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Proportional Representation:

An argument for representative democracy, and a refutation of its opposition

By Ryan Ringer

I. Introduction
II. The Logic Behind It
III. The Arguments Against
IV. The Arguments For
V. Some Obvious Injustices
VI. What PR Should Be
VII. The Options
VIII. Conclusion


An idea which is floated around with increasing frequency in the political debate is proportional representation - the idea that a party's representation in parliament ought to be roughly equivalent to the number of votes it receives - and it's not difficult to see why. Voter cynicism and apathy is at an all time high; people think that their vote doesn't mean anything, as most ridings in the country are "safe seats" in one way or another, meaning that people can vote for whomever they wish, but the outcome is predetermined. Imagine a Liberal-minded person in Medicine Hat, a Conservative-type in Toronto--Danforth, a federalist in Quebec City, a socialist in Calgary Southwest, or a Green supporter, well, anywhere. The point is, in many if not most ridings, a vote for the party of your choice means absolutely nothing - and people are catching onto this fact. They are catching onto the fact that Canada is one of the only industrial democracies left - the list includes only the United States, Britain and ourselves - which still uses a voting system which, while appropriate for its time, has become antiquated. They are catching onto the fact that it is broken.

The brokenness of our current system is even being unintentionally acknowledged by Paul Martin and more intentionally by Jack Layton, both of whom are urging potential voters to vote strategically - Paul Martin saying vote Liberal to stop the Tories, Jack Layton saying vote NDP to do the same. Buzz Hargrove's endorsement of Paul Martin came with the condition that people should vote NDP in ridings where that party is ahead of the Liberals, and vice versa.

Strategic voting is the order of the day - and it is, simply put, anathema to democracy. Nobody should be forced into the choice of supporting a party they detest in order to prevent a party they detest even more from winning. That is not democracy, not really. Voters should not be forced to play games with their ballot, basing their vote on guesswork and mathematical approximations of who stands the best chance of defeating their feared candidate. In democracy, voters should be allowed to vote for the candidate of their choice, without fear of any nasty surprises, like waking up the next morning with a newly minted MP from their nightmare party, which could have been prevented had they only guessed better. Voting should not be a game of guesswork, it should be a matter of principle.


From a logical standpoint, it makes sense, which is why so many people wonder why it is not already the status quo. It seems elementary that a party's representation in the legislature should be determined by, and proportionate to the number of votes they received.

It seems like basic logic that a party which only receives 37% of the vote - as Jean Chretien's Liberals did in 1997 and Bob Rae's New Democrats did in 1990 - should not be rewarded with literally 100% of the power, completely unchecked and unaccountable to anyone until the next election.

It would seem that it ought to be a matter of course that Brian Mulroney should not have been allowed to impose a hated and reviled tax - the GST - on Canadians in 1991 when he had only received a mandate from 45% of the people in the previous election, and the two parties for whom the other 55% had voted opposed it.

It most certainly seems logical that a party which loses the popular vote should not win the election, and yet Joe Clark (1979), John Diefenbaker (1957), Glen Clark (1996) and, incidentally George W. Bush down south (2000), did just that: with their closest opponents actually receiving more votes than they did, they still formed the government - and in the case of Glen Clark, formed a majority government!

Fundamentally, there is nothing flawed with this logic. Conversely, there is a great deal flawed with "logic" which states that a party which receives support from fewer than two in five people should have the unchecked and absolute power to do whatever they please - this is what our system allows, however, and it allows it routinely, so much so that it is mundane, masking the abuse of democracy that it truly is. From a purely logical point of view, there seems something deeply flawed with such a system.

Yet there are, incredibly, people who oppose such logic. Why they do so varies - many of them value stability over democracy; others fear a hostile takeover of government by fringe lunatics; others still are merely partisan hacks who oppose any changes to the current system on the grounds that it would reduce the power of their party, which has benefited from a system which disenfranchises entire swaths of society, and thus are loathe to change it, offering up any argument they can muster against it. This last group is particularly bothersome; the first two can be dealt with through a calm refutation of their arguments. The last group, of which I am sad to say I suspect our prime minister of being a member, can only be dealt with in the way one must always deal with party hacks - by simply exposing them for what they are, acknowledging and accepting that they will always put party above principle, and moving on.


There are many arguments against it. The goal here is to refute them all, at least the most prominent ones.

1) Proportional representation usually guarantees minority governments.

This is not so much an argument against proportional representation as it is a statement of fact. The argument against comes from the value judgment, "minority governments are bad". To this the reply is simple: Canadians, if given a choice, would prefer to be represented by a minority government, regardless of whether they support it, than by a majority government they oppose. If offered a choice between a Paul Martin majority of a Stephen Harper minority, Canadians overwhelmingly choose the latter, and vice versa. Majority governments, quite simply, do not allow for any meaningful opposition. The Conservatives, for example, with a mere 40% of the popular vote, could form a fairly sizable majority government, and proceed to introduce legislation that 60% of the population would find anathema, for instance, to criminalize abortion - and nobody would be able to do a thing to stop them. There is a fatal flaw in a system which purports to be democratic, yet would allow that to take place. Given the choice between minority or majority, most Canadians would clearly prefer the former - just ask anybody who has ever voted for the losing side in an election where the winner did not win a majority of the popular vote, yet received over 50% of the seats.

2) Proportional representation leads to instability.

More of a sub-part to the previous argument, this is the argument which states that the minority parliaments generated would necessarily be unstable. Of course, this is not true. The experience of every industrial country which uses proportional representation - with the exception of Israel and Italy - is quite the opposite. Israel can be discounted out of hand, as their instability likely has more to do with the fact that the country is under constant threat of terrorism by Muslim fanatics. As for Italy, it is the exception which proves the rule, the one single example where political instability is par for the course - and yet they still seem to be governed well enough to be included in the G8.

Simply put, this so-called "instability" is a phantom; it does not exist in any substantive form. Opponents of PR will often attempt to obfuscate the facts by drawing attention away from the relevant reality and concentrating on side-issues. For example, they are quick to point out, in light of the recent political bantering in Germany, that PR led to months of uncertainty, and that - horror of horrors - the parties actually had to cooperate (something PR opponents dread). But the fact of the matter is, they did cooperate, they did form a stable government, and Angela Merkel has emerged as the Chancellor of a grand coalition, which will govern Germany from the stable centre. All is well. And if they want to concentrate on Germany, perhaps they can be reminded that Germany, prior to 2005, had not had a federal election since 2002. Hardly the "elections every few months" nightmare scenario PR opponents like to use to scare election-wary Canadians into opposing it. Then there's Japan; recently, the parliament there was dissolved. They had an election, and the governing Liberal Democrats were re-elected, unsurprisingly, under a PR system. The reason the government collapsed, of course, was not because of PR - it was because prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's own party turned on him and voted against his proposed privatization measure. Hardly a function of PR, that was a function of something which must seem foreign to Canadians - a break in party discipline.

Some point out that this recent minority government is an example of why they are bad, because of all the political intrigue, instability and deal-making (though as a political junkie I find such things hard to call "bad"). They seem to dismiss without even a second thought the minority governments of Bill Davis, David Peterson, Lester Pearson, Mackenzie King, Pierre Trudeau, John Hamm, and many others, once again preferring to concentrate on the exceptions, rather than the rule. The recently-deceased minority government was an extremely delicate situation, which is unlikely to happen again, even under PR. It was the result of series of flukes which would be extremely unlikely to repeat themselves, among them: the late Chuck Cadman's election as an Independent, the exceptional nature of a parliament literally divided 50/50 between Liberal/NDP and Conservative/BQ voting blocs after the election, the removal of Carolyn Parrish, the defection of David Kilgour, the one-issue bigotry of Pat O'Brien, cancer-stricken MPs, the Peter-Belinda-Paul triangle, the sponsorship scandal revelations, the Tories promising to support the budget but then withdrawing that support when their poll numbers shot up, Gurmant Grewal's tape-recorder, and virtually every ancient parliamentary procedure being dusted off and tried at least once in an effort to get the upper hand on political opponents, to be specific. The odds of those conditions occurring again are infinitesimal, and the odds of those conditions producing the exact same result for a second time are pretty much nil. Let's face it, the 38th parliament was extremely interesting, but it was hardly normal - even countries with PR don't experience such drama routinely. Which is exactly the point.

It is also important to keep in mind that, in our system, minority governments are the exception, not the rule. As such, politicians are acutely aware that a minority government is just one, long pre-writ campaign. It is an interlude between Round 1 and Round 2. As such, they are not expected to last very long, as the strategists are just biding their time until the perfect time to bring down the government and force an election campaign, during which one of the parties tries to win an artificial majority; and if they can't, we're back to the polls again soon enough. The period between 1957 and 1968 actually saw 6 federal elections. (57, 58, 62, 63, 65, 68). Only two of those (58 and 68) resulted in majority parliaments. Surely a system which allows for such instability is flawed, or so one would expect the PR opponents to say! The reason for the instability is not the minority parliaments. Minority governments are not, by their nature, unstable - our politicians choose to make them so, because they know that the ultimate goal is preparing for the next campaign, during which they hope to win a majority. If minority governments were the rule, not the exception - as is the case in countries with PR - then the politicians would be presented with a very different scenario: either cooperate and compromise, or face a never-ending string of election campaigns.

The thing about politicians is, they hate elections more than the people do, and it is not a difficult task to imagine why. Every time they go to the polls, their jobs are on the line - unless of course their name is Monte Solberg and they routinely win in Medicine Hat with 70% of the popular vote without even trying. Needless to say, if they were faced with the very real threat of losing their jobs, they would find a way to get along. Paul Martin would not be so uncompromising; Jack Layton would not be so demanding; Stephen Harper would not be so belligerent. Gilles Duceppe wants to break up the country - bad example. But under PR, the Bloc Quebecois' influence would be severely reduced, anyway. The point is, they would be forced to cooperate, whether they like it or not - which is what the voters put them there to do, not fling mud at each other and call each other names in the hope that next time around they can win an artificial majority. (Though I'm sure they could still find some way to accommodate monthly Brison-MacKay grudge matches.) Voters put them there to cooperate with each other. PR necessitates that; the present first-past-the-post (FPTP) system discourages it.

3) Proportional representation leads to the hijacking of parliament by small parties

Once again a continuation of the "minority parliaments are bad" way of thinking, this is quite a curious position coming from proponents of a system which, as a matter of routine, allows the hijacking of parliament by a single party which received support from fewer than 2 in 5 Canadians. It is also curious considering that it was our current system which produced a parliament in which Stephen Harper and Gilles Duceppe's parties - between them only receiving 42% of the popular vote, as compared to 53% for Paul Martin and Jack Layton's combined total - actually did hijack parliament by shutting it down for several days last spring. So the skew works both ways - the Tory/BQ bloc, representing 42% of Canadians, actually had the numbers to outvote the Liberal/NDP bloc, representing 53% of Canadians. Again, it is our current system which allowed for that ridiculousness, not proportional representation - proportional representation, in fact, would have prevented that from happening, and allowed the Liberals and NDP to work in a stable coalition, as opposed to wondering day in and day out whether or not today was the day the government would fall.

Now, the fear here is this: the Communist Party wins 0.8% of the vote. (I use the Communists because they seem to be the most common boogiemen for this scenario when it is presented by the PR opponents - and I thought we were over the red scare.) They thus win 0.8% of the seats - in our current parliament, that would mean 2 seats. This scenario also has the Liberals winning 154 seats - just two shy (after the speaker is elected) of a majority in the House. Enter the Commies, who pledge to prop up the Liberals, but only if the Libs bend to their every whim and do everything they say. In this scenario, the Liberals are apparently completely spineless, as they agree to these terms, and suddenly, Canada goes Red, the maple leaf is replaced by a sickle and hammer, and the capitalist dogs are sent to the gulags. This scenario also assumes that the Liberals (or whatever party is dealing with them) are not only quite evil, but also very, very stupid. It assumes that the Liberals would not, say, go to the Conservatives, or the NDP, or the Greens, or some other less Cold War-ish party for support; it assumes that the Conservatives, NDP, Greens, or the unnamed-but-definitely-not-crazy party would be completely unwilling to give this support, or that their demands would be more untenable to the Liberals than the demands of the Communist party. (The logic there actually contradicts itself - the assertion is that the commies are a fringe party and thus have crazy demands, yet it also asserts that the Conservatives would be even crazier than them.) And it assumes that the governing party - again the Liberals, just for example - would rather turn Canada into Soviet Canuckistan than simply dissolve parliament and face the people, letting them pass judgment on the Communist Party's attempt to take over Canada, and the NDP, Conservative, Green, and unnamed-but-not-crazy party's refusal to negotiate with the Liberals. To sum it up, the entire argument is based on all sorts of bizarre, ridiculous, and hyperbolic assumptions and contortions of reality.

One concern is legitimate - should a party with 0.8% of the vote be represented? I would personally say no - at least 1% support should be required, in my opinion - and most agree with me to some extent, and in fact, most countries impose some sort of threshold which parties must meet in order to qualify for representation in parliament, much like a certain threshold must be met in order to qualify for federal funding currently. This is generally the position supported by most advocates of PR; usually the cap is anywhere from 1-10%, though generally more like 2-5%. This would prevent parliament from facing the Weimar Germany scenario, where endless fringe parties kept getting elected. It is, admittedly, quite practical, and probably the system that would be used, should Canada opt for PR, and should that PR include the mixed-member proportional system (more on that later).

The hijacking of the House of Commons is something that occurs regularly under our own system. Allowing other voices to be heard instead of simply a ruling party which does not represent a majority of Canadians is not hijacking - it's democracy.

4) Proportional representation means parties do not govern for principle, but for politics

Perhaps I am a severely jaded individual, but it would seem to me that parties already govern for politics and not for principle, the reason being that they have to attract as big a tent as possible in order to reach the 40% threshold and win a fake majority, and then once in power, must keep those 40% happy by not doing anything drastic. Our current system reflects this - parties which flip-flop on every issue and govern by not doing anything meaningful are rewarded. Parties which do unpopular but necessary things are punished with crushing electoral defeats. In other words, parties which play politics win, and parties with principles lose.

It may be an idealistic notion, but parties should not have to fear being disproportionately decimated at the polls if they act on principle. Mulroney's GST was, in hindsight, necessary to balance the budget and pull the country's economy out of a tailspin - but the Tories were reduced to 2 seats for it. Now, if the party had only won 0.5% of the popular vote - which is the proportion of seats they won - this would seem justified. But the PC Party in 1993 actually won almost as many votes as the Reform Party, which won 52 seats. Our current system amplifies the severity of an electoral defeat to such an extreme that parties are terrified of alienating even a few of their voters, and thus are loathe to take principles positions. Politicians who actually do as they promise - like Mike Harris - are the exception, not the rule. Harris' Tories, although led by Ernie Eves, received about 35% of the vote to the McGuinty Liberals' 45%. A mere 5% swing from Liberal to Tory would have resulted in a near-tie, yet under our current system, this difference resulted in a huge electoral defeat for the Tories, with the Liberals taking 72 seats to the Tories' 24. The message was clear - if you do as you promise, govern from principle, and make unpopular but necessary decisions, you will be punished, and punished harshly. No wonder the Tories elected John Tory as their new leader, a good man to be sure, but one who has been slow to actually take stands on issues that differentiate himself from McGuinty. Principle over politics indeed!

Now, would this be fixed by proportional representation? Perhaps, or perhaps not. The point is, if the complaint is that PR could result in government by politics rather than by principle, then the same complaint must be turned on our current system, as well. One thing is for certain - under PR, the Tories would have been punished, but not reduced to a mere 24 seats, impotent to do anything meaningful for the following four years. They would only have been punished in proportion to how angry the voters were. Considering they garnered 35% of the vote - around what the governing federal Liberals seem to be polling lately - they were not nearly as hated as the system made it seem.

5) Proportional representation leads to backroom deals

It is true that proportional representation often leads to minority governments, which leads to deal-making. What is not elaborated upon is why this is a bad thing. In a democracy, one would expect that, if a majority does not support one particular way of doing things, then at least a compromise can be hammered out. The parties would get together, hammer out stands on policy issues which satisfy everyone involved, and then govern. Regardless of where these deals take place - in backrooms and broom closets or in front of TV cameras - they would then have to be presented to the legislature, in full view of the public, and debated, sent to committee, and put to a vote. It's not as if a parliament would be elected and then our leaders would make secret decisions that we would know nothing about. This is still a democracy, and the public would still have a right to know about the policy, and voice their opinions on it.

6) Proportional representation means that you can't hold anyone accountable

This is a concern. Basically, the thinking goes that, if two or three parties are working together in a coalition, then people do not know which party to punish for making unpopular decisions, and reward for making popular ones. There's just too much confusion.

The solution to this problem is two-fold. The first is to pay attention - for example, the Liberals and the NDP recently hammered out a budget deal. The budget, popular as it was, was claimed by both parties - in other words, Paul Martin and Jack Layton both wanted to take credit for it. PR opponents would argue that that's just too confusing. But let's be frank: is that really so confusing? Of course the Liberals are going to take credit for it, that is the nature of the beast - they want credit for the NDP's popular ideas. But anyone who is at least a casual observer could plainly see that it was the NDP, not the Liberals, who were responsible for that budget. That politicians will contort the truth to make themselves look better is a given no matter which political system is used. The key is in the voters actually paying enough attention to notice when they are being played for fools. And of course, it happens under majority governments as well - how many people are actually aware that the Liberals' debt reduction efforts, and Paul Martin's talk of the "democratic deficit" were both ideas the Liberals adopted from the Reform party?

The second part is to remember that, in cases where a coalition government presents a united front, and it thus does become difficult to distinguish who is responsible for what policy position, they are a united government. A coalition which presents a united front can be seen as one singular unit. Thus, if the Liberals, NDP and Greens formed a coalition government and did something unpopular that the voter wanted to punish them for, but that voter could not tell if it was the Liberals, NDP or Greens who were responsible for that position - and they are all blaming each other, not helping at all - then the solution is simple: vote them all out. In presenting a united front, a coalition government is making a choice; it is saying that it takes responsibility for its actions. In a sense, they are acting as a single party, and assigning blame and voting against them would be just as easy as going into a ballot box and checking the box marked "Conservative", or "Libertarian", or "Some Other Party".

This problem, in other words, does not need to be a problem, if voters pay attention, and if they know how to vote against someone they don't like.

That just about covers all of the major arguments against proportional representation. With that finished, it is time to examine the system itself.


Many of the arguments for proportional representation have been explicit throughout this essay. Outlining them at length again would be a waste of space. The merits of PR are just such that they speak for themselves, and should seem self-evident, and already covered in the logic argument. In summary they are:

1) Proportional representation promotes compromise between parties.
2) Proportional representation does not allow a single party representing less than 2 in 5 Canadians to govern as if it has support from 5 in 5 Canadians.
3) Proportional representation reduces voter apathy by making voters feel as if their vote actually counts towards something, particularly if they are voting for a party which is unpopular in their riding.
4) Proportional representation allows people to vote for whom they truly desire to win, as opposed to turning voting into an exercise of strategy, mathematics and predictions, in order to vote against what they oppose.
5) Proportional representation allows parties the freedom to take stands on issues without having to worry about suffering a disproportionately crushing electoral defeat.
6) Proportional representation discourages regionalism, which FPTP actively promotes, by encouraging parties to seek support by playing to a single region, which allows them to take all of that region's seats. PR, on the other hand, promotes nationalism, and allows representation from areas which would normally not have representation - for example, if PR were in place, the Tories would have some representation from Quebec, and the Liberals in Alberta and Saskatchewan (besides the mere two members they have now). It also puts separatism into perspective, reducing the power of the Bloc Quebecois and showing that Quebec is not as monolithically in support of separation as they appear to be.


The first past the post system has led to some incredibly unfair election results. Some key offenders include:

1) 1993

Party Leader % of Votes % of Seats # of Seats
Liberals Jean Chretien 41.2% 60.0% 177
BQ Lucien Bouchard 13.5% 18.3% 54
Reform Preston Manning 18.7% 17.6% 52
NDP Audrey McLaughlin 6.9% 3.1% 9
PC Kim Campbell 16.0% 0.7% 2
+ 1 Independent

This election is stunning in its injustice, notable for wiping Canada's oldest political party off the map and setting it in a spiral towards its eventual death - even though it won millions of votes, and in terms of popular vote, placed third out of five.

The Liberals with barely over 40% of the vote took 60% of the seats and thus, 100% of the power. But that is the case with almost every election in our present system. What is truly exceptional are the four other parties.

The Bloc Quebecois was able to sweep the province of Quebec, winning 54 seats, enough to become the official opposition. They won 49% of the vote in the province of Quebec, yet took 72% of the seats, vastly over representing the separatists in relation to the federalists. Despite winning fewer votes than both the Reform Party and the PC Party, they still won as many seats as both of those parties combined. This is a clear-cut case of regionalism allowing a party to do better than a national party - namely, the PCs.

The Reform Party is essentially the same scenario, but in the west instead of Quebec. Actually coming second in the popular vote with 18.7%, they still won fewer seats than the Bloc Quebecois.

The NDP suffered their worst defeat ever - along with the Tories - in this election, taking a mere 6.9% of the vote. Their punishment was both a loss of seats and a loss of official party status, which requires at least 4% of the seats in parliament. They took almost 7% of the popular vote, but popular vote is not linked with seats, and they lost party status.

The Progressive Conservatives must have been shell-shocked on election night of 1993. I was too young to remember, but I imagine the feeling would have been similar for many Tories to the crash of '29. The worst electoral defeat in Canadian history reduced the governing Tories to a mere 2 seats in the House - that is, less than 1% of the seats. The PC defeat really tells the story of this election's unfairness. First of all, they were a national party, unlike the Reform and Bloc parties, receiving support from all across the country. This hurt them more than it helped them, however, as in our system, support must be concentrated in a few key areas, rewarding regionalism as a result. Second, despite winning over two million votes, compared to two and a half million for Reform and five and a half for the Liberals, they were utterly impotent when it came to representing those two million Canadians in parliament, having lost official party status, their leader, and their prestige. Third, despite actually winning more votes than the official opposition, they became the fifth party. Brian Mulroney said of the defeat, in derision of Kim Campbell and her campaign, "You don't come fifth." Actually, the Tories finished a very strong third; it is our electoral system which made them come fifth.

2) 1997

Party Leader % of Votes % of Seats Seats
Liberals Jean Chretien 38.5% 51.5% 155
Reform Preston Manning 19.4% 19.9% 60
BQ Gilles Duceppe 10.7% 14.6% 44
NDP Alexa McDonough 11.1% 7.0% 21
PC Jean Charest 18.8% 6.6% 20
+ 1 Independent

This particular election is notable for several reasons, not the least of which being the fact that, at 38.5% of the vote, the Liberals formed a majority government - that is, held absolute power - with the lowest proportion of the popular vote ever.

The Liberal Party, despite intense unpopularity, benefited from the FPTP system and was able to win many ridings where the vast majority of people opposed them. Their majority was narrow, but a narrow majority does not matter - with 155 of 301 seats, they could not be outvoted. So with support from a mere 38.5% of Canadians, they proceeded to govern as if they were given support from a majority of the people.

The Reform Party once again benefited from its western regionalism. Despite only marginally increasing its popular vote (up from 18.7% to 19.4), they won 8 more seats than they had before. Ironically, this sort of regionalism contributed to western alienation more than it helped it - which was Reform's raison d'etre. With the west voting as a bloc for a single regional party, alienation became even more pronounced. Of course, Reform would not have swept the west as completely as it did under a PR system, which would have given the Liberals, PCs and NDP a fair number of seats there, too, allowing the west to be a part of the consensus, as opposed to being on the outside looking in. On the other hand, through a fluke the Reform Party's seat total was actually within 0.5% of their popular vote total, which is incredible even in PR systems. However, a significant amount of that support came from Ontario voters, and Reform was not represented at all in Ontario, thanks once again to FPTP.

The Bloc Quebecois followed suit, and with a mere 38% of the popular vote in the province of Quebec, won 57% of the seats there, once again vastly over representing the separatists. The Bloc's national total was actually the lowest of the five parties, yet they came a very easy third.

The NDP actually benefited from a bit of regionalism on this outing, as well. With only 11.1% of the vote, they won a fair number of Maritime seats due to the favourite daughter status of leader Alexa McDonough. Their result of 21 seats was quite the recovery from 1993, and at 11% of the vote and 7% of the seats, were more or less fairly represented.

PC Party, despite experiencing a similar recovery, once again were the victims of an unfair voting system. Once again their attempt to have a national message was punished, once again their third-place status in the popular vote was rewarded with fifth-place status in the House, and their two and a half million voters were vastly underrepresented. Despite having increased their vote total to almost exactly that of what the Reform Party received in 1993 - which won Reform 52 seats - the Tories still only won 20 seats. And despite having a nearly-identical popular vote total with Reform in this election, the Tories received only one third the number of seats. Despite having strong support all across the country, they were once again relegated to fifth party status.

3) 1979

Party Leader % of Votes % of Seats Seats
PC Joe Clark 35.9% 48.2% 136
Liberals Pierre Trudeau 40.1% 40.4% 114
NDP Ed Broadbent 17.9% 9.2% 26
Social Credit Fabien Roy 4.6% 2.1% 6

Let's rewind for a moment, back to 1979. The election, as is typical, gave the winning party a much larger seat total than was representative of the votes it received, and gave the third and fourth parties extremely low seat totals compared to the number of votes they received. But what is interesting about this election is that the Liberals, despite losing the election, actually received about 5% more in the popular vote than the Tories did. The Tories won a very strong minority government, without actually winning the most votes. Canadians like to deride the Americans for allowing George Bush to become president despite losing the popular vote, but they are likely unaware that this can happen in our own system, as well. Other examples of this happening are 1957 (John Diefenbaker), and 1996 in BC (Glen Clark, who actually won a majority).


Now that FPTP has become thoroughly discredited, an alternative must be proposed. It is not a difficult task to see what is wrong with the current system, but what kind of system could we change it to? There are many options, and we must consider a number of criteria.

The first is that the system be roughly proportionate. Being a few percentage points off in one direction of another is forgivable, as no system is perfect, but the make-up of the legislature should more or less reflect the votes of Canadians.

The second is that the system not discriminate against minority voices - a key part of liberal democracy, after all, is allowing minorities to be heard and counted. So small parties should be given at least a fair chance. Therefore, it should not be too difficult for small parties with small but significant support bases to win seats, but neither should it be easy for radical fringe groups to win seats to attempt to hijack the political process. A balance must be struck.

The third is that the system eliminate strategic voting, that is, voting against a party rather than for one. No Canadian likes to vote strategically, and if possible, they should not have to.

The fourth and final criteria is that the system be practical and workable. It should not as a normal function produce legislatures which are unmanageable or unstable. This goes hand-in-hand with number two, above. This is extremely important, for if a system does not work, it is not worth implementing.


There are many types of proportional representation used by countries, many of them adding their own tweaks to them to suit their needs. This is a broad overview of some forms of PR. There are more than many people think. There are also many variations on the types listed.

1) Instant Runoff Voting (IRV)
Examples: Australian House of Representatives, some Canadian political party leadership votes

In Instant Runoff Voting, voters mark their ballots in order of preference. For example, there are seven candidates, a Liberal, Conservative, New Democrat, Green, Libertarian and Christian Heritage, and an Independent. Instead of simply marking an "X" beside one candidate, the voter ranks the candidates in order of preference, in this case, from 1 to 7. The ballot would look something like this:

Rank Candidate
4 Alison Independent
2 Bart Liberal
1 George Libertarian
7 Harriet Christian Heritage
5 Jack New Democrat
6 Mario Conservative
3 Rob Green

On the first count, the first-choices are added up. If no single candidate wins over 50% of the vote, the candidate with the lowest support is eliminated, and their second choices are applied to other candidate. The process of elimination and redistribution continues until a candidate has over 50% of the vote. The way in which the votes are counted can differ from system to system, but the ballot always looks the same.

This can tend to produce some complicated counting sessions if the ballot is large. It remains difficult for small parties to actually win seats, and so is not very proportional, though more so than our current system. It also does little to address strategic voting, as the candidate with the lowest amount of support is the first eliminated, so someone might be tempted to vote for the last-place candidate in order to have their second choice votes counted before anyone else's. It would tend to produce quite stable legislatures.

A way to counter the strategic voting problem would be to have voters mark only two preferences; all but the two candidates in first and second place would be immediately eliminated, and the second choices of every eliminated candidate's voters would all be distributed at the same time. However, this could result in voters being discouraged from voting for smaller parties, instead voting for a larger yet still third-party candidate, hoping that they would win and go onto the final round. It would also tend to make it even more difficult for small parties to win.

The strategic voting problem is seen in Australia, where the parties actually produce advertisements telling their supporters how to rank the candidates, as the party strategists have worked out a strategic way to, they hope, elect the most candidates possible. Many Australian voters follow their chosen party's voting instructions exactly.

Given that this system does little to address strategic voting, if not making the problem worse, while not addressing proportionality problems and makes it difficult for small parties to win seats, I would have to advise against it.

2) Runoff Voting
Examples: Louisiana, France, some Canadian political party leadership votes

This is essentially the same principle as IRV, except the voter does not rank candidates on the ballot, but rather makes a single vote.

In the system used in France and Louisiana, if no candidate receives over 50% of the vote, the top two candidates go into a runoff election, held at a later date. Everyone then votes again, and whichever candidates wins the most votes wins the election. This is used in French presidential elections, and became famous a few years ago when it inadvertently produced a contest between the conservative Jacques Chirac, and the far-right nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen lost in a landslide due to overwhelming opposition, as everyone except for Le Pen's own supporters voted for Chirac, despite Chirac being a political opponent, because of Le Pen's frightening social policy. (If that sounds familiar, Canadians, it's not; it's incomparable. It would be like making a choice between Stephen Harper and Ernst Zundel. Not a difficult choice.)

The reason for this anomaly was because the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, came a very close third behind Le Pen, because the left's votes were so divided. Fear of this sort of situation happening would be reason enough for many people to vote strategically, so this does not really address the problem of strategic voting.

Alternatively, Canadian political parties often use this system, but it takes much longer. The first ballot is cast mostly to remove the fringe candidates - anyone under a certain level of support, usually 5% - is disqualified immediately. The second ballot is then cast, removing the candidate with the lowest number of votes. A third ballot follows, removing another candidate, and on until one candidate has over 50% of the vote. For example, at the PC convention in 2003, the first ballot was cast which would have removed fringe candidate Craig Chandler had he not already removed himself. The second ballot eliminated Scott Brison, who threw his support behind Jim Prentice, which was enough to move Mr. Prentice into second place. The third ballot eliminated David Orchard, in third place, who in turn gave his support to Peter MacKay, giving MacKay enough support to breach the 50% line. While this system works well for delegated conventions, it is difficult and cumbersome - though not impossible - to implement for the population at large.

3) Party Lists (Closed List or Open List)
Examples: Israel, The Netherlands, Finland

This system of PR works in a very simple way. Voters cast a vote for a party - not an individual candidate - and their vote is counted towards that party's total. The totals are then tallied and seats are distributed based on the percentage of the popular vote. So for example, in Israel the Knesset has 120 seats. A party winning 23% of the vote would be entitled to 23% of the seats, or roughly 27 or 28 seats (the actual number being determined mathematically in comparison to all the other results).

In this system, there is usually some sort of threshold which a party must meet in order to qualify for representation - such as a party must win at least 4% of the vote to qualify for seats. The actual occupants of those seats are determined by party lists, drawn up before the election. So each party fields a list of candidates - presumably with their leader at the top of that list - and those members take seats in that order. In the case of a party winning 28 out of 120 seats, the first 28 people on that list would be elected. This is known as closed list.

An alternative to that is open list. In an open list system, the party fields a list of candidates, but the voters, as opposed to the party, determine how they want the list to be structured, casting their vote for a party, but also voting for a member of the party list, to determine his or her placement on the list when all is said and done.

In terms of proportionality, this system provides a near-completely accurate portrayal of the actual voting preferences of the voters in the legislature. It is very precise. As such, it also reduces strategic voting, since people can vote for a party confident that their vote is not going to waste, unless that party's support is so low that it cannot meet the threshold. It is very easy for small parties to win seats, but impossible for fringe parties to do so - the definition of "small" and "fringe" being set by the threshold. It does tend to produce minority parliaments, but that does not necessarily mean that the system will be unstable, as once again, fringe parties would not be able to win seats. The system's stability would be entirely predicated upon the ability of the parties to work with one-another - so for example, a legislature made up of 1/3 Communists, 1/3 Anarchists, and 1/3 Fascists would not be able to work well together, but one made up of 1/3 Socialists, 1/3 Liberals and 1/3 Conservatives could likely find some way to compromise.

A downside to this system is that it makes Independent representation difficult if not downright impossible; since people vote for parties instead of candidates, Independents do not really exist. However, Independents are difficult to elect in our current system, anyway, so the loss would likely not be noticed. Also, it may not work for Canada - a country as large and diverse as Canada needs local representation. It is not a small, unitary state like Israel or Finland, but a vast federation with two official languages, ten provinces, three territories, and many unique regions. This system could likely not be employed in Canada, unless it was applied to only one house of parliament (the Commons or the Senate), while the other was used for local representation. Thus, some people propose keeping the House of Commons as it is, but electing 100 Senators using this system. This would actually solve problems of stability, as the Senate is not a confidence body, that is, the government is answerable only to the Lower House. The Senate, with diverse representation and views, would merely act as a check on the power of the Commons, which is routinely controlled by a single party, ensuring that unpopular legislation could not be passed, but not at the peril of the fall of the government.

The closed list system also opens up many debates about precisely who controls the lists - the party membership or the leadership? Are prime list spots earned, or political rewards? This can of course be easily solved by an open list system.

And argument against party lists is often put forward that it discriminates based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. The thinking goes that the party will take into account such factors when generating lists, and so employ a type of affirmative action with regards to who gets on the lists, ensuring that there are a suitable number of women and minorities. This is based on the false premise that the list system necessitates this - it does not. The parties would be left to their own discretion - much like they are now - as to who their candidates would be. Presently, for example, Canadian political parties would be completely free to pass party policy requiring that 50% of all nominated candidates be women. But just because they are able to do so does not mean that they would. In Germany, in fact, only the Green party employs such a system.

4) Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP)
Examples: New Zealand, Germany, Japan, Scotland

This seems to be the type of PR which most people advocate and many people assume this is the form that it would take if it existed in Canada, and hence, what many opponents and advocates base their arguments around. The system works by merging the system we have now of electing a member for each riding, with a party list system.

Japan uses this system; in the 2005 election, 300 members were elected to the lower house (the Diet) from single-member districts, and 180 members were elected using a party list system, as outlined above. The result was that the governing LDP took 219 of the 300 single-member districts, like our ridings (a situation not unfamiliar to Canadian voters), yet with only 38.2% of the popular vote, was only entitled to 77 of the 180 PR seats, for a total of 296 out of 480 seats, producing a majority government.

As can be seen from that example, this system can and does produce majority governments, and is far more likely to do so than a direct party list system, it does increase the likelihood of minority governments. Japan is perhaps a bad example - the LDP has been ruling that country for decades, almost uninterrupted, even more dominant than the Liberals in Canada.

In Germany, where this system is also used, the recent election saw the CDU/CSU of Angela Merkel win 150 of 299 seats in constituencies (ridings), with barely over 40% of the vote, so a bare majority without an actual majority of the vote. However, unlike in Canada, Merkel's power is not absolute, and her party is not free to do as it pleases. This is because there are an additional 315 seats distributed based on party lists, and the CDU/CSU won only 76 of those, for a total of 226 seats out of 614. (The party lists also took into account a system known as "overhang", where a party is actually entitled to fewer seats from the list seats as a result of doing so well in constituencies.) Also, the libertarian (though the term used in European politics is "liberal") FDP and the Green Party, along with the Left Party, while winning few if any seats in constituencies, still won 61, 50 and 51 PR seats, respectively, and the SPD won 222, which has forced the CDU/CSU and SPD to work together in what Germans call a "Grand Coalition" to lead a centrist government.

In Canada, this system would work in a very similar way. For example, Canada would have 300 ridings, about what it has now, which would elect 300 MPs. However, on top of that, more MPs would be elected from lists using PR, making the House more proportional. Exactly how proportional is determined almost entirely by the number of extra seats which would be added. An extra 100 seats would add a degree of proportionality; and extra 200 an even greater degree, an extra 300 an extreme degree, and over 300 would put greater emphasis on proportionality than on ridings.

The problem, unfortunately, is then created that there are some MPs which legitimately serve the people who elected them, and others who merely serve the party and do as their leader tells them. ("Party hacks.") This was a concern voiced by vocal PR opponent and Liberal MP Derek Lee, who said bluntly that he would not consider list MPs to be his equals, as he represents people directly, and they represent the party. To an extent I can understand why he would think that - many people would indeed be likely to view list MPs as somehow less legitimate.

But look at that from a detached point of view. First of all, Derek Lee himself - at the risk of employing ad hominem - is quite the Liberal partisan himself. Anyone who has ever seen him on a political panel knows full well that he will support his own party tooth and nail, and one gets the impression that he would - and does - vote against the will and the interests of his constituents if he is told to by his leader. Now, I cannot attack Lee too vociferously. For one, he is one of the few MPs in this country who consistently wins legitimate majorities in his riding - that is, over 50% of the vote. And for another, he is not alone. But he is useful for demonstrating a point. There are many politicians like him, and they are elected not under PR, but under our system. Under the auspices of representing their constituents, what they really do is warm seats in the House, cheer when their colleagues cheer, and even if they oppose a piece of legislation, will vote for it anyway because they are told to. This is ignoring the good work that MPs do in committee and in their ridings, of course, but when it comes right down to it, the most important thing an MPs has is his or her vote, and the vast majority of MPs, when it comes right down to it, vote the party line without dissent. This is, once again, under our current system, and not MMP PR.

To dissect that complaint even further, the claim that list MPs do not represent anyone is faulty - they represent the people who voted for them. There are entire swaths of the Canadian population who do not agree with the views of the Liberals or the Conservatives, and usually, they are quite underrepresented, if they are represented at all. The people who vote for these parties would most certainly feel that their views were being represented by the list MPs elected to parliament. It is just a different kind of representation.

And interesting way of dealing with this problem, which I am not aware has been tried anywhere to this date, is to allow the list seats - however many - to be made up of defeated candidates. Candidates who lose by the smallest margins are the first on the list, and it goes in descending order. This means that, just because a candidate loses their seat by 0.1%, they cannot go into parliament to represent the still-substantial number of people who voted for them.

This system eliminates the need for strategic voting, at least for the party lists; people could still vote strategically for constituencies. (Voters are usually allowed to cast two votes, one for the constituency, and one for a party.) It is either somewhat proportionate or extremely proportionate, depending on the ratio of constituency members to list members. It tends to produce minority governments, but usually strong ones, so it is unlikely to be unstable. Finally, it is fairly easy for smaller parties to be elected, but not fringe parties, with once again the difference between the two being set by a threshold for representation. This system also allows the election of political Independents at the constituency level.

5) Single Transferable Vote (STV)
Examples: Republic of Ireland, Australian Senate

This system is so arcane and complicated that I am loathe to explain it. The BC Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform produced a video which explains the system much better than I could. (URL: Essentially, the voter ranks their choices by preference - like in IRV - but instead of electing a single member, each electoral district or riding elects multiple MPs, usually anywhere from 3 to 8. This would of course result in either a vastly increased House of Commons, or much larger electoral districts, most likely both.

The math is more complex than most people are used to, but the long and short of it is that voter choice is maximized - the reason the BC Citizens' Assembly chose it as their preferred system. There is no need for strategic voting at all, and it tends to produce very proportionate legislatures, it is fairly easy for smaller parties to be elected, and it is also easier for Independents to win seats. Its main weakness is that the stability may be undermined due to the fact that politicians from the same party are often forced to compete with each other. In a riding that elects 5 MPs, for instance, a party would tend to field at least 5 candidates, hoping to win as many of the seats as possible. This means that there are five candidates from the same party, and they are all competing with each other.

This also creates a problem of voter confusion. It is difficult for many voters to keep track of their 5 or so candidates. 20, 30 or 40 candidates per riding would be too daunting a task for many voters. On the other hand, this system does maximize voter choice, allowing voters to cast their ballots for a party, a candidate, or both. They can rank their ballots so that they vote for a Liberal, a Conservative, two Greens, then another Liberal, followed by an Independent, then an NDPer, followed by another Conservative, etc. In general, the voters in countries with this system tend to love it, because it gives them the greatest choice. The politicians, of course, hate it because it forces parties to compete with each other, which as any party operative will tell you, can be very damaging, even more so than an election loss sometimes. Even Ed Broadbent, who has passionately pursued electoral reform, does not like this system for that very reason.

It could definitely be termed the best and the worst of PR - on the one hand, it has every good aspect of PR, including voter choice, proportionality, and a near-elimination of strategic voting. On the other hand, it can be unstable due to party in-fighting, is very difficult to understand for some people, and can lead to confusion.

6) Multi-Vote District (MVD)
Examples: None; This system remains theoretical; has been used in a video game

Also known as Shared Candidate Democracy, this system remains completely theoretical. To my knowledge, it has not been implemented in any notable way.

In this system, multiple candidates from each district are elected, and they each cast as many votes as they received in the election in the law-making body. There would usually be a limit to how many candidates can be elected, usually by a run-off, instant run-off, or threshold. Essentially, this means that each MP would be "worth" a certain amount, based on the number of people who voted for him or her.

The benefits of this system include its simplicity and lack of strategic voting (voters simply cast their ballot for their preferred candidate), its proportionality (it is the most directly proportionate of any as-yet proposed system), and representation of minority voices without the minority voices overruling the majority. Voters could feel less disenfranchised, as their representative would actually be casting their vote on behalf of them in the legislature, and the number of votes that legislator had to cast would be directly proportionate to the number they received in the election.

The drawbacks are, once again, mostly a matter of complexity. Computing vote results could be an issue, as could the variability in the number of seats in a legislative body. It could also add so much complexity to the legislature that it would be difficult to get things done. However, since most systems introduce a certain amount of complexity, and since this system is so proportionate, the complexity is worth it.

A variant on this allows for fraction voting - that is, giving each candidate a percent of your vote (A gets 23%, B gets 22%, C gets 45%, and D gets 10%).

Once again, this system has no known applications.

That is, this system has no known applications outside of the video game world. I personally have thought this system a good idea since I first played a strategy role-playing console game known as "Disgaea", which has a small degree of politics involved in it. The game includes a Senate which votes based on a similar principle, only instead of each Senator casting a number of votes equal to those who voted for them, they cast a number of votes equal to their character level, or in non-gaming terms, how strong they are. Obviously, this author does not advocate a system where parliamentarians are forced into mortal combat with each other in order to prove who is the strongest, as fun and endlessly amusing as that would be for observers. Still, it makes one think when a video game employs a more sophisticated voting system than many in the world.

7) Preferential Ballot
Examples: None of which the author is aware; is used for ranking sports players

This system is actually very simple. The voter marks either "approve" or "disapprove" beside each candidate. (Neither approval nor disapproval is expressed through simply not voting for or against that particular candidate.) Each approval is counted as a positive vote - the candidate's vote total goes up by one - and each disapproval is counted as a negative vote - the candidate's vote total goes down by one. when all is said and done, the candidate with the most votes wins.

As this system is completely theoretical, and I admittedly know very little about sports, I cannot upon it with regards to the criteria I have laid out. It is easy to imagine it creating a degree of proportionality - especially if used in conjunction with the MMP system. It would definitely help combat strategic voting, as a "Stop Whomever" vote could be cast by a simple "disapprove". It would likely produce fairly stable parliaments, and finally, it would allow for smaller parties and Independents to campaign and receive votes from people who are not concerned about "wasting" their vote, as they can approve, disapprove or remain neutral on each and every candidate.

I admittedly just dreamed up this system when I heard a similar system was used for choosing sports stars in some game or another - I remain, as ever, sports illiterate - and thought it would be interesting when applied to politics. I would fully endorse more study being done on how it would impact voting.


The merits of proportional representation truly do speak for themselves. Reducing voter apathy, having votes count, allowing disenfranchised people to have a voice, and parties having a voice proportionate to the amount of support they receive from the people seem like very logical and democratic concepts.

As has been pointed out, the opponents of PR have many arguments, but these arguments do not hold when subjected to scrutiny. When it comes right down to it, the only real argument for a continuation of our present system is a preference for forcing majority governments on populations that did not truly vote for them, for the sake of stability, or just for partisan reasons. In this case, the arguments for our present system are simply anti-democratic and utterly elitist; opponents of PR looking at proponents with disdain, seeing mere "losers" who are sore and want the system changed. It is about more than that. PR advocate are not sore losers - we are completely willing to accept a loss, if that loss is legitimate and democratic. We have nothing against majority governments - if a majority of the population actually votes for that government. There is nothing shameful in losing, but there is something shameful about losing because of a system stacked in favour of the winners, and the shame lies not with the losers themselves, but with the system itself, the system which calls itself democratic, fair and just, but is truly nothing more than a stick used to beat down dissent and silence opposition, opposition that a majority of people support.

There are many types of PR, and I am not in this particular article advocating any particular type. Canada is in the unique position of badly needing reform of some kind to both the lower house, and the upper (a whole other argument in itself). It would be very much possible to implement two completely different voting systems for both houses - such as is the case in Australia, with the House of Representatives using IRV, and the Senate using STV. Certainly some system could be worked out in which the best of all worlds was represented.

Our political systems were created over the past several hundred years. They have evolved constantly since then. Canada's parliament, in its current incarnation, has existed since 1867. Britain's has existed longer, and it has reformed itself - such as the elimination of rotten boroughs. There is no particular reason why our political institutions must remain static. Canada is far behind most of the industrialized world in terms of modernized voting systems.

Canada is a world leader in many aspects, and it is time we stepped up and reformed our democratic institutions, to make them more democratic, and show the world that Canada can also be a leader in democracy.

Copyright 2005, Ryan Ringer