Canada's Democracy Week Blogs

Paula Waatainen

One Teacher's Ideas for Discussing Electoral Reform in the Classroom

Paula Waatainen teaches Social Studies Methods in the Faculty of Education at Vancouver Island University. She taught Social Studies in West Vancouver schools for over 20 years and was on the writing team for British Columbia's new Political Studies 11 course. Her favourite day of the school year was always Model Parliament day. In this post, Paula offers her ideas and experience on how to engage your class in the national conversation on electoral reform.

This fall, the Special Committee on Electoral Reform is pursuing its mandate to study electoral systems as well as mandatory and online voting. Canadians have until October 7 to participate in the national conversation. As teachers, we also have an opportunity to engage our students in the conversation. Here are some ideas for bringing electoral reform into your classroom in an authentic way in the fall of 2016.

Why involve students?

Students

In 2004, during the work of the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia, I organized a Model Citizens Assembly at my school, Rockridge Secondary. Our model assembly formally submitted a proposal for a mixed-member proportional system to the citizens' assembly. When the assembly held public hearings in our region, a delegation of our students was called to the meeting to explain their proposal.

I've always had students get directly involved in the political process, but no experience has matched this one in developing a sense of political efficacy in my students.

Studying electoral systems

Begin with a look at our current single-member plurality (“first-past-the-post”) system. Examine past election results to see the relationship between the popular vote and the number of seats won by each party. 

When your students have a better understanding of our current system, have them research and present on the major alternatives. This can be done simply by creating research groups for each major alternative or by conducting a simulation of the parliamentary committee process.

Setting your criteria for judgment

To begin comparing the electoral systems with my students, I found it was as simple as asking the question: What do we want in an electoral system? When my students considered this question in 2004, it took a long time and much effort to unpack.

In the 2016 process, the mandate statement for the parliamentary committee sets out these principles:

  • Restore the effectiveness and legitimacy of voting, such as by reducing distortions and strengthening the link between voter intention and the electoral result
  • Encourage greater engagement and participation in the democratic process, including by underrepresented groups
  • Support accessibility and inclusiveness for all eligible voters, and avoid undue complexity in the voting process
  • Safeguard the integrity of our voting process
  • Preserve the accountability of local representation

These principles can form the criteria for judgment that students apply when considering the benefits and drawbacks of different electoral systems. As an extension, you may ask if these principles reflect what the class values in an electoral system and then allow them to add additional principles to their list.

Creating a class proposal

Working together, create a class proposal that can be submitted during the public consultation. Try to achieve consensus. If you can't, the class can submit more than one proposal.

Ideas for active citizenship

  • Submit digital proposals to the Special Committee on Electoral Reform no later than October 7 (via the last link below).
  • Have students attend and participate in any town hall meeting on electoral reform that is being organized by their MP or community group.
  • Work with students to organize and facilitate a meeting for the school or the broader community, and to submit the results from that meeting.
  • Get active on social media in starting a conversation on electoral reform.

Resources

Briefing sheets about electoral systems from the Government of Canada:
Electoral systems factsheet

Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform's archived website, for additional briefing sheets, animations, and a resource I wrote for them on teaching electoral systems. Much of it can be adapted to the current process:
Resources designed for teaching about electoral systems

Parliamentary committee simulation that can be adapted to this topic: Democracy in the classroom

Everything you need to submit a proposal or host your own dialogue:
Participate in Canadian federal electoral reform consultations


Link to Elections Canada