In the fall of 2015, when Canadians were weighing whether to choose Justin Trudeau to be their next prime minister, “sunny ways” were not all the handsome young candidate promised to deliver.
One of the most prominent parts of Trudeau’s platform was a commitment to change the way Canada votes. He said he wanted to make elections fairer. In fact, he said it over and over and over—more than 1,500 times.
It was quite a commitment. So were his promises to fight climate change, cast a skeptical eye on new oil pipelines, revive support for labor unions and improve relations with First Nations. Riding a wave of optimism, Trudeau swept into office, the fit and fresh new face of Canada’s future.
Yet the victory was not what it might seem. Election results showed that more than 60 percent of voters wanted a different outcome. Trudeau and his Liberal party were declared the winners even though they received just 39.6 percent of the popular vote.
So why didn’t Trudeau’s opponents challenge his win? Because, just like in most elections in the United States, whoever wins a plurality of votes wins the election. This system is known in Canada and elsewhere as first-past-the-post—and critics say it has a fundamental flaw. Instead of making every voter count, it can create “false” majorities in which candidates and parties that win barely more than a third of the vote can effectively win all of the power.
The 2015 election proved the point especially well. In Canada, the party that wins the most votes not only controls the House of Commons, it gets to install its leader as prime minister. That means a first-past-the-post false majority made a prime minister out of Justin Trudeau, the very candidate who promised to reform the system.
But a promise was a promise. Even as Trudeau had benefited from the current system, he set out to fix it as soon as he took office. In his new government’s ambitious “throne speech” in December 2015, Trudeau and his party promised that the election they had just won “will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.”
“I believe fundamentally that we can do better,” Trudeau said at a forum the following April. “We can have an electoral system that does a better job of reflecting the concerns, the voices of Canadians from coast to coast to coast, and give us a better level of governance.”
Several alternative election systems had been floated during the 2015 Canadian campaign. Among those Trudeau said he would consider is a system called proportional representation. The idea is as straightforward as its name: it grants political parties legislative seats in proportion to the percentage of votes they receive. If a party receives 22 percent of the vote, it receives 22 percent of legislative seats. Supporters say it is the antidote to false majorities—and if it sounds novel, it isn’t.
Proportional representation, or ProRep, is used in most democracies around the world, including in Germany, Denmark, Portugal, New Zealand. The only major developed democracies that use first-past-the-post are Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
By early 2016, Trudeau’s government had begun an elaborate effort to determine what kind of reform it would pursue. It convened a commission, hosted hearings and town halls and mailed surveys to millions of voters. One proposal that emerged: hold a national referendum to decide what system would be best.
Then a funny thing happened.
In February 2017, having settled into his role as prime minister, Trudeau said the process had yielded no “consensus” and that holding a national vote on the issue would be divisive, distracting from his mission to focus “on the things that unite us.” Now that he was in charge, it seemed, Canada did not need “a better level of governance” after all.
As Trudeau summarized things, “I put that promise aside.”
He was called a liar, a cynic. There was a letter-writing campaign, public protests, scattered boos at public events. Yet the backlash hardly amounted to an insurgence—and that may have been just what Trudeau anticipated.
Canada faced much higher-profile domestic issues and, just across the border, the contentious new American president had quickly picked a fight on trade. Besides, Trudeau was hardly the first politician to promise voting reform and then abandon it.
“It’s an old problem,” said Dave Moscrop, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa. “When you’re out of power you want to change the rules. Then when you’re in power you want to keep them.”
About the time Trudeau told Canadians he had a “higher responsibility” than election reform, he faced backlash in other quarters for his decision to support a plan to drastically expand a pipeline from Canada’s remote oil sands in Alberta to just outside the environmentally-minded city of Vancouver in British Columbia.
Even as BC leaders protested the pipeline, in Ottawa and in court, they had not forgotten Trudeau’s promise of election reform.
Since 2005, British Columbia had twice voted on whether to adopt proportional representation. In the first referendum, in 2005, fully 59 percent of voters supported moving to ProRep. The trouble was that the conservative provincial assembly, amazingly enough, had set 60 percent as the threshold for passage. In 2009, ProRep lost decisively, receiving just 39 percent of the vote, a sharp drop-off its supporters blamed on a poor effort by the government to educate voters.
Yet the issue persisted. BC elections, like some elections across North America, often lead to minority rule. In just two of the past 12 BC elections has the ruling party or a coalition won a majority of the popular vote. In the other 10, the party in power had a minority of the people’s votes.
Until they lost last year, the BC Liberals had controlled the government since 2000. The parties out of power had been the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the small but growing Green Party.
(One confusing but important note: the BC Liberals are that in name only. Incongruously enough, they are the province’s more conservative major party. Trudeau’s federal Liberal party is unrelated, and more often aligned with British Columbia’s center-left New Democrats. The Greens lean even further left.)
Change in British Columbia came with the May 2017 election, when both the BC Liberals and the NDP fell just short of winning the minimum seats needed to control the government. The Greens trailed by a large margin but gained significant ground from past showings, winning 17 percent of the vote. Suddenly, the Greens were in a position to throw their support behind one of the larger parties.
The conservative BC Liberals never stood much of a chance. The NDP and the Greens came to an agreement and formed what amounted to a coalition government, the first time since the 1950s that two parties shared control in the province. Combined, the NDP and the Greens won nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2017.
The Greens, led by Andrew Weaver, a scientist who has served on several iterations of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, were in closest agreement with the NDP. Both supported expanding the province’s pioneering carbon tax. And both supported changing provincial elections to a form of proportional representation. They vowed to hold a referendum this year to ask voters for permission to do so.
The parties had just agreed on the language of the referendum when the risks of first-past-the-post—and the benefits of reform—became even more clear.
In June of this year, Doug Ford Jr., became premier of Ontario, by far the country’s largest province. Ford, a populist conservative whose controversial policy positions and divisive rhetoric have earned him comparisons to President Donald Trump, took control of the provincial government even though his Progressive Conservative party won just 40 percent of the vote. That means the great majority of voters in Ontario—60 percent—lost their voice.
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Now, 18 months after Trudeau abandoned reform, BC voters are getting the chance to prevent the same thing from happening—they are getting to vote on the kind of referendum their prime minister denied them.
Voting, conducted by mail, began in October and will continue until December 7.
Canada is not the only democracy where voters believe elections should be fairer, that they, too, need “a better level of governance.”
Many elections in the US are won with less than a majority—or in places where one group of voters can be almost certain their candidates will win and another knows it will always lose.
Ask voters in minority parties in the US how it feels to live in districts that state and federal lawmakers design to help them roll to re-election—the intentionally unfair practice known as gerrymandering. Ask conservatives in blue cities. Ask progressives in red rural areas. How do they feel? Irrelevant.
The good news is that voters in some parts of the US are demanding reform—and getting it. In Maine, state voters passed a measure requiring the state to use ranked-choice voting, which allows voters to elect a candidate with broader support. In its first test during the midterms, Maine’s ranked ballots elected a representative with majority support, instead of handing the seat to a candidate who won mere plurality support. In six other states, voters approved anti-gerrymandering, anti-corruption, and voting rights reforms on the 2018 midterm ballot.
But it is British Columbia, which has already served as a model for the US in fighting climate change and limiting campaign expenditures, that is pursuing democracy’s leading edge.
ProRep allows more voters from more parties to have their voices heard, especially traditionally underrepresented voters and candidates such as women and minorities. The system counters gerrymandering by making seats—which translate to power—reflect the votes cast, no matter who draws the district lines.
ProRep allows parties beyond the dominant two to compete, meaning voters are freed from choosing between “the lesser of two evils,” as people often put it. That means fewer votes are “wasted” because voters can have confidence their views will be represented. Parties lacking a majority are motivated to cooperate and form coalitions with others.
The idea has critics, of course. Some claim it will enable fringe groups, like neo-Nazis, to gain legitimacy even though other democracies have routinely avoided this by setting minimum vote thresholds. Some cast the system as too complex. Like any “new” system, ProRep would involve a learning curve, but saying that curve is too steep suggests Canadians prefer convenience over fairness and ignores the fact that, again, most other democracies use it.
Some critics say ProRep’s past failure at the ballot box in British Columbia is proof voters do not want it. Seth Klein, the former director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ BC Office, said the truth is the other way around, that the issue will not go away, whether ProRep passes this year or not.
“If you’re a party apparatchik, first-past-the-post works for you because it limits competition and lets you maintain control and party discipline—‘Hold your nose and line up,’” Klein said. “A large chunk of passionate people are constantly frustrated with this system. They are sick and tired of strategic voting and false majorities.”
Outdated voting methods can only survive for so long. Supporters say some of the world’s first democracies will ultimately follow the lead of some of its newer ones.
After all, the most persistent force working against election reform is rarely the public. It is almost always the party in power. Trudeau’s turnabout last year proves the point yet again: Why change things when you are benefiting from a broken system? That dynamic alone is a reason to question the status quo—and why BC may well fix it.
Sightline senior fellow Bill Yardley is a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.