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The Canadian Election’s Lesson for Americans


Canada had an election yesterday, and the results weren’t very interesting. The Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, called the election in the hopes of turning their minority government into a majority government. In the last election, they won 157 seats in the House of Commons. They currently have won or lead in . . . 158 seats. Canadian writer Ben Woodfinden called it “the Seinfeld election,” since it wound up being about nothing.

What is noteworthy is the way the vote totals interact with the structure of Canadian government. The House of Commons has single-member districts (called “ridings”) where candidates are elected in a first-past-the-post system.

There have been 24 House of Commons elections in Canada since the end of World War II. In only two of those elections has a party won a majority of the popular vote (1958 and 1984). Every other election has seen a party winning a minority of the popular vote and still winning a majority of the seats, or a party forming a minority government. Canada has a strong tradition of third parties and regional parties that prevent the two major parties from getting a popular majority. The threshold that the CBC uses as a benchmark for a majority government is 38.5 percent of the national popular vote. That’s generally enough to win 170 seats for a majority in the 338-seat House of Commons.

The Conservative Party has won the most votes nationally in five of the past six general elections. It has gotten to form the government after only three of them. The past two have seen Conservatives win the popular vote and Liberals get to form the government. The structure benefits the Liberals despite the Conservatives winning more votes.

Essentially, Conservatives run up the score in western Canada and lose lots of closer elections in eastern Canada. In 2019 they shut the Liberals out of Alberta and Saskatchewan entirely, earning 69 and 64 percent of the popular vote in those provinces to the Liberals’ measly 14 and 12 percent. But in Ontario, Liberals won 79 of the available 121 seats on only 42 percent of the vote, with Conservatives earning 33 percent. Add that up nationally, and you see plenty of votes for Conservatives, but since they are heavily concentrated in specific areas, they don’t translate to winning general elections.

If this sounds vaguely familiar to you, that’s because it’s essentially the United States in reverse. Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, yet they’ve won the White House in only three of those elections. Their voters are heavily concentrated in urban areas, which makes winning national elections more difficult.

Republicans respond to critics by saying, “That’s not how the system works. You have to win a majority in the Electoral College for the presidency. The ‘national popular vote’ in the Senate doesn’t mean anything.” And they’re correct. That’s how the Constitution works.

What’s funny is that in Canada, the left-wing parties are still the ones that say they support electoral reform. In essence, the two sides of the political spectrum hold the same positions on electoral structure in Canada as they do in the United States, even though the electoral situation is reversed.

The Liberals are in the tricky spot of benefiting from a system they know deep down they are supposed to hate. When running for office in 2015, “Justin Trudeau vowed that the upcoming general election will be the last one using the first-past-the-post voting system,” said the CBC. Well, there have been two elections since then under the same system — and Trudeau’s Liberals have just so happened to win both of them. The other left-wing parties, the New Democratic Party and the Green Party, both support proportional representation.

The Conservatives have never promised to change from the first-past-the-post system, even though they are the ones getting shafted by the current system. The small, right-wing People’s Party of Canada is silent on electoral reform.

In a sense, the status quo is in Conservatives’ best interest. If you add up the left-wing parties, they win more of the popular vote than the right-wing parties, so in a perfectly proportional system, the right would be the minority. But they aren’t doing any better with the first-past-the-post system. Canada has experienced its own version of geographic polarization. In America, it’s urban–rural. In Canada, it’s east–west. Despite the different nature of the polarization, the results seem to be the same: no massive swings from election to election and a bitter, divided government.

The Conservatives could look at that and complain about being locked out of government, pen countless think-pieces about why the system is undemocratic, and advocate abolishing the current system and installing a new one to benefit their party. They could also feed their supporters a steady diet of lies that these elections were stolen from them. But they don’t.

They muddle through. They pick new leaders. They campaign in places they need to win. They keep trying to win elections under the system as it has always existed. For the last few elections, things haven’t worked out for them. But they focus on the future and fight another day.

The Conservatives’ attitude is Canadian with a capital “C” (they’re just so darn polite), but it’s also conservative with a lowercase “c.” Canadian conservatives are a bunch of squishes on most policy matters, and Americans should not follow them down that trail. But Americans should learn from them how to behave when the votes don’t go your way.

One-party states have a pretty bad track record historically, and competitive democracies are the best places to live. That means your side is going to lose sometimes and maybe even have a losing streak. That’s not a reason to overthrow the system or invent cockamamie schemes to change the results. It’s a reason to preserve our form of government so that there will be a next election — another chance to win.

American partisans should improve their post-election behavior — if for no other reason than to deny the Canadians moral superiority.

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