Events in Manitoba History: Proportional Voting (1920-1957)
Manitoba’s general election in June 1920 was unusual in at least three respects. Among those elected to seats in the provincial Legislative Building were three convicted criminals—all participants in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. It was the first provincial election where a female candidate, Edith Rogers, was elected. And it was the first time the Proportional Representation voting system was used in Canada.
Political scientists argue about the most democratic system for electing our government representatives. In 1920, the Manitoba government tried an experiment. Election ballots listed each of the candidates in alphabetical order. Voters wrote a number 1 beside their first choice, 2 beside their second choice, and so on, until they had ranked their preference for all candidates, or they no longer felt competent to rank the remaining ones. (A person could vote for a single candidate if they chose.) Where there were only two candidates in a constituency—which was the case in 27 of the 45 constituencies in the 1920 election—the outcome would be the same as under the former system: the person with the most votes won. However, when there were multiple candidates, the votes were counted more than once. In the first round of counting, the number of “1” votes for each candidate were tallied and compared to a threshold (total votes cast divided by the number of candidates plus one) above which a candidate was deemed to have been elected. All votes above this threshold were, in effect, wasted because they did nothing to affect the election result. Under the new system, these unused votes were given to other candidates based on the rankings of those candidates by each voter. It was a complex system and officials worried that voter confusion, especially among newly-enfranchised women and non-English-speakers, would confound the election results. In the end, however, it was generally conceded that the 1920 election proceeded without a hitch.
The new system was used in only one constituency during the 1920 election: Winnipeg. Unlike today, the entire city was a single constituency with ten representatives in the Legislature (previously, it had had six). Each of the three political parties—Liberal (the incumbents), Conservative, and Labour—fielded ten candidates so someone with partisan leanings could vote a straight ticket. The other eleven were independents so there were a staggering 41 candidates listed on each ballot. There were 47,427 votes cast with an election threshold of 4,312 votes. Two candidates were elected in the first round of counting: Liberal candidate Thomas Johnson (barely above the threshold, with 4,386 votes) and Labour candidate and unconvicted 1919 Strike leader Fred Dixon (by a landslide, with 11,586 votes). The final group of 10 MLAs was not known until the votes had been counted 36 more times. They included four Liberals, four Labours (three of whom were residents at the Prison Farm), and two Conservatives.
As of the 1927 general election, a “single transferable vote” system, similar to the one in Winnipeg, was used in other constituencies around Manitoba. In 1949, Winnipeg switched from electing ten MLAs overall to having four constituencies with four representatives each, with the results of each constituency decided by proportional voting. However, the provincial experiment with proportional voting ended in 1957. The general election of 1958 was the first one since 1920 where Winnipeg voters returned to our long-familiar system of marking their single preferred candidate with an X.
“Proportional voting plans are explained,” Winnipeg Tribune, 5 June 1920, page 13.
“Dixon has majority of 5,701 over his nearest opponent in 302 polls,” Winnipeg Tribune, 30 June 1920, page 1.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 8 December 2018