Blown Into Proportion

On the eve of Ontario’s referendum, a young voter makes the case for overhauling the country’s electoral system

Illustration by Darren Stebeleski

They say you never forget your first time, but they usually don’t say why. For mine, not long ago, I had to climb a steep hill in the rain. I was a nervous eighteen-year-old university student living in Montreal. I entered the polling station, looked down, and felt nothing.

On my federal ballot was a list of names and political parties, all irrelevant. The Liberals owned this riding by such a crushing margin that the opposition was purely symbolic. (The local ndp candidate, like me, lived in a university residence.)

As with every ballot filled out that day, what mattered most was where it was cast: depending on where you lived, you had one, two, or, in a few rare cases, three meaningful choices. Like about half of Canada’s voters, I wasted my vote, casting it for a losing candidate who wouldn’t represent me in Parliament. Countless others voted against what they feared, not for what they supported.

This system, which we inherited from the Brits and have never modified, produces massive distortions — disenfranchising voters, rewarding regional strongholds, and killing fresh ideas. In 2006, the Green Party won over half a million votes nationwide, a little more than the Liberals won in the four Atlantic provinces. The Atlantic Liberals got twenty seats, the entire Green Party none. Parliament has four men for every woman and vast regions are represented by a single party. Only twice since World War II have majority governments been elected by more than 50 percent of voters.

But all this could change. This October, Ontarians have a chance to pick a new, proportional system, in which the parties’ share of seats would actually match their share of the popular vote. If Ontario’s voters opt for change, Canada could follow. Imagine Ottawa’s metamorphosis: a small but strong Green Party; the Bloc Québécois cut almost in half; Liberals and New Democrats from Alberta, Tories from the big cities; a new party or two; many more female and minority members; a bump in voter turnout; the pmo reined in by Parliament; stable coalition governments. For much of the old guard, this would be a nightmare.

Back when I was still trembling from my first, traumatic experience, though, I never dreamed we could do things differently. I saw electoral politics as a thin wafer, while I hungered for a massive whole-grain loaf.

I looked at bread differently after spending a year studying in Paris. It was across the ocean, nostalgically reading online news from the homeland, that I was jolted by an article about the world’s first citizens’ assembly on electoral reform. British Columbia’s Liberal government had asked 160 randomly selected people to determine whether BC needed a new electoral system, and if so to design one. After eleven months of deliberation, they proposed something called bc-stv, a fairly proportional system that would have put an end to false majorities. Premier Gordon Campbell set the threshold for referendum passage at an unprecedented 60 percent and spent little on public education.

On May 17, 2005, the day of the provincial elections, 58 percent of voters said yes to the new system, not enough to pass. Campbell’s Liberals got 46 percent of the vote and 58 percent of the seats — more representative than most elections, but still a false majority. Thanks to public pressure, the government will hold another referendum on bc-stv in 2009.

Since BC’s false start, government-appointed commissions in New Brunswick and Quebec have recommended similar alternatives, but politicians have declined to implement them. In November 2005, a proposed proportional system lost a referendum in pei.

Hope for change now rests with Ontario, where another citizens’ assembly, mandated by Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty and modelled on BC’s example, has proposed Mixed Member Proportional (mmp), a system used around the world. New Zealand switched to mmp in 1993, and on provincial election day, October 10, Ontario’s voters could do the same. But they’ll need a supermajority to do so — McGuinty, like Campbell, set a 60-percent threshold.

When Ontario’s citizens’ assembly got to work last fall, I had to get involved. I ended up putting in four months as a part-time organizer for Fair Vote Canada, a multi-partisan ngo that has been promoting proportional representation for seven years. I sat in on most of the assembly’s education sessions at York University, in the law school’s cavernous moot court and in a claustrophobic classroom where observers surrounded small groups of assembly members.

The members, a gender-balanced mix of everyday Ontarians with no prior knowledge of electoral systems, spent one session studying ballots from around the world. A half-dozen samples were handed out. The South African was the most colourful, the Australian the most demanding (you have to rank every single candidate — often more than ten — or your vote doesn’t count). The members compared the ballots, some noting their complexity with concern. Tom Ricci, an IT specialist and former air cadet, held up the Ontario one — a list of names, mark one choice — and smiled apologetically. In his loud, no-nonsense voice, he said, “Maybe this is too simple.” The tension snapped as his colleagues chuckled. If voters around the world could puzzle through ballots far more complicated than ours for the sake of more choice and fairer results, we could probably manage more sophistication too.

Under the assembly’s proposed alternative, mmp, voters will get two votes. The first is for a local representative, just like we have now. The second vote is for a party. Based on the province-wide share of votes each party receives, it gets top-up representatives drawn from a party list that’s publicized in advance. This way, each party’s total share of seats will roughly equal its share of the popular vote, while Ontario voters keep nearly the same level of local representation they have now. (A province-wide minimum threshold of 3 percent keeps out complete crazies.) Meanwhile, parties can use their lists to make sure more women and minorities get into the legislature.

The point isn’t to advance one party’s interests over another’s, but to empower voters — all voters get a meaningful range of options, and every vote counts equally. What’s more, because all voters are represented in the legislature, and because power in coalition governments isn’t monopolized by the leader’s office, in between elections voters will have much more power when lobbying their representatives.

Newspaper columnists (none of whom I saw at the sessions) have insulted the members’ intelligence and questioned their motives. Claiming the assembly was biased from the start, Toronto Star writer Ian Urquhart repeated the same quote from an assembly member about “making history” in four different columns. But after several weekends watching them work, I was convinced that ordinary citizens could gather as equals and think through daunting political challenges. Pundits aside, experts gushed that the assembly’s proceedings were vastly more civil and intelligent than the madness at Queen’s Park.

Convincing my friends to vote isn’t easy when everyone knows it’s likely to be a waste of time. And no, it’s not because we’re a bunch of apathetic stoners. A 2005 Statistics Canada study found that while young people vote far less than anyone else, when you add up all forms of political behaviour, no group is more active than Canadians under thirty. Upgrading our electoral system would go a long way to resolving this paradox. But the key difference a proportional system would make — a more diverse Parliament juggling more points of view — could force all of Canada to finally grow up. More democracy takes more work, though it does have its rewards.

In Patterns of Democracy, Arend Lijphart, former president of the American Political Science Association, classifies thirty-six countries into “consensus democracies” governed by stable coalitions via proportional systems, and “majoritarian democracies,” systems like ours in which false majorities are typical. The consensus democracies, he shows, produce “kinder, gentler” states, with equal or better economic performance, better care for the environment, higher levels of foreign aid, and higher levels of social spending — qualities, he writes, that “should appeal to all democrats.” Surveys show that voters in consensus democracies are more satisfied with their governments and more likely to share their governments’ priorities. And despite more diverse voices in parliament, consensus democracies tend to produce a more stable political culture. Reading Lijphart’s work is a surreal experience — he describes the kind of country we think we live in, and want to live in, but don’t.

I wasn’t completely honest about my first time earlier. It was pretty special. For all the expectations it dashed, it sparked my hope of one day getting it right. I still relish the feel of the ballot in my hands and the power it represents. On October 10, this slip of paper could be the instrument for overhauling our politics and provoking profound, democratizing change. In a packed room, tucked into my booth, ignoring the hysterical warnings of chaos and doom, marking that X is going to feel good — a sharp tingle of righteous transgression.

Daniel Aldana Cohen