Friday, June 22, 2007

On needless complexity

The Ontario Lib government's ballot question for this fall's referendum on electoral systems was released a couple of days ago. With that in mind, I'll take a moment to point out what strikes me as the biggest problem with the Libs' wording before any talk about the ballot itself gives way to an all-out push on the substantive issue.

The ballot question will be as follows:
Which electoral system should Ontario use to elect members to the provincial legislature?/Quel système électoral l’Ontario devrait-il utiliser pour élire les députés provinciaux à l’Assemblée législative?

The existing electoral system (First-Past-the-Post)/L’actuel système électoral (système de la majorité relative)

The alternative electoral system proposed by the Citizens’ Assembly (Mixed Member Proportional)/L’autre système électoral proposé par l’Assemblée des citoyens (système de représentation proportionnelle mixte)
I have to agree to at least some extent with the Ontario NDP's concerns about the question. But Prue only seems to tangentially discuss the most striking problem I see in the question as phrased:
New Democrat critic Michael Prue said he's now even less confident that electoral reform will take place, and called the question biased since it lists the existing system first.

"Whenever you (ask people to) choose A or B, invariably, A has a much higher preponderance of being chosen than B," Prue said.

The question should have been framed with a yes or no option, asking voters if they wanted to adopt the new system supported by the citizens' assembly, he said.

Prue also complained the question wasn't presented to the legislature for approval and that the threshold to enact change is too high.
What Prue barely hints at is the clunky wording put together by the Libs - which, like so much of the process put together by McGuinty's government, seems aimed at offering a false sense of commitment to reform while subtly blocking any attempt to change the current system.

Consider by comparison what voters see on ordinary electoral ballots. Since these ballots are based solely on candidates' names and party affiliations, each candidate has two hooks to use to associate a single word with their desired message. And the ballot is arranged so that the voter will likely read both of those hooks for each candidate - without having to search for them in a jumble of words - before casting the ballot.

In a referendum process, a one-hook system is probably more feasible. A "yes/no" structure offers probably the best approximation of that relatively simple layout, while being familiar for those who have seen U.S. plebiscite advertising. (Not to mention that it would have allowed the putative "yes" side to make use of the associations it's been working on building for some time now, rather than having to start from scratch.)

But even a layout which simply asked - for example - "Which electoral system would you prefer to see used in Ontario? 'FPP' or 'MMP'", with accompanying materials to explain what those options mean for those who want to read more, would make for a far more fair playing field. With that type of minimalist ballot, both sides could try to link their message to a simple, three-letter term which will voters could find on the ballot without any difficulty.

Instead, the ballot as put together will make it unnecessarily problematic for the issue campaigns to attach their message to anything voters will read at the polls. At best, the "yes" campaign figures to try to hook into "alternative" and "Citizens' Assembly" - but both phrases figure to get lost on the ballot as planned, particularly with the clutter printed in two languages.

And for the "no" side, "existing" is hardly an inspiring or memorable message to tap into either. Though of course the combination of the needlessly cluttered wording and the high threshold for change may well create enough intertia to ensure that no actual campaign is needed to preserve the status quo.

Hopefully the push for electoral reform will be strong enough to overcome yet another needless obstacle. But between the disappointing starting point and the roadblocks put in place by the Libs, it's hard to be optimistic - no matter how popular MMP has proven to be among ordinary Ontarians given the chance to get informed.

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