Is first past the post really the best for Canada’s voting system?

While voters still favour the antiquated system, it disadvantages smaller parties with more progressive ideas

First past the post works best when there’s only two parties involved, so why are we still using it? Photo courtesy of Parker Johnson via Unsplash

By: Gabrielle McLaren and Nicole Magas.
Introduction and conclusion by Winona Young, Head Staff Writer

When it comes to politics, should we be deciding who to vote for based on the lesser of two evils? According to Andrew Coyne of the National Post, we shouldn’t be. Coyne argues that first past the post (FPTP), a system in which the candidate with the majority vote wins, isn’t effective when more than two parties exist. 

The Peak’s Editor-in-Chief, Gabrielle McLaren, and Opinions Editor, Nicole Magas, discuss Canada’s voting system, the pros and cons of FPTP, and more. 

NM: Canada has something special here with our electoral system. The thing is designed to only support two majority parties, and yet we’ve got all sorts of outliers and challengers of different sizes and strengths who have real chances of winning elections, at least at the provincial level. On the federal level things are a bit different, of course, but I think if we fail to place our vote with the people and the policies we legitimately want to see in power, then we are putting ourselves at the mercy of parties that don’t need to progress beyond opposition to their next closest rival. 

GM: I used to work as a tour guide on Parliament Hill and spent a lot of time talking to people about the Westminster parliamentary system. As you and the article both mentioned, it’s an old system. You can usually understand it by placing it within its context. That being said, it isn’t incapable of supporting anything other than FPTP. So to me, this discussion can’t exist outside of the question many provinces (but famously not our federal government) have been asking: what’s the alternative to FPTP? I don’t want to use the strawman argument that FPTP should stay simply because of tradition, but seriously, what is the alternative? Nothing put forward seems to have impressed voters in recent referendums.  

NM: Maybe the reason why voters haven’t been impressed by alternatives is that the status quo benefits the two majority parties so well that there’s little incentive to explore an alternative in any meaningful way. I tend to hold fairly progressive political ideas, but the pace at which our political system currently moves is painfully slow. This is especially obvious when compared to how quickly our society is changing — from internal forces like social change movements to external ones like climate change. In order to move forward, we have to have a sense of faith that the vote we cast will go toward the change we want to happen, not just against the change (or lack thereof) that we don’t want.

GM: I’d disagree with that; the parties that have put forward reforms stood to gain. Take B.C.’s 2018 referendum: 61% of voters wanted to keep FPTP despite how hard the NDP ran on electoral reform. Honestly, it’s hard to blame everyday voters when the other systems offered were confusing alternatives poorly explained in official documentation. Electoral reform is complicated and messy, and its proponents have failed to surmount that. For now, it might be more productive to address other structural barriers that small parties (like the Green Party and, God forbid, the Peoples’ Party) face — the way parties are funded, for example, or the quantitative barriers to official party status.  

NM: Yes, and faced with all this confusion, it’s easy to understand why some voters naturally want to go with the tried and true. Although this, too, is how majority parties gain through uninformed or under-informed voters. Of course, I would like to see more structures in place that would allow smaller parties a fairer chance in federal politics, but I can’t see any real change happening if we’re forced to always vote on the lesser of two evils, so to speak. I don’t foresee either of our two federal majority parties jumping at the chance to enact even small changes to our political system. Maybe this is something that could be started at the provincial level, but as for myself, I’d prefer the opportunity to vote federally for an alternative that has a fighting chance while I’m still young enough to actually read the names on the ballot!

GM: Provincial politics are a woefully underrated place for change. Tommy Douglas kickstarted the NDP and this neat little thing called “universal health care” in good old Saskatchewan. Provincial governments also arguably have more time and resources to dedicate to a portfolio like this in the first place, since they can focus on getting a smaller population of ducks in a row. To me it just makes more sense to start change on a smaller scale — especially if we’ll be wading in uncharted territories — whether that’s electoral reform per se, or other changes that will empower voters and equalize the power dynamics of our parties. Besides, if the provincial level is really where smaller parties are going to start breaking through and having the most influence, the culture there will be better suited to reform. I can still hold onto my dream of PM Elizabeth May and her all-female cabinet, led by Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Finance Minister Jane Philpott, though. That, you’ll have to take out of my cold, dead hands. 

Closing thoughts:

With FPTP being a foundation for the electoral system (and an antiquated one at that), the system ought to be challenged as Canada has more than two parties. How can we claim that the current system treats all candidates equally if such a system puts smaller parties at a disadvantage? 

Begrudgingly, FPTP still is the foundation of the Canadian electoral system. And it’s understandably difficult to imagine a voting system without it. Not only are voters still in favour of it, but the question remains: what possible alternatives can Canadians even consider? Perhaps shifting the focus for radical electoral reform to smaller changes, like provincial elections, may stand as Canada’s best fighting chance to enact smaller, more effective solutions.