Electoral systems and reform: the Canadian experience.


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.

Harold Jansen, Dennis Pilon, and Laura Stephenson

CPR: How did Canada come to have its current electoral system?

DP: If we go right back to Confederation, all of the colonies were using first-past-the-post to make their electoral choices, though in some cases they had multi-member ridings. We know that at Confederation and up to about 1966 there were a few dual-member ridings. So at the federal level we've used primarily single-member plurality and occasionally multimember plurality. At the provincial level, especially in some major cities, there have been more instances of multi-member plurality with three to five seats in a given riding.

CPR: Were these multi-member ridings common in other jurisdictions that had developed alongside the Westminster parliamentary system?

DP: I can't speak to Australia and New Zealand but up to the 1840s, when Congress passed a rule, there were multi-member ridings across the United States and, of course, in the UK there were examples of multimember ridings. In fact, in 1867, a majority of ridings in the UK were multi-member ridings, not single-member constituencies. We get a lot of confusion when people say the single-member plurality system is our inheritance from Britain, when actually it's not. You can't inherit something that wasn't a tradition. This is where we began at the federal level.

At the provincial level there was some experimentation, first with the limited vote in Ontario for urban ridings in Toronto. There were multimember ridings in Toronto and the ruling Liberal Party was never winning seats there, so they introduced the limited vote--a semi-proportional system. This was used for three elections and they were somewhat successful at winning seats. But then, when it appeared it would allow a Labour member to sneak in and disrupt the two-party system, they quickly did away with it.

There were some discussions around voting reform in that period. The Canada First movement in the 1870s raises some interest in electoral reform. Quebec Conservatives around the turn of the century also start discussing voting system reform because they can't get many people elected in the province. But really it doesn't start to take off until around World War I when various Liberals and Progressive members start to talk about different kinds of voting systems--and this is happening in other countries as well. Australia is having some discussions; New Zealand has already adopted and then gotten rid of the second-ballot majority system; and of course there are very big discussions in the United Kingdom at various points and throughout Europe.

At this time, some municipalities change to a single transferable vote system across Western Canada. But a lot of them very quickly get rid of it because it's just too difficult to do manually. The only exceptions are places where class politics start to emerge--for example, with the Winnipeg General Strike, or the One Big Union in western Canada, etc. In those places where class conflict was particularly strong, like Winnipeg and Calgary, the use of different voting systems seem to stick around for some time. And perhaps Harold could pick things up there.

CPR: Harold, what types of systems were used in the Prairie provinces around this time?

HJ: From 1910-1920 there's huge interest in electoral reform. The Grain Growers' Guide, a very famous and political publication, had a lot of writing about it. We tend to focus on the Western alienation in terms of the political content of the Grain Growers' Guide, but there was also a lot of discussion on institutional reform. They provided a lot of very detailed information to farmers about electoral reforms 'here's how it works, here's why it's better'. There was a huge interest among farmers' movements in addition to the labour movements Dennis spoke of. As the farmers became more politically active on the Prairies, this was one of their demands and it became imbued in this Prairie populism movement we saw in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and even a little in Ontario.

In Manitoba, we have the labour radicalism in Winnipeg and farmer populism in the rural areas. Manitoba's Liberal government decides it's going to bring in a single transferable vote system, but they limit it to Winnipeg. It's a mixture of trying to appease people who want this, but also with...

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