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Canada Electoral-reform advocates hope PEI referendum can send a message to the rest of the country

Prince Edward Island will vote in a referendum to determine how it elects members to its provincial legislature.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Tiny Prince Edward Island has a chance to send a big message to the rest of the country about electoral reform when voters are asked to consider proportional representation in a referendum as early as this spring.

Voters in British Columbia rejected making such a change in December, and while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to abolish the first-past-the-post federal voting system during the 2015 election, he later abandoned the plan, saying Canadians were not eager for change.

Now, advocates hope Canada’s smallest province will lead the way.

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“We were really counting on British Columbia. This was really devastating for our cause,” said Real Lavergne, president of Fair Vote Canada, a group that promotes proportional representation.

“We thought if a referendum was ever going to win, the conditions were good for that referendum to win. In the end, voters voted more along partisan lines,” he said.

Information sessions are now being held across PEI to educate the public on the pros and cons of switching from the current first-past-the-post system to a mixed member proportional voting system.

The PEI vote will be binding.

But this isn’t the first time PEI voters have been asked to consider electoral reform.

In fact, they voted 52 per cent in favour of switching to mixed member proportional reform during a plebiscite in 2016, but Liberal Premier Wade MacLauchlan rejected the results because of a low turnout of about 36 per cent.

“I think turnout will be much higher this time because the referendum is being held in conjunction with the next provincial general election. We usually get election turnout around 80 per cent,” said referendum commissioner Gerard Mitchell.

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“This is a great exercise in direct democracy for the people. So they should vote and be informed what their choices are,” he said.

In 2016, voters were given five choices, but this time it will simply be a chance to vote “yes” or “no” to the question “Should Prince Edward Island change its voting system to a mixed member proportional voting system?”

A “No” vote would see no change in the way members are chosen for the 27 seats in the legislature, while a “yes” vote would see 18 members chosen in redrawn electoral districts and nine others chosen in province-wide ballots.

Mitchell said under such a system, people would get two votes.

“One for district MLA and the other would be for the party list candidate. The party list is used to top-up the seats of those parties who did not get enough seats at the district level to reflect their share of the popular vote.”

About 90 countries use some form of proportional representation, while a few, including New Zealand, Germany and parts of Scotland, use a mixed member proportional representation system.

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Lavergne said it has been difficult to convince Canadians to make the change because most politicians feel secure with the status quo.

“The interest of politicians is always for the first-past-the-post system because whoever is in power got elected by first-past-the-post. MLAs look at it and say maybe I wouldn’t be re-elected if we changed the system,” he said.

Still, he expects Quebec’s new CAQ government, which campaigned in part on the issue, will adopt a mixed member proportional system in the next year or so.

Don Desserud, a political scientist at the University of Prince Edward Island, said many Islanders didn’t pay any attention to the last plebiscite until the government decided not to accept the results.

“That’s a question of trust in government, integrity and worrying whether governments are serious when they make these promises to have a vote and respect the results,” Desserud said.

Lavergne said switching from the first-past-the-post system would give third parties a greater chance of winning seats, and would allow the results to better reflect the way people actually voted.

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“In Ontario you have a majority government that was elected with about 41 per cent of the vote. People have to ask themselves if they are really comfortable with that,” he said.

No date has been set for the PEI election, but Mitchell said the general wisdom is that it will be held this spring, and the referendum will be ready to go.

Desserud said he believes it could be as early as May.

“The last election was May 4 in 2015, so four years from that would be a reasonable time to call an election and won’t look like an early election or an opportunistic election. I expect there will be an election in May or early June,” he said.

The Island government could wait until the fall, but most expect it to go early to avoid any conflict with the federal election in October.

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