ViewPoint: Proportional Representation

Voting Box

by Peter Chow

In the 2019 federal election in Sault Ste Marie, the Liberal candidate won with 16,284 votes, 39.1% of the total.   The Conservative candidate garnered 13,407, 32.2%.  The NDP got 9,450, 22.7%;  the Green Party 1,809, 4.3%;  and the People’s Party of Canada 741, 1.8%.

Many voters chose to vote Liberal or Conservative, rather than the party they actually wanted, the NDP, the Green Party or the People’s Party of Canada, because they felt that in doing otherwise, by voting for a minority party, their vote would be pointless, “wasted.”

The basic principle underlying proportional representation is that all voters deserve representation and that all political groups in society deserve to be represented in our legislatures in proportion to their strength in the electorate.   In other words, everyone should have the right to fair representation.

What would the outcome in the Sault have been if our elections had some sort of proportional representation?

How many voters voted Liberal instead of NDP or Green, just because they didn’t want to “waste” their vote, and worse, effectively help the Conservatives?   How many people may have really wanted to vote for the People’s Party, but settled on Conservative instead?

Were there more than 2,877 voters who really wanted to vote NDP or Green, but voted Liberal instead?

The answer may just be blowin’ in the wind, but I think there is a good chance that our federal representation might have looked different with an electoral system with some degree of proportional representation.

This year’s federal election produced the following results:

  • Liberal Party – 157 seats – 33.1% of the vote, 46.8% of the seats
  • Conservative Party – 121 seats – 34.4% of the vote, 35.8% of the seats
  • Bloc Quebecois – 32 seats – 7.7% of the vote, 9.5% of the seats
  • NDP – 24 seats – 15.9% of the vote, 7.1% of the seats
  • Green Party – 3 seats – 6.5% of the vote, 0.9% of the seats

Clearly, the results seem unfair on multiple levels, thwarting the intended wishes of the Canadian electorate:

  • the Liberals defeating the Conservatives despite winning fewer votes
  • the Bloc Quebecois winning 32 seats compared to the NDP’s 24 seats despite the NDP winning more than twice as many votes
  • the Green Party winning only 3 seats despite winning almost as many votes as the Bloc Quebecois

We’ve all grown up with a system where we elect members of our legislatures one at a time in small districts, with the winner being the candidate with the most votes.  This system seems so “natural” that proportional representation (PR) elections may at first appear strange to us.

Adding to the potential confusion is the fact that there are several different kinds of PR systems in use around the world.  But in reality, the principles underlying proportional representation systems are very straightforward and all of the systems are easy to use.

If strict proportional representation, PR, is used in an election, a political party that wins 10% of the vote, will win 10% of the seats in parliament and a party that wins 20% of the vote, will win 20% of the seats.

Internationally, proportional representation is the most common type of electoral system with 89 of the 195 countries using it,  including Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, Russia, Spain, Portugal, Serbia, Croatia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, South Africa and Switzerland.

The most prominent countries still using majority or plurality representation, are the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

“Plurality vote”, also known as the first-past-the-post (FPP) or winner-takes-all electoral systems, means that the winning candidate only needs to get more votes than competing candidates.

“Majority vote” means that candidates are elected only if they receive a majority, over 50%, of the votes cast, with run-off elections often needed.

Mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation is an attempt to combine a single-member district system with a proportional voting system.  Half (or an arbitrary fraction) of the members of the legislature are elected in single-member district plurality contests.  The remaining fraction of representatives are elected by a party list vote and added on to the district members so that each party has its appropriate share of seats in the legislature. The actual fraction of seats assigned to plurality representation and proportional voting is variable.

Proponents claim that mixed-member proportional voting (MMP) is the best of both worlds: providing the geographical representation and close constituency ties of single-member plurality voting, along with the fairness and diversity of representation that comes with proportional voting.

This system, invented in West Germany right after World War ll, is now one of the “hottest” systems being considered by those involved in electoral design due to MMP’s unique claim to be a “compromise” between the two main rival systems.   In 1994 New Zealand abandoned its traditional single-member plurality system for MMP.   Hungary, Mexico, South Korea, Thailand, and Bolivia have also adopted this approach.  Most recently, the newly formed parliaments of Scotland and Wales and the city of London adopted this system.

In Germany, the parliament, the Bundestag, has 598 elected members.  Every German voter has two votes: a constituency vote (first vote) and a party list vote (second vote).  Based solely on the first votes, 299 members are elected in single-member constituencies by first-past-the-post voting.  The second votes are used to produce a proportional number of seats for parties for the other 299 seats.

Under MMP, each New Zealand voter has two votes. The first vote is the electorate vote.  It determines the local representative for that geographic electoral district.  The electorate vote works on a plurality system whereby whichever candidate gets the greatest number of votes in each electorate wins the seat.  The second vote is the party vote. This determines the number of seats each party is entitled to overall – in other words, the proportionality of the House.

120 MPs are elected to New Zealand’s parliament, the House of Representatives — 72 are elected by the voters in individual electorates around the country and 48 are from political party lists elected by all the voters’ party votes.

The total number of seats a party can have is first determined by the party vote. Then, the number of electorate seats the party has won are subtracted from this total.

Finally, candidates are elected to parliament from each party’s list so that the number of list seats, plus the number of electorate seats, equals the total number of seats each party is entitled to.

Any party which receives 5% or more of the party vote or which has won an electorate seat, is entitled to a share of the 120 seats in the House of Representatives.

Where the plurality system effectively rewards strong parties and penalizes weak ones, by providing the representation of a whole constituency to a single candidate who may have received fewer than half of the votes cast, proportional representation ensures minority parties a measure of representation proportionate to their electoral support.

Plurality, first-past-the-post (FPP) electoral systems encourage tactical voting techniques, like “compromising”.

Voters are under pressure to vote for one of the two candidates most likely to win even if their true preference is neither.   A vote for any other candidate is “wasted”, unlikely to lead to the preferred candidate being elected, but instead reduce support for one of the two major candidates whom the voter might prefer to the other.   A vote for a minority party will simply take votes away from one of the 2 major parties, potentially changing the outcome while gaining nothing.

A smaller party will typically need to build up its votes and credibility over many series of elections before it is seen as electable.

Reforming Canada’s electoral system was a foundational pillar of the Liberals’ campaign platform in 2015, with Trudeau promising that election would be the last conducted under the first-past-the-post system.

In 2016, the Canadian House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform was formed to examine potential changes to the voting system, with MMP being one of the options examined.  It conducted town hall meetings and sent out a national survey on the issue. The committee recommended having a referendum to let Canadians decide which voting system they want.

The committee presented its report to Parliament on 1 December 2016.

In early 2017, the Trudeau Government reneged on its promise and announced that it would accept only some of the committee’s recommendations and would not pursue the issue of electoral reform any further, that electoral reform was shelved.

Trudeau said no clear choice had emerged for an alternative system of voting — and he didn’t want to see Canada adopt proportional representation for the sake of change.   He said proportional representation would divide Canadians as it would “exacerbate small differences in the electorate.”

Neither explanation seems credible and the 2017 decision was lambasted by politicians and Canadians alike.

An election is like a census of opinion as to how the country should be governed, and only if an assembly represents the full diversity of opinion within a country, can its decisions be regarded as legitimate.


  1. I’ve spoken with a few people that told me they wouldn’t vote for any party other than libs or cons because they wouldn’t win anyway. My comment was always they can’t win if you don’t vote for them.

  2. Trudeau shelved the electoral reform because at the time the conservative popularity was catching up and the reforms would no longer benefit the liberals.
    Trudeau Jr is a tricky one

  3. People vote who they want to. If they don’t vote for a party, they didn’t want to.

    Chow just assumes that all Liberal voters would vote further left if they could.

  4. “Many voters chose to vote Liberal or Conservative, rather than the party they actually wanted”
    Another presumptuous assumption to push his own ideals on others.
    Status quo for Pete Chow.
    Time to ignore his irrelevant ramblings.

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