David Moscrop is a writer and political commentator. He is the author of Too Dumb for Democracy and a Substack newsletter.
The continuing crisis in Israel has thrown the country and its democratic institutions into chaos. Hundreds of thousands have been taking to the streets regularly to oppose Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s heavy-handed judicial reforms, and he even earned himself a rare rebuke from U.S. President Joe Biden. In recent days, Israelis have been shaken up by terror attacks and missile strikes from Gaza, Syria and Lebanon. As cross-border violence continues, many are speculating that the government’s aggressive shift to the right and the weakening of the military because of the civil unrest have compromised Israel’s security. The proposed legal changes, which are cynical and reckless, are being driven by small, far-right parties that hold the balance of power under Israel’s system of proportional representation.
Observers of the catastrophe unfolding might question if Israel’s current mess is a warning on the dangers of proportional representation, a family of electoral systems based on the principle that outcomes should closely match the voting preferences of the electorate. The system is often held up by Canadian electoral-reform advocates as more representative, but it’s natural to wonder why any country would want to adopt the same sort of electoral system that has contributed to the situation in Israel. Or, for that matter, the one that produced two long stretches of several hundred days without a government in Belgium.
Electoral reform has been on and off the agenda nationally and provincially in Canada for decades – indeed, longer. During the 2015 federal election campaign, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he would make the contest the last one conducted under Canada’s first-past-the-post system (FPTP). Later, as Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau and his Liberal government undertook a half-hearted attempt at reform, which they abandoned when it looked like it might result in proportional representation (PR), which Mr. Trudeau does not care for, rather than his preferred non-proportional ranked ballot system. Mr. Trudeau’s preferred system, known as alternative vote, is one in which voters rank their preferred candidates. Lower-performing candidates are dropped and their supporters’ next choices redistributed, until a winner emerges with a majority of the votes.
In a PR system, the number of seats a party wins in the legislature is roughly proportional to the number of votes it has received in a given region or the country at large. PR systems tend to encourage co-operation and deliberation through power sharing either by way of coalitions or minority governments, though they can also result in the election of extremists and give oversized leverage to fringe parties. FPTP systems are winner-take-all. And while they tend to produce single-party majority governments in Canada, which some may prefer, those governments often win with just a fraction of the country’s electoral support, with a majority of voters preferring other parties. Plus, those parties themselves risk being captured by extremists or fringe types.
There are different sorts of PR systems. Around the world, over 100 countries use some variant of PR, including party list, mixed member, and single transferable vote systems – roughly double the number that use Canada’s FPTP system. These systems each have their own particularities.
For instance, in a party-list PR system, seats are allocated based on the proportion of ballots cast for a party or candidate on a list prepared by the party. Lists may be closed (by choosing the party, you choose all the candidates on their list), open (you can vote for a specific candidate), or a mix of each. Israel uses a closed-list PR system with a single national set of party lists.
In a mixed-member system, voters get two ballots, one with which they elect a local representative, typically as we do in Canada now, and another in which they vote for a party with a PR list. The latter part of the ballot is used to balance outcomes proportionally.
In a single-transferable-vote system, a voter casts a ballot in which they rank their preferred candidates, and those who meet a certain threshold of support throughout rounds of counting are elected until all the seats in each electoral district are filled. Under this model, districts have multiple representatives.
There is no zero-risk electoral system. Every system comes with trade-offs. But the world’s top democracies tend to use one variety of PR or another. Democracy rankings are flawed tools, but they point to something and, when taken together, they give a sense of which states tend to do better than others. They also say something about the health and functionality of basic democratic institutions. One trend across these rankings – whether it’s the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index or Freedom House’s democracy score or some other evaluation – is that PR countries tend to score high on the list.
Look at any given democracy ranking over the past several years and you’ll see Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, Ireland, Iceland, Finland, Taiwan, Denmark, Australia and Germany near the top. Canada makes the list, too, but our electoral system is an outlier among the top-ranked. This doesn’t necessarily mean that PR makes a country a good democracy on its own, though I think it often contributes a great deal. It certainly does indicate that using PR doesn’t prevent a democracy from flourishing, as the long list of successful PR countries suggests.
A country’s political culture and its suite of democratic institutions all go into determining political outcomes. For instance, Canada’s current electoral system shapes our politics and can return unusual or remarkable parliaments. It may be worth recalling, for instance, that Canada’s FPTP system returned an official opposition in 1993 – the Bloc Québécois – that was committed to sovereignty for Quebec. Canada managed to survive the challenge and the dramatic 1995 referendum on Quebec separation that followed, in no small part because of its political culture and institutions. But the FPTP system helped set up the showdown in the first place.
First-past-the-post electoral systems do not guarantee disaster, just as PR systems do not guarantee success. But the FPTP system may indeed help produce bad outcomes. First past the post is the most common electoral system in the United States – though it is not used for the presidential election. And we know how well American elections tend to serve the highly polarized, often-gridlocked country, though U.S. democracy is plagued with countless other problems, not the least of which is the insidious effect of big money.
When evaluating how an electoral system affects a country, one ought to apply fair terms of analysis, including a reasonable account of the particular features of the current system or its proposed alternative. When you hear hooves, the old saying goes, you think horse and not zebra. If Canada were to adopt a PR system, it would not adopt an Israeli-style party-list system, with its low threshold for winning a seat and closed party list. Currently in Israel, a party must receive just 3.25 per cent of votes before it becomes eligible for a seat in the Knesset. Previously, the threshold was an absurd 2 per cent of the vote until 2004. Before that it was just 1 per cent. A dream for extremists.
The Israeli PR system has never been seriously considered here. Canada is too big and diverse for such a system to work, our regions too important and our Constitution a jealous guardian of them. Instead, Canada would be far more likely to adopt a mixed-member proportional system, as Germany and New Zealand use, or a single-transferable-vote system of the sort used in Ireland and in the Australian Senate. These systems are more appropriate for Canada because they allow for better local representation and regional accommodation. That’s why Canada is unlikely to follow Israel – or, for that matter, other PR countries that tend to face down routine problems with their electoral systems or other democratic institutions, such as Italy and Belgium.
As I argued in 2016 when the government was considering national electoral reform, the right PR system in Canada would be fair, equal and engaging – not to mention stable. At the time, the average number of years between elections in Canada since 1945 was 3.2, making the contests more frequent than they are in several PR countries. Since then, Canada has faced two more elections and could face a third before the 2025 deadline for the next one. And that is with its FPTP system. It could very well be the case that PR would produce fewer elections in Canada, with government turning over within the legislature without an election. Or it could produce more stable governments since the system might normalize parties working together within a parliament. It could also produce less policy lurch, which occurs when a new government, facing minimal checks in the legislature, spends years undoing as much of what the last government did as it can manage.
We can’t know for sure what will happen in Canada without trying a system. One way to manage the uncertainty is to adopt a new system but mandate a confirmation referendum in a certain number of years or after a certain number of elections. That way, Canadians can try a system and see how it works, then decide whether to keep it. New Zealand did this with MMP. They voted to adopt the system in 1993. In 2011, they voted to keep it, with 58 per cent preferring it over a change.
As a thought experiment, I like to ask people, all other considerations being equal, which electoral system they would choose for Canada if they could start from scratch. Try it for yourself. Would the country choose to adopt the current system, a colonial holdover from the 19th century and Britain? Or a PR system of the sort that is more widely used by the world’s most successful democracies? It’s unlikely that most people, on reflection and with evidence at hand, would choose FPTP.
The unfolding crisis in Israel and the two long government-less postelection periods in Belgium since 2010 are cautionary tales. But they aren’t arguments against PR as such. Indeed, they are arguments in favour of building and maintaining strong democratic institutions and adopting a complementary electoral system that fits the country. We have good reason to believe that the right PR system in Canada would produce legislatures and governments that more closely align with the preferences of the electorate without producing political crisis – and while, perhaps, producing a healthier political culture in the legislature and beyond its walls.