Saturday, September 29, 2007

QUESTIONS & ANSWERS: Citizens' Assembly & Why First-Past-The-Post is Broken

Over the next week and a half, we will be re-publishing portions of our Liberals For MMP Questions & Answers section. Today, a basic introduction for the many voters still looking for greater context on why Mixed Member Proportional is being proposed and why voters should change to the new system...

WHAT WAS THE CITIZENS' ASSEMBLY AND WHAT DID IT DO?

The Citizens' Assembly was a group of 103 randomly-selected citizens from the Permanent Register of Electors for Ontario - one from each of Ontario's electoral districts. With the Chair, George Thomson, 52 of the members were male and 52 were female. They were asked to assess Ontario's electoral system, and others, and make a recommendation whether Ontario should retain its current system or adopt a different one.

Together, Assembly members consulted with the public through meetings and written submissions. Using what they learned and heard, they recommended that Ontario replace its First-Past-The-Post system with a new electoral system, the Mixed Member Proportional system now before Ontario voters. That recommendation was outlined in a report submitted to the government on May 15, 2007.

The government promised to put the question of whether to accept the Assembly's recommendation to voters in a province-wide referendum in October 2007.

WHAT IS FIRST-PAST-THE-POST?

First-Past-The-Post refers to Ontario's current voting system, also known as Single-Member Plurality. Under this system, the province is divided up into 107 electoral districts. Voters in each district cast one vote for the candidate they want to represent them at Queen's Park. The candidate with the most votes on election day wins the seat, regardless of whether or not that candidate won a majority of the votes cast in the constituency.

On election night, the party with the most seats across the province is typically asked to form a government, regardless of how many votes that party received.

HOW DOES FIRST-PAST-THE-POST DIFFER FROM THE MIXED MEMBER PROPORTIONAL PROPOSAL?

Under the current system, it doesn't matter if a political party is supported by the majority of Ontarians, or even a plurality of Ontarians. All that matters is which party wins the most seats. Under First-Past-The-Post, because parties need only win the most votes in any given constituency to win the whole constituency outright, it's very easy for a political party to win a majority of seats with only a minority of votes across the province. For example, in 2003 in Ontario the Liberals won 46% of the province-wide vote. However, that vote translated into 72 out of 103 seats for the Liberals, or 70% of the seats.

Under the current system, voters only get one ballot in one constituency. You can't vote for the leader, you can't vote for the party. You can only vote for a local candidate. Voters who may wish to vote for a party, but don't like that party's local candidate are faced with a difficult dilemma.

Under MMP, voters will have two votes. Voters will be able to vote for their local representative, as they do now. But voters will also be able to cast a second vote for a political party. Voters can even cast a vote for one party's local candidate and then vote for a different party if they wish. Under the proposed system, the votes won by political parties will be used to determine the number of overall seats each party will win. If a party receives 46% of the vote, it will receive about 46% of the seats at Queen's Park.

Right now, there are 107 constituencies across the province. Under MMP, the number of constituencies would drop to 90. But 39 new province-wide seats would be added for a total of 129 Members of Provincial Parliament (or MPPs.)

The new system guarantees both local representation and proportional results. First-Past-The-Post only guarantees local representation.

WHY SHOULD WE GET RID OF FIRST-PAST-THE-POST?

Because First-Past-The-Post has a history of distorting voters' wishes at election time. It typically translates minority support for one party into a majority government for that party.

Voters who don't back the winner in their constituency find their vote is wasted because it has no impact on the make-up of the legislature. As a result, many voters under our current system feel pressured to vote strategically - meaning cast a ballot for a candidate they don't want in order to stop another candidate they want even less - in order to impact the outcome and make their vote count.

Even more disturbing, sometimes First-Past-The-Post actually gives the second-place party a majority government. In Quebec in 1998, the separatist Parti Quebecois won 43% of the vote, compared to the Quebec Liberals who won 44% of the vote. Despite this, the Parti Quebecois won a majority with 76 out of 125 seats. Similarly in British Columbia in 1996, the Liberals won 42% of the vote, versus 39% for the NDP. But this translated under First-Past-The-Post into a NDP majority with 39 out of 75 seats! In Ontario in 1985, the Liberals outpolled the Tories in the popular vote by 38% to 37%, but the PCs still won the election 52 seats to 48, with 25 for the NDP.

In recent decades, First-Past-The-Post has handed the second place party a victory in 6 out of 10 provinces: Newfoundland & Labrador, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. As an electoral system, First-Past-The-Post is clearly broken.

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