Making History in Ontario
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Making History in Ontario

report.jpgBy now you’ve surely had a chance to read the complete, final report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, right?
No? Ok, but you’re at least familiar with what changes they’ve suggested we make to our provincial voting system, yes?
Or, maybe you have no idea what any of this is about? Ok, let’s start there. Because last Tuesday, Toronto witnessed the end of one process and the beginning of another that could make history by changing the way we elect our representatives to Queen’s Park. And on October 10th of this year, you’ll be asked to vote if you support the change: yes or no.
Over the past few months, a randomly selected group of 103 Ontarians have been meeting in north Toronto to study our voting system, other voting systems, and whether or not they think we should change ours. They weren’t beholden to political parties, governments, or special interests. They’re just ordinary people who, after extensive learning, public consultation, and deliberation phases, are now the most knowledgeable people in the province on the subject of voting systems.
And here’s the thing: they think we should change ours. From their final report:

We, the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, recommend a new way to vote that builds on the province’s traditions and reflects the values that we believe are important to Ontarians. The Assembly recommends that Ontario adopt a Mixed Member Proportional system, specifically designed to meet the unique needs of Ontario.

Ok, so what is Mixed Member Proportional? Basically, MMP is a “best of both worlds” voting system, that retains what works about our current system, while adding some extra features to make election results more fair and give voters more choice. It’s also “best of both worlds” in the sense that it’s already successfully used in other countries like Germany and New Zealand (so we know it works), but this specific MMP proposal was designed by Ontarians, for Ontario (so we know it’s right for us).
Here’s how it would work:

    Sample MMP Ballot

  • Two votes, one ballot. Voters have more choice, because they get to vote twice: once for a party, and once for a local candidate. That way, you don’t have to vote for a local candidate you don’t like just because that person is running for a party you want to support, or vice versa.
  • Local candidates are elected the same way they are now: whoever gets the most votes, wins.
  • After we know who won the local seats, a second group of seats are assigned based on the percentage of the party vote that each party received. This ensures fairness, because it means that the percentage of the vote that a party gets will closely resemble the percentage of representatives they elect. (That’s different than what happens under our current system, where parties can win less than 40% of the vote but get more than 50% of the seats, and 100% power.)
  • The list candidates are nominated by the parties, just as local candidates are currently nominated by parties. However, parties will be required to not only disclose who is on their lists before the election, but also how the list was chosen. That way, voters get to decide if they think the party has chosen their list in a fair way, and if it represents the diversity of Ontario’s population.

A little confused? That’s fair. Let’s try an example, from the report:

Imagine a legislature with 100 seats. If a party receives 25% of the party vote, it is entitled to about 25 seats. If it elects only 20 local members, the top 5 members from its list are elected to bring its total share of seats in the legislature up to 25%.

This system respects a number of things that we value in our voting system:
Voter Choice. Voters can, for example, split their vote to indicate a preference for one party overall, while supporting a local candidate from a different party. Or, they can vote for a candidate from the same party as their party vote. Also, they can vote for only a party or only a candidate without spoiling their ballot.
Simplicity and Practicality. By building on the system we already use, this voting system will be easy for voters to grasp.
Accountability. Local candidates are still accountable to their local ridings. Parties are also held accountable for not only the performance of their list candidates, but also how they select their list candidates. Voters get to vote based not only on if they think those members have done (or will do) a good job, but also on if they approve of the way that party chose its list members. (Under our current system, we often don’t know how candidates are chosen, nor do we get to express an opinion about it one way or another.
Fairness of Representation. This new system is more fair, since the percentage of a party’s vote will be close to the percentage of seats they receive. Also, proportional voting systems like MMP tend to elect more women, people of colour, and other under-represented groups (as opposed to our current system, which is super-awesome at electing white men).
Stable and Effective Government. Some people will try and tell you this system leads to unstable governments, but that hasn’t been true in other countries. Germany, for example, has had the same number of elections as Ontario has in the past 60 years. In fact, MMP tends to lead to “majority coalition” governments, which means that parties have to be more productive and cooperative instead of just snipping at each other all the time. Bonus!
The Citizens' AssemblyThat being said, you’ll also hear some “no” arguments. Make sure you analyze them carefully. For example, someone might tell you we don’t know enough about this system or haven’t studied it enough. Well, if you’ve read this far, you know that’s not true. This system is being recommended to us by our peers, and is already tried, tested, and true in other countries around the world.
Someone else might tell you that this system gives the parties too much power, since they get to choose the make-up of the list. But the fact is that parties already choose which candidates they’ll field; at least under the new system they have to tell us how they do it. Also, parties tend to balance their lists with men and women and people with diverse backgrounds, which helps increase fair representation in the legislature.
Others will complain that this creates “more politicians,” and, of course, we don’t want that, right? What’s important to note here is that even though this plan would increase the number of MPPs slightly to 129, that’s still fewer politicians than Ontario had before Mike Harris cut it down, and it’s also still fewer politicians per person than any other province in Canada. Under the new system, therefore, we’ll actually have more representation, and have our voices better heard by our governments and political parties.
In other words, on the whole it makes sense to vote YES in the October 10th referendum that’s happening concurrently with the next provincial election. And, if you really want this to pass, you’d better tell all of your friends as well, because the government has imposed a 60% threshold for the vote to succeed.
That’s high, but not impossible. British Columbia voted 57% in favour of an electoral reform proposal in their last election, so it failed by just 3%. Let’s not let that happen in Ontario.
For more information, visit the official website of the Citizens’ Assembly, where you can read their report, or, instead, watch a mildly amusing flash animation summary.
Chris Tindal is a member of the Vote Yes campaign team, and is the Democratic Reform Advocate for the Green Party of Canada.