Next year’s referendum on electoral reform in B.C. will require only 50%-plus one of popular vote
During the last election campaign, the NDP in British Columbia made a commitment to electoral reform. One of the most compelling arguments for a proportional representation (PR) voting system made by PR proponents (such as the NDP) is that it gives voice to minority votes.
They argue that the current first-past-the-post system is flawed because the government can form a majority government without winning the majority of votes. To correct this problem, the NDP proposed that, if elected, it would have a referendum on PR and would “ensure B.C.’s regions are all represented fairly.”
In fulfilling this election promise, the NDP government has demonstrated that it’s more interested in its desired outcome than in the theory of a fair vote. Details of the referendum have been announced, and they seem to betray the spirit of the NDP’s election promise.
The referendum on electoral reform (to be held in the fall of 2018) requires only 50 per cent-plus one of the popular vote. This is a departure from previous referenda on electoral reform in the province where a super-majority of 60 per cent was required for passage. The rationale for a super-majority is that when dealing with a change so fundamental to democracy as how electors are chosen, one should ensure that more than a bare majority are in favour. Ontario, in its 2007 referendum, had similar language requiring a 60 per cent threshold.
Nonetheless, other provinces have set precedents of having the 50 per cent-plus one, such as P.E.I. did in their non-binding referendum in 2016. Even if we concede that the 50 per cent-plus one threshold is legitimate, the proposed referendum is not in keeping with the NDP’s promise of ensuring that B.C.’s regions are all represented fairly.
Ostensibly, the campaign promise was to ensure that the proportional system would treat all regions fairly. However, one would hope that a vote to change the system would be designed in such a way to protect the same principle.
Sadly, this is not to be the case.
In previous referenda held in B.C. and in Ontario, the requirement was that the change be made with 60 per cent of the electorate and more than 50 per cent in at least half of the ridings. The current legislation has no regional requirement.
Consequently, the referendum could be decided with votes from the Lower Mainland alone with its 2.58 million residents out of the province’s 4.75 million total.
Despite the noble-sounding rhetoric towards democracy and fairness, the same NDP (now in government) is proposing to hold an election that will not necessarily have every vote count and will certainly not reflect regional voices within the province.
The new referendum legislation is also silent on what threshold of voter turnout would be needed to be successful. One of the concerns about this referendum is that it won’t be held in conjunction with a provincial election and therefore, it’s likely that turnout will be low, which could mean that fewer than 50 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. This is what happened in P.E.I.’s referendum that had a 36 per cent turnout, which was significantly less than the usual 80 per cent for provincial elections.
We know that voters of B.C. are more likely to turnout during a provincial campaign, and they are more likely to participate in a referendum when coupled with the general election. For example, in the 2009 referendum, 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 it had a 49.4 per cent turnout using the mailing system proposed for the upcoming referendum. Not requiring a threshold of turnout could seriously undermine the legitimacy of the results. It could also mean that only those strongly interested in the vote determine the outcome.