Electoral college? Sign them up
For some, there's no better way to spend a weekend than studying our voting system -- and trying to fix it

Published November 18th 2006 in Globe and Mail

Maybe electoral politics isn't as deadly dull as it sounds. How else to explain the fact that 103 randomly selected Ontarians are showing unbridled enthusiasm for our electoral system, and for all the others too?

"If you want less wasted votes, you wanna go with MMP," says Raj Roopansingh of Ajax, a member of the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. After two months of study, Mr. Roopansingh -- a quality assurance analyst with Mackenzie Financial in Toronto -- now wields terms like MMP (mixed member proportional) and "wasted votes" (a technical term, believe it or not, for votes cast for candidates who lose) without missing a beat. "But if you want more choice, well, then, you want to go with pretty much any system other than the one we've got."

Though Mr. Roopansingh describes his previous interest in politics as "very small," he joined 21 other Torontonians last year in the assembly, donating every other weekend to an unfamiliar cause. And that's the idea: Modelled on the B.C. Citizens' Assembly that was formed in 2004, the project aims to start with ordinary folks, educate them within a centimetre of their lives, and then send them around the province talking to other ordinary citizens about electoral politics and how to attract more than the 41.4 per cent of eligible voters who turned out for our recent municipal elections.

The assembly members, one for each provincial riding, are studying a variety of alternatives to our current first-past-the-post system. In addition to MMP (a form of proportional representation), the options include alternative vote majority (in which voters mark not only their top choice but alternatives in order of preference), two-round majority (with run-off votes), and list proportional representation, the world's most popular electoral system and one that beggars brief description.

"The training we're going through is pretty intense," Mr. Roopansingh says. "It's pretty much a whole course packed into each weekend." He describes full days of sitting in front of experts flown in from around the country and the world to talk about different aspects of electoral politics.

William Kwegyir-Aggrey, another member of the assembly, has had some experience with the process of political consultation. A couple of days before New Year's in 1981, he was working at a gas station in Accra in his native Ghana when a man came to fill up.

"Do you like military rule?" the man asked Mr. Kwegyir-Aggrey at the pump.

"No, no, no, no," he said. "I don't think it's a good idea."

An argument turned into a fight, and the man drove off. Two days later, when Mr. Kwegyir-Aggrey got to work, a colleague asked him if he had heard the news. There had been a coup. The man he had got into a fight with, Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings, already a high-ranking official and former ruler, was now president. The new president remembered their little fisticuffs, and sent some of his people to collect Mr. Kwegyir-Aggrey, who spent the next month in prison.

Now, Mr. Kwegyir-Aggrey is getting a shot at improving on Mr. Rawlings's methods.

Last spring, he received a letter, the same one sent to 124,000 Ontarians by Elections Ontario asking if they would like to participate in the Citizens' Assembly. About 12,000 said yes, and of these, Elections Ontario picked 15 from each riding, with an eye to gender parity, a generational cross-section, and a mandate to have at least one aboriginal member. This was narrowed down to one person a riding. Mr. Kwegyir-Aggrey is representing York South-Weston.

Supported by the staff of the Citizens' Assembly Secretariat, the assembly is devoting hundreds of volunteer hours -- including province-wide trips -- between now and May to studying, consulting and ultimately making recommendations to Queen's Park. "I can't imagine that I came here from Ghana and that I'm sitting down here trying to figure out what the best system is for voting," says Mr. Kwegyir-Aggrey, who now works as a technician for Apotex and lives in North York.

Confronted with our traditionally low voter turnout in Toronto's recent municipal elections, Mr. Kwegyir-Aggrey is mystified, and energized. "The system itself is not promoting people to have an interest in voting," he says. "So I think we should look at why people are not interested in voting."

If the Citizens' Assembly ends up recommending a change, it will become a referendum question at next year's provincial election. With pretty much everything about the way we hold elections up for grabs -- from how many seats there are at Queen's Park to the number of times we go to the polls -- it's a big responsibility, and a big task.

Chaired by former judicial educator George Thompson, the Citizens' Assembly is due to begin its public consultations on Monday in Brampton, making their way to Toronto on Dec. 7 for the first of three open sessions in the city. The purpose of the meetings is for the newly educated assembly members to discuss the issues with members of the public.

The assembly's final report is due May 15.

Mr. Kwegyir-Aggrey has taken his assembly work to the streets and canvassed 60 neighbours and others on their thoughts already. "I'm taking this very seriously," he says, laughing. Then he abruptly gets serious. "People I've spoken to don't vote. I asked them if they're going to vote, and they say, 'Why should I vote?' "

He says of those 60, 45 have told him that they don't feel they are properly represented. For them, he boils down democracy into a simple axiom. "You have two powers," he tells them. "You can put them in power, and you can take them out if you're not satisfied."

Now, for Mr. Kwegyir-Aggrey, it's just a question of figuring out the best way to unleash those powers.