In the past decade, the voting and electoral systems of various countries have been scrutinized by analysts. This resulted in several reforms which were aimed at strengthening the democratic institutions. Scholars from all over the world have engaged in identifying how different electoral systems work and their impact on the democratic processes. Accordingly, questions arise on whether Canada needs electoral system reforms. This paper will try to identify the current electoral system and highlight its weaknesses. Finally, it will point out why Canada needs reforms in its electoral system.
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The electoral system of Canada is based on the United Kingdom format which has the Queen at the helm of a constitutional monarchy. The Governor-General represents the queen officially while at the provincial level she is represented by the Lieutenant-General. The queen is also represented by the Parliament. In the political structure, the Parliament is made up of the Senate also referred to as the upper chamber which is comprised of 105 members. These are appointees of the Governor-General under the Prime Minister’s recommendation. The parliament is also comprised of the House of Commons, also referred to as the lower chamber. The members of the House of Commons are elected during the general elections by the public. It is from this House of Commons that the government originates (Elections Canada, p. 6).
Basing on the stipulations of the Constitution, federal general elections are normally carried out after five years except during Incidences of war apprehension or during a real war and in the event of an insurrection or an invasion. Other events that can lead to early elections include the prime Minister’s decision to do so and defeat of the government through a confidence motion by the House of Commons (Elections Canada, p. 6).
The party amassing the greatest number of representatives forms the government. The leader of the party then assumes the Prime Minister’s position and chooses government department heads usually from the House of Commons. The ministers can also be chosen from the Senate and are referred to as Ministers of State. The leader of official opposition comes from the team with the second-largest representation. Failure to have a simple majority by the party with the largest number of seats in the House of Commons means that the Prime Minister seeks support from the opposition strategically and attempts to maintain the minority government (Elections Canada, p. 6).
Geographical sections known as the electoral districts define representation in the House of Commons. These electoral regions are ascertained by a formula pointed out in the Constitution. Each electoral district produces a single Member of Parliament. Based on several factors like population, the boundaries of these electoral districts are defined by independent commissions. The Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act stipulates the redefinition of the boundaries based on the census carried out after every ten years which stipulates whether the regions need any revisions. This is applied to all the provinces except Yukon, Nunavut and Northwest Territories each of which constitutes a single electoral district. The systems, manuals, policies and procedures of boundary revisions are developed by Elections Canada. It is this department that offers the administrative, financial, professional and technical support to the commissions which engage in the revision activity. The decisions by the commissions are then recorded in what is termed as the representation order which currently recognizes 308 electoral districts (Elections Canada, p. 7).
In the representation, the person with the highest number of votes wins as the Member of Parliament of the electoral district. Victory does not require an absolute majority. There is no limit to the number of people running for a seat in the riding but one has to run in a single riding. In addition, the candidate can run independently or under a registered party. Finally a party endorses a single candidate in a given riding (Elections Canada, p. 7).
While several referenda have been attempted to ensure reforms in the Canadian electoral system, none of it has yielded any fruit. However, this has not stopped the quest to advocate for reforms in the electoral system. What therefore are the reasons for this unrelenting quest for reforms? Scholars have identified several weaknesses in the plurality system as adopted by Canada. According to Loenen, this system is completely undemocratic and does not offer equitable representation. He proposes that the only way forward is through the adaptation of proportional representation. With this in place, Canada will experience several advantages. He says that with the adaptation of the PR system, Canada will be subject to fair representation for minorities and women. This system will make the government authority legitimate, the executive dominance that is excessive in the country would be reduced and finally an enlarged citizenship will be enlarged (Loenen, p. 24).
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Another specified weakness in the electoral system is that the outcome does not truly reflect the preferences of the voters. In his argument, Loenen points out that in a contest of about four people that is so close, the winner may emerge with a small percentage of all the votes. For example, the winner could be a representative of about 20% of the voting population. While he will be the representative, he won’t be representing a population of about eighty percent who voted for the other candidates who narrowly lost the election. As a result, 80% of the votes are lost. In addition, the country can be governed by a party that receives a popular vote that is less than majority.
To avoid this, Loenen proposes that Canada adopts the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Through this method, the candidates are ranked in terms of preference by the voter and this happens in multimember environment as compared to the ridings which allow for a single member. Using this method, vote losses are avoided. In addition, the second and the third candidate in the preference order of the voters are given consideration. In this political system, the voter is given power over even the political parties that are very organized. The parliament composition resulting from this system will be a clear representation of the preferences of the voters.
From the instances pointed out, it is important that Canada undertakes reforms so that democracy is enhanced. The most important reason for voting is usually to let the citizens have their choice. Having a leader that represents only a small percentage of the citizens as portrayed in the electoral system of Canada simply shows a defect and fails to show any democracy. As a result, Canada’s electoral system should undergo a reformation so that the system is changed to a PR system and specifically the single transferable vote that will help to reduce the instances of unfair representation and also reduce wastage of votes. By allowing the second and the third candidate to be considered, the issue of representative results from some voters that is less than a majority of the popular vote.
- Clarence G. Hoag and George Hallet Jr., Proportional Representation, (New York: Macmillan, 1926), 196-271.
- Elections Canada. The Electoral System of Canada. 2001.
- Herman Finer, The Case Against PR, (London: Fabian Society, 1935);
- H. Orliffe, “Proportional Representation?” Canadian Forum 17 (1938), 388-90.
- Jackson and McRobie, supra, note 26, at 38-9; Dennis Pilon, “Proportional Representation in Canada: An Historical Sketch,” Paper presented to the Canadian Political Science Association Annual General Meeting, St. Johns, Nfld., 1997.
- Klaus von Beyme, Parliamentary Democracy: Democratization, Destabilization, Reconsolidation, 1789-1999, (London: Macmillan Press, 2000), 5.
- Koyzis, David. A Call to Reform the Canadian Electoral System. 1997.
- Loenen, Nick. Citizenship and Democracy. Toronto: Dundurn Press.