Everything you need to know about the upcoming BC referendum on electoral reform

If the phrase “electoral reform” sounds more like a band your most indie friend won’t stop recommending than the subject of an upcoming referendum in BC, you’re in the right place.

From October 20 to November 30, BC voters will be able to mail-in their answers to two questions — first, whether BC should keep the current First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system, and second, to rank the three proposed proportional representation systems by preference. Each question is independent of the other so if you vote “no” to changing the system, you can still indicate which of the three proposals you would prefer.

If the 50 per cent “yes” threshold for the referendum to trigger electoral reform is reached, the most popular system of proportional representation will be legislated and implemented in time for any election that takes place after July 1, 2021.

To see if you’re eligible to vote and to register to obtain your ballot, check out the Elections BC website.

The Ubyssey sat down with Dr. Richard Johnston, professor of political science at UBC and Canada research chair in public opinion, elections, and representation, to break down the referendum options and what is at stake for students when casting their ballots over the next month.

// Current System: First-Past-The-Post

Right now, all provinces in Canada use FPTP to elect their representatives. Under this system, candidates in each electoral district compete for one seat and the candidate with the most votes as an individual becomes a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for that district. Voters may only vote for one candidate and the party with the most seats in the legislature then forms the government.

Under FPTP, candidates from large parties tend to win and single-party majority governments are more common. It also means, however, that a party could win many more seats or gain very few in comparison to the percentage of the province-wide vote its candidates gained — called the popular vote. In the 2001 BC provincial election, the BC Liberals won 77 of 79 seats with 57 per cent of the popular vote, while the BC NDP gained 21 per cent of the popular vote and won only the remaining 2 seats.

According to Johnston, it’s important to note that the status quo is not politically neutral because right-of-centre parties tend to win more than those left-of-centre under FPTP. When left-leaning parties do form government, they tend to have qualified majorities like the current NDP-Green agreement that allows the NDP to form the government.

“There are partisan implications here ... And it is not an accident that that [the BC] Liberals are essentially united in opposition to change, it is not an accident the Greens would rather have gone further and simply legislated change themselves. And it’s not an accident that the NDP are somewhere in between, but tilted towards a change,” said Johnston.

“And we should not dismiss the fact that it’s a strategic move [by the NDP]. But the other side is sort of shielding itself behind the status quo, and the status quo is not neutral.”

// Proportional representation

Dual member proportional

Under a dual-member proportional (DMP) system, two neighbouring districts would
be combined into one and represented by two MLAs, while larger rural constituencies would continue to have one MLA elected in a FPTP manner. Parties can choose to run one or two candidates in each district ballot, but two candidates from the same party would be listed as a single option, with one as the “primary” and the other as the “secondary.”

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Voters then vote for one candidate (or pair of candidates). One of the two seats would go directly to the primary candidate with the most votes. The other seat in the riding would be distributed based on the province-wide popular vote and how each party fared in each riding in order to compensate for distortions between a party’s seats and their proportion of the popular vote in the elected seats.

Johnston believes that DMP would result in the smallest possible distortions between the popular vote and seats held by each party. However, it has not yet been used anywhere in the world, so BC would be the first to see if it works and to find the kinks that would need to be ironed out.

Mixed-member proportional

With a mixed-member proportional system (MMP), voters could cast two votes — one for an MLA for their district who will be chosen via FPTP and one vote for a party which will be used to distribute “regional” seats to compensate for distortions. Another option may be that voters cast one vote which would count for both candidate and party, but that would be decided by a legislative committee if this system is adopted.

The regions would be composed of multiple neighbouring districts and would have a number of regional seats proportionate to their populations. Candidates for these seats would be chosen from a party list of candidates, which may be prepared by the party (closed) or voted on directly by voters (open) — this is yet another variation that would be finalized by a legislative committee. Just like in DMP, the regional seats would be distributed to make the share of seats for each party as proportionate as possible to the party’s share of the popular vote.

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Johnston points out that MMP is used in Germany, where it has meant that the number of seats must be increased in order to account for the “overhang” when one party wins more district seats than it is entitled to based on its share of the popular vote.

“One of the questions is, at the end of the day, ‘Is the entitlement province-wide proportionality or regional proportionality?’” said Johnston, noting that the potential ability to vote for both a candidate and a party could allow voters to more accurately express their preferences.

“There could be, in principle, a closer fit between candidate characteristics and voter.”

Rural-urban proportional

Rural-urban proportional (RUP) would try to improve disproportionality between urban and rural constituencies, which tend to exercise disproportionate political power in BC. In rural districts, voters would elect district and regional MLAs the same way as MMP. By contrast, in urban and semi-urban areas, voters would elect multiple MLAs per district and rank each candidate in order of preference, called the single transferable vote (STV). The seats in each district would then be allocated proportionally based on the vote distribution and strength of preference between candidates.

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Each party could run multiple candidates in one district, but would need to be strategic about the number, according to Johnston. Putting forward too few candidates would mean not all the seats possible would be captured and some votes would be wasted, but too many would split the vote between them and could lead to no candidates gaining a seat in that district.

While MMP and STV have both been used separately, the particular method proposed in RUP has also not been used before.

In short

No one system is perfect, but Johnston stressed that proportional representation systems tend to be more comfortable with diversity — just like young voters tend to be, too.

“Young people who live in diverse places [like Vancouver] … or move to diverse places, they tend to be more comfortable with diversity,” said Johnston. “Proportional representation systems … are designed explicitly to acknowledge diversity rather than to suppress it [so] I would be shocked if there were not a generational gradient in how people vote.”

Still, Johnston urged young voters to consider how comfortable they are with political diversity and its flipside, which may mean a higher likelihood of political fragmentation and shared mandates in government.

“The price of that kind of generous nature is that [proportional representation systems] permit fragmentation,” said Johnston.

“And speaking just in a general normative sense, voters don’t like fragmentation, voters like to see themselves represented [and] they would prefer relatively consolidated policy alternatives.”

Voting in the referendum starts this Saturday, October 20. Head to the Elections BC website for more information and voter registration.