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BC Politics

The PR Options: Rural-Urban Proportional Recognizes Province’s Diversity

Two systems combined in made-in-BC electoral reform solution. Last in a series.

Andrew Seal 12 Oct

Andrew Seal is a recent graduate of the UBC masters in journalism program and current EU-Canada Young Journalist Fellow. This series was made possible by the Merv Adey Memorial Fellowship.

British Columbians aren’t just being asked to vote on whether to keep the current first-past-the-post system or switch to proportional representation.

The ballot will also offer the chance to rank three proportional representation options.

We’ve looked at first-past-the-post, Dual Member Proportional, and Mixed Member Proportional.

The third option on the ballot is known as Rural-Urban Proportional, or RUP. It addresses B.C.’s vast geography and varying population density by using different systems in different areas.

Urban and semi-urban districts would use single-transferable vote (STV) and rural areas would use Mixed Member Proportional. Under STV, voters can rank individual candidates rather than just voting for one person, and more than one MLA would represent a riding. (Don’t worry, we’ll provide more details in a few paragraphs.)

Opponents are criticizing Rural-Urban Proportional for not being used anywhere in the world, although both component systems are. In fact, RUP has a Canadian precedent, drawing heavily from electoral systems used in Alberta and Manitoba during the first half of the 20th century.

In those provinces, large cities — Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg — used STV. They had multi-member ridings and voters ranked candidates in order of preference. Rural areas used instant-runoff voting — a version of ranked ballot — in single-member districts.

As most ridings were rural, the overall results weren’t proportional.

RUP addresses this by using Mixed Member Proportional in rural areas— basically first-past-the-post local ridings with regional top-up seats to provide proportional results. You can read our look at the system here.

In 2016, a model similar to the one on B.C.’s ballot was also proposed federally by Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Canada’s former chief electoral officer.

Gisela Ruckert, president of Fair Vote Canada BC, says the system has benefits for B.C.

“The main point of the system is that it offers maximum flexibility to respond to different geography and population density that we have across B.C.,” she said.

What is STV?

Anyone who voted in the previous referenda in B.C. will remember STV as the BC Citizens’ Assembly’s proposed alternative to first-past-the-post.

In short, more than one MLA represents a riding. The number depends on population size, but the electoral reform report suggested two to seven MLAs per riding. Voters rank candidates in order of preference. They can choose to rank as few or as many candidates as they like and may split their choices among different parties. Similarly, each party can run as many candidates as there are vacant seats, or as few as one.

STV results reflect the overall rankings of the candidates.

“STV is a system that provides maximum voter choice. You’ll see candidates from the same party competing against each other,” said Ruckert. “You don’t have to vote against things anymore.”

STV is used nationally in Malta and Ireland. Both countries are much smaller and more densely populated than B.C, meaning they can have multi-member districts without them becoming unreasonably large.

When the Citizens’ Assembly proposed STV for the entire province, some of the electoral ridings had to be massive. Without this, sparsely populated areas wouldn’t have enough MLAs to produce a proportional result.

“It caused rural areas to have either very poor proportionality or very large ridings,” Ruckert said. “Neither of which is a particularly appealing option.”

Rural Urban Proportional addressed those criticisms by introducing an alternate system for rural ridings.

How does it work?

While casting a single transferable vote is pretty straightforward, the method of counting and transferring the votes is a tad more complex.

After all voting closes, a quota is established. This is the minimum number of votes a candidate needs to be elected. B.C. would use the Droop quota. It would set the threshold at which a candidate would be declared elected. (You can review details of the counting method here.)

Anyone who reaches that quota is immediately elected. If any candidates win more votes than are needed to meet the threshold, the extra votes are allocated — at partial value — among the remaining candidates based on the citizens’ second choices. Candidates who reach the quota after the transfers are elected.

If there are still vacant seats, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their votes transferred to the next highest choice of their supporters.

The system is complicated, but Ruckert says voters simply need to know which candidates they prefer.

“Voters really only have to know how to mark the ballot and know who they want to support,” she said. “I think strategic voting is much more complicated for voters.”

At the end of the day, each ballot will go toward electing someone, even if it wasn’t the voter’s first or second choice.

However, experts are divided on RUP.

“I think Rural-Urban PR is a non-starter,” said Richard Johnston, a political science professor at UBC and current Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections and Representation.

“The problem with Rural-Urban is that it’s two quite different systems… Everyone should be voting under the same system. Everyone should be dealing with similar levels of complexity.”

David Moscrop, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, disagrees.

“If anything it’s more fair and appropriate because what it says is, look, there’s a difference to how we calculate representation in densely populated areas and areas that aren’t densely populated,” he said. “It’s even more custom to needs of the regions.”

Proponents of proportional representation share Moscrop’s views. They believe all three systems would work well in B.C. and that it’s more important for people to vote for PR than to worry about specific systems.

“People are intimidated by the three choices and I think what they need to know is that both questions are optional,” said Ruckert.

“The big question is number one.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, BC Politics

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