The Ontario referendum explained
Published Wednesday, October 3, 2007 3:39PM EDT
On Oct. 10, Ontario voters will have an extra ballot when they head to the polls. Residents will vote in a referendum to determine whether the province's electoral system needs an overhaul.
Constituents will either vote to keep the First Past the Post system that is currently in place or change the system to mixed member proportional representation (MMP).
The province commissioned a group, the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, to look at the way Ontario votes and make recommendation on how the process could be improved. After months of learning about the system, talking with consultants and debating, the group came up with the MMP method of government.
This is how the current system, First Past the Post, works:
One vote, one ballot
- Ontario is divided into 107 electoral districts. Each voter gets to pick one representative they think should win a seat in the legislature.
- The person with the most votes wins and will represent the riding in government
- The political party with the most representatives with seats in the legislature forms the government
With the MMP system, this is how voters would vote in the future:
Two votes, one for a local representative, one for a political party
- Combines two systems, First Past the Post and Proportional Representation
- The number of seats in legislature would increase to 129 seats, however 90 of those seats would be filled by local representatives elected by the public. 39 seats will be filled by list members chosen by the political party to fulfill the need for proportional representation
- These list members will be made public by the party before an election under the MMP system
- List members can only be elected from a political party if that party received more than 3 per cent of the vote.
- The political party with the most elected local representatives and the most party votes will be asked to form a government
Several volunteer citizens groups have sprung up in recent weeks, speaking out both for and against the proposal. Joseph Angolano, the media director of the group No MMP, told CTV.ca that a vote for change shifts the power from the people back to the hands of the powerful politicians.
A step forward for democracy or a step back?
"There are more politicians, less districts, less contact with citizens," he said. "This is a step back for democracy, not a step forward."
He said one of the main concerns is about the list members and the fact that the party, not the people, get to choose who makes up that list. He said there is great potential for "loyal party hacks" to get seats in the legislature rather than some more deserving individuals.
Each side has some high-profile support. Progressive Conservative Party Leader John Tory is listed on the No MMP website as a supporter along with Sheila Copps, John Baird, and Greg Sorbara, among others.
Former MPP Marilyn Churley, journalist Andrew Coyne and NDP Leader Howard Hampton are listed as supporters on the Vote for MMP site.
Churley, who represents Equal Voice, a group fighting for equal opportunities for women, said an MMP system and list members will help the government reflect Ontario's true population.
"The list will be scrutinized by the public," she said. "No leader in their right mind will put Tom, Dick and Harry at the top of the list. They will tend to put Jane and Mohammed."
Lawrence LeDuc, a professor at the University of Toronto who has published work on election reform, said it's hard to predict the outcome of the referendum.
"The level of awareness started off really low," he said in an interview with CTV.ca. "People are just starting to learn about it now, but the polls still tell us that there is a large number of undecided voters."
'High barrier' for approval
LeDuc said he is personally in favour of the change because it reflects how Ontario has grown from a two-party government since it adopted its current system from Britain.
He also said an MMP system will effectively take away the need for "strategic voting." The way the current system works, voters will sometimes vote not for the party or candidate they support -- but for the person that will ensure defeat for the party they don't want to win.
One of the challenges in passing election reform is that the referendum question has to be approved by 60 per cent of the votes. Anything less than that will scrap the idea.
"It's a very high barrier," LeDuc said.
He said people might find themselves in a trap if they want election reform but are not too pleased with the recommendation on the table. He called the referendum question a "once in a generation opportunity" to change the system.
"If it doesn't go through, people are deluding themselves if they think it's going to come up again," he said. "They just might end up with the status quo."
Pros and Cons
As voters in Ontario wrestle with the facts over election reform before they go to the polls, they will have to weigh the pros and cons of the issue.
Here are some arguments for and against the recommendation.
- Every vote counts. Many voters feel discouraged when their preferred party candidate has no chance of winning in the riding.
- Less chance of strategic voting. Some voters will vote not for the candidate they want, but the candidate that will most likely get the incumbent voted out of office.
- Truer democracy. Most of the time in the current system, the winning government is actually the party where the majority of votes were cast against them. For example, a party may win with 40 per cent of the vote, but 60 per cent of people still voted for other parties. With MMP, each party with over 3 per cent of the vote is represented in the legislature.
- More options. No more compromising between your preferred candidate and favourite party. A voter now has two ballots to cast, one for a local representative and another for the party.
- Minority representation. Political leaders have a chance to use their list members to put more ethnic, cultural and gender minorities in parliament.
- Slim chance of majority government. That might mean it could take longer for the approval of new policies and changes.
- Unelected list members. Voters will see who the list members will be before the election but they won't get to vote on them.
- Not so local anymore. There will be 17 fewer ridings which means electoral districts will have to cover more territory.
- Taxpayers foot the bill. 22 more politicians means more tax dollars go towards paying their salaries.
- Fringe party power. As long as 3 per cent of the population voted for them, they will have a say in government, no matter how radical their ideas are.