Electoral reform still shouldn’t be an issue

Debunking classical arguments advanced against Canada’s FPTP

In my previous op-ed, commenters argued that I failed to acknowledge that FPTP results in “unrepresentative” governments, or governments that won by a plurality—rather than with a majority—of votes. I think this is fair criticism of FPTP, but I should clarify what I mean when I say that electoral reform shouldn’t be an issue. What I emphasize is that FPTP’s demerits, upon closer examination, seem not to be remedied by proportional representation (PR) and may actually be replicated by PR systems. In light of the fact that PR systems may also be subject to the same shortcomings FPTP faces, I think Canadians should question whether or not PR will really solve the problems in cited in Canadian democracy.

So, what does it mean to have an unrepresentative government? Opposition to FPTP claim that it results in something called “wasted votes.” In other words, these contenders claim that votes excessive of the winning candidate and votes for the losing candidate are merely dismissed without further consideration. For example, The Liberal Party was elected in 2015 with 39 per cent of the vote. Though other parties such as the Conservatives (31.9 percent) and NDP (19.7 percent) garnered sizeable support, under the plurality system, Liberals were entitled to legislative domination and gained 184 seats; a stark contrast to the 99 and 44 seats awarded to the Conservatives and NDP. All in all, Denis Pilon, an associate professor at York University, estimates that from 1980 to 2006, an average of 49 per cent of Canadian votes were wasted in federal elections.  Hence, the “wasted vote” argument is that plurality, in providing the winning party with legislative overrepresentation, ignores the opinions of what may be a majority of voters who did not vote for the winning party.

The claim that an alternative electoral system, like PR, will avoid the problem of wasted votes is questionable. First, Craig M. Scott, a law professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and a former Member of Parliament explains that since Canada pales in comparison to a higher voter turnout in PR countries, PR proponents understand a higher voter turnout to PR’s ability of “making each vote count.” However, other factors besides Canada’s electoral system may better explain Canada’s low voter turnout. Statistics on Canada’s low voter turnout compiled by Brian Tanguay, a political science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, show that turnout has only declined among Canadians born after 1970. On the other hand, Canadian voter turnout for those born before 1970 average “middle-to-high 70 per cent.” Tanguay therefore attributes Canadian lower voter turnout, not to the electoral system, but to a decline in political education seen among progressing generations.

Second, it can be argued that single transferable vote (STV) and PR systems are susceptible to the problem of wasted votes. In STV, it may be true voters can rank candidates by preference, but it does not mean that each voter’s preference is directly represented by electoral results. It still may be the case that a majority of voters’ first preference is not elected if less preferred candidates amass sizeable secondary and tertiary vote support. Toronto lawyer and former Progressive Conservative John Pepall illustrates this in his book Against Reform.  Among three candidates presented to ten voters, Candidate A, who is the first preference of seven voters, may lose to Candidate C who is only the first preference of three voters. This is because Candidate C may have accrued more second preference votes (7), as opposed to Candidate A (3), which, in conjunction with Candidate C’s first preference votes, add up to a higher score than Candidate A.

Guy Lardeyret, president of Institut pour la Democratic, suggests that if the assessment of whether a vote is wasted is its effect on the government decision-making, then PR also wastes votes. Pepall notes that in the 1970s, under PR, the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) obtained roughly 30 per cent of the vote in federal elections, yet was unable to form government and lacked any substantial exercise  of leverage at the federal level. Thus, votes cast for the PCI were “wasted” because PCI lacked the political influence to reflect their voters’ interest at the federal level. Therefore, both STV and PR systems may still result in wasted votes, depending on how one interprets what constitutes a wasted vote.

Another argument advanced against FPTP is that voters who are aware of their party’s unpopularity vote disingenuously through strategic voting. After all, the argument goes that if a voter’s preferred party has no chance of winning, then the voter might cast his or her ballot for a party that they do not wholly endorse. BC voter Cassandra Effe explains her 2015 strategic vote to prime minister Justin Trudeau by stating, “I did not vote for you. I voted against the alternative.” Understanding that her preferred, yet unpopular, party had no chance of winning, Effe acknowledges that “millions of Canadians” follow suit in casting their ballot disingenuously.

In rebuttal, proponents of electoral reform suggest that PR and STV do not sway voters towards strategic voting. Abramson et al., 2009, suggest that the “winner-takes-all” mentality of plurality systems is not present in PR. Therefore, voters may cast genuine ballots since their preferred, albeit unpopular, party is still ensured representation. However, other scholars refute the idea that PR systems are devoid of the strategic voting problem. For mixed member proportional systems in Germany, when a voter’s original party has already met its seat limit under PR, voters may opt to vote for a party who is, according to Pepall, “most likely to ally itself with [the voter’s] real party choice.” Pepall says these parties are known as “decoy parties.” In Germany, the Free Democrats functioned as a decoy party for the Christian Democrat—with critics noting little ideological differences between the two. As such, PR systems also suffer from the problem of strategic voting.

So, I should emphasize again that Canadians should be wary of jumping onto the electoral reform bandwagon and endorsing PR as the solution to all the perceived faults in our political system. PR is attractive at face value, but I’ve tried to show that obtaining real change is more than skin-deep. Our problems can’t be remedied solely by focusing on electoral reform.



This article has been corrected.
  1. November 8, 2017 at 12 a.m.: Corrected Craig M. Scott’s profession.
    Notice to be printed on November 13, 2017 (Volume 44, Issue 10).
  • Michael Ufford

    You nailed it Kassandra!

    For a good example of the problems with PR voting take a look at what is happening in Iceland. Due to PR, they have eight parties in their tiny 63 member legislature. Their 2016 election resulted in a deadlock and it took three months to cobble together a fragile coalition government. This year, that government collapsed and another election was called. Same result. Coalition building continues to be impossible.

    If you prefer the stability, accountability and simplicity of our current First Past the Post voting, join our non-partisan Facebook Group: FPTP … It Works for Canada.


  • Electoral reform still is an issue and it continues to gain momentum. It will remain an issue until we abolish distorted misrepresentation once and for all, and hold truly democratic normal proportional elections. PR is just a minimum requirement for a truly democratic election, no less than universal suffrage. All it means is that every vote must count and count for the same. Canadians deserve nothing less and should accept nothing less, that’s why this will remain an issue until we finally achieve PR. Anyone who has a problem with PR, has a problem with democracy. See the real myth busters at fairvote.ca

  • So, what does it mean to have an unrepresentative government? It means that most of us are “represented” by people we voted against, that most MPs and MLAs represent mostly people who voted against them, and that we have a “majority” government that most of us voted against. That is the situation we have now, and I cannot fathom why we put up with it. Proportional representation means that almost every vote helps to elect someone, so almost every voter is represented by someone they actually voted for, and the composition of the Legislature accurately reflects the way we voted. It means that voters have the power to hold politicians and political parties accountable, and that Parliament has the power to hold the Government accountable. That’s called democracy. We should get that.

    • Michael Ufford

      Seriously Wayne, do you think that every voter is entitled to have their candidate win? (Every vote elects someone????) Elections have winners and losers. If the NDP and the Greens want to have more electoral success, they should come up with policies, candidates and leaders that have a wider appeal and attract more votes, not complain about the electoral system.

      • Yes, Michael, that is exactly what I believe. An election is not a hockey game, and it is not about winners and losers. It is about choosing our representatives, and we are ALL entitled to be represented by someone of our own choosing. Since the invention of proportional voting systems a century ago, there is no reason we should settle for anything less.

        • Michael Ufford

          Most of the thinking behind PR is based on an idiosyncratic idea of the role of Parliament, political parties and elections. Yes, Parliament should reflect the people of Canada, but its main purpose is to make political decisions. Should taxes go up or down? Do we send troops or not? These decisions can be helped by compromise and consensus. But in almost every case resolving the remaining variances requires a vote, where one point of view prevails and others do not. Majority governments facilitate this process best. Minority governments can also work, but haven’t in recent years.

          However, in listening to reform advocates at town halls and on the internet, it is clear that they believe that Parliament exists merely to represent different views. If all views are included and consulted, rationality will prevail and the right way forward will just emerge naturally. In this utopian world, winning or losing doesn’t matter, and should be feared as an obsolete and negative construct.

          • The purpose of a legislature is not to make quick or easy decisions, but to make the right decisions, decisions that take care of everyone’s needs, To do that, all the stakeholders must be at the table. For that, you need proportional representation. If all you want is quick decisions, dictatorship works best. In fact, I’ll be happy to make all your decisions for you.

  • Michael Ufford

    Just the latest on the dysfunctionality of party proportional voting. German had its PR (MMP) election in September. Talks to form a coalition just collapsed. New election expected. Angela Merkel, perhaps the world’s best political leader, may resign. No MMP for Canada, please.


    • Thanks Michael for the reference to the junk science of party proportional voting and the hung Parliament thanks to MMP in Germany. You seem to have an eye for this kind of stuff and if you see more, would you please let me know?

      By November 2018 BC will hold its own PR referendum and the government is conducting a survey, receiving submissions and “educating” the public about “PR electoral systems” at

      Very oddly their “voting system 101” never defines what PR is about but then only provides information on SMP and several more party power proportional systems without even a mention of IRV, which is the only system which actually improves the very intended purpose of FPTP SMP elections by eliminating FPTP’s vulnerability to delivering electorate disproportional results whenever there are more than two candidates and FPTP delivers a false majority.

      By omitting IRV and having no discussion about the need to improve SMP’s electric proportionality, and never defining their use of PR meaning party proportional, it’s very clear the BC NDP and Green coalition is attempting to gerrymander the results, especially when they know about the fairness of IRV regarding their own use for their party leadership elections and that the BC government will be using the ranked ballot in the referendum process, because they know it’s the only fair system that delivers a consensus of the majority result whenever there are more than two options.

      As we know MMP through the party fix formula is vulnerable to raising the profile of extremist parties such as Germany’s extremist party AfD which only only managed to get three constituency seats based on FPTP and the other 91 through MMPs party fix adjustment.

      You may also be interested in linking up with Scotty who lives in BC and is advocating that the referendum ballot include FPTP and IRV. He and I have agreed on point. Anything less than that is simply blatant gerrymandering. His profile is

      • Michael Ufford

        Hi Eduard. Don’t think there is much chance the NDP/Greens will include IRV as a choice. They like it less than FPTP. Cheers.

        • I do not disagree with you but you and your group are working to maintain FPTP which I understand will be one of the referendum options. While that would be your first choice, I believe we’ve agreed that IRV would be your second while in my case and likely many more would reverse the rank before choosing either MMP or STV and between both orientations, yours and mine we stand a much better chance, agreed?

          Nothing ventured nothing gained and my sense is the sheer hypocrisy of using the ranked ballot for party politics and the deciding mechanism for the referendum and not have the ranked ballot as the only change to the existing system as one of the options, there is much room to shaming them into doing the right thing as its absence can very easily be seen for a naked attempt at gerrymandering the results.

          Do have a look at their website and if you and yours have any contacts in BC, I would encourage that you canvas and enlighten them as well as to how blatantly Pro party power most of their survey questions and their electoral 101 explanation on the face of it are.

          As these are my first postings on this board and they are all turned to pending initially, do you get a Disqus confirmation at the time of my posting the comment or only once it has been approved?

          • EIC


          • Michael Ufford

            It seems I get a notice only after it is approved.

    • Great link, thanks!!!

      Made a longer reply but 4 hours later still marked as pending and wonder what prompts that? I assume you can see the post via my profile, correct?