Previously in this blog I’ve labelled myself as a reformer, or a democrat, or a democratic reformer – and this is the label that I cherish the most. I value it more highly than social democracy, government regulation in the economy and creating a more fair society, which are also key aspects to my political identity, but secondary to the value of democracy.
Last week I posted a rant on the decline in our democratic institutions as manifested through dismal turnout in the Ontario (and other provinces) election. Being disappointed and complaining doesn’t do too much good, so let’s talk about what we can actually do.
On their post-electionepisode of The Agenda of TVO, Martin Cohn (if I recall correctly) suggested that the real way to end concerns about low voter turnout is to introduce Australian-style mandatory voting without consulting the public for a period of ten years. At the end of the ten-year period hold a referendum, and hopefully after having it in place for ten years people will come to accept it. I can’t help but wonder if you’d want the referendum to be mandatory, or just hope the pro-participation side outvotes the apathetic naysayers and keep the reform in place. I have spoken in favour of compulsory voting previously here.
One feature that would be required if compulsory voting, but can be introduced without it would be a “None-of-the-Above” option. Pundits often point at low voter turnout as a symptom of dissatisfaction with the options. Voters could send a powerful message by clearly declaring their dissatisfaction with their candidates. For example, in a riding that an incumbent wins with 40% and the other parties win 10% a piece and None-of-the-Above gets 30% it might indicate that if the losing parties put up stronger candidates they would perform better, maybe even win. It would also punish candidates for negative campaigns.
In our current system of democracy (coming to that in a minute) voters that support small parties and parties with limited support in particular regions have very limited reason to get out and vote. Green voters have very little incentive to vote anywhere in Ontario outside of a couple of ridings. PCs can stay home in most parts of Toronto. New Democrats are shut out of the rural east of the province. Liberals have a tough go in many parts of mid-Ontario. One way voters were encouraged to vote in the federal elections were through vote subsidies. For every ballot cast the party would receive $1.75. The Harper Conservatives have moved to kill this funding program, but it gives some incentive for voters to get out there and boost turnout.
Here’s a change that’s sure to raise the hackles of a few citizens – we need more politicians. Please hold on to your rotted fruit! One of the biggest concerns of voters is that they do not feel heard by or connected to their representatives. We had one fewer Members of Provincial Parliament in Ontario one hundred years ago than today. The population of Ontario in 1911 was 18% of what it is today. So despite increasing population by more than a factor of five we have added one representative to the body. One of the biggest complaints I heard during the election is that people do not get to meet the candidates. With tens of thousands of households in a riding it is a hell of a task to meet even a small percentage. I am not suggesting we quintuple the size of the legislature to match population, current technologies do not make such a dramatic leap necessary. But, bringing the legislature to its largest historical size of 130 may be a good first step.
I would like to see reform to the way political advertising is done. I believe it turns people off from the process, especially ads by third-party groups who cannot be punished directly by the public for their campaigns. I do not have a solution to this issue though, sadly.
Finally, I was a supporter of the Mixed-Member Proportional reform on the ballot in 2007. A reform of our electoral system would make every riding competitive and attract back those discouraged voters. Wilf Day offers a very clear explanation of what MMP is, or you could watch this mostexcellent video on YouTube. At his blog Day has run the numbers of what the Ontario Legislature would look like given the October 6th results, but with an MMP system. It is quite a different animal. The Legislature would still be a minority, the Liberals would have won 50 seats (down 3), the PCs would be up to 45 (up 8) the NDP would jump even higher, up to 31 seats (up 14). The Green would get their first win with three seats. You can see Day’s analysis here.
Voter turnout is not the weather. It is not something we should regularly complain about, then shrug our shoulders in defeat – it is a problem that can be addressed through concrete policies and reforms. My suggestions here would all work together, which is part of the reason I chose them. Other options are out there, and I hope our political leaders have the sense to consider some of them.