Fraser Forum

Lower Mainland residents could change the way all British Columbians elect their democratic representatives

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B.C. voters are one step closer to another referendum on electoral reform. The deadline for public input to B.C. Attorney General David Eby was today (Feb. 28), leaving it to Eby to submit his report to the government in the coming months.

Our recent study raises several questions about thresholds and legitimacy of the referendum, scheduled for the fall. For example, for the results to be valid, what voter threshold must be met? Recall that in the last two referenda on electoral reform in British Columbia, two thresholds had to be met for the government to proceed with reform—a 60 per cent super majority, and a simple majority (50 per cent-plus one) in at least 60 per cent of the constituencies.

Currently, next fall’s referendum requires only 50 per cent-plus one of the popular vote.

This scenario is particularly egregious. Why? Because the Lower Mainland alone, with its 2.58 million residents out of the province’s 4.75 million population, could decide the referendum and potentially change the way all British Columbians elect their democratic representatives.

B.C.’s new referendum legislation is also silent on voter turnout for the referendum—specifically, what percentage of eligible voters must participate for the results to be legitimate?

Because this referendum won’t be held in conjunction with a provincial election, turnout will likely be low, which could mean fewer than 50 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. This is what happened in P.E.I.’s electoral reform referendum that had a 36 per cent turnout, which was significantly less than the usual 80 per cent for provincial elections.

We know that B.C. voters are more likely to turnout during provincial elections compared to municipal elections, and they are more likely to participate in referenda when coupled with general elections. For example, for the 2009 referendum on electoral reform, held in conjunction with the 39th provincial election, voter turnout was 75 per cent. However, when B.C. held its referendum on the HST in 2011, we saw a 49.4 per cent turnout using (incidentally) the mailing system proposed for the upcoming referendum.

Simply put, not requiring a turnout threshold could seriously undermine the legitimacy of the results. It could also mean that only those strongly interested in the vote, on an unfamiliar issue for many British Columbians, determine the outcome.

In summary, although the B.C. government has said the referendum will succeed with 50 per cent-plus one of the vote, we urge caution in proceeding with electoral reform on that criterion alone. The government should not consider the results binding if voter turnout is lower than typical in provincial elections. Turnout of less than 50 per cent would impair the legitimacy of the result.

If, for example, only 36 per cent of voters turned out (as was the case in P.E.I.), and 51 per cent of them supported changing the system, it could mean that the province may change the electoral system with the support of less than one-fifth of the electorate. In such a scenario, it would be impossible for the government to say it had a clear mandate for change.

Therefore, the government might want to consider the impact of low voter turnout before declaring a mandate for electoral change.

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