Canada and Single-Seat Plurality Elections
Canada has more parties than the US, but still suffers representation problems due to FPTP elections.
On a recent installment of the FiveThirtyEight Podcast, Nate Silver quipped about the Canadian elections:
Nate: I didn’t know that Trudeau lost the popular vote
Crosstalk/someone else: Yeah, very narrowly in eighteen.
Nate: Oh, how come people don’t complain about that more? I don’t hear many Trudeau-loving progressives point out that that their guy actually lost the popular vote.
Now, this was the cold open and not part of a broader conversation and the punchline was basically “this is the part of the podcast where we all learn for the first time that political actors are opportunistic.” And I will note a minor correction: it wasn’t the 2018 elections, it was 2019.
I have zero dogs in the “Trudeau-loving progressives” fight but will say that Canada’s electoral system is producing problematic outcomes from the point of view of representativeness. Specifically, in 2019 and in the 2021 elections (pending final counts) the party that won the most votes nationally did not win the most seats in parliament. Moreover, both 2019 and 2021 will require minority governments.
So, yes, this is problematic and is an example of why electoral rules matter and, specifically, how single-seat districts are detrimental if one wants a system that produces representative outcomes.
First, some basics.
Canada has a parliamentary system with a bicameral legislature with medium symmetry between the chambers.* The House of Commons is elected via single-seat districts with plurality winners (just like the United States, but they have more parties than we do), while the Senate is composed of members appointed by the govern-general on the advice of the prime minister. The Senate functions more like the British House of Lords than it does the US Senate. The Canadian Senate’s main legislative power is the power to veto bills passed by the House of Commons, which they do on a relatively rare basis.
The head of government is the prime minister and the government is chosen out of the House of Commons, the lower chamber of the bicameral legislature. The head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, meaning that Canada is not a republic, but is, instead, a constitutional monarchy. It is also a federal system.
Side note: for those who like the “republic, not a democracy” debates, Canada is a democracy, but not a republic! (And the US is both a republic and a democracy). I would also note that Canada is very federal, and yet doesn’t have a presidency, nor an electoral college, nor a Senate that gives outsized power to its smaller sub-units (because despite what some American commentators say, none of those things are inherent to federalism).
In a parliamentary system, the government (the PM and cabinet) is formed by the party (or parties) that control a majority of seats. Sometimes, however, a party with the plurality of seats (the most, but not 50%+1) forms a minority government. This happens when a smaller party agrees to support the plurality party in terms of government formation but does so without forming a coalition government.
A minority government would still need to form alliances to pass legislation and, by definition, are more limited in what they can accomplish than if they had the most seats in parliament.
It should be clear that minority government is not, in and of itself, minority rule. Again, majority support is still needed to form that government, and all legislation still has to pass with a majority of votes.
The problem in Canada is that the single-seat districts with FPTP, especially since they have a lot of parties (which, BTW, is an example of why Duverger’s Law isn’t much of a law)** produces outcomes wherein the party with the most votes does not win the most seats.
Note the 2019 vote totals (source):
However, the seat distribution was 46.45% (and a minority government with the help of the NDP):
And a similar outcome for 2021:
So, all the time, effort, and money to run an early election seem to have netted Trudeau’s Liberals 2 seats and still only a plurality of the House of Commons (46.75% of the seats) and, therefore, another minority government.
Quite frankly, from a theoretical point of view, Canada needs electoral reform. But, of course, the two largest parties benefit from the current system (the Liberals, for example, are able to turn less than a third of the vote into a plurality of seats into minority government). A proportional representation system, which would better match Canadian’s political preferences, would cut into the Liberal (and the Conservative’s) seat shares, so they are unlikely to want to change the situation.
For more on Canada, see Matthew Shugart at Fruits and Votes:
- Canada 2021: Another good night for the Seat Product Model, and another case of anomalous FPTP
- What electoral system should Canada have?
*The US has fully symmetrical chambers when it comes to legislative power (i.e., all legislation must pass both chambers in identical form to become law and, with the exception of new spending measures, bills can originate in either chamber). Medium symmetry means that one chamber has more legislative power than another, but that the chamber with lesser power still can affect legislative outcomes, usually by vetoing or delaying (e.g., the main power of the British House of Lords is delay). In some cases, the lower chamber has special powers, such as over the budget, that the upper chamber has no say in. In asymmetrical cases, the upper chamber lacks a veto over legislation (i.e., the lower chamber can legislate on its own).
**Duverger’s Law, in simple terms, is the idea that single-seat FPTP leads to a two-party system. However, Canada, the UK, and India, to name three such systems, undercuts that notion. The US fits the mold perfectly, but the US has what those systems do not: primary elections.