Attempts at electoral reform in British Columbia (B.C.) – Canada’s westernmost and third most populous province – date back more than 13 years. On Monday, voting opens on whether to scrap the all-or-nothing voting system there once and for all.
British Columbia has experienced some of the worst outcomes that Westminster-style First Past the Post voting can produce. In 1996, for example, the Liberals won the most votes (41.8%) but failed to win the most seats. The New Democratic Party, who did obtain the most seats in the lower chamber and went on to form the government, won nearly 40,000 fewer votes.
A Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was established in 2003 and tasked with assessing models for electing Members of the Legislative Assembly and issuing a report. The Assembly was independent, non-partisan, and composed of 161 randomly selected citizens. At the end of their deliberations, the Assembly members determined that a form of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) would be the best system for BC. Following their recommendations, a referendum on electoral reform was held in 2005 alongside the provincial general election.
Voters were asked ‘Should British Columbia change to the BC-STV electoral system as recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform? Yes/No’. But rather than holding a simple vote, two thresholds were established for the result to be binding: an arbitrary 60% of valid ballots had to be in favour of the change, alongside a majority in 48 out of 79 electoral districts.
A majority of voters province-wide (57.7%) and over 50% of voters in 77 of the 79 districts chose the Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation. But the referendum failed to reach the required 60% threshold. There was no such threshold for forming the government and at the same election, the Liberals formed a majority government on just 45.8% of the vote.
The government recognised that there had been significant support for electoral reform and that many considered the fact that STV was not implemented illegitimate. The referendum was, therefore, re-run in 2009, once again in conjunction with the provincial general election. The 60% province-wide threshold was kept and a simple majority was required in at least 51 of the now 85 electoral districts. But having lost momentum, STV failed to gain support in the face of a better-organised opposition – only 39% of the electorate supported the change.
Debate has continued in the province, however. In October 2017, the government introduced a bill requiring another provincial referendum to be held on electoral reform. This was followed by a substantial public engagement exercise conducted by the Attorney General – the ‘How We Vote’ consultation – which allowed voters to shape key elements of the referendum, including the ballot question.
As part of this, a public website was set up with information on the characteristics of voting systems in the province and around the world, and where voters could fill in a questionnaire focused on the values and preferences they would like reflected in a voting system. More than 90,000 British Columbians completed the questionnaire.
The referendum itself will take place by postal vote, a method which tends to raise turnout and reduce costs. Voting will be open from 22nd October to 30th November – a long window that should allow for maximum engagement. The government will provide designated for- and against- campaigners with $500,000 to conduct their public information campaigns. Elections BC will provide neutral information about the referendum and proposed voting system.
There will be two questions on the ballot. First voters will be asked whether British Columbia should use the current First Past the Post voting system or a proportional voting system. Second, they will be asked to rank their preferred proportional voting systems, should the province adopt proportional representation. Three electoral systems will be on the ballot: Dual Member Proportional, Mixed Member Proportional (known as the Additional Member System in the UK) and Rural-Urban Proportional.
The referendum will be binding if either option receives more than half the valid votes cast. If a form of proportional representation were to be chosen, it must be in place for the provincial elections due to take place on or after 1 July 2021. If a proportional system were to be adopted, the government has committed itself to holding a second, confirming referendum after two election cycles, where voters could choose whether to keep PR or switch back to First Past the Post after having experienced both systems.
Where the first two referendums on electoral reform used thresholds to make change harder, the current promise of a confirming referendum should make change more likely. As we’ve seen from New Zealand, after voters have experienced a proportional system, they don’t look back.
The experience in British Columbia shows how momentum for electoral reform can be sustained, particularly by allowing for citizen input in democratic reform processes. And while a high turnout is important for the democratic legitimacy of a vote, there are problems with the use of turnout and electoral thresholds. There was broad support for STV in the first B.C. referendum, but this change could not go through given the rigid provincial threshold.
This time however, the democratic approach taken to give people a choice on the options of reform – alongside the vibrant public debate – could set the province on the path to fair votes at last.
This blog is part of our Spotlight on Canada series