The Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. have officially nominated their candidates for president, but the election they will be contesting uses a very different system than the one we are familiar with in Canada.
There are the obvious differences – Canada elects no chief executive, instead the prime minister is the person who command the support of the MPs in the House of Commons – but just the mechanism by which the president is elected would create profound changes in the Canadian political sphere.
In the United States’ electoral college system, each state is awarded a number of electoral votes based on the state’s representation in Congress. In all but a handful of states, these votes are awarded to a presidential candidate on a winner-takes-all basis. No matter how slim a candidate’s margin of victory, he or she is awarded all of that state’s votes. Though it rarely happens (only four times, the last in 2000), this system can result in a president losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College.
What if Canada used a similar system to choose the Prime Minister? Elections in this country are quite different, but they are nevertheless primarily driven by party leaders. How would our electoral history be different if we had adopted the American system?
Though most elections would have ended with the same result, this sort of system could have changed the course of Canadian political history. Would Wilfrid Laurier have stayed on as Liberal leader if he had lost in 1896? Would Robert Borden have been awarded another chance after losing for the third straight time in 1911? And how would history have changed if men like Charles Tupper, Robert Stanfield and John Turner – leaders who never prevailed in a general election – would have won the top job?
In this hypothetical exercise, each province is awarded as many votes as seats it had in the House of Commons at the time of the election. The leader of the party that wins the popular vote in a given province receives all of the votes of that province.
Confederation’s early days
The result would not have been any different in Canada’s first elections, but in 1896 Charles Tupper of the Conservatives would have defeated Wilfrid Laurier of the Liberals with 133 electoral votes to 80. This would have actually righted a historical wrong, as the Tories had earned more of the popular vote in that election.
Mr. Laurier would have still won the next three elections, but would have also bested Robert Borden in 1911 with a slightly lower share of the popular vote, due to close victories in vote-heavy Quebec and New Brunswick. This would have put Wilfrid Laurier at the helm as Canada entered the First World War.
Arthur Meighen would have won in 1925, as he did historically, but would have also won the 1926 election, defeating William Lyon Mackenzie King.
Second World War and post-war
Mr. King would have won in 1935, 1940, and 1945, however. The election of 1935 would have put John Horne Blackmore of Social Credit as the runner-up, as Mr. Blackmore would have been awarded Alberta’s 17 votes, while out-going prime minister R.B. Bennett would not have carried a single province. His successor, Robert Manion, would have only won Yukon in a near sweep by Mr. King in 1940.
Louis St. Laurent would have easily won in 1949, with George Drew of the Progressive Conservatives being shut-out. Solon Low of Social Credit, again thanks to Alberta’s support, would have placed second. Mr. Drew would have been shut-out again in 1953, as M.J. Coldwell of the C.C.F. tied with Mr. Low for runner-up status.
The Tories would returned in force in 1957, with John Diefenbaker carrying B.C., Manitoba, Ontario and the Maritimes and so winning 147 votes to Mr. St. Laurent’s 84. Mr. Diefenbaker would have won every province and territory except Newfoundland and Yukon in 1958, handily defeating the Liberals.
Pearson’s and Stanfield’s majorities
In the 1962 election, Lester B. Pearson would have come up just short of Mr. Diefenbaker in the popular vote but well ahead in the Electoral College with 168 to 75, thanks to wins in Ontario and Quebec. He would have added British Columbia to his tally in 1963, increasing his margin over the PC leader.
The Trudeau years would have been cut short in 1972, as Robert Stanfield would have become Prime Minister despite losing the popular vote. Pierre Trudeau would have only carried Quebec in that election, but he would have returned to power in 1974.
An 80s upset
In 1984, Brian Mulroney would have won a clean sweep with 282 votes to John Turner’s zero, but in 1988 it would have been Mr. Turner who emerged victorious. Despite losing the popular vote by 11 percentage points, wins in Ontario and Atlantic Canada would have awarded him 133 votes to Mr. Mulroney’s 115. Ed Broadbent would have been the cause of Mr. Mulroney’s defeat, edging him out for the votes of British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
The Liberal reign would have continued through the Chrétien years, with Bloc Québécois leaders finishing second thanks to Quebec’s 75 votes in 1993 and 1997. Jean Chrétien would have won his biggest victory in 2000 with 227 votes to Stockwell Day’s 74. Paul Martin would have continued the winning streak in 2004 with 141 votes to Stephen Harper’s 92, thanks to victories in Ontario, Atlantic Canada, and the North. Mr. Harper would have won the four western provinces while Gilles Duceppe carried Quebec.
Contrary to the historical result, Mr. Martin would have won again in 2006 with no changes to the electoral map apart from the Northwest Territories giving their lone vote to Jack Layton. But Mr. Harper would have easily won in 2008 with 209 votes to Mr. Duceppe’s 75. Stéphane Dion would have placed third.
Stephen Harper would have increased his tally in 2011 to 225, picking off some of the Liberal provinces in Atlantic Canada. Jack Layton, who carried Quebec and the N.W.T., would have placed second with 76 votes. Michael Ignatieff would have been awarded only Newfoundland’s seven.
If an election using this system were held today, Stephen Harper would narrowly edge out Thomas Mulcair thanks to the support of Ontario, Alberta, and the Prairie provinces.
But those who criticize our current system, which can give one party a majority with far less than a majority of the popular vote, should appreciate that Canada does not have a system like that of the United States. With our population concentrated so much more heavily in two provinces, results would often be even more disproportionate as winning Ontario and Quebec – even by a single vote – would be enough to earn the keys to 24 Sussex.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com .