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On electoral reform, what are Canada’s options?

Confused by all the proposals on the table? We break down the current system and four popular alternatives.

Liberals are determined to change how Canadians vote at the federal level, and the burgeoning debate has pundits talking about all kinds of alternatives to the first-past-the-post system that Canada has used for 149 years. There may be no consensus among academics or politicians about the option that’s best for the country, but everyone has their favourite.

Electoral systems matter. How we pick our representatives has a huge influence on the makeup of our legislatures. Let’s learn a bit more about the most likely alternatives to FPTP. Keep in mind, there are many, many variations on electoral systems, and we’ve only outlined a few. To make it easier, we’ve included cute illustrations. (Everything is easier to understand with adorable drawings.)

First past the post

Before we look at the alternatives, let’s sketch out our current electoral system. FPTP is a simple and common structure: whichever candidate garners the most votes wins. It’s used in about 80 countries in the world, including the United Kingdom and the United States. However, a lot of people don’t like it—including our current Prime Minister.


Pros: It’s easy to understand and simple to implement.
Cons: Winners don’t need an absolute majority, just more votes than anyone else. Candidates often win with fewer than 50 per cent of votes. The majority of a constituency may not vote for the eventual winner, and winning parties rarely win a majority of votes nationally.

Proportional representation

This is a popular alternative to FPTP, and forms of it are more widely used around the globe. The idea is to ensure the share of a party’s representation is proportional to its share of votes. Because the system allows more parties to win seats, the system often requires parties to form governing coalitions in order to accomplish anything.


Pros: It’s easy to understand and allows small parties a greater likelihood of winning seats. May allow for greater consensus via cooperation among parties.
Cons: Can create a government comprising many small parties where consensus is difficult to achieve. Though rare, it may allow a foothold for extremist parties. Since seats are filled from a party list, voters may have no geographic connection to their representatives.

Ranked ballot

Sometimes called preferential voting, the ranked ballot system allows voters to list candidates in order of preference. Below we detail the system in use in Australia: the instant-runoff ranked ballot system. Simply put, if no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of votes, a series of runoff counts follow, where second and third preference votes are allocated until there’s a winner.


Pros:May reduce tactical voting, as voters don’t fear wasted votes. Candidates in instant-runoff systems have also been known to participate less in attack campaigning, as second- and third-choice votes can be valuable.
Cons: Apathetic voters may be prone to simply ranking candidates in the order they appear on the ballot, giving preference to the first name listed.

Single transferable vote

Single transferable vote is a complex system of ranked voting. It achieves nearly proportional representation through ranked ballots in constituencies with multiple seats. It’s not a widely used electoral system, but in 2005 and 2009 it was put to a referendum in British Columbia. Voters rejected the system both times (a simple majority of voters did vote in favour of STV in 2005, but proponents failed to achieve the required 60 per cent majority).


Pros: Fewer votes are “wasted,” and most voters can point to a representative they helped elect.
Cons: Votes take much longer to be counted and can be influenced, similarly to ranked voting, by voters who simply list favourites in the order names appear on the ballot. The system is also difficult to explain and understand.

Mixed member proportional

Mixed member proportional is another complex electoral system, but it has found success in both Germany and New Zealand. MMP offers a hybrid voting method that incorporates parts of both proportional representation and FPTP. In 2007, voters in Ontario rejected a proposal to adopt MMP for provincial elections.


Pros: Allows smaller parties a chance to obtain representation. Achieves proportional representation and maintains geographic constituencies.
Cons: A complicated system that is difficult to explain and understand.

Editor’s note, June 21, 2016: This post has been updated to clarify certain elements of alternate voting systems.

Your turn! How you think Canada should reform its electoral system … if at all?

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