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: