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Leadnow | July 12, 2016

Mythbusting Proportional Representation

Myth #1: Proportional representation is uncommon.

Over 90 countries around the world use a proportional voting system, including 85% of OECD countries such as Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, and Denmark. [1] In fact, among the Top 10 countries in the Economist’s Intelligence Unit rankings, eight have built proportionality into their voting systems for their main legislative chambers.

Myth #2: PR would mean that we won’t have local representation

It is possible to have a PR system that includes local MPs tied to a geographical area. For example, under a PR system known as Mixed Member Proportional, voters would elect a local member and a regional party member. Under another type of PR system, Single Transferable Vote, voters would elect several local members within a larger electoral district. No one is suggesting that Canada use a PR system without local representation. 

Myth #3: PR would lead to instability and would let 'fringe' or extremist parties flourish. 

Many politically stable and economically strong countries such as Germany, Sweden and New Zealand use a type of PR. PR would likely mean more coalition governments, which gives politicians an incentive to work together and cooperate.

We can keep the total number of parties under control by introducing a 'threshold' that parties must meet in order to get any seats. A threshhold of 5% for example would likely mean that the most 'fringe' parties still wouldn't be able to get seats. 

And even if some smaller parties with more extreme views did win seats in Paliament, they would still need the support of the bigger parties to get their policies through. The big parties could only agree to those policies if they were sure their own bases would support them, which provides a natural check on the power of these parties to actually control the legislative agenda. 

As the experience of the United States shows, we don't need a PR system to have 'extreme' candidates. Donald Trump just won the Presidency under a first-past-the-post system, despite not winning the popular vote. The Harper government was able to put forward numerous draconian and highly conservative bills because they won 100% of the power with just 39% of the vote. Under a PR system, parties would get exactly as much support as they deserve, no more, no less.

Myth #4: PR would mean constant elections and less decisive policy making

Research shows the countries using proportional systems have elections no more frequently than Canada. Since 1945, the average amount of time between elections in Canada has been 3.2 years. Compare that to countries with PR (Germany - 3.56 years, Israel, 3.35 years, and Sweden, 3.43 years) and you see there’s not much difference. [2]

Secondly, because under first-past-the-post we tend to switch back and forth btween the two biggest political parties, we see a lot of 'policy lurch', where parties spend a lot of time undoing and redoing the work of previous governments. This is a tremendous waste of time and money. Wouldn't it be better to negotiate and compromise up front so that we have policies that have broad buy-in and actually stand the test of time?

Myth #5: Our current voting system is just fine as is

In the 2015 election alone over 9 million votes were wasted. Time and time again we see majority governments elected without a majority of the popular vote. Canadian democracy needs an upgrade, and proportional representation can get us there.

There are many other benefits that PR could bring to Canada. For example, research shows that voter turnout is five to seven point five per cent higher on average in countries that use proportional representation.[1] 

Countries with PR also tend to have more women represented in their legislatures. Just take a look at this great graphic from our friends at Fair Vote [4] :


There has been a lot of fear-mongering about proportional representation - but the evidence just doesn’t support it. PR is successfully used in dozens of stable, successful countries around the world. It’s time for Canada to join them.


*Page last updated Feb 10, 2017


[1] Ace Electoral Knowledge Network. What is the electoral system for Chamber 1 of the national legislature?

[2] Lijphart, Arend (1999). Patterns of Democracy: Government forms and performance in thirty-six countries.

[3] The Broadbent Institute (2016). An electoral system for all.

[4] Fair Vote Canada.


Additional reading:

Law Commission of Canada (2004). Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada.