BC-PR: The Bottom Line

I’ve been asked to give a clear “bottom line” on my proposed BC-PR electoral system. Simple answers aren’t always my strongest suit, but here goes…

FIRST PAST THE POST IS WRONG

We have a referendum on electoral reform coming in 2018. There’s a lot of pressure from the public to hold a referendum on making a change, because our current electoral system (nicknamed “first-past-the-post”) delivers truly terrible results. In most elections in Canada, the party that “wins” an election typically gets only 40-45% of all the votes cast, but despite that wins a majority of the seats. Having a majority of the seats gives a party all the power. This is not only unfair to the majority of voters who supported other parties, but it has terrible effects on democracy. In the last federal election for example, the winning party got 39% of the vote but won 54% of the seats. That false majority wasn’t fair to the 61% of people who voted for other parties, and this creates a winner-take-all environment where parties try to find ways to get 45% of the vote without concern to what the other 55%+ think. Under first-past-the-post in Canada, the opinions of the majority don’t matter.

In provincial elections the province is broken down into “ridings”, which are areas that elected officials come from and represent once elected. Most ridings are relatively “safe”, with the same party winning them every time, and no voter is taken for granted more than a voter in a “safe” riding. On the other hand, the opinions of voters in “swing ridings” (seats that often change hands in elections) are hugely important to parties as convincing small numbers of “swing voters” to switch their vote is the key to winning an election in Canada. A 3% swing in the province-wide vote can switch an election from one party to another.

PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION IS THE ANSWER

So what to do? The calls have been growing to switch to some form of “proportional representation” (“PR” for short). Under PR, the proportion of seats each party gets is approximately the same as the proportion of votes it received in the election. This way the results reflect how people actually voted.

PR cartoon

ARE THERE CONCERNS FOR RURAL AREAS?

So why don’t we have PR already? One concern that comes up is rural ridings. Each riding is supposed to have approximately the same number of voters, so the ridings with the small towns and wide open spaces often get quite large. Many forms of PR would make these large ridings even larger, and that’s a concern for rural voters. So let’s acknowledge and honour this valid and understandable concern, and leave the rural ridings alone. They can continue to be approximately their current size, and elect a single representative (or what’s known as a “single-member” riding, as the riding elects a single member to the BC legislature).

ISN’T PR MORE COMPLICATED?

There have been concerns expressed that some forms of PR are more complicated than first-past-the-post. I’m not actually sure that’s true, it seems to me that first-past-the-post gets pretty complicated for a lot of people. The pressure for people to “strategically vote” for a candidate or party other than the one they would prefer (out of fear of “wasting their vote” on a candidate who can’t win) makes first-past-the-post pretty complicated for a lot of voters.

However, counting the votes can be more complicated with some forms of PR. I’m OK with that, I would prefer the best system over the simplest system (dictatorship is a simple system, after all!). But let’s nonetheless acknowledge and honour that concern, and let’s keep the one thing about first-past-the-post that people seem most comfortable with, the way people vote and the way those votes are counted. So let’s design a system where voters will still go into a polling booth, the ballot will have a list of candidates, and the voter will put an “X” beside a single one.

However, we need proportionality so let’s have the urban ridings each elect more than one member to the BC legislature, making each urban riding a “multi-member” riding. There’s lots of precedent for this, as BC had multi-member ridings in provincial elections for over a hundred years, and still had them as recently as the 1986 election. *NOT* having multi-member ridings is something relatively new for BC, in fact. And what are BC’s municipal city councils if not city-wide multi-member ridings? So let’s bring them back for provincial elections.

But we’re bringing them back with a twist, one that makes them both more proportional and simpler. Since each voter gets only one vote no matter how many members are elected in a riding, that makes the urban ridings more proportional while keeping voting (and counting the votes) as simple as it already is for provincial and municipal elections today.

BC-PR Example Ballots

As a bonus, this would take away most of the need to change riding boundaries (the geographic boundaries that define where one riding stops and another starts). Major cities would typically be a riding unto themselves electing several candidates, as is already the case with city councils in BC. Surrey residents currently elect 8 city councillors in one big riding, so if they had one big provincial riding that elected 8 or 9 people to the BC Legislature then that would be something perhaps more logical and familiar to them than the current radical change they go through switching between provincial and municipal electoral systems. A region like Greater Victoria might elect 7 people. Vancouver might be broken into two ridings, Vancouver West (electing 6 people) and Vancouver East (electing 5). There would be opportunity for Elections BC to consult after elections and tweak it based on voter feedback.

Getting rid of population changes causing significant changes to riding boundaries would not only save Elections BC time and money, and instead periodically changing how many candidates are elected in each riding based on whether the population has grown or shrunk, would be a far less confusing system for voters.

BUT THAT MEANS THAT ONLY SOME RIDINGS WOULD BE PROPORTIONAL

Yes, the first-past-the-post rural ridings wouldn’t be proportional, and that would take away from how proportional an election is province-wide. So what to do? I recommend adopting an innovation proposed by a former head of Elections Canada and promoted by Fair Vote Canada: make the urban ridings proportional, but also add a small layer of “top-up” seats. A “seat” refers to an elected candidate, a metaphor for the seat they’ll sit on in BC’s legislature. Top-up seats are additional elected members given to the parties so that the overall result ends up being proportional. When all the ridings are single-member, it requires a lot of top-up seats to make the final result proportional. New Zealand uses single-member ridings paired with top-up seats, and they choose to select 40% of their elected officials from top-up seats to get a result that’s proportional enough. In some places, even more than 40% of members are elected from top-up seats.

But under our proposed system, we wouldn’t need nearly as many top-up seats as other countries that use them in their PR system as our urban ridings would already be proportional and there are more urban ridings than rural. About 10% of elected officials coming from top-up seats would be enough under our new system. That’s good, as British Columbians have an affinity for keeping the majority of members elected directly in geographic ridings.

WHERE WOULD THESE PEOPLE ELECTED TO TOP-UP SEATS COME FROM?

There are many ways to select who gets the top-up seats, but possibly the simplest and best way to do it is to select the “near best winner”, as done in one province in Germany. Under this system, if the election results meant a party was due top-up seats then a selection of their candidates that ran in ridings and came very close without actually winning would be givens seat in the legislature. This way they would be names that were familiar to voters, who had been an active participant in the election and done very well. In many cases these would be candidates who were a strong in ridings where their party was weak, or were strong candidates in a riding with many strong contenders. This way, the voters would be indirectly selecting the top-up candidates, which fits into our desire to make every vote count.

WE’RE ONLY TALKING ABOUT PARTIES HERE, WHAT ABOUT INDEPENDENT CANDIDATES

Under our proposed PR system, independent candidates could do very well. They could compete for 90% of the seats, and in the urban seats they’d now have a much stronger chance of winning than under our current system, or many other types of PR.

SUMMARY

So we’ve now created a new made-in-BC form of PR, one I’ve dubbed “British Columbia Proportional Representation”, or BC-PR for short. The rural ridings don’t grow in size. The way voters vote doesn’t change. The way the votes are counted is essentially identical too. The number of top-up seats required to get a proportional result would be far less than countries like New Zealand and Germany need. It merges the provincial and municipal voting mechanics that British Columbians are already familiar with, and in the urban ridings removes the hassle of figuring out which riding you’re in.

This adds a maximum amount of proportionality with an absolute minimum of change, and answers the concerns that some voters have about PR. I believe this is the simplest option for BC to vote on, and should be the system on the ballot for the 2018 referendum.

I have also written a more detailed summary, that includes some of my inspirations in proposing this system.

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