A strong majority of voters in a British Columbia referendum have chosen to stick with the current voting system and rejected switching to one that’s more proportional.
The mail-in referendum first asked whether voters wanted to switch from the first-past-the-post system, then allowed them to rank three possible proportional systems to replace it: Dual Member Proportional, Mixed Member Proportional and Rural-Urban Proportional.
Some 61.3 per cent of voters opted for the status quo, while 38.7 per cent voted to change the system, Chief Electoral Officer Anton Boegman said Thursday afternoon.
Out of 3.3 million eligible voters, some 1.44 million people returned their ballots, making the turnout near 42.6 per cent.
This is B.C.’s third referendum on proportional representation. In 2005, some 57.69 per cent of voters wanted to switch to a Single Transferable Vote system recommended through a Citizens’ Assembly process, but the support was short of the 60 per cent the government of the day required to make the result binding.
In a second vote on STV in 2009, just 39.09 voted to change the voting system and many observers believed the question would be dead for a generation.
Unlike past referenda on electoral reform, this one became partisan. The BC Liberals opposed the change while the NDP and Greens campaigned in favour.
While the system will not change, among the three proposed alternatives to first-past-the-post, Mixed Member Proportional got the most support.
Premier John Horgan said the referendum process was an important conversation about the future of B.C.’s democracy.
“This referendum was held because we believe that this decision needed to be up to people, not politicians,” he said. “While many people, myself included, are disappointed in the outcome, we respect [the] people’s decision.”
Andrew Wilkinson, the leader of the BC Liberal Party, said the process was flawed and was an effort by the NDP to appease the Green Party and stay in power.
“Today we saw the power of democracy as millions of British Columbians sent a clear message to the NDP and Greens that their self-serving referendum was not going to be tolerated,” he said.
Green Party leader Andrew Weaver said that making democracy more representative is one of his party’s six core principles.
“While we are disappointed with this result, we respect British Columbians’ decision to retain the current first-past-the-post system,” he said.
Bill Tieleman, a spokesperson for the No BC Proportional Representation Society, said his group argued that changing the voting system would be a risky political experiment.
“We said from the beginning of the campaign that proportional representation was complicated and confusing.”
In the end, for the second time in nine years, voters saw it that way too, Tieleman said. “They overwhelmingly agreed with us.”
Vote PR BC spokesperson Maria Dobrinskaya said the organization was disappointed by the result but knew it would be a challenge for the public to learn enough about proportional representation to feel confident voting for change.
“We ran a campaign that focused on presenting a positive vision of fairness for all voters, and on showing how a new way of voting would work better for everyone,” she said.
Deputy Premier Carole James told reporters that while the government hoped for a different result it’s clear B.C. voters didn’t want to make a change. “I think electoral reform is finished... from our perspective, we now move on.”
Dennis Pilon, a political scientist at York University who has written two books about voting systems, said that it looks from the riding-by-riding results like the BC Liberals did a much better job mobilizing their base than either the NDP or Greens did.
Supporters of right-wing parties tend to be older, richer, whiter, male and more likely to feel entitled to have their say by voting, Pilon said. “Probably we’re seeing some of that advantage here.”
And while the signals to Liberals and Greens from their parties were clear, it was much more mixed for NDP supporters, he said, noting that some prominent New Democrats including former premiers Glen Clark and Ujjal Dosanjh came out publicly against changing the system.
The point is borne out by exit polling the Angus Reid Institute conducted that found 84 per cent of past BC Liberal voters supported the status quo. NDP and Green voters were more divided, with 70 and 74 per cent respectively favouring change.
The company surveyed 646 British Columbians between Dec. 7 and 10. The results are considered accurate within plus or minus 3.8 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
The survey also found age was a major factor, with older voters favouring the current system by a two-to-one margin. The opinion was the reverse among younger voters, but older people were more likely to vote than younger people were, it said.
Tieleman said the “No” side knew that roughly one-third of New Democrats were opposed to the change even though their party was campaigning in favour of it.
It helped to have former premiers say they were opposed, he added. “It showed other New Democrats this was something that shouldn’t be a party issue and that it should be decided on its merits.”
According to Pilon, the issue may be over in B.C. for the foreseeable future, but it keeps coming back and interest among the mainstream parties may continue to grow as voting patterns shift.
“I don’t think the issue is going to go away,” he said.