The case for mixed member proportional representation in Canada

I've voted in every single election since I turned 18, but most of the time I felt like my vote didn't make a difference. Each election, instead of voting for the candidate or party that has the best platform, I weigh the pros and cons of strategic voting. Is it better to vote for something that will never be or better to vote against something that maybe I can help prevent?

Many Canadians do the same thing, but most Canadians have never seen another system at work, so they have trouble imagining how anything other than first past the post could work.

In the 1990s, I was a political science student at a Canadian university and spent a couple of years on exchange in Germany. I followed the 1994 and 1998 German federal elections carefully. Germany uses the mixed member proportional representation system, where majority governments are unlikely, and it was interesting to see how it worked.


What is mixed member proportional representation (MMPR)?

In an MMPR system, citizens have two votes on their ballot.

  • First vote: They vote for their preferred local candidate, similar to the way we vote for a candidate in our riding. 
  • Second vote: They vote for the political party whose platform they prefer.

They could vote for the same party in both votes or they could split their vote. All of the candidates elected using the first vote go to Parliament. The second votes are tallied and the remaining seats are then given to candidates from party lists (broken down by geographical groupings, most likely by province in Canada) to make Parliament reflect the popular vote (i.e if a party got 25% of the second vote, they would have 25% of the seats in Parliament). Some rules can be put in place to ensure that the second vote doesn't allow radical fringe parties to push their way into power (e.g. In Germany only parties which have won more than five per cent of all second votes or that won at least three seats are eligible to get seats through the second vote).

This is an example of a German ballot (from Wikimedia commons). The left side of the ballot is for the first vote (Erststimme). It lists the candidates and the parties that are running in the voter's riding (Wahlkreis). The right side of the ballot is for the second vote (Zweitstimme). It lists the parties and the top candidates on their state list for each party.

Splitting the vote on your ballot can be advantageous in several scenarios. For example:

  • You have an excellent local MP who has done wonderful work in your community. You support them as a candidate and would like to see them re-elected, but you prefer the platform of another party.
  • You really like the platform of a national party that has very little support in your riding. Your riding is a close contest between a candidate you really dislike and a candidate who is not bad but also not from your preferred party.

In both these instances, the voter can make a local choice that makes sense to them while also helping the party they support be better represented in Parliament. Even if you choose not to split your vote, you know that your second vote will count towards representation in Parliament and won't just be wasted.

Building coalitions

In Germany and other countries using MMPR, majority governments are rare. In Canada, we often think if minority governments as ineffective. However, that is because we usually have majority governments and our political parties find it difficult to govern in cooperation with other parties. As a result, instead of trying to build a working coalition based on shared priorities, our political parties will only cooperate on the smallest number of issues under a minority government and just bide time until they can win a majority and make real progress on their agenda.

In countries with MMPR, political parties have to learn how to build working coalitions that allow them to work towards common goals. This results in a mandate for the government that is more reflective of the views of the electorate, since the parties have to find common ground (issues they both agree on or at least don't disagree on) and the more divisive issues have to be put aside.

In Germany in the 1998 federal election, the social democrats (SPD) won the election but didn't have enough seats for a majority. Rather than trying to form a coalition with a outgoing conservative party (CDU) or another further right wing party, the SPD chose to form a coalition government with the green party (Die Grünen). Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (leader of the SPD) made Joschka Fischer (leader of Die Grünen) his deputy chancellor and foreign minister. He also put two other green party members into his cabinet (most notably as environment minister).

 Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer. Image: picture alliance / dpa

Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer. Image: picture alliance / dpa

During the seven years (1998 to 2005) that the social democrats and greens governed together, they developed a common platform (visually represented as a red-green book, combining the colours of their two parties) that allowed Germany to make significant strides on environmental issues that were of strategic importance to the greens while also moving forward on other issues that were a fit with the values and priorities of both parties.

What would MMPR look like in Canada?

Two German academics, Joachim Behnke and Friedrich Pukelsheim, published a report explaining how MMPR could work in Canada and then ipolitics published an article and charts with their results in terms of the 2015 and the 2011 elections (assuming everyone placed the same vote on their first and second ballots, which is not necessarily a fair assumption but it is the best information that we have available).

In both cases, the results would have led to a minority government and the party with the most votes would have had to find common ground with another party or parties to build a coalition government. Instead of having one majority government ram through a bunch of initiatives that then get quickly undone by the next governing party as it rams through its agenda, parties can work together towards longer term common goals that reflect the priorities of a larger number of Canadians.

MMPR provides a great level of protection against political parties trying to rapidly push through radical agendas that could damage the country.

Does MMPR create a lack of accountability?

Some people worry about a lack of accountability in an MMPR system when a significant number of MPs are not directly elected by Canadians. I don't see that as a big problem. Here are a few reasons why:

  • When Canadians choose to vote for a party in their second vote, it should be clear who is on the party's list and that is who they are voting for. Those candidates are being elected by the people in the same way that local candidates are.
  • When you have only one vote and your candidate is not elected, you may feel you have no one representing you in Parliament. When you have two votes, there is a much better chance that someone from your preferred party will be representing your region in Parliament. It gives you someone you can go to with your concerns and priorities if you feel they are not shared or would not be heard by your local candidate from a different party.
  • People on party lists would be chosen in a similar manner to the way that local candidates are chosen, i.e. through the party's nomination process. People who wish to influence which candidates are chosen should get involved with the political party of their choice and also put pressure on political parties to ensure fair representation of all demographic groups on their candidate lists. The lists can also be a good way to ensure more women and other underrepreseted groups make it into Parliament.
  • In coalitions resulting from MMPR, the government puts together plans and budgets just like in other forms of government. The coalition, led by one party supported by another party or parties, is accountable for the decisions it makes. There are Prime Ministers and Deputy Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers all of whom have the same type of accountability that they do under the current system.

MMPR, rather than reducing accountability, actually has the effect of increasing representation. Canadians are more likely to feel like there is someone they have elected who represents them, their values and their priorities.

Will the Liberals consider MMPR?

As a middle of the road party, the Liberals have a vested interest in implementing an electoral system that favours middle of the road parties. In a ranked ballot system, almost everyone sees the middle of the road party as less evil than the other extreme. This favours the Liberals to win forever. The status quo of first past the post has given the Liberals many, many years of majority governments too, so it is no wonder that changing the system has become less of a priority now that they are in power.

I would like to see the Liberals take electoral reform seriously and consider the good of the country, not just the good of their party. The Liberals would benefit heavily from ranked ballot or even from deciding that electoral reform is too hard and we'll just keep the status quo.

MMPR puts Canadians first and gives us more choice, more representation and more power.

What can you do?

If you support MMPR, you can:

The small change that would make Strava safer for women

If you follow me on instagram, you probably know that I'm a runner. I like to run in the woods, to discover new trails, to sign up for challenging races.

I've also been a social media fanatic for much longer than I've been a runner. When I discovered the community that exists on Strava, I was quick to start using that to track my runs instead of the app I'd been using previously. I followed people I was already friends with, I joined some groups, I followed some local runners.

I love being inspired by other runners on Strava. I love being able to discover new routes. I love knowing that when I'm out there struggling on a bad day, that my friends are out there too. I love being part of groups and taking part in challenges.

Private runner

But I'm only half there. If you follow me on Strava, you're only seeing about half of my runs. My other runs don't show up in your feed. When you look at the stats in my profile, it will tell you that I ran 117km and climbed 1,276m in October. When I look at my profile, it tells me that I ran 151km and climbed 2,211m in October.  Many months the difference between what I actually ran and what my public profile says that I ran is the difference between getting a challenge trophy and not getting a challenge trophy.

The reason those other runs don't show up is that they are private. When I run out my front door and around my neighbourhood, I mark them as private. When I mark them as private, you don't know anything about that run. You don't know where I ran, you don't know how far I ran, you don't know fast I ran or how high I climbed. I could have been at home sitting on my couch, but I was out there running.

I think it is great that Strava lets people mark some workouts as private. We don't always want people to know when we're working out. But I think there are probably lots of times when people, especially women, don't mind telling people that they were running but they just don't want to tell people where they are running.

I go out. I do the work. I track it. Yet Strava doesn't give me credit for it or let me get kudos for it.

But what about privacy zones?

Yes, Strava lets people mark a privacy zone around their house or their place of work. That means that when it shows a map of your run, the starting point and ending point won't show if they are within your privacy zone. There are a few problems with this:

  • The maximum privacy zone is 1km. So if you live in an area that is sparsely populated, it is still pretty easy for someone looking at your maps to narrow down exactly where you live.
  • If you do a run that is entirely within your privacy zone, it still shows a map, there is just no trace of where you ran. So that map is, again, pretty much a bull's eye of exactly where you live.
  • If you follow a specific routine (e.g. a 5k run after work each Monday), people will still be able to see exactly where you exit and re-enter your privacy zone.

An easy solution - "Hide map"

There is a really easy solution to this problem that would make Strava feel a lot safer for women or other people who want to be a bit more private about where they run, but that still want to participate in the community aspects of Strava, like sharing their runs, participating in challenges, and so on.

Just give people an option to "hide map" on individual workouts.

Strava has the GPS data. Strava can show the map to the user. Strava can verify through the GPS data the fact that the person did run that distance and therefore can be eligible for those challenges. But Strava runners (and cyclists and walkers) can maintain a greater degree of safety by not sharing the geographic location of their routine runs or where they live.

If I could hide the map, I'd still show the map for my one-off runs in interesting places. I'd show the maps for my races. I'd show the maps for groups runs or other situations that feel safer. But I'd hide the map for runs that start at my front door or that are part of a regular routine. I'd still like to show my distance, my speed, my elevation climbed, and even heart rate data, splits, and even some pictures.

Just not the map. Just let us hide the map.


The deadly combination of racism, gun culture and poorly trained cops

Almost every day now, I see an outpouring of rage, grief and fear from my friends. That is because almost every day now, another young black man in America is shot to death by another white police officer. Many of these young black men are innocent yet executed on the spot for no reason. Others may be guilty of something, but we'll never be quite sure since they didn't get a trial. They were punished by spontaneous public execution instead of through a court of law. 

Why are so many young black men being killed by police officers in America? It is, unfortunately, a lethal combination of at least three elements. These elements are each dangerous and destructive on their own, but when combined create a situation where no young black male is safe in the United States.


A lot of countries have a racism problem, not just the United States. Police officers in other countries also use racial profiling, are more likely to stop or arrest a non-white person than a white person, and are known for police brutality. It could be argued that racism is different in the United States than it is in other countries, because of America's history of slavery, but racism certainly isn't just an American problem.

Police in countries like Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom have racism problems too.

More than 3,000 (UK) police officers are being investigated for alleged assault – with black and Asian people significantly more likely than white people to complain of police brutality, according to an Independent investigation. - Paul Gallagher, The Independent
Toronto residents learned that their police force had suspended its use of “carding,” the controversial practice of stopping and documenting people not suspected of any crime. The policy disproportionately targeted black people, who make up just over 8 percent of Toronto’s population but accounted for 27 percent of those carded in 2013. - Desmond Cole, The Walrus
The UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had, once again, condemned Germany's record on dealing with institutional racism - particularly when it came to racial profiling by its police force. - Deutsche Welle

Racism is a problem that white people around the world need to address. We need to stop assuming that we and our friends are not racist. Instead we need to understand that everyone passes judgment and makes assumptions based on biases that we may or may not be aware of. Being able to recognize our own biases and call out our friends and family on their biases is a first step.

Police officers also need to be able to recognize their own biases and police forces need to actively address racism and racial bias in the force. Desmond Cole, an activist who has been carded more than 50 times by Toronto Police, told the National Post:

Every police officer in Canada should engage in ongoing anti-racism and anti-oppression training, and toss out the current euphemistic regime of ‘bias-free’ training,” he said in an email. “Police should have to take courses about the history and present reality of systemic racism in Canada, particularly towards indigenous and black individuals.

But racism alone doesn't lead to black men being shot to death by white police officers. Outside the United States, racism leads to unjust and discriminatory treatment of non-whites by police, but it doesn't nearly as often lead to their death.

Poorly Trained Police

Police are supposed serve and protect.  Unfortunately, instead of being taught how to diffuse a situation and keep the peace, police in the United States are taught to shoot first and ask questions later (if at all).

Police recruits in Germany receive at least 130 weeks of training, while in the United States training is an average of 19 weeks. That means that German police officers have more than six times as much training as American police officers before they start their job.

But it isn't only the amount of training that differs, it is also the nature of the training. Over their three years of training, German police recruits spend a lot of time on role playing. Over and over again, they learn how to use proven tactics (not guns) to diffuse a difficult situation. German police recruits do learn to shoot a gun too, but their firearms course is specifically called "Don't shoot". They are learning how to use a gun, how to handle a gun, and how to avoid using a gun.

The Christian Science Monitor wrote about one example of the role play that is part of a German police officer's three year training:

The officer, alert but cautious, pounds on the suspect’s door. “Polizei!” he says forcefully, in his native German. A man thrusts open the door and walks out. His hands are at his side, but the policeman notices a gun tucked into the man’s belt. He pulls out his own firearm in response. He then moves briskly backward, coaxing the man to place his weapon on the ground.
The cop is commended for his actions.
The next officer up bangs on the same door. “Polizei!,” he says. This time the person walks out carrying a baton, not a gun. So the cop doesn’t pull out his pistol. He brandishes instead a can of pepper spray – a reflex response that also garners praise afterward.

Not only does any shooting of a police weapon in Germany (at a person or even an object) almost always result in preliminary proceedings being started by the prosecutor's office, but even taking a police gun out of its holster results in a ton of paperwork for the officer. Not only are they trained not to need their firearm in most cases, but they understand there are serious consequences and questions when you do take it out or use it.

In the United States, police training most heavily focuses on firearms skills, self-defense and health and fitness. It is all about the police officers protecting themselves, rather than about handling the situation effectively.  In the training, officer safety is emphasized and every encounter is viewed as a treat. An article in the Atlantic describes a component of the training:

Officers aren’t just told about the risks they face. They are shown painfully vivid, heart-wrenching dash-cam footage of officers being beaten, disarmed, or gunned down after a moment of inattention or hesitation. They are told that the primary culprit isn’t the felon on the video, it is the officer’s lack of vigilance. And as they listen to the fallen officer’s last, desperate radio calls for help, every cop in the room is thinking exactly the same thing: “I won’t ever let that happen to me.” That’s the point of the training.

A common phrase, characteristic of this type of training apparently, is "Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six."

But how often does it even come down to being judged by twelve? Not that often.

Gun Culture

The United States has more guns per capita than any other country in the world. There are more guns than people in the United States, at a rate of 113 guns per 100 residents.

The United States also has far more homicides by firearm per capita than any other developing country. In the United States in 2012, there were 29.7 homicides by firearm per million people. Switzerland, which is the second highest country, had 7.7 homicides by firearm per million people. Most developing countries hover around one to five homicides by firearm per million.

White people are twice as likely to own a gun in the United States than non-whites and it is also white people who primarily fight against gun control. White people love their guns, but black people are disproportionately the victims of gun violence.

With guns being so pervasive in the United States, it is no wonder that poorly trained, scared, police officers assume people are always reaching for their guns. I'm not saying that this excuses any of the shootings, but I do think it is a contributing factor that is exacerbated by insufficient training on how to handle a situation where a gun may be present.

A deadly combination

Racism, gun culture and a poorly trained police force all contribute to the high rate of fatal shootings of young black men in the United States. The Guardian has compiled statistics and stories of people shot by police officers in the United States. In 2015, 1146 people were killed by police officers in the United States. That is a horrifically high number and everyone should be outraged that the police are killing so many people.

On a per capita basis, black Americans were 2.5 times more likely to be killed by a police officer as white Americans.  As well,  25% of the black people killed were unarmed, compared with 17% of white people

Explicitly or implicitly racist police officers with poor training in a country full of guns are going to pull their guns and shoot first. They haven't learned to confront their biases. They haven't learned how to diffuse a situation. They are scared of being shot first. They don't face consequences for pulling their weapon.

The "good cops" are being set up for failure. The "bad cops" are being enabled. This is unacceptable.

These words won't change anything

This morning as I thought about how deadly this combination is, I also remembered having posted about it before. Not in this length, not in this space, but this isn't something that just came to me now. I'm also not the only person who has recognized how these problems, individually or together, contribute to a horrific number of deaths of black Americans.  People have written about this before. People with much bigger readership than I have and people with much more influence than I have.

We've increasingly become a "thoughts and prayers" and "shock and horror" society. We express our grief and we express our outrage.  But the next day, nothing changes. The next day, it happens all over again.

The lack of action and solutions, even when the answers are apparent, is appalling and devastating.