What’d I miss?: Electoral Reform in B.C.

Here’s a guide to voting in BC’s referendum

Photo by Chris Ho / The Peak

By: Michelle Gomez, Staff writer 

Have you noticed the ballots and pamphlets in your mailbox? B.C.’s upcoming 2018 Referendum on Electoral Reform will decide whether we keep our first-past-the-post system (FPTP) or switch to one of three proportional representation (PR) systems. This is following two previous referendums, one in 2005 and one in 2009, neither of which brought any changes.

Voting in the referendum could entirely restructure B.C.’s politics, but currently, about one third of British Columbians are undecided about how to vote. Anyone who is a Canadian citizen, is 18 or older, and has been a resident of British Columbia for at least the past six months is eligible to vote. The voting packages will be delivered until November 2, and ballots must be returned to Elections B.C. by November 30.

The referendum ballot will ask you two questions. First, it’ll ask whether we should keep our current system or switch to PR. Then, voters will be asked to rank all three proportional representation systems in order of preference on a separate ballot, so that we’ll know which system to switch to if the answer to the first question is “yes.” This second question makes it important to have an understanding of all of the systems, even if you would rather stick to first-past-the-post.  


Current: First-past-the-post (FPTP)

BC’s current voting system is first-past-the-post (FPTP).

FPTP splits up the province geographically into electoral districts, or ridings, which each elect an MLA to represent them in this case, in the provincial legislature. Voters choose one candidate for their district, and a candidate needs to win the most votes to win their seat. So, there’s one seat in the legislature for each district, and for each district a party wins, they also win a seat; the breakdown of individual votes for each party is irrelevant. FPTP is currently used in many countries, including the United Kingdom.

Critics FPTP point out that under it, legislature does not proportionally reflect the votes. This system often favours candidates from large parties, and often results in single-party majority governments (meaning that a single party holds more than 50% of the seats in the legislature and therefore holds enough votes to overrule any decision made).

Advantages of FPTP include how easy it is both for voters to to use and understand, and it is easy to administer and manage as well. Some fans of FPTP also argue that this system bars extremist or fringe parties from gaining political power.


Proportional Representation alternatives

According to Fair Vote Canada BC, “proportional representation is a principle underlying a voting system: People should be represented in proportion to how they voted.”  

In other words, under proportional representation, a party would receive roughly the same percentage of seats as they do votes.

While there are many different systems designed to yield proportional results, the three that we will be voting on in B.C. are dual-member proportional (DMP), mixed-member proportional (MMP), and rural-urban proportional (RUP).


Dual-member proportional (DMP)

Dual-member proportional representation would rearrange B.C.’s electoral districts to reconfigure how our MLAs are selected. Most ridings, aside from large rural ones, would fuse with an adjacent riding. These new ridings would each have two MLAs.

During an election, in an urban riding, each party could run a primary and secondary candidate, and voters would select their party of choice, rather than their preferred candidate. The winning party’s main candidate is elected as one of the MLAs. Independents would only be elected if they place first or second in the riding.

The second MLA is chosen by comparing the winning party’s secondary candidate to the other parties’ eligible main candidates, except that now the winning party’s secondary candidate is given half of their party’s votes. From there, seats are proportionally distributed across ridings based off of each party’s performance on a provincial level, with some extra caveats that you can read more about on B.C. Elections’ website.

CBC explains that while “this system would favour primary candidates from the party that finished second in a riding [ . . . ] sometimes, a secondary candidate from a winning party would get in if the party did both really well in that riding and across the province generally.”

DMP was developed in Canada, but is currently not used anywhere in the world.


Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP)

In mixed-member proportional representation, voters would elect one local MLA (as we do now), as well as MLAs representing a new kind of riding called a region. About 60% of the MLAs would be local, and the remaining 40% would be regional.

Under MMP, voters would choose their preferred local MLA as we do now, and the local candidates would be elected as they are now under first-past-the-post. In addition, voters would also choose their preferred regional candidate from a party list, and the regional candidates would be elected to ensure that the overall composition of MLAs reflects the proportions of the vote. Similar to the DMP system we talked about, a party must get at least 5% of the vote to gain a regional seat.

This system is currently used in Germany, New Zealand, and Scotland, among others. The specific size and limits of future electoral districts and regions have not been decided yet; these will be designated by a legislative committee if MMP is chosen in the referendum. This committee will also decide if voters have one vote or two under this system, since both are in use internationally.


Rural-urban proportional representation (RUP)

Rural-urban proportional representation merges two other systems, MMP and single transferable vote (STV), to ensure that urban and rural voters are represented equally.

In rural areas, voters would elect local and regional MLAs with the MMP system. In urban (geographically small but densely populated) areas, voters would use STV to elect their MLAs.

In STV, multiple ridings would be merged into one multi-district riding in which voters would elect a small team of MLAs. Instead of voting for their single favourite candidate, voters would number off the candidates on the ballot to indicate how much they liked each one (so you would mark your favourite candidate number-one, your second would be marked number-two, et cetera.) Parties could run many candidates per district as well.

If RUP were to be chosen, an independent commission would determine the boundaries of all the various districts. British Columbia would also be the only place in the world using RUP system, though MMP and STV are both used individually.