Weighing the options on proportional representation

By Seth Klein

During these weeks leading up to the electoral reform referendum, I’ve been giving a lot of talks, making the case for switching to a system of proportional representation (pro rep). Invariably, during Q&A, I get asked how I personally plan to rank the three reform options on the ballot’s second question.

But until now, I’ve resisted publicly answering this question; how one ranks the reform options is a personal choice.

I like that the Attorney General chose to include the second ballot question, thereby empowering voters to make that choice and guide the decision about what form of pro rep we will have (should a majority choose to change our electoral system in Question 1).

But people keep asking what I will do. So, for what it’s worth, I’ve decided to share my own, personal, rankings.

But before I share how I will be voting, some important context:

  • You are not required to answer Question 2 on the ballot. If you really don’t have a preference, or don’t want to take the time (I recommend half an hour) to investigate the three reform options, then you don’t need to answer the second question. A ballot that only answers Question 1 counts just the same. (And conversely, those who vote to keep the first-past-the-post system in Question 1 are still entitled to weigh in with their preferences in Question 2.)
  • All three pro rep models are a huge improvement over the status quo, so there are no wrong answers to Question 2. I like all three models.We get to test drive any new system for two elections. The Attorney General has done us a service by committing, in law, that should British Columbians vote to change the electoral system, there will be a second “confirmation referendum” after two elections under the newly chosen system. That’s great, as it takes the risk out of the choices before us, allowing us to experience a new system first-hand.
    • All three produce proportional outcomes, meaning a party’s share of the popular vote will be reflected in their share of seats in the BC Legislature.
    • All three preserve local representation, albeit in slightly different ways. And, contrary to the misleading claims of the ‘No’ side in the referendum, under each system no region will have fewer MLAs than they currently have.

    That said, each of the three pro rep options has different strengths, and how you choose to rank them depends on what is important to you. We all value somewhat different things to different degrees when it comes to what we are looking for in our democracy, and your own values should guide your ranking.

So, having established all the above, here is how I personally plan to rank the pro rep options, starting with my favourite (my explanation follows):

  1. Rural-Urban Proportional
  2. Mixed Member Proportional
  3. Dual Member Proportional

What my ballot will look like

Under Rural-Urban, the large majority of British Columbians who live in urban and suburban settings would be voting using the single transferable vote (STV)—the same system that was recommended by the BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, and which was on the referendum ballot in 2005 and 2009.

I voted ‘Yes’ to STV both those times, and came to be a fan of the system. Of the options before us, STV gives the most power to individual voters, as it lets us rank as many individual candidates in our riding as we wish, regardless of their party affiliation. Each party will put forward a selection of local candidates, and we as voters are empowered to say which of them we most like. We are also free to “mix it up;” your first choice may be from one party, while your second choice could be from another, and so on as you rank as many as you want.

Under STV, every MLA is accountable to a local riding. STV is also the system most likely to see independent candidates  (those running unaffiliated with any party) win some seats. That’s because in ridings electing between four and seven MLAs, a candidate can win a seat by securing the support of 15–25% of the local voters—something that an independent with a strong local profile and base could well achieve. So the independent-minded person in me finds this feature attractive.

The main critique of STV (and likely an important part of why it didn’t get a majority in the 2009 referendum) was that it has some downsides for rural ridings—most notably, rural ridings under STV have to become geographically very large in order to accommodate multiple MLAs.

The beauty of Rural-Urban is that it fixes this shortcoming: rural ridings under Rural-Urban wouldn’t use STV, but instead would vote using Mixed Member. Consequently, instead of rural ridings needing to become two to four times larger, they only need to become about two-thirds larger than now (effectively the same size as they currently are federally). Given this, I see Rural-Urban as a very innovative solution to British Columbia’s unique needs and geography.

For me, Mixed Member comes a close second. I like how it creatively combines local ridings and regional MLAs to produce an outcome that assures both local accountability and overall proportionality. And kudos to the Attorney General for “tweaking” how Mixed Member is used in other countries, making the party lists regional rather than for the whole province (as is conventionally done). By doing so, he is able to ensure that no region will have fewer MLAs than currently, and that every MLA is accountable to either a local riding or region.

My third place ranking of Dual Member is by no means meant to disparage it. Dual Member’s principal strength is that every MLA would be tied to a local riding, just as they are now (so if that’s very important to you, this system may be for you). But, in my estimation, while the ballots under Dual Member would be the simplest (and most similar to what we have now), I find it more complicated to explain how the votes are counted than under Rural-Urban and Mixed Member. And my sense is that, with only one vote for one pair of party candidates, Dual Member opens up less new choice to voters compared to the two other options.

That’s my take. But like I said, a different ranking is entirely reasonable—it depends what you are looking for and value. So take a few minutes to dig into the options. There are great resources out there for doing so:

Wealthy elites funding opposition to Prop Rep

New filings released by British Columbia’s elections authority show the ‘No’ side in the province’s upcoming electoral reform referendum is largely funded by BC’s wealthiest elites and right-wing power brokers.

This fall, British Columbians will cast their votes on whether the province should stick with its outdated first-past-the-post electoral system or join other countries around the world, such as GermanyNew Zealand and Norway, who have relied on a proportional voting system without any problems for decades.

According to newly published financial disclosures by Elections BC, it turns out the people who most want to stick with the status quo are BC’s rich and powerful “entrenched interests.”

For the referendum campaign, Elections BC announced the government has allocated $500,000 to both the pro-reform and anti-reform campaigns, and will allow an additional $200,000 in advertising funds for each side to come from third parties.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the big spenders who each donated more than $1,000 to the ‘No’ campaign – as well as some of their ludicrous views and shady dealings:

Suzanne Anton, the former Attorney General under Christy Clark’s BC Liberal government, is the founder and director of the No Proportional Representation Society of BC, the official group representing the ‘No’ side.

Anton recently tweeted an absurd theory suggesting “proportional representation” is part of a conspiracy aimed at the “disruption of Canadian economic activity.”

Except that theory doesn’t make much sense: an acclaimed 2011 study found proportional voting systems produced “astonishingly robust” and “quite substantial” increases in economic growth.

Moreover, a 2015 study concludes a mixed-member proportional voting system “enhances both political and government stability stimulating a relatively high growth rate.”

Finally, a 2014 study found that countries without proportional representation systems have an average of 65.7 per cent higher national debts than countries using proportional representation.

Ross Beaty, a wealthy mining tycoon whose company was accused of scavenging off Iceland’s economic collapse after the firm bought up assets from a failing local hydro company, is also helping bankroll the ‘No’ campaign.

Beaty donated nearly $90,000 to the BC Liberals between 2010 and 2017, including a $5,000 donation to BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson’s leadership campaign.

Ironically, Beaty’s preferred BC Liberal leadership candidate would have lost the contest under the first-past-the-post system that he is now paying to support.

Rob Hartvikson is a wealthy venture capitalist who got rich from heavily discounted stocks in the gold and diamond industries during the 1990s.

Hartvikson subsequently became tangled up in a conflict of interest scandal. In 2000, a commission found that Hartvikson and Blayne Johnson, a fellow Vancouver stockbroker, withheld information from their clients and made off with more than $5 million.

Hartvikson subsequently fled to Ireland in 2001 to avoid public attention.

Hassan Khosrowshahi, a Vancouver-based billionaire and founder of Future Shop, is a major BC Liberal donor and serves as a director for the right-wing Fraser Institute.

In 2015, Clark’s BC Liberal government sold Khosrowshahi 14 parcels of land in Coquitlam for a staggering $43 million below its appraised value. At the time, the NDP accused the BC Liberals of discounting the land as a personal favour to Khosrowshahi, whose company had donated nearly $1 million to the Liberals.

Jess Ketchum is president of Ketchum Communications, a lobbying firm whose clients have included the Council of Forest Industries and the British Columbia Lumber Trade Council

Prior to becoming a lobbyist, Ketchum was a well-known political operative and campaign manager for the right-wing BC Social Credit Party. He later worked as a BC Liberal advisor.

Other donors listed in the initial disclosure include:

• Peter Armstrong, former president of the Non Partisan Association, a right-wing municipal political party in Vancouver

• George Affleck, an entrepreneur and NPA councillor

• Reid Carter, an asset manager and director of West Fraser Timber

• Mohan Jawl, a major developer in Victoria

• Peter Gustavson, CEO of Gustavson Capital Corp who sold his previous company for $370 million USD

• James Sutcliffe, a banking and financial services lawyer.

Explaining the options under proportional representation

These pages focus on the proportional systems on the ballot in BC’s referendum.

QUICK LINK: Dual Member Proportional
 Mixed Member Proportional
QUICK LINK: Rural-Urban Proportional (also called Flexible District PR)

QUICK LINK: Single Transferable Vote (STV) 
Note: Single Transferable Vote is not on the ballot in BC’s referendum but is a key component of Rural-Urban Proportional. With Rural-Urban Proportional, STV would be used in the urban and semi-urban areas.

All of the proportional systems on BC’s ballot are a huge improvement over our current system, first-past-the-post. 


All three systems share these attributes:

  • Proportional results
  • Retain MLA accountability to a specific geographic area (local or regional)
  • Real names on the ballot – not just parties
  • No region to have fewer MLAs than now
  • No significant increase in number of MLAs
  • 5% provincial threshold to get proportional seats
  • Simplicity for voters

Three reasons to vote yes on Pro Rep

Virtually nobody wants to read a list of 50 reasons why British Columbians should vote for proportional representation (Pro Rep) this fall.

But we assume everyone wants to read a list of three reasons.