What Difference Do Electoral Systems Make?

Justin Trudeau addresses his supporters on election night.

Justin Trudeau addresses his supporters on election night.

The Canadian elections concluded this week, with Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party of Canada soundly defeating Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservative Party to take control of the country’s parliament. Most observers cast the election as a stinging rebuke to the Harper’s nine year tenure.  Indeed, the center-left Liberals gained 148 seats in parliament, stealing 60 from the center-right Conservatives and 51 from the leftist New Democratic Party, marking the swing in seats in parliament for any Canadian political party since 1984. The final results give the Liberals a ruling majority in parliament, with control of 184 seats (54% of the total number of seats). The Conservatives move in to the role of official opposition, with 99 seats (29%). The New Democrats fell to third party status, with 44 seats (13%). The Bloc Québécois will control 10 seats (3%) and the Green Party has one seat (0%).

Canada’s single-member district electoral system (sometimes called a first-past-the-post system) functions in a manner similar to that of Congressional electoral districts in the United States. The candidate that receives the most votes in any district wins that seat, and the party that controls the most seats in parliament chooses the country’s Prime Minister. But Canada’s multiparty system means that the party that secures a majority of seats in the parliament does not necessary win a majority of the votes in the electorate. Indeed, the single-member district electoral system tends to amplify the support of large parties and marginalize the role of smaller parties, leading many political commentators to call for electoral reform and a shift to a more representative electoral model that allocates seats in parliament in a manner proportional to the share of the popular vote received.

If the most recent election in Canada had been held under a proportional representation system, the Liberals would have held approximately 133 seats (39.5% of the seats in parliament, based on securing 39.5% of the popular vote. This would be more seats than any other party, but not the strong majority they currently hold. Conversely, all other parties would have received more seats in parliament than they received under the current model, with the Conservatives holding 107 seats (31.9%), the New Democrats holding 67 seats (19.7%), the Bloc holding 16 seats (4.7%), and the Greens holding 11 seats (3.4%).

What do you think? Should countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States—which all currently use a first-past-the-post electoral system—shift to a proportional representation system? Why? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each system? And which is more democratic?

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