Vote Reform Primer: Proportional.

The following is an up-dated version of the discussion on proportional voting in the Democracy Papers of 2007. This is the second of the series.

There is no denying that proportional voting in its many variations is the most common voting system in the world. This works very well in countries with many languages or with a high rate of illiteracy. All the voter needs to do is indicate which political party they prefer by making a mark or selecting the symbol of the party they prefer. After the election, members of each of the parties are appointed from party lists to the legislature according to the number of votes. There is usually a cut-off point of maybe three or five per cent below which no appointment is made.

In their enthusiasm for this form of voting, you will hear some supporters claiming that it will increase voter turnout and female legislative representation. Would it not be wonderful if such simplistic solutions to fixing our voting systems would work?

But the truth is that it is not so simple. Proportional representation (PR) has evolved in many variations.   Mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting is just one variation that tries to accommodate both first-past-the-post (FPTP) and PR.   MMP is the system that was presented as an option for Ontario voters in the October 2007 referendum.

But can it improve voter turnout? No. The voting method is not what influences voter enthusiasm or voter apathy. MMP voting in Mexico could hardly overcome voter apathy during 71 years of that country’s politics being dominated by one party. It was only the winds of change that took the usual 40 per cent turnout to over 60 per cent in the year 2000 to elect a president from an opposition party.

It has been constantly proved in Canadian elections that the closeness of the contest, the attractiveness of leaders and candidates, the efforts of campaign workers, the reporting of the news media and the major issues being argued as well as regional events are all factors in influencing voter turnout.

“Increasing female legislative representation” is an ongoing myth of those who support proportional voting. This idea might have something to do with the high percentage of women in public office in the Nordic countries of Europe that use PR voting but there are also sociological factors to consider. An unusual factor in Norway is a 40 per cent rule in the Storting (parliament). Despite the successes women have had, they still feel they need a law to ensure 40 per cent of the legislators are women. Some sociologists suggest that this rule limits women more than ensuring their role. Since Norway uses pure PR voting, the party lists for each of their electoral districts have the obligatory female representation. According to the International Parliamentary Union, currently 39.6 per cent of the legislators in Norway’s Storting are women.

Some people would consider it unfair to suggest Mexico’s MMP voting helps increase the number of female legislators. They would point out the supposed Mexican male machismo and that male dominance in a devoutly Catholic country would hold women back. And they would be wrong. Despite women only winning the right to vote in Mexico in 1947 and the right to run for election in 1953, they have progressed to a greater share of seats than women legislators in Canada. Mexican women hold over 42 per cent of their federal congress seats and Canadian women currently hold just 26 per cent of the seats in our House of Commons.

PR voting is no panacea. It is a system that the Mexicans have fiddled with for the past 90 years. They are still not sure they have it right. While the Mexican President is chosen by direct FPTP election, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies (similar to the U.S. House of Representatives) use a mixed-member selection process. Of the 128 senators, 96 are elected and 32 are selected from closed party lists. In the Chamber of Deputies, 300 deputies are elected by FPTP voting and 200 selected from party lists.

In Ontario, the proposal was that there be 90 members elected by FPTP in larger ridings, averaging 135,000 people, and then another 39 members be selected from party lists according to the party vote. How this would solve the ills of a plurality (FPTP) system remains very much a mystery.

The suggestion often made by PR supporters is that the FPTP system means people who do not vote for the winner are wasting their vote.   They also think people are wasting their vote when they add their vote to the winners’ pile when the winner already has more than enough votes. It is not a very logical argument.

Hundreds of years ago, before voters were given ballots to indicate their choice, they would gather in the market square and would shout out their choice of person to send to parliament. While that system was not perfect, it was the best that could be done at the time. Even today, FPTP is not a perfect system but at least it allows us to make a choice and not have to trust political parties to make our choices for us.

Today Canadians have a system of voting that allows them to vote for someone they have an opportunity to know. The candidates are very frequently from your community and we have the opportunity to decide if we want them to represent us. Proportional voting means that we can only vote for a political party and its leader.


Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to

Comments are closed.