Panel picks radical voting changes for Ontario
Citizens' group still must decide whether to force referendum or stick to status quo

By Andrew Thomson
Published April 2nd 2007 in Ottawa Citizen
The group charged with reviewing Ontario's voting system yesterday endorsed a model of German-style proportional representation as its preferred choice against the current system, a move that could radically alter the way MPPs are elected.

If the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform recommends the system -- known as mixed member proportional voting (MMP) -- to the government next month, Ontario could be the first jurisdiction in North America to stray from first-past-the-post majority rule.

An assembly recommendation would force a province-wide referendum on the issue on election day in October. Alternatively, the group could opt for the status quo, although that seems unlikely given the amount of work that has gone into the process.

"They know that they have one more very serious decision to make," said George Thomson, the former provincial judge acting as chairman of the Citizens' Assembly. "What they're going to decide I just don't know."

Any changes to the electoral system would need the approval of 60 per cent of voters and would take effect in 2011. The assembly is to decide upon a recommendation on April 14 and 15 and report to the government by May 15.

Under MMP, voters would cast two ballots. The first would be for a riding candidate, mimicking current elections that reward a majority of votes in each riding. The second ballot would be for a political party, such as the Liberals, Conservatives, or New Democrats.

A party that wins a lower share of seats than its percentage of party votes would be compensated with MPPs from a list of candidates.

"(Members) liked the idea that MMP kept the local system that people are used to, and added the members that produced proportionality," Mr. Thomson said last night. "You have a chance to say whether you like the local candidate, but you also have a chance to say if you like that particular party or a different one."

Increasing the number of women and visible minorities at Queen's Park was another focus of the assembly's deliberations. Political parties would have to publicly justify their candidate lists under the proposed system, ensuring that Ontario's evolving demographic patterns are reflected in the legislature.

"It's a question of maintaining transparency, to get away from any notion that the party lists would be generated in backrooms by cigar-smoking political hacks," said John Townesend, the representative for Ottawa South. "The face of Ontario has changed enormously with immigration in recent years."

This concept had greater support during yesterday than a second alternative: Single transferable voting (STV), a preferred vote system designed for districts with more than one elected member. A 2005 referendum in British Columbia to adopt the STV system failed to garner the required 60-per-cent approval rating.

Three-quarters of the 103-member assembly voted for MMP yesterday in Toronto. Its two-ballot concept seemed easier for Ontario voters to understand, Mr. Townesend said.

"Seventy per cent of the seats would continue to be first-past-the-post, and a second tier of seats comprising 30 per cent would be the list system," he said.

MMP was introduced to West Germany's federal and state elections in 1949, and carried over to the reunified German state in 1990. New Zealand decided on a similar model in 1993.

It is a system that tends to produce minority and coalition governments.

Canada, the United States, and Britain remain the only three major western democracies using the British first-past-the-post system, which rewards the overall winner in each riding. Smaller parties have complained the system leaves their voters lacking in representation.

Ontario's Citizen's Assembly was created from a previous model used in B.C.

Letters were sent to 124,000 random Ontario voters in April 2006. They were asked if they would spend 30 to 40 hours per month studying the electoral system. The final group of 103 -- 52 men and 51 women representing each riding -- spent six weekends last fall learning about various voting arrangements.

Mr. Thomson, a former provincial court judge in Kingston, was appointed assembly chairman by Premier Dalton McGuinty, who campaigned in 2003 with a promise to tackle voter apathy.

Yesterday's vote followed 37 public meetings across the province, including January sessions in Ottawa, Perth, and Cornwall.

Besides Ontario and B.C., Quebec, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island have also considered voting reform, along with at least a dozen countries -- including Britain.