Slow progress towards electoral reform?

Another attempt at bringingproportional representation into Canadian antiquated electoral system hasfailed. Or has it?  

Last week PEIopened their polling stations in hopes of passing a plebiscite on a two-ballot,mixed-member proportional representation voting system.  

The birthplace of confederation didn’t become the birthplace of electoral reform – at least not yet. Only 36% ofthe votes were in favor of the non-binding plebiscite whereas 60% of total voteswere required, along with a simple majority of votes in favor in 16 of the 27electoral districts. 

The PEIproposal would have allocated more than half of the 27 seats in legislature tobe elected by the current system and the remaining 10 to be elected bypercentage of the popular vote.  

Proponents argue that changing to mixed-memberproportional representation in the electoral system would result in a moreconsensual decision-making process that involves more than the one leadingpolitical party in government. It would also give voters more choice in howthey cast their votes.

While the PEImixed-member proportional representation proposal is different that the SingleTransferable Voting (BC-STV) system proposed in BC, it is the choice of the BCGreen party and both the federal and provincial NDP.

Under a mixed-member proportionalrepresentation voting system, each individual would have two votes, one for aconstituency representative (elected under the current first-past-the-postvoting system), and the other for a political party (not directly anindividual) which would determine the number of representatives the party hasin the assembly. The particular individuals selected to represent the partywould come from lists compiled by the political parties before the election.  

PEI’sefforts at electoral reform mirrors BC’s recent attempt for electoral change. Duringthe general provincial elections held in May 2005, a referendum ballot waspresented to voters with the choice of approving a STV electoral system, asrecommended by the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

Under the BC-STV proposal proponents argue that the number of seats won by a political partywould represent more accurately the party’s share of the overall vote. BC-STVwould essentially prevent the non-democratic distribution of power that resultswith our current First-Past-the-Post system. This current system led to the BCLiberal landslide in 2001, with Liberals being allocated 97% of elected seats afterreceiving only 58% of the popular vote.

Supporters of electoral reform alsoargue that BC-STV also ensures local representation and increases voter choiceand power through more options on the ballot.  

It’s a surprise that BC didn’tbecome the birthplace of electoral reform given the overwhelming support itreceived. The referendum won a higher percentage than the landslide the BC Liberalswon to sweep into power in 2001. However, in order to succeed the Liberals arerequiring the approval of 60% of valid votes province-wide had to be in favorof the referendum, as well as support of more than 50% of valid votes in 48 ofthe 79 electoral districts.

If the BC Liberals can dominateprovincial politics with less popularity than it takes to pass the referendumon Electoral Reform, is a 60% threshold realistic or even democratic?

The original Referendum Act in BCstates that only 50% of validly cast ballots are required for the result to bebinding on the government. A few months prior to the submission of the finalreport by the Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform, the Electoral Reform Referendum Act (Bill 52) was agreed to, thus revisingthe threshold from 50% to 60% of required popular vote.   

Bruce Hallsor from the YES Campaignalso brings into question the unusual requirement of a 60% threshold forelectoral reform, “Prince Edward Island,New Zealand, and Ireland all used 50% as the threshold for their electoral reform referendums.We are not aware of any jurisdiction in the world that has set the bar at 60%.

Interestingly, PEI Premier PatBinns also made a last minute revision to their recent plebiscite, increasingthe threshold to 60%. Binns was further criticized for ensuring that it wouldbe more difficult to vote by cutting the number of polling stations andannouncing that he would not implement change if turn out was low

So why are governments going out oftheir way to prevent electoral reform in favor of proportional representation?

The issue of power in politics onceagain lurks behind the scenes. Those in power don’t like to change the rulesthat got them there.

A representative from the International ACEProject describes our politicians’ reluctance for change “because of the power it gives voters to choose their parliamentaryrepresentatives by ranking all candidates in order of their choice.”  

Bruce Hallsor from the YES Campaignputs the irony in context, “Unless this is reviewed, we are faced withthe prospect of conducting the next election with a system that has beenclearly rejected by the voters of British Columbia.This is really an untenable situation, which I expect the government will wantto correct.”.

I agree with the sentiment, but I’mnot so optimistic that the BC government will address the inflated threshold they have created for electoral reform.  That said, I believe that the 60% threshold can still be achieved, if people put in the time and energy to organize.

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