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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.

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