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Fear, fact and fiction: Covering electoral reform in Ontario

by Jack Santucci // Published February 22, 2007
An increasingly popular way to effect fundamental electoral reform is through Citizens Assemblies. Average people (whose political careers do not depend on an electoral law) come together, take a crash course in electoral system design, evaluate the performance of the system used in their polity and recommend a new one at the end of the process. The idea is to take reform out of the hands of the incumbents it affects.

British Columbia pioneered the concept in 2005, and there has been significant interest in launching a similar process in California. The Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform is nearing the end of its work, and the Toronto Star reports an overwhelming majority of members preferring a mixed member proportional (MMP) system.

In a list of alternative systems put before the assembly last Sunday in a meeting at Osgoode Hall law school, MMP was the overwhelming choice, with the backing of 78 assembly members, versus eight for the "single transferable vote" [or choice voting] (rejected by British Columbia voters in a referendum in 2004), six for the "parallel" system, three for pure "proportional representation," two for the "alternative vote" [or instant runoff voting] (also known as the "preferential ballot") and zero for the "two-round" system.

MMP is a modest form of proportional voting commonly associated with Germany, where it debuted after World War II. We advocate it as a supplement to independent redistricting. Voters have their single-member district reps, and a certain portion of seats are reserved for "topping up" parties' seat shares so that they match vote shares. It's a good way to overcome the challenges that gerrymandering and partisan geography pose for fair representation and meaningful voter choice - without diluting the member-constituent link.

Surprisingly the Star in its fourth graf denounces MMP as a "radical voting proposal" that "can lead to permanent minority governments and a proliferation of fringe parties." Surprising because this may be English Canada's most 'liberal' paper, quick to endorse reform and even quicker to highlight Congressional efforts to re-start the draft.

It's hard to think of any MMP system as "radical" in the sense of fostering "fringe parties." At its core is a majority of single-member, winner-take-all districts - the underpinning of a two-party system. It's even harder to think of any electoral system as resulting in "permanent minority governments." For anything to be permanent requires authoritarianism.

Even if minor parties won seats, it's doubtful they'd proliferate. They would need significant support among voters, and the system design would have to be amenable to their widespread success. Those details, the article admits, are still up for grabs.

Many details still need to be worked out by the assembly, such as the overall number of seats in the Legislature, the ratio of locally elected members to those selected through proportionality, and the minimum threshold for awarding proportional seats.

Blogging from out-of-province, the Western Standard was quick to pick up on the Star's hyperbole. "Anything but radical," it called MMP.

But the Standard convicted choice voting, the model sent to referendum by BC's Citizens' Assembly, as radical because it asks voters to rank choices in order of preference. "Radical" here means "confusing," and post author Terry O'Neill hasn't looked at the record. Error rates in ranked choice elections in Burlington, VT and Takoma Park, MD both were well under one percent. San Francisco voters have used ranked choice for three cycles now, and approval rates are high.

Whatever the level of understanding, the debate is much farther along in Canada.

[ Visit Fair Vote Canada's page on the Ontario Citizens' Assembly ] [ FairVote (USA) pages on electoral reform in Canada ]