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Time to Talk About Proportional Representation Again, B.C.

05/25/2013 05:10 EDT | Updated 07/25/2013 05:12 EDT
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Not everything about the British Columbia election result was surprising. Anyone who understands our voting system could have predicted that about half of the votes cast would be "orphan" votes - votes that don't count toward the election of any candidate.

And they would have been right. Of the 1.6 million British Columbians who cast ballots, 48 per cent voted for losing candidates.

"So what?," you may ask. That means 52 per cent voted for winners, and in a democracy the majority rules.

Indeed it should, but those voters weren't electing a government, they were electing a legislature. Legislatures are supposed to represent everyone, not just the majority.

In fact, the victorious B.C. Liberal Party received substantially less than a majority of the popular vote (44 per cent), but nevertheless won a solid majority of the Legislature's seats (59 per cent).

A minority of voters elected a majority government.

These results are not unique to this election or to B.C. We see the same pattern - a minority of voters elect a majority government - over and over again in all provinces and at the federal level. All the major parties occasionally benefit from this voting system.

But B.C. has had a particularly difficult relationship with our first-past-the-post system. In 1996, the B.C. NDP won a majority government despite placing second in the popular vote. In 2001, the B.C. Liberals won all but two seats in the 79-seat Legislature with 57 per cent of the popular vote.

These wacky results led to a referendum in 2005 when 57 per cent of British Columbians voted to get rid of first-past-the-post and replace it with a proportional voting system known as the single transferable vote (STV).

The government, however, had set a minimum threshold of 60 per cent to adopt the new system. A second referendum on STV in 2009 included a "no" campaign which focused on publishing an avalanche of misinformation. The "no" side even told voters who supported proportional representation to vote against STV because it was somehow the wrong kind of proportional representation.

In the end, the "no" side won. Most British Columbians voted against STV even though a post-referendum survey showed majority support for the principle of proportional representation.

Fast-forward to today and the problems of unfair representation remain. Which brings us back to the 48 per cent of B.C. voters who cast orphan ballots. Who are they and why should they (or anyone else) support proportional representation?

They are, for example, Liberals on the North Coast and most of Vancouver Island. They are New Democrats in most of the southern Interior. They are Greens in all ridings except Oak Bay-Gordon Head, and Conservatives everywhere.

What kind of change does proportional representation offer? All voting systems divide candidates into winners and losers. First-past-the-post, however, also leaves a significantly large number of voters on the outside looking in. Proportional representation, on the other hand, ensures election results are inclusive.

The 48 per cent of orphan votes in B.C. compares to only 18 per cent in the 2011 election in Ireland, which uses an STV system. In New Zealand's 2011 election, their proportional voting system resulted in only three per cent of votes being orphaned.

Instead of a Legislature that represents about half the voters, B.C. could have had one that represents almost everyone.

Imagine that! A Legislature that looks a lot more like the people you see on the streets of every city, town and village across the province with diverse political opinion, occupations, ethnic backgrounds, age groups and gender balance to go with it.

But why should we only imagine it? We can make it happen.

B.C. NDP policy supports adopting a proportional system similar to that used in New Zealand, while Christy Clark personally supported the "yes" side in the 2009 referendum on STV.

British Columbians, both voters and politicians, who care about democracy need to start talking about electoral reform again. The province could one day have a Legislature that actually provides fair representation for everyone.

And that, for once, would be a nice surprise.