A better way of thinking about proportional representation

posted on December 1, 12018

There is an active, ongoing discussion in Canada around changing the method used of sending representatives to the House of Commons in Ottawa.

During the last federal election campaign, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau promised hundreds of times to bring about reform. He was lying.1

After three of Quebec’s major parties signed an agreement to bring in proportional representation, one of them won a large majority of seats. It is yet to be determined whether they will follow through.2

Concurrently, in British Colombia, the Green Party and the New Democratic Party created an alliance to form government on the promise of a referendum on proportional representation. The deadline was originally set to be yesterday, but has now been pushed back a week. There is still time to mail in your vote if you are eligible.

The referendum might have proceeded quietly, however, after a sequence of catastrophes in Ontario and an absurd election result in New Brunswick3, the country is paying attention.

What “proportional representation” means

Proportional representation is not a particular method of conducting elections. Proportionality is rather a characteristic of many systems of elections.

Canada’s current system of counting votes, simple plurality (also called first-past-the-post), guarantees almost none. In theory, a party cannot win seats without getting votes, so in that sense, some level of proportionality is guaranteed, but very little - a party can hypothetically form government (even with a majority) with an arbitrarily low percentage of the total votes, provided the conditions are correct. Effectively, this system can be fairly described as one of disproportionate representation.

How about the systems on offer in the British Colombia referendum? Is one system more “proportional” than the others? This question, it turns out, is not meaningful without context.

In his explanatory video, CGP Grey calls STV a “proportionalish” system of electing multiple winners. I don’t think he’s wrong to do so, given the context of his series4, but I will argue that the statement is inaccurate in the general sense.

Here’s why: a system of mixed-member proportional representation can be as proportional as you want it to be. The system works by firstly determining the winners in geographical districts, and then using party list seats to correct for a disproportionate seat total. How closely the proportionality is to the total votes can be determined by the ratio of party seats to geographical seats. A legislature with 100 geographical seats and only 10 party list seats will guarantee better proportionality than simple plurality, but not much better. On the other hand, a system with 10 geographical seats and 100 party list seats will be very closely proportional to the total vote. The drawback to this is reduced “local” representation. Most countries using mixed-member proportional allocate 50% to 66% of the seats to geographical districts.5

STV (single transferable vote) faces a similar trade-off. It works by selecting multiple winning candidates from each district such that many different voters will have a winner that they support. A district with only two or three winners will somewhat, but not closely, reflect the will of the electorate. By increasing the number of winners per district, the results can be made more precise. The main drawback to doing so is longer ballots, which for districts with ten or more winners can easily contain over fifty names.

For this reason, one of these systems shouldn’t be said to inherently be “more proportional” than the other. They are both systems which guarantee proportionality; how precise this proportionality is depends on the specifics.

The specifics don’t matter

Based on the above, you might expect me to demand specific implementation details6 from politicians before I can offer my support for their different proposals for proportional representation.

The imminent B.C. referendum has three different solutions on offer. I’ve only properly described one of them.

The fact is that the differences between the systems are quite minor compared to the enormous difference that would be made by having a proportional legislature. Any of them would be a huge improvement over simple plurality.

Consider: By definition, an electoral system that guarantees a high degree of proportionality cannot unfairly benefit one party over another. If you like top-down party power structures, then mixed-member makes sense, while if you want a bottom-up system with the individual members having more liberties then you would likely prefer the rural-urban7 proposal, which uses STV where feasible.

Anybody who claims to value democracy cannot reasonably oppose proportional representation in principle. The usual definition of “democracy” includes that all votes are equal. This is exactly what proportional representation provides. To the extent that our current system is not proportional, I would argue that it is not democratic.

A person who opposes proportional representation is a person who supports disproportionate representation.

Why this is important

A democracy needs its participants to trust the system for it to work. A system that is unfair — or even appears to be — will produce a government of dubious legitimacy. Even if we don’t like the result, we need to at least be in agreement that the process was fair. An election system that produces unfair results will bring about (fully justified) social unrest.

In the United States, many analysts attribute Donald Trump’s victory to dissatisfaction over the status quo. Voters didn’t like any of their options and chose to lash out by electing the person they thought would tear it all down. In the United Kingdom, voters slammed the door on Europe because of the perception that they were being exploited by the establishment. We don’t see this kind of political instability in Germany or New Zealand.

Elections in Canada are not fair.

Your vote might be worth more or less than others’ votes based on criteria such as where you live, who lives near you, and whom the parties have decided to nominate in your district.

A person who lives in Labrador (the least populated federal riding outside of the territories) has a vote that effectively contributes five times more to sending a member to the House of Commons than a person who lives in Niagara Falls (the most populated).

If you lived in Elmwood—Transcona during the last election, then you could have been one of the 61 people who turned the result from Conservative to NDP. If you lived in Battle River—Crowfoot, it would have taken 42047 of you to change the result — and that’s assuming you preferred the second-place Liberal candidate.

Canada’s electoral system is broken. Completely hosed. Disproportionate representation is the problem; proportional representation is the answer.


  1. This sentence is funniest if read in Ron Howard’s voice.

  2. There would be little reason to doubt François Legault, except that many unscrupulous politicians have given them all a bad name.

  3. One party received 37.8% of the votes, the largest share, but won fewer seats in Parliament than another party that only got 31.9% of the votes.

  4. If you haven’t before seen his Politics in the Animal Kingdom series, then you are one of today’s lucky 10000.

  5. Germany uses an interesting method whereby it determines the number of party list seats by how many are necessity to reach a certain level of proportionality after the first results are in, essentially working in the other direction.

  6. In the “debate” between premier John Horgan and opposition leader Andrew Wilkinson, Wilkinson asked repeatedly how many members the B.C. legislature would have under the various proposals. This was plainly disingenuous: nobody really cares how many members there are. Before the last federal election, the number of seats in the House of Commons was increased from 308 to 338. There was essentially zero opposition to this move; nobody cried out that 338 members was too many to represent all Canadian voters. Horgan didn’t have an answer to the question, presumably because he hasn’t given any consideration to it, because seriously, nobody cares how many members sit in the assembly.

  7. In fact, the rural-urban on the ballot in the referendum is not exactly the same rural-urban proposed by FairVote. FairVote’s idea was to use multi-member ridings in densely-packed regions and single-winner ridings in thinly-populated regions to prevent them from growing too large (geographically). The whole province (or country) would then be wrapped up in a short party list of seats to round it off. On the other hand, on the ballot is a proposal to simply use STV in urban areas and mixed-member in rural areas, with no overlap. How this change came about is not clear to me — but if you’re inclined to believe that this was a deliberate attempt by the sinister NDP government to rig the system in their favour, then you need to be reminded that this system is still a proportional one and thus cannot unfairly help or hurt any party. Besides, Horgan himself has repeatedly said that he prefers mixed-member over rural-urban.