MMP 102: A Tired Rehashing of Identity Politics

I have a feeling this entry is going to make me look rather sexist and racist. I want to assure you that this is not the case. I have nothing against white men. Some of my best friends know white men. For all intents and purposes, I am a white man myself. And yet for some reason I remain unconvinced that all of our politicians should be white men. Furthermore, I find it odd that the people who disagree with me are so often the people who advocate for strong free markets.

Why do free markets work better than centralized communism? I think one of the primary factors has to do with information. It takes a lot of information to run an economy effectively, and even the smartest bureaucrats can't keep all that information (or even all the important information) in their pointy heads. In fact, bureaucracies don't even have the resources to collect all the necessary information, although goodness knows that Statistics Canada tries the best it can. In my uninformed view, free markets work better precisely to the extent that they distribute the information needed to run an economy amongst all the market participants. Everybody knows their local situations and needs, and they interact to get those needs met. It is by no means a perfect system, but it works a lot better than having Central Headquarters attempt to run everything itself.

In the same way, I believe that representative democracies work better when they accurately represent the people they are governing. Consider a random sample of white men who get elected as politicians. If we believe that this random sample is likely to accurately span the views, priorities and experiences of all citizens these white men represent, there is no problem and the bleeding heart liberals are crying wolf again. On the other hand, if you feel that a more diverse sample of politicians is likely to have a wider range of views, priorities and experiences, then the more diverse sample is likely to be more inclusive (and thus do a better job of representing constituents) than the exclusively white-male set, even if all the politicians act primarily in their own self interest. Maybe the sample of white males could do as good a job if they could somehow prioritize the same views, priorities and experiences of the non-white-male politicians, but that is like saying that centralized economies could work just as well as free market ones if the bureaucrats could access all the information that is distributed in the lives of the wider populace.

Note that my argument is different from that of standard affirmative action. I am not that concerned about giving those who are not white men jobs. I am concerned that the politicians elected to represent us do their jobs better.

There are many limitations and problems with this argument, of course. One of the most insidious is tokenism: the belief that single members of some "exotic" class represent the full range of views, priorities and experiences of that class. This is where our pal statistics comes into play. I would not expect any single white man to encompass the experiences of all white men, and I would not expect any single woman (or any single minority member) to encompass the experiences of their designated groups. In fact, there are built-in biases against this kind of broad representation, because in order to be elected as a politician one has to act more like a politician and less like a human being. Despite this, on average we can expect random samplings of people from "exotic" groups to come closer to representing the experiences faced by people of that group. This is why electing one token from each group is a bad idea: those tokens might be outliers. To get better representation we want larger samples.

Furthermore, the populations we expect our "exotics" to represent might surprise us. For all intents and purposes I am a white male, so hiring me to represent the views of recent immigrant populations who share my skin colour is a bad idea. I might end up being a reasonable representative for other groups of interest, however -- say second-generation Canadians who consider themselves white.

Another big problem is that we are not collections of identities. I may be a second-generation Canadian who considers himself white, but I am also a depressive, an excommunicated environmentalist, an unemployed burden on society, a Linux user, and several other things. Pretending that I could represent one of these facets to the exclusions of all others is kind of foolish. That is one reason I prefer diversity initiatives to be implicit: instead of assigning a bunch of slots to be filled by those who are sufficiently minor and/or diverse (leaving the remaining slots reserved for white men) we attempt to design systems that naturally reward diversity. Our hope is that the closed lists of Ontario's MMP proposal is one such mechanism; there are probably others.

Even this implicit diversity is not enough, however. To say the least, I sympathise with the following sentiment by Richard Gwyn, although I disagree with the conclusion:

But the representation from those groups most in need of being represented -- the poor, the homeless, the undereducated, the mentally disabled -- won't improve one iota.

-- Richard Gwyn, "Electoral Reform won't fix the real political problems", The Record, May 22 2007

I don't think we will see many poor or homeless or undereducated or mentally disabled MPPs under MMP, with or without closed lists. That makes me sad, but unless we move to a randomized jury-style of democracy I don't see how it will change. However, I think that the conclusion that representation for these groups "won't improve one iota" is absolutely false. Under FPTP parties can't get elected by advocating for our most vulnerable -- just look at how the NDP platform has shifted from homelessness and supports for the mentally ill to reducing gas taxes and ATM fees. Under MMP advocates for the vulnerable -- those who work with vulnerable populations and care deeply for their well being -- have a much better chance of mobilizing support across the province to get some MPPs elected. That's not as good as electing members of vulnerable populations directly, but it is a whole lot better than choosing exclusively rich people who isolate themselves in their office buildings and suburbs and can scrupulously avoid contact with the unwashed classes.

This brings me to my final caveat. There is a fine line between recognising that people from diverse groups have different views/priorities/experiences and absolving our politicians of their responsibility to represent all of their constituents -- whether those representatives share the same labels as their constituents or not. We have this miguided cynical perception that it is okay for our elected representatives to serve their own partisan interests at the expense of everyone else. Partisan hackery can and does happen, but it is our responsibility as citizens to make sure that the actors involved don't get away with it. There is no question in my mind that it is better for us to have more diversity in our legislatures than less, but the reason we want this is so that our representatives can articulate a diversity of concerns relevant to their communities, not so they can practice shallow exclusionary identity politics.

MMP 102: Why Closed Lists?

At this point, it appears that the majority of criticism levelled against Ontario's proposed MMP system has to do with party lists, with fears about coalitions and "permanent minority governments" coming in second. People do not like the idea that parties -- not voters -- get to choose who fill the list seats. Some critics take this so far as to label list MPPs "unelected". It is true that parties have to disclose how they selected list candidates before each election, but based on my advocacy so far, this does not reassure people much.

The Ontario proposal uses what is called a "closed list" system, which means voters have no say over the composition or order of the list candidates. There are other alternatives. In "open list" systems, voters have the option to influence the ordering of list candidates somehow. One possibility is to rank the candidates; another is to select a single preferred list candidate from the possibilities. There are several pure list-PR systems that use open lists (Sweden, Brazil, and Slovakia come to mind (IDEA 2005, p. 84)) but from what I know only the German Lnder of Bavaria has an MMP system that uses open lists. (Massicotte Long 2004, p. 53)

A third possibility is to use a "list-free" MMP system. This system avoids explicit lists entirely; the "list" seats are filled by the "best losers" of riding competitions ridings -- namely, those candidates who did well compared to their partymates, but did not win their ridings. In explaining MMP to people, I am surprised at how often people bring up the idea of selecting list MPPs using a list-free method. Mind you, I am biased; I proposed a list-free method in my written submission to the OCA. List-free MMP certainly has its issues (primary of which is how to compare candidates who run in different ridings appropriately) but the more I speak about the OCA proposal the more I think that a list-free system would have been an easier sell to Ontarians than a closed list. As far as I know, list free candidate selection is only used in the German province of Baden-Wrttemberg, the Italian Senate, and Japan. (Day 2004) (Massicotte Long 2004, p. 69) (Pekkanen Nyblade Krauss 2006)

Why did the Ontario Citizens' Assembly choose closed lists for their MMP proposal? The first reason has to do with conservatism: closed lists are used in pretty much every MMP system, whereas open lists and list-free MMP are very rare and not understood as well as closed-list systems are.

The second reason is simplicity. Open list ballots end up listing hundreds of names on each ballot, because each party has to publish its list of candidates for ranking or selection. Closed list MMP simply lists party names and local candidates, which is simpler and does not appear dramatically different from the FPTP ballots we know and love.

Open list ballots also tend to put more of a cognitive burden on voters, especially when voters are expected to rank candidates. Having struggled to select four candidates from a pool of 13 in the last municipal elections for regional councillor, I can attest that evaluating multiple candidates is not so easy (and I only had to find four good candidates, not rank them!). Choosing a single list candidate from a party's pool is easier, but many voters avoid even this. In Sweden, voters can select a party only (allowing the default ordering for the list) or select a particular candidate from the open list. Apparently, over 25% of voters take the open-list option (IDEA 2005, p. 84) but that leaves 70-odd percent who are either happy with the default listings or who cannot be bothered.

The desire to keep the ballot simple eliminates open lists, but it leaves list-free MMP as a possible alternative, as the ballot can be identical for both of these systems. This is where a third criterion comes into play, which is championed by Fair Vote Canada and Equal Voice, but does not appear to be a priority for Ontario voters: the promotion of women and minority candidates. (OCA Background, p. 109)

Fair Vote Canada doctrine states that closed lists help to promote women and minorities via guilt. Namely: if voters/parties have a single position to fill (as happens in riding vacancies) they will tend to vote for white men because that's the demographic that is most electable. On the other hand, if parties have to fill eight positions, they are unlikely to choose white men for all positions, because they don't want to look sexist and racist. So they will choose a few women and a few minorities to feel better about themselves and possibly appeal to a bigger demographic. This gives women and minority candidates opportunities to demonstrate they are as qualified as white men, thus earning voter trust in future elections.

This doctorine appears to be correct. As circumstantial evidence, here are some comparisions of women in legislature between FPTP and closed-list MMP systems. It shows the number of women in legislature following the results of elections.

Election % Women System
Wales 2007 47% MMP
Scotland 2007 33% MMP
New Zealand 2005 32% MMP
Germany 2005 32% MMP
New Zealand 1993 21% FPTP
Canada 2006 21 FPTP
UK 2005 20% FPTP
US 2006 16% FPTP
p> Sources: (IPU May 31 2007), (Vowles Banducci Karp 2006), (Engender 2007), (Wales Electoral Commission 2007) </p>

These numbers do not prove anything definitively -- there are several MMP-type systems (e.g. those in Venezuela and Hungary) where not many women get elected, and Rwanda elects more women than anybody using a FPTP system [0]. But for countries with similar political cultures (as all the anglophone jurisdictions listed above have) the evidence is reasonably convincing.

The New Zealand figures are moderately misleading: the percentage of women elected in New Zealand had already been going up for years before MMP was adopted. But after the first MMP election in 1996 the percentage of women jumped by almost 10%, and it has hovered there ever since.

Apparently, closed lists have a definite advantage in this respect: open lists give voters the opportunity to rank women lower, and in Bavaria it appears that voters do this (Massicotte Long 2004, p. 57). This renders the "promotion of women" argument curiously undemocratic: even though including more women in legislature can improve representation, voters cannot be trusted to elect more women on their own.

I don't know where I stand on this. I can see arguments for both sides. However, there is no question that the promotion of women rankles against voters who disapprove of tokenism and/or affirmative action.

I think the situation for minorities is different. Certain minorities (in particular natives, but also blacks and even East Asians) remain embarrassingly underrepresented. It looks like that -- in urban areas at least -- the number of brown people competing for seats is increasing on its own. One danger is that we will lump all minorities together and then just promote the election of brown people who would have been elected anyways.

None of this would be much of an issue if voters cared a lot about getting women and minority candidates elected. Unfortunately, I don't get the sense that this issue is even on the radar for most voters. That's a big problem. It means those of us trying to sell MMP have to handwave away the limitations of closed lists without being able to leverage its biggest advantage in a way that is meaningful to voters.

Perhaps the most convincing argument I have been able to make in defence of closed lists so far is that we won't necessarily have to live with them for long: it is reasonably easy to move from closed-list systems to list-free or even open-list MMP. In fact, a trick of interpretation might allow for optional list free MMP already: if parties are allowed to submit partial orderings of candidates to Elections Ontario, then they could give all riding candidates the same ranking. They could then say that ties between riding candidates are broken according to their performances in local ridings. My understanding is that this trick is used in Japan, there is a chance it could be used in Ontario as well.

On the other hand, trying to get an open-list or list-free system in Ontario by starting the electoral reform process from scratch seems highly improbable unless we are willing to wait a few decades for the sting of losing this referendum to pass.

[0] Oops. It looks like Rwanda doesn't use FPTP to elect seat members; it actually uses a list-PR system. They still have the highest percentage of women elected, though.


(Day 2004) Wilf Day. "A Mixed Member Proportional Model for Canada". Available at".

(IDEA 2005) Andrew Reynolds, Ben Reilly, Andrew Ellis. Electoral Systems Design: The New International IDEA Handbook. Sweden: Trydellis Tryckeri AB, 2005. ISBN 91-8531-18-2. Available online

(Massicotte Long 2004) Louis Massicotte. In Search of a Compensatory Mixed Electoral System for Qubec, Gouvernment du Qubec, 2004. ISBN 2-550-43379-3. Available from

(OCA Background 2007) The Ontario Citizens' Assembly Secretariat. Democracy at Work: The Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electorial Reform. Queen's Printer of Ontario, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4249-4435-4 (PDF). Available online:

(Pekkanen Nyblade Krauss 2006): Robert Pekkanen, Benjamin Nyblade, Ellis S. Krauss. "Electoral Incentives in Mixed-Member Systems: Party, Posts, and Zombie Politicians in Japan", Amercian Political Science Review, vol 100, no 2, May 2006, pp. 183-194.

(Vowles Banducci Karp 2006) Jack Vowles, Susan A. Banducci, Jefferey A. Karp. "Forecasting and Evaluating the Consequences of Electoral Change in New Zealand", Acta Politica, vol 41, 2006, pp. 267-284.

(IPU May 31 2007) Inter-Parliamentary Union. Women in National Parliaments: Situation as of 31 May 2007. Available at Accessed 2007-07-21.

(Engender 2007) Engender. Where are the Women? Historic election returns men in grey suits. (Press Release). Available from, accessed 2007-07-23.

(Wales Electoral Commission 2007) The Electoral Commission. The National Assembly for Wales elections 2007: Facts and Figures. Available from"

MMP 102: Party Life Cycles

In our last episode, I argued that medium and small parties are electable, and therefore these smaller parties can effectively compete against the big-tent parties for votes and seats. In this entry, I want to explore just how effectively the smaller parties can compete.

My original hope was that MMP would support a "party life cycle". As they gain trust and experience, little parties could grow into bigger and more powerful ones, and challenge the big-tent parties for dominance. In response, the big parties would have to fight hard to maintain their status, which might reduce big-party arrogance and stagnation. Given Ontario's proposed system, are these hopes

Unfortunately, I don't think so. Small parties can gain seats and grow to some extent, but the chances of small parties actively challenging the big-tent parties for dominance appears slim.

The evidence from New Zealand and Germany (courtesy of Wikipedia) offer the first clue. In New Zealand the two big-tent parties (National on the right, Labour on the left) have remained dominant. It's the same story in Germany: in every election, the two big-tent parties (CDU/CSU on the right, SPD on the left) have been the top two parties since MMP was introduced in 1949.

Certain properties of Ontario's proposal strengthen my belief that the Liberals and Conservatives are not going anywhere soon. The first has to do with small party incentives. In Ontario parties need to win ridings in order to challenge for dominance, since only 30% of the MPPs will come from lists. In order to win ridings parties need a lot of concentrated local support. I suspect this will happen to some degree, because list MPPs will likely contend for local seats, reducing the incumbent advantage riding members usually enjoy in FPTP. This is more likely to benefit big parties (which win list seats too, after all) than the smaller parties. A list MPP from a big party will have two weapons in his or her attempt to overthrow the incumbent: the familiarity gained by being a list MPP, and the media saturation that the big-tent parties enjoy. List MPPs from smaller parties will only have one of those weapons in their arsenals, and thus will have a harder time dethroning the incumbent. Furthermore (as I will mention in a later post) incumbents get incumbent advantage as well.

Another factor: ridings are not that important in MMP because the overall number of ridings a party wins is mostly determined by the party vote. In fact, every riding a small party wins is a list seat that party loses. A big question mark here is how much prestige voters will assign to riding seats; if voters trust parties that win more ridings to those that win fewer, then small parties might compete for local ridings more actively. Otherwise, they could well focus on raising their share of the party vote. This can help them do better in competition with other medium and small parties, but it won't help in challenging a big party for dominance.

The NDP is an interesting wildcard in all of this. Will they continue to aspire to big party status and seriously compete in most ridings, or will they give up on ridings and focus on the party vote (perhaps running token candidates in ridings)? If the NDP stops taking ridings seriously, it seems plausible that other smaller parties will follow suit.

I don't see the NDP as being a serious contender for big party status unless another big party implodes. In order to become a big party, the NDP would have to shift to the centre, which would imply that some catastrophe hit either the Conservatives or Liberals. What seems more likely to me is that a niche opens up the middle of the Liberals and Conservatives. Middle parties in this niche could play both ends against the middle, and sit in either Conservative or Liberal governments. This happens in Germany with the FDP, and in New Zealand with a number of parties including United and New Zealand First. These middle parties seem more-or-less content with their niches; it does not appear that they seriously contend for big-party status either.

In short, I think the Liberals and Conservatives are safe for the forseeable future. Under MMP, other parties could cause them headaches by stealing their votes and demanding lots of coalition concessions, but I don't see anybody toppling their thrones.

Even if the party labels don't change, I have some hope that the influence of smaller parties might shift the policies behind the label. To some degree, we see evidence of this already. Federally, the big parties have jumped on the environmentalist bandwagon -- partially because Al Gore made a movie, and partially in response to Elizabeth May taking over the Green Party leadership. Since big parties are not required to be in diametric opposition to their smaller competitors, they can poach good ideas from their "little buddies", which can change their policy platforms without name changes.


You know where election results come from: Wikipedia makes them up.

Housing and a movie

Have I ever mentioned that I hate looking for housing?

Knock on wood, I think I found something. But I spent an agonizing few hours today trying to figure out which of two options I would pursue; the risky option with a higher payoff, or the moderately safer option. I think I made the wrong decision.

In other news, I saw Children of Men today at the library. I found it a little too cheery.

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I do wish that Quietus was available on the market.

In other news I am in grave danger of breaking a writing streak today. I know it does not matter to anybody but me, but I think it's going to hurt.

Ambiguous web searches

I think the future just got a bit closer. Today I was procrastinating by looking up the old television show ReBoot. I thought about using a search engine, but realized that it would be as painful as any web search involving common words. Then I realized that Wikipedia has disambiguation pages.

UPDATE: In retrospect the web search would not have been that difficult, given that I remembered some of the character names. So maybe this is another one of those techniques that makes us lazier.

MMP 102: False Dichotomies

One of my hopes for electoral reform was that it would give voters increased choice by giving the existing big-tent parties some competition. Currently, the big-tent parties get away by playing the "lesser of three evils" game: they motivate people to vote for them by arguing that they are slightly less-worse than the alternatives.

A particularly egregarious example was offered by the Liberals a handout I received at the tail end of the 2004 federal election campaign:

What's at stake on June 28th

If you believe...

  • In aircraft carriers over health care.

  • In Mulroney-Harris-Eves failed economics and deficits.

  • We should have gone to war in Iraq.

  • Women shouldn't have the right to choose.

  • Charter rights should be subject to political interference.

  • Kyoto should be scrapped.

Then sit on the sidelines by not voting.

Or vote NDP or Green Party.

Both parties have their merits. But a vote for either will do nothing to reduce the chances of a right wing Harper government.

Stephen Harper says he wants to change Canada in a way "you won't recognize." The choice for progressive voters is clear.

I don't know what infuriates me most about this style of advertising: that it is so blatant, that it can be applied election after election after election, that it is effective, or that it is correct. There is more text in the brochure, but none of it argues that the Liberals offer a positive alternative to the Conservatives -- just that the Conservatives are worse.

I don't mean to pick on the Liberals too much. All large parties in FPTP engage in these kinds of shenanigans, and the smaller parties engage in different but equally offensive shenanigans ("If everyone gets together, we can win this riding and some power! You just need faith!"). All of this shenanigizing has destroyed my faith in FPTP as an election system: what is the good of allowing multiple parties to run in an election when only the two biggest parties have any realistic chance of getting power?

Is this situation any better under MMP? Of course it is. That's the point: people who vote for small parties do not waste their votes, and thus contribute to keeping their perceived villains out of power. Closed lists or not, the simple fact that voters can choose between several political parties is a huge advantage for MMP. Suddenly, the big parties have some competition.

As I will argue in a future post, little parties cannot threaten the biggest parties as much as we might like. But the threat remains real, and voters can use it to punish big parties in some interesting ways. For example, say voters are sick and tired of both big parties. They can then direct their votes to smaller parties, giving those parties more power. One of the big-tent parties will likely end up forming the government (unlike FPTP, proportionality means it is difficult to wipe out parties entirely as the voting system did to the Progressive Conservatives in 1993) but the big-tent "winner" won't enjoy an easy rule: its will have less bargaining power because it will need more seats (and possibly more coalition partners) to cobble together a majority of seats.

In comparison, when big parties earn a lot of the party vote, they have a better chance of bossing their coalition partners around: because they need fewer seats to form a majority coalition, they can choose smaller parties and fewer parties. This appears to be the practice in New Zealand; instead of the small parties wagging their big-tent partners, the big parties have largely dominated, with smaller partners offering more influence than ultimatums (Vowles Banducci Karp 2006). In MMP, voters can consciously and proactively cast their ballot to strengthen or weaken big-tent power.

Contrast this to FPTP: in most situations voters have a choice: they can punish one big-tent party or the other, but not both, because one party or the other will almost usually win a majority government. Minority governments are also possible but they are difficult for voters to engineer; our recent string of federal minority government is largely thanks to Quebec and the Bloc. Voters elsewhere don't have strong, regionalized third parties to vote for, so they tend to vote for the two big parties and hope that not too many people make the same choice they do. In Ontario we do not have the same degree of regionalization, which may be a factor in why Ontario has had a lot fewer minority governments.

For all my bellyaching, this is why I come out in support of MMP: it puts power firmly in the hands of voters. Sure: closed lists are not ideal, and in some ways we are taking a hit to accountability by using them. Sure: sometimes we won't get the coalitions we expect, and cobbling together governments will be a pain. MMP still gives voters a whole lot more power over their political parties than FPTP does; even those of us who support big-tent parties can see that this endless false dichotomy between Tweedledum and Tweedledumber disenfranchises voters and harms the quality of our democracy.


(Vowles Banducci Karp 2006) Jack Vowles, Susan A. Banducci, Jefferey A. Karp. "Forecasting and Evaluating the Consequences of Electoral Change in New Zealand", Acta Politica</a>, vol 41, 2006, pp. 267-284. Available from NZES website:

MMP 102: Effects of the 3% Threshold

Most list-based proportional representation systems have some kind of threshold that parties must hurdle in order to win list seats. These thresholds are intended to keep tiny parties out of power and to act as a disincentive for parties to splinter too much. Although this practice offends extremists and PR purists, most people agree that it is better to have systems that are slightly disproportional than to suffer from the coalitions of coalitions that Italy has to deal with.

The hope is that most people can find a party that matches their views pretty closely because PR allows several parties to be viable. Compare this to FPTP systems, which feature two or three big-tent parties that are distant from a lot of voters.

The Ontario Citizens' Assembly chose 3% as its threshold: in order to qualify for the 39 list seats, parties must earn 3% of the party vote (tallied provincewide). Based on the 2003 Ontario turnout of 4.5 million voters, that translates to about 135 000 votes.

Scotland and Wales don't have formal thresholds. They shut out parties by splitting their jurisdiction into small regions, and tallying the party votes in each region independently. For example, Wales uses five regions to split up 20 list seats. As a result, parties need quite a large share of the party vote to qualify for anything -- in the Wales 2007 election, no party received list seats with less than 11.7% of the vote, and three parties reached 3% without getting any seats (the highest of which was the British National Party, with 4.3% of the vote). Scotland did better in 2007: an independent won a list seat, and the Scottish Greens got two seats while earning 4.0% of the list vote spread across all regions.

Germany and New Zealand both use a 5% party threshold, which according to Massicotte (Massicotte Summary 2004, p. 9) is pretty standard. However, both Germany and New Zealand have an "electorate threshold" that can also be used to qualify for list seats. In New Zealand parties that get less than 5% of the vote can receive list seats if they win one riding. In Germany parties can get list seats if they win three ridings. Ontario has no such rule.

Thresholds and Wasted Votes

As many critics point out, electoral reformers tend to be obsessed with the idea of wasted votes. Fair Vote Canada defines a vote as wasted if it does not contribute to helping get somebody elected. For first-past-the-post systems, all votes cast for people who don't win their ridings are wasted, which is exactly why FPTP results in huge distortions between the popular vote and the percentages of seats each party wins. In MMP, my understanding is that people usually count the percentage of party vote that does not help get anybody elected. This is a bit sneaky, since it ignores the local riding vote. The idea is that even though a lot of the riding vote will continue to be wasted, most electors will continue to have their ballots count for something through their party vote. If nothing else, counting wasted votes in this way gives us a rough sense of the degree to which our voting systems disenfranchise voters.

It's pretty easy to see that thresholds will increase the number of wasted votes that are cast -- after all, one of the objectives of thresholds is to deny hardcore extremists their voice in legislature. The question in my mind is how thresholds affect the number of wasted votes that are cast.

It appears that MMP systems tend to waste about 5% of the vote: according to Fair Vote dogma (which I don't have sources for) in 2003 Scotland wasted about 6% of the vote while in 2005 Germany wasted about 4%. New Zealand had a much lower wasted vote total at 1% in 2005, but I will argue below that this is freaky and undesireable. Wales does much worse than other Anglophone MMP systems: according to my back-of-the-calculator calculations, in 2007 Wales wasted at least 15.7% of the vote (and in fact wasted more because I did not count the vote within regions). That's pretty hideous, but it's nothing compared to what we deal with in Canada: in the 2006 federal election 51% of us cast wasted votes, and according to my calculations in the Ontario 2003 election we cast 49%.

It is pretty clear that we would do a lot better under MMP than FPTP in terms of wasted votes, but it is not at all clear how many wasted votes we can expect, or even whether we should expect fewer or greater wasted votes than places that use a 5% threshold. One letter to the editor I read in The Record cavalierly predicted 10% wasted votes (Breithaupt 2007) but I have a feeling that the writer picked this number out of the air. Certainly I have not yet found good evidence to support this conclusion.

Massicotte (Massicotte 2004 Long, p. 41) has a table that shows the average wasted votes in the German Ler (provinces). Tallying the averages, we get the following ranges:

Range of wasted votes on average (x) Number of provinces
x <= 5.0 4
5.0 < x <= 7.5 4
7.5 < x <= 10.0 2
10.0 < x 2

The higher wasted votes came uniformly from East German provinces, which had fewer elections (four at the time of writing) and had recently transitioned from communism. I suppose it is conceivable that we could waste around 10% of our vote under MMP, but I would not bet on it and I strongly believe that the average will go down in the long run.

How do 3% thresholds compare against 5% ones? One possibility is that a 3% threshold will waste fewer votes than a 5% threshold because more parties will be able to reach the threshold. The other option is that the smaller threshold will waste more votes, because more parties will attempt to hit the lower target and fall short. In Germany and New Zealand there is a pretty big jump between parties that meet the threshold and parties that don't; most parties that miss the cut get 1% of the vote or less. It is not clear to me how things will play out in Ontario.

Effects of the electorate threshold

Ontario does not have an electorate threshold, where parties can dodge
the 3% requirement by winning some ridings. wilf_day
expressed relief at this, because New Zealand has been exploiting this threshold like nobody's business. In 2005 eight New Zealand parties received seats in parliament; of these four parties earned less than 5% of the party vote, and received seats because they had won some ridings. It appears that the two big New Zealand parties work to ensure that their favoured coalition partners win ridings. One way big parties do this is to avoid contesting certain ridings, and then to tell their supporters to cast their riding vote for certain small parties instead (Vowles Banducci Karp 2006). As a result, there have been quite a few calls to have the single seat electorate threshold abolished in New Zealand (Vowles Banducci Karp
2006) (NZ MMP Review 2001, p. 50)

On the other hand, the electorate threshold gives smaller parties some incentive to contest ridings. Currently, my understanding is that small parties need not contest any ridings in order to appear on the party vote portion of the ballot. The Scottish Greens did exactly this in the 2007 elections. I suppose this is a rational strategy, but I don't like it one bit. I prefer deciding how to vote via in-person situations like all-candidates meetings; this gives me a sense of the quality of candidate each party recruits, as well as how different party policies play off each other. I also worry that parties that cannot scrape enough volunteers to run candidates in most ridings are parties that are not serious enough to consider for office. For these reasons, I far prefer the policy of the New Zealand Greens, who encourage their list candidates to run in ridings as well. I would like to believe that parties who do not run many local candidates will have a harder time passing their thresholds, but there is no way to be sure.


As usual, I leaned upon Wikipedia to get election results, which is going to get me in real trouble one day:

(Breithaupt 2007) James Breithaupt. "Proposed election reform is wrong approach" (Letter of the Day). The Record (Kitchener), June 20 2007.

(Massicotte Long 2004) Louis Massicotte. In Search of a Compensatory Mixed Electoral System for Quc, Gouvernment du Quebec, 2004. ISBN 2-550-43379-3. Available from

(Massicotte Summary 2004) Louis Massicotte. In Search of a Compensatory Mixed Electoral System for Quebec: Summary, Gouvernment du Quebec, 2004. ISBN 2-550-43380-7. Available from

(NZ MMP Review 2001) Rt. Hon Jonathan Hunt, chair. Inquiry into the Review of MMP: Report of the MMP Review Committee, New Zealand House of Representatives, August 2001. Available from:

(Vowles Banducci Karp 2006) Jack Vowles, Susan A. Banducci, Jefferey A. Karp. "Forecasting and Evaluating the Consequences of Electoral Change in New Zealand", Acta Politica</a>, vol 41, 2006, pp. 267-284. Available from NZES website:

MMP 102: No Confidence Votes and MMP

One reason people worry about coalition governments falling quickly is the issue of confidence votes, where the government in power falls if it does not pass issues labelled as "issues of confidence".

I don't understand the distinction between votes that are issues of confidence and those that are not very well, but it seems that in Canada many votes in legislature are issues of confidence. Such issues are the easiest way for minority government participants to "pull the trigger" on the government.

My understanding was that votes of confidence are a feature of Westminister systems (i.e. most systems built from Britain's heritage). I was not overly concerned about the issue because I knew that New Zealand also comes from a Westminister tradition, so presumably they dealt with the issue. Then I misinterpreted this post by localgrit as saying that New Zealand does not have motions of no-confidence. In fact, the claim is that New Zealand handles no-confidence motions differently, which is correct. The difference is illustrated in a paper by Aucoin and Turnbull (Aucoin Turnbull 2004). In Canada, the convention is that no-confidence motions result in immediate elections. Upon losing a no-confidence motion, the premier or prime minister asks the Crown (Governor General or Lieutenant General) to dissolve parliament and force an election. In Canada, the convention is that the Crown always agrees to this request. In New Zealand, the convention is that the Crown has the right to determine whether another government could be formed by the opposition and some coalition partners. If no such government is possible, then another election is scheduled. The big difference is that in New Zealand no-confidence motions do not immediately trigger elections, whereas in Canada they do.

New Zealand does have confidence and no-confidence votes. In fact, some votes are explicitly labelled "No Confidence Motions" (see motion 90 from April 9 2004 in (Gillon 2005), a press release published by the Progressive Party of New Zealand).

Despite the existence of these confidence motions, New Zealand does not fall apart every year and a half, as the critics of MMP would have you believe. What is going on?

The key point is that none of the no-confidence motions pass in New Zealand. The country has had four elections under MMP: 1996, 1999, 2002 and 2005. As far as I can tell, none of these governments fell on motions of non-confidence. Prime Minister called an early election in 2002, but as far as I know she did not engineer the fall of her government. The 1996 government was close to falling apart by 1999: National's coalition partner New Zealand First had left the coalition, and National had to cobble together support from a bunch of independents who had left the New Zealand First party. However, even that government (which was crazy in many ways) hung together long enough for the election to take place at its regular time.

This should astonish the MMP critics, especially given New Zealand's dirty secret: three of the four governments in New Zealand (all except the 1996 fiasco) have actually been minority coalitions, in which the formal coalition partners do not hold a majority of seats between them. Surely this is exactly the kind of situation that gives MMP critics and FPTP supporters night sweats -- and yet New Zealand plods along. How could this be?

It happens because there are actually two levels of agreement the biggest coalition partner (thus far, the Labour party) has made. The first is a formal coalition where the biggest partner chooses parties to participate in the government directly, and the parties rule more-or-less together. The other agreement is one of "confidence and supply", where the big coalition partner makes agreements with certain parties to support them in confidence votes. This is a weaker partnership than being in coalition. The confidence and supply parties can oppose the main party for almost everything except confidence votes, while coalition partners are expected to support all (or almost all) legislation together.

This is one reason it sometimes takes a while for governments in New Zealand (and other countries that use PR systems) to sort themselves out. Sometimes the transition is smooth: the coalition partners agree to partner with each other during the election. Sometimes forming the government is harder, so the deal-making takes longer.

What this means is that the different ways that New Zealand and Canada is not the definitive factor why New Zealand's coalitions don't fall apart, because the no-confidence rules don't come into play. That does not mean Ontario is safe, however, because New Zealand is doing a lot of other things that make its coalitions work.

The first difference is that New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has been effective at cobbling together coalitions and confidence and supply partners that work. Less skillful leaders might make poor choices in coalition partners, or might be stubborn and attempt to rule without support from other parties. In order to be successful under MMP, the big parties will have to develop skills in coalition making, but this will likely take time, and we might expect that the first few governments under MMP will be crazy.

Another difference is that New Zealand has a convention of three year terms between elections. In a few cases -- the National government of 1996 that almost fell apart, and the Labour government that called an election in 2002 a few months early -- the length of this term could have been significant. The McGuinty government legislated four year election terms, which makes it more likely that impatient parties might try to break government early. Again, parties will eventually learn that calling elections too frequently in Ontario is political suicide, but it might take an early election or two for parties to get the lesson.

That does not mean that we should ignore the no-confidence issue. It does mean that the issue itself is not the primary barrier to coalition stability, and thus is not a very strong argument for sticking with FPTP.


(Aucoin Turnbull 2004) Peter Aucoin and Lori Turnbull. "Removing the Virtual Right of First Ministers to Demand Dissolution". Canadian Parliamentary Review, Summer 2004, p. 16-19. Available at

(Gillon 2005) Grant Gillon. "80% of laws gain broad support; MMP is working." Posted 04 February 2005. Accessed July 5 2007.

MMP 102: Power Diffusion

One complaint that MMP opponents sometimes make is that changing the voting system will not fix other underlying problems in our democracy. This argument is a smokescreen; I have not yet read an argument that proposes that keeping first-past-the-post (FPTP) fixes any of these problems, just that MMP doesn't fix them.

A frequent form of this complaint is the "power centralization" argument: the real problem with Ontario's democracy is that party discipline is too strong in Ontario. Everybody votes along party lines, thus centralizing government power in the hands of the ruling cabinet and especially the premier:

The central defect of our political system is that most of our provincial members and MPs in Ottawa perform like sheep, occasionally altering their behaviour to that of chickens.

Our political system is the least representative in the industrialized world. Our members and MPs don't represent their electors. They represent their parties.

They do and say, just about, whatever their party tells them to do.

-- Richard Gwyn, "Electoral Reform won't fix the real political problems", The Record, May 22 2007.

This argument comes perilously close to contradicting the FPTP defence that our existing system allows people to vote for candidates and not parties, but let's avoid that pit of quicksand for now. My primary criticism of the power centralization argument is that MMP actually does help decentralize power.

The first good effect comes via coalition government. A big-tent party will pay all kinds of lip service to diverse interests while campaigning, but once in power the party can pursue whatever interests it wants. The opposition parties can offer some symbolic resistance, but without a majority of seats in parliament they have no ability to veto or even modify legislation. Big-tent parties in coalition governments are in a very different position; when bargaining for coalition agreements with potential partners big-tent party will often have to concede policy on issues the big party paid lip-service to but had no real intention of carrying out. The perpetual issue of foreign credential recognition comes to mind; pretty much every party promises to get foreign-trained doctors and engineers out of our taxi fleets, but nobody has the political will to make this a priority. With a coalition government issues like this could become priority issues, so long as the big-tent party and its partner(s) all campaigned on the issue.

Many of these policy concessions will happen during the initial weeks when governments are putting together coalition and/or confidence and supply agreements, but power decentralization continues throughout the lifetime of the government. When proposing policy the smaller parties are not beholden to the wishes of the premier, so there is more room for a diversity of views.

When there are major scandals or ideological confrontations between parties, the coalition runs the risk of breaking apart. This is, of course, both good and bad: it's good because coalitions will tend to break when they are least popular, and thus when people most want change. It is bad because broken coalitions can lead to early elections. (This is a large part of the reason why coalitions should be composed of a very few parties that are either large or medium-sized. Including tiny parties in coalitions is usually a bad idea because the tiny parties have lots of incentive to be yappy and break the coalition.) Breaking coalitions has its cost for smaller partners too, however. For example, the Green Party enjoyed close ties with Labour in 1999, but alienated themselves from Labour over the issue of genetically modified organisms. As a consequence, the Greens got themselves blacklisted from formal coalition agreements with Labour, although they still support Labour in confidence and supply matters. (Vowles Banducci Karp 2006)

One of the most intriguing changes in New Zealand is that under MMP there has been an increase in caucus consultation when parties draft legislation (Boston Church Bale 2003). Before MMP, the cabinet would come up with legislation, inform the backbenchers of the new legislation and order the backbenchers to vote for it. The first National government of 1996 behaved similarly, but then practices changed. Now, ministers propose legislation, then refer the legislation back to caucus members and committees for feedback and negotiation. This means that legislation is passed more slowly, but it is also drafted with more consultation and less centralization. It is not clear that this practice will carry over to Ontario, but it is a strong indication that the voting system can influence political culture.

Another way in which MMP decentralizes power is the way it reduces the stranglehold the two big-tent parties have over politics. Under FPTP in Ontario, aspiring politicians would be best advised to join either the Liberal or Conservative parties, because these parties win almost all seats in Ontario and thus maximize a politician's chances of getting elected. When the party leaders and bigwigs do stupid and/or oppressive things, aspiring and elected politicans have the choices of putting up with the garbage, trying to survive as independent candidates for an election or two (Hi Garth Turner!) or jumping ship to the other big tent party (Hi David Emerson! Hi Belinda Stronach! Hi Scott Brison!). MMP gives smaller parties realistic chances of getting seats, which allows a sufficient number of disgruntled politicians to mutiny and form a new party. The new party can win a few seats and present itself as a potential coalition partner to the big tent party it deserted (Hi New Zealand First, Progressive Party, and several other small New Zealand parties!).

Thanks to the three percent threshold in Ontario, politicians can't take this schism strategy too far, but there is no question that it will happen to some extent. This reduces the power of the big parties, and forces them to be more responsive to the diversity of interests within the party if they want to retain their membership and hold on to power. Certainly, big tent parties will continue to enforce party discipline (and it might become stronger under MMP) but the discipline can't get too heavy-handed (Hi Stephen Harper!).

Of course, the FPTP defenders will turn all of these advantages into criticisms of MMP. Party concessions get turned into backroom dealmaking; big parties listening to small ones morph into tails wagging dogs; broken coalitions are translated to endless minority governments; increased legislation consultion is interpreted as government deadlock, and the end of big-tent strangleholds mark the beginning of party splintering. Underneath the mudslinging and name-calling is a serious question: how much power should parties have, and what tradeoffs should parties face in order for governments to run most effectively. Is concentrating power in the hands of two large parties (and passing all legislative power back and forth) the best way? Should we distribute power over a plethora of parties and let them sort it out? I think that Ontario's proposed MMP system gives us a set of tradeoffs that are not bad. The two big parties will continue to have quite a bit of power, but that power will be effectively moderated by other parties. Changing the voting system will not fix all of democracy's problems, but it is one component to rebuilding a system we can trust.

There are other options, of course. If a nontrivial number of people read my blog, then no doubt an endless parade of Single Transferable Vote (STV) supporters would earnestly and politely point out that MMP is a party-oriented voting system, and that the real way to decentralize power is to adopt a candidate-oriented system... like, for example, STV. That is a valid criticism, and one I have some sympathy for, but STV is not an option this October. Either we choose MMP, or we stick with FPTP. If people want to vote for FPTP this October with the hopes that they can somehow get an STV system on the agenda later, they are welcome to do so. I have less and less faith that such a strategy would work. There are too many hurdles to overcome, and I really don't think that Ontario cares enough about electoral reform to repeat this process in the forseeable future. I am sufficiently disenchanted with FPTP and sufficiently unafraid of MMP that I am still willing to vote for change.


(Boston Church Bale 2003) Jonathan Boston, Stephen Church, Tim Bale. "The Impact of Proportional Representation on Government Effectiveness: The New Zealand Experience", Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol 62 no 4, December 2006, p. 7-22.

(Vowles Banducci Karp 2006) Jack Vowles, Susan A. Banducci, Jefferey A. Karp. "Forecasting and Evaluating the Consequences of Electoral Change in New Zealand", Acta Politica</a>, vol 41, 2006, pp. 267-284. Available from NZES website:

MMP 102: Effects of the list seat ratio

One aspect of Ontario's MMP proposal that has not received much attention is the riding-list ratio. Only 30% of the legislature will be selected by party lists, which is pretty much the lowest percentage I could find in use anywhere. Here are some numbers adapted from the OCA background report (OCA Background 2007, p. 149) and the IDEA handbook (IDEA 2005, p. 92):

Country List seat %
Ontario MMP 30.23%
Wales 33.3%
Lesotho 33.3%
New Zealand 42.5%
Scotland 43.4%
Germany 50.0%

One German province (North Rhine-Westphalia) has a slightly lower percentage than the OCA does, at 29%, but every other German province allocates at least 35% to the lists.

What does this mean? It means that ridings will continue to matter a lot -- parties cannot hope to be the major coalition partner in a government without winning a fair number of ridings. In turn, that means that the Conservative and Liberal parties are not going anywhere soon -- like National and Labour in New Zealand, or the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union and Social Democratic Party in Germany, the PCs and Liberals are poised to remain the two "big tent" centrist parties that take most of the riding seats. There are lots of implications of this (some of which will have to wait for a future post) but for me it lays to rest the fears that these big-tent parties will be splintered into irrelevance.

Another aspect of this riding dominance is more problematic: it is likely that list MPPs won't get much respect. The research literature I have been reading suggests that in New Zealand, Scotland and Wales, voters think of list MPPs as "second-class" (For New Zealand, see (Banducci 2002)). Even the MPs themselves often wish they were riding MPs instead (See, for example, (Heitshusen Young Wood 2005, p. 38) for anecdotes.)

The counterpoint to this is that this appears to be a problem of perception more than reality. (See (LCC 2004, p. 149) for an example of a refutation.)

But the perception is strong, and in a system like Ontario's where most of the list seats will be taken by "loser" parties that don't form the government, it is likely to be an issue. Combine this with the fact that the list MPPs will themselves probably feel confused as to their purposes (Do they concern themselves with policy matters exclusively? Do they "shadow" riding MPPs? Are they responsible for specific regions of Ontario?) and there could be trouble. Spelling out the expectations for list MPPs clearly could help alleviate this perception problem, but the Citizens' Assembly did not do so and I question whether anybody else will.

A third consequence of such a small ratio has to do with proportionality -- I have been told online that 30% list seats is pretty much the smallest percentage you would need in order to guarantee good proportionality. Any less than that and you run the risk that there will not be enough list seats to compensate for distortions in the riding results. According to the Citizens' Assembly researchers (OCA Background 2007, p. 154), such undercompensations are rare, but they can happen (for example, if you simulate the Ontario MMP system using the 2003 Ontario election results, you find that the Liberals would have received no list seats and one more riding than the popular vote indicates they deserve). I am not that worried about the percentage of list MPPs in itself; what worries me is that this low percentage will be used as leverage by political parties to "game the system" and receive more power than they deserve.

Why did the Citizens' Assembly choose such a small percentage in the first place? A lot of it had to do with keeping the total number of seats down in legislature. By reducing the number of ridings to 90 and the percentage to 30%, the OCA could recommend a system with only 129 seats in total. The number 129 is important; it is one fewer than the 130 seats we used to have until Mike Harris's government passed the "Fewer Politicians Act". Ontarians get antsy about having too many MPPs in legislature, supposedly because MPPs cost a lot of money. (MPPs do cost a lot of money, but the money for MPP pay overall is a drop in the bucket compared to Ontario's total budget. Furthermore, the fewer politicians we elect the more work is left to government bureaucrats, who are even less accountable to voters.) A system that guaranteed a reasonable number of ridings and a higher percentage of list seats would have resulted in a proposal of 140-170 MPPs, which the OCA felt (correctly, in my opinion) would have been an even harder sell. As it was, the OCA considered proposals with as few as 25% list seats, and refused to look at any system with more than 143 total seats. (OCA Background 2007, p. 117)

Furthermore, unless/until political parties start gaming the system, the OCA proposal will likely result in pretty good proportionality. In that sense, the OCA juggled the competing interests of lots of ridings and not many politicians pretty well. There will be consequences of this design decision, however, and it is worth our time to try and mitigate them.



(Banducci 2002) Susan Banducci. "The Changing Nature of Representation in New Zealand: Evaluations of the Party List". Prepared for Elections and Democracy conference, 1-2 Feb 2002, Lisbon, Portugal.

(OCA Background 2007) The Ontario Citizens' Assembly Secretariat. Democracy at Work: The Ontario Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. Queen's Printer of Ontario, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4249-4435-4 (PDF).

(Heitshusen Young Wood 2005): Valerie Heitschusen, Garry Young, David M. Wood. "Electoral Context and MP Constituency Focus in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom", American Journal of Political Science, vol 49, no 1, January 2005, p. 32-45.

(IDEA 2005) Andrew Reynolds, Ben Reilly, Andrew Ellis. Electoral Systems Design: The New International IDEA Handbook. Sweden: Trydellis Tryckeri AB, 2005. ISBN 91-8531-18-2.