Electoral Reform in Canada

The Liberals’ forgotten promises and potential reform in the upcoming election

Key Actors:
  • Liberal Party
  • Conservative Party
  • New Democratic Party
  • Bloc Québécois
  • Green Party
  • People’s Party

Justin Trudeau vowed during the 2015 election that it would be the last conducted using the FPTP (first-past-the-post) system. However, this promise was quickly neglected; four years later, we have yet to see any changes made to the federal electoral system.

The current model

Canada currently uses the simple first-past-the-post system for governmental elections. The seats in the House of Commons are distributed to 338 members who each represent a riding. Each citizen gets one vote, and the candidate with the most votes in their riding wins. Generally, the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons becomes the prime minister.


  • Protects each region’s individual interests, which has been important throughout Canadian history
  • Provides a direct relationship between the voters and the Members of the Parliament
  • Simple and easy to understand
  • Efficient and well-established


  • The top party often wins by a minority, resulting in a majority of Canadians’ opinions not being represented
  • Smaller parties struggle to be represented.
  • Discourages minority voters from thinking their vote counts
  • Does not represent voters proportionally; riding populations differ but each has only 1 candidate
Alternative models:

Mixed Member Proportional Representation 

(a combination of FPTP and proportional representation)

  • The only system that has been specifically proposed by a party
  • Electors cast 2 votes, one for their local candidate and one for a party at the national level.
  • The local candidate is chosen with the FPTP system
  • There are extra seats in the House of Commons known as “top up” seats that will help align the number of seats each party gets with the proportions of the national vote. For example, if a party got 10% of the vote nationally but less than 10% of the seats, extra seats would be given in the House.

PROS: Voters have a regional connection to their MP and the country’s general vote is represented at a national level. Small parties get representation.

CONS: Hard to understand.

Proportional representation:

  • Votes are proportional to representation
  • Each party creates a list of candidates for their party
  • People vote for one party instead of a person in the riding


  • Allows representation for minority groups and smaller parties
  • The country is accurately represented with voting percentages reflecting the number of seats
  • Clear and straightforward


  • Since seats are filled with a list, candidates have no connection with a region, and a voter’s preferred party may not represent their region well
  • Allows representation for extremist parties
  • May create a government of many small parties that has difficulty reaching consensus

Ranked ballet/preferential voting:

  • Voters rank the parties on their ballot
  • If no party has a majority based on first preferences, the second and third preferences are counted in to eventually get a majority.


  • May reduce tactical voting as voters don’t fear wasting votes
  • The majority of Canadians will see that their vote is reflected in the government


  • A more complex and lengthy process
  • Apathetic voters may just list candidates in the given order
Liberal Party’s 2015 promises

While running for Liberal leadership in 2013, Trudeau claimed that he preferred preferential voting. During the federal election campaign, the Liberal Party repeatedly emphasised reform of the electoral system, but after the election, no clear plan was made to execute such reform. The greatest effort taken by the party was creating an electoral reform committee that was meant to offer the best alternative governmental system. The committee consisted of five Liberals, three Conservatives, two New Democrats, one member of Bloc Québécois and one Green Party member.

The committee’s recommendation was to hold a referendum. However, many members of the committee refuted such a referendum, making the report seem contradictory. As a result, no referendum was held.

While this does not change the fact that Trudeau has not followed through with his promise of electoral reform, recent referendums suggest that many Canadians agree with keeping the current system as it is. In December 2018, a referendum suggesting a change to proportional representation was held in BC, and the majority of British Columbians voted against it (61% to 39%). A referendum was conducted in Prince Edward Island in early 2019, where the verdict was the same, with 52% of voters saying no to proportional representation.

The Liberals’ conclusion to their promise in February 2017 was that Canadians were not ready for electoral reform. Any changes will be made slowly and steadily with no clear deadline.

What are the other parties’ views on electoral reform?

Conservative Party:

Open to electoral reform but insist that a referendum must come first. The party does not favour any specific system.


Proposed a mixed-member proportional representation system that would be in place by the next election. After the election is held under this system, the party would hold a referendum to judge whether Canadians want it to stay. The party would lower the voting age to 16.

Green Party:

Want electoral reform and proposed launching a ‘citizens assembly’ to decide on an alternative to the current model. The new system would be put in place by the next election. The party would lower the voting age to 16.

Bloc Québécois:

Advocated for a referendum through the electoral reform committee.

People’s Party:

Does not have a position on electoral reform.



Watters, Haydn. “Liberals Broke Their Promise. But Where Do Other Parties Stand on Electoral Reform? | CBC News.” Google, Google, 2 Oct. 2019, https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.cbc.ca/amp/1.5304383.

Guly, Christopher. “Will the Liberals’ Broken Electoral Reform Promise Hurt Them?” The Tyee, The Tyee, 11 Sept. 2019, https://thetyee.ca/News/2019/09/11/Liberals-Broken-Electoral-Reform-Promise/.

Wherry, Aaron, and John Paul Tasker. “MPs Insulted by Minister’s Reaction to Electoral Reform Committee Report | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 2 Dec. 2016, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/wherry-electoral-reform-committee-1.3866879.

Wherry, Aaron. “The Strange Afterlife of Justin Trudeau’s Broken Electoral Reform Promise | CBC News.” CBC News, CBC, 26 July 2019, https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.cbc.ca/amp/1.5225616.

Shendruk, Amanda. “Making Sense of Electoral Reform: What Are Canada’s Options?” Macleans.ca, Macleans, 21 June 2016, https://www.macleans.ca/politics/making-sense-of-electoral-reform-what-are-canadas-options/.

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