Why Electoral Reform Might Improve Representation and Why It Might Make It Worse

By Guntermann, Eric | Canadian Public Administration, March 2019 | Go to article overview

Why Electoral Reform Might Improve Representation and Why It Might Make It Worse


Guntermann, Eric, Canadian Public Administration


Canada recently concluded discussions about replacing its Single Member Plurality (SMP) electoral system with an alternative system. Proponents of reform typically argue that Canada should adopt a Proportional Representation (PR) system in order to improve the quality of representation in Canada (Canada, Fair Vote Canada 2017). Prime Minister Trudeau, however, suggested that an Alternative Vote (AV) system, which allows voters to rank parties in order of preference, would be better for Canada. Although he has put an end to reform efforts at the federal level, at least until there is a greater consensus on reform, changes to the electoral system continue to be pursued at the provincial level. Debates about electoral reform seem here to stay.

While a new electoral system would change how votes are converted into seats in the legislature, in parliamentary systems, governments dominate the policy-making process. We should focus on the implications of electoral systems for the types of governments that are formed (Powell 2006; Goodyear-Grant 2017). Although proponents of reform usually claim that it will improve the quality of representation, recent studies have shown that electoral systems do not influence the ideological congruence of government, in other words, the proximity of government to citizens on the left-right dimension. Congruence is the measure of representation in government used by nearly all cross-national studies (e.g., Blais and Bodet 2006; Golder and Stramski 2010; Golder and Lloyd 2014). The implication is that either electoral reform would have no effect on representation in government or the comparative literature has focused on the wrong criterion to evaluate representation. We should further explore this standard because it is so dominant in the literature on representation in government.

When thinking about the consequences of reform, studies comparing representation under different electoral systems help us understand the consequences of a change. A recent study of representation has much to offer the debate on changing the electoral system. Blais, Guntermann and Bodet (2017) have considered the representation of citizens' party preferences in a variety of proportional and non-proportional democracies. Using their measures of representation, they find that electoral systems do make a difference. Proportional and non-proportional systems have advantages and disadvantages when it comes to different aspects of party preference representation.

This article first shows that implementing Proportional Representation (PR) would most radically upend the nature of government in Canada. It considers how two alternative electoral systems, Proportional Representation (PR) and the Alternative Vote (AV), would influence the results of recent elections in Canada. Because PR would create strong incentives for parties to govern together while AV would only occasionally create incentives for parties to form coalitions, the rest of the analysis thus focuses on the contrast between proportional and non-proportional systems. The comparative literature on representation has pointed to mechanisms leading to congruence between the ideological positions of government and citizens under both proportional (PR) and non-proportional (non-PR) systems, but PR and non-PR systems perform differently on two criteria of party preference representation. To assess whether PR would make a difference in Canada, the third section uses Canadian Election Study (CES) data to consider the state of representation according to these criteria and compares representation under the actual governments formed following elections held since 2000 with hypothetical alternatives. It shows that plausible coalition governments would do little to change ideological congruence but would change both aspects of party preference representation. Finally, using data from the Making Electoral Democracy Work (MEDW) project, it considers the extent to which each of these measures matter to citizens and shows that, while congruence does not alter their levels of satisfaction with democracy, party preference representation does. …

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