Electoral Reform committee matches public opinion with calls for proportionality, referendum
By Ian Holliday, Research Associate
December 1, 2016 – The Special Committee on Electoral Reform delivered its final report on Dec. 1, recommending that Canada consider adopting an electoral system based on proportional representation, and that Canadians be asked to vote on a proportional alternative to the current first-past-the-post system in a national referendum.
The title of the report “Strengthening Democracy in Canada,” reflects what committee members said they heard most during their six months of consultation with the Canadian public: that a change to a more proportional system would ensure that everyone’s vote counts and everyone’s voice is heard.
This was also what the Angus Reid Institute found when it asked Canadians about proportional electoral systems in late November.
More than seven-in-ten Canadians (72%) agreed with the statement “a system that more closely reflects the parties’ actual support would increase voter turnout.”
Similarly, when asked whether the proposed alternatives to FPTP would strengthen or weaken their own vote, Canadians tended toward the former:
(Ballots were chosen based on the Angus Reid Institute’s monitoring of the discussions of the electoral reform debate in Canada, as well as consideration of alternatives to first-past-the-post currently in use in other countries. Keeping survey length in mind, the list was not exhaustive. For more detailed descriptions of the four systems canvassed – Mixed Member Proportional [MMP], Single Transferrable Vote [STV], Open List Proportional Representation [LPR], and Rural-Urban Proportional Representation [RUPR], see the institute’s original report.)
During question period on the day the committee report was released, Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef criticized the committee for failing to propose a specific system, saying it didn’t complete “the hard work we expected them to.”
Green Party MP Elizabeth May tweeted her displeasure with this critique, saying the committee “gave clear advice on systems.”
While the committee did stop short of designing a proportional system, it did provide parameters for what such a system should look like, and recommend that the government complete the design of such a system before holding a referendum.
In addition to recommending that Canada adopt a proportional system, the committee explicitly recommended against using a “ranked ballot” system that doesn’t also aim for proportionality, as well as against any sort of system that would sever the connection between constituents and their local MPs.
All of the systems the institute canvassed could be set up to maintain this connection, but MMP and RUPR – the two systems preferred by New Democratic and Green party committee members – are most directly designed to do so.
In a direct face-off with FPTP, MMP fares best, while RUPR fares worst, as seen in the graph that follows. Not shown are the roughly one-quarter of Canadians who say they’re “not sure” when presented with each alternative voting system vs. FPTP match-up:
Strong support for a referendum; Liberals urge caution
By calling for a referendum, the committee aligns itself with the three-quarters of Canadians (75%) who say the public should have the opportunity to vote on any major changes to the electoral system:
This is also the view of the vast majority of those who voted for the Liberal Party in the 2015 election, even as Liberal members of the electoral reform committee issued a supplemental report arguing that Canadians are not engaged enough with this issue for a referendum to be held on the timeline suggested in the main report.
This dissent from Liberal committee members, as well as Monsef’s comments expressing disappointment with the committee’s work, suggest that the federal government may not be keen to adopt the report’s recommendations – even those that have broad-based public support.
It should be noted that support for a referendum is strongest among past Conservative voters, but is the majority view across all parties’ supporters:
Though the Liberal Party’s refusal to commit to holding a referendum is at odds with the desires of most Canadians, there is considerable evidence to support the Liberal committee members’ broader point that Canadians aren’t engaged with this issue.
Asked whether they would prefer to keep the current FPTP system or change to a different system, more than one-in-five Canadians (21%) say they are undecided on the question.
Similarly, fully two-thirds (66%) say changing the way the country votes is a “low priority,” though it should be noted that this doesn’t necessarily mean they think changing the system is a bad idea. Rather, it can be seen as an indication of a lack of strong feelings about the issue.
Time will tell if the planned national consultation on this issue – which includes mailing a postcard to every Canadian household – leaves Canadians sufficiently well-versed on electoral reform, in the eyes of the federal Liberal government, to vote in a referendum.
No changes recommended for mandatory voting or lower voting age
Somewhat lost amid the debate over the committee’s recommendations on proportionality and holding a referendum are some of the committee’s other recommendations – specifically on mandatory voting and lowering the voting age to 16.
The committee recommended against both considerations, though it did recommend creating a framework that would allow people to begin registering with the National Register of Electors up to two years before reaching age 18.
In the Angus Reid Institute poll, the Canadian public was less favourable toward the notion of lowering the voting age than it was toward mandatory voting, as seen in the graphs that follow: