2018 BC Proportional Representation Referendum

A (sort of) neutral and (somewhat) brief summary.

By Danielle Leduc McQueen


The week after the Victoria municipal election, I received a voting package for the BC Proportional Representation referendum. Until that week, I was so busy trying to keep victoriavotes.org updated, that I hadn’t given much thought to the referendum. I was also seeing a lot of summary videos and resources for the referendum popping up in my Facebook feed, so I figured there wasn’t a need to share my own analysis.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I checked the Google Analytics for victoriavotes.org, noticing that it was receiving frequent daily visitors. I thought that was a bit odd, since the election was over, but then realized it might be because visitors were looking for a summary of the options on the referendum ballot (and, specifically, how it might affect Victoria voters).

Well, here you go.

First Past The Post (FPTP)

How it works:

The candidate that receives the most votes wins the seat in each riding. MLAs don’t have to win a majority (50% or more) of the votes, just a plurality (more than any other person). This system is bad at reflecting the popular vote (how people voted across the province), because if the candidate you voted for doesn’t win, your vote doesn’t go anywhere. This system often results in majority governments (where one party has a majority of the seats in the legislature, and thus, power to pass legislation), without receiving a majority of the votes.

Pros:

  • One representative for each riding. One constituency office for getting assistance (no matter which party you support).
  • Relatively simple to tie representation to population by changing riding size.
  • MLA is chosen by voters (and accountable to them). Winner has to receive a large portion of votes to be elected.
  • Simple for anyone to understand, fast to determine winners
  • Higher chance of majority government (efficiency & stability)
  • Smaller ridings (MLA represents fewer people, larger chance of having your concerns heard)
  • Friendly to independent candidates, since voters vote for the candidate, not the party.

Cons:

  • Often there’s a discrepancy between overall popular vote and the proportion of seats won by each party in the legislature (e.g. in 2013, the BC Liberal party won a majority government with 44% of the popular vote).
  • Voters can feel that their vote is ‘wasted’ if their chosen candidate doesn’t win.
  • Leads to strategic voting, where voters don’t vote for the candidate they actually want, but instead the candidate they can live with who has the highest chance of winning.
  • The higher chance of majority government means you can have more efficient and stable governments that are able to deliver on their platform quickly, even if that platform didn’t receive a majority of the popular vote.

What it means for Victoria:

We get one MLA for the Victoria-Beacon Hill riding. There’s one constituency office to contact if you need to speak to your representative (no matter which party you voted for). I believe this helps counter political polarization, since the elected MLA has to work for and speak to all people in their riding, not just their supporters. Likewise, if you need assistance with a provincial issue (such as housing access), you have to communicate with the office of your MLA, even if you aren’t a fan of the party they’re attached to. This is important, as it makes the practice of politics at the local level less inclined towards partisanship - your representative is technically your representative first, and a party member second.

If you’re a BC Liberal or Green voter in Victoria, you might feel like your vote is wasted under the current system, since the Victoria-Beacon Hill riding is an NDP stronghold. Why bother voting if you know the NDP candidate is going to win?

If you’re a left-of-center voter (NDP or Green), you likely aren’t a fan of the current system, since it can create Liberal majority governments when a majority of the popular vote actually went to NDP and Green candidates. The province often ends up with a right-of-centre government, despite the majority of voters in BC supporting left-of-center parties.

Dual Member Proportional (DMP)

How it works:

Dual Member was created to solve the problem of accountability in proportional government systems. Instead of distributing extra seats to parties depending on the popular vote, MLAs are doubled up in some urban ridings (so you get two representatives for some ridings - sometimes both will be from the same party, sometimes different parties, depending on how your riding voted).

Pros:

  • The proportion of seats in the legislature will reflect the popular vote.
  • All elected MLAs represent a riding, and are accountable to those voters. They’re not pulled from a party list and ‘added on’.

Cons:

  • Complicated to understand, with many uncertainties, depending on how the system is set-up and how the voting plays out (which ridings will be designated ‘urban’ and receive two MLAs? Will you get two from the same party or two from different parties? How much bigger will our ridings be to accommodate the system?
  • Not in use anywhere - BC would be the first government to try it, so there’s no precedent for working out the details.
  • On the ballot, you’ll be voting for a party (with two candidates: a primary and a secondary candidate), rather than an individual. For example, if the NDP puts two candidates forward, the person they decide to list as the primary candidate gets the seat if they win. There’s no option to vote for the secondary candidate separately, or vote for two candidates from different parties (or one from a party, and one who is an independent).
  • Having two MLAs for your riding means having two constituency offices, two sets of staff for those offices, two people to speak at events or represent you in the legislature. If these two MLAs are from different parties, this could further polarize local politics (which representative do you go to when you need assistance?). If both MLAs are from the same party, there will be a lot of redundancy at the constituency level (do they both manage the same case files for their constituents? Do they share an office? Do they decide to informally split the riding?).
  • The system favours parties on the ballot over individual candidates. If you’re running as an independent, you have to come first or second in that riding to win a seat. Voters who want to support an independent candidate may end up voting strategically for a party instead, because they wouldn’t want the ‘popular vote’ portion of their vote to be wasted.
  • Pretty much a guarantee of minority/coalition governments (can be less efficient and stable, which could mean more elections. But minority and coalition governments can also be seen as a good thing, as it forces parties to compromise and work together).

What it means for Victoria:

Victoria-Beacon Hill is an urban riding (as are other ridings in Victoria), so we would most likely have two elected MLAs under this system per riding. The riding would also likely be enlarged to account for the two MLAs.  It’s not clear if the secondary MLA would be from the same party or not - it would depend on how voting went. But the system is supposed to only allocate a secondary seat to ridings where that party did well. For example, if the Greens needed to receive secondary seats to make the legislature proportional, and they did well in Victoria-Beacon Hill (but didn’t win), the riding could end up with one NDP MLA and one Green MLA, even if the Liberals received more votes than the Greens in the riding. Some people might see this as a positive (especially if you’re a Green voter), but, as I said earlier, I think splitting local representation in this way complicates the constituent-MLA relationship, and increases partisanship.

Like all other proportional systems, the biggest consequence is that seats in the legislature would be proportional to the popular vote, so there would be a less likely chance of a majority Liberal government. Instead, there’s a greater chance of more NDP-Green coalitions.

Mixed Member Proportional (DMP)

How it works:

MLAs are elected from local ridings (whoever gets the most votes wins the seat), with additional MLAs ‘added in’ from party lists depending on the proportion of the popular vote received.

There are two methods of doing this:

1) with one vote: when you vote for a candidate, you’re also voting for their party. The proportion of votes each party receives determines how many extra ‘regional’ MLAs they get in the legislature.

2) with two votes: you vote for a candidate, and then on the same ballot, you vote for a party. The proportion of votes each party receives as a result of this separate ‘party vote’ determines how many extra ‘regional’ MLAs they get.

Pros:

  • Popular system in use in Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere (most use the two vote system)
  • Every riding elects a local representative
  • Proportion of seats in the legislature will reflect the popular vote.

Cons:

  • A ‘legislative committee’ will decide after the referendum if we get one vote or two - this is huge, because if it’s one vote, your vote is wasted if you vote for an independent, since a vote for an independent can’t be used to determine how the extra MLA seats are allocated to parties. So this system could greatly discourage independent candidates.
  • The ‘legislative committee’ will also decide how the extra ‘regional’ MLAs are selected from their party lists. It’s not clear yet if voters have a say as to who these candidates or, or if candidates will chosen only by the party.
  • It’s not clear yet how many ‘regional’ MLAs there will be, or where they will be.
  • The extra ‘regional’ MLAs are not accountable to a specific riding or voter group. It’s not clear what will happen between elections - will the extra ‘regional’ MLAs be automatically allocated their seats at the next election, even if local MPs lose seats? How do we ensure representation [seats] reflects population [# of people in each riding] so everyone has an equal voice in the legislature? As voters, how do we remove one of the ‘regional’ MLAs if we don’t like them?
  • This system would require larger electoral districts, according to the referendum information package.
  • Pretty much a guarantee of minority/coalition governments (can be less efficient and stable, which could mean more elections. But minority and coalition governments can also be seen as a good thing, as it forces parties to compromise and work together).

What it means for Victoria:

We would get one local MLA for Victoria-Beacon Hill (although this riding may change, as it seems ridings will need to be larger under this system), and an undetermined number of ‘regional’ MLAs allocated according to the popular vote. We don’t know if these ‘regional’ MLAs will live in the region they are meant to represent, or if they will actually act as ‘regional’ representatives (will they have an office and staff in their region? Will we be able to go appeal to them for assistance on provincial matters, the same way we’re currently encouraged to connect with our local MLA?)

When it’s time for another election, we may end up with a situation where the local MLA seat changes parties, but the regional MLAs retain their seats.

Like all other proportional systems, the biggest consequence is that seats in the legislature would be proportional to the popular vote, so there would be a less likely chance of a majority Liberal government. Instead, there’s a greater chance of more NDP-Green coalitions.

Rural-Urban Proportional (RUP)

How it works:

This system would use MMP in rural areas (local MLA with extra ‘regional’ MLAs allocated depending on popular vote), with urban area ridings combined into a group of seats (for example, the seven ridings in the Victoria area could be combined into one riding with 7 seats). Parties would run multiple candidates in these urban ‘mega-ridings’, and voters would rank all candidates in order of preference (this is called Single Transferable Vote). The most popular candidates win seats, with votes transferred from less popular candidates as they’re eliminated from the race, so your vote is never ‘wasted’.

Pros:

  • Most MLAs are elected directly by voters, and accountable to voters in a riding (excluding the extra ‘regional’ MLAs allocated to rural areas). This system is more accountable in this sense than pure MMP (which would give urban areas these ‘regional’ MLAs as well).
  • The proportion of seats in the legislature will somewhat reflect the popular vote.
  • Rural areas would still be assured equal representation in the legislature (the other two systems may privilege urban areas, depending on how they’re set-up).

Cons:

  • It’s unclear how it will be decided which ridings will be considered ‘urban’ and which will be ‘rural’. Where you live will determine how you’re represented and how you vote.
  • In rural areas, the same problems will hold for MMP: who gets to decide who the extra ‘regional’ MLAs are, how can they be ‘voted out’, and are they merely assigned to a region, or will they live in and actually represent that region?
  • This system isn’t perfectly proportional. The use of Single Transferable Vote in ‘mega-ridings’ in urban areas will produce results that could be close to the popular vote, but it won’t guarantee that the makeup of seats in the legislature will be proportional. For example, 10% of people in a mega-riding could give their vote to a Green candidate first, but unless others also rank that candidate highly, there’s a chance that the Green candidate won’t win a seat in the riding. If this happens in urban areas across the province, there’s a possibility the Greens could win 10% of the popular vote but not 10% of the seats. The upside is that those voters who chose the Green candidate also rank the rest of the candidates, so their votes aren’t ‘wasted’ -  it’s likely their second-favourite or third-favourite MLAs will win a seat when their vote transfers to those candidates.
  • With many MLAs representing one large riding, this system is the worst for partisanship at the local level, since voters will be able to choose who they seek advice and assistance from, and MLAs won’t feel an obligation to speak to and represent all voters in the region. It is more likely that MLAs will work to represent the interests of their supporters. There won’t be as much incentive to respond to local issues that cross party lines.
  • Pretty much a guarantee of minority/coalition governments (can be less efficient and stable, which could mean more elections. But minority and coalition governments can also be seen as a good thing, as it forces parties to compromise and work together).

What it means for Victoria:

It’s not clear what the boundaries would be of the new urban mega-ridings (and where the rural/urban divide would be), but it’s fair to guess that Victoria could have up to seven MLAs elected in one regional district. This means that the ridings of Victoria-Beacon Hill, Saanich-Gulf Islands, Oak Bay-Gordon Head, Victoria-Swan Lake, Saanich South, Esquimalt-Metchosin, and Langford-Juan de Fuca could all be subsumed into one big riding with 7 MLAs. At the very least, we could probably expect Oak Bay-Gordon Head, Victoria-Swan Lake, Saanich South, and Victoria-Beacon Hill to be combined. Elected MLAs would likely be from different parties. This could result in more partisan local representation, with local issues (like the location of infrastructure projects, or gulf island ferry fares) more likely to be either ignored or recast as partisan issues (with MLAs taking different stances to appeal to their base).

The biggest consequence is that seats in the legislature would be somewhat proportional to the popular vote, so there would be a less likely chance of a majority Liberal government. Instead, there’s a greater chance of more NDP-Green coalitions.

The Bottom Line

What to do?

There are a lot of uncertainties and drawbacks to the proposed systems, not least of all the idea that a cross-party "legislative committee" of MLAs will be determining many of the details (instead of an independent commission), if a majority of voters support a move to proportional representation. But what you ultimately vote for will depend on what’s important to you: a government reflecting the popular vote, straightforward local representation, majority governments, or more proportional left-of-centre governments? These are just a few of the competing outcomes of each voting system.

What about fringe parties?

One popular argument against proportional representation is that it allows ‘fringe’ parties access to legislature seats. I think the concern about this is overblown, since any proportional system in BC would require a party to receive at least 5% of the popular vote to get any seats (aside from those won in a riding). To win 5% of the popular vote, without winning a riding, a party would have to run candidates throughout the province and have a considerable level of support. Even with 5% of the vote, a party would only be allocated a handful of seats. In a minority government situation, that could be enough seats to form a coalition government with a larger party (as is the case now with the NDP-Green coalition, since the Greens only have 3 seats), but the ‘fringe’ aspect of the party would be mitigated by any such coalition (because coalitions require compromise).

How I'm voting

I think the benefit of moving to proportional representation outweighs the uncertainties and drawbacks of the proposed proportional systems. I believe government is enhanced when democracy is enhanced, and introducing a proportional representation system would improve democracy by ensuring our government reflects the diversity of political views in our province. I also believe that minority and coalition governments force parties to work together, and result in policies that more accurately reflect the views of the population as a whole.

But I’ve also volunteered in constituency offices and witnessed how MLAs work to represent all voters in their riding (and how this helps bring the community together), so I’m reluctant to move to a system that results in multiple MLAs per riding.

I’m voting in favour of proportional representation, and this is how I’m ranking the systems:

  1. Mixed Member Proportional: the benefits of proportional government, while maintaining local representation and accountability (one riding, one MLA). If this system is chosen, we should push the government to ensure the details of the voting system are determined by an independent commission, and not a legislative committee. Those details should focus on making the system (and the extra ‘regional’ MLAs) as accountable to voters as possible, with a clear pathway for voters to remove ‘regional’ MLAs from office if they so choose.
  2. Dual Member Proportional: delivers proportional government, without having to fully sacrifice local representation. Although I’m not a fan of having two MLAs in one riding, it’s better than having lots, as in RUP below.
  3. Rural-Urban Proportional: Doesn’t provide a fully proportional government, and there are two separate voting systems depending on where you live. If you’re in an urban area, you’re stuck with potentially many MLAs, making local representation more partisan. There are lots of drawbacks, with not as much of a benefit. I would rather have Single Transferable Vote across the board (with one MLA per riding), but that’s not an option in this referendum. If this system wins, I’d give it a try, but I’d almost rather have first-past-the-post in this instance.

No matter where you stand, vote!

Voting Information:

Official voting guide with more information on the systems.

Don’t have a voting package yet? You can request one up until November 23rd.

Your ballot must be received by November 30th (not postmarked). You can mail it or return it to any Service BC Centre (the Victoria one is located at 771 Vernon Ave #403, Victoria, BC V8W 9R5), or the Referendum service office (100–1112 Fort St, Victoria).


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