Canada’s westernmost province thinks of itself as distinct. Here you can surf in the morning and ski in the afternoon. We fell trees and produce wine. We have valleys and mountains and an ocean. But we share at least one thing with the rest of the Canadian federation: an electoral system. British Columbia uses the single-member plurality or first-past-the-post (FPTP) system to decide who will serve in the Legislative Assembly in Victoria.
At least for now. Like other Canadian provinces – Ontario in 2007, Prince Edward Island in 2005 and 2016 – B.C. has put electoral reform to the people and is going to do it again. In 2005 and 2009, the province asked its citizens if they wanted to switch from FPTP to a proportional electoral system, specifically the made-in-B.C. version of the single transferable vote (BC-STV).1 Each time, voters said “No thank you.” Sort of. In 2005, nearly 58 per cent of voters chose Yes, but the final tally of affirmative votes came shy of the 60 per cent adoption threshold set by the provincial government. In 2009, STV was decisively rejected, receiving a meagre 39 per cent support.2
Now it has come time once again for a repeat of the provincewide ritual of asking the people if they would like to reform their electoral system. During the 2017 provincial election campaign, both the New Democrats and the Green Party pledged to support a referendum on changing the way British Columbians vote. After an unlikely series of events, the New Democrats formed the government for the first time in 16 years, with 41 of the legislature’s 87 seats. The NDP was able to win the support of the Greens, which gives the government a narrow working majority in the legislature. So we’re once again off to the electoral reform rodeo.
We are sure to see a lot of goring. The NDP’s plan for putting electoral reform to a popular vote was under the gun before it even began. According to its summer agreement with the Greens, the government will hold the electoral reform referendum concurrently with the October 2018 municipal elections across the province. That means British Columbians are set to begin voting on whether or not to adopt a new system in less than a year. By the time legislation is presented to enable the vote, set a threshold for the proposal to pass, set the rules for public financing of the Yes and No campaigns and offer a specific question and system (or choice of systems), there will be even less time for proponents of reform to organize and stump for a Yes vote.
Compared to the duration of past attempts at changing the voting system, a year is a blink of an eye. The origins of the 2005 vote bubbled up from the 1996 general election, in which the New Democrats won a majority government despite receiving fewer votes than the B.C. Liberal Party. During the following provincial election in 2001, the Liberals, led by Gordon Campbell, campaigned in favour of electoral reform. To his credit, after winning that contest and becoming Premier, Campbell tapped former party head Gordon Gibson in 2002 to design a citizens’ assembly process to come up with a recommendation for changing the voting system. The assembly was convened in the fall of 2004 and reported its recommendation for BC-STV at the end of that year. The referendum was held in May 2005, concurrent with the provincial election. Starting from Gibson’s appointment to head the citizens’ assembly design, the process took nearly two years and eight months – or more than double the current timeline. If the province had decided that 50 per cent plus one was sufficient for adopting a new electoral system, a proportional system would be in place in B.C. today.
The 2009 reform vote drew on the province’s experience four years earlier but lacked the salience and public prominence resulting from the “unfair” and unusual 1996 electoral result and the work of the citizens’ assembly. The referendum was initially scheduled to take place with the 2008 municipal elections, but in the spring of 2007 Premier Campbell moved the date to May 2009 to coincide with the provincial election. Enabling legislation for the referendum was introduced in the legislature on March 8, 2008 – just over a year ahead of the vote. This time around, there was no citizens’ assembly, but British Columbians had plenty of warning that a vote was coming – more than two years from Campbell’s announced change to the referendum date. BC-STV was decisively defeated this time, with nearly 61 per cent of voters electing to keep the current system. Electoral reform fatigue had set in across the province. Turnout in 2009 was 55 per cent, notably lower than the 61.5 per cent reached in 2005, which may have been indicative of how much – or how little – citizens were interested in a change to how they vote or aware of electoral reform efforts.
Now, just over eight years later, the NDP government – which publicly supports proportional representation and will campaign for it – and the Green Party, which has long favoured electoral reform, are betting that they can persuade the province of the merits of PR in a fraction of the time allotted to the two previous attempts. As I write this, the government’s strategy is unclear. Attorney General David Eby, who is the point man on electoral reform, has indicated that holding the vote alongside municipal elections will be “efficient” and will save money. He puts his faith in widely held perceptions of fairness doing some of the heavy lifting in moving to reform, as he indicated in a September interview with the Tyee.3 Given experience here and elsewhere, It is hard not to see the government as Pollyanna-ish when it comes to understanding what it takes to get electoral reform done.
Even if the government were to adopt a longer timeline for the referendum process, there would be no guarantee that citizens would opt for a change in how they elect their MLAs. In the social science literature, electoral systems are known as “sticky” institutions – that is, long-established practices that are difficult to change. The global history of electoral reform tells the story of some longstanding electoral systems toppled at critical junctures – for instance, in Europe in the 19th century, as suffrage was extended and existing parties came together to resist the rise of workers’ parties, or as West Germany rebuilt its democracy after World War II.4
In New Zealand, proponents of proportional representation ushered in a mixed-member proportional system (MMP) based on the German model in 1994, which was first used in the 1996 general election. In the 1980s, citizens became disillusioned with a system in which the second party (the Labour Party) twice won more votes than the party that formed the government (the National Party). When Labour finally formed the government, it established a Royal Commission on the Electoral System, which reported in 1986 calling for MMP. The major parties ignored the recommendation until 1992, when following wide public discussion it was endorsed in two referendums. Efforts in B.C. have been far more disjointed and public engagement and publicity have been haphazard.
The government is no doubt hoping that the legacy of the 2005 and 2009 votes on electoral reform will continue to have enough cachet to carry a Yes vote now. It may also expect that the failure of the promised federal electoral reform in 2015 has left British Columbians longing for a local change. In either case, the government may be putting too much faith in the long game. Indeed, it appears that the Trudeau government in Ottawa has emerged unscathed from its broken promise to reform the electoral system. While Canadians, when asked by a pollster, indicate that they are open to electoral reform, they also don’t care about the issue that much. In 2016, Canadians ranked changing of the voting system a “low” or “very low” priority.5
The reform support numbers check out. The impetus for change in the early 2000s in B.C. was driven by an electoral outcome seen as “unfair,” with an important role played by the citizens’ assembly. The New Zealand experience with reform, initiated by similar concerns, was kept alive and salient by a royal commission, catastrophically low levels of trust in Parliament and the major parties and an extended, multistage referendum process. Even though contemporary B.C. experience with electoral reform stretches back at least to the 1990s, at this stage public pressure and appetite for a change is not at the level that made reform possible in New Zealand.
In a best-case scenario, with the issue salient and plenty of time to communicate with voters over the merits of PR, proponents of electoral reform would still have to overcome the significant challenge of educating the public about an arcane issue. Selling voters on electoral reform is challenging in part because proportional representation is an umbrella term for a group of electoral systems designed to provide some degree of proportionality in electoral outcomes – each of which tends to be complicated. The three most common are list PR, MMP and STV, each of which can be further subdivided into variants of the general model, and some models can be further customized for considerations including threshold, district magnitude, degree of party control over who makes it onto the list of candidates, and number of votes the elector casts.
Compared to the electoral system British Columbians (and all Canadians) have, for the most part, used for decades, proportional systems can seem byzantine, and benefits appear to be worth less than the risks that might accompany change. Our FPTP system enjoys the advantage of being simple and familiar, which gives the current system and its defenders a likely head start in the coming referendum. That head start, coupled with a short campaign period, will make it tricky for reformers to catch up and secure a Yes win.
Proponents of electoral reform do have a few arrows in their quiver, though. A party that supports their position is in power, for one thing, which was often not the case in previous efforts. For another, proportional systems are typically framed as “fair,” and even if individuals are at loss when it comes to explaining just how votes are counted under a PR system, they can quickly grasp what the system does and which values it reflects. Proportional systems produce “fair” outcomes to the extent that parties are awarded a percentage of the seats in a legislature that reflects the percentage of votes they receive in the election. Thus, some of the confusion experienced by voters when learning about the seemingly inscrutable procedures behind producing electoral outcomes in an STV system can be partly remedied with a reference to fairness: if you win 30 per cent of the popular vote, you stand to take about 30 per cent of the seats.
When conditions are favourable for education, citizens demonstrate a remarkable capacity to learn about all kinds of complicated issues. But education takes time, money, door-to-door canvassers and an environment conducive to learning. If past referendums on electoral reform in British Columbia and elsewhere are any guide, the upcoming climate is unlikely to be favourable to learning. Electoral reformers expecting to operate in a political milieu approximating a classroom will be disappointed to find that what they end up with is something closer to a war zone. There will always be opposition from those well served by the current system, who will sow discord and confusion alongside genuine arguments in favour of the status quo – a proven winning formula in the past for pro-FPTP forces.
A successful effort at reform will require a massive, sustained provincewide public outreach and education program, solidarity among reformers (a ragtag and sundered bunch at the best of times) and a system that British Columbians can rally behind. For the pro-PR side to have a shot at winning a vote, the government will need to invest significant sums of public money. The lesson from the 2005 referendum in B.C. (which included a strong public education campaign) and the 2007 vote in Ontario (which lacked sufficient outreach) is that “Go knock on doors” is the slogan of successful campaigners. If electoral reformers have any shot and winning a vote, it will require that they meet citizens (literally) where they live, as well as online, on the radio, on television and in print.
Deciders in Victoria will need to make the terms of the referendum known soon, including which system or systems they will put to the people – or at the very least, an account of how they will decide on a system. So far, the government has introduced legislation enabling the referendum and specifying that it will be a mail-in ballot beginning in the fall of 2018 and ending in November. A simple 50 per cent plus one vote provincewide will be sufficient for reform to pass (with no thresholds in particular ridings or regions to be met). The government has yet to specify the wording of the referendum question – a successful outcome could come down to whether or not the question is clear and accessible. It is also unclear what the consultation process on reform options and question wording will look like in the weeks and months to come. Civil society groups have already mobilized, though, writing op-eds, putting out email blasts and speaking with members of the legislature. A few town halls have been held.
In the government’s defence, they have recently returned to Victoria and are still settling into the job, but time remains a scarce commodity for those who want electoral reform. At the very least, British Columbians will need to know very soon which system or systems they’ll be voting on. If only one system is offered, the government may choose STV as the proportional alternative to the current system given that it was the system on offer in 2005 and 2009. As justification, the government and the Green Party – who will have to agree on which system or systems to put on the ballot – could reference the 2004 Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, which opted for STV. However, it has been over a decade since the first vote on electoral reform in B.C. and plenty has changed.
Regrettably, there is no time to hold another citizens’ assembly. However, the government could opt for a randomly selected, smaller-scale citizens’ jury – similar to a trial jury, but tasked with deliberating over which system or systems are best to put to the citizens.6 This would lend the reform process more legitimacy, produce valuable material for public education and possibly result in jury participants becoming credible electoral reform educators come referendum time.
If the government chooses to list multiple options on the ballot, asking voters to rank their choices as Prince Edward Island did in 2016, it could skirt the fraught process of choosing a single PR variant to put to the people. In the PEI referendum MMP defeated FPTP with 52 per cent support after three rounds of counting (it was ultimately ignored by the government, which cited insufficient turnout – 37 per cent7). The tradeoff is that the government and Greens may have to give up on their preferred system.
Will British Columbians adopt a proportional electoral system before the next provincial election? At this point I doubt it. There is no good reason to think that citizens care more in 2017 than they did in 2009, even with the botched federal reform efforts of a year ago. And given the crunched timeline, the reformers’ campaign will be hasty and their efforts will be rushed. I fear that the government’s ascent to an electoral reform referendum will result instead in a headlong plunge, like Icarus plummeting into the Aegean.