Presentation to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform

Mario Canseco

Thank you for inviting me to this session. I have worked as a public opinion researcher for the past 13 years, first as an observer and collator of publicly available surveys at the University of British Columbia, and starting in 2007, as a pollster who has conducted research in more than 20 different countries. I’ve been with Insights West for the past three years, finding new approaches and ways to review how people think and how they vote.

I stand before you as an individual, who is keenly interested in the topic of electoral reform. In many ways, my interest in public policy began at my childhood home.  My father, Morelos Canseco González, served in the Senate of Mexico as an elected representative from the State of Tamaulipas from 1976 to 1982. My father travelled to many places—including Canada—to take part in inter-parliamentary meetings. From a very young age, conversations at the dinner table revolved around politics, participation and elections. It is that curiosity about the way problems can be solved that ultimately led me to become an electoral researcher and forecaster.

This Committee was appointed to identify and conduct a study of viable alternate voting systems to replace the first-past-the-post system and examine mandatory voting and online voting. My company, Insights West, has been looking at some of these issues over the past year, and asked Canadians about them again this month so I could share the findings with you this afternoon.

The results I will quote are based on an online study conducted from September 14 to September 16, 2016, among a representative sample of 1,029 Canadian adults.
The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error is +/- 3.1 percentage points.

Let’s begin. In spite of the many discussions that have taken place on electoral reform, it must be acknowledged that a majority of Canadians (64 per cent in our latest survey) claim to be “satisfied” with the system that we currently have in place to elect the members of the House of Commons.

The highest level of animosity towards the first-past-the-post system is observed here in British Columbia, where 30 per cent of residents claim to be dissatisfied with the status quo—a higher proportion than the Canadian average of 22 per cent.

In our research, we have tested three different systems that could be implemented in the future for federal elections. By far, the most popular of the three is Party-List Proportional Representation, which is supported by 49 per cent of Canadians. The level of agreement is lower for the Single Transferable Vote system, at 40 per cent, and the Mixed Member PR system, at 31 per cent.

PR does better than the other systems because it is particularly simple to explain, with a level of support that reaches 60 per cent among Canadians aged 18-to-34 and 56 per cent in Quebec.

It is fair to say that younger Canadians are far more likely to endorse a change, any change, in our electoral system than their counterparts aged 35 and over. Younger Canadians tend to be more open to voting outside of the two dominant parties that, under one name or another, have formed every federal government in our country’s history. A new system that may reward supporters of these so-called “minor parties” is definitely appealing to voters who currently feel that their vote is “wasted” unless they cast it in favour of the two candidates who are more likely to emerge victorious in a specific constituency.

Still, while some Canadians find PR attractive, others simply do not like it. One of the reasons cited by the three-in-ten Canadians who disagree with adopting PR for federal elections is the perception that the sense of connection that they currently have with their elected MP will be lost. It is complex, at least at this early stage, for some Canadians to forego the idea of having a local MP they can vote for in a direct manner in favour of supporting a list.

Regardless of which system is ultimately adopted, 68 per cent of Canadians believe a referendum is required to settle the issue of electoral reform. This majority of Canadians encompasses both genders, all age groups, every region and supporters of the three main political parties currently represented in the House of Commons.

The call for a referendum is not unique to a particular party. Recent changes to electoral systems have been put to a vote in other countries, most recently in the United Kingdom in May 2011, when 68 per cent of voters rejected a move to the “alternative vote” system in a referendum that was plagued by an abysmal turnout of just 42 per cent of eligible voters.

Canadians are asking to be part of this decision, and meetings like this one certainly help. While many want to have a direct say in a discussion that will affect the way we elect our federal government, we still see a high level of undecided citizens when it comes to some of the systems that could be adopted.

On the issue of mandatory voting, other countries contemplate either fines or community service for registered voters who decide not to cast a ballot. We asked Canadians to ponder two different scenarios to compel all registered voters to participate in federal elections.

Canadians, to put it mildly, were not amused, with 67 per cent disagreeing with the notion of compelling eligible voters who do not cast a ballot to pay a $200 fine, and 64 per cent disagreeing with forcing non-voters to perform 25 hours of community service if they fail to exercise their franchise.

However, when the tables were turned, and Canadians were asked if voters who do cast a ballot should be eligible for a $200 tax rebate, 69 per cent agreed with this notion. It would seem that Canadians would prefer to reward those who cast a ballot rather than punish those who do not.

The third component of our research is online voting. Other countries allow citizens to cast ballots through the Internet. In the Baltic State of Estonia, more than one-in-five votes cast in the 2011 parliamentary election were cast online. Voter turnout in Estonia has been higher than 60 per cent in the three elections that have allowed Internet voting. Canada and Estonia are strikingly different in both area and population, but the Estonian experiment shows that there are ways to make online voting work without allegations of fraud.

For the most part, Canadians are supportive of modernizing the electoral system provided the security features are suitable, with 65 per cent agreeing to use electronic voting machines instead of paper ballots and pencils, and 61 per cent agreeing to allow voters to cast ballots through the Internet.  All major demographic groups endorsed these two proposed changes. Support for voting by phone—an option that has been explored by some political parties in their leadership races—stood at 42 per cent.

What all of these results convey can be summarized in this fashion. While the public is not currently demanding swift action to deal with our electoral system—certainly not in the same way they have consistently asked for an elected Senate—the notion of proportional representation is attractive to half of Canadians at this early stage of discussions, including many who are aged 18-to-34. Mandatory voting would be welcome if it meant rewarding those who vote, rather than punishing those who stay home. Modernizing the way we vote would be a welcome change for the many Canadians who have already adopted online tools to do their banking or pay their bills, provided, of course, that the security features are suitable.

I am certain that this is the start of the discussion. Tracking public opinion provides an opportunity to assess how a society evolves overtime. Our views as Canadians on issues like immigration, marriage, international trade and assisted death have shifted dramatically over the decades. The perceptions of Canadians I have just outlined represent a snapshot of the situation on this particular month. As the process continues, we will endeavour to keep on tracking the views of Canadians. It is our duty as professional researchers to do so.

To view the detailed data tabulations, click here.

To view the presentation, click here.


Photograph: Mike Bowler