Election reform is a hot topic in Canada in general, and in British Columbia in particular.
Country-wide, Prime Minister Trudeau campaigned on the promise that 2015 would be “the last election under FPTP”; but once he was elected, and the study commission and national poll he’d punted the issue to had come back in support of bona fide proportional representation rather than the weak-tea reforms such as IRV that (most suspect) he would have favored, he backed down. Essentially, he said: “Experts don’t agree on every detail of the path forward, so we’d better just do nothing.”
In British Columbia, the issue has been on the agenda for some time. A couple of anomalous FPTP election results in the 90s made people start looking for something better; a 2004 Citizens’ Assembly recommended STV; a 2005 referendum got over 57% in favor of that solution, but less than the 60% threshold; and a 2009 redo, with a controversial new district map attached and both major parties campaigning against, got 43% support. Then, in the early 2017 election, the Liberal party (which, confusingly, is on the right end of the spectrum in BC) lost their governing majority, and an alliance of the NDP and Greens took power, with >58% of the vote but just barely over 50% of the seats. One of the foundational planks of their alliance agreement was support for a proportional representation referendum, which they’ve scheduled for “sometime before the end of November” this year.
But then, their public consultation website for helping to design the referendum process seemed to be recapitulating the same mistakes of the federal process. The reforms they were considering were a mishmash: some well-designed, some vague, and some poorly-designed. And the questions they were asking about values, to help guide their decisions, were too often based on false dichotomies (eg, questions essentially asking voters to choose “Do you want simplicity or choices?” or “Do you want local accountability or proportionality?”, when well designed systems offer both at once).
So it was time to get the experts and activists together and, as much as possible, speaking with one voice. The Center for Election Science raised funds for a symposium; invited over 15 top experts and advocates from BC and around Canada; and had the symposium on February 16-18, with 2 days of intensive discussion capped off by an interactive public forum. And now, after about a week of intensively writing up our common resolutions, we have submitted our final report to the BC Attorney General’s office responsible for running the referendum. Here’s the executive summary:
Our report consists of two parts: Part I on voting systems and Part II on the referendum process. Some Symposium participants have chosen to sign Part I, but not Part II, of the report. There is also one recommendation in Appendix D, signed by a smaller group.
Part I: Recommendations on proportional voting systems to be considered for British Columbia
Recommendation A: No voting system should be considered that does not meet certain minimum requirements (as specified in the body of the text).
Recommendation B: In choosing among voting systems that do meet the requirements, consideration should be given to certain additional guidelines (as specified in the body of the text).
Recommendation C: Attention should be paid to the specific implementation details of each system, as these can substantially affect the results. This is especially true with respect to the Mixed Member Proportional system (MMP), for which we recommend a particular implementation based on the Bavarian model (Appendix A).
Recommendation D: We provide a list of 5 proportional voting systems that perform well on our criteria, together with a table that compares them on a variety of measures and outcomes (Table 1). We believe that all of these systems are worthy of consideration for adoption in British Columbia.
Recommendation E: In choosing a voting system, issues of gender, Indigenous, and minority representation should be explicitly considered, and representative leaders and experts from these groups should be consulted. Each system will require a different set of actions to improve representation, and these steps should be part of any discussion of election reform.
Part II: Recommendations on the referendum structure and process
Recommendation F: The referendum ballot should consist of two questions: – Question 1 asking voters whether British Columbia should adopt a proportional voting system, to be selected from the systems in Question 2; – Question 2 asking all voters (including those who voted against PR in Question 1) to rank two to four specific proportional voting systems. The outcome of Question 2 will determine the new voting system to be used in British Columbia in the event that Question 1 passes. We recommend that the systems in Question 2 be chosen from the list of five systems presented in Part I of this report (Recommendation D). If other systems are chosen, we recommend that they satisfy at least our list of minimum requirements (Recommendation A) and additional criteria (Recommendation B).
Recommendation G: The referendum questions should be worded as neutrally as possible, using guidelines that we provide.
Recommendation H: The vote-counting process for the second question should be structured to ensure that it will, if possible, choose an option that beats all other options pairwise.
Recommendation J: The systems under consideration should be specified in sufficient detail, and these details made available to the voters.
Recommendation K: Prior to the referendum, the government should take concrete steps to include citizens in a deliberative process on reform, such as by convening a Citizens’ Jury to evaluate the proposed systems (including FPTP).
Recommendation L: Relevant information should be sent along with the referendum ballot and made available online. This should include the system descriptions and details (from Recommendation J) and the report of the Citizens’ Jury (from Recommendation K).
Recommendation M: The Government should make an explicit commitment that, if the referendum passes, there will be a follow-up referendum after at least 2-3 election cycles, in which citizens will have the opportunity to vote on whether to stay with the new proportional system
All in all, this was a great experience for me, both as an activist and as a CES board member. Coming to consensus is never easy, but it was a great group, and it was absolutely worth it; our comments are by far the most comprehensive of any that have been made public so far. We built bridges both with other activist groups and with top experts, and began to explore the issue of multi-winner election reform. The CES will continue to focus on single-winner reform, but expanding the array of solutions we can offer to include multi-winner options is, in my personal view, healthy. As our organization grows, I believe we’ll be able to expand our focus, and that, far from sacrificing effectiveness on our original core areas, this will actually make us more effective generally.
One final note: none of this would have been possible without the untiring work of my co-organizer Mira Bernstein. Thanks, Mira!