A Simple Alternative to Proportional Representation

I tend to be supportive of proportional representation for the usual reasons. However, there are some significant advantages to electing federal MPs (or provincial MLAs) from geographic ridings: individual MPs represent, and are accountable to, a defined group of citizens; these citizens have “local” MPs to whom they can raise concerns and from whom they can seek assistance; local issues are voiced in Parliament; and individuals may be elected as independents without party affiliation.

The compromise normally proposed is to have some MPs elected from geographic ridings and others elected from nationwide (or provincewide) party lists. While I do not object to such proposals, it seems to me that a more elegant solution is possible.

We could more or less retain the existing federal (or provincial) ridings, but merge the urban ones into larger, multi-member ridings. Rural areas and small cities, where locality is arguably most important, would continue to elect indvidual MPs in first-past-the-post races. Larger cities would be represented by groups of MPs elected proportionally.

Currently, Toronto has twenty-three MPs elected by first-past-the-post in twenty-three ridings separated by largely artificial boundaries. Under my proposed system, Toronto would be a single riding represented by twenty-three MPs elected through proportional representation. Toronto issues would receive just as much voice in Parliament as they do now and the citizens of Toronto would have “local” MPs. However, the mix of MPs from Toronto would far better reflect how Torontonians voted.

Rather than dividing Regina and Saskatoon into four rural-urban-split ridings, each city could be a single riding represented by three MPs. Again, both cities would receive a mix of local MPs more reflective of how their citizens voted.

Since most Canadians live in cities large enough to be multi-member ridings, this system would introduce a great deal of proportionality at the national level without losing the advantages of electing representatives from particular geographic areas. The notion of multi-member ridings is not particularly radical given that at least some provinces used to have them. Political scientists may already have thoroughly examined the possibility of reviving them, but it does not seem to have garnered any public attention.


  • I always appreciate creative electoral design, but your proposed system could very well entrench a right-wing bias. This would be due to the use of plurality elections, which would over-represent the majority view in rural areas. Meanwhile, proportional results in urban areas would ensure all political views are fairly represented.

    Such a mixed system would work better with a two ballot system and a provincial list tier to ensure fair and proportional results.

  • The current system that splits Regina and Saskatoon into four rural-urban-split ridings. This deludes the urban vote which also favours suburban “car” bias, which also happens align with the right wing anti-environment polices. In small cities, the rural and multi-split of urban center causes the urban populous to be unrepresented.

    I thing the solution of electing some MPs elected from ridings and electing others from party lists, is better solution. There is less deference between east and west than there is between urban and rural.

  • correction:

    I think the solution of electing some MPs elected from ridings and electing others from party lists, is a better solution.

  • “it does not seem to have garnered any public attention.”

    It’s garnered public attention in B.C. where, in the last provincial election (2005), 58% of the province voted in favour of a scheme similar to the one you describe

    58% voting in favour was deemed indecisive (by the Liberals – who won a solid majority government with 46% of the vote), so the province will vote again in 2009. Perhaps you will even notice this time 🙂

  • Thanks for the comments. I had not been aware of the similarities between the BC proposal and my attempt at a new scheme. Declan, I’ll be sure to pay attention if you can convince another 2% of your fellow British Columbians to vote “Yes” 🙂

    I have just read a summary of the BC proposal:

    Although Single Transferable Vote makes sense to me, my understanding is that some people are put off by its supposed complexity. A more palatable solution might be to do straight proportionality within the multi-member ridings, as I had suggested.

    The BC proposal was to make all ridings multi-member, which might work well at the provincial level. At the federal level, two-member rural ridings would be unmanageably large in terms of territory (unless the total number of seats were doubled). Making larger cities into multi-member ridings, and leaving rural single-member ridings intact, might be more feasible.

    I am not convinced that my scheme (or bastardization of the BC proposal) would entrench a right-wing bias. The Conservatives and NDP could gain at Liberal expense in places like Toronto. The Liberals and NDP could gain at Conservative expense in places like Edmonton, Calgary, Regina and Saskatoon. The Liberals and Conservatives could gain at NDP expense in places like Hamilton.

  • I would like to get some feedback on a riding/electoral district proposition based on “Cultural Regions” and MP seats reserved for First Nations Constituencies. Please read before reaction; appreciate constructive criticism.

  • Erin;

    Given the similarity of your system to mine, I’d have to say you were brilliant.

    See The Amazing Proportional Representation Simulator on my website.


  • I like your idea, and, not coincidentally, I definitely supported BC-STV. (We ought to already have BC-STV. Supermajorities are just plain undemocratic, in my view).

    The problem with party lists the entrenchment of party power, at a time when there is already far too much political power vested in these organs. STV opens the door to strong, local independents, as well as underrepresented parties.

    The big point that gets me for STV is that it actually eliminates (not just weakens) the systemic incentive for strategic, lesser-of-evils voting (all while achieving consistently proportional results).

  • (I should say it eliminates the incentive for strategic voting at the riding level, although the problem remains for strategically voting to ensure one party doesn’t form a government. Still a major improvement.)

  • You could also retain the existing and system of nominations at the the local level. The nominations would form the basis of the party list with some threshold for party’s to choose say 10-15% of the candidates post facto in order to address regional balance, ethnic and gender representation, specific skill sets etc.

    The system would look like this. We all vote as usual and aggregate the results for each party:


    Cons.. 20%
    NDP… 30%
    Liberals 30%

    In such a case, each party would determine their MPs by creating a ranked list moving from candidates with the highest to lowest popular vote in each riding. They could then use their reserve quota to give seats for the purposes enumerated above.

    Such a system would retain the basic representative structure of the current system while allowing parties to recruit particular talent for particular needs without the need to screw over CAs.

  • Erin, I think it is bad in principle to use different voting systems in different ridings. Fairness requires that we all vote in the same way.

    From the 1920s to the 1950s, Alberta and Manitoba had multi-member urban ridings using proportional representation (STV) and single-member rural ridings using majoritarian voting (AV). In those cases, it certainly did provide a bias for one party (or coalition in Manitoba’s case). It was also a factor in the abolition of the system.

    You are correct in suggesting that the gains in the urban areas would not all flow to the Tories. But it would be safe to argue that your system would result in a seat bonus for any party with a base of support in rural areas.

    I’m sorry. I just don’t see how Mixed-Member Proportional systems lack “elegance.”

  • Hence post # 10

  • Doug, thanks for the excellent points. My system provides no more of a “seat bonus” for rural support than the current system. I agree that MMP would remove the rural “seat bonus.” For this reason, it may be difficult to get a sufficiently large majority of Canadians to endorse MMP.

    Adopting proportional representation would require overwhelming nationwide (or provincewide) support. My point is that multi-member ridings could be an easier way of injecting some proportionality into our electoral system.

    If a significant majority of Torontonians demanded to elect their twenty-three MPs proportionally rather than through individual ridings, there would be significant pressure on the Ontario and federal governments to make Toronto a multi-member riding. On what grounds would people outside Toronto object?

    More generally, I can imagine rural residents opposing proportional representation, but cannot imagine them opposing the conversion of cities into multi-member ridings. Rather than taking an “all or nothing” approach to electoral reform, multi-member ridings are a means of giving proportionality to communities that want it.

    PS – The “inelegance” of MMP, in my view, is that it creates a second class of MPs who do not represent an identifiable group of citizens and are not accountable to anyone.

  • Erin,

    I’d like to take issue with a few of your points, about the system you’re proposing and your strategy for achieving proportionality.

    In terms of seat bonus, your proposal could easily provide a new bonus to a conservative party with marked rural appeal. The FPTP system provides a seat bonus to the most popular party in a given region. Assuming (for the moment) a two-party system, with conservatives having a rural base and liberals an urban base. Conservatives would win all (or most of) the rural seats, and liberals all (or most of the urban seats). If you take just the urban area, and make it more proportional, then you will be handing more seats overall to the conservatives. While reality is a lot more complex than this model, your proposal is likely to offer MORE of a bias favouring a rural-based party than the current system.

    Regarding the two tiers of MPs, it’s true that on the surface this appears awkward and unfair. But there are several reasons reasons for thinking otherwise.

    First, list MPs aren’t absent hacks. In New Zealand, which uses MMP, list MPs have tended to open up constituency offices in the areas they’re from. There’s incentive to do so, especially when it allows a party to gain regional prominence it doesn’t have from the riding tier. It’s true they come off party lists, supposedly granting party bosses more power. But are riding nomination processes more fair?! No matter how they’re chosen, and under what system, party nomination rules should be transparent and democratic; no electoral system offers fool-proof resolution of this problem. In our system, “safe” seats are exactly the same as list seats.

    In terms of accountability, it’s bizarre to view our current system has holding government accountable, and a list system as tending toward unaccountability. For one thing, we should redefine accountability to mean a voter’s capacity to withdraw her support for a candidate — this is the leash. (If I vote NDP in a Scarborough riding, and my candidate gets 20% and the Liberal gets 45% and wins, I can’t hold my MP accountable; in a proportional system, the fact that my party vote gets equal weight to everyone else, I hold the party I support accountable.)

    In our system, in which about 50% of votes are wasted, only half of voters hold anyone accountable. In a proportional system, in which virtually no votes are wasted, every voter has someone at the end of her leash. List MPs are accountable to everyone, whereas riding MPs are accountable to almost nobody. And it’s because ‘everyone’ is a broad category that MMP has a regional counter-balance. (Most pure list systems have small district magnitudes — that is, a given area might have as few as four or five representatives, so the voters who hold them accountable are an ‘identifiable group’.)

    It seems obvious that a party that staffs its list with unenviable hacks will be punished. Ballot-splitting in MMP is common; in New Zealand, about 40% of voters split their ballots.

    What’s more, though the voters of a given minister’s riding hold her accountable, most voters have no say on this candidate. I can’t vote against the Prime Minister, only his proxy; this universalist, and principled, argument is easier to win when it’s applied to everyone at the same time. Given that governance today is done on the basis of party policy executed by the leader’s office, it’s truer to how power operates to also get to vote directly for the party/leader as well as the legislator (often just a bean).

    Yada yada yada.

    In terms of strategy, while it’s hard to get everyone on board for change (and maybe a little harder in rural areas that value local representation), giving proportionality first to the areas that are most receptive to it all but GUARANTEES that the whole electorate will never have proportionality. Yet there are good reasons for rural voters to support electoral reform. Maybe the biggest is that voters in rural ridings who don’t support the party that usually wins are even further removed from legislators whose views they share. If rural voters felt alienated from city-dominated parties, they could form their own party. And finally, the democratic argument that every vote should be equal, and everyone should have broad choice as a voter, is resonant everywhere. Which brings us full circle. Progressive should support a system in which every voter has a full range of choices and equal weight, because that’s the only way to have a fair and democratic election.

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