An advocate for maintaining British Columbia’s electoral system as it is questions whether residents really care about reform, given voter turnout figures released on the final day of the referendum campaign.
Elections BC said it had received 41 per cent of eligible ballots by Friday morning in the referendum, which asks voters whether they would prefer to keep the existing first-past-the-post system or move to a form of proportional representation.
Ballots could be returned by mail or in person and those received before a 4:30 p.m. deadline on Friday will be counted.
“Forty-one per cent indicates to me that most British Columbians really don’t find proportional representation or our electoral system an extremely important topic,” said Bill Tieleman, Vote No spokesman, adding it’s likely that the turnout will remain lower than two previous referendums in 2005 and 2009.
“It kind of indicates what we’ve said all along, that this referendum wasn’t necessary.”
In 2005, voter turnout was 61 per cent. About 57 per cent of ballots were cast in favour of proportional representation, which did not meet the threshold of 60 per cent to make it binding on the government.
Four years later, voter turnout was 55 per cent and 61 per cent voted in favour of first past the post.
The latest referendum is binding and the winner will be declared by a simple majority of votes cast.
Tieleman said if the vote favours proportional representation, he’d question whether the electorate really supports the shift. If turnout remains in the range of 40 per cent and just over half of those votes are for change, that would mean only about 20 per of the electorate voted for proportional representation, while 80 per cent either voted against it or didn’t vote at all, he said.
But Green party Leader Andrew Weaver, who supports proportional representation, said the results should be accepted whatever they may be. If civic election results are accepted when turnout is lower than 41 per cent, then so should the referendum results, he said.
“The reality is, this is our democratic system. We are entitled to vote, we can vote if we wish and if we choose not to vote, we make that choice accordingly,” Weaver said.
“We have all along said that we will support whatever outcome there is. It’s an exciting opportunity for people to get engaged in discussions about our democratic institutions and the people are ultimately right. Whatever they choose is what we’ll move forward with.”
Maria Dobrinskaya, an advocate with the Vote PR BC campaign, said low voter turnout is a symptom of the public’s disengagement with the current political system and that’s one of the things the Yes side hopes electoral reform will change.
“I would like to see voter turnout be a lot higher and citizen participation in our democratic processes a lot more engaged. I’m hoping that bringing in a new way of voting will be one part of starting to address that,” she said.
Given that the vote could change the fundamentals of British Columbia’s democracy, B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson said he’d prefer to see a strong majority vote one way or the other. But he said passing the 40 per cent turnout mark is impressive, because it is a complicated topic.
“This was such a confusing ballot that it’s actually comforting to see that many people took the time to sort it out and cast their vote, so we’re all going to be watching with interest to see what people decide,” Wilkinson said.
He expressed concern, however, that if proportional representation passes, an even smaller portion of the electorate will have voted in favour of the particular form it takes. A second question on the ballot asked voters to rank one of three forms of proportional representation, which has the support of the province’s NDP government.
“If less than a quarter of the public chooses to change to proportional representation, and then a fraction of them choose one of the NDP-selected systems, I think there’s going to be a real problem,” Wilkinson said.
Elections BC spokeswoman Rebecca Penz said final turnout numbers will continue to be reported into early next week. She said the elections authority is hoping to release results by Christmas.
Other provinces, including Prince Edward Island and Ontario, have also held referendums on their electoral systems but neither made any changes.
In Prince Edward Island in 2016, the Liberal government decided not to honour a provincial plebiscite on electoral reform, in which only 36 per cent of eligible voters took part. Premier Wade MacLauchlan said it was debatable whether the result reflected the will of Islanders, and announced another vote will be held during the 2019 provincial election.