CMU statement to Ontario’s Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform

The Citizens’ Assembly is charged with the most important and far reaching change to Ontario since confederation. By reforming our electoral system, you are setting off a cascade of that will touch the lives of every resident in the Province. It is of primary importance that this work succeed in improving how we elect our provincial parliament.

We see two major barriers to success. The first is the artificially high criteria for adoption. When a 50% + 1 vote is sufficient for a province to leave confederation, it seems unreasonable to demand 60% to amend how we hold elections.

Secondly, there are a number of competing systems that each have their advocates. This wealth of choice can lead to bickering that will ultimately undo the reform process if each group cannot recognize that there are many systems that offer substantial improvements over our current system.

We must not fall into the trap of seeking some mythical perfect scheme. For now we just need a better system that can be accepted by Ontarians. Once we have crossed this first hurdle, we can leave it future groups to try to improve upon the work you are doing.

In summary, while we think that all of the issues below are important, we also believe that any reasonable PR system will address them as well as or better than our current system. We feel that changing Ontario’s electoral system is of prime importance. The efforts of the Citizens’ Assembly should be directed towards recommending a PR system that Ontarians can easily see improves upon our current system.

With regards to the criteria you asked us to comment on:

1) Legitimacy.

The core value of Ontarians is fairness. Proportional representations (PR) systems achieve this directly. Moreover, PR is easy to understand and to show that it achieves results that reflect the will of the voters.

2) Fairness of Representation.

Again, PR systems achieve this directly. However, if the PR system is hampered by artificial thresholds then this fairness is lost. While every system has an implicit threshold dictated by the number of representatives elected (e.g. if a system elects 100 representatives, then it takes a 1% share of the vote to get a candidate elected), legislating higher values caters to the larger groups at the expense of the smaller ones.

At the same time, there are legitimate concerns that regional voices may be lost in a pure PR system. Rural voices in particular will be swamped by the much larger urban populations. However, there is also greater cultural diversity to be found in urban areas. Attempts to resolve representation problems of one group by tampering with the principle of proportionality will inevitably lead to unfairness for other groups.

PR systems also encourage parties to present lists and candidates that reflect a wide mix, with women, visible minorities, etc. represented prominently in the list.

3) Voter choice.

Our current system is plagued by voters feeling they have little choice in who they vote for. They frequently believe that if they don’t vote for a particular candidate who they have mixed feelings about, then another candidate they detest will win. A system that has voters afraid to vote for the candidate of their choice has little right to be called democratic.

In PR systems, every vote counts towards electing candidates who share your views. Moreover, it can allow smaller communities of interest to gain the voice that our current system silences.

4) Effective parties.

Our current system leads to disconnects between what parties say during elections and how they govern while in power. Each party tries to attract as many voters as possible because our current system rewards the so-called mainstream and punishes dissenting views. Elections usually boil down to contests between personalities rather than issues.

PR systems encourage the development of honest platforms because each party knows it will get a fair share of the vote based on the ideas it presents. And with any party being able to participate in a coalition based on an agreed agenda with coalition partners, parties are encouraged to stand by their platforms or face the wrath of their supporters.

5) Stable and effective governments.

In a system characterised by coalitions of minority parties, you get teamwork. In our current system you get the minority parties trying to tear down the government. And when there is no majority party, the government is unstable. As such, PR systems can produce more stable governments. And when a coalition dissolves, that should not always require a new election. New coalitions can be formed instead.

6) Effective Parliament.

PR systems by themselves do not change the day to day running of the parliament. There will still be a ruling group, although it will probably be a coalition, and there will still be opposition parties. However, because coalitions can shift, and because each party is responsible for trying to implement its platform, PR governments can be much more productive.

And they will be doing what they were elected to do. Under our current system, governments often seem to have little regard for their platforms once in office.

And PR systems tend to lead to more honest governments. Each party is keeping an eye on the others knowing that a scandal can result in a shift in coalitions and therefore a shift in the government instead of an election.

7) Stronger voter participation.

The best we can hope for is that more people will be willing to vote knowing that their voice will be heard. But unless that carries over to legislative changes, having a voice may not be enough.

However, if people are too apathetic to vote, they probably don’t pay enough attention to the issues to cast an informed vote anyway. Democracy is not a spectator sport. If people don’t want to take the time to learn the issues, why should we encourage them to vote?

This is an issue that cannot be fully addressed by electoral reform. We need to look at changes to the way parliament operates as well. Things like giving parties a share of the Cabinet based on their popular vote, or control of a portion of the budget so that your vote translates into money spent on your issues, may have a larger impact.

8) Accountability.

Our current system lacks accountability because voters cannot vote for the people who best represent their interests. instead, they make compromises in the form of strategic voting. This leaves parties free to cater to their core supporters knowing that many others will hold their noses and vote for them again come the next election.

It is rare for a candidate to win an election based on their own popularity. Instead, most Ontarians vote for the party whose leader they believe will make the best Premier. A candidate has to be exceptional to win or lose an election on their own merits.

9) Simplicity, Practicality and other principles.

It has been said that justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done. Any new system introduced must not only be fair but must be seen to be fair. This means that it must be easily understood by the voters who will mark a ballot in the referendum.

A system like STV has much to recommend it, but it is hard to convince people that it is fair. Asking voters to endorse it may be asking too much at this time.

Preferential ballots, on the other hand, seem fair on the surface but can lead to worse imbalances than our current system. To see how this happens, imagine we have three parties, A, B and C. A and C are on opposite sides of the political spectrum so that party B is the second choice of most supporters of both A and C.

If neither A nor C has a clear majority in a riding, party B takes the riding on the second count after A or C is dropped. This usually means that B will take many more seats under a preferential ballot than it would under our current system, while A and C take less.

PR systems are always fair and it is easy to show that they are fair. Whether you ask voters to cast one ballot or two, the mechanics are also simple. Going to open or free lists however may get a bit messy for voters.

We also have to be concerned about the size of electoral districts. If a mixed-member PR system keeps the same number of total MPPs, it will result in larger electoral districts. This diminishes the role of local candidates since local campaigns are already subordinate to central campaigns in an election. There seems little reason to even keep local candidates other than the fact that mixed member PR systems are probably easier to sell to Ontarians than a pure list system.