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June 30, 2011 / amanda stratton

hey, was that opportunity knocking?

I’ve become really interested in a couple things lately: one is proportional representation and the other is provincial politics. So imagine my surprise when I found out that in 2007 there was a referendum in Ontario to decide whether the province should move to a system of proportional representation. Surprise and disappointment.

The disappointment itself is two fold. The first fold is that I’m disappointed in myself for not even knowing that. The second fold is that I’m disappointed in the way I’m learning that the whole thing went down. I suppose thirdly I’m disappointed that people didn’t vote in favour of proportional representation, but since I didn’t even vote, I can’t really complain about that.


Spoiler Alert! If you’re still on 2006 of Ontario politics, stop reading now!
In the 2007 General Election, people received two ballots upon arrival at their polling station.  One was to make their selection for MPP, and the other was to vote in the province-wide referendum on electoral reform.

The Results
102 ridings voted in favour of keeping first-past-the-post, while 5 ridings voted in favour of moving to mixed member proportional. Looking at the actual votes, 37% voted in favour of mixed-member proportional and 63% in favour of sticking with the same. So there’s no way to interpret those results in favour of mixed member proportional.

But I do think there’s more to learn from a deeper look at the results. First of all, the number of people who didn’t vote in the referendum at all struck me a little bit.  I would think that for politically-minded people, the system should be just as important as the representatives.  So I think the following results probably indicate not that people didn’t care about the reform, but that they didn’t understand the options being presented:

4 457 829 people voted (a 52% turnout, by the way)

Of the General Election Ballots
3,412 declined (why did those people even go?)
10,865 unmarked (again…)
19,654 rejected  (that’s kind of a lot!)
for a total of 33,931 voters that somehow didn’t get it done.
I mention this to establish a baseline for human error.

Of the Electoral System Referendum Ballots
21,790 declined
111,766 unmarked
28,512 rejected
for a total of 162,068 people who didn’t get it done.

That’s well above the established (see, a second ago, when I established it) level of human error in voting. Almost five times as many people screwed up or decided not to vote in the referendum as did the general election.

I guess you could say that maybe all those declined and unmarked ballots were from people who were well-informed but just really didn’t care what kind of electoral system we use, but I bet they were from people who just had no idea which way to vote.  And bless their hearts for not casting an ignorant vote, but if that many people decided not to vote, then what are the odds that everyone who did vote had a full and critical knowledge of what they were voting for?  Not good, is my speculation.

But Before All That

In March 2006, Ontario appointed a group of randomly-selected citizens (not politicians) from every riding to consider electoral reform.  This process alone is, I think, really darn cool.  Extra darn cool even. It’s pretty extensively described on the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly website.

They did their assembly-ing  and decided in May 2007 to recommend that Ontario adopt a  system of mixed member proportional representation.  Their final report is quite comprehensive if you’d like to understand the system.  Really, it’s easily one of the best documents explaining something politics/government-related I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of them lately.

On that recommendation, Ontario decided to hold a referendum in conjunction with the 2007 General Election to be held in October.  The committee recommended that they start an education campaign immediately.  That job was handed to Elections Ontario.  They started in August 2007 on a campaign that spent half as much money as it was supposed to and that was widely criticized by the members of the Citizens’ Assembly and by politicians from every party for not being informative or extensive enough.

Yes, it was a panpartisan disgruntlement
I’d like to pause here to reiterate that people from every party were dissatisfied–shouldn’t that tell us something right away?  No party, not even the Liberals who at the time, stood to lose the most power in the switch, were opposed to this reform.  Let’s please all think about what that means for a second.

[Did you pause to think about it? No? Okay, pause now.  I’ll wait]

And moving on…

Toronto ridings were much more likely to vote in favour of the switch, and since the campaign run by Elections Ontario, which is based in Toronto, was both underfunded and short-lived, I might posit that many of the community presentations, flyers, and newspaper and radio advertisements may have been centred in Toronto.  I couldn’t find any solid evidence one way or the other about that, so I’m not going to go any further with my theory.  But if you’ve got answers, I’d love to find out the facts on that.

Survey says

I don’t put a lot of stock in polls or surveys (and someday perhaps I’ll blog about why) but The Globe and Mail reported in late September that 47% of people polled knew absolutely nothing about the referendum.  Only 12% said they knew a lot, and honestly, you have to know a lot to make a decision.  Although apparently the people being polled didn’t think so because half of them said they were voting against the reform or “remaining undecided” while just over half of those who had already decided (so excluding the undecideds) said they were planning to vote for it.

So, at three weeks out, half of the people who had made a decision had decided to vote IN FAVOUR of reform.  Then how did we end up with only 37% votes in favour? My theory is that a lot of people who knew nothing about it–some of whom probably didn’t even know what the second ballot was for when it was handed to them–ended up making a snap decision and simply voted against change.  I think it’s natural, when unsure, to choose the option that clearly says “keep things they way they are” and that’s understandable when, let’s face it, electoral systems being what they may, life is pretty good in Ontario for the vast majority of voters.

I’m loath to sound like the kind of person who declares that this must be a mistake because it’s impossible that not everybody thinks what I do, and I do recognize that proportional representation is not without its own drawbacks, but it just seems like it didn’t get a fair shot in this particular referendum.  I really hope that we get another chance… maybe as early as 2015?



Sources for this article

Wikipedia (always, always Wikipedia):
Ontario Electoral Reform Referendum
Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform (Ontario)

Newspaper-type sources (grains of salt not included):
CBC News: Nearly 3 million residents still don’t know about referendum, says Elections Ontario (Oct 8, 2007)
Ottawa Citizen: Province blamed for ignorance on electoral reform (Oct 4, 2007)
The Globe and Mail: Referendum? Now what referendum would that be? (Sept 24, 2007) 

Elections Ontario Past Results
Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform and Their Final Report (pdf)


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