I consider a “Yes” in Ontario’s coming referendum on voting reform to be a no-brainer. That’s because the process we have isn’t very democratic.

In fact, it’s undemocratic, due to the stupid system known as first past the post. If there are four candidates in your riding, and one gets 10 votes and the rest each get nine, Mr. 10 wins the pot and gets to be in office, although 73 per cent of voters didn’t choose him. There’s no runoff or resolution, it just stops there.

That applies in all ridings. You could have one party taking every seat this way. In reality, you almost always get a government with a majority of seats that allows them to do anything they want for up to five years, though they received a minority of votes, often around 40 per cent. The majority of voters, 50 to 60 per cent, have to lump it. Minority rules. Canada, the United States and Britain are the only western “democracies” that use this system. It’s an embarrassment. It’s as if we hadn’t noticed.

Various systems elsewhere avoid this. They assure that the majority somehow rules. None of them usher in a messianic era, but they’re all better than what we have. Voters in B.C. in 2005 voted 57.5 per cent for a complex system known as STV, or single transferable vote. Most didn’t understand it but they made the point that almost anything is preferable. Sadly, the government had set the bar at 60 per cent.

The system Ontario is voting on is simpler. You vote for a local member, plus you vote for your preferred party and the combined result assures that the outcome reflects the choices of the population. It’s one small step for democracy.

But what a reaction there has been! The Globe‘s normally sober columnist, Murray Campbell, calls it “a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.” I’m afraid some of us think an undemocratic voting system is a problem in a democracy. When most voters are disenfranchised, apathy and cynicism tend to follow. You might as well skip today’s election and watch The Daily Show.

He also says the change has the “potential to rip apart Ontario’s body politic.” He asks if Premier Dalton McGuinty could have “resisted the pressure to adopt sharia law if he had needed an Islamist party to govern?” That’s alarmism of a totally hypothetical sort. There is no Muslim party in Ontario, much less an Islamist one, and no factual basis to think one would be formed. What’s more pertinent is that former premier Mike Harris would not have been able to actually “rip apart Ontario’s body politic” had there been the proposed voting system to rein him in, rather than the present one that gave him total power despite massive opposition.

What mainly seems to nettle the No-ers is loss of stable government, meaning one party in power for a predictable term. Well then, why not a one-party state, like China? Have they got stable for you! Besides, stable government doesn’t mean stable society.

Under stable provincial governments for 20 years, Ontario has been a whirligig of instability: vanishing industries, degraded services, disruptive strikes, fractured communities—largely, I’d argue, due to arrogant behaviour by governments that didn’t represent the majority and didn’t have to worry about it. I imagine what people really want is stability in their lives and communities. You might get more of that under a more representative, more democratic system.

But perhaps stable is code for malleable, or accessible. If you’re rich (like the rich) or influential (like The Globe and Mail), you can work with any leadership in power. But it’s easier if there’s one party at a time to deal with, for a set period.

I’m sure they’d do fine making their points with regimes that were more multiparty and shifting, as they do in places like Germany or New Zealand, which have systems like the one proposed here. But maybe they’d rather not bother retooling. For most of us though, the only thing I can think of in favour of this system is that we’re used to it.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.