MYTH #1: “Will Parties Multiply Like Rabbits??”


2016_03_FVCmythusting_01_multiplyrabbitsWhen opponents claim that proportional representation in Canada will lead to “fringe parties”*, they haven’t done their homework.

All models of proportional representation for Canada, whether Mixed Member Proportional or Single Transferable Vote, are moderately proportional systems. Both are designed to keep MPs connected to local communities, while producing proportional results.

How easy would it be for fringe parties to win seats with made-in-Canada PR? The answer: not very

All the proposals being put forward by electoral reform advocates would require that a candidate or party have reasonably significant local support (at least 5%) to be elected.

While some smaller parties may achieve some of their objectives, government is by and large more closely based on the platform of the larger party. The larger party holds most of the seats and therefore more of an opportunity to use the power of government in line with its philosophy. Often it is perfectly clear where a small party stands, and if the electorate do not want it to be in government they can vote against it.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that nobody is proposing a system such as the Netherlands ‘Pure PR’ system with a nation-wide party list. The Netherlands do not have mandated thresholds to win seats. In other words, “pure PR” is just not an option for Canada.

Most countries which use proportional representation systems include a threshold a party must meet before it is entitled to any seats. In Sweden and Norway, the threshold is 4%. In New Zealand, which uses a Mixed Member Proportional System, a party must earn 5% of the vote, or win one constituency seat, to qualify for compensatory seats. In Germany, which also uses MMP, the threshold is 5%, or winning three constituency seats.

To put that level of support in perspective, it took Canada’s Green Party 20 years of work to cross the 5% threshold in the 2008 election, dropping to about 3.8% in the last two elections. Getting almost one million Canadians to vote for your party, as the Greens did in 2008  is not an easy task, but in that election, first-past-the-post awarded Green voters no representation.

A threshold for Canada?

Most Electoral Reformers agree that we need a Made-In-Canada system of proportional representation. With over 90 Countries using some form of proportional representation, Canada could base its new system on best practices from around the world.

Here are a couple of examples:

Mixed Member Proportional

Mixed Member Proportional representation is a system where we still elect most of our local MPs to single member ridings. Voters unrepresented by the local results elect regional MPs. This tops up the local results so the total MPs match the vote share.

Does an MMP system for Canada need a threshold? The Law Commission of Canada – whose 2004 report “Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada” recommended MMP – didn’t think so.

The reason is simple: MMP designed with the most proportional model possible for Canada would mean 12-14 MP regions (consisting of ⅔ local constituency MPs elected like today, and ⅓ regional MPs elected on an open list). The natural threshold to win a seat in a 12-14 seat region would be 7-8% of the vote.

One can hardly call a party which wins 7-8% of the vote a “fringe party.”

Due to geography, the need to create regions which naturally fit together, and provincial boundaries, not all regions of Canada would have 12-14 MPs. The smaller the regions, the higher the threshold to win a seat. In a region with 8 MPs (5 local and 3 regional), the threshold to win a seat would be about 12.5%.

Using the Green Party as an example (since Canada has no fringe parties which are anywhere near winning seats with any proportional system for Canada) would Green Party MPs win more seats with a highly proportional version of MMP?

Yes. With their current vote share, the Greens would have won about 10 MPs using the model designed by the Law Commission. There’s an extremely good chance that when people know their votes will likely count the Green vote, and seats, would rise.

Germany uses Mixed Member Proportional representation. The current number of parties in their legislature is 4. No fringe parties were elected. In Canada’s last Parliament, we had 6 parties, plus Independents.

To learn more about MMP

Two videos of MMP:
Law Commission Model,
Jenkins Model with Ranked Ballot

Detailed blog about MMP in Canada.

 Single Transferable Vote

Single Transferable Vote is a proportional system which uses a ranked ballot in a multi-member district to elect a team of local MPs.

Does an STV system for Canada need a threshold?

Consider an STV district which elects a team of 5 MPs.  The natural threshold for a candidate to win a seat in this district would be about 17%, though sometimes, depending on the situation, the last candidate elected could win the seat with less than this, but it would be very unusual for the final winning candidate to have started with less than about 10% first preference support.

Even in a larger STV district of eight MPs, which might be used in a large urban centre such as Toronto or Vancouver, the natural threshold to win a seat would be about 11%, so it would be very unusual for the last candidate elected to have started with less than about 5% first preference support.

In most areas of the country, the vast majority of voters would elect an MP from the party of their first choice using STV (e.g., with three 4-seat districts in Toronto, based on the results of the 2015 election, we estimate that 96% of voters would have an MP from their preferred party) and the overall results are highly proportional for all the major parties. Even if we used relatively small districts (2-4 seats), we would largely eliminate regional sweeps and significantly reduce the “leader’s bonus” that so frequently occurs under our current voting system.

However, with smaller districts outside large urban areas, STV presents a challenge for parties with lower levels of support in some parts of Canada, and Green Party voters in many areas. Even with a significant increase in their vote share with PR, Greens would be unable to elect Green MPs in many parts of Canada.

An even more proportional STV model for Canada is STV+.

Just like MMP, STV+ adds a layer of regional compensatory MPs to those elected in local districts. Because STV is already very proportional, only about 15% of regional MPs would be needed to make the results highly proportional, meaning Green Party voters could elect Greens in much closer proportion to their popular vote.

Ireland uses Single Transferable Vote. The current number of parties in their legislature is 7, plus Independents.  As previously stated, Canada’s last Parliament had 6 parties, plus Independents.

To learn more about STV and STV+:

STV videos

Single Transferable Vote for Canada website

Concluding Words about Proportional Representation and “Fringe” Parties

The idea that proportional representation in Canada will lead to fringe parties is unfounded, and only demonstrates that the source claiming it has not done their homework.

Thresholds of 3-5% are commonly built into PR systems and are certainly a viable option to prevent a small regional party from qualifying for compensatory seats, but in general, all models for Canada have a natural threshold built into their design.

In the last three federal elections the next party below the Green Party and the BQ won no more than 0.21% of the popular vote (the Libertarian party in 2015). The total number of votes collectively won by the 15-20  smaller parties together never reached as high as 1%.  Without significantly building their base, it is highly unlikely that even one of these parties would come anywhere close to winning a seat under a Canadian PR system federally or provincially. To suggest otherwise is simply irresponsible.

“Pure” proportional representation is not on the table for Canada.

The best proportional models for Canada make almost every vote count, deliver highly proportional results combined with local representation, and present no chance of fringe parties.

Canada has 25 million eligible voters. 4.6 million voters elected Liberal MPs and hold all the power in our country.

The real challenge for those who look forward to the Liberals keeping their promise to Make Every Vote Count in 2019 is to push our politicians to design the most proportional model for Canada possible – to let Canadians in, not keep them out.

* Note:  Fair Vote Canada decided to use the word “fringe” in this blog not because we do not value the contributions of very small parties to our political process, but because that is the word opponents are using to scare people about PR. We are not talking about the Green Party of Canada. Fair Vote Canada believes that as closely as possible, all voters should have representation of their choice. Many countries with list systems implement thresholds which require smaller parties to achieve a certain level of popular support before they are able to win seats. Whether a 3-5% threshold is desirable for Canada is subject to theoretical debate with a interesting case on each side. But as this blog points out, PR systems designed for Canada have a threshold built into the design.


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