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Canada's Distorted Electoral System

By Ulli Diemer


Canada's electoral system is notorious for producing results at odds with the wishes of the electorate. It is quite normal for a party to win a landslide majority of the seats in an election on the strength of 38% to 45% of the vote. The Liberal Party received 38.5% of the vote in 1997, and took 51.5% of the seats. In Ontario, the Liberal Party received 49.8% of the votes, and took 98% of Ontario's seats in the House of Commons. In the 1988 “Free Trade” election, a classic example in that the proposed Free Trade Agreement was the only issue in the campaign, a substantial majority of voters voted to reject the proposed agreement, and yet the Progressive Conservative Party, with 43% of the vote, won a majority of the seats and proceeded to force the legislation through Parliament.

It is even quite possible for a party to receive fewer votes than its chief rival, and nevertheless win the election with a majority of seats. The 1998 Quebec election, won by the Bloc Quebecois despite receiving fewer votes than the Liberals, is a recent example.

The media habitually report these distorted results as a “mandate”, and governments — with control increasingly centralized in the office of the Premier or Prime Minister — have no qualms about proceeding on the basis of minority electoral support to govern as quasi-dictatorships until the next election.

Adding to the distortions in the electoral system itself are the significant financial disparities between political parties. The costs of running a modern election mean that election victories are, in most normal election campaigns, bought as much as they are won.

In order to bring these issues into focus, this issue of Parliamentary Names & Numbers looks at actual seat and vote totals in the last federal election and compares them with the seat totals that would have resulted in a system of proportional representation. The calculations show that the Liberals would have emerged with 116 seats, while Reform and Progressive Conservatives would have had 58 and 57 respectively, the NDP 33, the Bloc Quebecois 32, and the Greens, Natural Law, and Christian Heritage one seat each. These projections could be misleading however: under a system of proportional representation, voting behaviour changes because voters tend to vote for the party they like best, rather than voting strategically for the “lesser of evils”.

The second chart looks at how campaign spending in the last federal election correlated with election results. In this section, we looked at total spending by each of the parties, and calculated how many dollars each party spent per vote, and per elected member. The results are intriguing: for example, the Liberal and Reform parties spent $2.25 and $2.29 per vote, while the NDP and Progressive Conservatives spent almost twice as much, $4.17 and $4.20 per vote, respectively. If all competing parties had equal resources, we might be looking at a Marxist-Leninist coalition government with the Green Party: the Marxist-Leninists apparently spent only 3 cents per vote, while the Greens spent 28 cents per vote: no other party comes even close to getting as much “bang for their buck” when it comes to acquiring votes.

When it comes to winning seats, the spending disparities are also huge. It cost the Progressive Conservative Party $10,288,333 to win 19 seats, a cost of $541,491 per seat, while the Bloc Quebecois (benefiting, no doubt, from being able to run a campaign in one province and in one language) spent $1,629,497 to win 44 seats, a cost of only $37,034 per seat.

1997 Federal Election: The Impact of Proportional Representation

Party # of Votes % of Vote % of Seats # of Seats # of Seats PR*

Liberal 4,994,277 38.64% 52.1% 156 116
Reform 2,513,080 19.44% 19.7% 59 58
Progressive Cons. 2,446,705 18.92% 6.3% 19 57
NDP 1,434,589 11.10% 7.0% 21 33
Bloc Quebecois 1,385,821 10.72% 14.7% 44 32
Greens 55,583 0.43% 0 0 1
Natural Law 37,135 0.29% 0 0 1
Christian Heritage 29,085 0.22% 0 0 1
Canadian Action 17,507 0.13% 0 0 0
Marxist-Leninist 11,468 0.09% 0 0 0
Independent 2 2

(Totals 12,925,250 301 301

* Based on a system of straight proportional representation with no minimum threshold (some jurisdictions require a party to win 5% of the votes nationally to gain representation in Parliament.) Seat totals are based on the results of the June 1997 federal election. Subsequent changes (resignation, death, by-elections) have changed the seat totals slightly.

Party Spending Votes Members $ per vote $ per
Elected Elected Member

Liberal $11,247,141 4,994,377 155 $ 2.25 $ 72,562
PC $10,288,333 2,446,705 19 $ 4.20 $541,491
NDP $5,976,724 1,434,589 21 $ 4.17 $284,606
Reform $4,921,733 2,153,080 59 $ 2.29 $ 83,419
Bloc $1,629,497 1,385,821 44 $ 1.17 $ 37,034
CAP $490,441 17,507 0 $28.01 n/a
Natural Law $292,253 37,135 0 $ 7.87 n/a
Christian Heritage $75,229 29,085 0 $ 2.58 n/a
Greens $16,090 55,583 0 $ 0.28 n/a
Marxist-Leninist $375 11,468 0 $ 0.03 n/a


Published in Parliamentary Names & Numbers #13.


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