Progressive politics, ideas & culture


all out of proportion

This Magazine Staff

(Billy Ballot image courtesy of the Citizens’ Assembly site)
I think I work in the most interesting building in the country. 215 Spadina in Toronto is home to the Centre for Social Innovation, a crazy collection of tiny groups and operatives all on the sharp edge of social change. The Lunch ‘n Learn schedule alone is worth the price of Spadina rent. Today’s topic, a proposed Mixed Member Proportional voting system that will go to a referendum in October. Throw that and a chicken roti together and you have a Toronto policy geek’s perfect lunch.
The Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform gathered a representative sampling of Ontarians and gave them a lot of studying to do. They looked through different designs for democratic voting, and have come up with a recommendation for changing Ontario’s current first-past-the-post system. Of course, not everyone hates first-past-the-post, but those of us still rubbing our Mike Harris electoral scars are more than willing to try out a new system, especially one that encourages political parties to work together and not indulge in what the MMP folks call “policy lurch,” that dramatic, some might say catastrophic rush to discard the former government’s work like some enraged spouse tossing an errant partner’s belongings into the street.
Their recommendation is, simply put, to give everyone in Ontario two votes in each provincial election. One vote goes to the local candidate of choice. This maintains the traditional Ontario system. If you are a longtime Liberal and you want to keep your riding Liberal, you vote Liberal, no matter who’s running — just like always. As long as your local candidate gets more votes than any other single opponent in that riding, that’s your MPP. First past the post remains, locally.
The difference comes in the second vote. With your second vote, you vote for a party. Each party publishes a list of their candidates prior to the election. You check out the lists, decide which party you like best no matter who they might be running in your own riding, and give them a little taste of your second vote. These “list candidates” are then proportionally assigned “list” seats in the legislature according to the percentage party vote.
Sound complicated? It is — but is it any more inscrutible than a system that gives majority power to a party pulling in less than 40% of the popular vote in any given election?
I know of at least one deep thinker who has already scoffed at this new voting design, and I have similar concerns — but they are little more than concerns.
Has anyone out there ever actually worked as an election officer, pointing folks to the little booth, handing out ballots, scrutineering for a party, etc? I have. Put an X beside your candidate of choice is too complicated for a surprising proportion of the population. I’m not sure adding another column and asking for two X’s will push us over the edge on voter confusion, and if the net result is a more balanced legislature reflecting actual vote proportions, then why not?
Andrew Potter’s doubts over the high-minded claims about increases in women and visible minority politicians inherent in the MMP system came up at today’s lunch ‘n learn as well. If I understand it correctly, a rise in female and minority proportionality is not built into the design of the MMP system; rather, it is simply something that has occured as a result of introducing MMP in other jurisdictions. It has happened reliably elsewhere, therefore the MMP folks feel they can confidently predict it would also happen in Ontario — as a natural reflection of the actual will of the people.
In effect, an MMP voting system gives voters a powerful tool for punishing parties that do not design their slates equitably. If the people want equitable slates, they will use their party vote to vote against slates composed entirely of white men — theoretically.
Anyhoo — referendum’s on October 10th. I’m voting yes… and then travelling back in time to that moment in 1995 when I shook Mike Harris’ hand safe in the knowledge that he was unelectable. So, so naive.

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