Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party are celebrating their huge win in Monday’s election. Having won 54 percent of the seats in the House of Commons, the Conservatives now have a solid governing majority.

The thing is that if Canada used a different voting system like many other democracies (such as Germany, Israel, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland), it would be the New Democrats celebrating their win and control of the government through a coalition with the Liberal Party.

Party Popular Vote% Seats Won % of Seats
Conservative 39.6 167 54.2
NDP 30.6 102 33.1
Liberals 18.9 34 11
Bloc Québécois 6.1 4 1.3
Green 3.9 1 0.3

As you can see, the Conservatives did win a large majority of seats, but less than 40 percent of the people actually cast a vote for them. That represents a massive over-representation.

This happened because Canada, like the United States, uses single-member districts with a “first past the post” system. This is an election where the candidate that gets the most votes wins, regardless of how few votes they actually got. With multiple parties, this can produce results like what happened in the Bramalea-Gore-Malton riding, where a Conservative won the seat with only 34.44 percent of the vote.

Proportional Representation

This isn’t the case in many other democracies that use some form of proportional representation, where the number of seats a party gets is roughly the same as their overall percentage of the popular vote. If Canada had proportional representation, depending on the exact rules, the Conservatives would have won only about 123 seats, similar to their overall 40 percent of the popular vote total. The NDP and Liberals together would have gotten basically half the seats, giving them the ability to form a governing coalition.

Alternative Voting/Instant runoff voting

If Canada used alternative voting (aka instant runoff voting) like they do in Australia,  it is also unlikely the Conservatives would have won. Under this system, voters can indicate not only their first but also their second and third choices. If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, the candidate in last place is dropped and those votes are redistributed to the voters’ second choice.

Exit polling shows pretty clearly that most Liberal and NDP voters support each other’s parties more than they support Conservatives. While it is impossible to know exactly what would have happened without knowing every voter’s second choice, it is likely if Canada had used alternative voting that NDP and Liberals together would have done even slightly better than under a proportional representation system.

It wasn’t the Canadian voters that gave Harper a governing majority, it was the flawed design of Canada’s electoral system

Under most other democracies’ fairer systems, the Conservatives would likely be the opposition after this election, instead of the governing party.

For Americans who remember how George W. Bush “won” the 2000 election through the electoral college, this election in Canada is a great reminder of how incredibly critical the actual rules of the election are. Bad election rules can be even more important in deciding a who runs a country than the actual will of the people.