On October 24, 2006, a bill was introduced in the Ontario Parliament that calls for a referendum on any proposals made by the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. The Citizens’ Assembly is made up of one randomly selected Ontarian from each of the 103 ridings in the province and has been studying different electoral systems during a series of lectures conducted at York University between September and November 2006. It also heard public submissions at various local town meetings until January 30, 2007.

The assembly is made up of 52 males and 52 females and at least one Aboriginal. Its Chairman, George Thomson, a former judge and deputy minister, was appointed by the government to lead and facilitate the assembly. Aside from this appointment, however, the assembly operates independently from the provincial government. After the assembly has heard public consultation and finished its deliberation, it will outline its findings in a report that will be issued on May 15, 2007. The report will either recommend keeping the current electoral system in Ontario, which is a winner-takes-all single-member district system, or adopting a new system.

The Electoral System Referendum Act plans on organizing a referendum on the proposals of the Citizens’ Assembly, which is to be held on October 4, 2007, if the assembly recommends adopting a new electoral system. The bill, however, contains a referendum decision rule that requires a super-majority of 60 % of all votes cast as well as 50 % or more approval from ballots in each of at least 64 ridings. This rule has received considerable criticism from reformers because it greatly hampers the chance of success for any of the proposed reforms. Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Marie Bountrogianni contends, however, that “this is a responsible threshold for a possible fundamental change in the way we elect our politicians” because the referendum decision will be binding and not easily reversed.

On April 15, the Ontario Citizens' Assembly voted 94 - 4 in favor of sending a Mixed Member Proportional voting system (MMP) to referendum. According to the plan put forth, voters would elect 90 MPs from local ridings using winner-take-all elections. These 90 MPs would make up 70 percent of the province's legislature. The remaining 30 percent (29 seats) would be filled using proportional voting. Voters would vote for party lists of candidates. Seats would be awarded to each party on the basis of the proportion of votes each party received during the election. The referendum for adopting this plan will be held on October 4, 2007. It will be the first popular referendum held in Ontario since 1921.

In addition to the Citizens’ Assembly, a Students’ Assembly was also formed to complement and contribute to the reform efforts. The assembly was made up of 103 high school students selected through an online application process. It gathered at Muskoka from November 15 – 19, 2006, and studied the current Ontarian electoral system as well as several alternatives. The assembly presented what it believes to be the most preferred electoral system for Ontario to the Citizens’ Assembly on February 11, 2007. It came out strongly in support of a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system that would offer greater proportionality than the current system. To see the Students’ Assembly’ Final Report, click here. In addition to developing its proposal, the Students’ Assembly also provided curriculum materials to participating high schools so that they can conduct their own “Classroom Assembly on Electoral Reform.” The discussions and proposals done at the high school level was also be used by the general assembly in making its final decision.

The Citizens’ Assembly and the Students’ Assembly are both great ways of getting the electorate involved in electoral reform policymaking and providing an opportunity to educate the citizenry about alternative voting methods such as proportional voting and choice voting. In addition to Ontario, British Columbia also organized a Citizens’ Assembly that proposed an alternative electoral system, although the proposal was narrowly defeated by a referendum in May 2006. Citizen assemblies and student assemblies represent a step forward in electoral reform and show that many people are interested in learning about new voting systems and are willing to embrace new ideas.

Watch Billy Ballot discuss the four families of electoral systems.

Referendum on deck if Ont. shakes up electorate

Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform

Student's Assembly on Electoral Reform

Ontario to vote on electoral system