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editorial

Electoral reform in British Columbia is dead. The news is bittersweet.

Canadians should always be open to the possibility of changing the way our elected representatives are chosen. And it wouldn’t be a bad thing if a province or two reconsidered first-past-the-post and introduced elements of proportional representation. It would allow the rest of the country to see how well a different system worked, or didn’t.

But it sure was thrilling to watch Canada’s least honest attempt at electoral reform – a B.C. referendum whose deck was stacked by the New Democratic government and its Green allies – being given a sound thrashing this week. It restored one’s faith in democracy.

We’re not sure what’s most ironic: that a government tried to gerrymander a vote on voting reform; that the move ended up motivating opponents more than supporters; or that people responded by delivering a slightly more negative result than in the 2009 referendum, with 61 per cent opposed.

This was B.C.’s third electoral-reform referendum in a decade-and-a-half. Support for reform has fallen each time.

Yet, the NDP government appeared to have set things up to ensure victory this time. It got rid of the need for a supermajority; unlike the 2005 and 2009 referendums, 50 per cent plus one would be enough. And it torqued the question.

An honest ballot would have given voters a menu of options, including the current first-past-the-post system, and asked them to pick. It could have asked them to rank their choices; it could even have presented them with just two, namely first-past-the-post versus a fully fleshed-out alternative, explained via deep public consultation.

Instead, the 2018 ballot asked voters whether they wanted the status quo or some other, unspecified alternative. It was silent on the details. It was like asking kids whether they wanted spinach, or something – anything – else.

The first question having been designed to assure the status quo would lose, the ballot then asked voters a second question, which seemed to have been designed to guarantee that the government’s preferred option would win. Voters were presented with three forms of proportional representation: two theoretical schemes used nowhere else, and a system known as mixed-member proportional.

But even the details of the proposed mixed-member proportional system, the system that was supposed to win the referendum, were to be left to the discretion of the government. It was like asking someone if they wanted the usual for lunch, or a sandwich. What kind of sandwich? Can’t say. Vote “sandwich” and leave it to the politicians to figure what goes between the bread.

The bottom line is that B.C. voters were not asked to choose between two or more well-understood and explained options. The NDP government tried to make this a choice between the status quo and a kind of shinny tabula rasa on which it could project whatever it wanted. It had echoes of Britain’s Brexit referendum.

The difference is that B.C. voters chose status quo. Under the circumstances, that was the reasonable option.

The thing is, a legislature elected through a properly designed mixed-member proportional plan could be a viable system of government. It’s not like replacing your car’s engine with tarot cards and a ouija board. Properly designed, it can work. And by giving more than one member to each riding, it could deliver different outcomes than first-past-the-post. Each riding might end up sending members from more than one party to the legislature, which would likely mean more minority governments and coalitions. That might result in more compromises between parties and politicians of different stripes. Or it might result in the opposite, namely gridlock. Across the globe, there are examples of both.

In other words, electoral reform is not magic. Don’t reject it outright; don’t embrace it on faith.

In October, 2019, Canada’s smallest province is scheduled to go to the polls. The date may change, because of the federal election – but whenever they vote next provincially, Prince Edward Islanders will also be faced with a referendum question. As with B.C., this will be PEI’s third electoral-reform referendum since 2005.

The question – “Should Prince Edward Island change its voting system to a mixed-member proportional voting system?” – is straightforward. That’s not the end of the story, but it’s not a bad place to start.