Do most British Columbians want to change the way they elect representatives? We’ll know for sure after Nov. 30, when voting ends on B.C.’s referendum on proportional representation.
In the run-up, we’ve only had polls to go by. The thing about polls is that they don’t just reflect where public opinion resides at a particular moment. They can also affect the mood of the electorate. They can portray enthusiasm waxing or waning, which in turn may motivate who cast their ballots.
For that reason it’s interesting to look at the story told by 15 months of polling about the referendum, conducted by the Angus Reid Institute between June 17, 2017 and Sept. 28 of this year.
A quick glance at this Angus Reid graphic gives the impression that support for proportion has dropped over time.
But some digging reveals that Angus Reid changed the way it asked its question in the latest poll conducted last month, and that skewed the way people interpreted its results.
A bit more digging actually makes the case that British Columbians’ opinions on electoral reform are just about where they were at the formation of the two-party governing agreement.
Apples, then an orange
The June 2017 percentage in support of pro-rep was 59. In that and three polls after, B.C. participants were asked, “Based on what you know, please indicate which of these two options you prefer” and given two choices:
- The current First Past the Post system OR
- A new system of Proportional Representation
However, in the last most recent point on the graph, participants were asked:
“Based on how you feel right now, if you were to receive a voting package, which way would you vote on the first question?” and were given five options:
- The current First Past the Post voting system
- A proportional representation voting system
- Undecided/Not sure
- Would not vote on this particular question
- Would ignore the voting package altogether
Angus Reid arrived at its figure of 52 per cent supporting pro-rep by eliminating all responses except for the first two. But because it offered the category of Undecided this time and not previously, we may not have got a clear picture of people who were leaning strongly but haven’t fully decided — people who may have registered those feelings in the previous surveys.
If this sounds complex, bear in mind a simple rule in polling: Beware of inconsistent questions over time, because you end up comparing apples to oranges.
Nevertheless, the press was quick to run headlines about voters “souring” on pro-rep.
Even Wikipedia’s official entry for the referendum displayed, for a time, a misleading comparison of apples and oranges on a single table of poll results.
But dig around in Angus Reid’s accompanying data some more, and you find an apple to compare to the previous apples. In September 2018 Angus Reid conducted a national survey that includes a subset of B.C. voters. They were asked the same question put to those polled in the previous surveys. Those supporting pro-rep in the B.C. subset (57 per cent) were almost unchanged from June of 2017 (59 per cent).
Given margins of error, experts in polling would advise us not to take a few percentage points in either direction as hard evidence of a shift in opinion.
An Angus Reid representative explained to The Tyee the firm felt the number they used in the last graph point better reflected a likely outcome at this stage, since there is never 100 per cent participation in a referendum.
He also noted the B.C. sample had a higher margin of error this time around since it was a subset of a national poll separated into provinces.
Still, in that B.C. sample, a familiar sounding 57 per cent of those polled remain in favour of change when asked plainly to choose between PR and the status quo, as will be asked on the first ballot question.
The potential power of younger voters
If that seems like a long seminar in polling stats, apologies proffered. But as noted at the top of this piece, false perceptions of voters “souring” might affect who feel eager to cast ballots.
Which brings us to another way to parse the most recent polling by Angus Reid Institute.
Its same Sept. 28 survey showed that the challenge for PR supporters will be to get the vote out among the less firmly decided and youth.
Have a look at this chart, which shows overwhelming support for PR among decided millennials very high — but also a high number of undecideds in the same 18-34 age group.
The 'No' campaign enjoys the advantage of having the support (45 versus 29 per cent of decided participants) of the 55+ age group that votes in numbers.
Will the 18-34 age group show up to vote? Only 28 per cent of those aged 18–24 years voted in the provincial election in 2017 and 37 per cent of 25-34 year-olds. Contrast this with 63 per cent of 55-64 year olds and 72 per cent of 65-74 year-olds that cast a vote.
Add it all up and here is what the polling numbers really tell us so far:
If the No campaign succeeds, it will deny the majority of the population the change it wants. It will do so because its minority turned out to vote.
Campaigns do matter, and opinion does, of course shift. Perhaps before voting is over Angus Reid Institute will poll again to provide us another data point — an apple to compare with other apples, one can hope.
And then, after Nov. 30, will come the only poll that really matters: The tally of ballots cast by those who made their opinions truly count.
Read more: BC Politics