How should Haida Gwaiians vote in the B.C. referendum on electoral reform?
That’s the easy question — quickly.
Whatever provincial voting system islanders want, they need to fill out a ballot and make sure it gets delivered to Elections BC before the 4:30 p.m. deadline on Friday, Nov. 30.
Ballots can be mailed directly (the postage is free), or dropped off at the Service BC in Queen Charlotte.
As of this Friday, Nov. 2, all registered voters should have received an Elections BC guide that explains the options, plus a voting package.
So, how should everyone vote? That’s the tough one. Under the current voting system, first-past-the-post, voters tend to elect MLAs from large parties, and often the result is a single-party government.
If B.C. adopts proportional representation, or “pro rep,” voters will likely elect more MLAs from smaller parties as well as large ones, and often the result will be a multi-party government.
B.C. voters already rejected a move to a pro rep system in 2005 and again in 2009, but the new government in Quebec is likely to adopt one soon.
Time for a change?
Bill Sundhu and David Merner of Fair Vote Canada think it’s time B.C. switched to pro rep. From Kamloops and Victoria, they toured Haida Gwaii earlier this fall to make the case.
“What we would get is how B.C. really votes,” Sundhu said.
Unlike first-past-the-post, pro rep award seats to political parties based on their share of the popular vote.
If a party wins 40 per cent of the vote, for example, it gets about 40 per cent of the seats.
Right now, all Canadian provinces and the House of Commons use first-past-the-post, which awards seats to the winning candidate in each riding.
From Sundhu and Merner’s point of view, basing the system on riding wins rather than vote share causes a distortion.
For example, Sundhu highlighted the 2001 B.C. election, when the BC Liberals won 77 seats with 58 per cent of the popular vote. Because of how the votes were spread across ridings, the BC NDP won only two seats with 22 per cent of the vote, while the B.C. Greens won none despite having 12 per cent.
Sundhu said B.C.’s current electoral map also gives a poor reflection of how much support each party has.
“Right now, if you look at a map of B.C., it looks like the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island are all NDP with three Greens. And it looks like the rest of the province, except for the Kootenays and here, is all blue Liberal.”
“But if you look at the percentages, that’s not the way it is,” Sundhu said.
Also, because of the way parties tend to have concentrated support in so-called “safe seat” ridings, Sundhu and Merner said in most elections, there actually isn’t much of a contest in most ridings. Moving to pro rep would encourage more candidates to campaign beyond their base.
One major criticism of pro rep systems is that they tend to elect multi-party governments, which can be slow to form, and require a lot of intra-party negotiation to work.
But supporters such as David Merner see that as a feature, not a bug. “If you have to reach out to the other parties and create a consensus, you have to do a lot more listening,” Merner said.
“That’s the whole idea of compromise,” said Sundhu. “Nobody has a monopoly on all the good ideas.”
Stick with what works?
David Johnson says no voting system is perfect, but B.C. has done very well using first-past-the-post.
“I think we have to stop, look around us, and appreciate what we have,” said Johnson, a member of the No Proportional Representation Society B.C. who lives in Kitimat.
“We live in one of the most diverse, highest standard-of-living provinces in the world.”
For a start, Johnson said first-past-the-post is much simpler than pro rep, and it makes it much easier to hold a local MLA to account.
“They have the threat of being voted out if they’re not addressing the needs of the community,” he said.
Under all three pro rep systems being considered in the referendum, it’s likely that in large rural areas, such as the North Coast riding that Haida Gwaii is currently part of, the area MLA will still be elected by first-past-the-post.
But other MLAs would be elected based on a region- or province-wide share of the popular vote. Those MLAs would be hard to hold personally accountable, Johnson said.
“You’re basically voting for a party, instead of for an individual.”
Johnson is also concerned that a switch to pro rep could result in even larger, spread-out rural ridings in places such as Haida Gwaii, and more MLAs elected in heavily populated areas, such as the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.
“It’s going to put the power into population bases, putting rural B.C. on the outside of the circle,” he said.
Johnson is also concerned that pro rep will result in ineffective governments.
“Every single election, you would always have the power-sharing agreements,” he said.
“There’s so much politics involved in it that none of the major issues get dealt with, and if they do it’s over a long period of time.”
A question of process
But there is another, separate reason Johnson is voting for first-past-the-post this referendum — the way the choice was set up.
Unlike the B.C. referendums of 2005 and 2009, where voters chose between first-past-the-post or a single type of pro rep, this time it’s a two-part question. Voters are being asked to say yes or no to pro rep, and then to rank three pro-rep options.
Several details for the three pro rep systems would be decided after the vote, by a parliamentary committee, and it’s not yet clear how the electoral commission would draw up the new riding boundaries.
“What scares me is that they’re telling us that after the referendum, we’ll find out how the ridings will get divided,” Johnson said.
“Now you’re putting all this power into someone’s hands, and who knows what they’re going to do with it?”
“There has to be more information for citizens to make an informed decision.”
For Sundhu and Merner, no matter the details or which of the three of the pro rep systems people choose — Mixed Member Proportional, Dual Member Proportional, or Rural-Urban Proportional — a move to pro rep will be an improvement over first-past-the-post.
“It’s like, do you prefer strawberry, chocolate, or vanilla ice cream?” Merner said. “But they’re all ice cream.”
“All get you to the same destination — proportionality.”
If more than half of voters in the referendum choose pro rep, the top-ranked option will be used for any provincial elections called on July 1, 2021 or later. A follow-up referendum will be held after two B.C. elections to see if residents want to keep the new pro rep system, or go back to first-past-the-post.