Designing and adopting an electoral system is an inherently political exercise, rather than a technical problem for which so-called experts can find the perfect solution. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to concede that fact last week, when he bent to opposition demands on the composition of the special Commons committee studying electoral reform.

There are a couple of key reasons electoral reform is so politically charged. First, fundamental democratic principles and values must be recognized and balanced in any system for casting and counting the votes that sends 338 members of Parliament to the House of Commons. How such principles should be interpreted and how they could best be translated into practice can be highly contentious.

Second, all electoral systems create incentives for political parties and candidates. Those incentives determine whether their appeals to voters are broad and inclusive, or narrow and limited to particular regions or segments of society. When the debate involves replacing an existing electoral system, inevitably there will be disagreements among the political parties. Typically, parties that win under the existing system will favour the status quo, whereas parties that feel disadvantaged will support a new system that better serves their political self-interest.

These two fundamental facts mean that electoral reform is always complicated, uncertain, contentious and politically risky. The Liberal Party has discovered this, and its enthusiasm for electoral reform appears to have waned since its election victory back in October 2015. In that campaign, they promised to replace the current first-past- the- post (FPTP) electoral system in time for the 2019 election.

Electoral reform is always complicated, uncertain, contentious and politically risky.

Almost seven months passed before the government started the electoral reform process. It may be that other issues on the government’s sweeping agenda took priority. Disagreements within cabinet and caucus over the process and the content of electoral reform might also be a cause of the delay. There was media speculation that the Prime Minister’s Office saw a political storm coming on the issue, and held back on any public actions.

It was not until May 10 that the government announced the promised House of Commons Special All-Party Committee on Electoral Reform. Immediately there was controversy over the fact that, like regular standing committees in the Commons, it was to have a government majority. To the opposition parties this signalled the government’s intention to ram through the alternative vote (AV) model, supposedly its preferred replacement for FPTP. The opposition argued that for any new system to have broad public support and legitimacy there had to be some measure of cross-party agreement. The political pressure worked – the Liberals no longer have the majority, and the Green Party and Bloc QuĂ©bĂ©cois will be allowed to vote on the committee.

Legitimacy is a complex notion that involves both substantive and procedural components. In the case of a fundamental feature of democracy like the electoral system, for the model to have legitimacy it must reflect deeply held values, and the procedure for adopting it must be seen to be appropriate and fair. In other words, both the process and the product are important. If the reform is perceived to be a blatant partisan manoeuvre to gain political advantage, the system will have less support and the election outcomes will be less legitimate.

For the model to have legitimacy it must reflect deeply held values, and the procedure for adopting it must be seen to be appropriate and fair.

The motion to create the committee identified five principles to guide its work: effectiveness and legitimacy; engagement of citizens; accessibility and inclusiveness; integrity; and local representation. Previously, the Minister for Democratic Institutions had mentioned fairness in the context of votes translating into seats and granting influence in Parliament as another criterion. This could fall under the rubric of effectiveness, but accountability to voters is a criterion that deserves separate mention. Even these general concepts were controversial — the opposition parties insisted the committee should be free to decide what criteria would guide its assessment of the existing system and the design of a new model.

The assessment of existing systems and the design of new ones are always vague and subjective, so disagreement and controversy are inevitable. No one value can be absolute in the design of a new system. There is no way to weight and balance the multiple values, except impressionistically. Finding the appropriate balance is not a precise mechanical process like moving a dial. Forecasting the political and societal impacts of different electoral systems involves informed speculation more than guaranteed prediction.

There is no perfect electoral system. All systems have their advantages and disadvantages. Criticism of our FPTP system over several decades has left the impression that it is a major contributing factor to disillusionment with politics and low voter turnout. In fact, the system is at most a secondary factor. To explain the malaise in the political system, we should look rather to broader historical trends in society and short-term action or inaction by politicians, parties and governments. Too often in the past political parties have made grandiose promises and failed to deliver. As well, over the past five decades there has been a clear trend towards the concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office and greater reliance on message control and secrecy to promote/protect the prime minister’s and the government’s reputation. These developments have deepened popular mistrust of politicians and governments

Moreover, Bowler and Donovan found in The Limits of Electoral Reform that new electoral rules had very limited effects in the countries they studied. Those advocating such reforms must avoid overselling their benefits.

Much of the debate over this issue so far has consisted of those arguing in favour of either majoritarian systems (like FPTP or alternative vote), which allegedly contribute to stable and efficient and accountable government, or proportional systems (like mixed member or single transferable vote), which allegedly provide for a fairer representation of voters’ preferences and more diverse representation in the House of Commons. This binary choice is simplistic and leads proponents of each model to talk past one another. As well, the debate tends to minimize the importance of the “personalization” factor, by which I mean the tradition of having an identifiable representative of a local community serve in the House of Commons.

Technically, it is possible to design a hybrid model that combines majoritarian and proportional components, while also retaining local representation. However, it will be difficult to find agreement on this “sweet spot” of electoral reform. The complexity of the resulting model might not be acceptable to voters, who tell pollsters they want their electoral system to be easy to understand and the ballot system simple to use.

In terms of timing, the Liberals have boxed themselves in by insisting a new system must be in place for the next election, and by then delaying the start of the process. Elections Canada would require at least 18 months to two years to plan and organize an election under a new system. Even more time would be needed if the new model involved larger constituencies and the readjustment of boundaries, which would itself take 18 months.

In terms of timing, the Liberals have boxed themselves in by insisting a new system must be in place for the next election, and by then delaying the start of the process.

A reasonable timeframe would be impossible if the government yielded to demands for a referendum, because the Referendum Act of 1992 would have to be amended to take into account the changes that have been made since then to the Canada Elections Act. The topic of a referendum is too big to cover here; I will say only that the debate involves a clash between legitimacy based on representative party-based government versus legitimacy based on popular sovereignty expressed by a vote of some kind.

One critic has speculated that the Liberals have decided “to run out the clock” and blames the opposition parties for their failure to deliver on their election promise to replace FPTP in time for the election in October 2019.

To allow more time for debate, to mobilize support and to achieve as wide a consensus as possible, the Liberals might announce that any new electoral system would not come into effect until the October 2023 election.  They would be criticized for postponing the reform, but this would not seriously damage their re-election prospects. Electoral reform is not an issue that drives many votes. The public would also give them credit for taking the time to listen and to search for principled compromises.

A victory in the 2019 election would give the government an even stronger mandate to proceed with its preferred system. It would also increase the legitimacy of either retaining the FPTP system or proceeding with its replacement.

Now that the Liberals have conceded their majority on the committee, the consultation process will hopefully begin soon. The likelihood that the parties will find agreement is still slim, because they all have their preferred options. As a further indication of their flexibility, the Liberals have declared they would retain FPTP if that were to be the wish of a broad cross-section of Canadians. No doubt, there will be more controversies on process and substance, proving that electoral reform is never easy or straightforward.

Photo: Vepar5 /

This article is part of the Electoral Reform special feature.


Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous rĂ©agir Ă  cet article ? Joignez-vous aux dĂ©bats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Paul G. Thomas
Paul G. Thomas is professor emeritus of political studies, University of Manitoba. He is a member of the Elections Canada Advisory Board.

Vous pouvez reproduire cet article d’Options politiques en ligne ou dans un pĂ©riodique imprimĂ©, sous licence Creative Commons Attribution.

Creative Commons License