On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Canada’s new parliamentary caucuses are all wrongly constituted

Canada has a newly elected national parliament, but its composition is very wrong.

In fact, the party parliamentary caucuses in the new House of Commons are unrepresentative of the Canadian voting population in important ways.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government will continue in office, because although his party lost its former (2015-19) majority of the House seats, there is no combination of other parties in the new chamber which will agree on any replacement.

image - Canadia House of Commons temporary chamberBut the Liberals will govern without the reliable ability to pass legislation – even annual budgets – and they will face much greater scrutiny from the House and its committees.

The political situation is a reminder that Canada’s democratic system does not directly elect governments, but only elects parliaments. The system then relies on those (ideally) representative parliaments to replace unwanted governments, and to shape the behaviour of incumbent governments through parliamentary control over legislation, public money, and debates on public controversies.

Canada’s electoral legislation has long maintained the system of electing the House through a network of single-member electoral districts, the effect of which is to distort the composition of the House in favour of a political party which happens to have plurality support in the electorate. The result is most often artificial party majorities in the House, protecting the government not only from removal but from serious challenge to law-making, budgetary decisions and political accountability.

The UK House of Commons, legislatures across the United States, and national and state electoral systems in Australia, India, and numerous other nations also distort the composition of their parliaments in this way.

In last month’s Canadian national election the system failed to protect the governing Liberal party, as it’s voter support fell backwards. Voters in Canada are proving to be volatile in the way they support their multiple political parties, and they are doing so with striking geographical differences across the 10 provinces of the confederation.

The Canadian parliament elected last month is actually the third in the past five elections to see a government without a majority of sitting MPs from Its party. Canada’s complex party-political diversity has become the norm.

Canada made a highly significant contribution to the historical development of the system of representative and responsible government used by most democratic nations. While the ‘mother parliament’ in Britain evolved slowly during the 19th and 20th centuries, originally with a very limited franchise and other defects, people and governments first in Nova Scotia (1845) and later in other parts of Canada, as well as Australia and other countries, established new and cleaner versions of the system of government we recognise today.

But as modern political parties took shape in the democratic nations during the mid-late 19th century, the politicians of the day cottoned on to the fact that legislating for single-member electoral districts would help generate artificial majorities of seats in parliament for the parties that were leading in any given election.

The manufactured results of this electoral system design in fact contradicted the very idea of ‘representative’ parliaments, as well as underlining the accountability of ‘responsible’ governments (that is, governments accountable to parliaments for their operations and for continuing in office).

Parliaments with minority governments that cannot dominate the legislature – such as the Canadian one that will serve from 2019 to 2023 – make governments more democratically accountable.

But even though the coming term will see a government subject to constraints, a major current problem for Canadian democracy is that the national party caucuses that make up the House of Commons are all wrongly constituted, because the electoral system still works to generate very imperfect representation of actual Canadian voters.

The party caucuses are all wrong in size and makeup

In theory, all Canadian voters are represented equally, and enjoy such equal representation regardless of where they live – but that’s not the reality.

Let’s start with the governing Liberal Party’s new caucus, which is both too large, and represents Liberal voters in some provinces far more powerfully than in others.

In Canada at the present time, based on the number of people voting and the established number of seats in parliament, roughly 46,000 voters should collectively elect one MP.

Graphic - Canada 2019 - Liberal ideal.png

The Liberal Party caucus, as it should be if voters were equally influential in electing representatives


But across the prairie provinces, Liberal voters are dramatically under-represented. In fact, across the two provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, over 356,000 voters wanted to elect Liberal MPs, but will have not a single representative in the new parliament. (Nearby Manitoba will return just 4 Liberal MPs.) That issue is getting media attention at present, because the Trudeau Cabinet will now be unable to have ordinary ministers from the two western prairie provinces.

Graphic - Canada 2019 - Liberal actual

The Liberal caucus as it actually will be: several prairie representatives are missing, while large numbers of unwarranted seats have been won in Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces


Liberal voters in British Columbia will be moderately under-represented by MPs, at the rate of about 1 for every 57,000 voters.

Liberal voters in Quebec are going to be slightly over-represented, getting MPs at the rate of just 1 for every 42,000 voters. This is actually a sharp fall from the position in the last parliament, during which there was a large over-representation of Liberal voters. (It is largely this shift in Quebec voter support which has cost Trudeau his former parliamentary majority.)

In the nation’s largest province, the relatively homogeneous Ontario, Liberal voters will also be noticeably over-represented, with 1 MP for every 36,000 Liberal supporters.

Most strikingly of all, the new Liberal parliamentary caucus has a very disproportionate number of members from the four smaller Atlantic provinces, with roughly one MP for every 20,000 voters. (In 2015 the Liberals had in fact won almost all the 32 seats to these four provinces, denying virtually any representation to voters there who supported other political parties. The drop back to a less extreme Liberal over-representation was the other main contributor to the loss of the pre-election Liberal parliamentary majority.)

All of these variations mean that the political make-up of the Liberal government caucus is distinctly imbalanced. Across the country different Liberal voters – and with that different political opinions and priorities – get sharply different degrees of influence in their party’s national group of MPs.

Finally, the new Liberal caucus is also too large overall; if Liberal voters were represented in a fair balance with voters supporting the other political parties, the party’s caucus would have around 115 members, but in fact 157 will be sworn in to the new Parliament.

Turning to the largest opposition party caucus, that of the Conservative Party, there are similar problems of striking misrepresentation.

Graphic - Canada 2019 - Cons ideal

The ideal Conservative caucus, fairly representing voters wherever they live

In total, the Conservative party caucus is around the right size; it should have around 117 MPs if its voters were represented in fair proportion to those of other parties, and in fact it will have 121.

The fact that the Conservative caucus should actually be slightly larger than the Liberal caucus – if all Canadian votes were of equal value – has attracted a good deal comment since the election. The Conservatives narrowly won a plurality of the total national vote – 34% to the Liberals’ 33% – but are actually gettingg a significantly smaller caucus than the government.

Graphic - Canada 2019 - Cons actual

The actual new Conservative caucus: extra MPs from the prairies, offset by missing representation from central and eastern provinces

In any case, like the Liberal caucus, the Conservative caucus is strikingly distorted. Maritime province Conservative voters are quite poorly represented; the 373,000 Conservative voters there should have around 9 MPs, but only 4 will be actually seated.

Conservatives supporters in Quebec are also slightly duded; they will get 10 parliamentary representatives, instead of the 13 they deserve.

Conservative MP numbers are also a little low from Ontario, with 36 Conservative MPs instead of 40 that, if votes were equal, should come from that province.

Manitoba Conservative voters get 7 Conservative MPs – which happens to be just the right number – and those in British Columbia will send 17 to parliament – just over the 15 that would be a fair delegation.

But the Conservative caucus will be strikingly over-populated with MPs from Alberta and Saskatchewan, with 47 MPs instead of a fair number of 33. (Another 7 Conservative MPs, roughly the right number, will come from Manitoba.)

So the Conservative opposition will be dominated by the political policies and culture of western prairie Conservative MPs, which are on many issues quite different from those of conservative voters in other regions of the nation.

These striking provincial distortions of the composition of the two largest parties will impact seriously on Canadian political decisions. As the Liberal government struggles to maintain control of the political agenda, both the government and opposition caucuses will be pursuing policy directions that will unduly favour some provincial political cultures and aims, and ignore others.

The caucus distortion problem is even worse for the representation in parliament of voters who decided to back the smaller political parties.

Canada’s third-largest nationwide party is the New Democrat Party. Instead of a delegation of around 54 members, which would represent their supporters equally and also in fair proportion to voters of other parties, there will be just 24 NDP MPs.

Graphic - Canada 2019 - NDP ideal

The ideal NDP caucus would have about 54 MPs, evenly representing voters across all provinces.

Moreover, the severely shrunken NDP caucus will come disproportionally from a few concentrated population areas in Ontario and in British Columbia.

Around 480,000 NDP supports in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba should get around 10 representative MPs, but they will actually have just 4 MPs, with none from Saskatchewan, and just one from Alberta. The NDP has a strong history in the prairie provinces, with distinct political views, but the party’s voters will be massively underrepresented in the new Ottawa NDP caucus.

Graphic - Canada 2019 - NDP actual

The actual NDP caucus is missing its proper membership of representatives for more than half its voters, in almost every province

The NDP’s voter support in Quebec fell dramatically at this election, from over a million voters to 464,000. In response the party’s previously representation of Quebec voters, at 16 MPs, has fallen to just a single remaining MP from one small urban district in central Montreal, leaving NDP voters across the rest of the large province unrepresented.

Canadian voters backing the Green Party are even more shabbily treated by the current electoral law. To be represented equally in parliament, there should be a caucus of around 21 Green MPs, with membership from almost all provincial regions (only in Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba and Saskatchewan is Green voter support so low that no MPs might be elected).

Graphic - Canada 2019 - Green ideal

The Green party has enough voter support to get representation in almost every province …

Instead, there will be just three Green MPs, two elected by local districts at the southern end of the island of Victoria in British Columbia, together with one MP from the city of Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Graphic - Canada 2019 - Green actual

…but the electoral system leaves almost all the nation’s 1.2 million Green voters without MPs

This severely under-represents the contribution to national political decisions which nearly 1.2 million Canadian Green voters wanted to elect.

The final player in the new parliament is the Bloc Québécois party, which ran candidates only in the province of Quebec.

Nearly 1.4 million voters have this time strongly backed the party, and they will be getting 26 MPs, at close to the fair national average. Ideally, there would be 32 Bloc MPs.

Graphic - Canada 2019 - BlocQ ideal  Graphic - Canada 2019 - BlocQ actual.png

But the specific localities within the province from which these Bloc Québécois MPs come (mainly rural and regional areas) will leave many of the party’s urban supporters unconnected to an accountable MP.

So every one of Canada’s significant political parties has a caucus in the new House of Commons which is mis-representative of the voters around the nation who support each party.

Most of the caucuses are also too large – or too small – in total, warping the political strength of the parties in Ottawa, and thus distorting the electoral influence of voters of all political opinions, in the four years ahead.

No wonder voters of all political opinions are disillusioned with electoral politics.

One final striking fact: the proportion of the nation’s voters who successfully elected an MP anywhere (even with distorted levels of influence) stands at just 32% of Canadian citizens registered to vote. 34% of those who were registered turned out to cast a vote last month, but did not get the representation they wanted. The remaining 34% did not even turn out to vote.

How did this come about?

All of these distortions of voter influence, and of the composition of the party parliamentary caucuses, are the direct result of the single-member division approach to electing MPs, which was created in the 19th century. This electoral system design and heavily criticized ever since (although not so often by the governing political parties, who enjoy the exaggerated political power which the system creates).

The situation in the Canadian national parliament is particularly bad by international comparison, due to the unusual combination of political parties which are winning voter support across Canada, together with the fact that the patterns of party support vary greatly across the different regions of Canada.

But the same distortion occurs in other nations with similar single-member district systems. (In Australia the outcomes of this electoral design are eased a little by preferential (ranked choice) voting, and are also improved by the very high turnouts generated by Australia’s system of compulsory voting.)

Around the world, many of the national and regional parliaments in Canada, Australia, the UK, the US and several other nations are actually dominated by political establishments which have, through their control of the legal details of electoral systems, substantially liberated themselves from the original principles of ‘representative’ and ‘responsible’ government.

This is no accident. None of the national constitutions of the countries mentioned in this post actually require electoral laws that create single-member electoral districts. Governing politicians legislated these electoral systems into existence at specific points in the past.

The legislators in office today could reform these systems, but most simply do not wish to.

20 comments on “Canada’s new parliamentary caucuses are all wrongly constituted

  1. SheriO
    November 8, 2019

    What has happened in Canada, in the US and in UK is a decoupling of the will of the people from the representatives in the legislature.

    Politicians, in Canada, want to do their politics with little bother for improving on democratic principles like equal and effective votes. A group called the Charter Challenge is asking the court to stop the gross inequity in Canadian votes. In the last election the number of votes per seat in the House of Commons were grossly distorted by party.

    Liberal MPs got elected with 37.6, BQ MPs, with 43, CPC MPs with 51, NDP with
    119 and Green Party MPs with 387.5 votes (in thousands) on average. Our votes are not equal and not effective and hopefully our courts will impose a system to make them equal and effective.

    Our Oct. 21, 2019 election threatens national unity. Since the time of Justin Trudeau’s father’s reign as prime minister, politicians in Canada have said we need proportional representation to unify the country. Yet no PM, including Justin Trudeau himself, who ran in 2015 to make every vote count and to end single-member pluralities,can stop the sweet deal FPTP gives them by delivering unearned power. Our politicians put party over country and add to public distrust of politicians. They care about ‘winning’ more than the public trust.

    • Michael Tims
      January 5, 2021

      Good observations.
      New to this discussion, but having researched electoral mechanisms i have arrived at a ranked choice voting system due to the reasons you’ve given.

      Here’s why. As you accurately observed, party politics has a long, well documented history of promoting anti democratic, authoritarian style politics, Selecting an electoral mechanism that best remediates this entrenched tradition demands a selection that limits party power while maximizing peoples choices as primary. MMP re-inserts arbitrary party power back into the equation where ranked choice voting blocks this undemocratic traditional power.

      I am open to thoughtful discussion and valued the interchange below on this site.

  2. russellmcormond
    November 12, 2019

    I think in the Canadian political climate we should note that the most commonly proposed solution of party top-ups doesn’t alleviate the problems discussed. What a voting system is proportional to is as important in evaluating these problems as the fact that it is proportional.

    While you broke things down by province (thank you!), many of the regional differences exist within provinces. While grouping districts by province isn’t as bad as attempting to group by nation, it still creates distortions in representation. You discussed this with the discussion of urban Bloc voters.

    The only way to avoid this distortion is to use multi-member districts and avoid the concept of federal, provincial or even regional “party top ups”.

    This failure of party top-ups is true whether we are talking about MMP (FPTP + party top ups), the various STV+ or RUP proposals (STV + party top ups), or more “clever” party-centric systems like DMP (votes allegedly for parties transferring out of one 2-member party grouped district to another).

    These aren’t arbitrary examples of problematic voting system classes, but the biased options picked by the BC NDP government in their recent referendum. Given no unbiased proportional options were presented, it isn’t surprising that voters said “no”. Even when BC had an unbiased proportional system on offer (BC-STV), the “yes” side used their party-centric language to promote it, effectively helping the “no” campaign.

    I firmly believe that the ongoing promotion of party top-ups has been the greatest barrier to electoral reform in Canada. Canadian electoral reformers need to move past this and focus on multi-member districts.

    I also wish there were more honest discussion of the Ghallagher index in Canada. This is not a measure of proportionality or fairness, but a measure of how proximate a model of a voting system is to pure party lists. Having proximity to pure party lists as a criteria for success will always lead to failure, as I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that a majority of Canadians believe that “If a *party* receives X% of the votes that this *party* should receive X% of the seats”.

    • Michael Tims
      January 5, 2021

      Excellent post and discussion on this important topic. Best that i’ve seen.

      In particular, i value your pivotal recognition of the glaring issue of party top-ups as fundamentally anti democratic, thereby replicating the problems of traditional unrepresentative authoritarianism. This seems to be a difficult topic for MMP proponents to understand, even while they posture as pro-democracy advocates.

      You seem to have a lot of valuable experience related to these topics. A rare find!

      Any tips/comments would be welcome as i struggle in the area of Barrie, Ontario in a staunchly reductive Conservative riding.

      • russellmcormond
        January 5, 2021

        I’m not the expert, but I do live closer (I’m in Ottawa 🙂

        I don’t know if it will have any impact, but I’ve been trying to engage different groups in this topic rather than the regular electoral reform crowd.

        For instance, for all the people who want Justin Trudeau to be held to account for his travels/etc after some other caucus members were booted in the provinces, I wrote: http://mcormond.blogspot.com/2021/01/lets-work-to-fix-parliamentary-flaws.html

        This last year I’ve also been learning about Indigenous Canada, and listen to a series of radio shows. When the discussion of an unaccountable Ontario minister came up the typical “party popular vote” thing came up. I wrote the following as a response: http://mcormond.blogspot.com/2020/12/party-popular-vote-vs-democracy.html (and they read the shortform text I wrote in on the air).

        In my opinion it is not the Conservatives we should be focused on with electoral reform, as they have no motivation to ever change (Party like it’s 1867, where few were franchised at all, and it was mixed electorate rules depending on provinces).

        It is the supporters and representatives from the other parties that want change, and we only need to impress on them the importance of making it a positive rather than negative change. It isn’t something to expect movement from the executives (all party executives benefit from less accountable party-centric systems), but the grassroots, candidates and elected parliamentary members.

      • Michael Tims
        January 6, 2021

        Your experience tells you some party members are interested in electoral reform. That is of great interest. Yet, as you have indicated, at present, there is little they can do within the party due to the intra-party strictures.

        Do you have enough inside experience to indicate that party members would consider ranked choice voting or are they primarily MMP supporters? Or too vague to know?

        From your experience, would it be accurate to say that at this point in time there are too few informed and active proponents for real electoral and democratic reform, or, are there significant numbers i know little about? My limited experience suggests that at this time there are very few Canadians who care enough and are informed enough to provide the social force necessary to move electoral politics forward at the federal level.

        Also, any comments/experience about using social media (or other mechanisms) to bring crucial electoral matters to the forefront in a culture that often seems to be sleeping? Without awareness, accurate public information, and encouragement, feels like electoral politics are stuck in the mud.


      • russellmcormond
        January 6, 2021

        My experience is of a group of MPs that found what I had to say (technology law and democratic reform) interesting enough to invite me in to talk to them. I would not call that a relevant sample — as exciting as it was for me (as a nobody) to meet and talk to each.

        However, The Samara Centre for Democracy https://www.samaracanada.com/ has done extensive exit interviews of MPs, and centralised control by parties is a top area of concern.

        Problem is — how do you pass legislation to remove excessive power from political parties within a parliamentary process that is centrally controlled by parties. What we saw on the ERRE committee was MPs repeating talking points from their parties, and largely ignoring witnesses that were saying anything other than repeating talking points from party-centric interest groups (like Fair Vote Canada).

        When speaking on behalf of their parties, the NDP and Green members will toe the party line and push “party popular vote” (IE: MMP, and only a modified STV if they incorrectly believe it has something to do with “party popular vote”).

        Justin Trudeau was the first time we had someone part of the Liberal party executive interested in any change. The Liberals and Conservatives as parties have always opposed any change as FPTP has always enabled those parties to grow big tents which stifle voices. To them campaigning about vote splitting is a feature, not a bug.

        It is always individual MPs and candidates that want ranked ballots and to reduce the control of parties over parliament in other ways as well.

        PS. I’m https://twitter.com/russellmcormond on twitter if you wanted to DM me there and compare notes…

      • Michael Tims
        January 7, 2021

        Thanks Russell. Appreciate your input.
        No cell phone – no twitter – just email!
        Want to connect me to your work in the cyber sphere regarding law etc.?

  3. SheriO
    November 12, 2019

    I guess it’s Nov. 12, 2019 in Australia now…so I’m a little behind the times.

    Edify me on the evils of the GI. The GI for Canada on the Wikipedia page is calculated not from pure party lists but from the difference between seats as a percentage and votes as a percentage. I’m a Canadian who wants votes to match seats…

    I voted Green in 2019. It takes ten times as many votes to elect a Green MP as a Liberal MP in 2019 388 000 to 38 000. Green MPs live in a different province from me.

    Presently a group called the Charter Challenge is going through the court system in Canada to make our votes equal and effective. All Canadians are entitled to elected an MP with their vote, within say a 5% threshold.

    • Malcolm Baalman
      November 12, 2019

      Replying to both Russell and Sheri …

      1. On Gallagher Index: Russell comments that the ‘Gallagher Index of Disproportionality’ “…is not a measure of proportionality or fairness, but a measure of how proximate a model of a voting system is to pure party lists”. It’s used by some political scientists (usually in PR-electoral-system nations) and by some electoral reform advocates to assess the relative ‘success’ of party-PR models, or to assess individual election results.

      Some years ago there was a good paper – can’t remember who by, but it might have been Michael Gallagher himself – that pointed out that for each of the possible mathematical seat allocation formula used in PR systems, there was a mirroring formula – call it an ‘index’ – that mathematically matched the party outcomes of election results generated by each allocation formula. For instance, the D’Hondt seat allocation formula was matched by the Gallagher Index; the St Lague allocation formula was matched by the St Lague Index; others could have been worked out and named. Each Index would therefore ‘show’ that it’s matching seat allocation formula achieved very good (perfect?) results, and all other allocation formulae were to some degree a bit ‘wrong’. So there is nothing special about the Gallagher Index, just as there s nothing special about selecting the D’Hondt seat allocation formula. Gallagher’s insight just showed that there was arbitrariness in picking these mathematical devices. Lesson: don’t get hung up on the value of any ‘disproportionality index’ as proving anything with finality.

      2. On party-PR overall: many electoral reform campaigners (eg FairVote in Can, Make Votes Matter in UK) frame the problem of the single-member-district democracies (Can, Aust, UK, US, others) as being that party vote-shares don’t match party seat-shares; or ‘seats don’t match votes’ [again, for parties]. Their aims to improve democracy are earnest and their huge efforts are certainly to be applauded. But maybe, at the rhetorical level at least, this language all sounds a bit to much as if what is cared about is the interests of the parties themselves. To my ear the problem, and the reason that talk of party-list PR systems and of party ‘fairness’ in election results rings cold to most voters, is that most voters in these times are thoroughly sceptical about anything that sounds like political party self-interest. The problem IS that the institution of the political party, while it in some sense necessary, has severely lost public trust. The public want representation, accountable to them, not more empowerment of political parties.

      That’s why I have come to write about the goal of electoral system design as being representation of people, not empowerment of parties. To me that’s a better basis for designing electoral systems and for campaigning for ‘reform’. To me, direct election, equal-influence (in practice, quota-based) voting systems are not only fairer, they are also more likely to win public support in the contest for endorsement. (And finally, I weave in a historical understanding of the fundamental design of ‘representative and responsible government’ as a political system, which I think is severely undermined, in different ways, by both single-member-district rules but also by party-list-based electoral systems).

      • russellmcormond
        November 12, 2019

        I have found it frustrating that when Prof. Michael Gallagher was invited as a witness to the electoral reform committee in Ottawa https://www.ourcommons.ca/DocumentViewer/en/42-1/ERRE/meeting-7/evidence that he was never asked about the meaning of the index. He was there to talk about STV, and was only asked questions about that.

        Then, out of the blue it seemed, the “That the referendum propose a proportional electoral system that achieves a Gallagher Index score of 5 or less” recommendation came out of the committee. If the politicians wanted to make a recommendation based on an index, why not ask its creator what the purpose of the index was?

        I think the outcome for Canadians would have been entirely different if a misinterpretation of that index hadn’t dominated the discussion.

        Replying to SheriO,

        This is not the first charter challenge relating to elections in Canada, and won’t likely be the last. The problem with those who have come together in support of this specific challenge is that if the court doesn’t reject the challenge and does the hard work of articulating a “criteria for success” for the government to follow, then it will filter out party lists as much as it will filter out single member districts.

        There are already many “notwithstanding” aspects of allocating districts such that they don’t cross provincial or territorial boundaries. Canadians outside of specific urban areas will always reject the notion that an urban parliamentarian can represent a non-urban voter regardless of party affiliation, and their voices shouldn’t be ignored.

        I’m also a Canadian who wants votes to match seats, but I also recognize that party lists brings us further away from that ideal rather than closer. Party lists (which are always ordered, whether open or closed) presume that if a vote is surplus to helping elect the first person on the list that this surplus should transfer to the next. This presumes that for this voter that their next choice would always be the next choice on that same list.

        A vote for a party nominated candidate is not always an endorsement of that party and a rejection of all other candidates or parties. This may be true for some voters, but I’ve yet to see evidence that suggests that this is a majority — or even that effectively disenfranchising a minority would be justified even if it was a majority.

        P.S. I voted for David McGuinty in 2019, IMO the most green minded candidate on offer in my district and someone I’ve personally worked well with in the past. I definitely did not vote Liberal. I would be extremely offended if my vote for David McGuinty was able to transfer to Pablo Rodríguez, Justin Trudeau (or many other Liberal nominated candidates). In the 1990’s I also voted Green (was very active in the party/etc – https://mcormond.blogspot.com/2019/11/2020-green-party-of-canada-leadership.html ), but as the caucus grows it will likely become the case that there will be candidates I’ll want to vote against as much as there will be candidates I’ll want to vote for. My experience in committees in parliament has shown to me that party affiliation alone is not enough to determine whether an individual candidate is capable of representing (rather than possibly opposing) me.

      • russellmcormond
        November 14, 2019


        If you ever come across that paper again I will be interested to read it.

      • russellmcormond
        February 6, 2020

        I wrote to Michael Gallagher, and he indicated that he believes he made the point you mentioned within ‘Proportionality, Disproportionality and Electoral Systems’, published in Electoral Studies 10:1 (1991), pp. 33–51. ( doi:10.1016/0261-3794(91)90004-c https://doi.org/10.1016%2F0261-3794%2891%2990004-c ). It is now on my reading list.

        It is what I’ve observed recently in my reading list I’d like your comment on.

        On vacation at the end of December I read http://www.douglas-mcintyre.com/book/turning-parliament-inside-out , written by Canadian federal MPs about parliamentary reform which included examples of bringing bills through parliament. The general theme was that power is centralized in the leaders offices, and elected MPs find it extremely hard to get any work done.

        Last week and weekend I read my copy of Real House Lives that I picked up at a pre-launch https://engage.samaracanada.com/real_house_lives_pre_launch_in_ottawa . This is a book written by a primary researcher at Samara based on a series of exit interviews they have done of Canadian MPs. Based on a much larger sample size, the same problems emerged with the parties, party leadership and the “kids in short pants”.

        Last weekend I started to read my copy of “The Politics of Electoral Systems” edited by Michael Gallagher and Paul Mitchell

        I felt something similar to whiplash.

        It was an abrupt movement from experience felt by practitioners to a group of theoreticians who ignore some of the critical questions which practitioners feel need to be asked.

        On p.37 I read, “Conventional classifications of electoral systems, by focusing on the dimensions of proportionality (of the ‘intraparty’ dimension), assume away the intraparty dimension of seat allocation. Nonetheless, as Grofman (1999) advises us in a self-declared heresy, the distinction between systems which voters select parties and those in which voters select candidates is at least as important as PR versus plurality/majority”.

        It is considered heresy to ask the fundamental questions upon which other research is based?

        There is clearly a spectrum between where the voter is voting for the candidate (personal vote, ignoring the party) and those who are voting for the party (party vote, ignoring the candidate). Assuming all voters exist on either extreme is invalid, but most of the authors of this book have set personal=0 in their articles and presumed that party proportionality is the most important metric. Much of their analysis of countries in their comparative analysis is based on this.

        My background in computer science includes many natural science university courses, including physics, where any measurement included an error calculation that was then brought through any other calculations. Setting personal=0 and then feeding this through a “least squares index” includes no discussion of the error introduced, including whether the error introduced is larger than the difference between parliaments alleged “proportional” and those which are not.

        While I have read many articles on electoral and parliamentary reform, this is the first time reading a formal textbook. There is quite a bit of apologizing by the authors for large areas that lack evidence, and yet this specific area that feels to me greatly lacking in evidence is taken as axioms upon which other research is built.

        This is a book from 2005 (I have the updated 2009 edition) — has the state of research improved since this? Am I alone in feeling uncomfortable reading this analysis which builds upon questionable assumptions?

      • Michael Tims
        January 5, 2021

        Great post.
        You are another of the few who seem to recognize the crucial issue of traditional party power as being fundamentally undemocratic. Without this accurate, well documented fact as the basis of a discussion on electoral mechanisms, the narrative often seems to roll inexorably back into the terrain dominated by establishment parties power. Talk about shooting a pro-democracy movement in the foot!

        For me, it appears that a ranked choice voting mechanism is the most powerful democracy creating tool at our disposal. If citizens are going to have democratic power over their politics (seems reasonable!), selecting a mechanism that best resolves traditional party authoritarianism is a fundamental necessity to move forward on the great project of democracy creation.
        Of course, we will need candidates dedicated to operating governance in a new, untried political ethic of opening up the doors to government information so that both politicians and citizens can know what is actually going on and knowledgeably participate in democratic self governance.

  4. Malcolm Baalman
    November 12, 2019

    Also responding to Russell’s remark that “While you broke things down by province (thank you!), many of the regional differences exist within provinces.”

    Totally correct. The same distortive phenomena work at any zonal level. ALL creation of internal boundaries can cause distortion. I was thinking of making more remarks about both regional/urban differences and also trying to deal with regional Ontario separately, but the post was already over 2,000 words!

    • russellmcormond
      November 12, 2019

      I understand the need to keep things to a readable level.

      I was first made aware that party focused reform was going to be rejected in Canada during the 2007 Ontario referendum on MMP. At the time I was part of the “Yes” campaign, and because of my enthusiasm from Ottawa my mother organized talks in my hometown Sudbury on the topic. She had people from Elections Ontario come to talk to groups.

      The general outcome I heard back was that northerners wanted representation from the north, and that they could never feel represented by someone from the south no matter what their political affiliation. They thought MMP was a form of disenfranchisement of the north.

      That referendum was a huge learning opportunity for me as I tried to listen to those on the “no” side and find out why. While there were people who I just disagree with (elections were a referendum on whether the government should continue or the government in waiting should take over), many of the reasons people were opposed to MMP I felt needed more consideration.

  5. SheriO
    November 12, 2019

    Thanks for clarifying your thinking.

    The vast majority of Canadians (95%) vote for a party, not a candidate, so open lists pose no problem for me. (A German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, came from a closed list), So I don’t share your concern.

    No PR system will meet everyone’s liking but will still beat the daylights out of our single member plurality system.

    Fair Vote Canada does not recommend a specific form of PR but asks for a citizens assembly (CA) to design a system of PR for the specific needs in Canada, including provincial boundaries, urban-rural divides and constitutional restrictions.

    A good system criteria list needs to be given to a CA. The ERRE committee spec’d a GI under 5 in its report. I’m not against a spec like the GI, but how would you know in the design stage what the GI would be? You’d have to go through an election to figure it out. I’d like to see some specification that 95% of votes connect to a representative.

    Politicians have limitations, as in re-designing an electoral system. When Ireland wanted to reform its laws as concerns reproductive and marriage rights, it recognized the limitations of its politicians and appointed a CA. Unencumbered by political concerns like getting re-elected, the citizens’ assembly shirked off the straight jacket which kept its politicians from moving forward. The PM in Ireland today enjoys a same sex marriage.

    As a society, we gotta face that politicians can not solve all our problems.

    • russellmcormond
      November 14, 2019


      The question isn’t what percentage of voters vote for a candidate that was nominated by a party, but for what percentage of voters is party affiliation the only consideration. I’ve not seen evidence that the number who vote only based on party affiliation is in the 90’s, and far more evidence to suggest it is below the 70’s or possibly 50’s (in other words, around the percentages where having only a 2-party system would also be considered ‘fair’ in some people’s minds).

      As Malcolm indicated, “the D’Hondt seat allocation formula was matched by the Gallagher Index;”. The D’Hondt seat allocation formula is often summarized as, “If a party receives X% of the vote, then that party should receive approximately X% of the seats”.

      When I was involved in the “yes” side of the 2007 Ontario electoral reform referendum in support of MMP, I ended up learning that at least people in Ontario did not agree with the key question behind the D’Hondt method. I even tried to promote MMP in different ways, but the X% of seats for parties language they heard from elsewhere would always drown out anything I could say. (I spoke about current nomination contests as a local party allocation, but fundamentally they disagreed that parties ever deserve seats. I talked about actually voting for what they want for local representative, and keep their vote-split worries within their vote for party. etc…)

      I already described above the wake-up call I received via my mother. The place where I grew up was always going to reject as possibly representing them in parliament anyone that wasn’t also from the north, and party affiliation was always going to be secondary.

      Much of my experience since has been along similar lines: Canadians largely agree that FPTP (single member plurality) is an unfair system, but that they want something other than the D’Hondt for its replacement.

      Not only do they not support D’Hondt, but they don’t support things that even sound like D’Hondt. When people who believe in the D’Hondt method discuss STV, which doesn’t use that method, it effectively turns off people who don’t spend their time learning about voting systems. The same is true of LocalPR which might get support, if it was marketed by other than D’Hondt promoters and the most visible marketing sites didn’t threaten that “we envision adding a small number of compensatory (“top-up”) MPs at a later date.”

      I’ve spoken about this with many people over the years: people from my hometown, people in Ottawa (MPs, staffers, bureaucrats, other close parliamentary watchers, etc). Embarrassingly I only started to actually listen to what they were saying after 2007, as I thought I knew everything when I first learned about electoral reform from within the Green Party in the 1990’s.

      Several MPs have essentially told me that until party top-ups (D’Hondt) are off the table, they can’t support (or even be seen to support) electoral reform. These are MPs that strongly want to get rid of FPTP, but don’t see a way forward in the current climate.

      • SheriO
        November 14, 2019

        In regards to several MPs have essentially told me that until party top-ups (D’Hondt) are off the table, they can’t support or even be seen to support) electoral reform.

        As I’ve stated, Fair Vote Canada wants a citizens’ assembly, to figure out a proportional representation electoral system suitable for our country. I hope that at such time as an assembly of citizens is convened to design a Canadian PR system, you come forward as an expert witness and they take your opinion and experience under advisement. I

        I, myself, do not have a problem with top-off seats so I’m unlike these Ontarians you met. As many of us in the Fair Vote community say, almost any system, including D’Hondt is better than and more acceptable than FPTP.

  6. russellmcormond
    November 14, 2019


    I’m going to recommend you look closely at the “almost any system” clarification from FVC. What I’ve learned over the years is that they exclude any system which isn’t D’Hondt, or that they can’t pretend and market as if it was a lesser D’Hondt (like they did with BC-STV).

    They opposed the municipal Vote123 campaigns, again trying to abuse the Ghallagher index in an environment that didn’t have parties and thus optimising for GI would do great damage. Proportionality would be very helpful in larger municipalities, but proportionality through multi-member districts and never D’Hondt.

    Just because you (FVC) have a hammer, doesn’t make everything a nail!

    I was a strong supporter of FVC, and at their founding actually believed they would be helpful to rid Canada of FPTP. This was until it became obvious that they were advocates for D’Hondt/GI or nothing.

    Of course FVC wants a citizens assembly. After losing multiple referenda, even the one in BC in 2018 that was rigged in their favour, they want to try to get D’Hondt in some other way. I expect them to be lobbying the citizens assembly heavily, much as they did with ERRE.

    Even when BC had a fair voting system on offer (BC-STV) their acting on the “yes” side was helping convince people to say “no” as they were pretending that BC-STV was using the D’Hondt method when it was not!

    Thanks for being so interested in electoral reform. I do hope you will take any opportunity to learn more about what options are available, what impact each might have on the unique politics federally in Canada, and listen closely to what fellow Canadians are actually saying when they are critical of the current political system. I know I’ve been very thankful for recently learning about Malcom’s blog.

    (And it is really nice to reference D’Hondt without having to point to an article explaining it or using the “X% votes for parties, X% seats in house” shortform.)

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