Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Ontario's big decision


(Disclosure: Some of you may know that I am a policy advisor with the Government of Ontario's Democratic Renewal Secretariat, which was created a few years ago to implement the current government's democratic renewal agenda, including this electoral reform initiative. I do not blog about Ontario politics here at The Reaction and will not comment publicly on the referendum -- or at least not in my capacity as a blogger. Public servants are generally free to express their opinions, without violating confidentiality, but I have been intimately involved with these issues and prefer not to. The views expressed here, therefore, are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect my own. Still, I encourage you to learn more about what is going on here in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada with respect to democratic reform in general and electoral reform in particular -- MJWS)


On October 10, today, voters in Ontario will vote in a general provincial election. They will also vote in a very important referendum on whether to change the electoral system for future provincial parliamentary elections.

The proposed system is known as "MMP," which stands for mixed-member proportional. But what it really stands for is better democracy.

As a political scientist who actually studies electoral systems for a living, I consider MMP one of the very best ways of electing legislators ever devised. I am not alone: A recent survey of electoral-systems experts ranked MMP as the best democratic electoral system. MMP has been used in New Zealand for over a decade now, with very good results. It is the electoral system used in Germany since 1949. The new assemblies of Scotland and Wales are also elected by MMP. Now Ontarians have a chance to vote for better democracy for their province. In doing so, they would be setting a good example for the rest of North America.

Currently, Ontario, like the rest of Canada and the United States, elects its legislators by the system known as "plurality" or "first past the post" (FPTP), in which each legislator is elected in a single-seat district by the most votes cast, even if this is less than a majority. No governing party in Ontario in over forty years has won a majority of the votes, and Ontario has several minor parties that get little or no representation at all, because they do not have their votes sufficiently concentrated to win any districts. MMP would be a very big improvement.

Plurality/FPTP is a bad form of democracy that still exists only because of inertia. That is, we have it because we have always had it, not because anyone has looked at the system carefully and concluded it is the best. Well, looking at the system and concluding something else is best is exactly what a Citizens' Assembly, made up of ordinary Ontarians, has done. It determined that MMP would be an improvement. Now it is up to the electorate to pass its judgment. Ontario voters can decide on October 10 whether to keep or change FPTP. Or, rather, a super-majority of Ontario voters can decide to change, as the proposal must obtain 60% provincewide, and majorities in at least 60% of the 107 provincial ridings (electoral districts).

Under the proposal, voters would have two votes--one for a candidate in their local riding (as now), and a second vote for a party list. There would be 90 (instead of the current 107) districts in which a single legislator would continue to be elected by plurality of votes cast. There would be 39 compensatory seats, allocated to "top up" the seats of any party that had won more than 3% of the provincial party vote, but whose number of districts won was a proportional share (of the full 129 seats) that was less than its party vote share. The candidates for these compensatory seats would come from the party lists, which would consist of candidates nominated by the parties (through procedures that they would have to publicly declare, and which would probably be at least as democratic as how they choose their current candidates).

There is video debate on CBC that you can watch (about 6.5 minutes long), and CBC also has a list of some of the key arguments for and against.

Meanwhile, in the provincial parliamentary election, it will be business as usual for FPTP. One party--and it will be the incumbent Liberal party, unless there is a very big surprise -- will get "reelected" with around 42% or so of the vote, and is projected to win more than three fifths of the seats. The Conservatives -- led by, and I kid you not, John Tory -- will win around a third of the votes, but probably under 30% of the seats. The New Democratic Party (NDP) may win around 17% of the votes, but only around 11 seats (10%). The Greens may win five or six percent -- and one poll says 11% -- of the vote, but almost certainly no seats.

Obviously, Ontario has a multiparty system, and would be well served by a more proportional electoral system, which would raise the prospect of Liberals cooperating with one or more parties. If MMP were being used in this election, perhaps the Liberals would cooperate, after the election, in forming a government and passing policy with the NDP. Or they might strike a deal with the Greens, who would win anywhere from 7 to 14 seats, depending on their vote total, rather than zero. Under the current system, the Liberals will rule alone in spite of their having only 43% (or so) of the vote. Nonetheless, the referendum's chance are considered a long shot.

The MMP proposal may not even make it over 50%. To get to 60% is hard. After all, one former FPTP jurisdiction, New Zealand, has MMP today because a vote of more than half the voters was sufficient in its 1993 referendum. The MMP proposal would have been considered defeated if 60% had been required; the change was endorsed by "only" 54% of the voters. In British Columbia in 2005 a referendum on a different electoral reform, also proposed by a Citizens' Assembly, obtained around 58%, where, as in Ontario, 60% was required. (In BC, a second referendum is scheduled on the proposal.) Meanwhile, most governments in New Zealand under FPTP, as well as in Ontario and BC have been single-party majorities based on well under half of the vote--and sometimes on less than 40%.

Given the comfortable majority of seats the Liberals won in 2003, it is somewhat surprising that the party actually promised prior to that election to convene a Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, and that they then went ahead with it. Now we are at the decision point. Will Ontario voters agree with their fellow citizens who deliberated over this issue for several months that MMP would be an improvement, or do they like the status quo electoral system in which they will most likely "reelect" their current government with only around 42% of the vote?

(Full disclosure here: I am acknowledged in the Citizens' Assembly's technical report for advice I gave; however, I was consulted only after the citizens had come to their decision that they would propose MMP, and I received no compensation -- other than a free copy of the report and the honor of playing a very small part -- for my advice.)

Much more on MMP, and on Canadian elections, at Fruits & Votes.

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