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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Vote for MMP: Conceptualizing electoral reform

(This is the first part in a series of posts I will be making in advance of the Ontario referendum on electoral reform. I will use these posts to explain my support for the proposed mixed member proportional model, and to debunk its critics and naysayers.)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have recently become a strong advocate for electoral reform. I came to this position after much reflection.

I started out by looking at where we stand. Right now, our legislative system is founded on the idea of local representation. The province of Ontario is divided into 103 (soon to be 107) specific geographic regions (or "ridings"), each of which is represented by an MPP. Among numerous candidates in each riding, these MPPs are elected by a plurality of voters: Whichever candidate gets the most votes, wins.

As envisaged by our current electoral framework, the predominant relationship is between the MPP and her riding. We, the citizens of a given riding, are electing a person to represent us at Queen's Park. It is expected that our MPP will fight for our interests and be responsive to our needs and the needs of our communities. At the provincial level, our MPPs are expected to meet and collectively discuss, debate and set public policy.

A fairly simple system, no doubt. But the simplicity of our process masks the overall complexity of our politics.

First of all, the relationship between the MPP and the voter is not as straightforward as it would seem. There are other factors at play, including (and especially) political parties. Not only is the MPP a representative of a riding, she also represents the policies, the platform and the philosophy of her party. Thus, the voter is not just electing a local representative: In selecting between candidates representing various political parties, he is also (implicitly) endorsing a political philosophy.

With this in mind, I submit that there are two major relationships at play: Voter and representative, and voter and party. I further submit that our electoral system should reflect these overlapping, yet distinct, relationships. It doesn't. It ignores the relationship between voter and party, and that's the problem.

In many cases, local representatives are elected with far less than a majority of votes. If political parties weren't part of the equation, and if the singular relationship were between voter and representative, this may not be an issue. But of course, parties and philosophies are fundamental to our democracy.

As voters, we rightfully expect that our votes will help determine the philosophical direction our province takes. Most of the time, this is not the case. Most of the time, majority governments are formed by political parties which have received a plurality of votes in most ridings, but far less than a majority of votes overall. Most of the time, a majority of Ontarian are governed by a minority of Ontarians whose votes happened to be more efficiently spread throughout the ridings. Most of the time, most Ontarians have no real say in shaping our public policies.

And so, what's the solution? As I said earlier, our system needs to reflect the twin relationships the voter has with both the representative and the party. Local representation must remain a key feature of any new system. But party preferences need to be included as well. Just as every voter deserves a local representative to fight for local needs, every voter (insofar as practical) deserves a philosophical voice in the broader public policy debate.

The Mixed Member Proportional representation model proposed by the Citizens' Assembly achieves both goals. It maintains local representation while achieving proportionality, so that the percentage of votes each party receives is more accurately reflected in their numbers in the legislature.

I think this is a fair and effective solution to a very real problem facing our democracy. I hope readers will take the time to look into the Citizens' Assembly's recommendations and to otherwise inform themselves fully on this issue.