Key Problems With FPTP Voting

In our last post, we introduced you to Prof. Lawrence LeDuc (University of Toronto) and outlined his key argument that our First Past the Post voting system means that half the voters don’t receive legislative representation - at most, they get constituency service, but we claim that this is not the heart of our Charter right to effective representation.

In Prof. LeDuc’s affidavit, he describes three additional significant problems created by our current voting system that are well-known to electoral reform advocates:  false or exaggerated parliamentary majorities, systematic under-representation of political minorities, and distorted regional and provincial representation.

False Majorities:  

On false or exaggerated majorities, he notes that there have been 30 elections since 1921, which was “the first federal election seriously contested by three or more political parties.”  Of these, only three have produced “true majorities”, in which the winning party’s candidates attracted over 50% of the vote.  Fourteen resulted in “false majorities”, where a party won a majority of the seats but whose candidates attracted less than 50% of the vote, and thirteen resulted in minority governments (three of which were “wrong winner” elections, “where the party with the most votes did not gain the most seats”, including our most recent election in 2019). The problem, as he points out, is that “For more than a century, our electoral system has typically failed to deliver results that accurately reflect the will of the electorate as expressed on Election Day..”

Systematic Under-Representation of Political Minorities:

LeDuc states that another key problem is that “Canada’s FPTP electoral system favours minor parties with concentrated sectional support, and discourages those with greater but diffuse national support.”  “This has systematically benefited supporters of the separatist Bloc Québécois, while systematically penalizing supporters of the NDP and the Green Party.”

Distorted Regional and Provincial Representation:

LeDuc outlines the very consequential results of this systemic under-representation: “The best-known modern case is the 1993 federal election, which produced a Parliament in which the Bloc Quebecois became the Official Opposition because the concentration of its votes in Quebec gave it 54 of the province’s 75 seats.”  In the same election, “the Progressive Conservatives were reduced to two seats, despite receiving 16% of the national vote – [2%] more than the Bloc[‘s 14%].”  And “the Liberals won 98 of the 99 seats in Ontario.”  

LeDuc explains that the “fear that FPTP would exacerbate regional and linguistic tensions in Canada was fully dramatized by the 1993 outcome, and its implications for the country could be seen in the second Quebec referendum which took place two years later.”  He also states that “the National Energy Policy, and the animosity that it caused in Alberta, were direct consequences of this distortion of regional representation” in the 1980 election in which “Pierre Trudeau formed a majority government ... with no seats in British Columbia, Alberta, or Saskatchewan.”  And he notes that “the divisions and tensions in our politics caused by FPTP are not only regional or linguistic ones,” but also led to Harper’s governments in 2006 and 2008 having no “representation from Canada’s three largest cities”.

LeDuc summarizes these findings by saying “For all of the reasons documented by Cairns and other scholars, FPTP, in my opinion, has never been, and is not now, an effective electoral model for a bilingual, multicultural, regionally complex federation such as Canada.” 

More to come next week. 

Jesse Hitchcock, Springtide & Antony Hodgson, Fair Voting BC

Introducing Prof. Lawrence Leduc - Expert on Canadian Electoral History and Political Participation

Dr. Lawrence LeDuc is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto.  His research interests are in the areas of political participation, electoral reform and direct democracy.

In his affidavit, he adds to the contributions of Profs. John Carey and Karen Bird that we’ve previously described by providing more detail about Canada’s experience with First Past the Post with respect both to the distribution of parliamentary seats and to the representation of various kinds of Canadian voters (particularly women, minorities, and those with particular political ideologies).  In addition, he describes how our current voting system affects voter participation, as well as Canada’s previous history of using proportional voting systems and previous voting reform efforts. 

FPTP Fails to Represent Many Individual Voters

MPs often claim that they represent all their constituents, not just the ones that voted for them.  This is nonsense, and Prof. LeDuc helpfully explains why:  

“While all Members of Parliament in Canada are expected to provide constituents with certain basic services such as assistance with citizenship issues or help in applying for government programs, FPTP at the individual level fails to provide any political representation at the constituency level to all those who voted for any candidate other than that of the winning party in their constituency. It thus generates millions of votes that do not translate into legislative seats (which some refer to as “wasted votes”), a characteristic of FPTP systems that has long been a central focus of the criticism of this system in the academic literature.”  “These voters therefore have significantly reduced voices in government compared to voters who voted for an elected MP.”  

In other words, elected MPs confuse constituency service (which they provide to all constituents) with legislative representation (which, since they can only vote one way, only serves those voters who voted for them and is denied to those who did not).  This “bug” (not “feature”!) of FPTP will be fundamental to our argument that FPTP violates our Charter right to effective representation.

Stay tuned for more about Prof. LeDuc’s other key pieces of evidence.

Jesse Hitchcock, Springtide & Antony Hodgson, Fair Voting BC

Karen Bird - Impact on Minority Group Representation

In September, we introduced you to Prof. Karen Bird, Chair of the Department of Political Science at McMaster University, and the arguments in her affidavit about how our current voting system inhibits the election and representation of women.  Today, we outline her evidence about how First Past the Post voting also discriminates against various minority groups.

Representation of Minorities Lagging

Overall, “visible minority MPs currently comprise about 15%” of MPs, which “lags behind the 22.3 percent share of visible minorities in the population.”  Similarly, only 3% of seats are held by Indigenous MPs, “in contrast to the overall 4.9 percent Indigenous share of the population.”

Results Vary Based on Geography

Prof. Bird says that, under our current voting system, “the most important determinant of minority representation is the degree to which minorities are geospatially distributed or concentrated.”  More specifically, the single-member districts (SMDs) of our current voting system “facilitates elections of candidates from ethnic and linguistic minority groups if they are territorially concentrated”, such as Bloc Quebecois supporters or ethnic minorities in some urban areas in the country.  And, in contrast, “minorities that are more geographically or ideologically dispersed do less well under SMD rules because voters belonging to these minorities do not form a local plurality, which is required to elect a candidate in SMDs.”  This means that “most racialized voters outside [so-called majority-minority] districts [are] unable to vote for members of their ethnic group – or more generally for any visible minority candidate.”

Overall Numbers Hide Both Under- and Over-Representation

This link with spatial distribution patterns means that the overall numbers hide some interesting contrasts: “MPs of South Asian descent held half of all seats (26 of 51) won by visible minorities, a number which makes them considerably over-represented (with 7.7 percent total seat share) relative to their population (5.6 percent). Virtually every other visible minority group remains under-represented, with most holding less than half the share of seats relative to their population share.”  Bird concludes that “proportional [multi-member district] systems are more likely [than FPTP] to achieve equitable representation across diverse racialized groups.”

FPTP Elects Minorities in Enclaves, But Also Has Other Problems

Interestingly, Bird says that “many scholars in Canada assume that visible minorities generally benefit from plurality SMD electoral rules” because geographic concentration for some groups is thought to compel parties to nominate minority candidates in these ridings to win the seats, but she notes that this presumed mechanism “requires the continuation of some degree of residential segregation” of minority groups, and “does nothing for minorities in other districts.” She concludes that, in contrast, “the evidence suggests thatproportional systems ... can produce minority representation at levels similar to SMDs [having] majority-minority districts,” without relying on ongoing segregation or denying minority groups outside of segregated areas appropriate representation. 

Implications for the Case

As with her evidence on women’s representation, Prof. Bird’s affidavit clearly shows that minority groups are systematically disadvantaged by the single-member district aspect of our current voting system, and that adopting multi-member districts would significantly reduce the impediments minorities face to being elected.  These findings will be central to our arguments that our current voting system violates our Section 15 equality rights.

Thank you for your continued support. More on the other affidavits coming soon!

Jesse Hitchcock, Springtide & Antony Hodgson, Fair Voting BC


We’ve Heard from the Government!

In this past week’s election, we saw again why it’s so crucial for the health of our democracy that we bring forward the Charter Challenge for Fair Voting.  Voter turnout fell to about 62% of registered voters (probably only about 55% of eligible voters) - near historical lows - and less than 48% of voters ended up voting for an elected MP, so the parliament we asked for is once again not the parliament that we got. 

Therefore, we’re pleased to share an important update this week from the government’s lawyers on the timeline for the case.  Here’s what to expect:

Federal Government to Submit Evidence (early spring 2022) - The government told us they expect to recruit four experts who will likely file their affidavits in the spring. 

We File Reply Evidence (late spring 2022) - Once we receive the government’s expert affidavits, we will have the opportunity to review them and file additional evidence in response. This will help strengthen our arguments and case.  Thanks to your recent donations and support, we have the resources needed to get through this stage of the work. 

We Draft Our Factum (summer 2022) - Once we have received the government’s evidence and replied to it, our lawyer (Nicolas Rouleau) will draft the factum (the written argument we provide to the courts prior to the hearing).  We will start fundraising for this phase of the case shortly. 

We Go to Court! (late fall 2022) - Sometime later this fall or winter, we expect to work out an agreement with the government when the case will be heard in court.  At this point, we are anticipating that the hearing will take place in late fall 2022. 

Over the next several months, we’re committed to the following. 

  • Continuing to share details from our expert affidavits with you - our donors and supporters. 
  • Organizing a webinar for donors with our lawyer in November. Please save the date: November 17, 2021! 
  • Raising funds to support the next stages of the case (drafting the factum and going to court). 

You are making a difference and driving this case forward.  Thank you again, and we look forward to providing more updates shortly.

Jesse Hitchcock, Springtide & Antony Hodgson, Fair Voting BC

Fundraising Update

A huge thank you to all our supporters and generous matching donor who collectively contributed a grand total of $38,000 over the past three months. We have now surpassed our summer fundraising goal! 

This means we have enough funding to prepare for and conduct the upcoming cross-examination of the federal government expert witnesses. We are expecting an update from the government in the next week and will be able to share news and details on the timeline shortly. 

Thank you again for your incredible generosity and support of the Charter Challenge. We'll be in touch soon with more updates and information from the affidavits. 

Jesse Hitchcock, Springtide & Antony Hodgson, Fair Voting BC

Introducing Prof. Karen Bird - Expert on Discrimination

Dr. Karen Bird is Chair of the Department of Political Science at McMaster University.  Her research focuses on the politics of representation, addressing questions related to ethnic and gender diversity, intersectionality, and the political representation of women, Indigenous groups, and immigrant-origin and ethnic minorities in parliaments around the world.

In her affidavit, she addresses what the impact of Canada’s current First-Past-the-Post voting system is on the representation and participation of women and of minorities, and what would change under other voting systems.  In today’s post, we’ll describe her evidence about the representation of women.

Canada is a “Laggard” in Representing Women

A central shortcoming of Canada’s First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) voting system is that it leaves us a laggard in terms of women’s parliamentary representation, which is deeply problematic for an advanced and egalitarian-minded democracy,” ranking only 52nd in the world in terms of the percentage of women in parliament (at only 29%, this is close to the middle of the pack, “well behind most comparable democracies that have moved much faster towards gender parity in parliament”).

Prof. Bird echoes Prof. Carey’s observation that our single-winner voting system is the primary culprit here, and she explains why: “It is nearly certain that the introduction of multi-member districts, most often seen in voting systems with proportional representation (PR), would raise the share of elected women when compared with the winner take-all single-member contests that exist under Canada’s FPTP voting system, because the former are better at incentivizing party leaders to balance the slate of candidates.” 

Bird adds that it’s clearly the voting system, not the voters, at fault: “There is no evidence of voter bias against women candidates in Canada (i.e., the odds of a woman being elected in a winnable riding are essentially the same as those of a man). This confirms that impediments to increased representation of women in Parliament are primarily institutional rather than cultural in nature.”

Prof. Bird also explains why the low percentage of women in parliament is a problem: “democratic theorists have argued that if a group has few legislative representatives, their preferences risk being overlooked while jeopardizing the legitimacy of the representative system.”  And it’s important to elect more women because “the presence of more female legislators has been shown to alter decision making institutions to make them more deliberative, and strengthen public belief in women’s ability to govern.”

Bird acknowledges that the voting system is not solely to blame for the low numbers of women in parliament, and that the behaviour of parties also play a significant role, but she also explains how electoral rules affect parties’ behaviour.

She says “there are three interrelated reasons why [multi-member districts] impact the share of women elected. First, the cost of nominating women is higher in [single-member districts] because doing so often involves directly displacing men. Second, the incumbency advantage tends to be higher in districts with smaller magnitudes, and because that advantage falls largely to men, it makes their displacement even costlier. Finally, elections with larger district magnitudes are typically characterized by more centralized nomination processes. In a competitive political context, these central bodies are more inclined and more able to encourage and coordinate a balanced list of candidates that can attract broad voter support.”

Finally, she points out that evidence from France suggests that the largest gain in the percentage of women elected should be expected from combining candidate quota requirements with voting system reforms that require parties to put minimum percentages of women candidates in winnable districts.

In short, Prof. Bird’s affidavit shows clearly that women are systematically disadvantaged by the single-member district aspect of our current voting system, and that adopting multi-member districts would significantly reduce the impediments they face to being elected.  These findings will be central to our arguments that our current voting system violates our Section 15 equality rights. 

Jesse Hitchcock, Springtide

Antony Hodgson, Fair Voting BC

FPTP Has No Clear Benefits to Offset Representational Deficits

This is the last blog post with Prof. John Carey’s arguments about proportional voting systems.  So far, we’ve covered his discussion of how our current system distorts outcomes and results in perverse outcomes, inequity of representation and lower voter participation and satisfaction with democracy.

Some people invested in our current system argue that all those negative results are acceptable because, despite them, the result is better governance. Prof. Carey does not agree.  

More Stability?

While Carey does say that the average length of a government is longer under our First Past the Post voting system, this is largely due to governments in countries with proportional voting systems occasionally rearranging their cabinets to bring in different partners, but he also notes that “there appears to be little difference in the frequency of elections between PR and FPTP systems,” which is what most ordinary voters actually care about - i.e., are we going to end up with endless elections?

Carey tackles this question as well, pointing out that our current system frequently tends to produce “minority governments, which are vulnerable to votes of no confidence and typically have shorter government duration” and that it’s straightforward to design proportional voting systems “with low district magnitude and moderate assembly size” that are “more likely to have larger parties and therefore experience levels of government stability close to those under FPTP systems.”  In other words, we shouldn’t imagine that our current system is free of problems, and there are plenty of proportional voting systems we could pick that would deliver strong government stability.

Better Economic Results?  More Accountability?

More importantly, though, Carey presents strong evidence that there are no obvious economic or other advantages attributable to our current voting system that could justify adopting it despite its representational defects.  As he says, “levels of economic growth are similar across PR and FPTP systems, with some evidence that PR systems have an edge. Levels of progressive redistribution and overall economic equality are higher in PR than in FPTP systems.” 

He also argues that “despite the intuitive appeal of theory connecting FPTP to government accountability, scholarly research does not show a clear advantage,” and says that “recent research affirms that FPTP and PR are equally capable of fostering a clear link for voters between parties and responsibility for government decisions, particularly when parties are grouped into distinct policy camps and when district magnitude in PR systems is kept in the low-to-moderate range,” so he finds no support for the claim that our current system leads to more accountability than the proportional alternatives.

In short, Prof. Carey lays out clear evidence of many substantial representational failings of our current system, and no evidence of any countervailing benefits that could justify such infringements on our right to effective representation, which gives us a strong base on which to build our arguments to the court.

Thank you for your continued support. 

Jesse Hitchcock, Springtide & Antony Hodgson, Fair Voting BC

Proportional Voting Improves Representation, Equity, Satisfaction

This is our third blog post summarizing the arguments Prof. John Carey makes in his affidavit on how proportional voting systems contribute to enhancing democracy.  In our previous two posts, we told you how he characterizes inclusive voting as “multi-winner”, as opposed to our current single-winner system, and how he argues that single-winner systems distort outcomes, undermine democracy, and result in idiosyncratic and perverse election outcomes.

Prof. Carey also makes some arguments about diversity, saying that “PR systems on average produce higher levels of women’s representation, and therefore greater gender equity in elected office. They also facilitate higher levels of representation than FPTP for racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic minority groups. And PR permits representation of greater ideological diversity.”  Dr. Karen Bird makes these arguments in her affidavit and we'll be sharing details soon.

Multi-Winner Systems Make Votes Count, Voters More Satisfied:  

Carey’s next major section addresses voter participation, citizen engagement and satisfaction with democracy.  He notes that “Political scientists have long posited that multi-winner systems promote greater citizen participation -- as voters, but also as volunteers, canvassers, and among civic groups -- than in single-winner systems like FPTP. The logic behind this theory is simple: participation is a time-consuming activity and citizens want to feel that their vote counts.”  With proportional voting, they do feel this way because “both the motivation to cast a ballot, and to vote sincerely (rather than strategically) is stronger in multiple-winner systems than in single-winner systems.”  And the mechanism is simple - in proportional systems, voters can help their preferred candidate or party win seats no matter what share of the vote they have;  all seats are competitive, “which motivates voter engagement and participation”, and he further notes that “the empirical evidence overwhelmingly backs this theory,” resulting in both greater voter turnout and greater satisfaction.

As Carey summarizes, “Voter participation levels are higher in PR than in FPTP systems on average. Citizens in multiple-winner systems, including those who support candidates and parties who do not form government, also exhibit higher levels of aggregate satisfaction with democracy.”

FPTP Distorts Outcomes, Undermines Democracy

In our last message, we introduced you to Prof. John Carey, who has written the main affidavit we’ll be relying on to describe to the court how proportional voting systems better deliver on key democratic goals such as inclusion, fairness, and representation.

Prof. Carey draws a sharp distinction between single-winner and multi-winner systems.  He outlines how multi-winner systems improve the link between voter support and representation, representation of diversity (including by gender, race, ethnicity, and ideology), voter participation and citizen engagement, government stability, and government accountability and policy outcomes.

Distortions in Outcome Undermine Democracy:  

In his section on the link between voter support and representation, Prof. Carey plainly states the problem (emphasis ours): “Most of the scholarship on elections and representation shares a normative premise that the level of support among voters should correspond closely to the level of assembly representation each party wins. By this standard, distortions between voter support and the resulting representation undermine democracy. Under most electoral rules in place around the world, distortions tend to favor voters of the largest parties. This pattern is more pronounced under FPTP than any other widely used system and is plainly evident in Canada’s House of Commons.”  

In other words, our current voting system clearly does not do the main thing that voting systems in democracies are supposed to do, and this undermines Canada’s claim to being a true democracy.

Multi-Winner Systems Can Fix This:  Carey lays the blame for this squarely on the fact that our current voting system uses single-winner districts, and notes that “moving to districts of magnitude 4- 8 is sufficient” to correct most of the distortions created by single-winner systems, while still “allow[ing] representatives to retain close ties to their communities.”

FPTP More Idiosyncratic, Perverse:  Carey also notes that “single-winner systems are vastly more vulnerable than multi-winner systems to idiosyncratic outcomes - for example, cases where a party loses voter share from one election to the next but increases its share of representation, or the reverse,” noting that, in BC, “from 1979 to 1996, the New Democratic Party lost vote share across each of five provincial elections, from 46% to 39%, yet it went from a minority party in opposition in the first three periods of government to a single party majority in the last two periods.”  

He goes on to say that “FPTP also opens the door to even more perverse outcomes in which a party or candidate wins fewer votes than another in that election, yet nevertheless captures a greater share of representation. Such outcomes violate the principle that all votes should count equally.

This content gives us a lot to work with as we draft our arguments to the court.

Thank you for your continued support. More on Prof. Carey’s other arguments shortly!

Jesse Hitchcock, Springtide & Antony Hodgson, Fair Voting BC

Introducing Prof. John Carey - Voting Systems Expert

Dr. John Carey is Associate Dean in Social Sciences at Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH) and former chair of Dartmouth’s Department of Government.  He’s also a co-founder of BrightLineWatch, which monitors threats to democracy in the United States.  Dr. Carey is an internationally-renowned expert in electoral systems and has consulted on the design of voting systems in numerous countries around the world.  His research focuses on how the rules of electoral competition affect the quality of democratic representation.

In his affidavit, he addresses two main issues - (1) describing for the court what the main forms of voting systems are around the world, and (2) outlining the advantages and disadvantages of each, particularly with regard to representation of citizens, political equality of voters, performance of government, and voter participation.

In the next couple of posts, we’ll summarize some of the key observations he makes that we will rely on in our arguments that our current voting system violates our Charter. 

The Big Difference: Single-Winner vs Multiple-Winner Systems

Dr. Carey’s main observation is that “the most salient distinction [to] make among the types of rules used for electing assemblies is between single-winner systems and multiple-winner systems. The distinction here refers to the number of candidates and/or party lists awarded seats within each geographical district. The distinction corresponds closely in practice to single- member district (SMD) systems and multi-member district (MMD) systems.”

He then outlines our current voting system, lists proportional voting systems (he describes the Single Transferable Vote as a ‘cousin’ of list systems), and hybrid systems (in which there are combinations of single- and multi-member districts), and he notes that “a well-documented trend in electoral systems is the adoption or introduction of PR and the move away from single-winner systems, particularly FPTP.”

The rest of Prof. Carey’s affidavit outlines how electoral system design affects correspondence of voter support to representation, representation of diversity (including by gender, race, ethnicity, and ideology), voter participation and citizen engagement, government stability, and government accountability and policy outcomes.  Stay tuned for more on these topics.

Jesse Hitchcock, Springtide & Antony Hodgson, Fair Voting BC

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Key Events in the Case:

  • We're currently waiting for our appeal to be heard (scheduled for Nov 2024)
  • We submitted our appeal factum in late April 2024.
  • We filed our Notice of Appeal on Dec 29, 2023.
  • Justice Ed Morgan issued his ruling on Nov 30, 2023 and unfortunately dismissed our application.
  • The case was heard September 26-28, 2023 in the Ontario Superior Court.
  • We received the government's affidavits in late Fall 2022.
  • We served the government with our affidavit and evidence package in May 2021.
  • We filed the case with the Ontario Superior Court in October 2019.

How you can help

The main way you can help is to support the case financially. We are now raising $30,000 to support our preparations for filing a leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada (spring 2025). You can support the case for as little as a dollar a month.

What to expect

At each step, we set a donation goal based on our estimate of the costs for the next stage of the process, and invite our supporters to contribute towards that goal to ensure the case can continue to move forward.