In the most recent Canadian elections, the Liberal Party of Canada, one of the oldest and most dominant political parties in the world, lost badly and fell into irrelevance.  That fall, however, may lead the country to adopt more democratic election reforms, and Canada could serve as a case study for how the success of an insurgent party can upset the old order and bring election reform.

Canada, like the United States and the UK, uses single member districts with plurality winners for its federal elections. This is often called a “first-past-the-post” system. It is a highly unfair and unrepresentative system that prohibitively favors the two most popular parties.

The unfairness of the system was very helpful to the Liberal Party for most of Canada’s history, as long as it was one of the top two parties. For example in the 2000 election, the Liberals won just 40.85% of the popular vote but were awarded 57% of the seats in Parliament. This kind of outcome was fairly common. As a result the Liberal Party saw very little reason to change a system inherently rigged for their benefit.

This all changed with the 2011 election. In that election the Conservatives took first with 39.62% of the popular vote, but winning 53.9% of the seats. The New Democratic Party (NDP) shot up to second with 30.63% of the popular vote and won 33.44% of the seats. The Liberals got 18.91% of the popular vote but won just 11.04% of the seats.

Now that the Liberals had been knocked out of the top two slots, the unfairness of the system finally stopped working in their favor. Instead of getting way more seats than their popular vote warranted, they get way fewer.

As the third most popular party the Liberals face a serious choice on which the entire fate of the Party could rest.

  1. They could try to formally merge with the New Democratic Party. First-past-the-post voting inherently causes politics to gravitate to a two party system. That could give Canada a traditional left vs right two-party system.
  2. They can defend the old voting system in hopes they will soon become one of the top two parties again. Such a strategy carries the big risk that it could slowly destroy the Liberal Party or turn it permanently into a small third party with little influence. That could easily happen if they are viewed as spoilers preventing the NDP from getting the votes needed to defeat the Conservatives. Of course the big reward is that if they ever get a mere 40 percent of the popular vote again, they will be able to rule Canada with a large majority.
  3. Finally they can embrace election reform. If the first-past-the-post system ends, it will mean the Liberals will never again be able to run with huge majorities in the Parliament after getting only a small plurality of the popular vote. On the other hand it would could keep the Liberal Party relevant even if it doesn’t radically increase its vote share. It would likely prevent the party from fading away or being forced to lose its identity in a merger or coalition with the NDP. For example if Canada had used almost any other fairer voting system in 2011, instead of Parliament being controlled by Conservatives, Canada would currently be governed by a New Democrat/Liberal coalition government.

It appears the Liberal Party is now heading towards option three. Fresh off a defeat the Liberal Party approved a non-binding resolution at their national convention calling for Canada to end the first-past-the-post system and adopt a preferential ballot voting system, which uses instant run-off voting.

The New Democrats, who until recently were almost always disadvantaged by the first-past-the-post system in federal elections, have a long history strongly wanting to replace it.

It is possible the next federal election could produce a NDP/Liberal coalition government or a NDP Parliament majority. If that happens we could see the first-past-the-post system eliminated in Canada.

This is how voting reform sometimes happens. An insurgent party gets strong enough to risk the existence of a dominant party. This convinces the formerly dominant party, hoping to maintain some relevance, to embrace reforms that makes democracy more representative.