Regional Responses to Electoral Reform

By Carty, R. Kenneth | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Regional Responses to Electoral Reform


Carty, R. Kenneth, Canadian Parliamentary Review


No two democratic political systems organize elections the same way. Recognizing how central democratic party competition is to the organization and management of political power, communities create electoral systems to reflect their unique histories, accommodate their distinctive societies, and suit the political class that must operate them. This article looks at the approach taken by several Canadian jurisdiction that have examined the issue of electoral reform.

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Andre Blais and his colleagues have recently demonstrated that one of the most powerful forces working for the adoption of Proportional Representation (PR) during the early years of the 20th century was the presence of a growing transnational conviction that it was more democratic. (1) After a wave of reform that saw PR adopted in many countries, electoral system change went right off most political agendas (except perhaps for France) until the last decade of the century when it suddenly reappeared. And now we find ourselves in another era in which global forces of democratization have put electoral system change back on the agenda.

Powerful as the global imperative for liberal democratic development has been over the last decade and a half, it remains true that no two countries, no two communities, have responded in quite the same way. Each has sought to fashion its own distinctive regional response to this changing world. In this Canadians have been no different. Caught up in the debates about a democratic deficit, and frustrated by failed attempts at more far-reaching constitutional reform, they have also turned to consider whether reforming their electoral institutions might pave the way into a more democratic century.

Putting Canada and electoral reform in the same sentence may strike many as a political oxymoron. After all the country is one of the few major parliamentary democracies that persists in using a system inherited from the 19th century to elect its legislators. However, despite the currently universal use of the single-member plurality (First-Past-the-Post) system, Canadians have considerable experience with other electoral mechanisms. Multi-member constituencies--often skillfully employed as a means of accommodating religious or linguistic divisions--long existed in the federal House and have only recently disappeared from several provinces. And quite different systems--relying on both majoritarian and proportional principles--were employed in several provinces during the 20th century. But never before has the country apparently caught the spirit of the age and genuinely engaged an electoral reform agenda.

There is no easy or obvious answer as to why Canadians are now seriously debating electoral reform. There is no doubt that there has been widespread disenchantment with some of the recent manifestations of our first-past-the-post system. The party with the most votes may not win--as in Quebec, Saskatchewan and British Columbia elections during the 1990s; the opposition may be so eviscerated that it cannot play its needed part--as evidenced by a series of recent Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick results; or parties, like the Patti Quebecois and the New Democrats may repeatedly be over or underrepresented. But none of this is new. Several prime ministers, and some premiers in virtually every province, have come to office with fewer votes than their opponents; parties have swept huge legislative on many occasions; and most minor parties have almost always been unfairly represented. Yet none of those events stimulated enough dissatisfaction to make electoral reform a viable political issue in the past.

If electoral reform is now on the agenda in Canada, it is there because political leaders have put it there. Our usual assumption is that those in office are the last to want to change a system which brought them to power. The current generation of party leaders is making us rethink that proposition. …

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