Electoral reform expert Peter MacLeod of the Queen's University Centre for the Study of Democracy has fast emerged as one of the most articulate (and unbiased) voices in this ongoing Ontario referendum campaign. Mr. MacLeod is also principal of public systems design studio The Planning Desk.
The following three answers to questions about the proposed Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system were provided in MacLeod's blog on the National Post's website this weekend.
Flummoxed about MMP?
Q: I am curious as to whether the new map for the riding boundaries (107 to 90 seats) has already been drawn. As a resident of Northern Ontario I am concerned that a redrawing of the boundaries could result in fewer seats for the North at Queen's Park. If there are fewer Northern seats how can Northern Ontario residents be certain that the party lists will represent Northern, or for that matter, Aboriginal constituents on a basis that is reflective of their populations?
One of the very difficult things for any electoral system to overcome is a massive disparity between the size of a territory and the size of its population. Right now, Howard Hampton's riding of Kenora-Rainy River is famously larger than PEI, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia combined, yet it also has the fewest number of constituents of any riding in the province. When electoral boundaries are set by the province's independent Boundaries Commission they struggle to create ridings with roughly similar populations, but they also have discretion to weigh in additional factors like the history of a political constituency, its demographics and its geography. Doubtless, a Boundaries Commission charged with dividing the province into 90 new, larger ridings would have difficulty preserving the eleven northern ridings that currently exist. It's impossible to know how many would remain, but some back-of-the-envelope long division suggests that as many as three ridings would need to be combined.
But the story would be incomplete if we stop there because one of the most important features of the proposed MMP electoral system is the party vote. There are two reasons why this feature could make it possible for the North to command even stronger representation at Queen's Park and should be of interest to Northern voters. First, if a Northern or Aboriginal Party was formed it would likely secure seats through the list system, with the potential of enjoying support not only from Northerners or Aboriginals in northern ridings but from Ontarians in all parts of the province who care about the issues such parties might represent. Second, because all parties would be hungry for those party votes, I think you'd find that the parties generally would spend more time campaigning in Northern Ontario and creating North-friendly platforms.
Q: Can politicians still cross the floor under MMP?
Great question! Let me answer this two ways because it begs a second question: what happens if an MPP resigns or is unable to complete their term? Basically, all electoral systems have rules to fill seats that may become vacant between elections and the MMP system would be no different. Under the proposed MMP system if a local seat becomes vacant, a by-election will be held. This is the practice under Ontario’s current system and unlike an MMP general election, there would be no second party vote on this by-election ballot. If a list seat becomes vacant, Elections Ontario will select the next available person on that party’s list as submitted for the previous general election.
Governing what happens when an MPP crosses the floor is a bit more complicated. If they represent a local seat, then they would be free to cross. If a member was elected from the list, then it is likely that the legislature would adopt a rule forcing the MPP to resign and run again, either for a riding or on the other party's list at the time of the next general election. Of course, if that member resigned, the list seat would be filled by the next available person on the party's list.
Of course, more complicated still is if a party wishes to discipline a member by ejecting them from the party's caucus. If the member is elected from a riding, then they would be free to join another party's caucus or sit as an independent. If the member had been elected from that party's list, it's likely that the leader of the party could simply call for their resignation from the legislature. This was not part of the Assembly's recommendation because strictly speaking it is outside the purview of the electoral system. Once elected, it is up to the legislators themselves to create the House rules that govern these unusual scenarios.
Q: What happens to the 39 list seats if the results of an election are perfectly proportional?
This question goes to the heart of how the two votes intersect and work together and why MMP is called a hybrid system. Put plainly, there's no such thing as a perfectly proportional vote -- proportionality is achieved only when the two votes work together.
Under MMP top-up seats are always required because if a party wins 40% of the party vote and exactly 40% of the local vote, it will still need to 'top-up' its caucus with list seats to bring it to 40% of the 129 available in the legislature. Remember that we're talking about the difference between winning 40% of the 90 seats available in local elections (or 36 seats) and 40% of the 129 seats available in the legislature (or 52 seats). Clearly, this party will need to be compensated with an additional 16 list seats
If the party overshoots the mark, winning say 50% of the seats in the legislature with only 40% of the party vote then the result is disproportionate and the other parties are compensated with a greater number of list seats.
Interested readers may want to come out for a debate Queen's University is staging in at the MaRS complex at 101 College St. in Toronto on Friday, September 28th at 7 p.m.
National Post political affairs columnist Andrew Coyne and former Ontario minister Marilyn Churley will make the case for adopting the new Mixed Member Proportional electoral system proposed by Ontario's Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. They will square off against Toronto Sun Queen's Park columnist Christina Blizzard and former Ontario minister Charles Harnick who will defend Ontario's existing First-Past-The-Post electoral system. The debate will be hosted by the Centre's director Thomas Axworthy and will include introductory remarks by George Thomson, Chair of the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform.