Turnout takes jump in referendum on voting system

Yes campaign ‘encouraged’ by 18 per cent return, but No camp still wants extension to deadline

New numbers from Elections B.C. showing an 18 per cent return on proportional representation ballots is an encouraging sign that turnout is on an upswing, according to the Yes campaign.

As of Friday morning, an estimated 597,300 packages of the 3.3 million sent out had been received by Elections B.C.

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“We’re very encouraged, as most people are, at that substantial increase in returns reported [Friday],” said Lesli Boldt, spokesperson for Yes PR B.C.

“We hope that that trend continues.”

The latest numbers are a considerable spike from the 7.4 per cent that were reported as of Thursday, a return rate that the No Proportional Representation Society called “abysmal.”

The low response rate and the rotating postal strike pushed the No camp to call for an extension to the Nov. 30 deadline.

“We still think we need an extension to ensure there’s as full a participation as reasonably possible,” said Bill Tieleman, spokesman for the No camp.

The returned ballots don’t include the packages received by Canada Post but backlogged due to rotating strike action, said Elections B.C. spokesperson Rebecca Penz.

The election agency is monitoring the labour disruptions, but it’s too early to decide if the voting deadline will be extended, Penz said.

Max Cameron, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, said it’s much too early to panic about low voter turnout.

“My understanding is that in previous referenda, it’s been the case that the initial results trickle in slowly but there’s a rising crescendo as you get close to the deadline,” Cameron said.

In the 2011 HST referendum, the majority of ballots were returned in the last two weeks of voting. The voter turnout for that referendum was 54.7 per cent.

The single transferable vote system failed to meet the threshold of support from B.C. voters in 2005 and 2009, with voter turnouts of 61 per cent and 48 per cent, respectively.

The B.C. government did not set a voter turnout threshold that must be met in order for the result to be considered valid.

Tieleman said that was a mistake.

“It’s extremely unfortunate we’re proceeding without a threshold on an issue that clearly British Columbians are not mesmerized by,” he said.

“Every significant referendum in the past has had a turnout between 48 and 61 per cent so certainly below 50 makes it dubious and below 40 makes it very questionable indeed.”

The Yes PR B.C. camp is confident there will be a surge in voting in the next two weeks. “I think people need as much time as they can to learn about the process, look at the options and make an informed decision,” Boldt said.

Cameron said after delivering several talks on electoral reform across B.C., he was impressed by the level of conscientiousness and engagement people have shown.

“What I see is people trying their hardest to make a good decision,” he said.

“Yes, there’s concern, there’s confusion, there’s doubt, but behind it all is a very deep commitment to democracy.”

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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