Ref­er­en­dum plagued with problems from the out­set, writes Ly­dia Mil­jan.

Vancouver Sun - - EDITORIAL - Ly­dia Mil­jan is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Univer­sity of Wind­sor.

Voter turnout for the pro­vin­cial ref­er­en­dum on elec­toral re­form is abysmally low. The fact that only about 40 per cent of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers had cast a bal­lot one day be­fore the dead­line presents a le­git­i­macy prob­lem for the NDP gov­ern­ment to move for­ward on elec­toral re­form.

From the out­set, the way in which this ref­er­en­dum was han­dled has been prob­lem­atic.

Re­mem­ber, the gov­ern­ment set no thresh­old on turnout. De­spite this omis­sion, Premier John Hor­gan’s gov­ern­ment ap­peared some­what con­cerned about turnout as it ex­tended the dead­line to re­ceive bal­lots by one week.

This is when they knew go­ing into Nov. 30 dead­line that turnout was in the 30-per-cent range.

De­spite this ex­ten­sion, voter turnout is not only lower than the last two ref­er­en­dums on elec­toral re­form, it’s even lower that the ref­er­en­dum on the HST.

To put this into con­text, the last provincewide ref­er­en­dum was in 2011 on the ques­tion of the HST. That ref­er­en­dum pe­riod lasted 75 days and the per­cent­age of to­tal bal­lots cast was 52.66 per cent. Turnout as a per­cent­age of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers was 49.2 per cent.

This time around, low voter turnout, even with the seven-day ex­ten­sion, should not be a sur­prise to the gov­ern­ment.

Based on how peo­ple re­turned their bal­lots in 2011, the high­est vol­ume of re­turned bal­lots was in the last 10 days be­fore the bal­lots were counted. This makes sense, as vot­ers know that they need to get their bal­lots in early to en­sure that they are re­ceived by Elec­tions B.C. by the last day of the ref­er­en­dum.

Why is voter turnout so im­por­tant?

There are three re­lated is­sues re­gard­ing turnout of the elec­tion and the thresh­old for sup­port be­ing 50-plus-one per cent of the vote.

First, both the NDP and Greens have ar­gued that the sys­tem is bro­ken, and the pub­lic wants change. The fact that less than half the pop­u­la­tion has ex­er­cised its fran­chise means that those most in favour of change are the po­lit­i­cal par­ties them­selves, and not the pub­lic at large.

Sec­ond, not only is turnout in this ref­er­en­dum lower than in pre­vi­ous ones, but it’s lower than the last pro­vin­cial elec­tion.

In 2017, turnout was 57.7 per cent. Hav­ing sig­nif­i­cantly fewer peo­ple vote on a ref­er­en­dum to change an elec­toral sys­tem than would nor­mally vote in that sys­tem seems fun­da­men­tally at odds with the premise of pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

The de­sign of the ref­er­en­dum oc­cur­ring sep­a­rately from a pro­vin­cial elec­tion, and by mail bal­lot, gives the im­pres­sion that it was de­signed to sup­press voter turnout. This alone would make any re­sult from the ref­er­en­dum sus­pect and open to ques­tions re­gard­ing whether the gov­ern­ment had a man­date for change.

The third prob­lem with the ref­er­en­dum is the ques­tion it­self.

While the first ques­tion is straight­for­ward, the sec­ond ques­tion that asks vot­ers to rank three sys­tems, of which two have never been used, has its own problems of le­git­i­macy.

The sec­ond ques­tion does not ful­fil in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized best prac­tices re­gard­ing ref­er­en­dum ques­tions that they not be bi­ased. By pit­ting a known elec­toral sys­tem, mixed mem­ber pro­por­tional (MMP), against two the­o­ret­i­cal sys­tems, ru­ral ur­ban pro­por­tional (RUP), and dual mem­ber pro­por­tional (DMP), it bi­ased the re­sults in favour of MMP.

Given this flawed process, it was al­ways likely that MMP would be the first choice of the ma­jor­ity of those who an­swered the sec­ond ques­tion. This is sim­ply be­cause it’s the only elec­toral sys­tem that vot­ers knew worked in prac­tice.

As well, many of those who chose to keep the cur­rent elec­toral sys­tem likely didn’t an­swer the sec­ond ques­tion. That means that voter turnout for the sec­ond ques­tion will al­most cer­tainly be lower than it will be for the first ques­tion.

This raises ad­di­tional con­cerns about the le­git­i­macy of the re­sult.

How can the gov­ern­ment claim it has a man­date for change if fewer than half the peo­ple turn out to vote, and of those who do, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber did not an­swer both ques­tions?

De­spite Premier John Hor­gan’s as­ser­tion that he has the pub­lic’s bless­ing to pro­ceed with MMP, it is sim­ply not a le­git­i­mate man­date when fewer than half the pop­u­la­tion vote.

There is a prece­dent for this.

When Prince Ed­ward Is­land held its ref­er­en­dum on elec­toral re­form in 2016, the ranked bal­lot used gave them MMP on the fourth round of vot­ing, with 52.4 per cent of the vote. Be­cause voter turnout in that elec­tion was only 36.4 per cent, the gov­ern­ment con­cluded the re­sult was in­con­clu­sive be­cause of the low voter turnout.

By not de­sign­ing a fair bal­lot and by hold­ing the ref­er­en­dum by mail dur­ing a non-pro­vin­cial elec­tion year, the gov­ern­ment has made it ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to claim that they have the au­thor­ity to pro­ceed with chang­ing Bri­tish Columbia’s vot­ing sys­tem.

How can the gov­ern­ment claim it has a man­date for change if fewer than half the peo­ple turn out to vote, and of those who do, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber did not an­swer both ques­tions?


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