April 2007: Historic Election in October

Ontario voters could opt for democratic election system
April 1, 2007

“Our current system distorts what voters are saying, produces phony majority governments, and has driven down voter turnout.” — Larry Gordon, president of Fair Vote Canada.

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Canada, Britain, and the United States are the last three Western democracies using only first-past-the-post voting systems to elect members to their legislatures. All the other Western democracies have switched to some form of proportional representation (PR) voting to modify or replace their old first-past-the-post (FPTP) systems.

Over the years, many elections in Canada have produced a majority government by a party that received far fewer than a majority of the total votes cast. When a minority government does happen, the governing party is usually unwilling to serve very long and will go back to the electorate as soon as it can to seek the power that comes with a majority. The result is a “two-party” system in which the two biggest parties (most often Liberal and Conservative) fight for majority power, while the smaller parties tend to be less fairly represented in their seat-counts. That’s the nature of FPTP systems.

Ontario Liberal Party leader Dalton McGuinty was the opposition leader back in 2001 when he made this promise if his party won the next election: “We will give the people the right to decide—in a referendum—how we should elect members of the legislature. There is a lot of discontent with our first-past-the-post system. It often elects candidates to the legislature even though more than half the people in that riding wanted someone else. It gives one party all of the power, even though that party failed to capture a majority of the votes.”

Having won power in the 2003 election, McGuinty made good on his promise to hold a referendum on the voting system. The referendum will take place along with regular voting in the next Ontario election, set for October 10 of this year. The specific alternative to FPTP will be decided upon by a committee of 103 Ontario residents—one from each Ontario riding—randomly selected from voters’ lists. Called the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, this group has spent a lot of time since last fall learning about voting alternatives and listening to voters across the province. By May 15, it’s expected that this group will recommend what it considers the best alternative to FPTP.

The assembly’s recommendation might be for a mixed-member system in which most MPPs are still elected by the FPTP system, and others elected at-large from a list of PR candidates (the winners being those winning the most votes across the province). Or maybe the assembly will recommend a single transferable vote system, such as the one favoured by a similar Citizens’ Assembly in British Columbia, in which voters rank each riding candidate and the collective rankings determine the winners for each riding. (See the article on the proposed BC-STV system on the following pages.)

Unfortunately, the McGuinty government—like the Campbell government in B.C.—has decided that a simple majority vote will not be enough to have the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommended reform implemented. Instead, 60% of the votes cast across the province will be required, along with at least 50% of the votes cast in at least 64 ridings. Only if both those results emerge from the referendum will the proposed alternative election voting system replace the FPTP system in the subsequent Ontario election.

When people in B.C. voted on the recommended STV system in their 2005 election, their support for it fell below the required 60%, but not by much: to 57.7%. That was still well above the 42% of voters who wanted to stick with FPTP, so the B.C. government may have to hold yet another referendum on replacing FPTP in the next provincial election. Ontario might also have to hold a repeat referendum if the coming vote in October falls short of the 60% majority level support for a FPTP alternative while also failing to produce majority support for FPTP.

One of the requirements for an informed and truly democratic referendum is that the voters understand what a change to proportional representation entails and how such a new system would work. This calls for an intensive public education program. The Ontario government plans to spend $6 million to convey this information to the province’s electorate. But Joe Murray, chairman of Fair Vote Canada, says this amount falls far short of what is needed, given the steep cost of newspaper, TV, and radio ads. He argues that one reason the referendum in B.C. wasn’t successful was because many B.C. voters didn’t understand how the proposed STV system would work.

By the time it makes its report and recommendation in May, Ontario’s Citizens’ Assembly will have worked long and hard, sacrificing many weekends to come up with a proposed alternative voting system that will be more democratic and produce more accountable government. The October 10 election in Ontario could make an all-important and long-overdue breakthrough in democratic reform—not just for Ontario, but in setting a precedent that almost certainly would spread across the country.

Before the referendum is held, however, the voters of Ontario need to deal with and overcome the McGuinty government’s super-majority approval thresholds and inadequately funded education program. They will have to make a strenuous effort to become fully informed about the recommended alternative to FPTP, and then to mobilize the support of the required 60% of voters.

(Paul Bobier is a freelance writer in Kitchener, Ontario.)