A new way to vote

Referendum on Oct. 10 could change Ontario’s electoral system

If Ontario were currently using an mixed member proportional system, voters would see a ballot looking something like this on Oct. 10. With the current first-past-the-post system, voters are asked to choose one candidate from a list.
If Ontario were currently using an mixed member proportional system, voters would see a ballot looking something like this on Oct. 10. With the current first-past-the-post system, voters are asked to choose one candidate from a list.
Graphic by Yingwei Liu

The last time Ontario voters faced a referendum, the year was 1924 and the issue at hand was prohibition. On Oct. 10, 2007, the stakes are a bit higher. At polling stations across the province, voters will be handed two ballots. The first should be a familiar one: it will ask voters to choose from a selection of candidates representing different parties, whom they want to represent them at the provincial level.

The second ballot will pose a question with a more lasting impact.

It will ask voters to choose between two electoral systems—the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system and an alternate system known as mixed member proportional (MMP).

On April 15, Ontario’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform voted to recommend Ontario adopt a Mixed Member Proportional electoral system. With 94 votes in favour of the recommendation and eight against, the proposal passed and the referendum question was drafted.

The Assembly was comprised of 103 randomly chosen individuals representing every electoral district in Ontario, plus one chair who presided over the group. They spent months deliberating about what type of electoral system would be best for the province.

Assembly Chair George Thomson was the only one not randomly selected. Thomson had previously worked as a lawyer, educator, deputy minister at the federal and provincial level and as a family court judge in Kingston.

“The Liberal Party when it was campaigning for the last election said this issue of electoral reforms should be tested and if we’re elected, we’ll have a citizens’ assembly and look at electoral reform,” he said.

Thomson said it was one of the most remarkable experiences of his life because of the involvement of the public, as opposed to a committee of politicians. In April 2006, Elections Ontario began a random selection process to pick 103 members to serve on the assembly.

After sending out letters to over 120,000 people and receiving responses from 12,000, Elections Ontario invited about 1,200 to attend selection meetings. At the meetings, Elections Ontario representatives explained the selection process and members of the Citizens’ Assembly Secretariat detailed the obligations of serving on the assembly. Names were randomly selected from the attendees who chose to submit themselves for selection for the committee.

By June, 52 men and 51 women were selected, one to represent each of the 103 electoral districts in the province.

Starting in September, they met two weekends a month for eight months to learn about different electoral systems, listen to experts and politicians, talk with other Ontario citizens about what they want in an electoral system and discuss the options ahead of them.

To teach the Citizens’ Assembly about the various electoral systems options that exist, Thomson asked politics professor Jonathan Rose to serve as academic director for the assembly.

“He was looking for someone who could teach a diverse group of people,” Rose said.

Because the assembly was given a very clear mandate—to determine if the current electoral system is sufficient and, if not, to recommend a new system—Rose had to ensure the members of the assembly, few of whom had a political background, understood all the ins and outs of the many electoral systems used around the world.

After lengthy deliberation, the assembly decided to recommend that Ontario adopt a Mixed Member Proportional electoral system.

In the Mixed Member Plurality system they recommend, each voter casts a vote for a local candidate and for a party. The proportion of votes a party receives determines the number of seats that party receives in the legislature. If a party doesn’t win enough local representative elections to fill its allotted share of the seats, it will draw on representatives from a party list. The party list is created internally by each party, who must submit their list and the process they used to create it, to Elections Ontario. Elections Ontario then publishes these lists, so voters are aware of whom their party vote could be electing.

A party must have at least three per cent of the party vote across the province in order to have candidates from its list elected to the legislature.

The number of seats in the legislature would be increased from 103 to 129 if voters choose MMP. Ninety members would be local representatives and 39 members would be elected province-wide through the party list system.

On the current ballot, voters cast their ballot for a candidate representing a party. The candidate with the most votes wins. The party with the most candidates in the legislature forms the government. If, on Oct. 10, at least 60 per cent of voters across the province in at least 64 of the 107 electoral districts vote in favour of the change in electoral systems, the new government will, by Dec. 31, 2008, introduce a law to make MMP Ontario’s official electoral system.

If that double-threshold isn’t met, however, Ontario will retain its current First-Past-the-Post, or single member plurality, system.

With so many numbers being bandied about, it’s a common complaint that the referendum process and electoral system choice is too complicated.

However, based on his experiences with high school students and electoral systems, Peter MacLeod, a fellow at the Queen’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, disagrees.

MacLeod was the co-convenor of the Students’ Assembly on Electoral Reform which paralleled the Citizens’ Assembly. High school students across the province went through a similar education and deliberation process as the older assembly members, MacLeod said.

The 14- to 18-year old students’ ability to understand the different electoral systems and make a decision shows that electoral reform isn’t as complicated an issue as many people are making it out to be, he said.

“They say ‘Ontarians don’t care about electoral reform or electoral systems are too complicated.’

“The reality is, electoral systems are only as complicated as you make them.” The high school students, he said, understood the material and made the reasonable arguments both in favour and against the choices before them. Other Ontario citizens should be capable of the same acts.

“You can’t be a democrat and not believe in the capacity of citizens to understand the issue,” MacLeod said. “I believe Ontarians are completely capable of making sense of [the issue].”

Making sense of the issue, he pointed out, does not mean supporting the proposed change, but understanding the choices and making an informed decision.

While MacLeod, Rose and Thomson are taking a neutral stance on the issue—speaking about MMP but not necessarily for it—some members of the Citizens’ Assembly are doing outreach work to convince other Ontarians of the merits of their proposed system.

Buddhadeb Chakrabarty was Kingston and the Islands’ representative to the Citizens’ Assembly.

At a Queen’s-Kingston community breakfast held last week, Chakrabarty and other members of the Assembly were in attendance to talk to breakfast attendees about their proposal.

“I’m on-and-off working for them,” he said of the information campaign about the referendum. When he’s not at campaign events, he’s working in a local restaurant but that doesn’t mean he’s not talking about campaign events.

“I’m always talking to my customers, encouraging them to vote,” he said.

Rose, who spoke about the Citizens’ Assembly and electoral reform at the breakfast, told the audience that after 215 years of using the same electoral system, it’s time to at least question its staying power.

“1792 was the year our First-Past-the-Post system was first used,” Rose said. “Does this mean it has stood the test of time, or is it time to change the electoral system?”

Next week, the Journal will look at the two sides of the debate over the referendum.

Online resources

Citizens’ Assembly website.

Explains the role of the Citizens’ Assembly, its learning and deliberation process and provides a detailed explanation of how the proposed mixed member proportional system would work.

Elections Ontario website for the referendum.

Explains both the first-past-the-post and mixed member proportional electoral systems and offers information about the referendum process.

Main website for Elections Ontario.

Offers other information about provincial elections.

Official website for the No MMP campaign.

Official website for the Vote for MMP campaign.

Electoral Systems Around the World

Plurality system

Single Member Plurality—Canada

Whichever candidate receives the most votes in each riding wins, regardless of how many votes other candidates receive. This type of system is also known as first-past-the-post.

Majority electoral systems

Alternative Vote—Australia

The ballot contains a list of all candidates in the riding and each voter ranks the candidates in order of preference, starting with one. If no candidate receives a majority of the votes, the candidate receiving the fewest votes is eliminated and the voters’ second choice votes are distributed amongst the remaining candidates. This process continues until one candidate receives a majority of the votes.

Two-Round System—France

Citizens vote for one candidate in their riding. If no candidate has a majority, another election is held two weeks later between the two candidates who received the largest number of votes. The winner of that election is elected.

Proportional Representation

List PR—South Africa

Voters receive a ballot with a list of all the parties running in the riding. They vote for a party, which then draws representatives from a previously compiled list.

Single Transferable Vote (STV)—Ireland

Three to five members are elected per electoral district. Voters rank candidates on the ballot in order of preference and in order to win, a candidate must receive a certain quota determined according to the number of total voters and number of members to be elected. Each candidate who receives that quota is elected and if they receive more votes than are necessary, their surplus votes are transferred to the voters’ second preference. This process continues until all seats are filled.

Mixed Systems

Single Member Plurality + List PR—Germany

This system combines features of the plurality system with features of proportional representation. Fifty per cent of legislature members in Germany are local candidates and 50 per cent are elected through party lists. Citizens have two votes: the first for the party list, which determines the total share of seats each party receives, and the second for a local candidate. Whichever candidate in each riding receives the most votes wins, as in a single member plurality system. If there aren’t enough local candidates elected to fill the number of seats a party receives, the party draws on representatives from their list.

Source: citizensassembly.gov.on.ca/

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