April 23, 2019 10:38 pm
Updated: April 23, 2019 10:40 pm

Prince Edward Island voters say ‘no’ to electoral reform referendum by slim majority

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A slim majority of voters in Prince Edward Island have rejected a switch to a proportional representation electoral system, though it remains unclear how the province’s new government will respond.

Voters in the general election were asked to answer the question: “Should Prince Edward Island change its voting system to a mixed member proportional voting system?”

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All parties had accepted that whichever side won more than 50 per cent of the votes cast in at least 17 of the 27 ridings would be declared the victor.

By late Tuesday, the “No” side had captured close to almost 51 per cent of the total votes, with the “Yes” holding 49 per cent.

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However, neither side had won 17 ridings, with the “Yes” victorious in 15 and “No” taking 12.

Gerard Mitchell, the referendum commissioner, said if neither side reaches 17 seats, “it means it wouldn’t be binding on government.”

“If it’s close enough then I guess government, or whoever is governing, will have to make a decision.”

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The premier-designate, Tory Leader Dennis King, said Tuesday he would “leave it up the legislature.”

The leaders of all four political parties had said during a leaders’ debate they would consider the result binding if the thresholds were reached, but it’s not clear what happens if they’re not achieved.

READ MORE: Prince Edward Island election results, riding by riding

The “Yes” option would mean a slimmed-down roster of 18 legislators in redrawn electoral districts, while citizens would also cast ballots for nine other legislators from lists the parties create.

These “party list” seats would then be assigned proportionately based on the popular vote each party received on the second part of the ballots.

A “No” win would retain the first-past-the-post system with 27 legislators elected.

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During a recent debate, the leaders of the provincial Green party, the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives said they personally favoured the “Yes” option, while Liberal Premier Wade MacLauchlan declined to give a personal preference.

All four leaders committed to honour the result of the vote if either side met the threshold in the Electoral System Referendum Act.

Advocates of proportional representation on the Island argued a large part of the population has been under-represented in past legislatures, which have often swung with lop-sided results for either the Liberal or Conservative parties.

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The “No” side argued the proposed system left too many questions unanswered, such as how parties will choose their lists of candidates.

It also warned the system risks creating a series of unstable, minority governments without a fair representation of rural voters.

Political scientists struggled to assess the outcome of the historic vote in the lead-up to the referendum, noting the two campaigns were relatively low key.

Don Desserud, who teaches at the University of Prince Edward Island, has said the referendum has been overshadowed by the wider provincial campaign — with the surge by the third-party Greens capturing public attention.

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Desserud says he believes many voters found themselves making up their minds on the referendum as they cast ballots for a new government, without having carefully considered a potentially historic change.

Voters in British Columbia rejected making such a change to a mixed member proportional system in December.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to abolish the first-past-the-post federal voting system during the 2015 election, but he later abandoned the plan, saying Canadians were not eager for change.

However, Quebec’s new CAQ government, which campaigned in part on the issue, has said it would move to adopt a mixed member proportional system before the next provincial election in 2022.

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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