BC-STV: A Look Back at British Columbia’s Attempts at Electoral Reform

Posted by Molly Rockett on October 16, 2015
By DJ Livermore

From Wikipedia Commons
Ahead of the 2015 Canadian election (October 19) electoral reform has taken center stage in the campaign. The New Democratic Party, Green Party, and Liberal Party have called for wholesale structural reform at the federal level and an end to the winner-take-all elections (called “first-past-the-post”) because it leads to unfair results. There is also consistent discussion of reforming the Senate, which is currently appointed, across the provincial governments and federal parties. Discussion of electoral reform is not new in Canada, with numerous reform movements flourishing in the provinces over the last decade, and Prince Edward Island considering a plebiscite on the electoral reform in 2016. The most prominent reform movements have been in British Columbia, where there have been two referenda on electoral reform in the last decade.

2005 Referendum

Between 1991 and 2001, three consecutive elections in British Columbia returned distinctly unfair results. In 1991, the Liberal Party won two-thirds of the seats despite receiving only 40% of the province-wide vote. In 1996, the New Democratic Party won a majority of seats despite winning fewer votes than the Liberal Party. In 2001, the Liberal Party won all but 2 of the 79 seats with only 57% of the vote. In response to these highly erratic and unfair electoral results, the British Columbia legislature voted unanimously in 2003 for the formation of a Citizens’ Assembly to investigate building a fairer electoral system. The assembly consisted of a man and woman from each of British Columbia’s electoral districts, selected by lottery.

From Wikipedia Commons

After months of debate, the Citizens’ Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favor of a form of ranked choice voting (RCV) -- the Single-Transferrable Vote system. This recommendation was voted on at a referendum. Fifty-eight percent of British Columbia voters endorsed the RCV system proposed by the Citizens’ Assembly. However, the law enabling the referendum had a particularly high double majority requirement: to pass, the referendum needed 60% of voters across the province and a simple majority of voters in 60% of ridings.

2009 Referendum

Due to the high threshold, RCV was not adopted in 2005, but another referendum was scheduled for the next provincial election in 2009. With the memories of the 1991, 1996 and 2001 elections fading, the results of the 2009 referendum were less favorable for RCV: 39% Yes and 60% No. The massive shift into the No column was attributed to a multitude of factors including low voter awareness, a lack of voter education initiatives, greater media coverage of the No-STV campaign, and the more fair results of the 2005 provincial elections.

Reform for the Better

Despite STV not being adopted, British Columbia’s experience with reform shows there is significant support for fair representation. Fifty-eight percent approval is a mandate for change. If not for the 60% threshold, BC would have a legislature that better reflects the population. The Canadian party system provides voters with numerous viable options, but voters are all too often hamstrung by winner-take-all voting. Moving to a fair voting system would give voters better governance and fair representation. Change can be difficult, but properly representing the electorate is worth the effort.
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