November 27, 2018

Proportional What!? Your Guide to the BC Electoral Reform Referendum


Our pals Malloreigh Hamilton and Kala Vilches led a workshop at the studio taking everyone through the ins and outs of the BC Electoral Reform Referendum. With the Canada Post strike currently going on, the deadline has now been extended to December 7th at 4:30pm for all ballots to be received.

If you still haven't submitted yours, here's Malloreigh's breakdown on our current system and the options you're choosing between:

ISSUES WITH OUR CURRENT SYSTEM

Our existing electoral system is called "First Past the Post". Basically, the candidate that gets the most votes in any particular riding wins that riding, even if only a small amount of the electorate in that riding voted for that candidate (as can happen in ridings with many candidates). Then, the Legislative Assembly is governed by the party who won the most seats, regardless of their share of the popular vote. So a party can end up with a majority government - meaning they can basically make decisions unchecked by opposition - with less than 50% of the popular vote.

This is how vote-splitting happens and why it's such a problem. We dealt with vote-splitting pretty seriously in the municipal election that just happened; with two strong candidates on the left (Stewart and Sylvester), progressives were torn about whether to vote strategically to ensure a left-wing candidate got in. In the end, due to a massive marketing and support campaign by the NDP and labour union groups, left-wing candidate Kennedy Stewart defeated right-wing candidate Ken Sim by 1,000 votes.

This is an issue we currently deal with at all levels in Canada as FPTP is the system of choice across the country. You've probably heard a lot of vitriol about whether strategic voting is a good or bad choice from both supporters and deriders of the practice.

WHY PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION?

Proportional Representation systems attempt to reflect better in government the percentage of the electorate that supports a particular party. For example, typically the Green Party of Canada gets 4-7% of the popular vote, but they have only won one seat in the House of Commons in the last two elections (and zero prior to that) - less than 0.3% of the House. The Green Party of BC won 3 seats in the 2017 general election (almost 4% of the seats in the Legislative Assembly), but received almost 17% of the popular vote. This is a huge disparity between how the public votes and how the government is made up.

Some democratic political philosophy suggests that government should be a reflection of the body it governs - whether this reflects just the views of the electorate or whether it reflects identity groups, like, for example, seeing 51% of our elected representatives identifying as female to reflect the proportion of the population at large, or seeing POC in our government to similarly represent the portion of the population that are POC.

In Australia (where voting is mandatory!), their House is elected riding-by-riding like ours, but their Senate is elected via proportional representation based on the percentage of total votes cast by the electorate for each party.

WHY NOT PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION?

Opponents of PR will tell you that proportional representation can increase the presence of fringe parties in government. This is absolutely possible. It may be a tiny percentage of the population in each riding voting for fringe parties - be they right wing, left wing, or spaceship wing - but depending on the system, if the total sum of those votes is substantial enough, those fringe parties could in fact get a seat in the Leg. Some people think that's fine; I personally do not want that. Most of the systems outlined below have a 5% threshold for representation.

Opponents of PR also consider the potential systems to be too confusing. Their argument is that FPTP has worked for our democracy up until now; it's not broken, so why fix it?

As well, coalitions are more likely to be needed for government to be formed. Right now BC is being governed by a coalition government made up of NDP and Green MLAs. These systems can work really well if the parties making up the coalition can work together well, but it can also result in unstable government that is dissolved more often.

THE PROCESS OF THE REFERENDUM

Elections BC must receive your ballot by 4:30pm on December 7th, 2019. You can either:

  • Mail it
  • Return it in person at a Referendum Service Office or Service BC Centre. Find locations at elections.bc.ca/rso


There are two questions in the ballot.

1. Do you want to stay with existing FPTP or move to a Proportional Representation system?

2. Of the three PR options, rank your first, second, and third choice.

If more than 50% of the ballots returned prefer FPTP, nothing will change. If more than 50% prefer PR, the system with the highest ranking will be adopted. There will be some administrative work to do to put it in place, but it will have to be ready for any provincial elections taking place after July 1, 2021. Riding boundaries will likely change; we may have up to 8 additional MLAs added to our Legislature. There may be more than one MLA representing a particular district. Finally, after two elections using PR, another referendum will be calling to see if BC voters want to go back to FPTP - so if we hate it, it isn't necessarily permanent.

SO WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS?

Dual-Member Proportional (DMP)

This system was developed in Canada and is not in use - it is at the moment purely theoretical.

This is an interesting system. Large population ridings will have two MLAs, while low population (rural) ridings will continue to have one. Parties will be able to list up to two candidates on the ballot in ridings with two MLAs. You still only get one vote in your riding but you may be voting for a pair of candidates with that one vote (for example, if the NDP runs two candidates, you can vote for both at once). The first seat in each riding goes FPTP-style to the candidate with the most votes. The second seat in two-Member ridings will be assigned via proportional representation, so if the Greens get 17% of the popular vote, approximately 17% of the second seats will go to Greens. Those seats will be assigned in ridings where the Greens did particularly well, so the candidates that got the most votes will more-or-less be the ones who get seats.

  • What I like about this system
  • It's not too big of a departure from our existing system from the voter's perspective, so it's less confusing for voters. Parties also need at least 5% of the vote to get any second seats, so it roots out fringe parties in most ridings.
  • What I don't like about this system
  • I'm not sure it will cure the strategic voting issue we have. Because we're still voting for one candidate or pair of candidates and there are still FPTP elements, I feel we will still need to carefully avoid vote splitting on the left.

Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP)

This system is already in use in other countries at national or sub-national levels, including Germany, New Zealand, and Scotland.

In this system, electoral districts are larger. Voters vote for a candidate to represent their riding, similarly to how we do now, using FPTP. You are also voting for a party (either through your candidate or through a separate vote - TBD) for regional candidates. So the Leg is made up of "district MLAs" - the people who represent your riding - and then a certain number of "regional MLAs" per party that top up the number of MLAs from that party to match the percentage of the popular vote given to that party. Do you follow?

Basically, you would either vote once or twice per election - once for an MLA and possibly once for a party (though your MLA vote may also be considered a party vote, which roots out independent candidates entirely). Some/most of the candidates would be elected the old fashioned way, but overall representation in the Legislature would be proportional because parties would be "topped up" to their vote percentage by candidates from their open regional list.

  • What I like about this system
  • It does seem like representation will be pretty accurately proportional. It is good that it's been tested in countries with well-functioning democracies. There is a 5% threshold for representation to avoid fringe parties in government.
  • What I don't like about this system
  • This might be more confusing for voters. We also don't really have a say in who's on the regional list for each party; we're not voting for candidates, we're voting for parties. This doesn't work with the way everyone thinks of their right to be represented. There are also still quite a few questions marks about how this would work.

Rural-Urban Proportional (RUP)

This is a combo system not in use in this particular combination anywhere, though both aspects have been used successfully separately.

This is a combination of MMP (above) for Rural areas and STV (which we voted on in 2005 and 2009) for urban and semi-urban districts. In urban areas we would rank candidates on our ballot. So, I can vote for the NDP first, the Greens second, the Communist party third, and then not at all for the Liberals, or I can put them last on my ranking. This is more complex for Elections BC to count, but it does alleviate vote splitting.

There is a minimum number of votes in each riding, called the "quota", that a candidate must reach. All candidates that reach this quota are elected. Candidates with the fewest votes are discarded and the votes go to the next candidate on that voter's list. Candidates who get more votes than the quota have their extra votes transferred to the number two candidate on that voter's list, and so on. Parties may run multiple candidates per riding, up to the number of seats available in that riding.

Rural districts would operate like MMP, with district MLAs elected to represent each riding and regional MLAs from a party list to top up.

  • What I like about this system
  • I love the idea of ranking candidates and the way it would alleviate vote splitting/strategic voting. This works well for voters who are often torn between two (or more!) candidates.
  • What I don't like about this system
  • It would take a while to count and calculate results; there would need to be multiple rounds of counting because the system is so complex. I would not get my exciting election night sports watching experiences.
  • *EDIT: I spoke to an Irish friend who says that the counting actually goes pretty quickly and that election nights are very exciting indeed!


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If you're happy with the existing system, vote to keep it FPTP. If you'd like to give PR a try, what's the harm?

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  • Mail it
  • Return it in person at a Referendum Service Office or Service BC Centre. Find locations at elections.bc.ca/rso