B.C. Vote Reform Could Lock in Right Wing

The Citizens Assembly is mulling a new rural/urban political apartheid, a new voting scheme that virtually guarantees right wing governments in B.C.

By Mitchell Anderson 10 Aug 2004 |
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The Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform is coming down to the wire and things are getting interesting. While this process has generally been applauded as a good faith experiment in citizen-led democracy, an announcement last week on the selection of the final presenters has certainly raised some eyebrows.

Will our celebrated citizen-led process find a cure for B.C.'s notoriously dysfunctional electoral system? Or is it instead being corralled towards recommending a new, unfair system that is blatantly biased towards B.C.'s right wing?

Time will tell but the need for public input has never been more urgent. The final deadline for written submissions to the Assembly is August 13. This is the last chance for the general public to influence what may be the most important decision in B.C. in years.

Wild swings, wasted votes

In order to understand where we are now, some background is needed.

There is little doubt about the need for an overhaul of our "first-past-the-post" system, which often wildly skews electoral results. In the 2001 election, the B.C. Liberals got 58 percent of the popular vote and 97 percent of the seats.

Worse still, our winner-take-all system leads to a huge number of wasted votes. In a given riding, those who did not vote for the winner may as well have not voted at all. In B.C. provincial elections between 1980 and 2001 a stunning 49.6 percent of British Columbians effectively wasted their vote by not contributing to the election of any candidate.

The assembly will decide this fall on which voting system will provide the best remedies for these ills. B.C. voters will approve or reject the Assembly's recommendation in a referendum on the 2005 election ballot. The stakes, to say the least, are high.

Of the competing electoral systems, there are three main contenders .

The good: Mixed member proportional representation (MMP), an electoral system used widely around the world with a proven track record of producing fairer results while maintaining geographic representation and improving the number of women and minorities elected

The bad: Keeping the system we have - a good option for those who enjoy wild swings in public policy and poisonous public debate.

The ugly: Single transferable vote (STV) - used for parliamentary elections only in Malta and Ireland, it is so notoriously difficult to explain that I won't even try.

Clever bid for political apartheid

The dark horse in this race is a both bad and ugly. Former Socred MLA Nick Loenen is advancing a model, called "Preferential-Plus", which should be given top marks for sheer audacity. This system would maintain our current winner-take-all system in rural B.C. where the right is marginally stronger, and use an entirely separate system of STV in urban areas where the political right and left share support. Given the way votes split geographically in the province, this clever scheme of political apartheid would virtually guarantee right wing governments in B.C. until the end of time.

If people are not both terrified and appalled by this proposal, they should be.

STV, at least in theory, can create proportional results and remains a darling of some electoral reform academics. In practice however it doesn't always results in a parliament that reflects of the people's will. Such a circumstance resulted in a constitutional crisis in Malta in 1981 when the party with the majority of the vote failed to win the majority of the seats. That sounds sadly similar to the system we are trying to get away from.

The two countries where STV is used exclusively at the national level also have very low representation of elected women - 9 percent in Malta and 12 percent in Ireland - largely because of the mechanics of the system. Many would ask: if we going to go to the trouble of changing our system, why would chose a system that has one of the worst records worldwide for involving women in the political process?

Case for proportional representation

Which brings us to some form of mixed proportional representation. Used widely around the world, its main advantage is that it preserves local representation while also ensuring that elected seats more accurately reflect the popular vote. This last concept might be hard for most British Columbians to wrap our heads around but hopefully with time we will get used to this happy new reality.

Under proportional representation, minority and coalitions rather than simple majority, governments are far more likely. Because different parties know that they may one day have to work together, the public debate tends to be more respectful than the embarrassing spectacles seen regularly in Victoria. Coalitions also mean that governments are much more accountable to the people between elections - not just on voting day.

Countries that use MMP also have better representation from women - up to 42 percent in Sweden. It has also been shown to significantly increase voter participation - over 80 percent in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and the Belgium.

Furthermore, countries using proportional representation tend to have more balanced governments and a far greater diversity of voter choice. Fringe parties that have held sway in countries such as Israel and Italy can be excluded by establishing a reasonable threshold of popular vote in order to win a seat.

Assembly agenda stacked?

All of this sounds great but it doesn't mean it will happen.

The latest chapter of the Citizens Assembly process unfolded recently and it has many British Columbians more than a little alarmed. Last week the Assembly chose nine people out of 80 applicants to make formal presentations as part of their final public consultation in September and their choices were interesting to say the least.

About 80 percent of the more than oral and written submissions posted to the web site so far have been in favour of some form of proportional representation: only 12 percent were in favour of STV (including a curious dozen or so Brits and Aussies who wrote in) or some other form of preferential voting and a mere 3 percent were in favour of the status quo. Did the formal presenters chosen this week by the Citizens Assembly accurately reflect the public input so far? Not even close.

Loosely put, four of the nine have stated a preference for STV or some other form of preferential voting, three favour some form of proportional representation, and two want to keep the system the way it is. Also of note: only two of the nine presenters selected are women - ironically the same as the number of presenters who are former Socred MLAs. Lastly, Nick Loenen's bizarre proposal enjoys the support of two of the nine, one of whom is Mr. Loenen himself.

Why did the Assembly choose the presenters they did? Hopefully their choice was merely an effort to ensure that the Assembly heard from the three contending systems. But it is certainly more important than ever that the people of B.C. speak loud and clear to the assembly that we expect them to honour their commitment to listen to the public.

Last chance to weigh in

Should we be concerned about all this? You bet. This process is getting down to the wire and it is no exaggeration to say that the political future of BC hangs in the balance. The Assembly could chose to recommend any number of things, depending on what they hear from the public and how many people say it.

Which brings us back to what you can do. Simply put, make a written submission to the Citizens Assembly before Aug 13th .  It is your last chance to have your say. Otherwise you might just end up with something you didn't bargain for.

Mitch Anderson is a Vancouver writer who is sick of B.C.'s wild electoral swings.  He hopes to start a Stompin Tom cover band.

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