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Reviewed by:
  • Elections
  • Henry J. Jacek
Elections. John C. Courtney. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004. Pp. 192, illus., b&w, $65.00 cloth, $22.95 paper

John C. Courtney is the leading scholar on the history, principles, and current practice of elections in Canada. Thus, he is the best choice to analyse the Canadian electoral system for the Canadian Democratic Audit series. Courtney's basic conclusion is that, overall, Canadian elections are democratic. Yet he examines areas that are still open to democratic weakness such as the plurality vote system and representational fairness.

As Courtney argues, the story of the historical development of Canadian and provincial electoral regimes is a happy one. Four of the five [End Page 170] components of our electoral systems – voter eligibility, election districts, registration practices, and election administration – have slowly and consistently improved since Confederation. These components changed as a result of popular democratic pressure but slowly enough to allow the dominant parties to adjust their appeals to the electorate so as to maintain, more or less, their competitive electoral positions.

Today, the most controversial aspect of our electoral system is plurality voting. Its critics are vocal, its defenders, to the extent they exist, are quiet. So why does this system persist?

The major change would likely be dramatic. Political parties and our representational system would be most affected, perhaps in unexpected ways. As Courtney points out, changing the electoral system would change the campaign strategies of the political parties and the voting strategies of voters. Finally the election results might produce outcomes that severely damage the governability of the country.

Yet defenders are hard pressed to ignore the faults of the plurality system as it works in Canada. Even though the major parties try to run regionally balanced campaigns, election results consistently produce outcomes that grossly under-represent regions and, at the federal level, provinces. Regionally strong parties with limited geographical appeal are over-represented in legislatures, while broad-based parties with non-concentrated support are often grossly under-represented.

Courtney also argues that change may not always be good. In recent years, a permanent voters list was seen as being preferable to an election-specific registry of voters. However, as Courtney points out, the establishment of a permanent voters list did not result in a democratic expansion of suffrage, increase voting participation, or reduce a perceived democratic failing in the enumeration procedure.

Overall Courtney's volume is an even-handed comprehensive overview of the Canadian electoral system and its historical development. Some will see too much conservatism in his analysis, others, like myself, will see an overdue defence of traditional Canadian institutions and their evolution. Certainly, to this reviewer, a critical assessment of the move to a permanent voters list was long overdue. Just as importantly, while the faults of the plurality system are justly seen as undemocratic, we need to understand why Canadians have been loath to change this system, and we need to be aware that the expected benefits of change may not materialize and indeed may produce consequences worse than the present system.

Clearly, most hand-wringing observers of lower voting participation have not asked an important question: What is the effect of a permanent voting list on citizen participation in elections? When we add to this [End Page 171] question a similar query about a recent characteristic of election campaigns – shorter election campaigns – the question becomes even more compelling. Indeed, sitting governments' desire for shorter campaigns is seen as an additional justification for a permanent list.

As Courtney notes, these two reinforcing factors likely reduce voting participation, especially among young citizens, and affect our actual measurement of voting participation. Approximately one-fifth of our population moves each year, most comprising young, poor, tenants, and poorly educated. These citizens are not likely to wind up on our registration list, and they are not stimulated to pay attention to the campaign by enumerators on their doorstep. Also while it is now more difficult to get on the registration rolls, it is even more difficult to eliminate the deceased and those who have moved out of a constituency. Thus, our purported lower voting rates in recent years may be partially due to actual...


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