Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Disproportional representation: yet another 19th century relic

MMP = Mixed-Member Proportional.

If you already knew that, consider yourself one of Ontario's more astute citizens.

If you already know what it means, consider yourself a member of the political elite.

The Toronto Star and other mainstream media sources have been running articles for the past few weeks focusing on the general public ignorance of the referendum on electoral reform taking place in conjuction with the Oct. 10 provincial election. A random survey of adults walking down Bay St. in Toronto this week showed that only 3 of 50 knew anything about the referendum or its implications.

Based on what I've seen in the mainstream media, I wouldn't bank on the proportion of journalists who are in-the-know being much higher.

Some news items have spun this ignorance as a lack of interest in electoral reform. A more accurate interpretation might be that in fact very few people have much interest or knowledge of provincial politics in the first place.

Citizens who know who their representative to Queens Park is would certainly find themselves in the minority. And how many would know their riding boundaries, or actual polling numbers from the previous election? How many know anything about the provincial budget that their elected representatives vote on? How many know that no majority government in decades has actually received a majority of the popular vote?

Compared with our Quebecois counterparts, Ontarians are a politically simple group. There are many reasons for this, beginning with our 19th century "family compact" origins which set the precedent for concentrating power in the hands of the wealthy, right up to the huge number of recent immigrants to the province who in most cases have little understanding of its system of governance.

Voter turnout for Ontario elections has been dropping steadily for the past 30 years, from 68% in 1975 to 57% in 2003. This is universally condemned as an unfortunate trend, but when one considers how little the vast majority of citizens actually know about their government, and the way the current electoral system distorts the voting results, it's difficult to conclude that a higher voter turnout would make any significant difference in Ontario's governance. Indeed, a sense that this is the case is precisely what dissuades people from making it out on polling day.

The current riding-by-riding simple plurality method of electing representatives to Queens Park is certainly part of the problem. Voters often feel that their votes don't make a difference - and they're right.

The bare fact of the matter is that when any more than two candidates or two parties compete for election, there will be more votes that don't matter than those that do. This is precisely the opposite of what a system of democratic election intends.

In Peterborough in 2003, 24,626 people voted for Jeff Leal of the Liberal party, or 45% of the 55,000 who turned out to the polls. The other 31,000 voted for other candidates. Although Leal will ostensibly go to Queens Park with the interests of all his constituents in mind, whether or not they supported him, in practice he will side with his party on every matter of legislation. The 45% of Peterborough voters who supported Leal indirectly hold 100% of the legislative power granted to the Peterborough riding. The votes of the other 55% - the majority - are effectively discarded when it comes to legislative power at Queens Park.

If this same pattern were repeated in every one of the 103 electoral districts in Ontario, the Liberal party would hold 100% of the seats in the legislature even though more people voted against them than for them.

But wait - this is precisely what did happen in Ontario in 2003! Because it takes only a simple majority to pass legislation at Queens Park, the Liberals didn't even need to repeat the Peterborough result 103 times - they only needed to repeat it 52 times to gain 100% of the power.

Indeed, in theory the party could have received zero votes in the other 51 ridings and obtained the same final result - 100% of the power.

Let's put it in blunt if obtuse terms: a simple majority of representatives elected by simple pluralities in their ridings will virtually never represent the interests of the majority. This is why the majority attitude toward the government at election time is nearly always negative.

Our current method, sometimes called "first past the post", was never designed for a multi-party system. It was only designed for a two-party system. With a multi-party system it will always produce distorted results.

Most of the rest of the democratic world, who are all more politically sophisticated than we in Canada (and perhaps have better math skills), realized this long ago, and have moved on to more sophisticated methods of determining elected representatives. Because our closest neighbours, the Americans and the British, are nearly as unsophisticated as we are, we haven't noticed.

The MMP system being proposed is but one option among many to bring us back to reality. I'll analyze its merits and review its history in other places in my next entry.

1 comment:

the rev. said...

I don't think it is a matter of political sophistication - the U.S. has a two party system, the U.K. has a third party, the Liberal Democrats, but it is more ineffectual than the NDP nationally.
Japan, Australia and New Zealand all use proportional representation systems to one degree or another and none of them are any more sophisticated than we are, just a little more fairly represented.