Just last month, the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform sat for its first meeting. This body - only the second of its kind in any modern democracy - has been empowered by the Ontario government to assess whether Ontario needs a new voting system. If it recommends a new system, voters will make a decision on that recommendation in a referendum to be held with next October's provincial election.
In the last provincial election, the McGuinty Liberal campaign literature had promised a "full, open debate on voting reform," possibly culminating in a province-wide referendum on the issue. Democracy activists applauded the government for honouring its pledge.
But few were still applauding this week when the government introduced referendum legislation effectively rigging the contest against any change. Instead of setting a threshold of 50 per cent plus one, the standard "decision rule" for such a vote, the government has established a super-majority as the requirement for the voting system referendum to pass. To get rid of our current system will require 60 per cent of voters to endorse the change in 60 per cent of the ridings.
Most people assume in democratic decision-making that whichever side exceeds 50 per cent will win. But politicians in two other provinces broke with standard democratic practice after pledging to "let the people decide" in similar electoral reform referendums. In British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, the premiers insisted on super-majority thresholds - 60 per cent plus one, plus 60 per cent of the ridings showing majority support. The Ontario Liberals even try to justify their undemocratic threshold by citing its use in other provinces.
In B.C., that decision led to a bizarre result where the government "won" with 46 per cent of the vote but the new voting system "lost" with 57 per cent support. The resulting embarrassment and public condemnation moved the B.C. government to schedule yet another vote on electoral reform in 2009.
Super-majority defenders claim that a change in the voting system represents a major shift in our way of doing democracy and should require more support to gain legitimacy. Indeed, the Ontario government argues that the "adoption of a new electoral system would represent a foundational change to Ontario's democracy," one that requires "the support of a solid majority of Ontarians across the province." But both precedent and principled arguments for raising the bar are weak to non-existent.
Canadian history provides no support for imposing super-majority thresholds. As referendum expert Patrick Boyer documented, before the B.C. experience, all provincial and federal referendums in Canada have been decided by straightforward majority votes, 50 per cent plus one, including those on the Charlottetown constitutional accord and even the life-and-death matter of conscription in the Second World War.
Some try to defend raising the bar for electoral reform referendums by inventing the concept of quasi-constitutional matters. They argue that painstakingly negotiated founding accords and democratic institutions should not be altered by the passing whims of a simple majority of voters.
Canada's current democratic structures were never subject to public debate or consultation. The existing voting system was put in place by pre-democratic elites with no input from Canadian citizens. Most important, our voting rules are not a constitutional issue. By insisting on super-majority rules to change the voting system, political leaders are simply rigging the rules to favour the status quo.
Turning to our history once again, in the early 20th century, several provinces switched from "first past the post" voting to other systems and back again. They made the changes without any public endorsement. A simple majority vote of legislators was deemed sufficient.
The Ontario electoral reform process represents a historic opening of our democratic system to public input and an important opportunity to better legitimize and reanimate our political process. The whole point is to focus public attention on improving our democracy, so it is imperative that the reform process itself be fair and democratic.
The super-majority rule makes a mockery of the government's professed interest in democratic renewal. It claims its referendum legislation demonstrates its commitment that "the shape of Ontario's democracy is a matter for Ontarians to decide." But it would appear that, with this referendum legislation, some Ontarians get more influence than others. The super-majority rules effectively diminish the voting power of those interested in change.
But it is not too late for the government to recover from this loss of democratic judgment or for the opposition to demand that common sense be observed. They could look to former New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord, who had promised an electoral reform referendum in his province that would be decided by 50 per cent plus one because, as he said, that "has been the traditional number for democratic decisions."
Over the past decade, complaints have emerged from across the country about the way our first-past-the-post system works. It distorts election results, wastes votes and produces legislatures that under-represent women and visible minorities. If our fellow voters in the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform identify a better voting system, one that treats every voter equally, then Ontarians will make their will known in the referendum.
The key question for the moment, however, is whether simple majority rule - the yardstick politicians apply to their own affairs - will apply when citizens make this historic decision.
Dennis Pilon teaches political science at the University of Victoria.