The yes campaign for proportional representation on which so many hopes are pinned is confused, underfunded and short-staffed, a sign that Liberal strategy is playing out exactly as planned.
There's a growing sense among fans of MMP (mixed member proportional) that the referendum is over before it has really begun and that energy for change is better spent elsewhere.
Certainly, the feeling at Yes provincial campaign HQ at Queen and Spadina is less than ebullient. Larry Gordon, manager of the Yes team, says he has volunteers working across the province trying to sway the electorate in favour of PR. He's not sure how many, perhaps 500 to 1,000 barely more than a large riding campaign.
The nub of the problem is that the Liberal government, after funding the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform that generated the voting proposal, decided it would provide no monetary support for the MMP referendum effort itself. This, in the government's view, is the way to preserve the non-partisan citizen nature of the referendum campaign.
But the result has been a people's movement struggling to compete for attention amidst the noise made by big-dollar party campaigns.
Gordon, for example, has started begging online for contributions of $10.10 for victory on election day, October 10. "We are a grassroots organization running a grassroots campaign," he tells me.
So shouldn't politicians supporting MMP do some noisemaking themselves? Turns out this is more complex than it seems.
Gordon himself hasn't encouraged the parties to get more involved. "Democratic renewal is not a partisan issue," he insists. "In downtown Toronto, the party that's penalized the most (by the current system) is the Tories."
Of the three major parties, only the NDP officially supports the proposal. Though that puts the party on the side of the angels, it does mean it's in a delicate situation.
On the one hand, concerned NDPers, knots of whom you'll find at party events, are asking worriedly how badly they think the referendum campaign is going and whether Howard Hampton should be doing more to push the dream that looks increasingly likely to stay exactly that.
On the other hand, if the NDP leader is too vocal, he might give MMP the kiss of death. The challenge, many NDPers reason, is to favour the proposal without inadvertently making it appear that MMP is a socialist-Green plot. One of Hampton's handlers says the leader responds to questions when asked, but won't likely make MMP one of the six key campaign planks.
Individual candidates are pushing MMP as best they can. In Beaches-East York, Michael Prue says he's been getting an average of three calls a day asking about the MMP plan, as hot as issues get in an election campaign.
But besides the positioning issue, there are Elections Ontario rules to contend with. An Elections Ontario official explains to me that parties can express their point of view on MMP, but only groups registered as Yes or No committees can actually ask people to vote for or against the proposal.
The NDP, party organizers say, is doing as much as it can under the election expenses law.
The Yes side's burden got a little heavier last week when Publications Ontario (the provincial printing service) stopped printing and distributing bulk copies of One Ballot, Two Votes, the pamphlet of the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform.
Now, not only does the Yes team have to haul in the votes, but it also has to do the educational backfill it assumed mass distribution of the pamphlet would take care of all on a budget of just over $30,000, the amount raised through donations.
Marco Monoco of the government's Democratic Renewal Secretariat tells me that 500,000 copies of the pamplet have been distributed, and while no more will be printed, it is downloadable from the Internet.
Wading through the Queen's Park media labyrinth seeking answers, I'm shocked by what I'm forced to explain. "What is the Yes team?" one staffer asks. I find myself having to give a primer on the referendum process. If even the media thingies are barely aware of what this is about, what hope is there for the ordinary voter?
The confusion may all be good news for the Grits. Way back in 2003 when they campaigned on democratic renewal, PR seemed like a good way to keep despots like Mike Harris from ever again wielding unchecked power.
But then the Libs found themselves in government even though they received barely more than 40 per cent of the votes. When you're the beneficiary, the unfairness of the first-past-the-post system doesn't seem so bad. So when an all-party committee of the legislature recommended that MMP should be adopted if it received a simple majority, Dalton McGuinty's cabinet thought otherwise. It raised the requirement to at least 60 per cent of the votes in 60 per cent of the ridings.
"It's disgusting," sniffs Prue, the NDP critic for democratic renewal.
If by some fluke, MMP does pass, a Liberal government will certainly bring in legislation to make it happen, Health Minister George Smitherman tells me while canvassing in Toronto Centre-Rosedale.
Smitherman, one of the few leading Liberals to back the MMP option, says the NDP is spending too much time complaining about the referendum process and too little talking up the merits of MMP. "The 60 per cent threshold is appropriate for a change as significant as this," he says.
As for the cash-starved Yes side, Smitherman says the government's strategy has been to direct funds to Elections Ontario to provide non-partisan education about the referendum.
Meanwhile, he says he's four-square behind MMP, and his lit says so. "It would lead to a more representative legislature," he says. "Now, we don't have a single Aboriginal member."
It's a strategic position for a future Liberal leadership contender who wants to be associated with a progressive position on democratic renewal.
Perhaps the best we can do is console ourselves by seeing the expected outcome on October 10 not as defeat but as victory delayed.