Thomas’s Ten Thoughts on Electoral Reform

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Concept description

In his presentation to the House of Commons Special Committee of Electoral Reform, Paul Thomas (reference below, pdf on right) offered “The Quick Thoughts on Electoral Reform in Ten Minutes.”

In summary form they are:

  1. “There is no perfect electoral system. Different countries have relatively strong, healthy democracies under a variety of electoral systems. By international standards and comparisons Canada has a relatively healthy democracy.
  2. “There are two main questions involved with electoral reform: what problem(s) are we seeking to address and what principles/values are we seeking to see reflected in a new electoral system.
  3. “Electoral reform is often presented as a response to the public frustration and disillusionment with politics, politicians and governments. There is a malaise – NOT A CRISIS OF DEMOCRACY – within the Canadian political system, but the FPTP electoral system is not the principal cause of what is a multi-dimensional problem. Adoption of a new electoral system would contribute only marginally to a reduction in public discontent.
  4. “A related issue raised by the current reform debate is whether it is realistic in a large, complicated, pluralistic, dynamic country to expect omnibus, national political parties to capture and give meaningful political expression to the diverse values, interests, demands and needs that exist in Canada.
  5. “Composing a list of principles and values that should guide the design of an electoral system is relatively easy. However … such design criteria will to some extent clash, so it is not possible to maximize the achievement of each of them.
  6. “A constructive debate over electoral reform must avoid reduction into simplistic, false dichotomies that encourage proponents of different models to talk past one another. … In fact, there are hybrid models that seek to find the “sweet spot” where some of the advantages-and fewer of the disadvantages-of each type of model are realized.
  7. “… In my view, preserving the “personal” factor in any electoral system is crucial. By the personal factor I mean the maintenance – even enhancement – of the role of the local MP in being responsive to and representing her/his constituency.
  8. “The word “legitimacy” comes up frequently in electoral reform debates. This is a contentious notion. It involves both a substantive and a procedural aspect. Put simply, legitimacy requires decisions that are based on widely held values and that are made through appropriate and widely accepted procedures. In other words, legitimacy is not just about levels of approval in a poll, election or a referendum. A decision based on sound evidence and careful analysis can have legitimacy, even if it fails a popularity test in the short term.
  9. “From the standpoint of legitimacy, electoral reform poses a dilemma. Political parties represented in Parliament are being asked to select the rules of the game in which they are players. … In terms of public support and legitimacy, it would definitely help if agreement on a particular electoral system could be achieved between two or more political parties represented on this committee.
  10. “Mobilizing informed public consent and support for electoral reform will be difficult. … In communicating about the electoral system it is important for reasons of credibility, and to avoid future disappointment, not to exaggerate either the problems of the current system or the benefits of an alternative model.”

Thomas concludes his presentation with:

“In summary a decision on a new electoral system involves consideration of multiple values, a series of potential purposes and a significant measure of uncertainty about how a particular model will work in practice. … I am skeptical about the urgency of electoral reform and the capacity of any system to deliver the multiple benefits that various sincere proponents claim for them. … Electoral reform could wait until after the 2019 election. A committee report and a concrete government proposal could be part of the next election campaign. Meanwhile there is much else to be done on a democratic reform agenda.”

Additional resources

In his presentation, Thomas refers to two other documents made available to the House of Commons Committee. They are:

Paul Thomas (2016), Comparing Electoral Systems: Criteria, Advantages and Disadvantages, and the Process for Finding a Consensus on Which System is Best for Canada, 2 March 2016, uploaded to the Atlas with permission of the author at, on 25 September 2016.

Paul Thomas (2016), Is Mandatory Voting Right for Canada? Presentation to the Elections Canada Advisory Board, 14-15 September 2016, uploaded to the Atlas with permission of the author at, on 25 September 2016.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

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


Paul Thomas (2016). Ten Quick Thoughts on Electoral Reform in Ten Minutes, Notes for Presentation to the House of Commons Special Committee on Electoral Reform, 20 September 2016, uploaded to the Atlas with permission of the author at, on 25 September 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 25 September 2016.