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opinion

Russ Husum is a Vancouver resident who has studied electoral systems at length prior to British Columbia’s 2005 and 2009 referendums. He presented to the Federal Electoral Reform Commission in 2016.

British Columbia voters have just finished voting in yet another electoral reform referendum, with advocates for change arguing that fairness can only be achieved if the seat breakdown in the legislature looks about the same as the vote breakdown.

Proponents of proportional representation (PR) want each political party’s percentage of seats gained in the legislature to reflect each party’s percentage of the popular vote. But by that measure, our current electoral system is actually already reasonably proportional.

Last year’s provincial election was an example: just over 86 per cent of the seats in the British Columbia legislature are representative of the votes cast. Furthermore, when applying that same standard of measure to the 1996, 2005, 2009, and 2013 B.C. elections, the average proportionality level exceeded 89 per cent.

Here’s the math: In the 2017 election, the Liberals and NDP received 41.4 and 41.3 per cent of the popular vote, adjusted for unused ballots, while the Greens won 17 per cent. PR advocates suggest the seats in the legislature should be proportional to those numbers.

Instead, the Liberals wound up with 49 per cent of the seats in the legislature, the NDP with 47 and the Greens with only 3.5 per cent.

According to PR ideology, the Liberals and NDP were only rightfully entitled to the 41.4 and 41.3 per cent of the seats they won. The Green Party, although shortchanged for seats, was still rightfully entitled to the full 3.5 per cent of the seats they won.

Those three percentages total 86.2 per cent and that total percentage indicates the level of proportionality received by B.C. voters in 2017. The B.C. proportionality levels are similar to proportionality levels for the last four elections in Ireland, the only major Western world country using Single Transferable Vote (STV) for federal elections. In 2004, the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly proposed STV. In the 2018 referendum, STV was the urban component of the Rural-Urban proposal.

An outlier is the 2001 B.C. election where 77 of 79 seats went Liberal and the proportionality level was only 65 per cent. However, so decisive was the Liberal victory that they still would have won almost two-thirds of the seats using PR.

Besides disproportionality, PR advocates also claim that half the votes are wasted or elect no one in Canadian elections. (Fair Vote Canada champions those claims, stating that over 90 per cent of voters “helped elect a representative” in Sweden, Denmark and New Zealand compared to only 50.7 per cent who “helped elect a representative” in the 2017 B.C. election.)

B.C. voters don’t help elect representatives; they directly elect them. Voters mark an X beside a candidate of their choice and the candidate with the most votes wins. Voters see results on election night and understand the process from start to finish.

But in countries like Sweden, Denmark and New Zealand, complex proportionality calculations are applied after the votes are counted to ensure their parliaments reflect the vote percentages. That means that in Sweden in 2014 and Denmark in 2015 only 8.1 and 36.4 per cent of voters actually directly elected a representative, resulting in over 90 per cent of representatives in both countries getting in with less than 5 per cent of the popular vote. In New Zealand, 42 per cent of the representatives are assigned by the parties; the rest are directly elected by just over half of the voters.

In short, countries like Sweden, Denmark and New Zealand that use PR have a much smaller or almost non-existent connection between the voters and their representatives.

Ballots, especially in Denmark and Sweden, are larger too. Denmark averages over 100 candidates per ballot with roughly 10 candidates per party. In Sweden, each political party has its own ballot, many with 50-plus candidates per ballot, resulting in hundreds of candidates running in each constituency. In both countries voters have one choice only; either for the party or for a candidate.

Not surprisingly only 25 per cent of Swedish voters and 50 per cent of Danish voters actually voted for a candidate. The rest simply voted for their party.

The utopian world of PR where every vote counts and almost every voter “helps elect a representative” suddenly develops numerous gaping cracks upon closer examination.

The irony is that PR proponents, who endlessly decry Canadian voters being cheated by our electoral system, had no objection to a fraction of B.C. voters choosing a new electoral system that was short on specifics and that few understood. No minimum participation rate was set and the referendum was designed to clearly favour the yes vote.

If voters’ interests and maximum voter input had indeed been paramount, a specific PR model backed by a solid education program would have been offered and the referendum held with the next election.