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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)

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 <http://www.institutions->

(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: < /Democracy%20at%20Work%20-%20The%20Ontario%20Citizens%27%20Assembly%20 on%20Electoral%20Reform.pdf>

(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"

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