Proportional representation: The pros and cons of reforming B.C.‘s electoral system

Proportional representation supporters say no ballot is wasted and everyone is represented, while opponents argue the existing system works well and provides stable governments.

This week, British Columbians begin receiving ballots to vote on whether to change the province’s voting system to proportional representation from the traditional first-past-the-post system.

t’s the third such referendum in 18 years.

The first two failed to meet the threshold for change — just barely in 2005, when 57.7 per cent voted in favour of proportional representation, just missing the government’s 60 per cent hurdle.

In 2009, support for pro-rep dropped to 39 per cent.

But the rules have changed. The threshold this time is a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one and there is no rule that a majority of voters in 60 per cent of ridings must vote in favour.

That means that voters in populous Metro Vancouver — where polls show higher support for proportional representation — could have a greater influence than those in other parts of B.C.

This time, voters are first asked to indicate whether they want to change to pro-rep from the first-past-the-post system.

Then, they are asked to rank three proportional representation systems. Each maintains local and regional representation but uses different mechanisms to ensure that if a party passes the five per cent popular vote threshold, it will have a proportionate share of the seats in the legislature.

The political and socio-economic landscape has also changed in B.C. since the first two referendums and, perhaps, voters are in a mood for change.

For example, residents of the Lower Mainland who are frustrated with housing affordability and the government’s reaction to it during the 16 years of majority rule by the B.C. Liberals may be looking for an electoral change they believe will provide governments that are more responsive.

And for the first time in more than 65 years, B.C. has a minority government. The NDP governs with support from the Green party, which won a historic three seats on Vancouver Island in the 2017 election, giving voters a taste of what a coalition-like government may look like under proportional representation.

The ballot asks two questions. The first question for voters is whether they want to stick with the existing first-past-the-post system — in which each of the 87 ridings is represented by a single MLA who is the top vote winner in the election — or change to proportional representation. Voters are also being asked to rank three different proportional representation systems.

Voters can answer one or both questions, and can rank the following three representation systems even if they vote no to change. Under all the proportional representation systems, more ridings could be added, up to a total of 95.

• Dual member proportional: Most single-MLA ridings are combined with a neighbouring riding to form two-MLA ridings. A few large, rural ridings continue to be represented by a single MLA. This dual member system has not been used anywhere in the world.

• Mixed member proportional: Sixty per cent of the MLAs are directly elected under the first-past-the-post system in ridings and the other 40 per cent of seats are distributed to ensure seat totals reflect the popular vote. (This system is used in countries such as Germany and New Zealand.)

• Rural-urban proportional: Combines two different systems for urban and rural parts of B.C. The urban ridings use a single transferable vote system, where candidates are ranked on a single ballot in large ridings. The candidate with the fewest votes is dropped and votes redistributed to the second choice on each ballot. The process continues until a candidate has 50 per cent plus one of the votes. (This system is used in countries such as Ireland.) The rural ridings are determined using the mixed member system.  

The voting period is Oct. 22 to Nov. 30.

Coalition governments

If the vote for proportional representation is successful, British Columbians can expect more parties in the legislature and minority governments that hold power through coalitions of two or more parties.

That’s been the experience everywhere else proportional representation is used. In New Zealand, which switched to proportional representation in 1996, the past three elections have elected five to eight parties to the legislature.

The latest governing coalition includes the Labour, New Zealand First and Green parties. Ousted was a minority government of the conservative National Party supported by the centrist United Future party, the neo-liberal ACT Party and the Indigenous-rights Maori Party.

Something similar in B.C. would be a significant change from the one-party majority governments that are almost always produced under the first-past-the-post system.

Supporters of a change to proportional representation argue it’s a fairer voting system, where every vote counts. Under pro-rep, the Greens would have gained closer to 15 seats in the last election, reflecting the 16.8 per cent of the vote they received, rather than the three seats they won. In 1996, proportional representation would have given the now-defunct, right-wing Reform Party of B.C. more than the two seats it won with 9.1 per cent of the popular vote.

Pro and con

Supporters of proportional representation say voters can cast a ballot for the party that best represents their interests without feeling their votes will be wasted.

Opponents of pro-rep argue the existing system has been tried and tested, and has served the province well with stable governments. They argue a change to proportional representation will destroy the connection between the voter and their local representative and allow extremists into the B.C. legislature.

So, where does the truth lie?

The reality, say political scientists, is that both are legitimate voting systems that represent different philosophies.

They also warn against being swayed by the rhetoric of those campaigning for a Yes vote or No vote in the referendum.

“People need to ask themselves a kind of basic question about a vision of democracy,” said Richard Johnston, a University of B.C. professor of political science. “You are not going to get an honest depiction of the world of (proportional representation) from advocates, but neither are you going to get it from the opponents.”

Political scientists say voters should try to make themselves as informed as possible by, for example, taking a look at more neutral information from Elections B.C., which is being mailed out along with the ballots and available on its website, elections.bc.ca/referendum.

“There are no best electoral systems,” said Eline de Rooij, a Simon Fraser University political scientist. “They are designed for dealing with different issues, and so they do different things. To some extent it’s comparing apples and pears.”

Different visions of democracy

Under the existing first-past-the post system, in which each voter casts a ballot in one of 87 electoral districts in B.C., the winning candidate in each riding often receives less than a majority of the votes. Across the province, this results in a party winning a greater portion of seats than is reflected by their popular vote.

In 2005, the B.C. Liberals won 46 seats with 45.8 per cent of the vote, while the NDP won 33 seats, 13 fewer, with 41.5 per cent of the vote. The Greens, with 9.2 per cent of the vote, did not win a seat.

In 2001, the B.C. Liberals won 57 per cent of the popular vote and 77 of the then 79 ridings, or 97.5 per cent of the seats. The NDP won just two seats with 21.6 per cent of the vote. The Greens won no seats with 12.4 per cent of the vote.

This winner-take-all system almost always creates a majority government.

And it is a system where the winning party can carry out its mandate unimpeded, where accountability is clear and where the public can vote that single party out of government.

“The clarity of responsibility is the great virtue of (the first-past-the-post) system,” says Johnston, who holds the Canada Research Chair in public opinion, elections, and representation at UBC.

Proportional representation leans the other way. By creating a system where no one party earns enough seats to form a majority government, it requires parties to come together in a coalition after an election in order to form a government.

Political scientists say that process tends to create a consensual-type of government that is forced to co-operate and compromise.

Coalitions are also formed in the current first-past-the-post system under so-called big-tent parties — like the NDP and Liberals in B.C. — but they are almost always formed before voters cast a ballot.

Maxwell Cameron, a UBC political science professor, said that the government created by first-past-the-post — where there is almost always a clear, and therefore accountable winner — is a compelling vision of democracy.

Proportional representation provides a different vision, said Cameron, who is director of the UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

“What is really important (under proportional representation) is that we get legislatures that reflect the society — and that politicians do the work of finding common ground, of compromise and negotiation, and trying to govern on behalf as many people as possible,” he said.

De Rooij agreed that proportional representation creates governments that are forced to work and co-operate in partnership.

“There’s no right or wrong. It’s a preference,” she said.

Many voters undecided

So, where does that leave voters?

There’s an acrimonious battle between the No and Yes sides, with those against proportional representation often making charged statements and those in favour of it accusing the No side of fearmongering.

For example, union lobbyist Bill Tieleman, who is a No side leader, argues that proportional representation will allow extremists, potentially with anti-immigration views, to enter the legislature, as has happened in Europe. At a debate on electoral reform hosted by the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, Tieleman told the audience: “I say there is no room in the B.C. legislature for neo-Nazis or fascists.”

While it is true that parties with anti-immigration sentiments have gained a foothold in legislatures in Europe, including in Germany, Austria and Sweden, the issue is complex and reflects responses to globalization and waves of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war-torn regions and totalitarian regimes, as well as the rise of populism — issues that are also affecting politics in countries with first-past-the-post systems, including the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada.

And because these parties have gained a foothold in Europe does not mean that will happen in British Columbia, argue political scientists, including Cameron.

The reality is that these global issues exist irrespective of voting systems.

A key argument of pro-rep advocates, including the Broadbent Institute’s B.C. director, Maria Dobrinskaya, is that the system will ensure that nobody’s vote is wasted and that it will eliminate strategic voting, where voters support a candidate who is not their sincere preference. “It’s not fair,” said Dobrinskaya.

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