On Elections

How people elect parliaments

British Columbia electoral reform plan announced

The government of the Canadian province of British Columbia has announced details of a plebiscite to be held in November on the future system for electing the province’s Legislative Assembly.

The announcement include the release of a report on the process of public consultation undertaken over the past year, which reviewed possible electoral systems as well as ways of framing the plebiscite.

Electoral reform was a key commitment of the New Democrat Party government which came to office in 2017, based on a parliamentary support agreement with the provinces’ Green Party.

In November the provinces’ voters are to be asked two questions. The first will be a straight yes/no about whether they want any reforms to be legislated at all.

If the ‘no’ vote wins, the province will presumably keep its current system of single-member plurality (first-past-the-post) elections.

If the ‘yes’ vote prevails, the second question will invite voters to rank three options for a new electoral system as their first, second and third preferences. A preferential count will determine which option voters most prefer over the other two.

All voters, whether they voted yes or no on the first question, can contribute to the choice on the second question.

The three reform options to be surveyed will include:

  • a variant of the single transferable vote (STV) system with special arrangements for large regional areas in the north of the province, termed by the BC government the ‘Rural-Urban PR’ system, and also known to some of its proposers as the ‘Flexible Districts PR‘ system
  • The mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, which involves half the Assembly seats being elected by first-past-the-post and the other half allocated proportionally to nominees of political parties; variants of MMP are currently used in Germany, New Zealand, Scotland and Wales
  • a novel electoral system termed Dual-Member Proportional (DMP), which would see two-member electoral divisions in which one member is chosen by plurality voting, with the other seat allocated to political parties in larger regions in proportion to the votes for each party in each region.

The process resembles that which was followed in New Zealand in the 1990s, which led to that nation adopting its current MMP electoral system.

Whatever the results of the plebiscite, the actually responsibility for legislating remains with the current Legislative Assembly. The plebiscite vote will not necessarily be self-executing, and if any of the three reformed options are preferred by the public, issues of detail will need to be worked out.

The options are likely to see substantial technical debate among both supporters and opponents of electoral reform, which has been a frequent topic of public debate in Canada in recent years.

The province of Prince Edward Island held a similar public debate and plebiscite in 2016, at which voters selected the MMP system, although the current legislature has failed to legislate the approved reform.

Mainstream electoral reform advocates are probably likely to support the STV-based ‘Flexible District PR’ option, which was developed in recent years by established reform group FairVote Canada.

The regional variation elements of this option are an attempt to appease the view that simple STV’s multi-member electoral divisions do not apply well to large-area, low-population regional parts of the provinces interior and northern areas. A small number of Assembly seats will be allocated to political party nominees in these regional areas, but not in bulk of the province.

Similar state-wide but multi-division uses of STV voting currently occur in the Australian states of Victoria and Western Australia for the second chambers of their parliaments but these systems are uniform for all voters and do not apply any variations in regional areas.

Academic political scientists interested in electoral reform in many countries have shown a general preference for MMP in recent decades. In the 1990s MMP was widely seen as a compromise between the entirely dissimilar first-past-the-post and party-proportional seat allocation systems.

However the debate in Canada is now more experienced and nuanced after nearly two decades of electoral reform attempts, and support for MMP is giving way to a range of innovative alternatives. Support for the much older STV system (which was used by some Canadian provinces in the early 20th century) remains strong.

The third option proposed by the government – DMP – will probably have fewer initial backers, as it remains untested. Also a Canadian invention, it placed third out of in the 2016 Prince Edward Island plebiscite, but has never been used in practice.

All three reform options involve some element of direct allotment of seats to political parties, although the STV-based Flexible District PR option will have significantly fewer than the other two options. Whether these appointments will be ‘closed list‘ party nominees or at least partially voter-selected remains to be clarified.

Opponents of reform, in addition to urging a ‘no’ vote on question one, may be divided as to what to do about the options in the second question. Conservative political figures largely aim to keep first-past-the-post in place. Even if they lose the first vote, they and their supporters may have a significant influence on which option is ultimately chosen.

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Update: a useful YouTube explainer of the proposed Dual Member Proportional system is here.

 

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