Changing Canada’s electoral system: What are the options?

WATCH: Major electoral reforms coming 18 months after Liberals are elected, Trudeau says.

A vote for the Liberals in 2015 will be a vote to reform the very system by which Canadians elect their government, Justin Trudeau said Tuesday. Exactly what that reform would look like, however, remained ambiguous after the party leader officially revealed the platform plank.

“We need change. We need to know that when we cast a ballot, it counts. That when we vote, it matters,” Trudeau said. “So I’m proposing we make every vote count.”

READ MORE: Trudeau unveils plan to ‘restore democracy’

All we know for sure is the Liberal leader wants to do away with the first-past-the-post system and has pledged to present an alternative within 18 months of being elected, after hearing a committee’s recommendations.

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The Liberal party would also gather opinions on mandatory voting and online voting, Trudeau said.

The potential alternatives he mentioned during his speech in Ottawa included ranked ballots and proportional representation.

Here’s a breakdown of those voting systems as well as the current system Trudeau wants to dump.


This is the system Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and other respected democracies use. It is often criticised, however, for distorting voters’ choices, allowing a party to win a majority of seats with less than 40 per cent of the vote. Canada, in fact, is living that right now; once all the ballots were counted in the 2011 federal election, the Conservatives came away with 39.6 per cent of the popular vote. Still, the party won a majority government.

Basically, the candidate who gets the most votes – doesn’t have to be a majority — in a riding wins. The system isn’t bad if there are only two parties vying for a seat, but the vote-split can become increasingly ambiguous with each additional party running in a riding.

Voters will also often see situations where parties holding similar percentages of the overall vote win wildly different percentages of the seats.

In the 2009 British Columbia election, for example, the Liberals’ 45.8 per cent of the popular vote won them 49 seats, or 57.6 per cent of the 85-seat legislature.

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The opposition NDP’s 42.2 per cent of the vote, by contrast, earned the party 35 seats, or 41 per cent of all available seats.

Proportional representation

This voting system is a little more complex, and has few different models.

In one, a voter casts a ballot for a party, as opposed to voting for a prospective MP under a party banner as the current system prescribes.

Once all the votes are counted, parties are awarded a number of seats in proportion to the percentage of votes each received.

A second model, called “mixed member proportional” model is a hybrid system that combines the above with some single-member ridings. Several years ago, Elections Ontario proposed the province adopt this system, but it didn’t pass a referendum.

As described by the electoral body, the system would allow voters to cast one ballot for a candidate in their riding and a second ballot for their preferred party. The first vote determines, more or less, who sits in the legislature based on  the second ballot which determines how many seats the party will fill.

In the end, if a party ends up with fewer seats than it should have based on its overall popularity, they would get some “top up” members from an already established party list.

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Confused? Yeah, that’s one of the criticisms of this system.

But the praise – that it’s a fair system – often outweighs the criticism. If a party gets 30 per cent of the popular vote, it will get 30 per cent of the seats in the legislature.

To look at the last federal election again, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won 39.6 per cent of the popular vote, but earned 166 of the 305 seats (54.4 per cent), and therefore a majority government.

The official Opposition NDP, by contrast, won 30.6 per cent of the popular vote and only 103 seats (33.8 per cent).

Preferential voting

This is the system some parties use to elect their leaders. Basically, voters list their preferred candidates, ranked from first, second, third and so on.

Different organizations propose different means for counting the ballots, though.  A method called the “alternative vote,” which was proposed in the UK but defeated in a 2011 referendum, looks for one candidate to achieve at least 51 per cent of the vote.

If, on first count, no candidate reaches the majority threshold, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is dropped; the ballots that listed the losing candidate as first choice are reallocated to the candidate listed as their second choice, and so on until one candidate wins.

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This system is said to be Trudeau’s preferred method.

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ABOVE: This map shows ridings where the candidate won more than 50 per cent of the vote in the 2011 general election, coloured according to the winning party. Ridings where no candidate won a majority of the vote are coloured grey. (By Leslie Young)

With files from Global News’ Leslie Young and The Canadian Press