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Another referendum on electoral reform; another referendum defeat for electoral reform.

Canadian federalism is a laboratory of ideas, allowing provinces to experiment on all sorts of issues. Over time, results can be compared, and the country can learn from what works best. Which is why it’s a shame, at least for the rest of Canada, that on Tuesday the voters of Prince Edward Island declined to replace the existing first-past-the-post election system with one where a third of the seats would have been awarded by proportional representation.

Of course, the residents of the cradle of Confederation had every right, when asked, to vote as they thought best. Every right – and they may even have given the right answer.

Yet there’s still reason to feel melancholy about the result.

This page has, over the past few years, been highly skeptical of several electoral reform schemes. We weren’t much impressed by the federal Liberal Party’s promise to make 2015 the last call for first-past-the-post. The pledge was half-baked during a desperate election campaign, overcooked in government and then abruptly and wisely dropped.

And we cast a critical eye on the New Democratic government of British Columbia’s insistence on holding yet another electoral reform referendum – B.C.’s third in little more than a decade – while trying to massage the question to deliver a win. Voters would have none of it; in 2018, they handed B.C. electoral reform its worst defeat ever.

This page will never buy in to the notion that first-past-the-post, long the system of counting votes and choosing governments in one of the most successful societies on the planet – here’s looking at you, Canada – is some kind of anti-democratic heresy. Come on. And we can’t understand proportional representation’s most fanatical adherents, who at times sound like a teenager who has just found God, or an atheist who has just discovered Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion.

First-past-the-post is, all things considered and relatively speaking, a fairly good, tried-and-true system for choosing governments. But it’s also not perfect. It grew out of historical accidents and human choices; it wasn’t carried down from the mountain on engraved stone tablets. And it’s not the only possible way of running a successful democracy.

For example, in Australia, the antipodean Canada, members of their equivalent of the House of Commons each represent a single district, as do Canadian MPs. But for more than a century, Australian MPs have been elected not by first-past-the-post, but through a system of ranked ballots.

That addresses the vote splitting that can occur in multiparty elections under first-past-the-post, by giving every voter a second (and third, and fourth) choice, if their first choice doesn’t win. Australia also uses proportional representation to elect its Senate.

And New Zealand has for more than two decades use a mixed-member proportional voting system, similar to what was proposed in PEI, to elect its lower house.

Had PEI’s referendum question been given the thumbs up by voters, it would have introduced Canada’s first electoral reform experiment. (Instead, 51 per cent of voters preferred the status quo.) The province’s 27 ridings would have been reduced to 18, with nine members elected provincewide, by a proportional representation.

In Tuesday’s provincial election, held at the same time as the referendum, PEI ended up with a minority government – an unusual thing in modern Canada. But PR systems tend to make a rarity of majority governments. A state of permanent minority government has virtues, as it means that only by compromising with other parties in the legislature, including forming coalitions, can the leading party govern. That also carries its own downsides.

Subjecting the federal election system to sweeping and immediate reconstruction before the 2019 election never made sense. But what about an experiment in one province, so Canadians can see how a new system works – or does not work – and how much or how little it changes things? Given the continuing clamour for electoral reform, and the firm opposition to it, both sides of the debate could learn something from a one-province experiment. It would deliver lessons, both positive and negative.

As of this week, however, the experimenting province won’t be PEI. At least not yet. The voters have spoken, and during the election, the party leaders all said they would respect their verdict. That’s never a bad choice.

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