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
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
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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