ANALYSIS: Informing B.C. voters about proportional representation is not going to be easy

Click to play video: 'Electoral reform referendum question subject of fiery legislature exchange'
Electoral reform referendum question subject of fiery legislature exchange
The electoral reform referendum question was the subject of a fiery exchange in the legislature between Liberal MLA Michael Lee and NDP premier John Horgan. Keith Baldrey reports – May 30, 2018

The campaign on whether to change B.C.’s voting system is now officially underway, but it looks like a tricky race to handicap.

The vast majority of the public simply does not spend a lot of time thinking about voting systems. It is a safe bet that not many backyard barbecues this summer will feature spirited debates over the merits of “rural urban PR” versus “dual member proportional.”

Perhaps by the time the referendum mail-in period rolls around (Oct. 22 to Nov. 1), people will become more engaged in the subject. But until then, I don’t suspect this is going to be on the front-burner of topics around the office water cooler.

This lack of interest may provide the side that opposes switching to a proportional representation a bit of an edge over PR proponents. That is because everyone is familiar with the current first-past-the-post system, and knows its strengths and its shortcomings.

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The challenge for the pro-PR side is to present evidence that another system (the three options on the ballot are quite different from the status quo) is better for individuals.

This is where things can get tricky for the pro-PR side. The proposed models are not easily explained or grasped (two of them have never actually even be used anywhere) and it will be an uphill task getting people to get interested in the topic and then diving in to actually study the options.

Getting people to get their heads around Dual Member Proportional, Mixed Member Proportional and Rural Urban PR (the three options to be voted on if you decide you want to make the switch) will take some doing. Some have half-joked that the referendum was designed to fail, since it requires a fair amount of work to understand how each system would operate.

Still, the “yes” side will have $500,000 of your tax money to spend on wooing and educating the public and that will definitely have some impact.

Of course, the “no” side will have the same budget provided to them, so get ready for some spirited ad wars.

The victor in this campaign will be the side that offers the most direct and effective message, and that convinces enough people to actually take the time and mail in a ballot.

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WATCH: (Aired May 2017): A poll from Ipsos Reid finds most British Columbians support proportional representation. Kyle Braid of Ipsos Reid breaks it down.

Click to play video: 'Poll finds most British Columbians support proportional representation'
Poll finds most British Columbians support proportional representation

Look for the pro-PR side to argue those systems are “fairer” because any seat count will more accurately reflect the outcome of the actual popular vote. That is a simple and easy to understand (and to defend) concept.

However, if this side clutters things up with a detailed breakdown of how each system will operate, I think its messaging will be in trouble. In my experience, pro-PR types love to talk about the nuances and vagaries of each system and make the mistake of assuming that everyone is as interested in the topic as they are.

Any political party will tell you that the simpler the message, the simpler it is to sell and gather support.

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The need for this simplicity again will likely favour the anti-PR side.

The “no” side will brand PR as confusing and even dangerous, and will argue it could allow fringe parties to hold the keys to power in a legislature. It will also point out that PR systems can result in some MLAs being appointed to the job by political parties, rather than being directly elected by the voting public.

That is a straightforward message and it is one that is easy to understand. The anti-PR side has to be careful not to overdo it when it comes to castigating PR systems, or in going too far by insisting the status quo FPTP system is so much better than any alternative.

Finally, which side can best motivate people to actually vote? It’s a long mail-in period (more than four weeks) and again, my instincts tell me that favours the “no” side more than the pro-PR folks (the “no” side will be co-managed by veteran referendum campaigner Bill Tieleman, who excelled years ago as a mail-in fundraising specialist).

I hope British Columbians, though, look past what each side is offering to make their case and study the options to make an informed decision this fall. With $1 million of your tax dollars about to be spent, you might as well read up on things.

Keith Baldrey is chief political correspondent for Global BC. This is reprinted from his weekly column with Glacier Media.


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