Prince Edward Is­land poised for bat­tle over ‘18th cen­tury’ vot­ing sys­tem


A ref­er­en­dum law that could see the cra­dle of Con­fed­er­a­tion be­come the birth­place of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion passed Tues­day, more than a year af­ter Justin Trudeau struck the op­tion from po­ten­tial na­tional re­forms. P.E.I. leg­is­la­tors approved the Elec­toral Sys­tem Ref­er­en­dum Act on Tues­day evening, lay­ing out what At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jor­dan Brown de­scribes as a “fair choice’’ that will “de­ter­mine the elec­toral fu­ture of the prov­ince.’’ The ques­tion in the bill – “Should Prince Edward Is­land change its vot­ing sys­tem to a mixed mem­ber pro­por­tional vot­ing sys­tem?’’ – may also boost the sys­tem’s na­tional ex­po­sure, along­side Bri­tish Columbia’s prepa­ra­tions for a mail-in ref­er­en­dum on the is­sue this fall. The Is­land vote poses a sim­ple “Yes’’ or “No’’ op­tion, with po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists pre­dict­ing a tight bat­tle over the out­come. Pro­po­nents are ar­gu­ing P.E.I. is fer­tile ground for an early win for the sys­tem, de­pend­ing on when a pro­vin­cial elec­tion is held. One key ar­gu­ment is small ju­ris­dic­tions like P.E.I. – where one of two par­ties of­ten holds a lop-sided ma­jor­ity – don’t have suf­fi­cient checks on the govern­ment. “I think our elec­toral sys­tem is an 18th cen­tury sys­tem and we need to bring it into the 21st cen­tury,’’ says Leo Chev­erie, an ad­vo­cate for a “Yes’’ vote. How­ever, op­po­si­tion groups are now start­ing to form with sharply dif­fer­ing views. Op­po­nents like Dr. Gary Mor­gan, a vet­eri­nar­ian in Mill River, P.E.I., says he fears his prov­ince will be­come a “bat­tle­field and bell­wether for peo­ple who want this elec­toral re­form for re­gions in Canada.’’ “It’s a threat to ru­ral voice in Prince Edward Is­land ... in western P.E.I., we have five mem­bers rep­re­sent­ing us in the leg­is­la­ture and that would be down to two.’’ A “No’’ vote would mean the con­tin­u­a­tion of 27 leg­is­la­ture seats cho­sen by the first-past-the­p­ost method, while a “Yes’’ cre­ates a sys­tem of vot­ers choos­ing 18 leg­is­la­tors in re­drawn elec­toral dis­tricts and also cast­ing prov­ince-wide bal­lots for nine oth­ers from lists par­ties cre­ate. The “list’’ seats would be as­signed pro­por­tion­ately based on the pop­u­lar vote each party re­ceived on the sec­ond part of the bal­lots. Un­der the terms of the ref­er­en­dum bill voted on Tues­day, mem­bers of the leg­is­la­ture must still briefly re­con­vene to ap­prove a ref­er­en­dum com­mis­sioner. The bill says a vic­tory for the “Yes’’ side will re­quire a ma­jor­ity of votes cast in the ref­er­en­dum bal­lot in at least 60 per cent of the elec­toral dis­tricts. Mixed mem­ber pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion won a ma­jor­ity of the votes in a 2016 plebiscite on the Is­land, but Lib­eral Pre­mier Wade MacLauch­lan set the re­sults aside due to a low turnout, promis­ing he’d of­fer another ref­er­en­dum in the next gen­eral elec­tion. Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Don Desserud says it’s too early to pre­dict an out­come in Round 2. “The polling num­bers are pretty evenly split ... so it’s go­ing to be in­ter­est­ing to see in an ac­tual elec­tion how that plays out,’’ said the Univer­sity of Prince Edward Is­land pro­fes­sor. Chev­erie is al­ready work­ing be­hind the scenes, and pre­dicts much of the cam­paign will oc­cur through one-on-one chats among Is­lan­ders. The P.E.I. Pro­por­tional Rep­re­sen­ta­tion Net­work web­site is us­ing grass­roots or­ga­niz­ing meth­ods, invit­ing par­tic­i­pants to “share ideas,’’ and “if other cit­i­zens think it’s a good idea, they will join you and make it hap­pen,’’ through on­line chat groups. “We’re in a new phase where we’re try­ing to have more peo­ple from bot­tom up tak­ing ac­tion,’’ he said. Mar­cia Car­roll, di­rec­tor of the P.E.I. Coun­cil of Peo­ple with Dis­abil­i­ties, says she’s re­turn­ing to the cam­paign in hopes of bring­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties into pol­i­tics. “This has stirred some­thing po­lit­i­cal in me deeper than I re­al­ized I had,’’ said Car­roll. “We’re ready to go again ... that’s the way we work. We don’t give up.’’ How­ever, Desserud says the “No’’ side has the quiet sup­port of the ma­jor­ity Lib­eral and Con­ser­va­tive politi­cians on the Is­land, and the emer­gence of Mor­gan’s group is a sign the op­pos­ing forces are mar­shalling. Mor­gan, a for­mer Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive can­di­date in the 1990s in western P.E.I., says he ex­pects to form al­liances with ur­ban vot­ers who ob­ject to vot­ing for a can­di­date not ac­tu­ally based in their rid­ing. “I don’t see the con­nec­tion be­tween the at-large mem­ber of the leg­is­la­ture and democ­racy,’’ he said. Desserud also says that the cam­paign struc­ture cre­ated by the Lib­er­als in the ref­er­en­dum bill has helped level the play­ing field, by re­strict­ing off-Is­land dona­tions, keep­ing in­di­vid­ual dona­tions to $1,000, and set­ting up public fund­ing for both sides to draw on for ad­ver­tis­ing. “I’m watch­ing this with fas­ci­na­tion to see what (the Lib­er­als) are do­ing ... Are they just very, very con­fi­dent that when the ‘No’ sup­port­ers get or­ga­nized by a reg­u­lar elec­tion cam­paign that this will kill it?’’ says the pro­fes­sor. Brown says the ref­er­en­dum bill – and the gov­ern­ing Lib­er­als – are un­bi­ased. “I have looked at all the dif­fer­ent sys­tems. They all have their pros and cons. What­ever Is­lan­ders want I’m more than fine with,’’ he said. Re­stric­tions on out­side dona­tions and the role of pro­vin­cial politi­cians are quite rea­son­able, he adds. “A ful­some de­bate should be en­abled through a sys­tem that both pro­motes the shar­ing of ideas and ed­u­ca­tion? and reg­u­lates that same process so that no wealthy or out­side in­di­vid­ual can dis­pro­por­tion­ately sway the will of the vot­ers,’’ he said. James Ayl­ward, the leader of the Tory op­po­si­tion, said in an in­ter­view he is also stay­ing neu­tral in the vote. “I’m not go­ing to state my pref­er­ence one way or the other,’’ he said. “I don’t think it should be the re­spon­si­bil­ity of elected mem­bers of the leg­is­la­ture to push their will on the elec­torate.’’ Peter Be­van-Baker, leader of the Green Party, said he voted against the ref­er­en­dum bill based on its lack of public con­sul­ta­tion, but added, “it’s been im­proved im­mensely from its orig­i­nal draft.’’ Be­van-Baker said he sus­pects the govern­ment’s will­ing­ness to sit through a long ses­sion to pass the bill is a sign they’re hold­ing open the op­tion of a fall elec­tion, with the ref­er­en­dum on the bal­lot. “Per­haps we will be mak­ing a lit­tle bit of his­tory,’’ he says. Trudeau had promised to abol­ish the first-past-the-post fed­eral vot­ing sys­tem dur­ing the 2015 elec­tion, but later aban­doned the plan. The prime min­is­ter ar­gued that con­sul­ta­tions across the coun­try re­vealed that Cana­di­ans were not clam­our­ing for change. In B.C., a cam­paign ask­ing vot­ers whether they want to switch to pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion or keep the first-past-the-post sys­tem will start on July 1, with vot­ing by mail-in bal­lot run­ning from Oct. 22 to Nov. 30.

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