Why I'm Voting No 

I would encourage you to read this article written by Geoff Plant. 

Barring a postal strike, BC voters will start receiving their voting packages for the electoral reform referendum next week.  In case you're wondering, I’m voting no.  
What ails our electoral politics is cultural, not structural; changing how we elect our MLAs won’t fix that problem. First-past-the-post has served British Columbians well for a century and a half.  It is perfectly apt for the challenges of the 21st century. What’s needed to improve how we are governed is a renewed commitment to responsible citizenship, not a new system for electing MLAs.
I’ve broken my analysis into three sections.  The first describes my experience with another exercise in democratic reform – the adoption of fixed election dates in 2001.  That discussion is relevant to my view that the culture of politics can overwhelm even the best intended attempts at structural reform.  I will then talk about the serious problems with the current referendum process.  Lastly, I’ll explain my views on the substantive question, that is, whether proportional representation is right for BC.  
Three preliminary points
The question before voters is not whether some version of proportional representation (PR) would be better than first-past-the-post (FPTP) in other places.  The question is whether PR would be better for BC.  So we need to bear the following facts in mind:
  1. In 14 of the 19 general provincial elections in BC since 1952, voters elected more than two parties to the legislature.  There have been as many as five parties in the house at one time, and in 2009 and 2013 the voters of Delta South elected an independent MLA to represent them.  It simply cannot be said that FPTP prevents minority parties from being elected in BC.
  2. There are currently 87 seats in the Legislative Assembly.  Using 2011 census data, the average population per constituency is 50,575.  But there’s a wide range of distribution.  Most importantly, the electoral districts in northern and rural BC are both larger and more sparsely populated than in the lower mainland.  The population of the Stikine constituency, for example, is barely 20,000, while the riding is almost 200,000 km2, or nearly three times the size of New Brunswick.

    Drawing electoral district boundaries in British Columbia is an exercise in tight-rope walking, balancing the need for a fair distribution by population with the need to maintain effective representation for those who live in northern and rural areas.  In defending its PR referendum proposals, the government has guaranteed that any PR system will: (1) retain MLA accountability to specific geographic areas; (2) that no region will have fewer MLAs than now; and (3) that there will be no significant increase in the number of MLAs.  Sorry, but I'm having a hard time getting the math to work.  Without a very significant increase in the size of the legislature, the inevitable result of PR will be to disenfranchise northern and rural British Columbians. (Let's see.  Add ten seats, and allocate them on an equal per capita basis.  That's 440,000 people per constituency.  Allocate one of those new constituencies to the north.  How big would that constituency be? The entire province north of Kamloops and the Kootenays would get one new MLA.  Metro Vancouver would get six.) 
  3. We are so accustomed to thinking about our politics in terms of the overall percentage of the popular vote obtained by each party that we forget this is not how our system works. The way we elect governments is not top down, from a calculation of results across the whole of the province; it’s bottom up, one constituency at a time. Governments are formed when one party or group of like-minded MLAs unite behind a leader who can command a majority in the House.  This is not some antique relic; it’s foundational.  We saw it play out in living colour in the summer of 2017, when the Greens allied with the NDP to form a majority in the House.  The Legislature is a place where local and regional perspectives are gathered, where each community in the province is given a voice, and where provincial policies are hammered out on the anvil of local needs.  This is the essence of the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy. The PR referendum asks us if we want to change that. 

Part 1 – a little history
In the summer of 2001 the BC Liberals enacted legislation to reform our electoral system by introducing fixed election dates.  Since then there has been a general election in BC on the second Tuesday of every fourth May. BC was the first jurisdiction in Canada to undertake this reform.
As Attorney General, I was the minister responsible for the bill. I described the goal behind this reform in the legislative debate on the bill.  I pointed out that under the current system, the Premier held the power to decide when a general election would be called and that Premiers had often timed the calling of elections as part of their re-election strategy. I suggested that the public interest in certainty and predictability in the conduct of public affairs had sometimes been subordinated to the private political interests of the Premier.
The object was to take this power from the Premier. And here was my bold claim: I said the result of implementing the new rules “will encourage, in the long run, not just greater fairness in our political lives, but it will also encourage a restoration in the basic relationship of trust that should exist between the members in this House and the government that they constitute, on the one hand, with the electorate on the other hand.”
Well, I was certainly optimistic.  It’s hard to measure these things, of course, but while I would still say that this was a useful reform, and it has at least ensured that our provincial general elections have taken place on four year cycles, as opposed to the five year gaps between elections in the 1990s, it has not brought about any significant – or even measurable - change in the basic relationship of trust between citizen and government.  This is because that question of trust has less to do with the formal rules by which MLAs and governments are elected and more to do with how politics is practiced.
Electoral reform is often actuated by admirable, but naive, wishful thinking.  It’s admirable, because of course we should always be willing to reform that which needs to be changed.  It’s naive, though, because it fails to appreciate that politics is fundamentally about the acquisition and exercise of power, and power drives behaviour in ways that are not easily deterred by structures and rules.
It’s true that under the old rules, premiers could and did control the timing of elections to suit their political purposes. But under the new rules, a different form of “timing management” now takes place.  Because the new government knows when they will face the polls, they manage their agenda on a year by year basis to maximize the chance that they will be able to present voters with an attractive platform of promises in time for the next election.  The hard work of serious structural reform is done in the first year, as promises are kept and political capital is used up in the making of tough decisions. In years two and three there’s an emphasis on fine tuning the details of the big projects, and finishing the to-do list from the last election. By year three it becomes almost impossible to persuade the House Leader to introduce controversial legislation, and by the end of year three, Santa’s elves begin assembling the list of goodies that will start to roll out in year four, with the promise of even more rewards tabled in the budget and Throne Speech that immediately precede the election. The result? The public still feels they are being manipulated.
Now I’m actually not all that critical of this cycle.  It introduces some useful structure into the way politics is translated into legislation and policy.  But my point is this: the introduction of fixed election dates did not prevent premiers from managing the agenda to suit their electoral purposes, it just changed how that work is done.  Structural reform was not a bad thing, but it had no significant impact on the culture of the practice of politics and power.
Some say that the adoption of a PR electoral system will transform the way politics is practiced. They believe the prospect of more parties in the House and fewer lopsided electoral results will cause MLAs to work together more collaboratively, to join together harmoniously in search of consensus.  Somehow what is toxic and manipulative about our politics will change. It won’t. The problem with our politics has nothing to do with the fact that we have FPTP rather than PR.  It has to do with human nature.  Even the best-intentioned politicians – and there are lots of them – are prone to seek advantage, to advance their personal ambitions by promoting policy changes, to influence public opinion in their favour by criticizing their opponents, to divide as much as to coalesce.  This is how politics is done in all political systems. No change in our electoral system will change this.
Part 2 – a flawed process
As Attorney General in 2001, I was also assigned responsibility for implementing another electoral reform campaign promise, which became the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. That was an independent, representative body of randomly-selected British Columbians who met and deliberated over many months, undertook research into electoral systems, and eventually produced a report recommending a new electoral system called STV-BC, a form of single transferable vote. In the 2005 general election, provincial voters were asked in a referendum whether they supported the STV-BC proposal.  At government’s direction, the referendum required a super-majority, including approval by 60% of voters overall and simple majorities in 60% of the 79 districts in order to pass. 
In the result, a majority supported reform in reform in 77 out of 79 electoral districts, but the overall vote was 57.7% in favour, short of the 60% requirement.  (A second referendum was conducted in the 2009 general election but it also failed.)
The Citizens’ Assembly was independent of government and political parties. Its work was public and transparent. The process this time is different. It’s been designed and controlled by government. In 2005, the BC Liberals even decided not to campaign on either side of the referendum (other than to encourage people to vote). This time the government is very publicly committed to an outcome. They want you to vote yes. The problem, of course, is that the government cannot avoid criticism that they have designed this process to obtain the result they want.  Electoral reform should not be about advancing the partisan interests of particular political parties, it should be about the larger public interest.  So there’s a stain on the process this time around.
The more fundamental process problem is the absence of the double majority requirement.  Lots of people have been critical of the 60% requirement in the 2005 referendum – we made it too hard for the referendum to succeed, they say.  The reason a higher threshold is defensible in my view is because of the importance of the question.  As I tried to point out earlier, the question whether to change our electoral system is fundamental; it’s constitutional in nature. Almost all organizations are subject to super-majority requirements when they are considering constitutional issues or other fundamentally important questions: companies, incorporated not-for-profits, volunteer organizations, and of course Canada’s constitution all impose super-majority requirements in certain circumstances. 
But the other requirement from 2005 – that the referendum pass in at least a majority of constituencies – is even more important, because it minimizes the risk that a concentration of voters in southwestern British Columbia could impose a new electoral system on the rest of the province without their support.  
The current referendum lacks any thresholds.  It invites the possibility that a bare majority of British Columbians, concentrated in Vancouver, could determine the outcome.  This is all the more concerning because of the absence of any minimum turnout threshold.  In 2005, the number of referendum voters was bound to be close to the number of election voters (voter turnout was over 58%).  This time, because it’s a mail-in ballot unconnected to any other election, there’s no guarantee of any turnout.  
All of this undermines the legitimacy of both the process and its outcome.  But I’m not going to vote no just because the process is flawed.
Part 3 – PR or no PR
There are three principal arguments made in favour of PR.  
The first is that in PR systems, unlike FPTP, “every vote counts.”  The premise of this argument is that a vote cast in a constituency for a candidate who loses is somehow valueless, that the voter has been disenfranchised.  PR systems seek to fix this problem by making it easier for minority parties to get seats in the House.
The first problem with this argument is that it privileges party affiliation over individual merit.  It assumes that the only, or at least the main, reason people vote is to support a political party. That is not my experience.  People often cast their ballot at the constituency level for the individual they think will best represent their community, irrespective of their party affiliation. At the end of a long campaign you hear people say, “I don’t like what any of the parties (or their leaders) are saying, and I can’t support them, so I’m just going to vote for the person, not the party.”
PR systems are all about enhancing the primacy of parties in our political system.  PR systems (especially those containing party list elements) all tend to marginalize the views of independents, of free thinkers, of mavericks.  Free-thinking is an asset to our democracy.  We ought to encourage it, not design electoral systems that throttle it.
But I also don’t agree with the proposition that the voter whose candidate did not get elected is somehow disenfranchised.  It’s true that their candidate didn’t win.  But their voice was heard, and their vote mattered.  It’s just that someone else got more votes.  And that same process takes place one district at a time across the province as a whole, until the aggregate of the preferences of the communities of the province is heard and represented in the legislature.  There are lots of elections and lots of votes in this world. There’s a result. One side wins and the other doesn’t.  We don’t say that the minority votes didn’t count.  
Let’s say government tables a bill in the legislature to raise taxes.  There’s a vote.  The measure passes.  Were those MLAs who voted against the bill disenfranchised? No. Ah, but people say that it’s different when we’re talking about the vote to decide who should be an MLA.  They say, if I cast my vote for the candidate who loses the election, then I don’t have a voice in the legislature. I disagree. You had your voice. Your voice helped decide who would represent your constituency in the legislature. We build governments from the bottom up, not top down.
The second argument in favour of PR is that FPTP tends to exclude smaller parties from representation in the legislature.  The evidence shows that this is not the case in BC historically.  And most recently, of course, we have the example of the Green party, which for tactical reasons has decided to concentrate its electoral efforts in only a few districts.  Those efforts paid off with the election of 3 Green MLAs in 2017.  And far from suffering a marginal role in the current legislature, they actually hold the balance of power.
It is true that FPTP will sometimes produce governments whose seat count is disproportionate to their share of the popular vote.  But as I have already said, our system of government is based on the idea that governments are intended to be composed of a collection of individually-elected MLAs, not the mirror image of province-wide popular votes for parties.  (Again, the pro-PR position assumes that the only representation that matters is political party representation.)  A government which holds a majority of seats with only a small plurality of popular vote governs at its peril if it routinely and inflexibly imposes its will against a majority of opposition. The ability to effect policy change is not simply a function of the seat count in the legislature; it’s also about taking the measure of the popular will on an on-going basis.  The point of PR is to give an electoral leg-up to those parties which cannot even muster sufficient popular support for their policies to obtain the necessary vote count in one single constituency.  Perhaps that speaks more to the failure of those parties to devise policies that truly resonate with people than to any failure of our electoral system.
A third argument in favour of PR is that PR systems tend to produce coalition governments that reduce the tendency to polarization that is said to exist in two party systems.  This argument fails to acknowledge an important reality of our political system, which is the extent to which dissent is a day-to-day fact of life inside the caucuses of the major political parties.  I’m not going to argue the point at length, but I only need to ask you to reflect on how UK Prime Minister May has had to govern over the past few years with the prospect and sometimes the reality of open dissent among members of her government and caucus – these are all supposed to be the members of her team, and yet there are Conservative MPs who are more effective opponents of her government than the Opposition Labour Party.  All of this in the world’s oldest FPTP system.
But I also don’t welcome the prospect of more coalition governments.  Coalitions are made by power brokers wheeling and dealing behind closed doors, not in the bracing sunlight of public scrutiny.  And here’s what coalition-making is about: which of the promises that I made to secure my election will I have to give up to get a share of power?  The result is a dilution of accountability.  In the perpetual coalition world, election platforms lose their importance because they are tossed aside as soon as the real bargaining begins. Instead, there’s horse-trading for power and position.  Voters will have no certainty that the party they voted for will actually deliver on any of the promises that were made to secure their vote. 
Some opponents of PR argue that it will encourage the proliferation of fringe parties.  They point to the increasing prominence of far-right political parties in some countries with PR systems. Well, I’m not at all sure that the rise of alt-right politics is the result of electoral systems.  Regrettably, populism, including its more extreme manifestations, is a growing phenomenon in almost all countries. It’s not an “electoral system” problem, it’s another kind of problem.  It represents our collective failure – both institutionally and individually - to educate and persuade citizens of the fundamental importance of the values of liberal democracy.  A topic for another day, but not, it seems to me, particularly helpful on the question of how to vote in the PR referendum.  It’s what I meant when I said at the outset that the cure for what ails us is not electoral reform, it’s a wholesale change in how we educate, how we prepare people for active citizenship, how we encourage individuals to recognize the relevance of politics in their lives, and then empower them to do something about it.
There’s lots more that can be said – and course there’s lots more that is being said about this topic, which is surely a good thing.  For example, I’ve decided not to say anything here about the second question on the referendum ballot. I will say this: I think it is perfectly legitimate to decide not to vote on the second question, given the paucity of information that has been provided with respect to the three options.
So.  Enough already!  Here it is in summary.  I'm voting no.  Why? The chances that PR will effect any meaningful change in the practice of our politics are remote. The process followed by the government in putting this referendum question before the public is problematic.  In particular, the failure to impose any super-majority requirement creates a real risk of a regionally-skewed result that will exacerbate an already present rural-urban divide in BC, not to mention the dismal prospect of a bare majority in a low turnout vote count.  All that to one side, and when all is said and done, the current system, with its ancient roots in Westminster traditions which are the well-spring of our democracy, is best suited to ensure that the legislature is broadly representative of the views and aspirations of the citizens of BC and the communities in which they live.