Confused about the BC referendum? Still not sure how to vote? Our Canadian politics expert has answers.

Q: What are voters being asked to decide?

A: They’re being asked to choose between keeping the current First-Past-the-Post system (FPTP) or changing to Proportional Representation (PR). The first thing to note is that neither system is clearly superior. Both are legitimate voting structures, but they represent different philosophies.

Q: Can you explain FPTP and why some people criticize it? 

A: Right now, each voter in BC casts a ballot in one of 87 electoral ridings. If a candidate gets more votes than any other, they win and become the riding’s representative in the provincial legislature. This person is called a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA). It’s very common that the winning candidate in each riding gets less than a majority of the votes. That means a political party can receive a much greater number of seats than is reflected by their actual share of the vote.

In 2005, the BC Liberals won 46 seats (58%) with 45.8% of the vote, while the NDP won 33 seats (13 fewer, 41%), despite the fact that they received only 4% fewer votes. The Greens got 9.2% but did not get a single seat. In 2001, the BC Liberals won 57% of the vote and 77 of the then 79 ridings—which is 97.5 % of the seats. The NDP won just two seats with 21.6% of the vote. The Greens got no seats despite winning 12.4 per cent of the vote.

This winner-take-all system often creates a majority government, which has its pros and cons.

Pros: the governing party can carry out a mandate without worrying about losing power. It’s stable. And there’s clear accountability, because every riding has one MLA, so people know who represents them in Victoria. For Squamish, it’s Jordan Sturdy right now. If people want to reach out to their MLA, it’s straightforward.

Cons: under the current system, 60% of voters often vote against the winner, but their vote has no impact on the outcome. They might have voted for a third party in large numbers, and, if that party doesn’t get a seat, they may feel as if their vote didn’t count. We also have to ask whether stability is actually good for democracy; the previous BC Liberal Government lasted for 16 years winning only approximately 45% of the vote in every election after 2001. So there is a question here: is it a functional democracy when a party can receive less than a majority of the vote and stay in power for such a long time? And what matters more to you? Stability and legislative efficiency or accountability and proportionality? The answer is not easy.

Q: The referendum lists three different kinds of PR. This confuses many people! Can you break it down?

A: Mixed Member Proportional is used in both Germany and New Zealand. The version that’s being proposed in BC is that 60% of MLAs would be directly elected under the First-Past-The-Post system, and the other 40% of seats would be distributed to ensure seat totals reflect the popular vote. This is done by creating a new class of Regional MLAs elected from party lists.  New Zealand changed from FPTP to PR back in the 1990s, and this is the type they use.

Dual Member Proportional is a much newer idea and more complicated. In Rural areas, the single member ridings would remain the same.  In urban areas, ridings would be combined to ensure two members per riding.  The first seat would be awarded to a party to ensure proportionality in the legislature as a whole.  What is unclear is how they would determine how to allocate those extra seats. As this is a new system, we don’t have an example to look at as to how this would be done.

Rural-Urban Proportional combines two different systems for urban and rural parts of the province. In urban ridings, Single Transferable vote would be used. Candidates would be ranked on a single ballot in large ridings with multiple members elected. The candidate with the fewest votes would be dropped and votes redistributed to the second choice on each ballot. The process would continue until one candidate had 50% plus one of the votes.  This is used in Ireland. The rural ridings would be determined using the Mixed Member Proportional system described above.

In short, PR systems provide greater proportionality and force parties to cooperate.  This is because proportional systems are less likely to lead to majority governments.  Parties must make agreements between themselves to create governments. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll need to form coalitions (multiple parties in cabinet at once), but agreements like the one the NDP and Greens have right now in BC would be required more often. And none of the systems in the BC referendum would be expected to be as unstable as some other PR systems.

PR systems can also be more complex and less stable: governments fall more often than in Single Member First-Past-The-Post systems. Ultimately, voters need to decide what they value in making their decision.

Q: What is your own view?

A: New Zealand offers an example of a successful adaptation from FPTP to PR through a Mixed Member Proportional system, and this seems to me to be a good option for BC. Ultimately, how you vote will be based on what you value. I like stability and the strong policy-making capacity of governments under FPTP, but I want to see parties cooperate more and I don’t believe a system that creates such long-lasting governments as we’ve seen in BC is good for democracy.  So, I’m inclined to lean towards a change and, because it is tried, tested and relatively simple, to MMP.

Q: Where can people get more info?

A: It’s best not to be swayed by the rhetoric of political leaders. Look for more neutral information from Elections BC, which was mailed out along with the ballots and can be viewed at elections.bc.ca/referendum.  Doug Munroe and I also did a podcast discussion which can be found here: https://sea2skypodcast.com/2018/10/29/bc-electoral-reform/

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