By now, every household in B.C. has likely received a brown manilla envelope containing a ballot with the potential to fundamentally change the way votes are counted in future provincial elections.
It’s the third such referendum in 18 years but although the first two failed to meet the threshold for change, the rules this time around have changed and will require a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one to change the system.
At issue is whether the electorate wishes to maintain the current first-past-the-post, or FPTP, system in which the provincial government is chosen on the basis of what is actually an amalgam of 87 mini-elections.
Each of the 87 ridings elects a representative based upon who gets the most votes in that riding and the party with the greatest number of elected representatives forms the government.
That would seem simple enough.
Advocates for proportional representation, or PR, argue there are serious problems with the system. They say that FPTP has given control to parties who, despite having won the greatest number of seats, failed to get anywhere near the highest number of total votes provincewide.
They also argue that smaller parties are often underrepresented by the FPTP system. For example, under PR the Green Party would have had closer to 15 seats in the last election (reflecting the 16.8 per cent of the vote they received) as opposed to the three seats they won under FPTP.
“It’s about fairness and reflecting the will of the electorate,” said Maria Dobrinska, spokesperson for Vote PR BC.
“A representative democracy should reflect the will of the electorate. The current system allows for a false majority where a minority of the population is given the control and power of the legislature.”
On the other side of the argument, NO BC Proportional Representation Society president, Bill Tieleman maintains the current system has worked for 145 years and that PR is simply a recipe for instability that risks giving power to extreme fringe groups. He points to examples in Sweden and Austria where neo-Nazi parties have garnered some portion of the power by virtue of PR.
“They can end up with the balance of power. It gives these fringe groups an opening into government.”
Tieleman’s side has been represented by fear-based arguments that have been punctuated by a vigorous campaign by FPTP supporters. In one ad, obvious Nazi references are portrayed in which jackbooted troops, mobs burning tires, and neo-Nazi flags are waved in protest as a voice over decries the PR system as dangerous.
The pro-PR side isn’t immune to vitriolic ads either. In one mocking ad on YouTube, for example, they ridicule the fear-based attacks of the anti PR side with over the top satire.
Making the whole situation more confusing, the ballot does not present B.C. voters with a simple binary choice between PR and FPTP. While the first part of the ballot offers that choice, there is a second question in which voters are asked to rank three different versions of PR.
Grace Lore, an expert on voting systems in the University of Victoria’s political science department, explained that the three options represent choices of the type of preferred by the electorate.
“Proportional representation is not a simple, single type of voting. There are 90 democracies in the world that use PR and they are very different from one another. What they have in common is making every vote count,” said Lore.
“The three choices on the ballot are the ones that Elections B.C. chose as best representing the concerns of the voters in B.C. One of those concerns was a fear that local representation would be diminished and all three of the choices address that concern. But people can just fill out the top yes or no question and return the ballot without choosing one of the three alternatives.”
She added that the two-part ballot could be confusing to many.
As well, the question of local representation is one that Dobrinska says has been overstated.
“I know that’s the concept, that local MLAs will vote to represent the will of the people over considerations of party lines, but history really calls that into question. Of the last 8,500 votes cast in the provincial legislature, only five went against party lines,” she said.
More information on FPTP and PR can be found at elections.bc.ca/referendum. The voting period ends on Nov. 30 and voters who don’t receive a package by Nov. 2 should ask for one, by visiting the Elections B.C. website at elections.bc.ca/ovr or calling 1-800-661-8683.