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Politics Canadians support reforms to voting system, poll suggests

Voters cast ballots on election day in Toronto, Oct. 19, 2015.

James MacDonald/Bloomberg

Most Canadians believe the federal electoral system needs to be changed, and those who advocate reform want to ensure that winning parties occupy the amount of space in Parliament that is proportionate to their level of support across the country, a new poll suggests.

With the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau promising that the election of Oct. 19 will be the last conducted under the first-past-the-post system, the Broadbent Institute has commissioned a study to assess what Canadians think about the way they vote. The survey by Abacus Data is to be released Wednesday morning but an advance copy was obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The polling firm surveyed 2,986 adults, randomly selected from a large representative panel of Canadians, to find out how they believe elections should be restructured, and also to estimate how the results of the most recent vote would have differed under proportional representation and under a ranked ballot. Those are the two systems that Mr. Trudeau has said he will ask an all-party Commons committee to study as the government decides, within the next 18 months, which way to go on electoral reform.

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A survey of the size conducted by Abacus is expected to reflect the broad opinions of the Canadian public within 1.8 percentage points 19 times out of 20.

The poll suggests that a ranked ballot would have given the Liberals – who won a majority despite receiving only 40 per cent of the popular vote – an even greater number of seats in Parliament. But proportional representation would have reduced them to a minority and given Mr. Trudeau about 40 per cent of the seats.

Under a ranked ballot, the Liberal seat count would have climbed from 184 to 217, the Conservatives would have dropped from 99 to 66 and the NDP would have inched up from 44 to 50, the poll suggests. But, under proportional representation, the Liberals would have fallen to 136 seats, the Conservatives would have climbed to 108 and the NDP would have jumped to 67.

When asked to rank the top goals of a voting system, the respondents at large said they wanted simple ballots, strong stable governments, the ability to directly elect the MPs who represent their constituency, and assurances that the government has MPs from each region of the country.

But among those who said they want change, the top goal was a system that ensures that the number of seats held by a party in Parliament matches its actual level of support across the country.

One of the overriding messages of the survey is that Canadians are not satisfied with the current system, said Rick Smith, the executive director of the Broadbent Institute, a left-wing think tank that was founded by former NDP Leader Ed Broadbent.

"About 40 per cent of people said yes, they would be up for major reforms. About 40 per cent of people said they would be up for some reforms. And the rest of folks weren't up for much," said Mr. Smith. "So that's a pretty healthy constituency of people looking for change."

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Those surveyed were asked to rank four different electoral systems:

  • First past the post;
  • Pure proportional representation in which Canadians vote for a political party and each party gets the number of seats that corresponds to their percentage of the vote;
  • Mixed-member proportional representation in which there are two votes, one for the local candidate and one for a party, and each party gets the number of seats proportionate to the votes they received;
  • The ranked-ballot system in which voters rank all of the candidates and, if no candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the votes on the first ballot, the bottom candidates are eliminated and the support of the voters who ranked them first is transferred to their second choices, with the process continuing until someone tops 50 per cent.

Overall, 44 per cent of the respondents picked one of the two systems of proportional representation, while 43 said they were happy with first-past-the-post, and just 14 per cent said they liked the idea of a ranked ballot.

"There is some understanding that, if you have a stand-alone ranked ballot system, that alone will not give you a proportionate outcome," said Mr. Smith.

But the fact that 43 per cent of the respondents said they are happy with the way they currently vote, at the same time that 80 per cent said they are looking for some change, suggests Canadians are unsure about what should happen with the electoral system – and that Mr. Trudeau has his work cut out for him as he embarks on a process of reform.

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