The Referendum


On October 10th, 2007 there will be a referendum in Ontario asking whether we would like to change the electoral system. A switch to a mixed member proportional representation system is being proposed.

How the proposed system is to work is that there will be 90 seats contested through local elections, as is done now. However, there will be an additional 39 seats that will be allocated to each of the parties according to their popular vote which will be filled by people from published lists (so called list members). To determine the popular vote voters will be asked to vote twice, once for the local candidate and once for the party. The latter vote will determine the popular vote, unlike the current method which involves summing up the total of all the votes for each candidate of each party.

In this system it is possible for a party to win more local seats than their share of the party vote gives them (i.e., overhanging seats), however this situation is thought to be the exception.

Parties always keep the local seats they win, even if they win more seats than their share of the party vote gives them. This has no effect on the size of the legislature and, in almost all cases, still achieves good proportionality [1]. 

Good proportionality is the operative concern. To put in context, over the last four provincial elections, under the current process, the winning party has received a disproportionate number of seats relative to its popular vote, as shown below.

Under the proposed process the 1999 and 1995 elections would have resulted in a proportional representation. In the 2003 election, as a result of overhanging, the Liberals would have received about 3 seats more than they should have. Similarly in the 1990 election the NDP would have been awarded more seats than their due. However, in both instances, the different is relatively minor as compared to the descrepency resulting from the current process.

While elected local candidates are responsible to their electoral district, who are list members responsible to? The theory is that list members reflect under-represented perspectives of the general population, such as those of women, environmentalist or specialists in other fields. However, by setting aside 90 seats (of 129 or 70%) to be filled by local candidates it is felt that this offers sufficient local representation. The notion of having perspectives or ideas represented in government, as well as the domain, is an interesting one. Too bad it is not being explored through debate during the election campaign.

Similarly, accountability is clearly set with the local candidate through direct vote: unhappy with their performance, don’t vote for them next time. With list members, the accountability is elevated to the party as a whole.

Can the same candidate run in a local district and be on a party list? Candidates can run in a local district, be on a party list, or both. If candidates seek election in both ways and win a local race, their names would be crossed off the list. Only one candidate can win in a local district, but others may have strong support from voters. Being on the list gives these candidates a chance to be elected and serve Ontarians [in other words, even if you loose a local election can can find yourself in the legislature occupying one of the 29 seats allocated for list members). There will also be cases where a party wishes to nominate someone only to its list – for example, a finance expert or environmentalist – who can make an important contribution to the province [1].

The most obvious impact is that majorities will usually only be realized through coalitions. What happens if the coalition falls apart in a system where fixed election dates are set? Is this an issue? Does it subvert the recently changed electoral schedule. Too bad it is not being explored through debate during the election campaign.

In the end, may be the way to decide on whether to support or reject the proposal is to answer the question if we had such a system in place today and the referendum was to switch to a first-to-post method would it be seen as better?

Opponents of the change say it would cripple the government and empower fringe groups. I wonder why they might say that? Too bad it is not being explored through debate during the election campaign.

I suppose the question I have could be a result of a lack of involvement, but am I the only one?

Clearly not.


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