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A Big Lesson America Should Learn From Canada’s New Prime Minister

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SUSAN WALSH
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SUSAN WALSH

Canada’s electoral system is, frankly, a mess. Stephen Harper, the outgoing prime minister, served more than nine years despite the fact that his Conservative Party never even garnered 40 percent of the nation’s popular vote. On Monday, incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party won what the New York Times describes as a “stunning rout” — the Liberals gained 150 additional seats in Canada’s 338 seat House of Commons, giving them an absolute majority. Yet early projections show the liberals winning only 39.5 percent of the popular vote. Canada keeps electing governments that most of the nation voted against.

The reason for this is twofold. Currently, Canada uses a first-past-the-post voting system to determine winners in parliamentary elections, which means that the winner is whoever receives a plurality of the vote even if that person does not garner a majority. The second is the fact that, while the overwhelming majority of Canada’s voters are well to Harper’s left, Canada has multiple viable left-of-center parties who often split the non-Conservative vote amongst themselves. That was enough to hand a victory to Harper and the Conservatives in three separate elections despite the fact that Harper never came close to winning a majority of the electorate.

During his successful campaign for Canada’s top job, however, Trudeau offered a plan to ensure that future prime ministers don’t come to power solely because of vote splitting. He wants to eliminate first-past-the-post voting in Canada and replace it with a system that is more likely to accurately capture voter preferences.

To take control of the government, the Liberal Party competed with another left-of-center party, the New Democratic Party, for a pool of voters that could conceivably support either party. Indeed, the lines between these two parties were particularly blurred during the recently completed election. Trudeau’s Liberals have historically been viewed as a centrist party, although they tacked left in this election by promising to borrow money to fund an infrastructure-driven economic stimulus program. Meanwhile, the New Democratic Party has historically positioned itself to the Liberal Party’s left, but they tacked right in this election by promising four years of balanced budgets.

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This struggle between two left-of-center contenders gave the Conservatives a structural advantage that served them well in three successive elections.

Last June, however, Trudeau released a 32-point plan to “restore democracy in Canada.” One of its most ambitious proposals calls for Canada to abandon first-past-the-post and replace it with an alternative recommended by a cross-party committee.

One leading proposal to replace the current system is ranked ballots, which would allow voters to rank their preferences and transfer their vote to their second choice if their first choice is not elected. Another is proportional representation, where seats in parliament are awarded to parties proportionally according to the percentage of the popular vote that each party earns. Trudeau says that he personally favors the first of these two options.

Ranked balloting could also prevent anti-democratic results from occurring in the United States due to vote splitting. In 2000, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader famously peeled off voters that likely would have gone to Democratic candidate Al Gore, transforming what could have been a clear victory for Gore into an election that was uncertain enough that it was ultimately resolved by a Republican-dominated Supreme Court, who chose Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Similarly, Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), a conservative who is well to the right of a state that typically supports Democratic presidential candidates, has twice been elected with only a plurality of the vote. In both elections, an independent candidate named Eliot Cutler played the role of Ralph Nader.

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So, while vote splitting hasn’t played the role in American politics that it has played in Canada’s, there are a number of examples of American elections where a candidate that most voters reject was nonetheless elected because we use a first-past-the-post system. Trudeau’s proposal could solve that problem as well.