Citizens in British Columbia are set to decide on their voting system. Here is what you should know…

Chris Terry, Former Research Officer

Posted on the 1st June 2018

Back in May 2017 I brought you the story of the British Columbian general election which had seen no party get half the seats in the Legislative Assembly of Canada’s Westernmost province, leading to a deal between the New Democratic Party and the Greens set on electoral reform.

Yesterday the BC government presented their plans to hold a referendum on electoral reform at the end of this year.

This will be the third referendum British Columbia has held on electoral reform in 13 years. The first, in 2005, saw 57.7% of British Columbian voters vote for the Single Transferable Vote (STV) form of proportional representation.

However, the rules of the referendum stated that to pass, STV had to get 60% of the vote and so the referendum was re-run in 2009, with STV support falling in the face of a better-organised opposition.

Yet, the issue ran on. And rightly so – British Columbia has seen almost all the worst outcomes that Westminster style voting produces in recent decades. From an election where the party with the most votes failed to win the most seats, seeing another party govern instead (1996), to a party winning all but two seats leaving it with almost no real opposition (2001).

[bctt tweet=”British Columbia has seen almost all the worst outcomes that Westminster style voting produces in recent decades.” username=”electoralreform”]

Politicians that continue to support Westminster style voting, always argue that a referendum is vital to change the voting system.

It seems that a minority of the popular vote is good enough for a government to fundamentally change how the economy works, or redesign a social security or healthcare system, yet making every vote count is something that needs 50% support.

Thanks to their NDP/Green Coalition government, British Columbians finally have a government that over half the population support, where both parties had electoral reform in their manifestos. Yet somehow even this isn’t enough to just implement their manifesto promise.

The government’s plan for a referendum is to hold it from the 22nd of October to 30th of November by postal vote. Postal votes tend to raise turnout and reduce cost and this long period will allow for maximum engagement.

Two questions will be asked of voters. The first is whether to switch to a proportional system, the second on what type of proportional system with a choice of three systems the most familiar of which is the Mixed Member Proportional system used in Germany, New Zealand and very similar to that of the Scottish, Welsh and London devolved institutions.

[bctt tweet=”Two questions will be asked of voters. The first is whether to switch to a proportional system, the second on what type of proportional system” username=”electoralreform”]

The other two are systems designed in Canada with Canada in mind. In the first, Dual Member Proportional Representation, constituencies would double in size and elect two MPs, the first being from the most voted for candidate and the second awarded to one of the remaining candidates in a way designed to achieve proportionality.

The final system is Rural-Urban PR, which would use the Single Transferable Vote in urban areas and Mixed Member Proportional in the vast stretches of sparsely-populated country size.

The final details of these systems will be worked out in parliamentary committee should the bill pass.

However, the British Columbian government has decried that no region of the province would lose seats under PR, with the legislature only allowed to grow by a maximum of eight and that a 5% threshold will be used to keep out the smallest parties to deal with potential criticisms.

Around the world, country after country that was left with a Westminster style voting system have either upgraded to a proportional system or tried to. Even in the UK, it has become the norm that devolved institutions adopt modern proportional voting systems.

A majority of people in British Columbia have already voted for parties that support electoral reform. If that were to happen in UK, one possibility would be for the government to summon a randomly selected Citizens Assembly to learn about the options and suggest a system for the government to then implement.

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