B.C. ref­er­en­dum will have a broad im­pact

Pass or fail, Canada is watch­ing, write Maxwell A. Cameron and Me­gan Dias.

Calgary Herald - - OPINION - Maxwell A. Cameron is pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at UBC. Me­gan Dias earned her mas­ter’s de­gree from UBC’s po­lit­i­cal science depart­ment.

By the end of the week, Bri­tish Columbia could ap­prove the adop­tion of a vot­ing sys­tem based on the prin­ci­ple of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Over the past sev­eral months, Bri­tish Columbians have been par­tic­i­pat­ing in a ref­er­en­dum on whether we should change the way we vote. We know that the stakes are high: we are vot­ing on a key fea­ture of our demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions. And the rest of the coun­try is watch­ing.

The whole process started in May 2017, when the NDP formed a mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment in B.C., with the sup­port of the Green party. The sup­port of the Greens came with con­di­tions, in­clud­ing an in­sis­tence that elec­toral re­form be put to a ref­er­en­dum in the fall of 2018. This is some­thing the NDP had cam­paigned on, as well, so agree­ment was not hard to reach.

In a re­port by the at­tor­ney gen­eral of B.C., the de­tails of the ref­er­en­dum were re­leased. The ref­er­en­dum was to be con­ducted through mailin bal­lots. In­stead of go­ing to polling sta­tions, vot­ers would have bal­lots mailed out to them, they would fill them out, and then mail it back.

The ref­er­en­dum ques­tion was di­vided into two parts. The first part is pretty straight­for­ward: do we want to “keep the cur­rent First Past the Post vot­ing sys­tem or move to a sys­tem of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion.”

The sec­ond part pre­sented three dif­fer­ent pro­por­tional sys­tems, and vot­ers are asked to rank them. If the first ques­tion passes, and B.C. moves to a sys­tem of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion, some ver­sion of the high­est-ranked op­tion out of these three sys­tems will be adopted.

It is im­por­tant to note that pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion is a prin­ci­ple, not a sys­tem. Pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion is the idea that par­ties should win a num­ber of seats in a leg­is­la­ture that is pro­por­tion­ate to the num­ber of votes they have won. If a party wins 40 per cent of the votes in an elec­tion, it should be en­ti­tled to 40 per cent of the seats.

There are sev­eral vot­ing sys­tems that get us to this kind of pro­por­tional re­sult. The three on the bal­lot in B.C. are dual mem­ber pro­por­tional, mixed mem­ber pro­por­tional and ru­ral-ur­ban pro­por­tional.

Mixed mem­ber pro­por­tional might ring a bell to some. It has been sug­gested as an al­ter­na­tive elec­toral sys­tem sev­eral times in Canada and was on the bal­lot when On­tario voted on elec­toral re­form in 2007. Mixed mem­ber pro­por­tional is used in coun­tries like New Zealand and Ger­many.

Ru­ral-ur­ban pro­por­tional is less well-known, al­though it com­bines two fa­mil­iar sys­tems. In this sys­tem, ru­ral vot­ers cast bal­lots un­der a mixed-mem­ber pro­por­tional sys­tem. Ur­ban ar­eas will vote un­der a pro­por­tional sys­tem called sin­gle trans­fer­able vote, which was pro­posed in B.C. in 2005 and again in 2009. The idea be­hind us­ing these two sys­tems is to en­sure pro­por­tional re­sults, while not di­lut­ing lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion in large, ru­ral rid­ings.

Dual mem­ber pro­por­tional has not been im­ple­mented any­where yet. It was cre­ated by Sean Gra­ham, a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Al­berta, and uses bi­no­mial rid­ings. Most rid­ings would merge and have two MLAs. Vot­ers would choose a can­di­date or a pair of can­di­dates on the bal­lot.

Ac­cord­ing to the B.C. NDP gov­ern­ment, these sys­tems were cho­sen be­cause they all en­sure pro­por­tional re­sults, main­tained lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, were sim­ple to un­der­stand, and would not sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease the size of the leg­is­la­ture.

Ul­ti­mately, the ref­er­en­dum in B.C. could have sev­eral dif­fer­ent im­pli­ca­tions for the rest of Canada. If pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion passes, this would be his­toric. It would sug­gest that mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ments are more likely to make elec­toral re­form hap­pen. Justin Trudeau’s Lib­er­als, with a ma­jor­ity gov­ern­ment, couldn’t keep their prom­ise to make “2015 the last elec­tion un­der FPTP.” For those who fear mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ments can’t get things done, this could be a piece of ev­i­dence to the con­trary.

Suc­cess could also gal­va­nize sup­port for elec­toral re­form in other prov­inces. If B.C. moves to a pro­por­tional sys­tem, and it seems to be go­ing well, other prov­inces might fol­low suit.

We have seen this logic at play at the mu­nic­i­pal level. When cer­tain mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties in On­tario switched elec­toral sys­tems, it sparked in­ter­est among other mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

Even if pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion is de­feated, there will be im­por­tant les­sons to be learned from the process. On the one hand, a third de­feat would take the wind out of the sails of elec­tion re­form ef­forts for some time to come. Al­though this would be dis­heart­en­ing for re­form­ers, it would prob­a­bly lead those who feel our democ­racy is un­der­per­form­ing to look to other ways to im­prove our democ­racy, in­clud­ing par­lia­men­tary re­form and re­form of po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

Per­haps most im­por­tantly, this process shows that we need to look at ways of im­prov­ing voter en­gage­ment and par­tic­i­pa­tion through the sys­tem­atic use of par­tic­i­pa­tory in­no­va­tions like ci­ti­zens’ as­sem­blies, cit­i­zen ju­ries and par­tic­i­pa­tory bud­get­ing. Too of­ten politi­cians punt hard is­sues to vot­ers — Brexit comes to mind — in­stead of rec­og­niz­ing that com­plex is­sues re­quire more than par­ti­san and po­lar­ized de­bates. They re­quire broad and deep pub­lic en­gage­ment guided by a search for com­mon ground.

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