More fair? Or less accountable? The cases for and against proportional representation in B.C.

A voter arrives at a polling station on a bike to cast their ballot in the provincial election in the riding of Vancouver-Fraserview, in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday May 9, 2017. The Canadian Press

Is it time for B.C. to change the way it elects politicians?

The province’s NDP government has unveiled its plans for a referendum on that question, which could see British Columbia switch to a system of proportional representation (PR).

Under the NDP’s proposal, voters will be asked two questions. First, do they want to abandon the current First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system? Second, voters will be asked to choose between three possible systems of PR, ranking them in order of preference.

With the details of the referendum now public, both the “yes” and “no” sides are gearing up.

So what’s the case for dropping the current system? And what’s the case for keeping it?

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Why we should say ‘yes’ to PR

“Yes” advocates say the decision comes down to a matter of fairness: that the share of seats a party gets in the legislature should be linked closely to the number of votes it gets.

They compare that to the current system where a political party can get 100 per cent of the power with as little as 36 per cent of the vote.

Speaking with CKNW’s Simi Sara Show on Wednesday, PR supporter and political scientist David Moscrop said the system is more fair to voters, who often find themselves voting in ridings where they may have no impact.

LISTEN: The case for proportional representation

“If you live on the Island, your chance of electing a BC Liberal is really low, if you live in Metro Vancouver your chance of electing a Green is fairly low. I think that’s fairly unfair, because there are supporters for those parties there,” he said.
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“Under a PR system your vote would have a high likelihood of electing someone from a party that you support.”

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Moscrop argued that PR systems also address “wasted” votes cast for a losing candidate, and cited data that showed turnout increasing in countries that use it.

“People start to say, ‘What’s the point? I never elect a winner, why should I bother?'” he said of FPTP.

“Turnout is going down around the world because people are alienated, they think the system isn’t representing them or they think that everything is fine, so why should I bother turning out?”

Moscrop also dismissed concerns that the new system would be too complex, arguing that 80 countries already use it, and their citizens are no smarter than British Columbians.

Why we should keep FPTP

Opponents to the system say PR is destabilizing and takes power out of the hands of citizens.

Speaking on the Simi Sara Show, former B.C. attorney general and “No” campaigner Suzanne Anton says the current system is simple and effective.

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“Everyone now understands it. They know how their member of the legislature gets there. And it’s stable, we have very stable governments in British Columbia. And its successful, there’s no better place really than B.C.”

LISTEN: The case against proportional representation

Anton said a key concern about PR is that it could empower parties at the expense of voters.

She said provisions in many PR models — such as the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system that will appear on next fall’s ballot — allow the legislature to be “topped up” with MLAs to ensure that a party’s final seat count matches its vote share. Those MLAs are selected from lists provided by the parties.

“You may vote for people, but you also vote for political parties,” she said.

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“When you vote for a political party you are giving over your authority to that political party to appoint people to the legislature. Those people then become accountable to the political party, they are no longer accountable to citizens.”

READ MORE: B.C. unveils framework for electoral reform referendum

Anton argued that PR systems also lead to post-election political horse-trading among parties, with the final composition of government not necessarily clear based on citizens’ votes alone.

“You’ve got a lot of political parties, and after the election day they go into the backrooms and they figure out what the government should be and they figure out what policies that government has,” she said.

No campaigners have also raised concerns that using PR would result in a fractured parliament populated by a multitude of smaller parties, some which may possess extreme views.

Official campaigning by both sides will kick off on July 1, and the referendum will be conducted by mail from Oct. 22 to Nov. 30, 2018.

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