As an Ontario native, the possibility of electoral reform in British Columbia was refreshing after what was arguably a failure of democracy which handed Ontario’s PC party leader, Doug Ford, a majority government; securing 61% of the seats in the legislature after obtaining only 40% of the vote. How did this come about?
As illogical as this may seem, the electoral system responsible for this outcome and countless more like it, “first-past-the-post” (FPTP), has defeated the proportional representation (PR) platform in BC for the third time in a row. The objective of PR is to make the share of seats a party holds in the legislature equal to the proportion of the popular vote they obtain. A party who earns 40% of the vote would be awarded 40% of the seats.
The results of the recent referendum suggest that a majority of B.C. voters continue to support FPTP, with 61.3% of votes cast against and 38.7% in favour of making the transition to proportional representation.
A common argument made by critics of reform is that the current system is easy to understand and has promoted government stability for 150+ years, whereas PR and, even more so, the technicalities of each of the proposed models of PR - mixed-member proportional, dual member proportional, and rural-urban proportional - are too confusing.
With less than 50% of eligible voters having mailed in a ballot, it is evident the naysayers were right; a low voter turnout reflects a failure to garner voter confidence and educate the eligible population about the benefits and nuances of each system.
Admittedly, if I was eligible to vote in the referendum I would have likely ignored the second question posed on the ballot in which one was asked to rank their preference of the three aforementioned varieties of PR. The pros and cons of each require more competency in political science than myself, or the average voter, has. When canvassing around campus on behalf of UBCO’s NDP club to obtain signatures from students promising to vote in favour of PR, confusion surrounding its implementation was a major concern. However, the central dogma of PR remains simple: parties obtain seats in the legislature based on the percentage of the popular vote they win.
Unfortunately, the core principles of PR are often misconstrued due to an uninformed electorate susceptible to misinformation. A statement given by B.C. Liberal Leader, Andrew Wilkinson, following the defeat of PR, is one example of a misconception surrounding the referendum: “This has never been about improving our democracy, it was always about power and control.”
It is easy to believe that parties who support reform are acting out of self-interest if under that system they are able to fill more seats. However, this would only be because the proportion of power they hold reflects the popular vote.
Moreover, the legitimacy of the PR campaign faltered when BC Premier John Horgan made an attempt to appeal to young voters by associating terms like “Lit” and “Woke” with reform. Students at UBCO may remember seeing “Pro Rep is Lit” posters around campus. Although I applaud the decision to seek out support among young voters, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to cringe at what was reminiscent of my high school English teacher trying to engage the class in an analysis of the Great Gatsby by explaining that Jay Gatsby was “salty” when his “bae” Daisy Buchanan “curved” him for Tom Buchanan.
I believe it is at the hands of the youth that progress happens, and so continued efforts to engage the young voting population are required if electoral reform is to succeed the status quo.