On Electoral Reform (First published: 2016)


The federal Liberal government appears to be leaning toward a ‘ranked-ballot’ system of voting. The general consensus among non-liberals is that the government’s motive is to advantage the Liberals.

The way ranked-balloting works: your choice of candidate under the traditional FPTP system now becomes your first choice under a ranked-ballot system; as opposed to voting under FPTP, you can indicate a second preference, a third preference, and so on, until you have ranked all of the candidates that appear on your ballot. The virtue is that, while under FPTP one need win by only a single vote to take it all (leaving the runner-up and the million voters who voted for the runner-up with nothing), in the ranked-ballot system those one million 2nd-place votes will still count for something. More of Canada’s voice will be retained from the election and represented in the House of Commons. How can anyone possibly find something wrong with that?

The problem is thus: given that the Liberals currently occupy the centre of the  political spectrum, with the Conservatives to their right and the NDP to their left, a ranked-ballot system would advantage the Liberals because they are in a position to attract the second-choice votes of Conservative supporters on their right, and the second-choice votes of NDP supporters on their left. The Conservatives and NDP, on the other hand, would not be so fortuitously positioned under a ranked-ballot system as the Liberals; being as they exist on either political ‘extremity’ and are very far apart from one another to boot, they would likely not attract the other party’s 2nd choice. They would be left dividing the second-choice votes of Liberal supporters between them.

The Conservatives and NDP would have only one ‘market’ to explore for 2nd-choice votes; whereas the Liberals have two.  To introduce a bias into the voting system, deliberately or not, is contrary to the principles of democracy.

If it is true that the ranked ballot system will introduce bias, then any government is sorely remiss in pursuing this. Whether you are a Liberal, NDP, or Conservative, you are firstly, Canadian; duty and honour bound to preserve our democracy. As a Canadian government, your greatest achievement lay in  making democracy work well for all Canadians – not just for you and your supporters. You must protect Canadian democracy from attacks;[i] attacks that are oftentimes quite subtle. This could very well mean on occasion to protect it from yourself.[ii]

It is beyond the intention of this article to discuss what the federal Liberals are now doing with respect to electoral reform; but I caution them about spending too much time rationalizing why they are doing it, or, if it goes the other way, why they are cancelling the initiative. Politicizing it even further accomplishes nothing of real value. Instead they should continue with their domestic and global agenda, openly and honestly, and in doing so, help to provide a clear choice for the Canadian voter in 2019. The other participants must do likewise. No party should have an agenda which is hidden from the public; but this is possible only if all voters engage in the political process to the point where they are knowledgeable of our Canada’s and our world’s political, social, and environmental issues.

I do not believe we need to change our current system –flawed as it may be, it has gotten us this far, and with our Senate in place to provide us and our elected officials the opportunity for ‘sober second thought,’ we are somewhat protected against a voter-hiccup akin to what we saw last November in the U.S. If the U.S. had a system like ours, an unelected Senate would protect the American people (especially minorities and the economically vulnerable) from the dark side of the President-elect’s views on government and geopolitics. Representation of regional and minority interests (as well as the reason Quebec signed onto Confederation in the first place) is already incorporated into our Senate structure.

Still, Canadians may justly feel that a configuration in the House more reflective of the popular vote is needed. We could address this systemic weakness by creating a certain number of additional seats, unattached to any specific riding, against which the voting breakdown may be applied on a pro rata basis to determine a fair allocation of the additional seats among the parties.


[i] Please consider reading Protecting Canadian Democracy: The Senator You Never Knew. Edited by Senator Serge Joyal.

[ii] Sir John A. fully expected the Senate would be under challenge by future governments simply because no one, but no one –especially governments-  likes it when something interferes with their agenda; any more than drivers like speed bumps. Fortunately, our first PM recognized this.