in common that voters rank the available candidates by number, marking the candidates with 1, 2, 3, 4 etc on their ballots.
Preferential voting in multi-member districts, which was first described in Britain in the 1850s, has always been termed the method of the “single transferable vote” (STV) in political literature, and is known this way in Britain, Canada, New Zealand and many other countries.
In the US and in Canada the term “ranked choice voting” is effectively a broader term embracing both single-member district AV / IRV as well as multi-member district STV.
Some US campaigners also now use the term “choice voting” to refer to the multi-member STV system.
Ironically in the one nation that has comprehensively adopted both forms of preferential voting – Australia – there really is no acronym used to describe this way of voting. Perhaps because the system has been used for nearly a century, the need for a descriptor has dropped out. Australians certainly understand how to vote preferentially, however, and the use of the term “preferences” to describe the ranking numbers is commonplace in Australia.
Just to finally complicate matters, for multi-member preferential voting the Australians have themselves largely dropped the original title “STV” in favour of the term “Hare-Clark system”, after the system’s most prominent designers.
Thomas Hare was the English theorist who first described STV in the 1850s. Andrew Inglis Clark – one of the original drafters of the Australian Constitution – was the Attorney-General of Tasmania who introduced the system to elections in that colony (later state) in the 1890s. Sadly forgotten in the Australian term is the surname “Spence”, which would appropriately honour Catherine Helen Spence, the South Australian social reformer who campaigned to see STV used in Australian elections from the 1870s to early in the 20th century. Spence even visited the United States in 1894 to campaign (major speech given in Chicago) for the adoption of STV there.