Comment: B.C. could be Canadian leader on electoral reform

Can B.C.’s new NDP government formulate a coherent policy on electoral reform, explain it to non-political scientists and convince voters to support it in the October 2018 referendum?

It is no secret that New Democrats and Greens have the most to gain by bringing in proportional representation, as they have been routinely under-represented by the current first-past-the-post system. Both made PR a goal in their election platforms.

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Recent polling data from the Angus Reid Institute is supportive of PR. Two-thirds of B.C. voters polled favour it (65 per cent), compared with only 35 per cent for the existing system. A majority of all age groups and parties favoured PR, especially the young (18-34) and university graduates. Among New Democrats, 72 per cent want PR, but even 52 per cent of Liberals polled prefer it to the current system.

It seems that British Columbians are ready to move on from the B.C. single-transferable vote chosen by the Citizens Assembly a decade ago. PR, incidentally, was the second choice of the assembly. It was the top choice in Ontario and P.E.I., but lost in the Ontario referendum, and, although it won in P.E.I., turnout was considered to be too low to accept the results.

Basically, PR means that the number of seats each party gets will match its share of votes. Mixed-member proportional is the type of PR that keeps the familiar elements of our current system (everyone has an MLA), while also being proportional, by electing some MLAs from a list to make up for the imbalances.

To keep the same number of seats in the house, which is desirable for many citizens, this would require enlarging riding size, by say, a third. This was recommended by the Law Commission of Canada in 2004 for the federal system. Two-thirds of the seats would be the usual first-past-the-post, while one-third would be by the list. Thus a party that did better than it should in individual seats might get no extra seats from the list, while a party that won no riding seats, but got, say, eight per cent of the votes, would get eight per cent of the seats.

A practical example: In Scotland, the Green Party won no individual seats in the last election for the Scottish Parliament, but got six by its list support. It would otherwise have been shut out, as the Green Party is in most Canadian provincial elections.

PR systems typically result in a (modest) increase in voting turnout, an increase in the number of women elected and greater citizen satisfaction with the democratic system. With voting turnout in decline, growing cynicism and the continued under-representation of women, these are all pluses.

There is some concern about the choice of list names: Could “party hacks” be foisted on unwilling voters? Not if voters are given the option of crossing off or re-numbering the names given, a matter to be determined. (The Law Commission of Canada recommended that option.)

How would area MLAs relate to their “constituents”? Citizens would continue to have their regular MLA and be able to find him or her in a constituency office. Area MLAs would represent an area (northern B.C., Vancouver Island, Okanagan, etc.); how large and what boundaries are yet to be addressed.

With mixed-member proportional, voters get a double ballot. The first is the usual, a person with a party identification. The second is the list, by party. Advocates of PR would have to make this comprehensible, and there is not much time before the referendum. Where PR has been adopted, notably in Scotland, Germany and New Zealand, it works and there is no move against it.

Advocates of PR should invite elected members of PR systems to come and explain it, and MLAs should visit appropriate examples (Edinburgh, anyone?).

Finally, B.C. has the opportunity to be the Canadian leader on this. Support for PR is growing across the country, so that a successful referendum in B.C. would be of great interest. B.C. has been (painfully) slow to move on election-financing reform; it could lead the way on this at-least-as-important democratic reform.

 

Lynn McDonald, PhD, is a former B.C. resident and a former member of Parliament.

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