Voices & Choices

British Columbia referendum highlights the challenges of change

British Columbia referendum highlights the challenges of change

It might be a cliche, but there’s a reason “the devil you know’” has become such a common proverbial phrase - it’s true.

It was for voters in British Columbia, who decided to stick with the familiar devil, or in this case, voting system. Just over 61 percent of the 1.39 million people who voted preferred the Canadian province’s existing, winner-take-all election system over a form of fair representation, according to referendum results announced Thursday.

The month-long, by-mail referendum was the latest in a series of unsuccessful attempts to improve the province’s elections, which reformers have criticized for electing winners without majority support and empowering political parties at the expense of voters. The latest measure offered up three alternatives that allocated seats in the 87-member legislature in proportion to votes cast for candidates and their parties.

While none of the three options relied strictly on ranked choice voting - though it was an element of one - voters who favored an alternative system were asked to rank their choices, just like a ranked choice election. Had more than half of voters wanted a switch, a ranked choice count would have determined which of the three options to use.

Although the 39 percent of voters who favored a new voting method fell short of the majority, Elections BC (the group administering the referendum) ran the ranked count anyway. None of the three options received the requisite 50 percent or more in first choices, necessitating a second round. Including second choices resulted in a clear win for mixed-member proportional, a system used in New Zealand, Germany and Scotland.

Reform proponents expressed disappointment at the outcome, while also acknowledging the educational challenges of achieving fair representation through a complex ballot measure. The frustrating fight for a better democracy is one we at FairVote know well, though we maintain that ranked choice voting - ideally in a multi-winner form via the Fair Representation Act - offers the best fix for our Congress, and perhaps for Canada.

Illustration by Mikhaila Markham

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