No two democratic political systems organize elections the same way. Recognizing
how central democratic party competition is to the organization and management
of political power, communities create electoral systems to reflect their
unique histories, accommodate their distinctive societies, and suit the
political class that must operate them. This article looks at the approach
taken by several Canadian jurisdiction that have examined the issue of
André Blais and his colleagues have recently demonstrated that one of the
most powerful forces working for the adoption of Proportional Representation
(PR) during the early years of the 20th century was the presence of a growing
transnational conviction that it was more democratic.1 After a wave of
reform that saw PR adopted in many countries, electoral system change went
right off most political agendas (except perhaps for France) until the
last decade of the century when it suddenly reappeared. And now we find
ourselves in another era in which global forces of democratization have
put electoral system change back on the agenda.
Powerful as the global imperative for liberal democratic development has
been over the last decade and a half, it remains true that no two countries,
no two communities, have responded in quite the same way. Each has sought
to fashion its own distinctive regional response to this changing world.
In this Canadians have been no different. Caught up in the debates about
a democratic deficit, and frustrated by failed attempts at more far-reaching
constitutional reform, they have also turned to consider whether reforming
their electoral institutions might pave the way into a more democratic
Putting Canada and electoral reform in the same sentence may strike many
as a political oxymoron. After all the country is one of the few major
parliamentary democracies that persists in using a system inherited from
the 19th century to elect its legislators. However, despite the currently
universal use of the single-member plurality (First-Past-the-Post) system,
Canadians have considerable experience with other electoral mechanisms.
Multi-member constituencies often skillfully employed as a means of accommodating
religious or linguistic divisions long existed in the federal House and
have only recently disappeared from several provinces. And quite different
systems relying on both majoritarian and proportional principles were
employed in several provinces during the 20th century. But never before
has the country apparently caught the spirit of the age and genuinely engaged
an electoral reform agenda.
There is no easy or obvious answer as to why Canadians are now seriously
debating electoral reform. There is no doubt that there has been widespread
disenchantment with some of the recent manifestations of our first-past-the-post
system. The party with the most votes may not win as in Quebec, Saskatchewan
and British Columbia elections during the 1990s; the opposition may be
so eviscerated that it cannot play its needed part as evidenced by a
series of recent Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick results; or parties,
like the Parti Québécois and the New Democrats may repeatedly be over or
underrepresented. But none of this is new. Several prime ministers, and
some premiers in virtually every province, have come to office with fewer
votes than their opponents; parties have swept huge legislative on many
occasions; and most minor parties have almost always been unfairly represented.
Yet none of those events stimulated enough dissatisfaction to make electoral
reform a viable political issue in the past.
If electoral reform is now on the agenda in Canada, it is there because
political leaders have put it there. Our usual assumption is that those
in office are the last to want to change a system which brought them to
power. The current generation of party leaders is making us rethink that
proposition. Prime Minister Martin talked much about a democratic deficit
in his campaign for office and then moved to change a number of legislative
practices. If his reform vision doesnt extend far beyond the precincts
of parliament that has not been true of his provincial colleagues. Premiers
in half the provinces have deliberately embraced electoral system reform
and are responsible for ensuring it is being taken seriously. There is
no common pattern to this: premiers in large and small provinces, rookies
and established incumbents, those with both the narrowest and the largest
of majorities, Liberals and Conservatives can all be counted in this group
of reformers. Without ascribing to a great man in history account, my
reading is that these are Premiers who have sniffed the winds of change
that define the contemporary era and want to move with them.
The challenge of electoral reform is typically responded to in distinctly
regional ways. Sarah Birchs work on Eastern Europe reveals that, when
the soviet system fell apart, each of the many successor states quickly
developed its own response to the problem of creating an electoral system
and no two of these new countries adopted the same system.2 Not surprisingly,
much the same story is being repeated in Canada.
Of course the federal character of Canada permits, some might even say
encourages, regional responses to common policy challenges. And as the
provinces have taken initiatives, the distinctive character of their responses
has emerged at three levels: first, in the definition of the problem for
which electoral reform might be a solution; second, in the processes adopted
to advance the issue; and third, in the specific reform proposals that
have emerged and are now on their individual provincial agendas. An examination
of each of these dimensions of the electoral reform processes in four provinces
in which the agenda has been furthest advanced New Brunswick and Prince
Edward Island, Quebec and British Columbia reveals much about how the
issue is being played out across the country and provides a glimpse of
possible electoral futures.
Defining the Problem
The contemporary democratization era, like its counterpart in the early
decades of the 20th century, appears to privilege Proportional Representation.
In Eastern Europe, every new country has a proportional element in their
electoral system. And the western countries (except Italy) that have reformed
their electoral regimes have also moved towards greater proportionality.
This reflects a widespread conception that modern elections are essentially
party elections in which legislative outcomes ought to reflect party vote
shares. Since only under PR do party seat shares reflect vote shares, for
many this makes proportional systems the only fair, and hence democratic,
electoral system. In Canada, as in many other established democracies,
voter turnout has plunged over the past two decades. For those who see
this development as a threat to democratic legitimacy, evidence that turnout
is somewhat higher under proportional rules has reinforced the attractiveness
of such systems.3
This general movement towards PR colours the debate in Canada so that,
in all the provinces, the assumption seems to be that positive electoral
reform means moving to some kind of proportional system. But what kind?
Here the consensus quickly breaks down for there are a large number of
possible proportional systems, each designed for different purposes in
response to distinctive needs. Identifying the specifics of each regions
political challenges quickly moves us beyond a simple preference for PR
and into the design of a particular reform proposal.
Quebec has been debating electoral reform for several decades but it has
become clear what its fundamental problem is. Louis Massicotte has rightly
defined it as a permanent linguistic gerrymander.4 Given the geo-demographics
of the province, the single-member plurality system permanently discriminates
against one of the two major parties: Massicotte estimates that for the
Liberals to win an election they now need to have somewhere between 5 to
7% more of the votes than their opponents. This not only guarantees a basic
inequity in Quebec politics, it also seems to ensure the recurrence of
wrong winners: in their turn and time, Maurice Duplessis, Daniel Johnson
and Lucien Bouchard all led their parties to office despite being outpolled
by the Liberals. Thus a central goal of electoral reform in Quebec is to
find a proportional arrangement that will end this fundamental disparity
without disrupting the existing basic pattern of provincial politics.
In the two Atlantic provinces the issue that has seized reformers is quite
different. Both PEI and New Brunswick have had a series of elections in
which the distorting effects of the plurality electoral system have counted
so heavily against the opposition party that it has been reduced to the
merest shadow in an already small legislature. And it is clear that this
is simply dysfunctional. A healthy working parliamentary system depends
on the give and take between government and opposition. Without an opposition
governments are not easily held accountable; without a legislative presence
opposition voices are not heard, the public sees no alternative and opposition
parties are poorly prepared for the moment when shifting electoral fortunes
return them to office. Thus, in these provinces, the real challenge has
been a find a way to strengthen the presence of the opposition in the legislature.
In New Brunswick this task is compounded by the linguistic division that
cuts across the provincial society and the desire to ensure that both communities
can find a place in the legislative caucuses on both government and opposition
sides of the House.
British Columbia has experienced both wrong winners and eviscerated oppositions
in recent elections but neither phenomenon appears to be at the heart of
the popular discontent that underlies its concern for electoral reform.
There, a long history of polarized debate, and an aggressively adversarial
style of political competition that seems remote from the every day experience
of most citizens, fosters a belief that the province needs to find a way
to do politics differently. In this sense, electoral reform is seen as
part of a wider provincial agenda for political change that has included
establishing the first fixed election dates in Canada, and opening some
of its cabinet meetings to the public. British Columbias electoral reformers
aim to discover if they could reform the electoral system in a way that
would complement efforts to strengthen public confidence in the provinces
Each of these provinces was caught up in the same general movement for
change: each appeared to be embracing a contemporary consensus that defined
proportional representation as the more democratic form of electoral system.
Yet, when it came to identifying the specifics of their representational
problem, and so what they needed from a reformed system, each answered
in distinct and quite particular ways. And it was those detailed answers
that then structured their approach to the problem and ultimately governed
their recommendations for change.
Approaching the Issue
However they defined the problem with their electoral systems, politicians
in all of the provinces recognized that there had been an important, common
shift in the political culture. No longer could they safely negotiate among
themselves changes to such a fundamental democratic institution as the
rules governing the conduct of public elections. Canadians are no longer
so deferential or so trusting, and the very purpose of reform to enhance
democracy now requires active public participation in the process. In
most provinces this has meant adopting referendums, although the Quebec
government has resorted to the device of drafting a group of citizens onto
a legislative committee. This new, rather populist, participatory world
sits uneasily with traditional parliamentary decision-making and has inevitably
altered the politics of the issue.
As we noted, Quebecs core problem is defined as essentially a technical
one the linguistic gerrymander. Public debate over three decades had
not led to an agreed reform proposal so the government decided to see if
it could generate a solution. The project was put in the hands of a skilled
deputy minister to manage and it engaged a prominent political scientist
to produce a comprehensive report on how a proportional system might work
in Quebec under a large number of electoral scenarios.5 After careful consultations,
their work emerged as a draft bill in the National Assembly and then was
referred to a special enlarged committee of the legislature charged with
holding extensive public consultations.
In the two maritime provinces the issue is one of essentially getting more
voices heard in the political system, particularly in the legislatures.
In both cases the governments turned to independent commissions-of-inquiry
which they directed to consult widely and then propose appropriate electoral
reform. In Prince Edward Island the task was assigned to a single judge;
in New Brunswick, with its more complex linguistic cleavages and political
geography a carefully balanced (in terms of age, gender, partisanship,
language and region) commission was struck. Both commissions conducted
independent research but also traveled their province to gather public
views. The New Brunswick commission was charged with a broad agenda but
at its heart was the same question, namely what electoral system would
provide for a fairer representation of voters preferences in the legislature.6
After receiving their Commissions reports, PEIs Premier Binns created
a second, electoral futures, commission charged with drawing up the details
for a public plebiscite which was held on November 28, 2005.7
Premier Lord has been slower to act but has made it clear that any final
decision to change the electoral system will have to include a referendum.
Despite the more vaguely defined agenda in British Columbia, Premier Campbell
believes that the electoral system is so fundamental to democracy that
ordinary citizens not established politicians or academic experts should
decide how it should operate. Thus a randomly chosen Citizens Assembly
of ordinary voters was given the task of assessing what electoral system
the province should have. They spent several months learning about electoral
systems, conducting a large number of public hearings around the province,
and then engaging in a sophisticated modeling exercise which led to their
final debates and decision.8 The Assembly concluded that the province ought
to adopt a Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation
and they drafted a referendum question to that effect which was then put
to the public in May of 2005. The legislature had set a 60% threshold for
change so, with just 58% support, the measure narrowly failed to pass.
Since then the government has said the issue will go back to the public
in a second referendum in 2008 when the proposal will be accompanied by
a detailed electoral map and supported with a full information campaign.
All of these provinces were determined to deal with the sticky political
issue of electoral reform: all were convinced that they needed to do so
in a way that was more inclusive than established legislative processes
allowed. Yet no two of them approached the challenge of articulating a
reform proposal in the same way. Indeed, there were very striking difference
among them that ranged from the relatively closed and professional in Quebec
to the unprecedentedly open and amateurish in British Columbia. Not surprisingly,
these differences had an impact on the specific reform proposals that emerged.
British Columbia, Quebec, New Brunswick and PEI began to discuss change
at a time when there seemed to be a growing transnational agreement on
the electoral system for the 21st century. New Zealand, Japan, Wales, Italy,
Scotland and a good number of the new Eastern European systems have all
recently adopted some form of mixed system, an arrangement that some political
scientists claim provides the best of both worlds. While recognizing the
arguments underpinning this general consensus, the regional realities of
their situations led the provinces to respond with proposals for unique
electoral systems which, if adopted, would have quite distinct impacts
on their political parties and patterns of electoral competition.
Mixed-member systems are the most complex kind of electoral regime because
of the large number and variety of ways in which the various parts of it
need to be fit together. Quebecs proposed MMP system is designed to provide
for proportional outcomes and thus break the back of the one-sided discrimination
in the current system. However, by doing this through a large number of
small regions and providing electors with only one vote, it would be tough
on minor interests and so unlikely to threaten the predominant position
of the two largest parties. Voters would not have much more choice than
they do now, and politicians would likely discover even more safe seats
in the legislature than in the past. For many electoral reformers this
PR proposal could safely be described as a comparatively conservative scheme,
one designed not to frighten the horses.
PEIs recommended mixed system is quite different. In sharp contrast to
Quebecs large number of small regions, PEI would have only one province-wide
list. Voters would get both constituency and list votes, but the provincial
lists would be closed and voters would have to live with the candidates
as ranked by the parties. Since candidates could run both on provincial
lists and in local ridings, it might be very difficult for voters to turn-out
the parties preferred personalities. New Brunswicks linguistic divisions
make province-wide lists politically unacceptable, so its version of a
MMP system calls for party lists in four carefully-crafted, demographically-balanced
regions. Like Quebec and PEI, those lists would be closed (though created
in open, participatory and regulated conventions), but candidates would
not be allowed to contest seats in both parts of the system they would
have to choose one or the other. That unique element would have significant
consequences both for voters ability to defeat local politicians as well
as for the structure and character of intra-party competition.
Despite this common enthusiasm for mixed-member systems, British Columbias
Citizens Assembly opted for a significantly different form of proportional
representation the Single Transferable Vote. In many ways it is the most
radical of all the provincial proposals. It would give voters a chance
to rank order all the candidates as they liked, it would eliminate all
safe seats for politicians, and it would undoubtedly transform the character
and location of intra-party competition. The story of why BC chose such
a different system has been told elsewhere but essentially it reflects
the fact that the authors of the proposal were individuals whose focus
was that of ordinary voters, not politicians or party managers.9 And it
was the recognition of just this fact that STV had been recommended by
their fellow citizens which drove the positive vote in the provincial
referendum held in May 2005.10
Regional Responses to Democratic Challenges
There are some important common elements to these stories of provincial
electoral reform. First is the too easy to overlook fact that they have
taken place simultaneously. There is no sequential policy demonstration
effect at work here. Rather, a set of independent jurisdictions responded,
more or less independently, to a common challenge of renewing their fundamental
democratic institutions. Second, the reform impulse is pushing changes
to our electoral systems in a common direction towards some form of proportional
representation. Third, most of our cases appear to be opting for a kind
of mixed-member proportional system of the sort widely advertised by contemporary
reformers as offering a compromise between the politics of geography and
the politics of party interest. Finally, the provinces all seem to agree
that the days of politicians confidently deciding on the rules of the game
themselves are over, and that democratic change to basic institutions requires
public involvement if it is to be legitimate.11
This is not just a Canadian story for many of the same patterns characterize
the experience of a significant number of contemporary democracies in eastern
and western Europe. Yet for all the power of these trends, no two jurisdictions,
like no two of our provinces, have adopted the same electoral system. The
reality is that general problems invite regional solutions that are rooted
in the realities of location, history and community. The four Canadian
stories tell us something about such responses and how important aspects
of them the definition of the problem, the approach to finding a solution,
and the reform proposals themselves are intimately connected.
Consider the continuum that structures the provinces contemporary electoral
reform exercises. At one end we have Quebec. As the province with the narrowest
agenda, it used a team of political and professional insiders to fashion
a reform that would be comparatively safe for its existing political class.
At the other end of the spectrum is British Columbia. The province with
the most general reform goals, it adopted an exceptionally open process
that gave real power to political outsiders who promptly surprised everyone
by proposing the adoption of a system that could significantly change the
way its representative democracy is organized and practiced. The experience
of the two maritime provinces falls somewhere in-between. By comparison,
their agenda was neither as limited nor as open as the other two. They
entrusted their reform planning to neither complete insiders nor outsiders
(though if truth be told they were closer to being insiders) who produced
a pair of reform models which went further than Quebecs but look much
less radical than British Columbias.
It is too soon to tell if one of these scenarios ultimately provides a
better prospect for successfully reforming our electoral systems. There
seems no inherent reason to think Quebecs narrow agendainsider craftedconservative
proposal is any more or less likely to end in a reformed system than British
Columbias wide agendaoutsider builtbig change proposal. British Columbians
voted 58% in favour of their option (it wasnt enough under the legislatures
rules), Quebec has yet to put their proposal to a legislative vote. If
my general argument is right, neither approach ought to be inherently superior.
Every jurisdiction needs to find its own way to deal with common issues
and in finding their own path they are more likely to be successful.
As we develop genuinely regional responses to this common challenge, one
of the consequences may well be that the electoral systems of the provinces
will differ considerably from one another, and from that used in national
elections. Political scientists seem bound to delight in this for it will
provide much fodder for comparative studies. Party organizers and strategists
may be less enthused for under different systems the gap between parties
and party competition at the two levels will only widen. Citizens will
adapt quickly and easily to systems designed to meet their communities
distinctive realities. They know that the very reason they live in a federation
is to allow and even encourage regional responses to national, and transnational,
1. A. Blais, A. Dobrzynska & I.H. Indridason, To Adopt or Not to Adopt
Proportional Representation: The Politics of Institutional Choice, British
Journal of Political Science, 35 (1) 2005, pp 182-190.
2. S. Birch, Lessons from Eastern Europe: Electoral Reform Following the
Collapse of Communism. A paper presented to a conference on Electoral
Reform in Canada, Mt. Allison University, May 10-12, 2005.
3. See the Law Commission of Canadas report Voting Counts: Electoral Reform
for Canada, 2004, p 38-40.
4. Louis Massicotte, Éclipse et retour du gerrymander linguistique, in
A.G. Gagnon & A. Noël eds., LEspace québécois, Montréal: Québec/Amérique,
1994 pp 227-44.
5. L. Massicotte, Electoral System Reform: In Search of a Compensatory
Mixed Electoral System for Quebec, Working Document, Government of Quebec,
6. New Brunswick Commission on Legislative Democracy, Final Report and
Recommendations. It can be found at: http://www.gnb.ca/0100/FinalReport-e.pdf
7. See Jeannie Leas account of the organization and outcome of the PEI
plebiscite in this issue of the Canadian Parliamentary Review.
8. R.S. Ratner, British Columbias Citizens Assembly: The Learning Phase
and The B.C. Citizens Assembly: The Public Hearings and Deliberations
Stage, in Canadian Parliamentary Review , Summer 2004 pp 20-26, and Spring
2005 pp 24-33.
9. R. K. Carty Turning Voters into Citizens: The Citizens Assembly and
Reforming Democratic Politics, the 2005 Mel Smith Lecture. It can be found
10. See the paper by Richard Johnston and Fred Cutler, forthcoming in M.
Warren and H. Pearse, eds., Designing Democratic Renewal.
11. See R.K. Carty Doing Democracy Differently, the 2004 Timlin Lecture,
University of Saskatchewan.