Why Trudeau Broke His Promise: Canada's Options for Electoral Reform

Updated: Mar 29

Opinion by Alexandra Wilson

In 2015, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, promised the Canadian public that the 2015 federal election would be Canada’s last under the first-past-the-post-system [1]. That was five years ago and another election has come and gone under the existing system, but why? One of the main reasons is that consensus amongst political parties on which new method of voting to adopt proved to be unattainable [2]. While the Conservative Party wanted to keep the first-past-the-post-system, the Liberal Party preferred ranked ballots, and the Green’s and NDP leaned toward proportional representation [3]. As a result, electoral reform became a promise unkept.

According to research done by the Broadbent Institute, 42% of Canadians believed our electoral system needed either significant changes or to be transformed entirely, 41% believed it only needed minor changes, and 17% thought it needed no changes at all [4]. So, what are Canada’s options and why might preferences depend on political affiliation?

First Past the Post

The first option would be to maintain the status quo and keep the first-past-the-post system. Voters have a single vote to select an MP for their riding who is typically affiliated with a political party [5]. Whichever candidate receives the most votes wins whether or not they received an absolute majority, over 50% of the votes [6]. This system is a viable option, as it is simple to understand and easy to implement, however, it also has certain drawbacks. For one, candidates do not require an absolute majority in order to win the election, they only need more votes in comparison to the other candidates. This results in candidates or parties with fewer than 50% of the popular vote being elected [7].

This method is favoured by the Conservative Party with 51% of conservative voters wanting to keep the system, and the rest split between the proportional representation, mixed method proportional, and ranked ballots [8]. The Party prefers this method as they benefit the most from it. The Conservative Party has a monopoly on the right side of the political spectrum while the left is split between the Greens, Liberals, and NDP allowing the Conservatives to attain a majority government; the ultimate goal of any political party.

Ranked Ballot

The second option is the ranked ballot system. Voters rank their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd choice candidates on the ballot.9If one of the candidates has 50% of the vote they are declared the winner, if none of the candidates have 50% of the vote then the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and votes are redistributed [10]. Voters who chose the eliminated candidate will have their second choice count as their first [11]. This runoff count re-occurs until one candidate has 50% of the vote [12]. The benefits of this system include a reduction in tactical voting and attack campaigning [13]. Additionally, no changes to the ridings would need to be made they would look the same under a ranked ballot as they do under the first-past-the-post system [14]. However, the drawback lies with apathetic voters who may choose to rank the candidates on their ballot in the order they are listed thus giving preference to the party whose name is listed at the top of the ballot [15].

The Liberal Party favours a ranked ballot system as it benefits them the most. According to a Leger poll, 13% of Canadian voters would pick the Liberal Party as their second choice under a ranked ballot system which would be sufficient to keep them in first place just short of a majority [16]. The NDP and Greens are also set to benefit under the ranked ballot system. According to the Leger poll the NDP is the second choice for 25% of Canadian votes and the Green Party is the second choice for 16% of voters [17]. This increasing both parties' seats in parliament significantly. The Conservative Party, however, has been predicted to lose the greatest number of seats of any party under the ranked ballot system as they are the second choice for only 9% of voters according to a Leger poll [18]. The reason for this is similar to the reason that they benefit under the first-past-the-post system. As the vote on the left end of the political spectrum is fractured between the Greens, Liberals, and NDP, voters who prefer one of these parties are likely to choose the other two as their second and third choice over the Conservatives who hold a monopoly on the right of the political spectrum.

Proportional Representation

The third option is proportional representation. Proportional representation ensures that a party’s representation in Parliament is proportional to the number of votes they receive [19]. This system is beneficial to smaller parties as it increases their likelihood of gaining seats in Parliament [20]. Additionally, it may force more cooperation between parties, as more parties have a greater chance at winning seats, resulting in coalitions being required in order to pass legislation [21]. Consequently, it can also cause consensus to become increasingly difficult to achieve and may also allow for more extremist parties to win seats, a rare yet possible occurrence [22]. Additionally, Canada’s ridings would look quite different. As the seats in the House of Commons must be allocated proportionally based on the number of votes they received for a large geographic region it results, based on how the system is implemented, with multiple MPs representing larger ridings [23].

The NDP and Green Party are likely to benefit the most under a proportional representation system, making it their preferred method of reform. According to the projections done in a Maclean’s article, had the 2019 Canadian federal election been conducted under a proportional representation system the NDP would have won approximately 61 seats and the Greens would have won 32 increasing both parties' influence substantially [24]. The Conservative and Liberal Parties, however, would not do as well. The Conservative party would lose seats as only approximately 36.6% of Canadians vote Conservative [25]. While they would still be tied for first place with the Liberals under proportional representation, a majority government would be unlikely for either party [26].

Mixed-Member Proportional Representation

Finally, while there are many other forms of voting systems, the last that will be discussed in this article is mixed-member proportional. Mixed-member proportional is a hybrid electoral system combining elements of both proportional representation and first-past-the-post. How it works is that voters have two votes: one vote for their local candidate in their riding and one for a party [27]. Whoever wins the local vote becomes the MP for that riding while the vote for the party is used to produce a parliament that is proportional to the popular vote [28]. This is done by adding additional seats to parliament with candidates from the parties who do not represent a riding but rather represent the party [29]. The seats for the MP’s who represent a riding are always fixed while the seats who represent the party can vary each year with the popular vote [30]. The benefit of this system is that it allows smaller parties a chance as a result of proportional representation but also maintains the current political system’s ridings [31]. The only consequence of this system is that it is quite complicated [32]. It is, however, a middle ground and should not be disqualified based on its complexity.

Thus, when thinking about electoral reform in Canada it is important to consider how this would change representation within parliament and the motives behind each party's attempt to maintain or change the way we vote. Despite the complexity of the mixed member proportional system it is Canada’s best chance at achieving electoral reform. It is a middle ground that, according to the Broadbent Institute, voters from each political party have shown substantial support for with 23% of Conservatives, 26% of Liberals, 32% of NDP, 31% of Green, and 32% of Bloc Quebecois wanting to switch to mixed method proportional [33]. Not only does the method allow for smaller parties to have greater representation in parliament but it also allows for ridings to have representatives that align with their values. Electoral reform in Canada can never be achieved without consensus, without a middle ground, and a mixed method proportional system allows for just that.

  1. Philippe J. Fournier, “A 338Canada projection: If proportional representation was real,” Maclean’s, October 16, 2019, https://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/a-338canada-projection-if-proportional-representation-was-real

  2. Philippe J. Fournier, “The results of the next federal election - if electoral reform had happened,” Maclean’s, May 12, 2019, https://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/the-results-of-the-next-federal-election-if-electoral-reform-had-happened/

  3. Fournier, May 12, 2019.

  4. “Canadian Electoral Reform - Public Opinion on Possible Alternatives,” Broadbent Institute, https://www.broadbentinstitute.ca/canadian_electoral_reform

  5. Ottawa Citizen Editorial Board, “Electoral reform: Five different voting systems, at a glance,” Ottawa Citizen, October 28, 2016, https://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/electoral-reform-five-different-voting-systems-at-a-glance

  6. Amanda Shendruk, “On electoral reform, what are Canada’s options?” Maclean’s, June 16, 2016, https://www.macleans.ca/politics/making-sense-of-electoral-reform-what-are-canadas-options/?fbclid=IwA R0hhpm1oEh1m3m9KwJ4we_9AEBcNoyxoiDBrpAnOMVRXCmVE5FxCaX7dQ8

  7. Ibid.

  8. Canadian Electoral Reform - Public Opinion on Possible Alternatives,” Broadbent Institute

  9. Amanda Shendruk, “On electoral reform, what are Canada’s options?” Maclean’s, June 16, 2016, https://www.macleans.ca/politics/making-sense-of-electoral-reform-what-are-canadas-options/?fbclid=IwA R0hhpm1oEh1m3m9KwJ4we_9AEBcNoyxoiDBrpAnOMVRXCmVE5FxCaX7dQ8

  10. Ibid.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ottawa Citizen Editorial Board, October 28, 2016

  15. Amanda Shendruk, June 16, 2016

  16. Philippe J. Fournier, “Who wins Election 2019 under a ranked-ballot system,” Maclean’s, November 12, 2019, https://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/who-wins-election-2019-under-a-ranked-ballot-system/ 17 Fournier, November 12, 2019

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Amanda Shendruk, June 16, 2016

  20. Ibid.

  21. Ibid.

  22. Ibid.

  23. “An Electoral System for All,” Broadbent Institute, https://www.broadbentinstitute.ca/an_electoral_system_for_all; “An Introduction to Proportional Representation,” Fair Vote Canada, https://www.fairvote.ca/proportional-representation/; Ottawa Citizen Editorial Board, October 28, 2016

  24. Fournier, October 16, 2019

  25. Fournier, May 12, 2019

  26. Fournier, October 16, 2019

  27. Amanda Shendruk, June 16, 2016

  28. Ibid.

  29. Ibid.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Ibid.

  32. Ibid.

  33. “Canadian Electoral Reform - Public Opinion on Possible Alternatives,” Broadbent Institute