Election primer: What are Canada’s electoral reform options, and how might they work?

WATCH ABOVE: Both Tom Mulcair and Justin Trudeau have promised to overhaul Canada’s federal first-past-the-post system. So what are some of the other options for our nation? Global News takes a look at what may soon replace our plurality system.

When voters head to the ballot box on Oct. 19 they’ll choose their preferred candidate in their local riding. The candidate with the most votes in each riding wins a seat, and the party with the most seats will – probably – form government.

Simple enough. But depending which party wins, this could be the last time a Canadian federal election works that way.

Both NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau have promised to overhaul the electoral system – meaning, if one of them wins, you can say goodbye to the plurality system Canada has used since 1867.

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In-Depth: Federal Election 2015

Mulcair has promised proportional representation; Trudeau has promised countrywide consultations on electoral reform.

The federal NDP put forward legislation in December 2014 proposing “the next federal election should be the last conducted under the current first-past-the-post electoral system.”

The bill failed – not surprising, given that it was a private members’ bill put forward by an opposition party – but it did win votes of a large number of Liberals including Carolyn Bennett, former leader Stephane Dion, and Scott Brison.

So what could replace Canada’s system? Well, before we get to that, here’s a bit of an explainer of what we already have.


In a “first-past-the-post” system, the candidate who wins a plurality of votes wins the riding. And the party that holds the most ridings at the end of the night wins the election (unless two parties band together to form a coalition government – but that’s another story altogether).

One criticism, employed by Mulcair in a January column on Canada’s existing system can create majority governments that don’t have the support of the majority of Canadians.

Canada’s governing Conservatives, for example, won 39.6 per cent of the popular vote in 2011 – but 53 per cent of the seats.

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“They govern as if they have the support of all Canadians, but the fact is 61% of voters wanted someone else in government,” Mulcair wrote.

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This system also tends to favour larger, more established parties over smaller ones, such as the Greens.

According to the Electoral Reform Society, a UK group aimed at abolishing the first-past-the-post system, positive aspects of a plurality system include its simplicity and efficiency, and its tendency to produce governments that needn’t rely on the support of other parties.

Mixed Member Proportional Representation

Mixed Member Proportional Representation is one form of proportional representation.

Germany is among several countries that have iterations of this system: German voters cast two ballots – one choosing a candidate in their local district, the other choosing a party they support.

New Zealand has a similar system: If Party A wins 30 per cent of the vote and 20 local ridings, it gets 30 per cent of the seats in the legislature, with 20 of them going to the successful local representatives. The remaining ten are filled in with the most popular candidates on the party list.

READ MORE: Four things you need to know about the 2015 federal election 

Advocates have pushed for proportional representation in Canada in 2004, 2005, and 2007 but failed each time.

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Critics say this system can lead to unstable, minority governments or tenuous alliances which can easily fall, leading to another election.

Ranked Ballots

Ranked ballots are another popular option. They’re used right now to choose the leaders of all Canadian political parties.

They’re also going to be used in the next Ontario municipal elections.

One way of doing this is to first, calculate the threshold of votes needed to win the election – generally, it’s more than 50 per cent, a simple majority.

People are then given the option to rank their preferred candidate. After the ballots are counted, if the person in first place has more than 50 per cent of the votes, that person wins.

If not, the person with the least amount of votes is taken off the ballot, and the second choice is distributed among whoever’s left.

This goes on until one person has a majority of votes.

Correction: This article has been updated to note that ranked ballots for single positions are not a form of proportional representation. 

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