The Importance of Electoral Reform in Canada

Graphic Zoë Gelfant

We’re witnessing a truly historic moment for Canadian politics. Less than a year has gone by since the last federal election, and Prime Minister Trudeau is following through on his promise to do something that has never been done in Canadian history—reform the federal voting system.

As part of this process, Maryam Monsef—the Minister of Democratic Institutions—has established the All-Party Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform to look into broader electoral issues. These include lowering the voting age as well as making voting accessible online and mandatory.

The process was set in motion last May when said committee was formed and will come to an end with the submission of its final report to Parliament by Dec.1. Until that time, various methods of public consultation are in place.

The Dynamism of Democracy

Electoral law is complex and is constantly being refined. One of the most important changes was the regulation of money in politics in the 1970’s with an amendment to the Canada Elections Act in 1970 and the Canada Expenses Act in 1974. Since then there have been five additional modifications to this area of electoral law.

Arguably the most important achievement in our democratic evolution is the universalization of voting rights. Since Canada’s inception, these rights have gradually expanded. Women were federally enfranchised in 1918 and in all provinces by 1940—with Quebec being the final province to enfranchise. By the 1960’s, many racial and religious barriers had been dismantled. Yet it was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 that enshrined democratic rights constitutionally and unleashed a new wave of democratization. Improved voting accessibility for the disabled and voting rights for prisoners are some of the notable developments of the Charter era.

Some changes are less welcome. One prominent example would be the most recent changes to electoral law in 2014, known as the Fair Elections Act. There were several contentious elements of the new law, namely the restriction of what the Chief Electoral Officer—the chief administrator of elections—could discuss publicly.

However, there was one change that drew even sharper criticism from civil society, experts and the general public alike. This was a change to voter identification criteria. The law now required that eligible voters show ID with a valid address.

Marc Maynard, Chief Electoral Officer, stated that roughly 250,000 Canadians could be changing their address during a five-week election campaign. The 2015 election was more than twice as long. Furthermore, this new law promised to create complications for approximately 400,000 voters on reserves, in long-term care or post-secondary students who might not easily get a hold of an ID with a valid address.

These examples illustrate different aspects of electoral law. The first two show momen-tum to improve democratic life while the latter reveals regressive contributions to electoral law. Understanding the historical development of our democracy is critical if we’re to make choices on its direction.

Debating Democracy Can Be Tricky

I won’t expand on the intricacies of different voting systems, as many have provided detailed accounts—like Samara Canada, for example. Such technical jargon also tends to obscure public debate, but more importantly misses the point. Democracy isn’t a technical pursuit. If we consider the historical examples above, there’s no technical reason for universal democratic rights—if any can be found, it’s secondary in importance. It came about because individuals rejected the values reflected in an unequal and exclusive democracy.

Likewise, if elections are harder to influence with money now, then it’s because we rec-ognized that it would cheapen the democratic process. As Tom McIntosh, professor at the University of Regina, puts it, “The debate over the mechanics is secondary to the debate over which goals and values should be embedded in the electoral system.” In other words, much like other elements of our democracy have been tweaked over time to better reflect our ideals, so too must our voting system.

So what kind of values do we want reflected in our voting system? Before answering this, let’s consider the current values. Our current First-Past-The-Post voting system rewards parties most capable of gathering support in the 338 ridings—each representing more or less the same number of people across Canada. Although not proportional, this pertains to the principle of representation-by-population—“rep-by-pop”—because each province receives a number of seats relative to its population.

FPTP is also riding-based, meaning citizens elect a local representative. This is an attempt to give space to regional politics and, to a lesser extent than the Senate, reflect the principle of regional equality—that each citizen, no matter their geographical position on the map, has an equal opportunity for representation.

In theory, FPTP appears meritorious and, indeed, it was. Yet there’s a reason we’re considering electoral reform in this day and age; it’s not a sporadic event. Over the course of decades, FPTP has served well, but society and politics have changed.

In the 19th and early 20th century, it made sense to “hold multiple, simultaneous elections across the country,” as proponents of FPTP say. This was because provinces were much more isolated than they are today. Transportation is a case in point—the first railway across Canada was only built 18 years after Confederation. Nowadays you can buy a plane ticket and travel to the other side of the county in the same day.

The insight is that regional representation still matters, but not to the same extent as before. As Canada becomes more and more interconnected, so too must our democracy. This means those who govern must reflect the majority of Canadians. For electoral reform, this translates into finding a way to include more proportional representation.

The best way to equilibrate the principles discussed above in a modern context would be the “Mixed-Member Proportional” system. In this system, a portion of the government seats is reserved for ridings, as with FPTP, and another portion for the national voting outcome.

Each person casts two votes: one for their local representative and another for a party. The outcome for the former follows the same logic as FPTP while the latter compensates parties who’ve been disproportionately represented at the riding level.

While I have my theories on which voting system would work best, I’m still willing to learn more and possibly have my opinion changed in the face of evidence and arguments. I hope that most people are the same. December’s a long way ahead, so let the spirit of democracy animate us until then.