Canadians want the new government to keep its promise to change voting system by almost two to one margin



OTTAWA — Most Canadians think the way members of Parliament are elected needs to change and a system of proportional representation is the most preferred alternative, a landmark Canadian survey has found.

The large national survey of 2,986 Canadians conducted November 3 to 6 by Abacus Data for the Broadbent Institute is the first study of its kind and size to measure Canadians’ attitudes about voting system design and preference for electoral reform. The large sample allowed for robust estimates across regional, demographic and political subgroups. The Abacus study also asked those who voted in the 2015 Canadian General Election to rank a ballot that included the main political parties and generated data for 11 regions to estimate, with increased precision, the outcome of the Canadian election had it been run under different electoral systems.

The study shows little appetite for ranked or preferential ballots among supporters of all five political parties represented in the House of Commons. Among four options presented (the status quo; two variations of proportional representation; and ranked or preferential ballot), ranked or preferential ballot was the top choice of only 14% of respondents compared to 44% who preferred a form of proportional representation, according to the survey.

Among those who think the Liberal government should keep its promise to change the system, a system of proportional representation is also the preferred option by a healthy majority (61%) compared to ranked or preferential ballots (20%).

When asked to rate the goals they value most in an electoral system, half of those respondents who want to change the electoral system chose proportionality as a key goal – higher than any other option and nine points higher than the national average. Among all respondents, the five goals rated most important were: a simple ballot; stable and strong governments; ability to directly elect a local MP; regional representation; and that the number of seats held by a party in Parliament closely matches their actual level of support throughout the country.

“The principle that our voting system should ensure seats in Parliament reflect the level of support a party receives across the country is simple and straightforward. It’s also fair and popular,” said Rick Smith, Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute.

The newly elected Liberal government has promised to reform Canada’s voting system so the 2015 election is the last one used under the current first past the post system, and is expected to reaffirm this commitment in the Speech from the Throne later this week. It has cited proportional representation and ranked or preferential ballots as options to consider.

Abacus Data estimates that under a ranked or preferential ballot the Conservatives would have won 33 fewer seats, winning only two seats in British Columbia. The Liberals would have won 33 more seats across the country, capturing 64% of the seats (217) with 40% of the popular vote. The NDP would have won six more seats while the Bloc Quebecois would have lost six. The Green Party’s representation would have remained unchanged, with one seat.

“This study is different from past attempts to estimate the impact of a preferential ballot on Canadian elections because we asked respondents to rank all the major parties in order of preference and we collected a large sample with robust provincial and regional oversamples,” said Dr. David Coletto of Abacus Data and Carleton University and one of the authors of the study.

“And by collecting the data soon after the federal election, we tried to ensure that the ranked preference of voters in our study were as close to those who voted on October 19 and in advance polls. This study uses the best available data to project what would have happened under different electoral systems.”

Added Smith: “The study shows rank ballots can give a party a lot more seats without any more support, skewing results even more than our current voting system.”

Other key findings include:

  • Forty-four per cent of Canadians think the new government should keep their promise to change the system, compared to 24% who said the government should keep the current system and 32% who had no clear views. This aligns with 42% who said the way members of Parliament are elected needs to “change completely” or needs “major changes;” Quebecers and people who voted for the NDP, Green Party or Bloc Quebecois were more likely to say so. Forty-one per cent said the way MPs are elected needs “minor changes” compared to 17% who said “the system works well and does not need to be changed.”
  • Eighty-one percent agreed they always voted even if they believe their vote will not change the outcome in their electoral district compared to 38% who agreed that they have sometimes not voted, or considered not voting, because their vote would not change the outcome of their electoral district.
  • Under our current voting system, 46% said that they have voted for a party that was not their first choice, in order to prevent another party from winning. Liberal (54%) and NDP (50%) voters were most likely to agree with this statement.

“The new government says it is committed to engaging in evidence-based decision making. On electoral reform, this comprehensive study is valuable research and should be given thoughtful consideration,” said Smith.

The report is available online at


For more information, please contact Sarah Schmidt, Director of Communications, Broadbent Institute, sschmidt[at]broadbentinstitute[dot]ca or 613-857-2814. 

A note on methodology:

The survey informing the Abacus Data study was conducted online with 2,986 Canadians aged 18 or older from Nov. 3 to 6, 2015. A random sample of panelists was invited to complete the survey from a large representative panel of Canadians, recruited and managed by Research Now, one of the world’s leading providers of online research samples. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is +/- 1.8%, 19 times out of 20. The data were weighted according to census data to ensure that the sample matched Canada’s population according to age, gender, educational attainment, and region. Totals may not add up to 100 due to rounding.

What people are saying about the study:

"Having elected a government that promised change, Canadians can expect to be part of a broad, cross-partisan dialogue on electoral reform. We need to be clear about the problems we seek to fix, identify solutions, and do this in a way that generates an outcome that enjoys democratic legitimacy. The Broadbent Institute’s impressive large-scale survey is a great place to begin that dialogue. It tells us where there is a desire for change, and identifies the segments of the electorate who are as yet undecided. This provides an invaluable baseline for observing and shaping perceptions as our collective deliberations unfold." Max Cameron, Director at the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, University of British Columbia

"Citizens across the country are calling for equal and effective votes to bring a diversity of voices to the table. This landmark study reinforces what many experts have been saying for some time: the preferential ballot or ranked ballot in single-member districts is another winner-take-all, majoritarian system that will favour certain parties over others and will add more distortion to an already broken system. When we add a ranking mechanism to first-past-the-post, we get first-past-the-post on steroids. Proportional Representation is a principle that respects the true intention of voters with a goal to provide representation for all citizens." Kelly Carmichael, Executive Director, Fair Vote Canada

“After the 2015 federal election unfortunately only 26 per cent of our Parliament is female – an increase of only one point over 2011! We must do better. An electoral system based on proportionality would be the best way to achieve this. Canadians clearly want an electoral system that is fair and transparent.” Donna Dasko, Co-founder and Past National Chair, Equal Voice

"Since the election we have heard from thousands of people from across the political spectrum who support a change to a proportional voting system. They want a better system to ensure election results closely reflect voter intentions, and promote cooperation between parties. The Broadbent Institute study is a very useful starting point for this important public policy discussion." Kelly Dowdell, electoral reform campaign manager, Leadnow

“Electoral reform is a priority for CARP. Two-thirds of CARP members, among the country’s most politically engaged and avid voters, strongly support replacing our First Past the Post System with a proportional system that better reflects the priorities of all voters. The Broadbent Institute study helps to build the evidence base for the meaningful change our members will be looking for.” Susan Eng, Executive Vice-President, Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP)

“Samara Canada welcomes a national conversation about possible changes to the way Canada’s democracy functions, including electoral reform. When it comes to changing the way we elect MPs, the Broadbent Institute report serves as an important baseline for the conversation. The report highlights Canadians’ desire for change, but also reveals the challenge in balancing Canadians’ priorities for an electoral system. To Samara Canada, it suggests that public engagement and education around the merits and limits of different electoral systems will be critical.” Jane Hilderman, Executive Director, Samara Canada

"The Broadbent Institute’s evidence based report is an important step in understanding Canadians opinions on potential democratic reforms. This is especially relevant for young Canadians who typically lack political literacy. Apathy is Boring believes that it is essential to educate young Canadians and incorporate their opinions in the discussion of democratic reform, particularly those who have not been engaging with our current electoral system.” Caro Loutfi, Executive Director, Apathy is Boring

"Though I believe that ranked ballots are a great improvement for mayoral elections and non-partisan councillor elections, when we're electing an entire Parliament, the most important goal should be proportionality. This Abacus research is a reminder that Canadians expect their elections to be fair and responsive to their desires. Most Western democracies use some form of proportional representation, and Canadian voters deserve nothing less." Dave Meslin, Co-Founder, Unlock Democracy, and Founder, Ranked Ballot Initiative of Toronto

“This groundbreaking survey shows that people want real change in how we vote. Proportional representation will ensure the results reflect rather than distort voters’ intentions, putting an end to false majorities in Parliament and making our elections more fair. Most people clearly recognize that preferential ballots would extend an unfair federal voting system, while proportional representation would end it. We’re hopeful the Canadian government will recognize this too.” Dylan Penner, Democracy Campaigner, The Council of Canadians

“Groupe Femmes, Politique et Démocratie joins our voice to those citizens who are calling for a change in the electoral system in order to ensure that the Canadian Parliament better reflects their political choices. This is also an occasion to encourage more participation by women in the places of power, and a clear route to improve representative democracy and the diversity of opinions.” Micheline Paradis, President, Groupe Femmes, Politique et Démocratie 

“The more someone is informed about politics they more they get interested in it and the more likely they are to vote. However, for this to happen, they must also feel that their vote counts, even if they choose a third party.” Michel Venne, Executive Director, Institut du Nouveau Monde