Ontario readies referendum on electoral reform for fall election

An Ontario Citizens Assembly met this past weekend to decide what they believed was the best electoral system for the province. The two-day discussion held over April 14 and 15 at the Queen’s Park Complex on Bay Street, marked the end of a long process looking at changes to the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system.

Over the last eight months the assembly – Ontario’s first – talked about adopting a new Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system being used in countries such as Germany and New Zealand.

The 103 members of the Assembly, randomly selected from each of the ridings across Ontario, voted in favour of the recommendation of the changes that the provincial government will look over next month. The vote for the MPP voting system won with a unanimous 94 members saying yes to the changes.

The current FPTP system will still be used in the upcoming provincial election slated for October 10, 2007, but the government has introduced legislation to hold a referendum on the recommendations for the MMP system at that time in order to put the vote to the province.

Under the MMP system, voters would cast a double ballot, one vote for their local representative and another specifically for a political party. The system is designed to minimize the difference between each party’s share of the votes and their share of seats.

Fewer electoral districts, but double ballot added

Jonathan Rose, associate professor of Political Science at Queen’s University in Kingston, worked with the assembly leading up to the vote on the proposal and says the recommended changes mean on the first ballot 90 seats are awarded to local constituency winners and the second ballot 39 seats are awarded to elected list members of a party based on the outcome of the party vote.

With fewer electoral districts, 90 opposed to 107, the geography of some districts will expand. The 129 total seats will be most since the province downsized the legislature from 130 members to 103 in 1999.

“The results of this system indicate that the ratio of votes between local versus list members is 70 to 30,” Rose said. “It’s interesting because in New Zealand the ratio is 50-50 and in Germany the margin is also slimmer.”

Assembly member and Etobicoke native Melinda Selmys says Ontarians won’t have to put weight on either the local candidate or political party when casting the ballot. With the MMP system they would have a separate vote for each.

“Voter turn out should be better with this system,” Selmys said. “It’s all about representation; a vote for the candidate and a vote for the party.”

Former member and Assembly chair George Thompson was very happy with the decision made public recently.

“This group really mirrors the citizens of Ontario in 2007,” Thompson said. “Ontarians can be proud of the committee and the selection it has made.”

Impact of independent candidates diminished?

Although the Assembly is excited about the new system, those candidates choosing to run outside the party system may not be. With a two-tier ballot system the second ballot sways in favour of political parties, diminishing the impact of the independent MMP, especially in a minority government.

Nelson Wiseman a political science professor at the University of Toronto, says that independent candidates really have no influence on the outcome of an election so these changes won’t matter anyway.

“Independent’s aren’t a big factor. In the past 60 to 70 years of Ontario provincial politics only Peter North, an NDP candidate, won a seat,” he said. “If a group of independents want to form their own party to enable them to get votes from the second ballot they can.”

Wiseman, who says he’s agnostic towards electoral reform, compared Ontario’s position to that of British Columbia voting against a reform towards the single transferable vote system in 2005.

“If you look at what happened in BC the Liberals won the majority of the popular vote in 1996 but lost to the NDP who won more seats, and then in 2005 the Liberals won an unprecedented 77 of the 79 seats with only 42 per cent of the popular vote,” he said. “I mean even with that backdrop enough of the province voted against electoral reform. So I don’t think it will pass in Ontario.”

Ontario is not the first province to recommend the MMP system for consideration. New Brunswick and Quebec have also considered switching over to the new system. In 2005, voters in Prince Edward Island voted against a similarly proposed reform.