Ontario election and referendum on MMP

MMP was defeated resoundingly, getting less than 37%.

And, oh, by the way, the Liberals won nearly two thirds of the seats on only 42% of the vote.

More later. Meanwhile, this thread continues to grow. Thanks for the comments. (I have weighed in there a few times, too.)

On 10 October, voters in Ontario will vote in a general provincial election. They will also vote in a very important referendum on whether to change the electoral system for future provincial parliamentary elections from the current FPTP to MMP.

The proposed MMP–mixed-member proportional–electoral system was recommended by a Citizens Assembly, made up of ordinary citizens selected (mostly) at random from the voter rolls (sort of like a grand jury). The assembly was given the task, under law, of deliberating about how elections actually work in Ontario and whether there might be a superior model. If it recommended an alternative, it was legally guaranteed that its proposal would be put up against the current system in a provincewide referendum. That time is now, and Ontario voters can decide whether to keep or change FPTP. Or, rather, a super-majority of Ontario voters can decide to change, as the proposal must obtain 60% provincewide, and majorities in at least 60% of the 107 provincial ridings (electoral districts).

Under the proposal, voters would have two votes–one for a candidate in their local riding (as now), and a second vote for a party list. There would be 90 (instead of the current 107) districts in which a single legislator would continue to be elected by plurality of votes cast. There would be 39 compensatory seats, from closed party lists, allocated to “top up” the seats of any party that had won more than 3% of the provincial party vote, but whose number of districts won was a proportional share (of the full 129 seats) that was less than its party vote share.

There is video debate on CBC that you can watch (about 6.5 minutes long), and CBC also has a list of some of the key arguments for and against.

Meanwhile, in the provincial election, it will be business as usual for FPTP. One party–and it will be the incumbent Liberal party, unless there is a very big surprise–will get “reelected” with around 42% or so of the vote, and is projected to win more than three fifths of the seats. The Conservatives–led by, and I kid you not, John Tory–will win around a third of the votes, but probably under 30% of the seats. The New Democratic Party (NDP) may win around 17% of the votes, but only around 11 seats (10%). The Greens may win five or six percent–and one poll says 11%–of the vote, but almost certainly no seats.

Obviously, Ontario has a multiparty system, and would be well served by a more proportional electoral system, which would raise the prospect of Liberals cooperating with one or more parties. If MMP were being used in this election, perhaps the Liberals would cooperate, after the election, in forming a government and passing policy with the NDP. Or they might strike a deal with the Greens, who would win anywhere from 7 to 14 seats, depending on their vote total, rather than zero. Under the current system, the Liberals will rule alone in spite of their having only 43% (or so) of the vote. Nonetheless, the referendum’s chance are considered a long shot.

The MMP proposal may not even make it over 50%. To get to 60% is hard. After all, one former FPTP jurisdiction, New Zealand, has MMP today because a vote of more than half the voters was sufficient in its 1993 referendum. The MMP proposal would have been considered defeated if 60% had been required; the change was endorsed by “only” 54% of the voters. In British Columbia in 2005 a referendum on a different electoral reform, also proposed by a Citizens Assembly, obtained around 58%, where, as in Ontario, 60% was required. (In BC, a second referendum is scheduled on the proposal.) Meanwhile, most governments in New Zealand under FPTP, as well as in Ontario and BC have been single-party majorities based on well under half of the vote–and sometimes on less than 40%.

It is perhaps surprising that a jurisdiction such as Ontario in which the ruling party usually is endorsed by well under half the voters, and where there are important parties other than the top two, would not be “ripe” for some form of proportional representation, such as MMP. However, Ontario is not exactly the most likely case for an electoral reform process to have emerged in the first place. It has had none of the serious anomalies–such as a party with the second most votes winning a majority of seats–as New Zealand had for two elections in a row (1978 and 1981), or as British Columbia had (1996).

With its multiparty politics, it has had some erratic results under FPTP, but nothing out of the ordinary. The graph below shows the patterns over recent decades.


This graph–as with others I have shown here in the block on the “seat-vote equation”–shows, in the lower segment, the deviation of the second largest party (in seats) from what it would be expected to have won, for the given votes for the parties and the size of the assembly and the number of total votes cast. On that lower (dark green) trend line, we see the identity of the second largest party. The trend line in the upper part of the graph shows how close elections have been.

The one really noteworthy–and perhaps “anomalous” election–was over twenty years ago. In 1985, the party with the most votes was the Liberals, with 37.9%, but the Conservatives, who had 37.0%, won the most seats. The Conservatives did not, however, win a majority. They won 52 of 125 seats, and the Liberals were actually able to form a minority government, with the support in parliament of the third party, the New Democrats. Then, in 1987, the Liberals called an early election and won a very large majority: 95 of 130 seats, on 47.3% of the vote.

As can be seen by the trend line in the lower portion of the graph, the electoral system has been somewhat biased against the second largest party–except in 1987, when that party was the NDP. In most elections before 2003, the second largest party was the Liberals, and they have won fewer seats than the second party would have been expected to have won (given the vote shares of the parties, the number of seats at stake, and the number of votes cast).

However, the bias has not been great, and the anomaly (if it was one) of 1985 was a long time ago. It is somewhat surprising that the Liberals actually promised prior to the 2003 election to convene a Citizens Assembly, and that they then went ahead with it. Now we are at the decision point. Will Ontario voters agree that MMP would be an improvement, or do they like the status quo electoral system in which they will most likely reelect their current government on 43% of the vote?


The Globe and Mail has a rather odd editorial.
It almost seems to think the electoral reform is a good idea, but says to vote against it, partly because it claims the idea has been given short shrift in the general-election campaign. It suggests, rather strangely, that MMM would be better. And it wishes the threshold were at 5% instead of 3%.

0 thoughts on “Ontario election and referendum on MMP

  1. That is an odd editorial. I was surprised to see the Star come out against MMP, especially as early as it did and in as sustained a way as it did.

    Some truly nutty commentary came out of the National Post, though its core argument wasn’t very novel: “fringe” nutters winning seats.

    The dominant frame among opponents seems to be the insulation of MPPs elected from lists, i.e. “elites.” One astute observer in a letter to the Star pointed out that party leadership decides who’s to run in each riding anyway. I’d been wondering about that. Can anyone verify?

    (Here’s where I pitch my own recap/comments on the “elite list” frame.)

  2. I wonder why the citizens’ commission didn’t propose an open list system rather than a closed list for the PR tier. Then again, I’ve only thought deeply about using MMP to replace plurality elections in the U.S., where to mollify voters I think you’d need to have some sort of open list system to effectively replace primaries.

  3. Canadian political experience is influencing reactions to MMP. Canada’s parliamentary system has a tradition of very strong party discipline and party leaders who are virtually independent of their elected members. Canadians who consider the irrelevance of elected MPs (“backbenchers”) the great threat to parliamentary democracy are sceptical about MMP because it reinforces, rather than loosens, this party control.
    Example? Gordon Gibson, who directed BC’s Citizens’ Assembly and is a strong advocate for electoral reform through STV (which the BC process recommended) recently wrote in the Globe and Mail that he prefers FPTP to Ontario’s MMP option.

  4. From all of the complaints about MMP that I have read (and there have been many – virtually every columnist in the Globe, Star, Sun Chain, and Citizen are opposed to MMP), I think that the British Columbian proposal of Single Transferrable Vote would have fared a lot better.

    As I read it the major objections have been: Fringe parties getting elected and bringing in Sharia law etc., candidates who nobody voted for sitting in the legislature and the list being decided by the elite of the party (“party hacks getting office”).

    I know that I personally prefer STV to MMP, and it overcomes all of these partcular shortcomings that MMP is perceived to have. The only real objection that would be raised would be the complexity of vote counting. Still, MMP beats our current system hands down.

    For what it is worth (ie nothing), my prediction is that the referendum will get between 49 – 51 percent of the vote in favour of a change.

  5. Very interesting to know that about Gibson. This shows the tradeoff that I often write about regarding the interparty and intraparty dimensions.

    If you rank the value proportionality (interparty) over the value of party decentralization (intraparty), then it is easy:

    1. MMP
    2. STV
    3. FPTP

    But if you value party decentralization more, then it makes sense to be as Gibson puts them:

    1. STV
    2. FPTP
    3. MMP

    Readers can imagine preference schedules for those that favor FPTP over all others, but might differ in the ranking of the other two (depending on, e.g. valuing the maintenance any FPTP races vs. valuing having no party lists).

    Maybe some day someone will hold a referendum with a three-choice ranked ballot on these three electoral systems!

  6. I find it funny how the Globe editorial linked above calls the Citizen’s Assembly a populist gesture, preferring a think tank of experts. Obvioulsy, the same paper scared of proportional rep would be scared of any form of direct democracy like that – i wonder if they will condemn juries next?

  7. So, maybe STV would have won where MMP is likely to have failed? Interesting, for in BC, some argued that MMP would have made it over 60% whereas STV came up short!

    It may be valid to say that STV corrects for all the main objections to MMP, but of course, MMP corrects for all the main objections to STV!

    That is, critics of STV might oppose it because it still tends to limit the representation of parties with very dispersed support, or because intraparty competition encourages excessive localism or even clientelism, etc. MMP is an antidote to those charges every bit as much as STV is an antidote to claims about MMP electing “hacks” who only cater to party leadership and allowing MPs to enter via the “backdoor,” etc.

  8. Oh no, I doubt STV would pass – there seems to be a far more entrenched mentality here than there was in BC gainst PR of any form. What I thought was funny is that every single flaw that people have claimed to find in MMP is countered by STV. As you note, these same critics would find flaws in STV as well.

    I just wish someone would write an article as if we were presenting FPTP for the first timeas an idea and then point out the flaws in our current system. Ah well… BC in 2011 for Canada’s first PR system

  9. While I agree that the same defenders of the status quo would make different arguments against STV, I was making another point: That different opponents of the proposed reform could make different arguments against MMP than against STV. Such arguments need not come from defenders of the status quo, per se, but those for whom FPTP is a logical second preference after one proposed reform, but ahead of the other.

    We would not really know without a ranked-choice ballot. (And we could throw AV (IRV) into the mix to make things even more interesting.)

    It is worth remembering that NZ actually had an initial “multiple choice” (but not ranked choice) ballot with two parts (in 1992). First, to keep or toss FPTP. There, about 85% wanted to get rid of FPTP. The second choice on the same day asked voters, regardless of how they felt about FPTP, to indicate one preference among the reform options: MMP, STV, and “supplementary member” (a parallel/MMM proposal). In that vote, MMP came clearly out in front (about 70%).

    Then at a later date (at the same time as the 1993 general election) there was a vote on MMP vs. FPTP, with MMP getting around 54%.

    The 46% that FPTP got in the final vote was almost double what it got when up against a general idea of “reform” rather than up against a specific proposal. I am not sure what explained the collapse of support for MMP from 70% to 54%–perhaps new information, and also the larger turnout in the second referendum–but it sure is striking how close FPTP came to surviving when pitted against one proposed reform, compared to its resounding defeat when the question was just “keep or toss?”

  10. … and the Greens get 8% of the vote and 0 seats. Now, by my reckoning, Green and NDP supporters figure to be unanimously in favour of MMP (logically anyways). So if their share of the vote equals 25%, does that mean that only 1 out of every 7 Lib/PC voter voted for MMP?

    And how did a PR proposal get 58% in BC and only 37% in Ontario? Are the two political cultures THAT different? I seem to remember the Sun coming out in favour in BC, but surely that cannot explain such a massive difference in opinion.

  11. Chris B, I don’t think it’s about the “political cultures”–BC is just more familiar with the problems of FPTP.

    As Matthew mentioned, the 1996 BC election had a plurality reversal: the NDP won a majority despite receiving fewer votes than the Liberals. Then at the next election, in 2001, BC became a one-party province: the Liberals won all but two seats on 58% of the vote. (Of course a majority is justified with that vote share, but I don’t think anyone benefits from lack of an opposition.) Also in 2001, the Green Party won no seats on 12% of votes.

    Not that FPTP in Ontario doesn’t have its defects: It consistently gives majorities to parties without a majority of votes, disadvantages small parties like the Greens, and makes voting somewhat futile in “safe” ridings. But these are much less obvious problems than plurality reversals and the lack of an opposition. In fact, many people seem to think that spurious* majorities and high effective thresholds are features, not bugs. So few voters see any need for change.

    [* understanding Vasi to have meant “manufactured”; Ontario has never had a spurious majority (such as BC 96), but it has had many that were manufactured, including yesterday’s result.–MSS]

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