Electorate and the Evolution of Canadian Electoral Politics

By R. Kenneth Carty | American Review of Canadian Studies, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Electorate and the Evolution of Canadian Electoral Politics


R. Kenneth Carty, American Review of Canadian Studies


Canada's electoral politics has been profoundly shaped by the changing structure and makeup of the country's electorate. Hardly a profound observation, one that might be made of any liberal democracy, but given the peculiar cast and evolution of the Canadian political system, it is one that has been given surprisingly little attention. This paper explores this relationship and maps the links between the evolving electorate and the distinct party systems that have characterized the Canadian electoral experience. The first part considers the impact of simple changes in the size and character of the electorate and then, in the second half, turns to an analysis of the consequences of the shifting regional distribution of the country's voters over this century.

The electoral process in a liberal democracy is not, conceptually, a particularly complex phenomenon. It involves contestants (in the form of individual candidates and/or parties) appealing to electors to vote for them. Those votes are then counted in some way that will translate them into legislative and executive power. The evolution of electoral politics in Canada reflects the changing dynamic that flows from the logic of these fundamental relationships. Given that the basic single-member plurality electoral system governing vote-seat linkages has remained relatively unchanged since Confederation in 1867, and its peculiarities and distortions have been well mapped, that aspect of the system will get little attention here. (1) Rather, the focus here is on the impact of the shape and cast of the electorate on the organization and dynamics of competitive electoral party politics.

A growing body of work now charts the evolution of the party system through three distinct periods. It does so principally by focusing on the contestants, more particularly on the structure, organization, activities, and appeals of the parties that have fought national elections. (2) But the fact is, of course, that successful politicians rarely take their eyes off the electorate, qua electorate, and they are quick to focus on changes in it. Indeed, during the first half-century of Canadian electoral politics, party politicians were well known for their attempts to manipulate the electorate--by altering the franchise and/or rigging voters lists--where they thought it might work to their advantage. (3) This changing electorate is the focus of this examination.

The Canadian electorate has changed in a number of obvious ways as the country has evolved from a small group of four eastern provinces to a continent-wide federation of ten provinces and two (soon, of course, to be three) northern territories. (4) Some of this change had an obvious impact on electoral politics--there were different numbers of provinces in each of the first three general elections, for example--but much of it was gradual and rather piecemeal. No less significant for that, however, as a small rural French-English electorate gave way to a larger urban multicultural one. And over the period in question Canada, of course, like other liberal democracies, moved from a form of limited manhood suffrage to a universal adult franchise. Tracing these, and a number of other less obvious changes, allows us to probe some of the forces underlying the historical evolution of Canadian parties and to identify the shifting political equations that have governed electoral success. Such an approach does not deny the importance of institutional or cultural change in shaping the evolution of Canadian electoral politics. Rather, the point is simply to reinsert the electorate, qua the electorate, back into our accounts of democratic competition in Canada.

The Impact of an Evolving Electorate

Canada's population has grown continuously, so that what were three-and-a-half million in 1867 are now over twenty-seven million. Though the growth has been relatively steady, there have also been periods of quite marked expansion. …

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