Made of copper and gold-plated, Ontario’s Mace was crafted in Ottawa in 1867. It is the third Mace to be used in the province’s history since the establishment of the Legislature during colonial times in 1792. The province’s first Mace was captured by American soldiers during the War of 1812 and later returned, and the second – dating from around 1845 – ended up in the federal parliament following Confederation in 1867 and was subsequently destroyed during a 1916 fire.
On June 7, 2016, the House of Commons created a Special Committee on Electoral Reform “to identify and conduct a study of viable alternate voting systems to replace the first-past-the-post system, as well as to examine mandatory voting and online voting.” This committee’s work contributes to discussions about electoral reform that have been occurring with some frequency across the country since the turn of the millennium. It has resulted in citizen committees and assemblies, commissions, and plebiscites or referenda in provinces such as New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec.
Drawing inspiration from a Canadian Study of Parliament Group conference on electoral reform held in spring 2016, in this theme issue we explore some aspects of this ongoing discussion in greater detail.
Canada’s smallest province is well-known for its high voter turnout. This tradition of strong engagement in the democratic process makes it a particularly interesting site for introspection about forms of democratic renewal. In this article, the author, who serves as chair of the Special Committee on Democratic Renewal, provides the context and outlines the history leading to PEI’s most recent examination of its electoral system, which culminated in a plebiscite held from October 29 to November 7, 2016. *This article was written in August 2016.
The Government of Prince Edward Island recently indicated in its 2015 Speech from The Throne that it was committed to “initiate and support a thorough and comprehensive examination of ways in which to strengthen our electoral system, our representation, and the role and function of the Legislative Assembly.” Government also prepared and disseminated the White Paper on Democratic Renewal (the “White Paper”), in the most recent sitting of the Legislature. As the title would imply, the White Paper is a discussion paper surrounding democratic reform on Prince Edward Island, relating, in particular, to our voting method; the number and distribution of seats in our Legislative Assembly; and, opportunities to enhance election laws and representation in the Legislative Assembly.
Eligible voters on Prince Edward Island were given a unique opportunity to vote on Democratic Renewal or as some people refer to as Electoral Reform. Legislation was passed in the PEI Legislative Assembly, allowing Elections PEI to register voters as young as 16 years of age on or by November 7, 2016 to vote in the plebiscite. This was an historic event as voters this young have never been counted before in a provincial vote anywhere in Canada.
Electors had their choice of three ways to cast their vote for Electoral Reform. The voting period was 10 days October 29 until November 7. In yet another first for Canada, Internet Voting and Telephone Voting were used on a provincial scale. Voters who preferred the traditional paper ballot method of voting were allotted two days within the voting period; November 4 and November 5.
In this roundtable discussion, panellists from a Canadian Study of Parliament Group session on the history of voting reform tackle why Canada has its current single-member plurality system, what other alternatives or experiments some jurisdictions in the country have tried, and comment on the perceptible shift in who is driving electoral reform and why expectations for how the process is conducted may have changed.
CPR: How did Canada come to have its current electoral system?
When promoting certain electoral systems over others, proponents tend to make claims that one system may be “fairer”, “more democratic, “representative” or “effective” than others. In this article, the author suggests the fundamental problem in evaluating electoral systems in terms of these criteria is not necessarily that there exists an unyielding trade-off between representation and accountability. Rather, it is that there is no strong normative basis that allows us to distinguish representative from unrepresentative electoral outcomes, either because these outcomes are products of a voting cycle or because our measures of representation are ambiguous.
Ideally, government is representative and accountable; representative in the sense that its policies align with citizens’ interests, and accountable in the sense that it is answerable to citizens for its conduct and responsive to their demands. The electoral system plays an important role in determining how representative and accountable a government is in practice. Yet, it is tremendously difficult to identify an optimal electoral system, that is, one that maximizes both representation and accountability. This is because much research shows that electoral systems that advance representation tend to do so at the expense of accountability, and vice versa.1
Electoral reform is a complicated proposition, yet the current first-past-the-post (or single member plurality) system has been criticised for leading to “wasted votes” and “strategic voting,” as well as often creating “false majorities.” In this article, the author proposes a novel “Revised Additional Majority Parliamentary” (RAMP) system which could address some of these criticisms without fundamentally altering the way we elect our parliamentarians. He concludes by noting that RAMP is a democratic, inexpensive, and simple way to experiment and innovate if either the status quo or a completely new way of electing parliamentarians are deemed undesirable
Canadian electoral reform involves a befuddling menu of alternatives – first-past-the-post (FPTP), different versions of proportional representation (PR), the alternative vote (AV), the single transferable vote (STV), some combination of different approaches (such as mixed member proportional representation, or MMP), as well as deciding whether the final decision should be determined by a national referendum (which, according to the Chief Electoral Officer, would cost about $300 million). To make things even more complicated, some pundits allege that certain choices will cause political indigestion for certain political parties, while others claim that many options would be unhealthy for the Canadian public. Finally, there has been debate about timing; whatever our choice, will we get served on time? In other words, will the government present Canadians, as promised, with a new voting system for the next election?
Canada’s current plurality vote system can create false majorities, lead to strategic voting and exacerbate regional cleavages, despite often bringing the stability of a coherent parliamentary majority government. Although proponents of reform may agree that the current system should be changed, they are often divided about what type of system should replace it. In this article, author Jean-Pierre Derriennic suggests two prominent reform models—a preferential/ranked ballot system and a moderate-form of proportional representation—could be combined to create a system that allows voters to cast ballots sincerely, reduces partisan regional polarization, and ensures stable coalition governments made up of parties that have broad popular appeal.
Commonwealth Youth Parliament
From November 6 to 10, 2016, the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia hosted the 8th Commonwealth Youth Parliament, the first time that this event has been held in Canada.
Le Canada français et la Confédération: Fondements et bilan critique. Jean-François Caron and Marcel Martel, eds, University of Laval Press, Québec, 2016, 174 p.
With the 150th anniversary of Confederation fast approaching, a wave of scholarship is encouraging us to reflect on this formative period of Canada’s history, and the evolution of the country over the past century and a half. In Le Canada français et la Confédération, edited by historian Marcel Martel and political scientist Jean-François Caron, a group of six scholars interrogate what the original Confederation deal was supposed to mean in terms of linguistic and cultural duality, and how this dynamic has evolved since the 1860s. While in many respects this collection represents a synthesis of existing scholarship, it provides a useful primer on French-speaking Canadians’ relationship to Confederation, and their varied experiences of the system of federalism. At the same time, it inadvertently exposes the ongoing gap between Canada’s English and French scholarly communities, as many of the findings discussed here echo those of historian Arthur Silver’s excellent 1982 book, The French-Canadian Idea of Confederation.