BC’s exclusive use of First-Past-the-Post not as long-standing as most people think

British Columbia has a long history of changing it’s electoral system… and every time thus far, it’s been without a referendum. I decided to research how many times BC has done so, and I was shocked at how frequent it has been. BC’s exclusive use of first-past-the-post (FPTP) for provincial elections is surprisingly recent.

For BC’s first election in 1871, the majority of ridings were elected under what BC’s election legislation calls the “at large” system. This is the way city councillors are elected in BC to this day: a voter gets as many votes as there were people to be elected in the riding.

So if an “at large” riding had 6 people to be elected, you’d get 6 votes to cast for MLAs. It’s inferior to systems of proportional representation (PR) as it can lead to “block voting” where people vote for an entire slate of similarly-minded candidates, but it’s superior to first past the post (FPTP) in that it not only allows for people to split their votes between differently-minded candidates if they’d like to, it also introduces competition between like-minded candidates (which, at least in theory, keeps them more responsive to the voters and less controlled by their parties). I found examples of “at large” provincial ridings in BC returning both an NDP and a Social Credit candidate, as an example of how it can offer results superior to FPTP.

I reviewed Elections BC’s ELECTORAL HISTORY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA 1871–1986 and have compiled a comprehensive list of elections in BC history where the electoral system changed for some (or all) voters:

1871 – first election (88% of MLAs elected by the “at large” system)

1882 – Cowichan and Kootenay switched from “at large” to FPTP; Nanaimo switched from FPTP to “at large”

1886 – Cowichan switched from FPTP to “at large”

1894 – Alberni (FPTP) merged into Cowichan (“at large”);”At large” multi-member ridings Lillooet, Nanaimo, Victoria, Westminster, and Yale (“at large”) broken into FPTP ridings (4 for Westminster, 3 for Yale, and 2 for the others)

1898 – Cassiar switched from FPTP to “at large”, and Cowichan lost “at large” representation

1903 – Cassiar and Esquimalt lost “at large” representation

1916 – Cariboo lost “at large” representation

1933 – “at large” voting expanded to Richmond-Point Grey and South Vancouver voters

1952 – entire province switched to the Alternative Vote (AV) where one person is elected per riding, but a ranked ballot is used so that people get to say they like this candidate best, this candidate second-best, etc.

1956 – Entire province switched from AV, and most ridings returned to their pre-AV state, (Burnaby, Delta, and North Vancouver voters were switched to “at large”, however)

1966 – Burnaby, Delta, and North Vancouver lose “at large” representation

1979 – Surrey switched from FPTP to “at large” (but Vancouver Burrard at-large riding eliminated)

1986 – large chunks of BC switched from FPTP to “at large” (Boundary-Similkameen, Cariboo, Central Fraser Valley, Delta, Dewdney, Kamloops, Langley, Nanaimo, Okanagan South, Richmond, Saanich and the Islands); combined with Vancouver and Victoria voters still using the “at large” system, a majority of votes cast in this election were not cast under FPTP

1988 – decision made to move all of province to FPTP

1991 – first election in BC history held entirely under FPTP

So there you have it, in 13 of the 40 elections BC has had since its inaugural election, the electoral system has been changed for some or all of BC’s voters without a referendum. After 1871, fully 32.5% of BC’s elections had the electoral system changed somewhere in the province. When I started this project, I had no idea that nearly a third of BC’s elections had the electoral system changed on some voters. I’m further stunned to learn that in 1986 that vast numbers of BC’s voters were switched to the “at large” system (and that 58.6% of valid votes were cast under the “at large” system), only to then have it taken away from all BC voters. It boggles the mind that the first BC election done entirely under FPTP was 1991.

So much for the argument that we must have a referendum to change the electoral system. Seems to me that changing it without a referendum is the norm, not the exception.

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