SMP or PR? Debating Canada’s Electoral Future

The central feature of any democratic political system is the ability of citizens to elect their representatives (or, similarly, the capacity for self-representation). There are, however, several different means to this end, each of which produces different results.

In Canada, for instance, each province, as well as the federal government, utilizes the first-past-the-post Single Member Plurality (SMP) electoral system, in which the winning candidate is required only to obtain the plurality of votes, as opposed to a majority of them. In contrast, Proportional Representation (PR) electoral systems apportion each party’s share of the legislature according to their share of the popular vote. Criticisms of the Canadian electoral system typically focus on the weaknesses of SMP compared to PR, which some feel is more democratic.

While there are clear advantages to PR, it can create representational issues overlooked in contemporary debate. In principle, PR would change the role of Members of Parliament (MP) from being representatives of their geographic constituency, which would further diminish their ability to distinguish themselves from their party caucus. Read last week’s post, Achieving Greater Democratic Representation, which discusses this issue in detail.

The SMP electoral system works by dividing a country into ridings, of which there are 308 in Canada. Each riding returns a single representative, often associated with some political party, which represents that constituency in Parliament. The problem is that the composition of the House of Commons rarely reflects each parties share of the popular vote. For instance, the current government, formed by Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party, has a majority in the House of Commons, whereas the party received roughly 40 per cent of the popular vote.

In order to correct “artificial majorities,” to which they are referred, some observers propose that Canada implement a PR-based electoral system. In this case, the electorate would vote for a political party, rather than an individual to represent them in Parliament. For instance, if a party received 30 per cent of the popular vote in a general election, it would receive 30 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons. In most countries that utilize PR, the party chooses who sits on those seats; however, some countries allow voters to rank their preferences.

A PR-based system could conceivably fix the “artificial majority” issue, yet it changes the nature of the MP from being a representative of a community to solely being the representative of a political party. Although in our current system MPs still owe allegiance to the party, PR systems do not guarantee representation for smaller communities. In Canada, for instance, each constituency has a representative in Parliament. MPs have specific geographic communities that they represent and, subsequently, risk losing the support of the community if they do not represent it effectively. Switching to a PR system would diminish this relationship to the geographic communities and, instead, compel political parties to focus their attention on communities with the largest share of the population.

In conclusion, SMP and PR electoral systems have their advantages and disadvantages. Despite there being many arguments in favour of both systems, it is important to scrutinize them objectively. Moving forward, it is important to delineate the objectives of the Canadian political system and measure whether they are achieved efficiently using SMP or PR.

Randy Kaye is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute

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