Premier John Horgan and B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson debate proportional representation, Nov. 8, 2018. (Youtube)

UVic political scientist says predicting electoral referendum a tough call

Daniel Westlake says electoral systems around the democratic world have been stable

Daniel Westlake studies electoral systems through his work as an instructor of political science at the University of Victoria (UVic) and he is not sure how the current mail-in referendum on electoral reform is going to turn out.

“I really don’t know,” he said in an interview with the Saanich News.

Mail-in referendums generally generate low turnout, said Westlake, who is not sure whether supporters of the proportional representation appear more motivated than the supporters of the current first-past-the-post-electoral system.

While available polling data suggests a tight race, any predictions about the outcome add up to speculation, he said.

Elections BC must receive ballots by 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 30 by mail or through a Referendum Service Office or Service BC Centre.

Looking at the larger picture first, if British Columbia were to embrace proportional representation, it would be one of the few western jurisdictions that have changed electoral systems since the Second World War. France changed its electoral system from proportional representation to its previous and current alternative run off system in the 1980s — it is now re-considering proportional representation — and New Zealand dumped its first-past-the-post system for mixed member proportional representation almost 25 years ago to the day.

While electoral systems translate raw votes into legislative seats, they create different outcomes.

B.C.’s first-past-the-post system imported from the United Kingdom sees voters in a small geographic area (riding) elect one candidate to represent them, said Westlake. Or phrased differently, any provincial election in British Columbia is essentially the sum total of 87 mini-elections, with each riding representing about 50,000 people. The candidate who gathers the most votes wins the riding, while the votes of the runner-ups do not count.

This winner-take-all system has historically created majority governments, meaning that one party — and one party only — wins the majority of seats and with them, exclusive political power. In this sense, the system creates a level of accountability, said Westlake. Voters will know exactly which party to reward or punish for their governance, he said.

RELATED: Pro rep means more B.C. parties, coalitions

But the system also rewards parties, whose votes concentrate in geographic areas, he said. Unless small parties like the provincial or federal Greens can carve out geographic areas of support, first-past-the-post will work against them, he said. The system also encourages parties to concentrate their electioneering efforts on swing voters in swing riding, he said.

Ridings who will always vote for one party will receive scant attention, he added.

Proportional systems, meanwhile, translate the respective shares of the raw vote into roughly the proportionate share of seats, he said. Or in other words, a party that wins 10 per cent of the vote can expect about 10 per cent of the seats. So unless a party wins 50-plus of the vote, proportional representation generally results in a minority government or a coalition government.

While this aspect of the system dilutes accountability — any member of any coalition government can always blame its partner(s) — it ensures representation of political views, said Westlake. First-past-the-post also fails to distinguish between parties and candidates, he said. Voters in the current system might find themselves in a situation, where they might like one of their local candidates, but not the party for which this candidate is running, or vice versa.

This current referendum represents British Columbia’s third attempt at electoral reform since 2005. Referenda on the Single Transferable Vote — a form of proportional representation — failed narrowly, then decisively in 2005 and 2009 respectively.

This referendum though differs from previous ones insofar that voters must first decide whether they support the current system when held up against proportional representation. Voters who support proportional representation must then rank three variants of proportional representation — dual-member, mixed-member, and rural urban proportional.

RELATED: John Horgan shrugs off low turnout, change to referendum option

Critics of proportional representation like the B.C. Liberals — who had launched the citizens’ assembly on electoral reform leading to the previous referenda — say it will lead to unstable governments with parties from the political fringes dominating the discourse. They have also lamented the undue influence of political parties in choosing candidates and the New Democratic government change in its position by saying it would veto closed candidates’ lists.

Supporters of proportional representation, meanwhile, dismiss charges about the effectiveness of the electoral system by pointing to its prevalence among western democracies as well as the stability and socio-economic success of countries like Germany among others, which uses mixed-member proportional representation.

Ultimately, Westlake said changes to the electoral system should not be left to politicians. On the other hand, the subject is very technical. “There is a reasonably high information barrier,” he added.


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