Tag Archives: voting reform

Don’t Believe The Type

Crossposted from Torontoist.

The referendum on Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) has become the latest victim of the costly and annoying “email hoax.” This time, instead of telling you about HIV-infected needles hidden in movie theatre seats, or a plan by the U.S. Congress to tax your email messages, the anonymous missive attempts to paint MMP as a mysterious government conspiracy to consolidate power. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so effective.

The email and its variations, with subjects like “MMP Referendum” or “The upcoming referendum – be wary,” capitalizes on the lack of knowledge that most people have about the electoral reform proposal before us. Some iterations contain legitimate criticism, others misleading statements, and some outright lies. And whether you support reforming our voting system or not, you should make your decision based on truth.

The email’s anonymous author begins by attempting to discredit the Citizens’ Assembly that created the proposal, saying, “purportedly, the members of the Citizens Assembly were chosen randomly but no one can establish which database or what information was used to determine such random participation.” That’s false. Members of the Assembly were selected at random by Elections Ontario from the Permanent Register of Electors for Ontario between April and June 2006. Since that information is easily available, the author is likely attempting to fabricate the sense that some sort of conspiracy is afoot.

In the same breath they claim that MMP is “the government’s solution” to our electoral dysfunction. Again, that’s not true. The government didn’t recommend MMP, the Citizens’ Assembly did, using an open and transparent democratic process under which they were not beholden to any political parties or special interests.

That feeds into their next (bolded) claim that MMP would “shift the power from the people of Ontario (local voters and ridings) to the politicians at Queens [sic] Park.” Since this is an argument, it’s less easy to categorize it as clearly being fact or fiction. Defenders of the status quo will maintain that this statement is true, while supporters of change say it’s completely false. The important question to ask, however, is why would a group of informed citizens, people, voters, design a system that decreases their own power? The most likely answer is that they wouldn’t and didn’t.

The email author then builds on their vague allusions to a conspiracy by saying “there has been no education on this referendum and its timing, coinciding with the October 10 Ontario election, may allow for an easy pass by sheer overshadowing.” This is disingenuous on one count, and false on the other. It’s disingenuous for opponents of MMP to complain about the lack of education surrounding the referendum, since they’re the ones that blocked the distribution of Citizens’ Assembly-produced materials explaining what they’re recommending and why. And it’s false to suggest this referendum is headed for any kind of “easy pass.” In fact, many observers have suggested that the odds have been intentionally stacked against MMP by those who are in power thanks to the current system. The most obvious example is the fact that supporters of MMP need a 60% threshold to carry the day, while defenders of the status quo, conversely, only need 40% plus one. Former Conservative MP Patrick Boyer, who Wikipedia describes as “one of the foremost experts in Canadian constitutional law,” has even suggested that the 60% threshold may be unconstitutional.

As the email gets more specific, it again becomes possible to clearly separate truth from lies. The author claims that MMP would “decrease the current number of elected MPPs” and “incorporate a new non-elected number of MPP.” This is false. According to Elections Ontario (a non-biased body), under MMP all representatives would be elected by voters. The 90 regional representatives would be elected by candidate vote, and the 39 list representatives would be elected by what’s called the party vote. If one wanted to argue that those list representatives are not elected, they’d have to make the same argument even more forcefully about the Premier under the current system, since they get to run the whole province even though they’ve only directly received a small handful of votes in one of 108 ridings.

Amusingly, the author goes on to make two completely contradictory arguments. On the one hand, they argue that MMP will create “decreased accessibility to government” since the number of local representatives would be decreased to 90. Then, they complain that MMP will “[use] our tax dollars to pay for 22 more politicians,” since the overall size of the legislature would be increased to 129. Well, which is it? Is this person (or group of people) advocating for more representation or less?

The fact is that if you’re worried about the overall size of the legislature, you should know that at 129 seats Ontario would still have fewer elected representatives than we did before Mike Harris cut it down, and would have fewer representatives per capita than any other province or territory in Canada.

There are other examples of where this email goes over the top (at one point it says we’re heading for a “form of government that is reminiscent of Communist regimes”), but an exhaustive list would be exhausting. Suffice it to say that it employs many of the fear-based tactics of a classic hoax email, which is probably why it’s being forwarded so widely and successfully. The other real cleverness of the email is that it capitalizes on cynicism about the current political system in order to argue that we should keep the current political system. It’s party due to our voting system that people feel like they’re not having their voices heard at Queen’s Park, and that sense of disenfranchisement helps feed into the believability of a government conspiracy to entrench their own power.

If that were true, however, then the recommendation to vote for Mixed Member Proportional would have come from politicians, not people. If that were true, then the people opposing it would have been motivated to help, not hurt the public education process. If that were true then the threshold for approving the recommendation would not have been set so high. But no, whether you support MMP or not, you must recognize that it was recommended by a democratic, citizens-driven group who ended up voting an overwhelming 94-8 in favour of change. Therefore, if we believe in democracy—the idea that, as a group, citizens know what’s best for the province—then we need to give this proposal very serious consideration. If we don’t believe that, however, then maybe we shouldn’t be letting citizens pick governments in the first place.

Do You Trust Your Fellow Citizens?

People on both sides of the MMP debate (as well as those who are undecided) have spent a lot of time over the past months dissecting the details and nitpicking at specifics of Mixed Member Proportional. That’s somewhat appropriate, since we obviously need to ask tough questions before we can make up our minds. In doing so, however, we’ve lost sight of the big picture. So while I fully encourage everyone to learn as much as they can about the referendum, the ballot question can actually be distilled as follows. Do you believe that, as a collective, the citizens of Ontario can be trusted to make the right decisions for our province?

I say that because, as you hopefully know, the recommendation before us was created using a process of unprecedented (for Ontario) transparency, openness, and democratic engagement. 103 citizens were randomly selected and represent the diverse makeup of our province. In addition, they held public consultation meetings across the province, and solicited written submissions though their website. They worked for eight months to become the authoritative group on electoral systems in Ontario. They took their jobs very seriously, and I was extremely impressed and humbled whenever I had the opportunity to meet with one of them. (As the joke went, “you mean we randomly selected one person from each riding and we didn’t put them in charge of the province?!“) In the end, they voted 94-8 in favour of recommending MMP as better than our current system.

While I can find fault with the system they recommended (no system is perfect), I can find almost none with the process that was used to create it. While you may not agree with every detail of what they’ve done, I can’t imagine how we would get a better recommendation that would serve all voters. Especially when one considers the obvious truth that democratic systems, by definition, must be designed by the people through democratic means.

That’s why this is really a vote on democracy itself; not because MMP is more democratic than the status quo (though I think it is), but because if we believe that citizens, as a group, will make the right decisions for our province, then we must recognize that that’s what the Citizens’ Assembly has done in recommending MMP.

If we don’t believe that, on the other hand, then we are faced with something very troubling. If we don’t believe that citizens, as a group, make the right decisions, then we shouldn’t be letting them pick governments in the first place. We’d need to rethink democracy itself. And I, for one, am not prepared to go there.

Those Status Quo Folks Are Hilarious

“No MMP” just put out the following in a press release:

While the No MMP campaign’s organizers agree that they have more public support leading up to October 10th vote, they are also aware of the fact that more support does not necessarily translate into more votes. They point to past elections where political parties with fewer members won surprise victories over larger parties.

Wait, WHAT? Got a problem with the results of past elections, huh? Not sure they accurately reflect voter intention? Interesting point. Perhaps we should strike some kind of Citizens’ Assembly to explore the issue and report back with recommendations.

They go on to complain that “many voters are either apathetic or confused about the upcoming referendum on October 10th.” Yeah, um, do you think that might have something to do with the fact that you guys blocked the distribution of materials from the Citizens’ Assembly explaining what they’re proposing and why? Think it might have something to do with the mass-circulation of anonymous emails that paint MMP as a mysterious government-driven plot? Just maybe?