Friday, October 26, 2007

Think MMP could have won? Think again.

Daniel Rubenson and I cooked up the following op-ed. It didn't get picked up, so I've posted it here.

Advocates of electoral reform suffered a great blow with the defeat of a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system in the Ontario referendum earlier this month. Recommended by a non-partisan Citizens’ Assembly, this new system was endorsed by prominent Canadians of every partisan stripe. It was, they claimed, a more democratic electoral system. Yet the reform still lost, almost two-to-one.

Like an athlete after losing the season’s last match, advocates of MMP look to place blame. They argue that the proposal was little understood, and Elections Ontario’s education efforts fell short of the mark. They assert that holding the referendum during an election drowned out any real debate on the reform. Had the referendum stood alone, Ontarians would have paid attention to the issue and understood the proposal. Under those conditions they surely would have voted for reform.

They argue, in essence, that the result did not accurately reflect the public will.

These claims are probably impossible to prove. They are also likely wrong.

Reformers wag an accusatory finger at Elections Ontario, claiming that the organization did not educate or inform voters enough. They say: The campaign was too neutral and failed to communicate the values supporting MMP.

We say: Casting aside the questionable idea that a neutral government agency should play a role in promoting some democratic values over others, their objection still rings hollow. Why? Because voters don’t need to know the details of a policy to know whether or not they should throw their support behind it.

In-depth knowledge of electoral systems may thrill many-a-political scientist. And many of them think this knowledge is crucial to being a good citizen.

But this view is both elitist and wrong.

Modern political science demonstrates that voters effectively use a number of short cuts, or heuristics, to make the same decisions they would make if fully informed. They talk to their neighbours and friends. They look to their political leaders. They even look to the opinion pages of newspapers.

Citizens find these shortcuts in countless places. And with even a minimal amount of information, voters make choices consistent with the decisions they would make under different conditions.

What if the referendum wasn’t held during an election? Would it have had a better chance? If voters were more exposed to the arguments for electoral reform, would they be more likely to give it their support?

In short: Were the arguments for electoral reform winning arguments?

As scholars of public opinion, we wanted to know which side had the most convincing arguments in the electoral reform debate. We conducted an experiment during the last week of the referendum campaign using the Innovative Research Group’s online survey panel.

We presented participants with one of six arguments for MMP and one of six for the status quo. For example, “A first past the post system is better because it creates strong majority governments that can implement their policies” vs “A mixed member proportional system is better because parties should get the same share of seats as their share of the vote.” We had participants in the survey choose between them.

Our results are clear. The argument that every Member of Provincial Parliament should be locally elected overpowers every argument for MMP. In head-to-head match-ups, no argument from advocates of MMP convinces a sufficient number of voters to prefer the new system.

The arguments do not favour MMP. Even if voters paid sustained attention to the referendum, it is not clear that they would have been convinced by what they heard.

Even though the MMP loss was a blow to electoral reformers, it was not a blow for democracy. “Losers’ consent” is among the most important features of a proper democracy, where those on the short end of an outcome accept it as fair.

No doubt, this is difficult. But the idea of electoral reform has its own persuasive force and will not die with this loss. However, it's crucial that those who claim to be great democrats begin to act less like sore losers looking for someone to blame, and more like a team determined to do better next time around.


Steve Withers said...

Like many who opposed MMP, you have carefully examined your own preconceptions, ignored the facts and sallied forth into the debate without allowing reality to intrude upon your thesis.

Here are some simple facts:

1. There was a 2 week window between the Citizens' Assembly's (OCA) final report and voting day.

2. Elections Ontario was not allowed to distribute or inform voters about the contents of the OCA report. The report was withdrawn from print 2 months before the voting day. (In British Columbia, the report of their Citizens' Assembly was distributed to every home.) If you wanted to stop and Elections Ontario referendum Officer in their tracks, all you had to do was ask them why the OCA recommended MMP for Ontario. Similarly, if you asked them what a list MPP wold do in a day, they would refuse to answer. This can in NO way be described asa sincere information campaign that would have informed 8 million voters about MMP in the 8 weeks Elections Ontario actually mounted a campaign.

3. "Robust debate" was greatly inhibited by the two large print media groups: Metroland Media and Sun Media. All their newspapers were 100% opposed to the proposed system (no exceptions) and did not publish a single press release from any of the seven pro-MMP registered campaigns. Sun Media's "London Free Press" did not publish a single significant article about the referendum between September 1th and voting day. Whn asked why, Maaging Editor, Greg Van Morsel said "We publish stories about things people are interested in.

Those are the facts.

The Vote for MMP campaign did manage to raise over $500,000 in less than 12 weeks and did manage to build a province-wide network of people working to support the change in that time.

But not ONE of the press releases issued by that group was carried by ANY media - print or electronic.

The official information black-out, combined with the open hostility of these two major media groups guaranteed there not be anything like a genuine public debate or a referendum result rendered by "fully informed" voters.

There is more.....but this is more than enough to demonstrate the referendum was effectively sabotaged by the suppresion of the substance of the recommendation though both the official channels and the commercial media channels.

Add to this that fact that the arguments advanced aainst MMP were in almost every case completely at odds with the verfiable facts:

- There are no "extremist" parties in MMP legislatures anywhere.

- List candidates are democratically selected by grassroots party members in every case.

- MMP governents are stable and almost always go ull term.....unlike minority governments under FPTP.

...and so on down the list what were essentialy lies.

Steve Withers said...

That 2 week window should have been a 20 week window.

Steve Withers said...

The date for the London Free Press should be September 16th.....not "September 1th"

Peter Loewen said...

Thanks for the comments. For the record, I am actually entirely ambivalent about the choice between MMP and FPTP. I am not a true believer who is convinced that one is necessarily better or more democratic than the other. So, I've no particular axe to grind.

I don't think we disagree too much, actually. You are saying the MMP side was prevented from or unable to run a good campaign. We don't disagree. You are saying that the education campaign was rather thin. We acknowledge that. You would claim, I assume, that there was also insufficient attention paid to the campaign. We concur.

Our point is that even if those things were not the case, then we think FPTP probably still would have won, because the argument for local members was sufficiently dominant. And a couple of other realistic arguments for FPTP were also able to dominate some arguments for MMP. And I can tell you that we've arrived at that conclusion pretty dispassionately.

The question for us is whether reformers are willing to accept that this time or continue to object. We think they should do the first, but that's just personal opinion.

Steve Withers said...

If I thought that voters had been flly informed when voting in the October 10th referendum, I would accept the result.

I know first hand that voters did NOT know....and that the ignorance they suffered was as much by design as through their own apathy and inattention.

Either way......the result wan't one rendered by a fully informed electorate.

Having lived under MMP myself in New Zealand for the past 11 years....and not being a politician or party hack for any party....I like MMP and see its advantages as FAR outweighing any minor issues there may be.

*Politicians* don't like MMP! It means they have to work harder and co-operate. Which is one of the very BEST reasons for voting for and advocating it. Thank you for responding to my comments.

Peter Loewen said...

No world exists where voters are fully informed about anything. It's honestly as useful as debating what an election outcome would be if unicorns were candidates.

You clearly prefer MMP, and there are a lot of good reasons for that. But it is not an unambiguously better system. I think we believe that in a head to head match-up, the outcome is at best unclear.

Wayne Smith said...

Voters don't need to be fully informed, but they need at least to know they are being asked a question. Polls show that up to one third of Ontario voters found out about the referendum for the first time when they were handed a ballot in the polling booth!

An actual academic study has looked at what voters would have decided if they had had more information. From the Globe and Mail:

Why Ontarians said no to MMP

Teach political science at UBC and the Université de Montréal respectively

October 25, 2007

On election day, Ontarians threw cold water on a proposed new electoral system called mixed-member proportional (MMP). During the campaign, our team at UBC and the Université de Montréal conducted a detailed survey that tells us why one-third of voters said yes, while two-thirds said no.

First, few Ontarians were consumed by an urgent need for change. Less than one-quarter were dissatisfied with the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. So the onus was on the pro-MMP side to convince voters there was something wrong with FPTP or desirable about MMP.

There was latent potential support for MMP. A majority of Ontarians said "artificial" seat majorities (like the one handed to the provincial Liberals with only 42 per cent of the popular vote) are unacceptable. Most prefer governments "made up of two or three parties because they are forced to compromise" over "one-party governments so they can get things done." They favour proportionality, even for small parties: About 60 per cent think "a party that gets 10 per cent of the vote should get 10 per cent of the seats." Close to two-thirds like the idea of casting two votes. Not surprisingly, the more people knew about MMP, the more likely they were to support it.

Yet these values only helped the MMP cause so much, because many Ontarians were in the dark about the proposal. Just before voting day, two-thirds were aware that a referendum was taking place and the same proportion said they knew something about MMP. But useful knowledge about the proposal was rare. Less than one-third knew MMP makes multiparty governments more likely. Less than half were aware that MMP makes votes and seats proportional, that it would give seats to more parties, and that it involves two votes.

Two specific elements of MMP proved to be liabilities.

First, increasing the number of members in the legislature by 22 was not well received. Ontarians who believed this was a good idea were clearly outnumbered. More important, there were the infamous party lists - the biggest weapon in the anti-MMP arsenal. A majority thought giving control over the composition of those lists to parties was a bad thing. Only 16 per cent liked the idea.

The possibility of a new electoral system was not the only surprise for Ontarians. Its source - a Citizens' Assembly - was probably even more unfamiliar to the public. Voters tend to be skeptical of referendum proposals from politicians, so the assembly might have provided much-needed grassroots legitimacy. But only if voters knew that its members were ordinary people.

Few discovered that. The media paid little attention to the assembly and often described it as "set up by the government" - a half-truth that did nothing to dispel voters' assumption that the proposal was coming from the usual political suspects. At the start of the campaign, half said they knew nothing about the assembly and, amazingly, there was no gain in awareness over the campaign.

So, knowledge about MMP and the Citizens' Assembly pushed voters toward the new system. Could referendum support have reached the 60 per cent threshold if voters had been fully informed about both? We can simulate the outcome if all citizens had known: (1) that MMP would give voters two votes, elect some members whose names never appear on a ballot, produce proportional outcomes with more parties and infrequent majorities; and (2) that assembly members "were ordinary Ontarians," "had an equal chance of being chosen," "represented all parts of Ontario," "became experts on electoral systems," and that "most members wanted what's best for all Ontarians" (rather than themselves).

Under these conditions, our data indicate the result would have been 63 per cent for MMP and 37 per cent for the existing system - exactly the mirror image of the actual outcome.

This is probably heartening, and yet disappointing, for electoral reformers. And perhaps opponents should show more relief than smugness.

The survey was conducted by the Institute for Social Research at York University from Sept. 10 to Oct. 9. Sampling margins of error are between 4 and 8 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Peter Loewen said...

Wayneon, thanks for your comment. A couple of points.

First, what percentage of Ontarians know that when they cast a ballot it will be for a local candidate and not a party or a party leader? I think it's at most nine in ten. So, some voters are still operating without basic knowledge of what they are about to do. Yet, elections still work out. So, the fact that one-third of citizens didn't know doesn't bother me that much. I think it's probably a wash in its effects.

Second, I have certainly read the Fournier and Cutler piece. Fournier is in fact one of my dissertation mentors, and I think those two guys are the best in the country. But, I am not sure I buy their simulation for two reasons. First, it is completely unrealistic to imagine that we'd ever be in a position where every citizen was aware of the facts they lay out, no matter what Elections Ontario did. Indeed, if you read Jonathan Rose's account of the Citizen's Assembly, there will still assembly members making mistakes about electoral system facts at the end of the process. This can be complicated stuff, and it's elitist and unrealistic to expect voters to know all this information. Second, and more importantly, you'll note that their simulation does not assume that voters are also fully aware that parties will control the lists or that the size of legislature will grow. I am sceptical they would arrive at the level of support which they arrived at if those were included in the simulation. But I am willing to be corrected.

Finally, our study was as proper an academic study as theirs. Indeed, I am happy to make an argument that ours was better because it is experimental, but that is just my bias. Their result is nice as far as it goes, but it really can't travel all that far, as I do not know of a single election in history of this universe in which all voters were even close to informed about issues. From a scientific perspective, it's at least as false as the experiments Rubenson and I ran. So, I think it's a wash.

Finally, I should stress that I am ambivalent about electoral reform. I have no axe to grind save a desire to set aside easy explanations. I think there is a lot more work to be done on this question before we can actually answer whether MMP had a chance of winning. Stay tuned.

Wilf Day said...

A related question is the role of the Citizens' Assembly.

I have heard some academics argue (although I think their point is overstated) that the BC CA members became so involved, and took such control of their process, that they became too expert to act as a jury or focus group and to choose a voting system that citizens would themselves choose. They argue that the overall support for PR is significantly higher than the 58% support BC-STV got.

However, it is also suggested that the OCA members were less involved, heard from a wider variety of experts, took less initiative to debate and learn on their own, and were more typical of the population than the BC CA members were by the end of the process. I'm not sure that's true either. But in theory their vote of 94 - 8 for their MMP model should mean that, if Ontario voters had understood why the CA members proposed it, they would have given it similar support. That's why we had a CA rather than a Royal Commission.

Was there a failure in the process? Did the CA members need more time to debate the alternatives? We know for sure the Ontario public needed more time to debate the issue, and the New Zealand public were far better informed when they made a similar choice for MMP. But the role of the CA is harder to quantify. Most people said their process was impeccable; hindsight may now suggest otherwise.

Anonymous said...


Interesting that Linuxluver thought you were opposed to MMP (and then proceeded to fly off the handle with a bunch of beside-the-point items).

I read your tone as somewhat MMP positive. Your description of the process and the alleged benefits and terms of the MMP proposal were generous.

If you were striving for neutrality perhaps you should be pleased that a variety of readers saw your comments in these ways.

Speaking of the responses, they seem to have missed the point of your work which was the direct comparison of descriptives of FPTP and MMP and that ordinary voters chose the characteristics of FPTP over MMP regardless of other factors.

On to my laundry list of MMP issues...

The objection of the MMP crowd that Elections Ontario was too neutral is disturbing in its implications of support an advocacy role for a neutral overseer of democratic process, but becomes laughable when one realizes that these gems drop from the lips of true believers.

Thanks for helping to answer the "If only voters were informed, they would have supported MMP." My concern was the opposite. I feared that voters in their slavish canadian ignorance would have rubber stamped MMP because it was described as more 'fair' and had the blessing of a government committee.

I don't contend for a second that FPTP is ideal, but MMP does not address any of the weaknesses in any material way. Experience shows that it does not increase voter participation (and this was not even a contention made by the Citizens' Assembly) and its primary effect is to increase the power of political parties, not voters, or citizens or minority interests. In particular these proposals tend to pump up small to medium sized political parties.

As a veteran of a Political Studies program at amajor Canadian University, I am aware that parties are a necessary element for a stable functioning democracy, and certainly referable to personality cult driven movements charteristic of emerging or non functioning democracies. But institutional reinforcements to political parties can create barriers to the formation and success of new parties. Look at the United States where the effect of state involvement in promoting the process of the Republican and Democratic parties (primaries, voter registration by party etc) has created a de facto two party state. Which is really only one better than a one part state. And has fundamentally misshapen the American political mindset to think of democracy as an either/or zero sum game.

There is a fundamental problem in sizing the threshold in MMP. Too low and you get the nutbar psycho parties. Too high and you really just re-inforce the status quo parties. Set the bar at 2% and you will get the "death to abortionists" part elected. At 10% all you do is increase the number of seats for the NDP.

The problem with our governments now is paralysis at doing necessary things that will piss off a small number of people. A lot of this relates to the inability to change bad laws that 90% peopl know are bad or remove pork barrel provisions keenly fought for. Increasing the power small parties will not help. If we wanted a systemic reform that would actually help the will of the people to be done we would instead impose a mandatory sunset provision on all laws. Make legislators affirmatively standup for bad laws rather than just accept them. It is a lot easier as a politician to take courageous positions when they are mandated. And so the politician who is afraid to bring up the difficult changes for fear they will lose him the next election has cover.

In general those who seek to reform liberal democracy seem overly interested in the "democracy" part and not so much in the "liberal" part. I am much less concerned about whether it is a minority or majority government, or whether every party has a seat at the table, or every voter feels her vote counted than I am that the state does not have the right to shut me up, and does have the obligation to provide some basic services.

Peter Loewen said...

Wilf: Thanks for your comments. I think the BC CA worked as well or better than the one in Ontario, but that is mostly just conjecture. Based on the experience in the Ontario ref, however, I have a hard time thinking that MMP would have done better than STV in BC. Second, I think your conclusion that a more informed electorate would have reflected the choices of the CA at such a margin seems to be a stretch. First, they were charged with recommeding reform, so it's suprising they would coem up with a strong recommendation for reform. Second, such processes probably put too much emphasis on consensus, leading to lopsided majorities. Finally, it's unclear to me voters were more informed in NZ. I'd love some evidence to the contrary, though.

Neumann: Thanks for your comments, as well. Just so I am entirely clear, I don't favour FPTP over MMP, or vice versa. I just wanted to know what the answer to the "waht if" question was.

Joseph L. Angolano said...

Peter, please e-mail me your working paper of this research, I will be interested in reading it, and of course, I can provide comments free from bias if you would like.

I would tend to agree with this post a fair bit. NO MMP's arguments weren't thought out of random. If we could poll, we would have. And of course, we adjusted our arguments to emphasise other elements of what we were saying once we realised what resonated in debates and what did not.

I can say the emphasis on strong local candidates did resonate with those I spoke with, but I only know that to be true anecdotally.

I will e-mail Patrick Fournier to get a hold of that paper. Its findings are interesting to me because it runs against all of the polls that I saw about MMP. Early on in the campaign , the Strategic Counsel had MMP at 56%. Two days before the campaign, SC had less undecideds but MMP with 42% support. Similar trends were shown by both Angus Reid and SES. As the campaign wore on, support for MMP fell as the amount of undecideds fell.