First Past the Post has failed to give the most popular Canadian party the most seats

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Posted on the 22nd September 2021

This is a guest post from Dylan Difford, as part of a series on elections, party systems and voting methods around the world.

There are ‘status quo’ elections and then there’s this week’s 2021 Canadian federal election – where every party’s seat total is no more than two seats different from what it was last time.

Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called this snap election in the hopes of bettering the minority government he won just two years ago. Instead, he is just a single seat better off and has provided Canadian electoral reformists with yet more evidence of the need to ditch First Past the Post (FPTP). So let’s take a look at some of the key electoral issues thrown up by this election.

Results of the 2021 Canadian Election

 

Disproportionality

It’s not at all surprising that a FPTP election would deliver a skewed and unrepresentative result, but, with a vote-seat deviation score of 18%, this election is the least proportional Canadian election in 21 years and the sixth least proportional since 1945.

The Liberals are again the main beneficiary, taking 15 percentage points more seats than they would be entitled to under a fully-proportional voting system. The Conservatives and regionalist Bloc Québécois will also have marginally more than their fair share of MPs, while the social democratic NDP is left noticeably underrepresented. The right-wing populist People’s Party will have no representation despite winning just over 5% of the vote, enough to win at least one seat in most of western Europe.

Although this election is above average in its disproportionality, Canadian voters have had to get used this level of distortion of their votes. The previous 24 post-war elections have an average vote-seat deviation score of 15.0%, slightly less than Britain’s average 15.5%, but still meaning that nearly 1 in 6 votes are usually misallocated. The instability of the Canadian party system has meant that every key party has at some point been severely underrepresented, though for the NDP it is the norm rather than the exception – with them losing out on over 150 seats across the last 20 years due to FPTP.

Canada does have some wildly different sized constituencies sizes which also play a role. The less populous provinces have a few more ridings than their population would suggest, and the more heavily populated have fewer. This is because a formula is applied when the number of ridings in each province is calculated.

Minority Government

With no party winning an overall majority, this election will likely lead to a minority government. This is not unusual for Canada – nearly half of their elections since 1945 have created hung parliaments and they have traditionally eschewed coalitions. While minority governments are not inherently unstable, the Canadian reaction to them is less than ideal. Not just are coalitions not formed, but formal Confidence and Supply arrangements are also a rarity. Instead, minority governments in Canada typically have to win support on an ad hoc basis – perpetually placing government stability at the whims of opposition parties, with them perfectly happy to give a vote of no confidence if their demands aren’t met. Unsurprisingly, Canada is the home of snap elections, with the average parliament fulfilling less than two-thirds of its permissible term.

Questionable Mandate

The issue of Canadian insistence on single-party government is compounded by the increasing lack of support that those single parties command. Trudeau may claim that the voters have given him a ‘clear mandate’, but this is now the second election in a row where the winning party received less than one-third of votes cast, and no party has managed more than 40% in the last 20 years. Whether or not a party wins a majority in the House of Commons, no recent Canadian government has been endorsed – explicitly or even implicitly – by anywhere close to a majority of voters. Instead, policy is decided solely by a party that twice as many people voted against than for.

Wrong Winner

Aside from the high level of overall disproportionality, this election has resulted in one of the gravest forms of misrepresentation that any electoral system can commit – it has produced a so-called ‘wrong winner’ result.

The Conservatives won nearly 2% points more votes than the Liberals, but the latter have been rewarded with 12% points more seats. This is the fourth post-war Canadian election and second in a row where this has occurred – with the Conservatives’ less effective vote distribution meaning they now have to win the popular vote by several points just to draw level with the Liberals in seat terms. The Canadian Conservatives pile up large majorities in seats they win, while the Liberals tend to win with slimmer margins.

Minority government on 32% of the vote is one thing, but it is another when it isn’t even the most popular minority that gets to be in charge.

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Four years ago the ERS team spoke in front of the Canadian Electoral Reform Committee. They made the case for reform and shared their experiences of proportional representation in the UK and New Zealand.

This is just the introduction to a much longer evidence session. You can watch the whole session here https://youtu.be/Altu7P0PHbg

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