Editorial PART TWO: About that referendum this fall, and the voting systems on offer

Sara Golling
By Sara Golling
June 12th, 2018

In Part One, we looked at the first question on the two-question referendum, and expressed an opinion, but did not describe the choices of voting system in the second question. I intend to discuss each of the voting systems separately, with re-caps along the way. This editorial will describe only Dual-Member Proportional.

First, about that opinion: am I biased? I suggest that an opinion is not a prejudice, or bias, if it has been arrived at by thinking about factual evidence and considering alternatives with an open mind – so I think my opinion is not biased, but reasoned. Anyone who has read through that hefty tome, “Patterns of Democracy,” and also the Attorney-General’s Report and Recommendations on the upcoming referendum, as I have, has put a lot of effort into understanding the issues.

So, a re-cap of Part One: the referendum will ask two questions, and people can answer one or both of them, as they prefer. I recommend answering the first question for sure – that’s the one that asks which system BC should use, First-Past-the Post, or a system of Proportional Representation.  I recommend answering the second question if you have preferences among the three listed systems for achieving proportional representation. 

It’s worth answering the second question if you have any preferences among the Proportional Representation systems even if you voted for First-Past-the-Post in the first question, in case the majority of voters want Proportional Representation.

Voters are allowed to rank the systems, and can choose to rank just one, or two, or all three.  After reading the descriptions of all three different systems, you may have a preference even if you don’t now.

If a majority of voters want a Proportional Representation system, then we’ll get it – and the decision about which one we use will be made by those who have answered the second question on the referendum, if the Attorney-General’s recommendations are adopted by the government.

Whatever system is chosen, the government has committed to keeping the number of MLAs at a reasonable  level – either the same number we have now, or increasing it by no more than eight.

We’ll address the three listed systems in the order given on the proposed ballot.  They are:

·       Dual Member Proportional

·       Mixed-Member Proportional

·       Rural-Urban PR

Dual-Member Proportional  would result in most single-MLA electoral districts being combined with an adjacent district to create a larger, two-MLA district. But the largest (in area) rural districts would remain the same size and would still have only one MLA.

Each party could nominate up to two candidates for each district.

The first of the two MLAs in two-MLA districts would be the first-listed candidate of the party with the  most votes – just the same as in our current system.  The choice of the second MLA would be determined by the parties’ overall vote, provincially and regionally. Here’s the explanation, lifted directly from the Report:

“The process for allocating the second seat in the electoral districts provides an overall result that is proportional province-wide:

“The total number of seats each party should win is determined based on the parties’ shares of the province-wide vote;

“The number of first district seats each party has won is subtracted from that total, leaving the number of second district seats each party should be allocated;

“The second district seats are allocated to each party based on the strength of their performance in each district.”

Well, that seems fairly clear, after a bit of concentrated thinking.  To sum up: most of our electoral districts would be combined with another district to make one bigger district with two MLAs instead of one.  The two MLAs might both be of the same party, or of two different parties, depending on the vote. The overall results would be fairly proportional across the province. Local representation would be maintained.

In BC, some of the districts might end up being rather large and could include areas with very disparate issues.  Would having two MLAs compensate for that hugeness?  There would still be one MLA per unit of geographical area as there is now, and the two MLAs might well be better able to voice the differing interests and concerns of their constituents than just one. Reality check: our electoral districts already contain disparate issues and interests.

Clarifying the 5% threshold:

A reader has written to note that the 5% threshold for representation in the Legislature is not absolute – it applies to a party’s right to be allocated “top-up” seats.  As I understand it:  Any party, or an independent candidate, can win a seat with less than 5% of the vote if they are elected in a district as the voters’ first choice in that district, just as they can under our current system.  Thank you for reminding me to clarify that, Don Fodor. So please note: looks like our current system is also open to electing an “extremist.”

More about Dual Member Proportional: it was one of the choices offered to residents of Prince Edward Island (PEI) on their electoral reform referendum in 2016. It was developed for use in Canada, and is not currently in use anywhere in the world. The PEI referendum was non-binding, and it did not bring the voters out in large numbers – perhaps because it was non-binding?

With low voter turnout of just under 37% of the eligible voters, the PEI government decided it wasn’t a sufficiently strong expression of desire for change – even though most of those who voted did vote for change, and more of them voted for Mixed Member Proportional than for any of the other systems proposed.

A potential problem with Dual Member Proportional could be simply that it’s unproven — since it’s not used anywhere in the world yet, people may be unwilling to vote for an untested system.

If you’re keen and want to study the Attorney-General’s full Report and Recommendations, click this link:


For anyone who will be in Vancouver on June 25th, and would like to hear what a former Prime Minister of New Zealand has to say about Proportional Representation, there will be a discussion featuring Helen Clark and journalist Gary Mason, at the Simon Fraser University Segal Building at 500 Granville Street in downtown Vancouver, starting at 6:30 pm, for $10 each – or $5 for youth, seniors, and low-income. If you can be there and want to buy tickets, click this link.

Clark was an opponent of Proportional Representation, yet led a stable government from 1999 to 2008 under the Mixed Member Proportional system that New Zealand adopted in the mid-1990s. Her comments might be especially informative for readers who oppose the idea of changing to any proportional representation system in BC.

Part Three of this series will describe the Mixed-Member Proportional system.

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