In a few weeks, Ontario voters have a chance to do something historic, and to increase democracy in our province, and in Canada. (I wish I could vote!)
In the provincial elections on October 10, there'll be a referendum on the ballot, asking if Ontario should retain its first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, or change to a form of proportional representation called Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP).
MMP is more democratic, offers more choice, and results in governments more representative of voters' preferences.
One of the best FAQs I've seen on the subject is from Vote For MMP. It addresses all the major concerns about the MMP system, which are largely based on myths and misunderstandings. For example:
Won't the new system lead to perpetual minority or coalition governments that won’t be able to get things done?
Since a majority of voters seldom support a single party, fair election results mean that seldom will a single party have majority control of government. Instead, two or more parties will have to negotiate, compromise and cooperate to form government and pass legislation.
Under the current voting system, minority governments are always unstable because parties know they can gain majority control with as little as 40 per cent of the popular vote. A small shift in voter preferences is enough to collapse a minority government under first-past-the-post, so stable and cooperative working relationships among parties are seldom formed. Mindless bickering and confrontation are more typical.
Under proportional voting systems, parties know they will gain no more or no fewer seats than deserved. The incentive is to find long-term coalition partners and work productively within a culture of negotiation and compromise.
But what about Italy and Israel?
Critics often point to these two countries as "proof" that proportional voting systems create political chaos. Let's apply some perspective. With 81 nations using proportional systems, critics can find only these two extreme examples. To say Italy and Israel are typical political cultures under proportional representation is like saying Zimbabwe and Nigeria are typical political cultures under first-past-the-post. Critics don't like to talk about Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, or the many dozens of stable governments and healthy economies with proportional voting systems and coalition governments.
In fact, a landmark comparative study on effective government demonstrated that countries using proportional systems readily match and often exceed the economic and social performance of nations run by single-party governments (usually false majorities). This is not surprising, as proportional voting systems create governments that are more representative and accountable.
Can't a small party dictate policy because it holds the balance of power – doesn't it let the tail wag the dog?
The reality is almost the exact opposite.
Research has shown that coalition governments tend to be better than single party governments at producing legislation more in line with public thinking. But that's only logical. Coalition majority governments are formed by representatives of the majority of voters – unlike Canada's "majority" governments put in power by only 40% of the voters.
Generally, two or more like-minded parties, who together represent a majority of voters, agree to form a coalition government. Their compromise agenda will generally focus on areas of policy agreement, not the most radical positions of the smaller party. If two parties representing a majority of voters have common policy interests, that often indicates majority public support for those policies.
Another important safeguard is that any major party or political leader adopting an agenda out-of-step with its own support base will be severely punished at the next election. In fact, the logic of coalition-building is the opposite of the tail wagging the dog. It's more like the dog choosing the tail that fits.
If you have questions about how MMP works, what changes would likely be seen from its adoption, and whether or not you should support it, I recommend Vote For MMP and Vote for MMP's FAQ page.
If that sounds too biased, the Ontario Citizen's Assembly was a representative group of voters charged with studying the province's electoral system. They spent months gathering information, deliberating the issue from all sides, and considering several different options. Their recommendation: Mixed Member Proportional. Click here for a simple, straightforward explanation of their recommendation, or here to see the full report.
The Citizen's Assembly has an excellent website with FAQs and videos that explain the issues very clearly. (The videos may be easier to access from the Vote MMP site: click here.)
Bloggers for MMP has some badges, banners and other resources you can use to help spread the word.
Here in North America, we are all accustomed to an FPTP system. Most of us never questioned this, because we never knew there was any other method. When faced with new choices and possibilities, many people cling to the familiar. "We've been voting this way for hundreds of years. Why change now?" But tradition alone is not enough reason to maintain the status quo when there are better alternatives.
Between now and October 10, I hope my neighbours throughout Ontario will take the time to educate themselves, and take care to keep their minds open. And I hope they'll go to the polls - and vote for more democracy.