Proposals to modify the voting system in Quebec are not new. They have
resurfaced in the political news on a recurring basis for nearly 40 years,
and they have already led to proposals for reform, the most recent of which
was the Select Committee on the Election Act, which concluded its activities
in the spring of 2006. This article presents a brief overview of the recent
history of the reform of the voting system in Quebec and summarizes the
contents of the draft bill on the Election Act that was tabled in 2004.
It also looks at the main conclusions of the reports tabled after the consultations
held by the select committee on the Election Act.
In Quebec both the reform of the voting system and proportional representation
have their advocates and their adversaries. Those who favour reform believe
that the first-past-the-post system is unjust and poorly reflects the real
choice of voters. They draw attention to certain distortions between
the percentage of votes received by a political party and the number of
seats it obtains in the National Assembly. All the parties that now hold
seats in the Assembly have at one time or another in their history felt
the effects of these distortions, one of whose manifestations is to allow
the party that has received the second highest percentage of the popular
vote to form the government, a situation that has occurred twice in Quebec
since the 1960s.
Those who oppose such a reform believe, among other things, that the current
system, in favouring the formation of majority governments, ensures greater
parliamentary and governmental stability and that for this reason the discrepancy
between the percentage of votes received and the number of seats obtained
by political parties is a minor disadvantage of the first-past-the-post
system. There has never been a minority government in the modern history
of Quebec. Nevertheless, dissatisfaction with the current voting system
in Quebec has fuelled reflection and debate among experts, parliamentarians,
and the concerned public for decades. Such discussions have led to concrete
proposals right from the turn of the 1980s. Thus, in 1984 the Electoral
Representation Commission (an agency that reports to the Chief Electoral
Officer of Quebec) tabled a report recommending that the first-past-the-post
system be replaced by a voting system that would allow all Members to be
This proposal was shelved, but the matter of reforming the voting system
re-emerged at the end of the 1990s thanks to among other things, the mobilization
of citizens groups around this issue. As well, two parallel public consultation
initiatives, one parliamentary, the other governmental, contributed to
reviving it. The first was an initiative executed by the standing Committee
on Institutions of the National Assembly in 2002-2003, in which many university
experts declared themselves in favour of a mixed compensatory voting system
for Quebec. The second culminated in the organization of an Estates General
on the reform of democratic institutions, held in Quebec City in February
2003. The report tabled in the aftermath recommended the adoption of a
regional proportional voting system inspired by reform proposals advanced
at the turn of the 1980s.
The government elected in April 2003 also declared its interest in this
question, and in the opening speech of the parliamentary session some weeks
later, Premier Charest announced the intention of his government to reform
the voting system during its term in office. This brings us to the proposal
for a new voting system that is at the centre of a draft bill and the deliberations
of the Select Committee on the Election Act.
The Draft Bill to Replace the Election Act
In December 2004 Jacques Dupuis, then Minister for the Reform of Democratic
Institutions, tabled in the National Assembly a draft bill to amend the
Quebec Election Act. The draft bill seeks primarily the adoption of a new
voting system, a mixed proportional system with regional compensation,
which would replace the current first-past-the-post system. In February
2005, as the result of a cabinet shuffle, Benoît Pelletier assumed responsibility
for this portfolio on behalf of the government.
The draft bill orients the discussion toward a precise proposal for a new
voting system put forward by the current government. Reactions to it were
swift. Some declared themselves dissatisfied with the proposed model. Others
greeted the occasion as an historic moment. It is in fact the first time
that a proposal for a new voting system in Quebec has come so close to
assuming legislative form.
The document is voluminous, with some 711 sections. The central feature
of this proposed piece of legislation is a new voting system of the mixed
proportional type such as exists, for example, with differing characteristics
from one country to the next, in Germany, New Zealand, and Scotland.
In the model that the government has submitted for consideration the National
Assembly would have approximately the same number of seats as it does now,
but 60% of the Members would be elected directly in single-member ridings
(77 seats out of 127) and 40% of the seats (50 seats) would be allocated
to the parties according to their percentage of the vote, account being
taken of the number of seats they had obtained in the ridings.
Proportional compensation would be effected at the regional level: List
seats would be allocated on the basis of electoral regions known as districts.
Each district would usually have two compensatory seats.
Each voter would have a single vote, as in the current system, and he would
vote directly for a candidate in his riding. This vote would also serve
to calculate the compensation in order to elect the so-called district
Those who devised the proposal believe this mechanism would make it possible
to correct the distortions that result from the traditional vote in single-Member
It should be noted that this draft bill also deals with several other aspects
of the Quebec electoral system. Thus, the document proposes financial incentives
to promote better compensation of women and ethno-cultural minorities at
the National Assembly. These measures include an increase in the annual
allowance granted to political parties and an increased reimbursement of
electoral expenses. These mechanisms have two aspects as they relate to
Parties would have their annual allotment increased if they presented a
significant proportion of female candidates;
Female candidates who received at least 15% of the votes in their riding
would have the reimbursement of their electoral expenses increased.
The measures that seek to enhance the position of ethno-cultural minorities
in the National Assembly are similar in nature to those regarding the representation
of women. They thus endeavour, in a sense, to reward parties that present
a significant proportion of candidates belonging to ethno-cultural minorities
and to compensate candidates from these communities who receive at least
15% of the votes in their riding.
In addition to a new voting system and mechanisms seeking to increase the
numbers of female Members and of those identified with the ethno-cultural
minorities, the draft bill proposes measures whose purpose is to promote
the exercise of the right to vote. Worthy of mention are:
the lengthening of the period for the revision of the electoral list;
the possibility for a voter to vote in the offices of the returning officer
in his riding throughout the electoral period;
the availability of voting by correspondence to all voters domiciled in
improved access to advance voting, for example by prolonging the hours
during which such voting is possible and by creating itinerant polling
The Select Committee on the
The Select Committee on the
Election Act (SCEA) was established by the
National Assembly in June 2005 in order to examine this draft bill and
a variety of matters relating to elections and democratic institutions
The SCEA is comprised of nine Members, five from the parliamentary group
forming the government (including the Minister for the Reform of Democratic
Institutions), three from the official opposition and one independent Member.
The select committee innovated by forming a citizens committee to assist
it in a non partisan fashion and on a consultative basis. The citizens
committee is comprised of four men and four women in different age groups
drawn from various regions of Quebec. These eight persons were designated
by a random draw among more than 2,400 candidates, and they accompanied
the select committee throughout its proceedings. They joined with parliamentarians
in the public consultations, and they submitted a report to the select
committee containing their observations, conclusions, and recommendations.
The select committee invited the population to take part in its deliberations
by publishing numerous notices in the newspapers. It also distributed an
information brochure to the 3,340,000 households in Quebec and published
an information booklet, a consultation form, and a questionnaire.
In the light of the exceptional participation by Quebeckers in this vast
consultation no one can maintain that citizens are indifferent to electoral
matters. In fact, the interest aroused by the select committee exceeded
all expectations, as the following data show:
- 374 briefs were transmitted during the general consultation;
- 1,747 persons took part in the on-line consultation;
- 6,200 paper copies of the information booklet were sent out, in French
or English, to citizens who so requested;
- 379 groups and individuals appeared during the public hearings at the National
Assembly and across Quebec; and
- 21 experts and representatives of the political parties were heard during
the special consultations. These experts came for the most part from Quebec
universities, but the select committee also invited specialists from Ontario,
Alberta, and the United States.
The experts and the party representatives presented their thoughts on the
subject in November 2005, whereas the public hearings for the general consultation
took place between January and March 2006 in 16 cities across Quebec. This
tour, as well as the considerable and enthusiastic participation of the
population, show unequivocally that the citizens of Quebec have a sense
of involvement in the state of their democracy.
This large-scale tour as well as the presentations by experts demonstrated
to parliamentarians the appropriateness of proceeding with a reform of
the voting system. They also showed that the questions which remained in
abeyance are essentially matters relating to the calendar and details of
The select committees experience afforded its members the opportunity
to gain a better understanding of contemporary Quebec in all its realities.
For example, travelling across the various regions of Quebec (which is
a vast and unevenly populated territory) enabled them to understand very
clearly that the importance to citizens in the non-urban regions of having
easy access to a Member was not merely an abstract mental construct. Finally,
this tour allowed the members of the committee to have an experience that
went beyond those issues that relate to the Election Act.
It should be emphasized as well that despite the highly political nature
of the subject, the discussions held throughout the committees proceedings
were both frank and respectful of the various political allegiances. The
general climate favoured dialogue and the search for a consensus, much
to the credit of the Members who took part in these deliberations.
The Report from the Citizens Committee
All of these discussions provided food for thought for both the parliamentarians
and the members of the citizens committee, who lost no time in setting
forth their reflections and recommendations. The report of the select committee
and that of the members of the citizens committee were tabled this spring.
To achieve a synthesis of all these debates and then quickly prepare an
analysis and a proposal was a formidable challenge to which the members
of the citizens committee responded remarkably well. On April 21, 2006,
the six majority members of the citizens committee tabled a report covering
all the matters raised in the draft bill as well as several other subjects
discussed during the select committees consultations.
In this majority report the citizens committee supported the mixed compensatory
voting system but did not endorse the proposal contained in the draft bill.
Unlike the governments proposal, their recommendation has the following
- a national compensation (i.e. covering Quebec in its entirety rather than
at the regional district level);
- a 5% national threshold for votes received in order for a political party
to participate in the proportional allocation of seats;
- after the calculation of the national compensation a proportional allocation
of seats on the basis of regional lists;
- the possibility of casting two distinct votes.
These points represent only a very small part of the contents of the citizens
committees report. Preparing this report was no mean accomplishment. Within
a very limited time frame the citizens committee presented a report that
was substantive and complete and that contained a number of original ideas
which evidenced a serious effort to analyse and synthesize the diverse
testimony heard. Thus, the committees observations also touch on the means
for exercising the right to vote and issues such as coalition governments,
the representation of women and minority groups, the political participation
of young people, electronic voting, and the financing of election expenses.
The select committee can only evaluate in a very positive way the participation
in its deliberations of these men and women from all walks of life and
all generations who agreed to devote several weeks of their life far from
their families, their work, and their usual activities in order to contribute
decisively to advancing the thinking about our democratic institutions.
The members of the select committee very much appreciated the commitment
and determination of all these persons. They also appreciated the exchanges
they had with them as well as their always inspired interventions. Moreover,
the conclusions in their report shed a very useful light on the parliamentarians
own thoughts, a light that was not ignored when the select committee wrote
its final report.
At the same time the experience was unquestionably an enriching one for
these citizens, who among other things were exposed to one of the most
demanding yet possibly least know aspects of a Members role , work on
a parliamentary committee.
The future of our democracy rests, in particular, on increased participation
by voters in the decision-making process and on bringing the parliamentary
institution closer to citizens. To that end a number of avenues of approach
are available to our parliaments. One thing is certain: this unusual and
highly original experience of creating a citizens committee to accompany
parliamentarians in their proceedings probably deserves to be repeated.
The Report of the Select Committee
The members of the select committee made their final report public last
spring in two parts. On April 25 they presented the first part of the report,
which had been adopted unanimously regarding matters concerning the exercise
of the right to vote. On May 31 they tabled the second part which concerns
the voting system and the representation of women and ethno-cultural minorities.
In the first part of the report the Members recommend, in particular, the
adoption of measures to facilitate the process of revising the electoral
list and to make advance voting more accessible.
On May 11 the Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions, Mr. Pelletier,
introduced Bill 22, An Act to amend the Election Act to encourage and facilitate
voting. This bill was passed unanimously on June 14.
In the second part of their report the Members recommend that the voting
system be reformed and modernized but their position is cautious. Thus,
they agree in asking that a new voting system give greater consideration
to the multiplicity of political expressions and strive toward applying
the principle of the equality of votes. The Members also underscore the
need for the new system to respect the representativeness of the regions.
As well, in the light of the many suggestions made during the consultation
they distance themselves somewhat from the voting system proposed in the
draft bill, believing that the mechanisms outlined in this proposal ought
not to be accepted in their entirety.
Furthermore, the members of the committee reiterated their allegiance to
the British parliamentary system. They demonstrate in this way their attachment
to the institutional past of our parliamentary system and express the
hope that the new voting system will retain the positive aspects thereof.
In that sense they want a new system to be conceived in such a way as
to maintain continuity and governmental stability and any proposal for
change to preserve a riding system and introduce elements of proportionality.
These proposals thus tend toward a mixed compensatory system whose characteristics
would nevertheless differ from the model described in the draft bill.
The Members also take a position on the number of seats the Parliament
of Quebec should have. Thus, they suggest that the possibility ought to
be considered that it may be warranted to increase the number of Members
of the National Assembly in order to do justice to the political weight
of the regions and the principle of the equality of votes. One must indeed
be mindful of the fact that in a mixed compensatory system the pursuit
of a proportional allocation of seats may sometimes require that the number
of seats be adjusted, and the Members have taken that fact into account.
With regard to the measures concerning women and minorities the select
committee asks that the commitments to equality in the representation
of women at the National Assembly and the commitment to equity in the
representation of ethno-cultural minorities be maintained. As well, should
the government put such measures into place, the committee recommends that
all calculations of incentives be made on the basis of Members elected
rather than on that of candidates. Here the select committee is in agreement
with the citizens committee.
Like the citizens committee, moreover, the members of the select committee
emphasize the difficulty in defining the concept ethno-cultural minority
and consequently, of applying incentives for the representation of members
of the minorities in the National Assembly. Should a cultural community
be identified on a voluntary basis? Should linguistic criteria be taken
into account? Should they be limited to the so-called visible minorities
and to first-generation immigrants?
The committee members are nonetheless of the view that the objective of
the draft bill in ensuring better representation of minorities ought to
Will Quebec be the first jurisdiction in Canada to adopt a reform of its
voting system in the 21st century? We will know more about that in the
next few months, and the debate is far from over. Quebec parliamentarians
have in any case taken a keen interest in the question, and, beyond partisan
considerations, they have shown themselves to be very open-minded toward
the points of view of their fellow citizens with respect to it.
Nevertheless, among all the proposals discussed during the past 30 years
a number of facts remain constant, in particular the need to harmonize
future proportional elections with a recognition of the diverse regional
realities of Quebec. If the unprecedented experience of the Select Committee
on the Election Act is to lead to a reform of the voting system, it seems
that a mixed compensatory system, whether or not it cleaves to the mechanism
set forth in the draft bill, is an approach that should be considered seriously
in the Quebec context. That, at any rate, is the trend that appears to
emerge from the considerable testimony head by the members of the select
committee and those of the citizens committee.
In choosing a voting system the fundamental criteria on which there is
agreement among the citizens committee, the members of the select committee,
and the majority of the groups and individuals they heard seem to be to
associate an enhanced representativeness of the voters choices with an
equitable representation of the various regions of Quebec and to maintain
a special relationship between Members and their constituents. Everyone
hopes Quebec will adjust its electoral system to the realities of the 21st
century without thereby neglecting the advantages of the political system
it has enjoyed for more than 200 years.
Quebec has shown in the past that it can contribute to defining new norms
in the field of democratic institutions, in particular when it passed innovative
legislation on electoral financing under the government of René Lévesque.
The current Minister for the Reform of Democratic Institutions, has stated
that he would introduce a bill this fall on the voting system which would
contain measures to improve the representation of women and ethno-cultural
minorities. This legislation will no doubt be received with keen interest
on the part of all citizens in Canada who follow the evolution of proposals
to reform democratic institutions.