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Polls often find strong support for electoral reforms, but when it comes to referendums, voters have stuck to the familiar status quo.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The Conservatives have called for any major electoral reforms to be put to a referendum, so now all major parties have a position. And although they insist they stand for principle, each backs the system that favours its party – or at least, the system that would have helped its party in the past.

Both the NDP's Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have pledged to abolish the current first-past-the-post system. Now Pierre Poilievre, the Minister Responsible for Democratic Reform, has given the Conservatives' reply: They promise a law requiring a referendum on any such change. They not only want to keep the current system, they want to make it harder to change.

In legislative terms, it means little. A future government could brush the referendum requirement away with a clause inserted in an electoral-reform bill. But politically, it raises a question any reformer must answer: Why not let the people decide?

Mr. Poilievre didn't seem quite as sensitive to process when he pushed the Conservative government's controversial Fair Elections Act through the Commons last year. But it's hard to argue with a plebiscite on voting.

It may also be an effective obstacle to change. Polls often find strong support for reforms, but when it comes to referendums – there have been four at the provincial level – they have stuck to the familiar status quo.

And no wonder the Conservatives want to create obstacles. The reforms their opponents propose would make it harder for them to wield power. Proportional representation tends to bring minority parliaments, suggesting they'd need support from their left. The preferential ballot tends to favour centrist parties, such as the Liberals. All of the parties have principles that have grown from their self-interest.

The New Democrats have proposed mixed-member proportional representation, which is supposed to make a party's share of the seats in the Commons turn out closer to its share of the popular vote. In other words, if you get 40 per cent of the vote, you should get roughly 40 per cent of the seats. (It is a double-vote system. Voters get two ballots each, and use one to vote for a local MP, and the other to pick a party in a regional election; MPs in each region are then allotted according to the share each party gets in that second-ballot vote.)

It shouldn't be a surprise that the NDP likes that. Over its history, it was regularly a third-place party, winning 15 per cent or 20 per cent of the vote, but getting shut out of government. New Democrats felt they deserved the balance of power. Instead, the Liberals would often woo NDP supporters to switch to them so as to beat Conservatives. Under proportional representation, voters would have no such incentive.

Of course, that might be history now. The NDP is the Official Opposition, and running strong in the polls. If the party wins government with first-past-the-post, it would appear to have less to gain from proportional representation.

But the Liberals lean another way. Mr. Trudeau has said he'd have an all-party committee study reforms, but he's often made it clear he leans to a preferential ballot, where voters rank their first and second choices, and if no party wins a majority of first choices, the second choices are added in.

It just so happens that the Liberals tend to be the second choice for supporters of other parties, at least according to polls that have measured that from time to time. They are the party that sells itself as centrist, after all, so supporters of both the Conservatives and the NDP often rank them second. In other words, it's a system where Liberals are likely to win more seats.

But for the Conservatives, both those systems could be disastrous. In recent years, under Stephen Harper, they have succeeded by hardening a core vote of perhaps 35 per cent, and in 2011, won a majority government with less than 40 per cent of the popular vote.

They are the second-choice party for some Liberals, but fewer New Democrats, so they'd probably lose a lot of ground under a preferential ballot. With proportional representation, they find it very hard to win a majority, so they'd need support from a party to their left to form government. Is it any surprise that a government that has used wedge politics to win power in the past doesn't see that as the best system for the future?

The initial version of this column mistakenly referred to a single-transferable ballot, when the electoral reform option Mr. Trudeau has expressed support for is a preferential ballot.

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