A few days ago, I mailed off my ballot for the Referendum on Electoral Reform to Elections BC. For the third time in 13 years, British Columbians have been asked to decide between keeping the current First Past the Post (FPTP) system or proportional representation. This time, there are three “prop-rep” options. Completed ballots must be received by December 7 in order to be counted.
Generally speaking, the NDP and Greens are in favour of prop-rep, while the B.C. Liberals support FPTP. This dynamic mimics the battle lines in the provincial legislature. This divide has produced a lengthy, hyper-partisan campaign driven almost entirely on political self-interest rather than what is best for the province and the development of good public policy.
I’m not going to try to sway your vote. There are enough people on social media doing that. But I will share my thoughts on the shaky referendum process and questionable talking points each side is using to try to convince voters.
As of November 29, only one third of eligible British Columbians have bothered to vote in a referendum that will decide which system governs our democracy.
Fifty per cent plus one will be enough to overhaul our electoral system, regardless of how many people vote—and without any geographic considerations. The mail-in ballot system is at great risk of fraud (there are countless examples of ballots being discarded in condo and apartment buildings), and last time we did this in 2009, only about 51 per cent of eligible voters responded.
This isn’t good enough. The process to fundamentally change how governments are determined must be stronger and better delivered than this referendum.
The voting systems
As a cynical former political staffer, let me offer a free piece of advice: anyone who is trying to convince you to vote a certain way in the referendum is almost certainly arguing in favour of the electoral system they believe will benefit their preferred political party. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of political sanctimony being wrapped in the guise of improving democracy in B.C. right now.
Although people have their own preferences between the three prop-rep options (Dual Membership Proportional, Mixed Member Proportional, and Rural-Urban Proportional), the real battleground is the first question: FTPT or prop-rep.
I think most people understand there are pros and cons to each system on the ballot. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be seeing a lot of measured debate. My main gripe with the campaign from both sides to date is that I don’t find many of their talking points credible.
The “No” side “Prop-rep is confusing.” So…? Just because a system is more complicated (and sorry, prop-reppers, they are much, much more complicated), doesn’t preclude it from potentially being an upgrade.
“Prop rep will enable extremists.” Nonsense. If five per cent of the population is voting for extremists, you don’t have an electoral system problem, you have an extremist problem. Parties who cooperate with the theoretical extremists would face a sharp rebuke from the general electorate.
The “Yes” side “Every vote counts.” Not exactly. If you vote for a party that receives fewer than 5 per cent of the vote, they do not get a proportionate share of the seats. Also, I think it’s disingenuous to imply that people’s votes don’t “count” currently.
“Prop-prep will reduce the influence of lobbyists and strategists.” I haven’t seen evidence to suggest this is true. Minority governments (a probable outcome of prop-rep) typically result in the governing party being determined by backroom deals hashed out by politicians and strategists. And some forms of prop rep result in MLAs being chosen from party-selected lists, not directly by voters. That sounds an awful lot like increasing the role of so-called power brokers.
What happens next?
So, what should British Columbians make of all this? I suggest tuning out the Twitter echo chamber and doing your own research. If you haven’t voted already, take some time to review the nonpartisan information available on the Elections BC website. Whatever you do, get your ballot in the mail on time to meet the December 7 deadline!
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