Canadians worried about foreign interference in our elections need to know that our decrepit voting system makes us particularly vulnerable.
Canada’s winner-take-all voting system turns the nefarious efforts of foreign actors into a highly rewarding endeavor.
With any winner-take-all voting system, outcomes in a handful of swing ridings determine an election. It only takes a few carefully targeted voters switching allegiances to win a swing riding. That’s exactly why parties microtarget voters in these ridings (and sometimes brag about it)—because it works.
Why wouldn’t foreign actors do the same?
The same incentives were at work in the “in/out” election spending scandal of 2006, in which Conservatives squeezed a few more votes in the right places by exceeding spending limits and submitting fraudulent records, as well as during the 2011 robocalls scandal, when voters were misdirected to the wrong polling stations.
In all cases, the potential payoff of such manipulation was substantial, and consequences for most of those involved were minimal.
If we can’t prevent local actors from exploiting the weaknesses of our winner-take-all system—and our major political parties are sometimes colluding or turning a blind eye—how will we deal with the efforts coming from countries much bigger and more powerful than Canada?
Safe seats created by winner-take-all voting can also encourage foreign actors to interfere in elections. As CSIS itself identifies in a 2022 report, winning the nomination to run in a safe seat in Canada almost certainly means winning the seat:
When Joanna Chiu, senior reporter covering national and foreign stories for the Toronto Star and the author of China Unbound: A New World Disorder, was recently asked on Ontario Today about the connection between foreign interference and our first-past-the-post voting system, she responded:
“That’s actually a really good point because I’ve just had a source tell me they’ve heard and seen emails showing that the Chinese consulate tries to encourage the China-friendly politicians to run in ridings that are safe, where there are strongholds, say for the Liberal Party, because people tend to vote for the party, and not for the candidate. It could be someone with limited experience, or who has said things that are China-friendly, or is suspect… They are likely to get elected because they’re running in a safe riding for a political party.”
The lack of real competition in many of Canada’s ridings with first-past-the-post—the sheer number of safe seats—is another open invitation for foreign actors to help ensure their preferred candidates scoop up the nominations.
PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION HELPS PROTECT AND STRENGTHEN DEMOCRACY
Proportional representation (PR) offers a level of protection by making it harder for foreign (and domestic) actors to target their efforts effectively.
PR can drastically reduce the number of safe seats and swing ridings.
It offers voters a real choice between candidates of the same party. In every region, it makes more seats competitive for all major parties.
PR ensures that no single party can win a majority government with 39% of the vote, including a party whose candidates were supported by foreign actors.
If we want to protect and strengthen our democracy, it’s time to make every vote count.