British Columbians have been tasked, once again, with voting on whether or not to change our electoral system.
Until Nov. 30, we are being asked to choose what voting system we should use for provincial elections, whether to keep the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system or switch to one of three proportional representation (PR) voting systems offered on the ballot. This is our third referendum on electoral reform, the 2005 and 2009 votes having chosen the status quo rather than change to a single transferable vote system. While the STV forms a component of one of our choices this time around, it is not one of the systems being proposed.
The 24-page voter’s guide from Elections BC describes our current system, FPTP: “the province is divided into electoral districts and each district is represented by one member of the legislative assembly (MLA). Voters mark their ballot for one candidate. The candidate with the most votes in the district wins and represents the district in the legislature. The number of seats a party gets in the legislature equals the number of districts its candidates win.”
In PR, however, “the share of seats a political party wins in the legislative assembly is about the same as the party’s share of the popular vote. So, if a party receives 40 percent of the popular vote, they are likely to have about 40 percent of the seats in the legislature. There are many different voting systems that are designed to produce proportional results.”
Indeed, there are dozens of variations on the PR theme, and herein lies one of the problems with the 2018 referendum. British Columbians will be asked: 1) which system, FPTP or PR, should be used for provincial elections, and 2) if a PR system were to be adopted, which of three systems – mixed member, rural-urban or dual member – we would prefer. There will be no second referendum, as there was in New Zealand, asking us whether we would prefer FPTP or the majority-chosen type of PR, with its details fleshed out by a parliamentary, expert or other committee.
We are, in essence, being asked to take our best, semi-educated guess as to which of three vaguely described PR options might yield better results than FPTP. Several key factors are “to be determined” after the referendum results, if PR is chosen, such as how electoral boundaries will change, how candidate lists would be drawn up, the total number of MLAs to be elected, how coalition governments would be formed. All of these elements determine how effective a PR system will be in producing a more responsive, diverse and balanced government. And we will not have a direct say in these decisions.
There is no way in this limited amount of space that we can satisfactorily explain all of the PR systems being put forward in the referendum. Readers should go to elections.bc.ca/referendum for the basics and research as best they can. This may not yield satisfactory results, however, because only one of the referendum’s PR options is actually in use in other countries; the other two are theoretical at this point. Mixed member PR is used in New Zealand, Germany, Scotland, Mexico and other countries, while the rural-urban system combines approaches used in various countries and the dual-member version is akin to a system Prince Edward Island once used (but no longer does) and also, according to one pro-PR website, “echoes our own voting history,” as British Columbia had multi-member ridings until the 1990s.
So, what do to then if we treat this referendum as less of a choice between which PR system we prefer and more of a choice between keeping the status quo and changing to a new system?
Vote PR BC and the No BC Proportional Representation Society each received $500,000 in government funding to advocate for and against PR, respectively. However, you will find little in-depth information from these sources. Think tanks and other groups have tried to fill in the gaps of knowledge but, perhaps not surprisingly, there’s valid-sounding evidence on both sides of the issue. For each piece of evidence supporting PR – such as it will end adversarial politics and hold politicians more to account – there is an evidence-based opposite finding. How many of us will look at all the studies, check the sources and determine how rigorous and accurate the conclusions are? Likely very few of us.
For what it’s worth, among the supporters of PR, you will find the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the B.C. NDP and B.C. Green Party. Among those skeptical of it are the right-leaning Fraser Institute and the B.C. Liberals. At the end of the day, most of us will probably base our decision on the opinions of those people and organizations with whom we agree on other subjects. We also will consider what we know personally (as opposed to filtered through another researcher’s lens) of PR systems elsewhere in the world, such as in Israel – even though the specific Israeli form of PR is not one of those on the B.C. ballot, it is similar. Some of us might opt for change for change’s sake, and others will stick with the devil we know. It might comfort some voters to know that, if we choose change, there will be another referendum in two election cycles to see if we want to return to FPTP or stay the course.
Knowledge is power and we recommend that voters do the absolute best to educate themselves about the various alternatives. But don’t be discouraged if you’re still uncertain after your research. Both FPTP and PR have their strengths and weaknesses. However, a vital aspect of both FPTP and PR – and one that directly speaks to the health of our democracy no matter what the electoral system – is that people exercise their right to vote. Whatever your choice, please fill out your ballot when you get it in the mail.