Wanderings – Reforming our voting system for the better

Canada’s electoral system has remained largely unchanged since the dawn of Confederation. The last significant improvement made to voting was when women were enfranchised over 100 years ago. That added eligible voters, but did not change how we voted. The last meaningful change to how Canadians voted was the implementation of the secret ballot in 1874.

The biggest issue with voting in Canada, whether it is in a Federal, Provincial, or Municipal election is turnout. Our last federal election in 2021 had a 62.6 per cent voter turnout – the fifth-worst on record. Throughout Canada’s 44 general elections, the average voter turnout is 70.4 per cent.

In the last five elections (2008-21) that drops to just 63.6 per cent. The highest voter turnout in a federal election was in 1958 when 79.4 per cent of Canadians cast a ballot. Even though Canada has more than double the population and triple the eligible voters it did in 1958, fewer exercise their right to vote. Voter turnout is worse in provincial and municipal elections.

Clearly, the level of political engagement is less for Canadians, and who can blame them given what parties and leaders decide are the issues. Still, there needs to be a change to get more Canadians to vote. If we can’t get people to vote because they want to, maybe it’s time to make Canadians have to vote because they have to – by making voting mandatory.

Australia famously has this system. Elections for its House of Representatives had an 89.2 per cent voter turnout in 2022, its Senate elections were 90.5 per cent. Mandatory voting in Australia works, and has done so since 1924. Failing to vote will result in a $20 ticket. If that is unpaid and it goes to court, the fine increases to $222. This applies to federal, state, and local elections in that country.

Imagine if you will a Canadian federal election where close to 90 per cent of those who could vote did. Over 17 million Canadians cast a ballot in 2021 – what would an election campaign look like if over 25 million people were going to vote?

The significance here is nothing to shake a stick at. Parties would be forced to campaign not to just shore up their political base and attract a few more votes with hot button issues. Campaigns would have to be more about something, rather than be Seinfeld-like campaigns about nothing. Now telegraph this on provincial and especially municipal elections.

At the municipal level, voter turnout where I live was under 46 per cent in the last municipal election. In a three-way race for mayor, the winner won with 41.3 per cent of the support of those who voted, but that amounts to only 18.8 per cent of eligible voters. That’s the way the system works, but elections shouldn’t be decided by those who care enough to maybe vote – if they feel like it. Voting is a right and privilege. It should be exercised. There is more that can be done to reform the electoral system to make it more representative, and decisive.

I am not a fan of the First-Past-The-Post model we have, for similar reasons to that of municipal elections – fractions of fractions decide the outcome. For a long time I liked the idea of mixed-member proportional representation, which keeps local riding seats, but then also awards some seats based on party preference of voters. Voters can pick their party, and the candidate, and their vote will still mean something to them.

I also like the idea of ranked ballots, meaning you choose your candidates in order of preference. Both are great ideas and may work in some settings, but we need to keep thing simple. Then I read an article by Senator Peter Harder in Policy Options magazine that offered that simple solution – run off votes.

If a federal election race did not result in a clear 50 per cent winner for the seat, the top two candidates would run off in a second vote. Yes, more voting – more mandatory voting. But also more campaigning, more work by politicians to earn your vote. The top two candidates would have to duke it out well beyond their political base and talking points, appealing to a broad representation of voters. It means more opportunity for voters to engage with candidates, parties, and policy; and it means those candidates know who they work for if they win.

There are those who argue that we should keep our voting system just as it has been since universal suffrage. If only 62.6 per cent of Canadians vote in an election, those are the 62.6 per cent of people who are most engaged. Forcing people to vote means having more voters who don’t know the issue possibly changing the outcome. To that I say rubbish.

Voting is a democratic right and if people have to vote because they will be fined if they don’t, there will be more engagement. That will make politics more reflective of all Canadians, and not just those with the loudest voices or bullhorns. It is for that reason why it is important for us to do this. Democracy should reflect everyone. Reforming the system will do that.

This column was originally published in the March 20, 2024 print edition of The Morrisburg Leader.