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Three of Ontario's four main parties say they favour electoral reform

Liberal leader Steven Del Duca makes a campaign stop in Ottawa on May 20, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Three of Ontario's four main parties are promising to change the province's electoral system, a lofty goal some political science experts say may not come to pass.

The NDP and Greens favour forms of proportional representation, while Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca has pledged to step down if his party forms government but doesn't bring in a preferential ballot system after a year.

Only Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford has remained silent on the issue, though he's indicated that he's not inclined to overhaul the electoral system.

"We need politicians and leaders to figure out how to collaborate more, to work across party lines, instead of being stuck in the old way of doing things," Del Duca said at a campaign stop in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Sunday. "Doug Ford might want us to be stuck back there and trying to drag people backwards, but we want to make sure that our political system — our democracy, how we choose our parties and our leaders — is keeping pace with the time."

But Cristine de Clercy, an associate professor of political science at Western University, said that while electoral reform is a popular topic on the campaign trail, it's easier to talk about change than actually enact it.

"If we look at the history of electoral reform across the last 20 years in Canada at the provincial level, the evidence is not positive for the likelihood that we will achieve electoral reform even within the next 20 years," she said.

British Columbia has held several referenda on the issue, but de Clercy noted proposals for change have not borne fruit.

The federal Liberal government, too, has promised electoral reform and failed to deliver.

Justin Trudeau ran on the pledge in 2015, saying that the federal election held that year would be the last to use the first-past-the-post method, a pledge he would ultimately renege on.

Under the system, voters pick one candidate in their riding and the person with the most votes wins. The successful candidate doesn't need to win a majority of votes to take the riding.

Ford's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on electoral reform, but when asked about the benefits of the current system, de Clercy said there are some good reasons to stick with first-past-the-post.

"Ontario has a competitive multiparty system," she said. "If we brought in electoral reform that looked much more like pure proportional representation it would be very unlikely that we would have any majority governments going forward. So we would be perpetually in a state of minority government, which is inherently unstable because at any point the coalitions can crumble and we're back to the polls."

She said it also makes sense for Ford to hesitate on electoral reform given the nature of his party.

"The Conservative Party ideologically tends to be the party of tradition in Canadian politics," she noted.

The three other parties have said the current system just doesn't pass muster.

Andrea Horwath's NDP are in favour of a mixed member proportional voting system, which tries to lend some of the stability of the first-past-the-post system to a fully proportional government.

Under the NDP's proposed system, some legislators would be elected in local districts and others would be elected for the whole province from party lists.

The system was designed by the Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, which a previous Liberal government established in 2006.

"It's the people of Ontario really, in the constituency assembly, that recommended the mixed member proportional system, and that's why we embraced it," Horwath said Sunday.

But when the proposal was brought to a referendum in the 2007 election, the province voted against it.

The Green Party, meanwhile, prefers a fully proportional system but suggests in its platform that it would create a "diverse, randomly selected" citizens assembly, this time with a mandate to create binding recommendations.

Tim Abray, a teaching fellow and PhD candidate in political studies at Queen's University, said the proportional system tends to be popular because it allows people to feel like their vote really counts.

"Proportional systems, there is no question. They do a much better job of representing the breadth and diversity of vote choices across the jurisdiction," he said.

He's also hesitant to buy into the idea that proportional systems lead to unstable governments, saying instead that they lead to more compromise.

"The system forces elected representatives into conversation with one another to broker solutions, rather than using the bully pulpit of majority governments to just push through whatever agenda the governing party chooses to put in place," Abray said.

But still, he's not confident that Ontario's system will really change. Polls suggest the Progressive Conservatives are in the lead, and if the NDP manage to eke out a win, it's unlikely they'd get the majority they need to adopt a proportional system.

As for the Liberals, Abray said, he doesn't see their proposal of a ranked ballot as true reform because it doesn't change how people are represented in government.

With that system, voters mark their first, second and subsequent choices. If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote, the contender with the fewest votes is dropped from the ballot and their supporters' second choices are counted. That continues until one candidate emerges with a majority.

"It's pretty much identical to first-past-the-post in that it will continue to elect people who do not have the backing of the majority of the people within their jurisdiction," Abray said.

All three left-leaning parties have said they would bring back the option for municipalities to use ranked ballots — the same system the Liberals favour provincewide.

It was an option for municipalities for the first time in 2018, but no longer.

Ford's Progressive Conservatives scrapped the possibility in 2020 in a move Horwath described as "ham-fisted."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 22, 2022.

-with files from Jessica Smith in Thunder Bay, Ont., and Maan Alhmidi in Toronto.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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