BC Government announces proportional representation referendum

Trevor Ritchie | Contributor

Trevor Ritchie | Contributor

On October 4, Attorney General David Eby announced that the province of British Columbia would he holding a referendum in 2018 on whether to change the voting system used for provincial elections. Under the terms of reference for the referendum, ballots will be mailed to all registered voters prior to the referendum date, and voters may return those ballots to be counted at any time prior to the final date of the referendum. Individuals can continue to register to vote until the date the referendum ends, and newly registered voters will be allowed to vote in the referendum.

Under the current single member plurality system, otherwise known as first-past-the-post, citizens elect Members of the Legislative Assembly to represent them based on predetermined geographical areas. These geographical areas are called ridings, and each riding has a single representative. This allows for local representation in the Legislature, which is of particular importance for Northern and more rural communities.

In a proportional representation system, the percentage of seats a party wins is the same as the party’s percentage of the provincewide vote. This would have the effect of increasing the political representation of smaller political parties that do not have the concentrated levels of support needed to win any of the ridings that are used in the current system. This system is seen as more fairly representative of the wishes of the votes when compared to the current system, which can create results that do not match the voters’ preferences. An example of this would be the 1996 provincial election, where the incumbent New Democrats won a majority of the seats in the Legislature, even though the BC Liberal Party won more provincewide votes.

One of the main effects of a change to a proportional system is that it will reduce the likelihood of majority governments forming where a single political party wins more than half the seats in the Legislature. The last election in British Columbia where a single party won a majority of the vote was in 2001, where the BC Liberals won 58% of the votes and won 77 of 79 seats in the Legislature. Preventing single party majorities from forming will create a political system where the political parties must compromise with each other in order to pass legislation, which should improve the quality of the legislation and prevent political parties from pandering solely to their base of supporters.

A key consideration for the proponents of proportional representation is that a proportional system does not guarantee that each of the regions of British Columbia are accurately represented by the legislators chosen by the system. Candidates for election are placed on list by the party, and thus it is the parties that determine who is elected from among their slate of potential legislators.

Most proportional representation systems do not have a requirement for any kind of regional representation or representation for minority groups, though the parties in countries with proportional representation systems will often voluntarily enact diversity and regional representation policies to create a more balanced Legislature. Without a legislated requirement, however, Northern British Columbia could lose representation in the Legislature under a proportional system, as most of the votes are from Southern British Columbia and the parties may choose to select most of their candidates from that region.

However, a proportional system would also ensure that each region has a diverse set of opinions from among their legislators. After the 2017 election, the BC Liberals won seventy-five percent of the seats in Northern British Columbia while obtaining only fifty-six percent of the vote. The BC New Democrats won twenty-five percent of the seats with thirty-two percent of the vote, and no other parties received seats in the North. In this particular region, the elected representatives overrepresent Liberals and completely exclude Greens and other minor parties, which would no longer happen under a proportional system.

The BC Government will be accepting feedback over the coming months about the referendum, including what kind of proportional representation system to use, as well as the exact wording of the question to be put onto the ballot.