On the surface the referendum seems straightforward. Vote NO to stick with our traditional electoral system of First Past the Post (FPTP); vote YES to switch to proportional representation (Pro Rep). But proponents of voting NO argue the choice is not that simple.
The complication claimed is that the referendum is not just a vote between FPTP and Pro Rep. It is also about ordering your preferences of three offered forms of the Pro Rep electoral system for which we don’t have all the information. It’s argued you should vote NO (even if you favour Pro Rep in principle) because the government hasn’t provided needed details on how elected candidates will be decided under the different systems offered.
I suggest this thinking is wrongheaded. The most important question is Question 1: do you prefer FPTP or switching to Pro Rep? The second question – in a very real way – is optional. In the final analysis, it won’t matter to the same degree as our answer to the first. If the NO vote prevails on question one, it’s over. We continue with FPTP. If a YES vote wins — even if everyone leaves the second question blank — the current government will be unable to ignore it.
So I argue that even if you are unclear about or don’t want to answer the second question, you can ignore the preferential ranking, at least for now. Answer YES to the first question, and send your ballot in. But don’t simply accept my view in deciding to vote YES. Examine the arguments for or against FPTP and Pro Rep, and see whether you agree.
As I’ve mentioned above, the major objection to Pro Rep is that you don’t know all the facts about the various presented options. You are told that the reigning government, alone, will decide how many candidates will be elected and that you can’t trust politicians to do what’s best. Part of this argument is simply untrue, part of it is disingenuous.
According to the material the government has published, if the majority of voters choose YES, the finer details of the chosen system will be determined later by an all party and citizen committee. So stating that the NDP-Greens (or the party in power at the time) will be making all the decisions is factually untrue.
The argument that politicians cannot be trusted to do what voters want regarding Pro Rep amounts to an argument for disposing of elected officials and our form of government entirely. The leap of faith that NO-advocates claim voters will be making by voting YES is exactly the leap of faith that voters make in every election. For elected officials to argue politicians cannot be trusted to do what’s best for the electorate on Pro Rep is to state that they, themselves, cannot be trusted. At best, it’s worth remembering the next time they stand for election.
The claim that FPTP has served the country well for the past 150 years is simply an argument to preserve the status quo. That system may have served when only two voices were being considered, but not since. Having only two voices, and one of those frequently neutered in majority governments, is a form of governance long past its prime. Arguments to preserve the status quo are too frequently about preserving a system that has endowed personal benefits or based on reluctance to change. Better the devil you know. Neither argument stands up.
In terms of benefits, it’s hard to argue with the main benefit of Pro Rep: an increased, accurate proportional representation of voters’ voices in our legislature. Even the opposing Liberals don’t quibble on this factor. The day of two voices being enough for good governance is done. We need a more accurate representation of the diversity of our cultures, regions, and the age demographic of our voters.
Which points to a related risk: Pro Rep reduces the risk of having a guaranteed minority in power whenever there are more than two choices on the ballot. Today, minorities in power are virtual certainties under FPTP. How many elections in the recent past, on any level, has the winning party received more than 50% of the popular vote?
That question takes us to the issue of risk management. By and large, I’m a cautious guy. I try to look at both the potential upside and the downside before making a decision. Pro Rep comes with a two-election guaranteed return policy. If we give it a whirl, don’t like it, we can go back to FPTP. That guarantee does not come with choosing FPTP. If we vote NO, we are stuck back in the same struggle for change that we’ve been experiencing for more than a hundred years.
If you are uncertain, check out other independent views and arguments yourselves. Fairvote Canada BC has provided voters with a number of useful sources of information. Begin with their fact checker on claims made for and against Pro Rep. Then, if you are inclined, watch an independent video on the subject that they recommend.
The most obvious conclusion, I suggest, is that any of the Pro Rep options are better at representing today’s electorates than is FPTP. And it’s the safest if I change my thinking. For that reason, I will vote YES on the referendum. Even if I’m undecided on the ordering Pro Rep choices I’ll make sure to submit my ballot in time with the second question blank. The first question is the most important. Registering my vote on the first question is the first priority. BC Elections BC must receive my ballot by 4:30 pm, November 30, 2018, for my vote to count.
Regarding the preferential ordering of the three forms of Pro Rep offered in the current referendum: If there’s time, I’ll work through my thinking in a second column. But to be safe I’ll tell you here how you can do the same. Read through a summary of the options, such as using links provided on Elections BC. An alternative is the Tyee’s Series on Pro Rep. Note the things you like, the aspects you dislike, and if you aren’t clear on the order of your preferences, take Fairvote Canada’s short quiz to rank your preferences. That quiz should do it. It isn’t hard, and gives very specific answers.
And I encourage you to treat this column and other information the same as as you did for Nanaimo’s Municipal Election. Remember how voter networking contributed to that outcome? We should do the same for Pro Rep. If you think this column or anything else you read on the referendum is useful, pass it on. Email, provide the links, give out printed copies. Most important – get others to do the same. If you do that, we will get the same result: a decision that reflects the collective will of voters not just the will of the few who wish to protect their own interests in this issue.