Opinion: B.C. democratic reform neither simple nor straightforward

This fall, British Columbians will vote on what system they prefer for provincial elections. But far too much uncertainty surrounds all the potential choices.

The mail-in referendum ballot will give voters two choices: B.C.’s current first-past-the-post system or proportional representation. A secondary question will ask: If adopted, what type of proportional representation system would you prefer?

There are proponents on both sides. On July 1, the campaign began with an official ‘Yes’ side and an official “No’ side that will attempt to persuade British Columbians.

Many proponents of electoral reform claim that the referendum is a simple process with straightforward reform options.

But while the referendum questions may be easy to answer, the process of designing a new electoral system will be neither simple nor straightforward.

If proportional representation (or PR) garners more than 50 per cent of the vote, the second question, which asks voters to choose one of three possible PR systems, will be used by the legislature as a guide to design a PR system. Voters will not select a specific PR alternative, but rather a general direction with politicians (and bureaucrats) filling in the details.

The three PR reform options include dual member proportional (DMP), mixed member proportional (MMP) and rural-urban proportional (RUP). Of these three options, only one – MMP – has been used. This makes the lack of details at the time of voting even more concerning. And it gives politicians and bureaucrats exclusive power in designing a system without proper public consultation and approval.

Clearly, the B.C. public needs more information.

Under DMP, B.C.’s electoral map will be redrawn. Several constituencies will be amalgamated into two-member districts, although some large rural ridings will remain unchanged.

Seats are allocated in three ways to give an overall result that is ‘proportional’ provincewide. First, the total number of seats won by a party is based on the provincial popular vote. Second, the number of first district seats each party wins is subtracted from the total, which provides the number of second district seats. Third, the second district seats are allocated based on the performance in each district.

Mixed electoral systems use both PR and majoritarian (like our current first-past-the-post system) electoral rules to translate votes into seats. Often a certain proportion of seats in the legislature is awarded using plurality electoral rules, while the remaining seats are awarded using PR.

Four major democracies use this system: New Zealand, Bolivia, Germany and Mexico. Each of these countries have large legislatures. Germany has 598 seats with half allocated by electorate vote and the other half by party vote. In Mexico, there are 500 seats with 300 allocated by electorate vote and 200 by party vote.

RUP uses a single transferable vote (STV) in urban and semi-urban areas and mixed member proportional (MMP) in rural areas. This system is said to provide less regional proportionality but better local representation in rural areas. It also gives independent and smaller parties a relatively higher chance of being elected. However, it’s the most complicated of the proposed systems because two voting systems run simultaneously.

Individuals are elected based on their position on the list, which is determined by the party.

Other decisions regarding electoral boundaries and constituency size will also have a profound impact on future election outcomes. Clearly, given the scant information provided to the public, B.C. voters will not know what voting system they will adopt, even if the referendum in the fall produces a consensus.

Instead, a vote for any of these electoral systems risks empowering politicians to make discretionary decisions regarding election rules that could directly benefit them and their party – but not necessarily democracy.

Troy Media columnist Lydia Miljan is an associate professor of political science at the University of Windsor and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute who has studied electoral systems worldwide.

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