Samara’s Five Potential Electoral Systems

… a core concept in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100

Click for document

Click for document

Concept description

In its August 2016 Electoral Reform Report, entitled What We Talk about When we Talk about Electoral Reform (reference below and website to right), Samara analyzes five potential electoral systems for Canada:

  • First Past the Post – First Past the Post (FPTP) is Canada’s current electoral system. Voters in each riding vote for one candidate in that riding. Whoever has the most votes is elected as the Member of Parliament (MP) for that riding.
  • Alternative Vote – Under alternative vote (AV), each riding elects one MP. Voters rank candidates in order of preference. The winning candidate must have the support of a majority of voters in the riding, if necessary via a transfer of votes from eliminated candidates. The alternative vote system is also known as “supplementary vote,” “instant run-off,” “preferential voting,” “ranked choice voting,” and “ranked ballot voting.”
  • List Proportional Representation – List Proportional Representation systems are designed to match parties’ proportion of seats in the legislature to their share of votes cast nationally, provincially or regionally – depending on the design of the system. Ridings are typically large (the average internationally is about 10 MPs per district), and each Canadian will thus have many MPs. Voters generally cast a ballot for a political party or a specific candidate on a list prepared by the party.
  • Mixed-Member Proportional Representation – Mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) is mixed or “hybrid” because it combines elements of proportional and single-member plurality systems. With MMP, voters have a single MP who represents their riding, while other seats are distributed proportionately to total votes cast in the election.
  • Single Transferable Vote – The single transferable vote (STV) combines elements of different systems to both achieve a relatively proportional result and to elect MPs from specific constituencies. It has ranked ballots and large ridings, each with multiple elected MPs.
Samara’s electoral reform glossary

An accompanying website ( provides the following useful glossary of terms:

Ballot structure: The choices available to voters in an election. Some ballots offer a categorical choice (between candidates or parties); others provide the ability to rank different options in order of preference. Some ballots allow voters to make multiple choices, while others limit voters to a single choice.

Coalition government: A coalition government is one in which two or more parties share power in order to ensure the government has enough votes to maintain the confidence of the House.

Confidence motion: a vote on a bill that signals whether the House of Commons continues to support the government of the day. It may take several forms, including explicitly worded bills that indicate confidence or a lack of it, important bills such as the budget and the speech from the throne, and bills that are designated as confidence motions by the government itself.

Constituency: see glossary definition for “Riding.”

Constituency seats: seats that are assigned on the basis of a vote in a specific riding or constituency. In FPTP, AV and STV systems, all seats are constituency seats. In MMP systems, a portion of seats are constituency-based.

Dissolution: When the prime minister asks the governor general to end Parliament and call an election, it is referred to as dissolution. In general, this occurs when the government’s fixed term is complete (currently four years in Canada), the government loses a vote of confidence, or a vote on an important bill such as the budget or the speech from the throne.

Electoral formula: the process by which votes are tallied and used to assign seats in an electoral system. The formulas can be quite simple, as in FPTP, or more complex, as in proportional systems. The Further Readings section provides sources with more information on the different kinds of electoral formulas used around the world.

Fringe party: At the opposite extreme from a major party, fringe parties attract only a small fraction of the vote. The presence of many such very small parties is often seen as destabilizing in a legislature, as they can make the process of coalition-building more complex. As a result, proportional electoral systems include some form of minimum threshold to limit the total number of parties in the legislature and ensure those that are represented have some minimum level of national or regional support.

List seats: In an MMP system, some seats are assigned to parties according to an electoral formula, to ensure their total number of representatives matches their share of the total vote. The people who win these seats are drawn in order from each party’s candidate list.

Major party: Sometimes referred to as a “big tent” party, major parties are the largest in a given political system, usually attracting support from across the country. Under majoritarian systems they often can form majority governments on their own. In proportional systems, they form a minority government or the core of a governing coalition.

Majority government: A majority government is one in which a single party (or a single coalition of likeminded parties) holds more than half the seats in the House of Commons. It is therefore able to pass legislation without the support of opposition parties.

Minimum threshold: Proportional systems may include a rule requiring parties to receive a certain share of the vote in order to receive any seats. That threshold may take the form of a certain percentage of the national vote, or a share of the vote in one or more districts. In MMP systems, the threshold may also require a certain number of constituency seats be won.

Minority government: A minority government is one in which no party holds more than half the seats in the House of Commons. Sometimes, two or more parties will form a coalition to govern together, agreeing to a shared set of goals in government. In other cases, a single party (generally the largest in the House) will attempt to govern without a formal coalition with another party, instead building support for legislation, particularly confidence motions, on a case-by-case basis.

Non-proportional system: electoral systems that are not designed to generate an outcome where seats won by political parties reflect their share of total votes cast. They include “majoritarian” and “plurality” systems (such as AV and FPTP, respectively) where candidates must win riding-level contests by capturing a plurality or majority of votes cast.

Party discipline: the ability of party leaders to ensure party members’ support their policies in Parliament through various means, including control of MPs’ nomination for election and membership in the caucus and their assignment to various party and parliamentary roles.

Plurality: The candidate in a given riding with the most votes is said to have a plurality of votes. It may or may not be more than half of the total votes cast.

Proportional system: Proportional electoral systems are designed to allocate seats in proportion to votes cast for political parties.

Quota: In STV systems, candidates are elected when they receive a certain amount of votes, known as a quota. The quota is determined by a mathematical formula.

Riding: the geographic area that one or more MPs represent in the House of Commons. Canada is currently divided into 338 separate ridings. They can also be referred to as electoral districts or constituencies.

Semi-Proportional System: an electoral system designed to allocate seats in relatively proportional manner to the votes cast for political parties. STV is a semi-proportional system that can become more or less proportional, depending on the number of MPs elected from each riding.

Speech from the Throne: A statement prepared by cabinet and delivered by the governor general to open a new session of Parliament. The speech lays out the government’s agenda for that Parliament, and a subsequent vote regarding the speech is considered a motion of confidence.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Electoral Systems and Democratic Reform (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Samara, Electoral Reform, at, accessed 25 August 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 29 January 2017.

Image: Samara, Electoral Reform, at, accessed 25 August 2016.