Skip to main content

We’re torn on where to come down on British Columbia’s electoral-reform referendum.

On the one hand, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have one province experiment with a different voting system than the long-standing Canadian standard known as first-past-the-post. It would give the rest of the country a chance to see how one of the many alternatives works, or doesn’t work. It could serve as an inspiration or, depending on how things go, a cautionary tale.

And if reform experiments there are to be, B.C. is as good a place as any to start. The province has in the past elected members of the legislative assembly by means other than single-member, first-past-the-post, and it’s the part of Canada that has shown the greatest interest in electoral reform. It’s also the only province to have held not one but two referendums on the subject.

Which brings us to The Other Hand, a rather large and heavy caveat. The electoral system doesn’t belong to Canada’s politicians. It belongs to the voters, and the precedent has been established that you can’t change the system of electing governments without the direct consent of the governed, via a referendum.

To its credit, the New Democratic Party government of Premier John Horgan, which favours changing the system, is holding a referendum. To its discredit, it has come up with a question that seems designed to stack the deck against the status quo.

Electoral reform aims to be about ensuring the voting system more accurately represents voters’ wishes, but the first act of B.C.’s intended reformers looks like a play to underrepresent support for the existing system. Baking systematic unfairness into the referendum that claims to be about increasing electoral fairness is not a great look.

British Columbians will vote this fall by mail-in ballot, between Oct. 22 and Nov. 30. The ballot should feature a straightforward question: “Which of the following systems do you prefer?” Voters should be asked to choose between two options – one of which would be the current system of first-past-the-post – or rank their preference among several choices, including keeping things as they are.

That, sensibly enough, is how things went down in previous referendums. When B.C. held its first electoral-reform vote in 2005, voters were given two choices: a new system called single transferable vote, or the status quo. Ditto B.C.’s re-run referendum of 2009. Ontario’s 2007 electoral-reform ballot asked voters to choose between moving to mixed-member proportional, or changing nothing. In Prince Edward Island in 2016, voters were offered five choices; first-past-the-post was one of them.

But that’s not how B.C.’s NDP government is doing it this time. Instead, voters will be asked two questions, not one. First, they’ll be asked which electoral system they want: “The current first-past-the-post voting system” or “A proportional representation voting system.” A second question then offers a choice among three electoral systems – dual-member proportional, mixed-member proportional and rural-urban proportional – and asks voters to rank them by preference. Keeping things as they are isn’t one of the choices.

It’s not hard to see what’s wrong with this, if you imagine running a federal or provincial election on this template. How fair would that be? In the first stage, voters would be asked if they preferred an incumbent politician to some hypothetical, unnamed Anybody Else. Only if they voted for Anybody Else would they be presented with a list of actual candidates, not including the incumbent. Such a system is pretty clearly tilted against incumbents.

In fact, unlike previous referendums, voters aren’t being offered a choice between fully fleshed-out options: first-past-the-post, whose workings they know well; or reform proposals whose implementation details are fully laid out.

Instead, the three options on the ballot are not so much electoral-reform plans as electoral-reform theories. Voters will choose one of three theories, and it will be up to the legislature – the politicians – to figure out how to implement it.

So in response to the necessity of taking a fundamental question about the electoral system out of the hands of politicians to avoid self-dealing, there will be a referendum held on a field titled against the status quo, with the details of the reform to be left in the hands of politicians. This is not what the doctor ordered.

Interact with The Globe