Voices & Choices

Santa could bring fair representation to British Columbia this year

Santa could bring fair representation to British Columbia this year

While holiday hubbub has drowned out much of the electoral battlecries sounded during the midterm elections, the gift of electoral reform could come just in time for Christmas for parts of Canada.

The single-winner plurality system plaguing American elections has also caused its fair share of damage across the border in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

All but two of the last 17 governments - which is ruled by an 87-member legislative assembly akin to Congress - were “false majorities,” meaning the ruling party received less than 50 percent support among voters, according to reform group FairVote Canada (FairVote Canada is not affiliated with FairVote).

Adding to the naughty list tally, a majority of provincial districts, or “ridings,” will always be “safe” seats for a certain party, while many also disproportionately weighting rural areas over suburbs.

Sound familiar? What about a system that rewards polarization and increases the influence of money in politics while perpetuating a lack of diversity among elected leaders?

Check, check, check.

Much like their American counterparts, Canadian voters in British Columbia were fed up and frustrated with the system that ignored their voices and votes, some choosing not to participate at all.

Enter the 2018 referendum for electoral reform, the latest proposal to overhaul the provincial voting system in favor of a more democratic method. The month-long, submit-by-mail ballot measure comes after two prior electoral reform attempts in 2006 and 2009, both of which failed because they fell short of the 60 percent approval required to switch voting systems.

The latest ballot measure, however, requires only a simple majority to pass. It also attempts to clarify the confusion that clouded prior referendums by pitching the proposal to voters as a two-part question.

First, voters were asked whether they wanted to keep the existing plurality system - referred to as “first past the post” - or switch to a form of fair representation in which legislative seats would be allocated in proportion to votes cast for those people and parties.

If a simple majority choose to keep the current system, it stands. But if more voters want fair representation, the second question comes into play.

Part two gave voters three options for how to enact said fair representation, each incorporating different elements that ensured voters’ choices are better represented in the legislature. Voters could rank all three options on the ballot based on preference, just like in a ranked choice voting (RCV) election. If one system receives a majority of first choices, it wins. If not, the least popular system is eliminated and those voters’ second choices are counted for either of the two remaining systems.

Although ranked choice voting will determine which of the three options could become the electoral law of the land, RCV itself is not one of the options, having failed when proposed as the replacement system under the two prior referendums (though it is an element of one of the three proposals).

While adversaries, including many who held power under the existing system, argue that the proposed reforms are too confusing and could cause instability, proponents are equally insistent that structural change is the best and most sustainable way to protect people’s interests and votes in elections.

It remains to be seen what the 1.7 million voters - about 40 percent of those registered - who sent in ballots by the Dec. 7 deadline will want, with polls indicating voters were split equally among those for and against and those still undecided.

Elections BC, the nonpartisan group overseeing the referendum, hopes to announce results by January, with potential for an early Christmas present if all goes smoothly.

Voters can still return their gifted reform under a confirming referendum planned for after two cycles under the new system.

Illustration by Mikhaila Markham

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