An Impartial Guide for Understanding BC’s Electoral Reform Referendum

Are you unclear about the options in BC’s upcoming electoral reform referendum? Don’t worry, you are by no means alone. To the average voter, the choices on the ballot seem almost deliberately misleading and difficult to comprehend. I’m a fifth year political science major and I barely understand them myself… What’s more, it’s possible that those choices that seem to be deliberately misleading are in fact deliberately misleading for political purposes.

That question aside, you have an important decision to make when you mail in your ballot, and it’s important that you understand all the options in order to make an informed decision. The material currently available online is highly polarized, and features very blatant biased messaging in their “explanations.” The following guide is entirely non-partisan and non-opinionated — all ballot options are presented equally, and no recommendations of any kind are made. All underlined terms are defined in the glossary below. A review is also provided at the end.

 

Option 1: Maintaining Status Quo — First Past the Post

First Past the Post, or FPTP, is the voting model that is currently used to decide all municipal and provincial elections within BC, as well as during federal elections. The model is simple: the candidate with the most votes in a riding (what we call in political science lingo a “plurality”) wins that riding.

Larger and more dominant parties prefer FPTP because it provides them with a greater number of seats, both overall, and relative to the percentage of the vote they receive. Smaller parties do not like FPTP as it is much harder for them to win a plurality (more votes than any other party in that riding). It is much more likely for smaller (and even medium-sized parties) to come in second or third in any given riding under FPTP, which results in that vote essentially being “lost.” This is the primary criticism of First Past the Post.

In this model, one MLA is elected to represent a riding. All constituents within that riding are represented by the winning MLA, regardless of whether or not they voted for a different candidate. Under FPTP, because MLAs are elected individually and not assigned based on percentage, every single one is beholden directly to the constituents who elected them — accountability is therefore very high. If any MLA does not do a satisfactory job, the public has the opportunity at the next election to directly and immediately pick a different candidate.

In simpler terms: the candidate with the most votes within a riding wins that riding.

 

Option 2: Proportional Representation — Dual-Member Proportional

Dual-member proportional representation, or DMP, is the first of the proportional representation options that will be on the ballot. It is the simplest of the three proportional representation options… which is to say that it is still rather complicated to understand in full.

First and foremost, under dual-member proportional representation, ridings will double in size, but will in turn be represented by two MLAs (therefore maintaining the ratio of MLAs to voters). The first of these two seats will be assigned simply to the party that gets the most votes (this is a plurality seat, like in first past the post — the candidate with the most votes wins).

The second seat will be assigned based on the overall percentage of vote achieved by each party (across the entire province). It is this second seat that gives the chance for medium-sized and smaller parties to gain more seats in the legislature. They therefore prefer this kind of proportional representation to FPTP. This second seat, regardless of which party it goes to, still directly represents, and is beholden to, the electorate within that riding.

On the ballot, parties can list either one or two candidates. Based on the percentage of the vote they receive, it’s possible that they win both seats in some ridings, though ultimately this is unlikely. Independents can also run under this model, and have a much higher chance of gaining a seat than they do under FPTP.

In simpler terms: two seats per riding — one candidate wins by FPTP, the other is assigned by proportion, but still represents the riding directly.

 

Option 3: Proportional Representation — Mixed-Member Proportional

Mixed-member proportional representation, or MMP, is the second proportional representation option. In this option, voters separately cast two votes: the first for a local MLA to represent them, and the second for a provincial party.

Ridings are made larger (reducing the ratio of directly-elected MLAs to constituents), as only 60% of seats are MLAs that are elected directly. The other 40% is divided up among the parties based on the percentage of votes they achieved during the second of the two votes, the one for a provincial party. These seats are called “top-up seats” as they are designed to make the number of seats earned by a party more proportional to the percentage of votes they actually received across the province. Parties need to achieve a minimum percentage of the vote in order to be allocated any seats during this phase. It also does not allow for the election of independents.

Proponents of MMP sometimes argue that it allows for greater freedom — voters have the choice to vote for a candidate from one party that they may like personally, and then vote separately for a different party that they think is more in line with their views. Pragmatically it is unknown how often this scenario actually happens.

One aspect of MMP that its detractors often cite is the fact that when the votes for the party are counted, the candidates are assigned to the “top up seats” (the remaining 40% of legislative seats) based on pre-determined and pre-ranked lists provided by the parties. Therefore, as parties know that they will achieve at least some of the vote for provincial party, they can guarantee that certain people absolutely will be members of the legislature. This despite their candidates not being directly elected by anyone. Parties can virtually guarantee that the candidates on the tops of their lists will be elected into the legislature. Because these top-up MLAs are not directly elected, they are also not beholden to any specific constituents. If they underperform, or even if they perform counter to the interests of the people, so long as the party chooses them to be at the top of their list for the next election, they will get re-elected.

In simpler terms: 60% of seats are elected directly, the other 40% are assigned based on lists pre-determined by the parties themselves.

 

Option 4: Proportional Representation — Rural-Urban Proportional

Rural-urban proportional, or RUP, is the final electoral model on the ballot. It is a hybrid model, designed by a non-governmental organization whose goal is to achieve proportional representation in all regions in Canada.

In rural areas of the province, mixed-member proportional representation (as outlined above) would be used. As opposed to standard MMP, only about 10% to 15% of seats are allocated using the party list system. In semi-urban and urban areas of the province, a model called single-transferable vote (STV) would be used.

Single-transferable vote places the names of all of the candidates on the ballot, including multiple candidates from the same party, and allows voters to rank all of them (or as many as they would like) in terms of preference. Ridings are combined to create larger districts that are then represented by between 2 and 7 of the candidates chosen. The candidates with the most votes fill the seats for that district.

The STV model is candidate-centric (like FPTP) as it is specifically candidates that are voted for, and not parties. STV provides the greatest chance for independents to gain seats in the legislature. This can be seen as both a positive of the STV model and a negative however, as though it provides opportunities for locally-popular candidates to gain power, it also is liable to grant power to those with fringe or even politically extreme views. The diversity of opinion is undeniably largest under STV, and by extension, the Rural-Urban Proportional model.

In simpler terms: MMP for rural ridings, ranked ballots for those in semi-urban and urban ridings.

 

Review

First past the post: the candidate with the most votes within a riding wins that riding

Dual-member proportional: two seats per riding — one candidate wins by FPTP, the other is assigned by proportion, but still represents the riding directly

Mixed-member proportional: 60% of seats are elected directly, the other 40% are assigned based on lists pre-determined by the parties themselves

Rural-urban proportional: MMP for rural ridings, ranked ballots for those in semi-urban and urban ridings

 

Glossary of terms used

Riding: electoral district

MLA: Member of the Legislative Assembly (a representative of government)

Constituents: people that live within the bounds of an electoral district

Candidate: a member of the public up for election (or re-election)

 

photo credits: Prince George Citizen/FairVote.ca