On election day, Ontarians threw cold water on a proposed new electoral system called mixed-member proportional (MMP). During the campaign, our team at UBC and the Université de Montréal conducted a detailed survey that tells us why one-third of voters said yes, while two-thirds said no.
First, few Ontarians were consumed by an urgent need for change. Less than one-quarter were dissatisfied with the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. So the onus was on the pro-MMP side to convince voters there was something wrong with FPTP or desirable about MMP.
There was latent potential support for MMP. A majority of Ontarians said "artificial" seat majorities (like the one handed to the provincial Liberals with only 42 per cent of the popular vote) are unacceptable. Most prefer governments "made up of two or three parties because they are forced to compromise" over "one-party governments so they can get things done." They favour proportionality, even for small parties: About 60 per cent think "a party that gets 10 per cent of the vote should get 10 per cent of the seats." Close to two-thirds like the idea of casting two votes. Not surprisingly, the more people knew about MMP, the more likely they were to support it.
Yet these values only helped the MMP cause so much, because many Ontarians were in the dark about the proposal. Just before voting day, two-thirds were aware that a referendum was taking place and the same proportion said they knew something about MMP. But useful knowledge about the proposal was rare. Less than one-third knew MMP makes multiparty governments more likely. Less than half were aware that MMP makes votes and seats proportional, that it would give seats to more parties, and that it involves two votes.
Two specific elements of MMP proved to be liabilities.
First, increasing the number of members in the legislature by 22 was not well received. Ontarians who believed this was a good idea were clearly outnumbered. More important, there were the infamous party lists - the biggest weapon in the anti-MMP arsenal. A majority thought giving control over the composition of those lists to parties was a bad thing. Only 16 per cent liked the idea.
The possibility of a new electoral system was not the only surprise for Ontarians. Its source - a Citizens' Assembly - was probably even more unfamiliar to the public. Voters tend to be skeptical of referendum proposals from politicians, so the assembly might have provided much-needed grassroots legitimacy. But only if voters knew that its members were ordinary people.
Few discovered that. The media paid little attention to the assembly and often described it as "set up by the government" - a half-truth that did nothing to dispel voters' assumption that the proposal was coming from the usual political suspects. At the start of the campaign, half said they knew nothing about the assembly and, amazingly, there was no gain in awareness over the campaign.
So, knowledge about MMP and the Citizens' Assembly pushed voters toward the new system. Could referendum support have reached the 60 per cent threshold if voters had been fully informed about both? We can simulate the outcome if all citizens had known: (1) that MMP would give voters two votes, elect some members whose names never appear on a ballot, produce proportional outcomes with more parties and infrequent majorities; and (2) that assembly members "were ordinary Ontarians," "had an equal chance of being chosen," "represented all parts of Ontario," "became experts on electoral systems," and that "most members wanted what's best for all Ontarians" (rather than themselves).
Under these conditions, our data indicate the result would have been 63 per cent for MMP and 37 per cent for the existing system - exactly the mirror image of the actual outcome.
This is probably heartening, and yet disappointing, for electoral reformers. And perhaps opponents should show more relief than smugness.
The survey was conducted by the Institute for Social Research at York University from Sept. 10 to Oct. 9. Sampling margins of error are between 4 and 8 per cent, 19 times out of 20.