November 8, 2018 6:03 pm
Updated: November 9, 2018 12:10 am

Proportional Representation for Dummies: A electoral reform referendum cheat sheet

The concept of proportional representation can seem complicated and confusing but have no fear, Global's Richard Zussman explains the choices as simply and clearly as possible.

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By now you have probably received your electoral reform referendum ballot in the mail. Some of you have already voted. Thanks for taking a read even though you have already made up your mind.

This is more for those who haven’t cast their ballot.

The decision is now yours, do you open up the envelope, pick yes or no and send back — or do you toss it with the unwanted flyers in the recycling bin. Hopefully this quick guide will give you what you need to make your decision and get your vote in on electoral reform.

WATCH: British Columbians slow to respond to electoral reform referendum


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How did we get here

British Columbia has a rich and modern history with electoral reform. Province-wide referendums took place in both 2005 and 2009 where people were asked to vote on whether to change the way we vote.

In 2005, the referendum was presented as a Yes/No question, with a ‘Yes’ vote supporting a system called Single Transferable Vote (STV) and a ‘No’ vote supporting keeping the current system.

READ MORE: Just 1 per cent of ballots have been returned so far in the B.C. electoral reform referendum

The government legislated the system would only change with 60 per cent support for ‘Yes.’ The Yes side fell short, securing 57.69 per cent of the vote.

In 2009, British Columbians voted on STV again. This time, voters had a chance to see maps on how the electoral boundaries would look. The ‘Yes’ side fell short again, this time with just 39.09 per cent of the vote.

WATCH: What you need to know before casting your electoral reform ballot

This brings us to 2018. During the 2017 provincial election campaign the BC NDP promised to initiate a new referendum on electoral reform if elected.

“Our voting system hasn’t been working. It gives all of the power to make decisions to a party that doesn’t even get 50 per cent of the votes,” reads the NDP’s platform.

“We’ll hold a referendum on changing our voting system to a proportional system, so that every vote counts.”

READ MORE: ‘I’m not an expert’ says B.C. minister quizzed on proportional representation

When the NDP and the B.C. Greens signed their confidence and supply agreement (CASA) they agreed to campaign together during the referendum in favour of a change to proportional representation.

“The parties agree that they will work together in good faith to consult British Columbians to determine the form of proportional representation that will be put to a referendum,” reads the CASA agreement.

What are we voting on

There are two questions on the ballot. They are as follows:

  1. Which should British Columbia use for elections to the Legislative Assembly?
    • The current first-past-the-post voting system
    • A proportional representation voting system
  2. If British Columbia adopts a proportional representation voting system, which of the following voting systems do you prefer?
    • Dual Member Proportional (DMP)
    • Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)
    • Rural-Urban PR

WATCH: The full broadcast of Global News and CKNW’s B.C. electoral reform debate special

The first question is straight forward: Do you want proportional representation or do you want to keep the current system. The second question is more complicated, asking voters to rank three options of proportional representation.

The way the current first-past-the-post system works is the number of seats a party gets in the legislature equals the number of ridings the party wins.

If a party has a majority of the seats, its leader becomes the premier. If no party has a majority of the seats, then parties can work together to get the confidence of the house.

How do we vote

It is as simple as A-B-C. As in secrecy sleeve A, envelope B and envelope C.

British Columbians eligible to vote in provincial elections are eligible to vote in the electoral reform referendum, but they must register with Elections BC. Voters that have moved since the last provincial election also need to let Elections BC know.

READ MORE: Premier John Horgan, Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson to debate electoral reform on Global on Nov. 8

The vote is by mail-in ballot. The voter package consists of a ballot, a secrecy sleeve and two additional envelopes. Voters must mark their ballot, put it in the secrecy sleeve, then in the certification envelope. For the vote to be valid, the information must be filled out on the certification envelope. Then that envelope goes into the return envelope and is ready to be mailed back.

All ballots must be received by Elections BC by 4:30 p.m. on November 30.

Arguments in favour of first-past-the-post

All jurisdictions in Canada use first-past-the-post. It is stable, it is tested and it is familiar to people. The number of seats a political party gets is based directly on how many ridings a party wins. The outcome of the election is often known quickly after the polls close on election day.

Under the current system, when you vote for the Liberals, NDP, the Greens or any other candidates you know what you are getting.

WATCH: How would a B.C. government work under proportional representation?

The parties have election platforms that have been analyzed and dissected by voters and can be used as a barometer to measure how well as party does at fulfilling promises.

FPTP often leads to majority governments and the platform promises are what the government put in place during a mandate. In minority governments, which are more likely in PR, deals are made in backrooms and what a government delivers on may be negotiated rather than promised during a campaign.

Arguments against first-past-the-post

The system is winner takes all. That means that if you win a riding by 1 vote or by 10,000 votes you still win the riding. The provincial race is also winner takes all, so a party could lose the popular vote and win the most seats and its leader would become premier, as happened in B.C. in 1996.

FPTP works best under a two party system, where there are two clear choices. But in British Columbia there are multiple parties, and smaller parties often have broad support across the province but are challenged to win individual ridings.

WATCH: What are the possible B.C. electoral reform referendum questions?

Arguments in favour of proportional representation

The argument that is most often made is that under the current system 40 per cent of the vote can mean 100 per cent of the power, while under a proportional system a party needs at least 50 per cent of the votes to have power. That power can be earned from the electorate or negotiated upon by working with other parties that have similar ideas on how the province should be governed.

Most democracies in the world use a form of proportional representation to elect leaders. It is used widely across Europe, including in Germany, France and Italy and is also used in New Zealand and Australia.

Arguments against proportional representation

Chaos. That is a word often used by those opposed to proportional representation to describe it.

Because of minority governments, PR has allowed for fringe parties to hold the balance of power. This has meant extreme views have often been part of power sharing negotiations and it is an aspect of PR that has been highlighted by the system’s opponents.

WATCH: What you need to know before casting your electoral reform ballot

How do the P.R. systems work

One of the main themes of this campaign has been been confusion. The main reason for this is the three proportional systems that are being voted on. Both Dual Member Proportional and Rural-Urban PR have never been used anywhere else in the world.

Voters do not have to cast a ballot on which form of PR they want, but if they do they can rank their choices from 1 to 3.

In Dual Member Proportional, most ridings are combined with a neighbouring riding and would be represented by two MLAs. The largest rural districts would continue to have one MLA elected by getting the most votes.

The first seat in a riding would be won by the candidate with the most votes, just as they are now. For parties that run two candidates, this seat would be filled by the candidate the party listed first on the ballot.

The second seat in a riding would go to parties, so that each party’s share of seats in the legislature roughly matches its share of the province-wide popular vote. A party’s second seats are filled in districts where its candidates did particularly well. Parties would need at least five percent of the vote to get any second seats.

WATCH: Referendum to be held on ranked ballot voting in Kingston

DMP has never been used anywhere in the world.

In Mixed Member Proportional, there are two types of MLAs. District MLAs represent electoral districts and are elected using the current FPTP system. Regional MLAs represent regions, which would be larger than current ridings. They would be elected from a party list so that each party’s share of seats in the legislature roughly matches its share of the province-wide popular vote.

In some forms of MMP, voters have two separate votes: one for a district candidate and one for a party. In other forms, voters cast one vote for a candidate that also counts for the candidate’s party. This system is used in Germany and New Zealand.

In Rural-Urban Proportional, two different proportional voting systems are combined: Single Transferable Vote (STV) and MMP.

Voters in urban and semi-urban districts would use STV to elect multiple MLAs for their larger electoral district. Parties can run multiple candidates in a district and voters rank their preferred candidates on the ballot. Voters can rank as many candidates as they wish.

WATCH: What you need to know about the proportional representation voting package

Voters in rural areas would use the MMP system described above.

This system has also never been used anywhere in the world, and the provincial results are expected to be generally proportional.

What details are we still missing

The short answer is: a lot.  According to the province’s own report on how we vote, there are 29 questions are that still left unanswered and will be decided upon after the referendum if British Columbia decides to move to proportional representation.

Here are some of the big things we are still looking for answers on:

  1. The total number of MLAs in the province. We know that it will be between 87 and 95, but we won’t know the exact answer until after the referendum. The legislature will make the final decision on the number.
  2. What will be an ‘urban riding,’ ‘semi-urban riding’ or ‘rural riding.’ The decision will be challenging for communities like Vernon and Nanaimo that mix urban and rural in a small geographic space.
  3. How many MLAs will be in each city? This depends on the type of PR chosen and the government has promised that no city will have less representation than it does now. This matters for communities like Prince George, Kelowna, Vancouver, Surrey and many others where there are currently multiple MLAs.
  4. Will there be open or closed lists in MMP? One of the more controversial parts of PR is the closed list. That means that the public would not know who the politicians are that they are voting for. Premier Horgan says he is in favour of open lists.
  5. How would a byelection work? If an MLA resigns under a proportional system it is unclear how they would be replaced. The party could be entitled to the seat to keep the proportionality of the legislature, but then the question is does the party need to replace the MLA with someone from the same area or not.
  6. What would happen if someone crosses the floor and switches parties? If an MLA decides to leave their party and join a new party they would likely be changing the proportionality in the legislature. There are questions about whether this would be allowed, especially if the MLA won a regional seat because of their party’s overall percentage of votes won.

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