Ontario to vote on electoral system

By Martin Mittelstaedt
Published April 16th 2007 in The Globe & Mail
TORONTO -- Ontario voters are going to be given the opportunity to scrap the province's first-past-the-post election system.

An independent assembly of citizens set up by the government voted overwhelmingly yesterday to have a referendum during this fall's provincial election on replacing the current winner-take-all system with a proportional representation system modelled on those used in Germany and New Zealand.

The referendum, the first in Ontario since a 1921 Prohibition-era vote over liquor availability, will ask the electorate to consider a new voting arrangement that would result in the share of seats each party wins being roughly equal to its popular vote, provided a threshold of at least 3 per cent of all ballots cast is met.

It would apportion legislature seats through a mix of local riding contests, like those that exist now, along with reserving some seats to be awarded according to a party's share of the provincial vote.

If approved, the new system would be in place during the election expected in 2011, and it would end a way of voting that has existed in Ontario since before Confederation and which generally allows parties to command strong legislative majorities without obtaining the support of at least 50 per cent of the electorate.

Cheers and applause rippled through a large meeting room in a government office tower when it was announced that the group of 102 citizens, who had been selected at random by the province and volunteered to study Ontario's voting procedure, approved the referendum by 94 in favour to eight against.

Those who favoured the referendum said the existing voting regime wasn't fair because it had led to a string of majority governments without majority electoral backing. "We wanted to change that in order to get fairer results," said Mayte Darraidou, who is from Toronto and was on the so-called Citizens' Assembly that made the decision.

Proportional representation tends to favour smaller parties, such as the Green Party, and those with moderate, but not high levels of support, such as the NDP, at the expense of the bigger parties and those with high regional support.

The referendum will have a high threshold in order to pass. It needs at least 60 per cent of the votes cast, along with at least 50 per cent of voters in a minimum of 64 individual provincial ridings. There are currently 103 ridings.

NDP Leader Howard Hampton said his party "has long supported" proportional representation. However, he called the approval threshold "highly undemocratic," and called on the government to allow a simple majority to decide the fate of the proposal.

The referendum will ask voters to endorse what is called a mixed-member proportional system.

Under the proposal, Ontario would have 90 MPs elected from local ridings, just as they are now, for 70 per cent of the seats in the legislature. Another 30 per cent of the seats, or 29 in total, would be awarded to candidates selected from lists put together by the parties. Candidates from the lists would be used to adjust the number of seats each party has to reflect its share of the popular vote.

If a party elects fewer local members than its share of the popular vote, candidates from its list would be elected to the legislature to compensate for the difference.

The new system would mean voters cast two ballots, one for the local candidate they favour and the other for a choice of party. The party vote will be considered the popular vote and determine the total number of seats a party wins.