How people elect parliaments
Last weeks’s provincial election for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario highlights a major problem with Canadian elections: the surprisingly low electoral mandates of almost all their national and provincial governments.
Canadian elections have three interlocking problems: relatively modest voter turnouts (by developed country standards), an electoral system presently based entirely on single-member districts, and a political landscape with multiple political parties.
Canadians, despite at present exclusively using the single-member plurality (first-past-the-post) voting system for all their elections, are managing to sustain not two but three major political parties (the Progressive Conservatives, the Liberals and the New Democratic Party) nationally and in most of the ten provinces. This is highly unusual in countries with first-past-the-post electoral systems.
The province of Quebec is noticeably distinct, with a Liberal party and a number of Quebec-only parties making up the parliamentary landscape.
The western provinces have distinct situations for their conservative parties, including the Saskatchewan party in that province, and the British Columbia Liberal party (roughly, a merger of the Liberal and Conservative parties, but mainly conservative) in British Columbia.
The province of Alberta also saw a second major conservative party – Wildrose – during the past decade, but the conservatives have recently merged again into one party.
Only the smaller eastern provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador can be regarded as having the two-party political landscape more typical of plurality voting electoral systems.
The result is that most Canadian governments are formed with the support of only around 25% of registered voters.
For national and provincial elections since 2010, turnouts have ranged from around 50% to just over 70%.
Quebec has seen the best turnouts, with results of 74% in 2012 and 70% in 2014 being the only Canadian elections to pass the 70% mark this decade.
Ontario, the nation’s largest province with a population of around 14 million people, consistently sees the nation’s lowest voter turnouts at its provincial elections.
Ontario’s three elections this decade have seen turnouts of 48%, 51% and (at last week’s election) a somewhat better participation rate of 58%.
The two national elections this decade have seen 61% and 68% participation, which are still a little below par by the standards of countries with well-established democratic systems.
But the combination of single-member district plurality and the divided political landscape means that the governments which form parliamentary majorities in the elected assemblies across Canada have electoral mandates which are substantially lower.
Only 6 of 23 elections* in this decade saw a single political party win 50% or more of the vote at an election. Yet in 20 of those elections, the leading single party still achieved a majority of the parliamentary seats.
Two more elections saw a leading party govern with a minority of just 1 seat.
Only the government formed by the Parti Québécois (shown in pale blue in the charts in this post) following the Quebec election of 2012 – at which the government won the support of just 31.9% of participating voters – proved not to be enduring.
But even these figures don’t show the full picture. Combined with the low voter turnouts, the actual voter support base of Canadian governments in office is quite significantly lower.
Only a handful of recent Canadian provincial governments can claim the support of more than 30% of their registered voters at the time of their election, and those are predominantly in the small-population provinces.
Four of the five governments which could claim 30% or more total voter support were in the provincial assemblies of Saskatchewan (those of the Saskatchewan Party, shown in turquoise in the charts) and Newfoundland and Labrador (including one Progressive Conservative (blue) and one Liberal (red) government).
New Brunswick governments are also among the better (or perhaps, less poor) performers, largely due to the absence of a third well-backed major political party.
At the other extreme lies Ontario. Against the background of poor voter turnouts, the Ontario provincial Liberal government of 2011 could claim a fairly risible 18% support among all registered voters, improving to just under 20% at the elections in 2014.
At last week’s Ontario election, the incoming new Progressive Conservative government did marginally better, but can still only claim the support of 23.5% of all registered Ontarians.
Alberta’s elections during the decade were similarly unimpressive. The Progressive Conservative government of 2012 won support from just 23.9% of the province’s registered voters. The improbable New Democratic Party government which took office in 2015 (having won in no small part because the conservatives had ruptured into two parliamentary parties) had just 22% support in the province.
The two national Canadian governments of the decade saw the Progressive Conservatives govern with just 24% national support after 2011, followed by current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government which formed in 2015 after winning just 27% support.
Quebec and New Brunswick are due for provincial assembly elections later in 2018, and the next national election is due in 2019.
(*This analysis looks as elections from 2010 onward. Elections for the Legislative Assembly of the province of Prince Edward Island are left out of the graphs shown, as the province’s electoral authority does not publish voter registration or turnout details. The three small-population northern Territories of Canada are also not included in this analysis.)
Observations on electoral system design in Canada
Canada is obviously a stable, successful parliamentary democracy. But as outlined above, most of its recent national and provincial governments have been strangely lacking in deep levels of voter support.
The issue does not yet seem to have caused any crisis of legitimacy, because for the moment Canadian political parties and leaders have generally avoided policy extremism, as well as the rise of controversial populist leaders.
But the nation’s systemic structural vulnerability to future governments with intense support from an electoral minority, as has progressively emerged in the United States in recent decades, is clearly apparent.
Higher election turnouts would obviously help address the legitimacy issue, but motivating voter respect for the electoral process has become an enduring problem in many developed democracies.
The Canadian three-(or more)-party landscape is, as a matter of statistics, clearly a factor in the low-support governments we are seeing. And yet the diversity of available party choices should probably be regarded as a dynamic strength of Canadian democracy.
In fact the most easily addressed factor in the situation is the continued use of the single-member district approach to elections. And happily, this element of the current situation can be amended simply by ordinary national or provincial legislation.
Any of the alternative proportional electoral systems, whether the voter-proportional STV approach (previously used in some western province elections), or the party-proportional approaches (ie: party list voting, including the MMP system), would significantly change the culture of the major parties in their quest for government.
The defence of single-member district plurality (first-past-the-post) elections is largely undertaken by conservative political parties and their supporters, although in some of the ‘two-party’ provinces, including for this point British Columbia, supporters can be found among some figures from the other major party.
There is also a more academic line of thought that first-past-the-post is desirable because it creates, even if artificially, secure parliamentary majorities for whichever party is most supported at any election.
But there is a major constitutional problem with this argument. Canada’s fundamental constitutional design is that generally known as the system of ‘responsible and representative government’, adopted almost universally throughout nations with British heritage as well as many other non-presidential national political systems.
Indeed, Canada helped create this system, since political developments in Canada throughout the 19th century made a major contribution to this constitutional design as it developed in Britain and its growing empire.
Canada was the first of the major overseas components of the British empire to secure ‘responsible government’ (ie: an executive that was accountable to a locally elected assembly), in 1841.
Canada was also a leader in the notion that representation in assemblies should follow the principle of proportionality to populations. The principle of ‘representation by population’ dictated the constitutional design behind to allocation of seats in the new confederal Canadian House of Commons established in 1867.
The fundamental architecture of this system of government irequires that the head of state appoints an executive government which can win and maintain the confidence of (ie: be ‘responsible to’) an assembly which is representative of the people.
Single-member district systems, however, undermine that representative character, by seriously distorting the effective value of votes across a nation or province, and changing the number of seats won by each of the political parties. The system also sharply constrains voter choice of representatives, both in terms of the individual candidates available and by forcing ‘tactical voting’ on many groups of voters.
The notion that the assembly should be elected in a manner that is specifically chose because it distorts the representative character of an assembly by boosting the number of seats secured by the largest party (or any other party for that matter) clearly undermines the ‘representative’ limb of the constitutional system of government.
Moreover the idea that this is done specifically because is strengthens (or even artificially creates) the parliamentary security of the executive government is a direct rejection of the notion that the executive should be ‘responsible’ to the elected assembly.
With these governance and electoral problems increasingly apparent in many parts of Canada, it is hardly surprising that electoral reform has been actively under consideration there for almost two decades.
Significant reform efforts have made various degrees of progress in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, British Columbia, Québéc and at the national level, but none have reached completion.
At present there are significant prospects of electoral system change in British Columbia during the current parliamentary term (with a voter referendum being held in November 2018) and also in Quebec, where three of the four major political parties have agreed to enact reform after the after the next provincial elections due in October.
Nonetheless, for the moment the various governments currently in office in the provinces of Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, as well as the national Liberal government, each hold artificial parliamentary majorities brought about by the election of significantly unrepresentative assemblies. In each of those four cases a different political party has been the beneficiary either currently or (in the case of Quebec) in a previous election.
The current government in British Columbia (an New Democratic Party administration supported by the Greens party MLAs) is arguably the democratically correct one, but the Greens party has been substantially deprived of representation, as arguably have genuinely conservative voters, who have no successful separate party in that province’s assembly.