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

Democracy is What Happens Between Elections!

In our last couple of messages, we’ve shared two of the key points from Prof. Nadia Urbinati’s affidavit - first, that for a voter to be represented in parliament, that voter must have an MP who advocates for positions that the voter supports, and, second, that democratic theorists are increasingly seeing that constituencies should not be viewed primarily as based on location, but on political perspective.

In this last post on Prof. Urbinati’s affidavit, we’ll share a few of her other key points.

Democracy is What Happens Between Elections!  One is that “political theorists now understand democracy not simply as a vote to delegate decision-making to our representatives, but rather as a way of continuously participating in political” society and institutions.  That is, she says that it’s widely understood that democracy requires much, much more than voters simply making a decision on voting day.  Elections in a democracy should produce a parliament that continuously represents voters in ways aligned with their views.  

And if an MP, after being elected, “shows indifference toward our claims” (which is a very common experience for voters who did not vote for their MP), that “would be the equivalent of not fully participating as citizens in the democracy.”

Proper Representation is Key to Legitimacy:  A second key point she makes is that ensuring that all voters have representatives who “share similarities with their constituents, including their visions and ideals” and are “willing advocates for them” is essential for making a democracy legitimate - as she says, “governments must know that they are hearing the voices of all citizens through their representatives.  The idea of us governing [ourselves] through our representatives is crucial, and not of second-rate importance; it is the condition of legitimacy.”

Proportional Voting Better Supports our Democratic Ideals:  Urbinati’s final main point is that these theoretical considerations have strong implications for how we vote:  “In a pluralistic state with various minorities, voices, and social interests, the consensus among democratic theorists” is that proportional voting systems are preferred to our current system “because of their greater inclusiveness, fairness, and representativity.”  As she says, proportional voting “takes more seriously than FPTP the principle underlying universal suffrage: that every individual has the right to a vote that is counted fairly.  The result of counting the vote of each individual fairly under PR results in better support for the democratic principles of equal political opportunity and control than under FPTP”, and it also leads to better laws under PR, since they “are typically more inclusive of various points of view, more consensual, and, therefore, more reflective of the population.”

In summary, Prof. Urbinati’s affidavit provides us with a strong foundation for arguing that our current voting system violates our Charter right to effective representation. 

Jesse Hitchcock, Springtide & Antony Hodgson, Fair Voting BC

More from Prof. Nadia Urbinati’s Affidavit

In our last message, we shared some of the details from the expert affidavits in the Charter Challenge for Fair Voting, starting with Prof. Nadia Urbinati’s understanding of the meaning and importance of democratic representation.  We’ve included some of her key insights about how voting systems impact equity and inclusion below: 

Voter Equality is Fundamental: In addition to her key point that for a voter to truly be represented by an MP, they must see their MP advocating positions the voter supports, Dr. Urbinati emphasizes in her affidavit that a democracy must be fundamentally based on the principle of equality “when it comes to having voters’ voices heard and their positions considered.”

Majority Rule is Not Enough:  She also says that “the distinctiveness of democracy is not that the ‘legislative majority rules’ but rather that each citizen consciously and autonomously shares in the political life of the country” and notes that the renowned political philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that “a good representative government requires proportional representation”, which to him was the only way to “ensure that every voice will be heard.”

Experts Increasingly Recognize Importance of Including All Voices:  Urbinati describes how long it has taken for democratic ideals to be expressed in our political systems, and that we’re not done yet.  For example, she notes that it took well over a hundred years before universal suffrage was the norm across western democracies and that “until recently, the idea that political constituencies should be defined by territorial districts has been all but unquestioned.  But the consensus among democratic theorists over the last two decades has changed” to recognize that the constituencies that matter most to individual voters are probably best described in terms of political perspective, class, ethnicity, age, or gender, which, in our current system, “are represented only insofar as they intersect with the circumstances of location.  Those issues that do not break down geographically are excluded from the benefits of representation.”

We’ll use this evidence to argue that our Charter requires that our voting system be fundamentally based on the principle of including voters, not excluding them. 

We’ll be sharing summaries of all of the expert witnesses and their affidavits in the coming weeks, so keep your eyes on your inbox!  

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

Jesse Hitchcock, Springtide

Antony Hodgson, Fair Voting BC

Meet Our First Expert - Prof. Nadia Urbinati

On May 19, we announced a major milestone in the Charter Challenge for Fair Voting - we served the government with our evidence package! 

In that note, we promised to share details on the evidence and expert testimony. Today, we are providing highlights from Dr. Nadia Urbinati’s affidavit. 

Role of Expert Witnesses

Expert witnesses serve the court by impartially providing an objective and unbiased opinion, uninfluenced by who has retained them, and based on their expert knowledge of the field.  In rendering their opinions, they must carefully consider all the evidence on both sides of any question.

Our First Expert Witness - Prof. Nadia Urbinati

Dr. Urbinati is the Kyriakos Tsakopoulos Professor of Political Theory at Columbia University in New York City.  She is a political theorist who specializes in the theory of political representation (she wrote the chapter on Representation in the forthcoming Cambridge Handbook of Constitutional Theory (2021)) and studies the ways in which political systems address key normative democratic goals such as political equality, liberty, justice and political participation.  

In her affidavit, she focuses particularly on the questions of what it means to have a voice in the deliberations of government and the impact that electoral systems have on democracy, representation, accountability and inclusiveness.

In this post, we will briefly describe Dr. Urbinati’s arguments about the place and importance of political representation.  In later posts, we’ll discuss her arguments about what it means to have a voice in the deliberations of government and of the role that electoral systems play in delivering (or impeding) representation.

On Representation

Dr. Urbinati says that representation (having an elected representative) is crucial for citizens to have a voice in the processes of government between elections, and that representation can only be effective if voters see their views being argued for by their representatives.  

Dr. Urbinati goes on to explain, “If I don’t see my representative supporting or promoting my ideas and my claims, I feel unrepresented and the legitimacy of the system of representation is reduced. There is a break between society and parliament. This is true even if I am ‘formally’ represented, exercise my right to vote, and participate in civic life.” 

The implications for our current voting system are pretty obvious - since MPs are elected by only about half the voters on average, the other half of voters are forced to suffer formal ‘representation’ by someone they have not voted for, who they do not support, and who does not support or advocate for the voter’s views. Dr. Urbinati sees this as a significant failing of the First Past the Post system, and our argument to the court will highlight this key fact.

To learn more, please check out Dr. Urbinati’s affidavit here.

Jesse Hitchcock, Springtide

Antony Hodgson, Fair Voting BC

Sharing Case Evidence

We have reached a significant milestone in the Charter Challenge for Fair Voting - we have served the government with our evidence package. This evidence supports our fight for a voting system that gives Canadians fair and equal representation in our democratic systems.

The Evidence

The evidence package includes four expert affidavits from leading researchers in political science and political theory addressing the key elements of our case:

  • Prof. Nadia Urbinati (Columbia University) - the relationship between voting and political representation
  • Prof. John Carey (Dartmouth College) - comparing voting systems
  • Prof. Karen Bird (McMaster University) - representation of women and visible minorities
  • Prof. Lawrence LeDuc (University of Toronto) - voter participation, history of proportional voting in Canada and previous reform efforts

In the next few weeks, we’ll introduce you to these experts and provide highlights from their affidavits. We will also share original analyses from Byron Weber Becker (University of Waterloo) and Antony Hodgson (Fair Voting BC). Several voters from various political perspectives have also submitted affidavits outlining how the current voting system leaves them feeling disenfranchised.

For those of you who are keen to dig in right away, we have posted the affidavits here

What’s Next?

The federal government will review our evidence and select their own expert witnesses. Following, both sides will have a chance to cross-examine any of the witnesses and we will have an opportunity to file any additional evidence necessary to address the government’s submission. At that point, each side will prepare its factum (the written argument we will submit to the court) and agree on a time to go to court.

Supporting the Challenge

Over 900 of you have helped us reach this major milestone – thank you! Our next stage of work - cross-examination will likely cost about $35,000, and we’ll be sharing more details about our goals and timelines in our upcoming emails. Please support our next steps by donating monthly.

As always, anyone who gives $25 or more in a year will receive a charitable donation tax receipt for their contributions.

Thank you for your continued support. More to come soon!


Jesse Hitchcock, Springtide

Antony Hodgson, Fair Voting BC

October Update - Charter Challenge

We are pleased to share an update on the Charter Challenge case. I’ll start this Charter Challenge update with a bit of housekeeping. As you likely know, Mark Coffin has moved on as the Executive Director of Springtide and the Board of Directors has formed a working group to focus solely on the Charter Challenge. That’s where I come in! Along with Antony at Fair Voting BC, I'll be the conduit between our legal team, the working group and our donors and supporters. You can learn more about me here -- It’s very nice to e-meet you all and to kick off the fall with a positive update! 

There have been many exciting developments in the Charter Challenge since we last shared an update! In August we introduced our first expert witness, Columbia University Professor Nadia Urbinati, whose affidavit outlines how first-past-the-post hinders the ability of Canadians to have a meaningful voice in government. As we speak, we have several additional experts preparing their affidavits and we can’t wait to share them with you. Their testimony explores the ways in which our voting system fails to deliver representation, how it discriminates against women and visible minorities, and why politicians are in an inherent conflict of interest regarding change. We are on schedule to file these affidavits later this fall. 

In the meantime, the Challenge is garnering some media attention. University of Toronto Professor David Beatty shared his thoughts and perspective in the Globe and Mail on September 21st. He stated that “[the] case is a classic example of how Charter challenges can make government more democratic. It is a powerful way of making sure politicians do their jobs.” and he offered the suggestion that Prime Minister Trudeau “fast-track” the Challenge to the Supreme Court. Also of note, he indicated that “the challenge to the Canada Election Act should be big news. Its chances of winning are very good.” Prof. Beatty’s piece sparked even more dialogue with a rebuttal in the National Post. These are all indicators that the electoral reform conversation is alive and well in Canada, and we’ll need all of your voices to amplify the Challenge as we move forward.

Next steps

Our goal is to file all of the evidence by the end of this year, and we’ll be introducing the remaining expert witnesses at that time. Following the filing, the timing largely depends on the courts and the response-time of the government. We’ll keep you updated by hosting another webinar with Nicolas to share more details and answer questions. Of course, we’ll require support from you and other donors to continue advancing the case. We’ll have more details about the level of support required in our next update.

We have some exciting milestones coming up, and we’re looking forward to your continued support and enthusiasm for the Challenge. You can expect regular quarterly updates from us going forward, with the occasional off-cycle update when we have important news to share. 


Jesse Hitchcock & Antony Hodgson 

On behalf of Springtide and Fair Voting BC

PS: Many of you continue to support the case as monthly donors - thank you!  You can join them and contribute to the case for as little as a dollar a month here. All monthly donations are held to support future stages of work on the case. Current donors can adjust their monthly donation amount by emailing [email protected] 

Like and Follow

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Current Status:

- The case was filed with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice on October 2019.

- Served government with affidavit and evidence package in May 2021.

- Awaiting government affidavits.

How you can help

The main way you can help is to support the case financially. We need to raise another $30,000 for the next stage of the case - drafting the factum. You can support the case for as little as a dollar a month.

What to expect

- Fall 2022 - Once evidence and a response from the government is received, Charter Challenge lawyer, Nicolas Rouleau will start preparing for cross-examination and response affidavits.

- Spring 2023 - Once we have received the government’s evidence and replied to it, Charter Challenge lawyer, Nicolas Rouleau, will draft the factum

- At each step, we set a goal based on our estimate of the costs, and ask supporters to contribute to help us reach that goal, and to ensure the case can continue to move forward.