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The Fellowship

July 10, 2018

British Columbia's 2018 Referendum - Proportional Representation vs First Past the Post


Hi folks - today I am going to be bringing a topic to you that has critical implications for the way government is done in British Columbia. My goal with this post is to be open and transparent regarding the pros and cons of each side. Ultimately, I want to provide educational material on this matter so that you, if you are from British Columbia, can make an informed decision regarding the upcoming referendum in October. However, I must note that I am not a political science student; my discussion of this is not a professional discussion and I am certain that there are pros and cons I have omitted simply because I am not an expert in this area. Therefore, I strongly suggest to the residents of British Columbia that you take the time to investigate this matter on your own and form educated conclusions about the options that will be presented to you during this referendum. The British Columbian provincial government has developed a website specifically for the purpose of informing residents of the province on this upcoming matter; you can view that information here: https://engage.gov.bc.ca/howewevote/ 
See: How We Vote 2018 Electoral Reform Referendum Report

First, let's start with a bit of history so we all have our bearings on the matter. British Columbia became the 6th province on July 20th, 1871. Since then we have had a number of referendums to help mold our government so it better represents the citizens of Canada and the residents of the province. A referendum is defined as a general vote from the electorate (that would be the residents of a province, in this case) on a single political question that has been referred to them for a direct decision. Perhaps the best known case in Canada of a famous provincial referendum was the Quebec sovereignty referendum, which was held twice (1980 and 1995) and turned down by the electorate both times. In British Columbia's case, our Attorney General has recommended that we include two questions in the upcoming referendum, due to the complex nature of the options provided.  

In October 2018, British Columbians will receive a voting package that contains 4 options reflecting how they would like to be represented during a provincial election. Three of those options are in favour of proportional representation (PR) and one is in favour of our current system, first past the post (FPTP). Let's briefly go over the three PR options. 
  1. Dual Member Proportional (DMP): current single member electoral districts would be combined with a second neighbouring district to form one larger region. During elections, two candidates would be nominated during the voting process and voters would choose one of the two options. Seats would be won in two ways: (A) first seats won by the party of the candidate with the most votes for each district, and (B) second seats won based on province-wide results and individual district results. This system was recently developed specifically for the Canadian context and has not yet been used in government. 
  2. Mixed Member Proportional (MMP): each party holds seats in the Legislative Assembly based on the party's share of the provincial votes it receives. MMP combines FPTP at a single-member district level with PR at a regional or provincial level. This system is the only PR option that is currently in use in other countries (such as New Zealand).
  3. Rural-Urban PR (also Flexible District PR): this option consists of multi-member districts. It employs the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in urban settings and MMP in rural settings. This option was developed to address the variable geographic/demographic needs in urban and rural areas. It maintains most proportionality in urban settings and some in rural. This system was recently developed specifically for the Canadian context and has not yet been used in government. 
Our Attorney General has made the following recommendations for the referendum ballot (these could potentially be the questions you will see when you are given your voting package):
  1. Which should British Columbia use for elections to the Legislative Assembly? (Vote for only one.)
    • The current First Past the Post voting system
    • A proportional representation voting system
  2. If British Columbia adopts a proportional representation voting system, which of the following voting systems do you prefer? (Vote for the voting systems you wish to support by ranking them in order of preference. You may choose to support one, two or all three of the systems.)
    • Dual Member Proportional (DMP)
    • Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) 
    • Rural-Urban PR
Before we jump straight in to the pros and cons of the various options available, let's first compare and contrast PR and FPTP. First of all, both general options are voting systems that dictate how we do government. FPTP involves the electorate (us) casting our vote for a preferred candidate - whichever candidate gets the most votes wins. PR involves voting for a preferred party rather than candidate; Legislative seats are given to that party based on the number of votes they receive. With FPTP, the province is divided up into various constituencies based on geographic/demographic units - those constituencies are represented by one individual. On the other hand, with PR those geographical units would be amalgamated to larger constituences so that representation across the province is proportional by number of people. Due to the larger constituency sizes, more than one representative will be assigned for PR.

Votes may or may not be equivalent to the number of seats acquired for FPTP and the winning candidate may not receive a majority vote, nevertheless this system is highly accountable (electorate knows their representative, because they voted for them) and results in the least discord for leadership direction and ideas at a provincial level (as majority government is easier to form). With PR, the votes are equivalent to the number of seats that party receives and the winning candidate does receive majority vote; however, accountability does not exist with this system (electorate does not necessarily know the candidate that will represent them) and discord within provincial leadership is significantly higher than with FPTP (coalition governments more likely to form; less unity for decision making on provincial issues). 

Let's take an example: say you have 4-6 candidates during an election; with FPTP the candidate that gets the most votes wins. So, for instance Canadidate 1 might receive 38%, Candidate 2 gets 15%, Candidate 3 gets 10%, Candidate 4 gets 19%, Candidate 5 gets 7%, and Candidate 6 gets 11%; according to FPTP, Canadidate 1 wins that constituency and will represent that regional district because they received the most votes. On the other hand, let's take a PR example called Proportional Representation - Single Transferable Vote, PR-STV. In this case, each candidate is required to meet a quota to be elected; let's say the constituency requirement is 10,000 votes minimum for representation out of an electorate size equaling about 60,000 individuals. The electorate is directed to mark their order of choices with 1 being their top choice and 6 being their least favourite choice. So if Candidate 1 receives 12,000 votes, they will have already reached the quota and will be elected. Now comes the transferable part of the vote; those extra 2,000 votes will now be considered by their second option and those votes go towards their #2 choice. Whichever candidate reaches the 10,000 goal will be represented. Therefore, it is proportional representation of the populace. The three options provided for the upcoming referendum will take parts of each of these voting procedures to proportionately represent British Columbians.

Therefore, FPTP represents the electorate more fairly at the constituency level and PR represents more fairly at the provincial level. This becomes increasingly important when one considers large urban regions vs smaller rural areas, as the proportion of residents in locations such as Vancouver, for example, will carry a stronger political voice than cities in Northern British Columbia.

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Now let's consider the pros and cons of the specific options that will be offered to British Columbias during the October referendum.

Pros & Cons of Dual Member Proportional (DMP)
As noted in the document: How We Vote 2018 Electoral Reform Referendum Report and Recommendations of the Attorney General, the following system tendencies are outlined for DMP.

PROs

  • Results are proportional on a province-wide basis
  • Multi-party representation for two candidates; more political views considered
  • Ballot simple for voters
CONs
  • Results are not necessarily proportional in each electoral district
  • Many districts served by two different political parties - opportunity for slowed-decision making.
  • Process for allocating second seat is complicated
  • Decisive majority government is unlikely to form, leading to increased difficulty in agreement for provincial decision-making
  • MLA may come from a distant region of the district, due to amalgamation of regions.
  • Runner-up in electoral district may not receive second seat, as second seats are distributed to achieve province-wide proportionality

Pros & Cons of Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP)
As noted in the document: How We Vote 2018 Electoral Reform Referendum Report and Recommendations of the Attorney General, the following system tendencies are outlined for MMP.

PROs

  • Ensures proportional results in regions with a large number of seats
  • Simple to understand and easy for voters to use
  • Better representation of smaller parties (i.e., Green Party) as they have a chance to receive seats in Legislature even if they don't win a constituency
CONs
  • Local representation not necessarily ensured in smaller electoral districts
  • Some MLAs may not be elected but rather chosen from the party list (according to the winning party)
  • Decisive majority government is unlikely to form, leading to increased difficulty in agreement for provincial decision-making
  • If total number of MLAs does not increase, MMP requires reduction of electoral district numbers to create List PR

Pros & Cons of Rural-Urban PR
As noted in the document: How We Vote 2018 Electoral Reform Referendum Report and Recommendations of the Attorney General, the following system tendencies are outlined for Rural-Urban PR.

PROs

  • Ensures proportionality in most provincial regions, particularly districts with a single transferrable vote (STV) and >4 MLAs
  • Local representation in rural districts maintained with small/medium impact on existing district size
CONs
  • Provides less proportional representation for rural districts than urban districts.
  • In STV regions, independent candidates have a high change of being selected, leading to higher chance of instability at a provincial level
  • Complex to understand as it utilizes two voting systems: STV and MMP
  • Decisive majority government is unlikely to form, leading to increased difficulty in agreement for provincial decision-making

Pros & Cons of FPTP
As noted in the document: How We Vote 2018 Electoral Reform Referendum Report and Recommendations of the Attorney General, the following system tendencies are outlined for FPTP.

PROs

  • Each electoral district represented by a single member
  • Simple to understand voting process
  • Better representation in rural districts
  • Easier to form majority government; decision making process more decisive and stable
  • Excludes small extremist parties from the provincial decision-making process
CONs
  • Does not often produce provincially proportional results.
  • Produces single-party majorities that typically win less than the majority of popular vote
  • Does not represent voters who choose small parties
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In the event voters choose a PR representation system, the electorate will be given a second referendum following two general elections. The future referendum will provide the option to maintain the selected PR system or switch back to FPTP. This will allow a test-run of the adopted PR system in the event the 2018 referendum results are against maintaining FPTP.

I encourage my British Columbian readers to look further into the options that will be available during the October referendum. It is important that we are all well informed on the matter before voting so that we can choose the option that will best represent our interests, both as individuals and as a province.

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Signed with sincerity,
Squeaks.

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