Electoral reform referendum is ridiculous: professor

British Columbians will soon start receiving mailed ballots for a chance to vote in a referendum that could change the provincial voting system, but the experience of other provinces suggests the plan will be a waste of time and money, says a political science professor.

Nelson Wiseman of the University of Toronto said Ontario and Prince Edward Island have failed to replace the existing first-past-the-post system, as has B.C. in two previous attempts, because the status quo favours established parties in the long run.

Wiseman said elected leaders should decide themselves if they want to change a system and not leave that up to voters, who could oust a party in the next election if they’re dissatisfied with the results.

“My attitude is, ‘Look, don’t tell me you’re going to have a referendum. Tell me if you are in favour. Are you going to do it or are you not going to do it?’

Why you should vote 'no'

British Columbians begin to cast the ballots that could change how we elect our provincial leaders. We’ll either keep our current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system or adopt one of three new models of proportional representation (PR). The B.C. Chamber of Commerce isn’t against PR, per se — but given how unclear the referendum process has been, we urge British Columbians to vote “no.”

The last referendum was held in 2009, with a 61-per-cent majority voting against PR (the same happened in 2005). But despite advice to abandon an ill-conceived process, the province has decided to forge ahead. The good news is that British Columbians have (another) chance to have their voices heard.

Get the facts on proportional representation

This fall voter will be forced to participate in an unnecessary referendum on Proportional Represntation.

Study the implacations HERE

The Impact of Proportional Representation on Legislature and Voters

Lydia Miljan & Taylor Jackson

0906 - British Columbia will hold a referendum on changing the province’s electoral system to a form of proportional representation (PR).

Proponents advocating for the change to a PR electoral system argue that the current system is unfair because it disproportionately allocates more seats to certain parties than the proportion of votes that those party receive, and also potentially leads to minority views being underrepresented. However, this single-minded critique of the current system is overly simplistic since it focuses only on the benefits of proportionality and ignores the many inevitable tradeoffs involved in a proportional system.

Indeed, changing the electoral system to a form of PR would undoubtedly lead to both planned and unforeseen changes that would affect how the government functions, how public policy is made, and would influence representation and voter accountability, among other matters.

Consider first how a shift to a PR electoral system would affect the composition of BC’s legislature. As the electoral institutions and party incentives began to shift, the province’s legislature would become more fragmented, meaning that more parties would be represented in the legislature.

While proponents of PR see the situation where more parties are receiving representation and the positive effect that this has on proportionality as a positive development, there are a number of drawbacks with a more fragmented legislature. One drawback is the types of parties that can be elected. As more parties receive seats in PR electoral systems, the effective threshold for parties to get elected is lower, which often leads to fringe or extreme parties on both the left and right of the political spectrum receiving a greater share of seats than would similar parties in our current electoral system.

PR proponents also contend that a more fragmented legislature will allow for a greater representation of minority views. However, it is incorrect to assume that minority views are not well represented in FPTP electoral systems. While the influence of minority views is more explicit under PR electoral rules due to the higher frequency with which coalition governments are formed, minority views are still represented in plurality and majoritarian systems, because no single party can gain the widespread support that would allow them to govern in such systems without building a coalition of both large and small societal groups. In other words, the parties and their platforms in majoritarian and plurality systems must be broad enough to appeal to a number of constituent groups.

Another way of thinking of this is that many different voter blocs, including those that represent minority views, tend to get a little bit of some of their policy preferences, but not all of them. As a result, majoritarian and plurality electoral systems lead to more moderate policy platforms. This type of coalition-building within the party system creates more stable governments than is the case under a PR system because the varying factions within the party are more likely to compromise than if they were in separate parties.

A further consequence of a more fragmented legislature is that coalition governments, as opposed to majority governments, will most likely become the norm for British Columbia. Coalition governments in BC could lead to greater policy uncertainty due to the ambiguity over which parties may form the coalition and the time that it can take to form a coalition government.

Finally, a shift to a PR electoral system in BC could lead to a poorer representation of voters’ views, while also making it more difficult for British Columbians to hold their politicians to account.

Given the wide-ranging effects that a change to BC’s electoral system would have, debates about electoral reform need to be expanded, and governments and citizens should consider a broader set of evaluative criteria when determining whether changing the province’s electoral system is necessary or prudent.

B.C.’s electoral reform referendum seriously flawed

Jock Finlayson & Ken Peacock

By Jock Finlayson & Ken Peacock
From Business In Vancouver

1022 - There is nothing more fundamental to democracy than free elections and the rules by which our legislative representatives are chosen. Changing this system is a serious undertaking – one that demands meaningful public engagement, clear alternatives that people can easily understand and a voting process that ensures the collective voice of British Columbians is heard. 

The provincial referendum on electoral reform falls short of meeting these basic criteria. 

To begin with, the ballot question is muddled. The referendum consists of a two-part question. Voters first indicate their preference for either retaining the current first past the post (FPTP) electoral system or moving to some type of proportional representation (PR) system. The second part asks them to select one or rank three different models of PR. When filling out their ballots, voters can answer both questions or just one. They could choose to retain the current system and not indicate a preference for any of the three listed PR models (discussed further below). Alternatively, they could stick with FPTP but still go on to select one of the PR systems – or even rank the three PR proposals. 

A second option is a mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system, which combines FPTP (the current system) with some yet-to-be-determined form of regional representation. Even the most basic elements of how the system would work are not outlined. With certain models of MMP, voters cast two separate ballots (one for a district candidate and one for a party), while in others a single vote for a candidate also counts as a vote for the candidate’s party. The Elections BC website states that if MMP is adopted, “a legislative committee will decide after the referendum if voters have one vote or two.” So, even supporters of MMP won’t really know what they are getting. 

The third PR model is a rural-urban proportional hybrid. It’s even more complex, combining two different voting systems: the single transferable vote (STV) and an MMP system. The two are used independently in a few jurisdictions, but nowhere else have they been combined into a single voting system. Many readers will recall that British Columbians rejected the STV in a 2009 referendum. 

Apart from the flawed design of the referendum question, there are other reasons to worry about the implications of shifting to a PR-based electoral system. For one thing, experience in other countries suggests it is likely to encourage political fragmentation, with several more parties virtually certain to secure representation in the legislature. This will make majority governments a thing of the past and lead to greater political and policy instability – something that could well have a dampening effect on capital formation, business confidence and incentives for long-term entrepreneurial wealth creation. Over time, PR may also inject more extremist sentiments into our politics, as seen in several European countries with PR systems where neo-fascist, anti-immigrant and communist/hard-left parties often have a place in national parliaments. 

Today in Canada, the major political parties are “big tents,” containing a number of different viewpoints. Under PR, the parties are likely to become more narrowly based. That will make governing harder and political debates more strident. 

Also of concern is the absence of a minimum threshold in the referendum. Imagine that only 30% to 40% of eligible voters correctly fill out and then mail in their ballots – an entirely plausible scenario. In that case, the existing electoral system could be abandoned based on the judgments of just 15% to 20% of British Columbians. Worse still, because of the awkward two-stage structure of the referendum question, an even smaller fraction of voters could determine which specific PR model the province ends up with. 

A final thought: voters may want to reflect on the fact that Canada’s political and legal institutions, including our electoral system, are seen around the world as having served the country very well, delivering effective government, a generally stable policy environment and minimal levels of political corruption. Against that backdrop, why take a “leap of faith” on a radically different electoral system, one that’s almost guaranteed to produce greater policy uncertainty, heightened political fractiousness and more frequent elections? •

Jock Finlayson is the Business Council of British Columbia’s executive vice-president and chief policy officer; Ken Peacock is the council’s chief economist.

Please note that the above opinions are our own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Business Council of BC or its members


Proportional representation vote is dishonest, misleading

Gordon Gibson


By Gordon Gibson

1022 - I was born in British Columbia a bit more than 81 years ago and have spent most of my life here. It has been a great privilege to live in this province and, like many, I have done what I could to give back.

My method was via politics. I ran five times, elected twice as an MLA. I was executive assistant to Pierre Trudeau and then leader of the B.C. Liberal Party in the 1970s. I contested that position again in the 1990s, losing to Gordon Campbell. I have since been non-partisan. In the last election the record will show I gave $2,000 to the campaign of NDP MLA Carole James.

Over that time I have learned there are two parts to politics. Most of the year-to-year decisions belong to our elected representatives, including taxation and spending. That is fine.

However some basic things – our rights and freedoms – do not belong to politicians. Central to our rights and freedoms is our electoral system by which we select our representatives.

Politicians are hopelessly conflicted and naturally will seek personal advantage in any change. But democratic elections belong to us, and if the rules are to be changed they should be changed by us.

In 2002 I was tasked by the B.C. government to design the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. That process was unanimously adopted by the B.C. legislature. It has been studied and copied around the world as the gold standard for making such important changes.

All 160 members of that assembly studied, consulted and deliberated for a year and proposed a precise system (it was called BC-STV) that was put to a referendum vote. That is the way to do it: citizen design, citizen approval. Almost 58 per cent of British Columbians voted in favour. That was not enough for the government of the day, though none of its members could even dream of such support personally. So the initiative support dwindled and died.

Now we have a new proposal for electoral change, but with a huge difference. This one is designed by partisan politicians for their benefit, however high-sounding their words.

Anyone who follows sports knows the importance of detailed rules. Even apparently tiny ones can tilt the playing field and rig the game. To all but the closest students of the game the tricks are invisible, but they determine who wins.

That is the basic problem of the current referendum on electoral change. Specific details like community representation, what bosses will choose party list MLAs, how many votes you will have and how counted – these essentials are hidden, to be decided only after the referendum by conflicted politicians. But that is too much of a mandate to give to a saint, let alone your average MLA.

In short, this process is dishonest, misleading and wide open to down-the-road manipulation.

What MLAs who support this referendum are advocating is an erosion of our rights and freedoms, as the politicians write their own employment contracts.

We know the right citizen process in B.C. and have used it in the past. That is the honest way to consider the respectable but very complex question of electoral change. Our current government is following a process that is wrong. I say, for shame.

On this self-serving and deceitful question, “No” is the vote for democracy.

Gordon Gibson was leader of the B.C. Liberal Party from 1975 to 1979. He was inducted into the Order of B.C. in 2008.