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First Past The Post: Canada’s Electoral System

Does Canada use first past the post elections?

Canada’s electoral system is a first-past-the-post system, also known as single-member plurality or winner-takes-all. (source). This means that in each riding (electoral district), the candidate with the most votes wins and becomes the Member of Parliament (“MP”) for that riding. An absolute majority (more than 50 percent of the votes in the electoral district) is not required for a candidate to be elected MP. The party with the most MPs in the House of Commons forms the government. While this system may be simple, its critics argue that it can lead to disproportionate representation and a lack of choice for voters.

Ontario, Canada, my home province in Canada, also uses first past the post for its provincial elections.

When did Canada start using first-past-the-post?

Canada has been using first-past-the-post since it became a country in 1867. The system was inherited from Britain where it had been used for the UK’s elections to the House of Commons. There have been some attempts to change the system over the years, but none have been successful.

The most recent attempt was in 2005 when the Liberal government under Paul Martin introduced a bill to change to a system of proportional representation. However, the bill was defeated in Canada’s House of Commons. Read more at the bottom of this article about a history of proposed changes to Canada’s electoral system.

First past the post vs proportional representation

The two most common electoral systems used around the world are, in order, proportional representation and first-past-the-post. There are over 100 countries which use either a proportional representation electoral system across the world. Less than 50 countries use the first past the post system, one of which is, as discussed above, Canada.

Recall that first-past-the-post is a winner-takes-all system, where the candidate with the most votes in each riding wins, regardless of whether they have a majority of the votes. On the contrary, in proportional representation, each party gets a number of seats in Parliament that is proportional to the number of votes they receive. This proportional representation system is used in many leading countries, including Germany and New Zealand.

The main advantage of proportional representation, critics of first-past-the-post argue, is that it leads to a more accurate representation of the popular vote in Parliament. However, supporters of first-past-the post argue proportional representation can lead to more coalition governments and potentially less stability.

parliament hill in ottawa canada
Photo by Deneen LT on

First past the post pros and cons

There are both pros and cons to first-past-the-post. On the plus side, it is a simple system that is easy for voters to understand. It also generally results in a clear winner and a stable government.

However, first-past-the-post can also be seen as undemocratic, as it is possible for a party to form a majority government without actually receiving a majority of the popular vote. It can also lead to a situation where smaller parties are underrepresented in Parliament, as they often have difficulty winning seats in ridings that are dominated by one of the two main parties.

Read more about the pros and cons of first-past-the-post in this CBC article here.

A Canadian example of a controversial first past the post-election

One of the most controversial elections in Canadian history was the 1988 federal election. The Progressive Conservative Party, led by Brian Mulroney, won a majority of seats in Parliament with only 43% of the popular vote. This was seen as unfair by many Canadians, as the Liberal Party, led by John Turner, had actually received more votes than the Conservatives. Many Canadians became desirous to switch from first past the post elections to proportional representation elections following that election.

More recently, in 2015, Justin Trudeau promised to change Canada’s electoral system after the Liberals’ decline in polls. He emphasized the importance of votes accurately reflecting the electorate’s intentions and ensuring representation for all in the House of Commons. Yet despite that, Trudeau abandoned this promise once his party came to power. I was left to wonder, did his decision reflect that he prioritized the fortunes of the Liberal party over Canadian democracy? Read more in this interesting article from the Literary Review of Canada here.