Why I’m voting YES on proportional representation

Don White News Nanaimo
We need a more accurate representation of the diversity of our cultures, regions, and the age demographic of our voters
I still haven’t recovered from the municipal election and now the Proportional Representation Referendum is upon us. Equally bad, it appears the rationale for choosing how to vote in the referendum is as unclear as it was for picking eight councillors from a field of fourty.

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.

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.

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.

About the author

Don White

Don White

Don moved to Nanaimo from the BC Lower Mainland almost five years ago, but has visited the Island regularly for more than thirty years. He considers local government to be a crucial factor in determining not only our quality of life, but also our efforts to protect and responsibly develop this beautiful but vulnerable setting we live in. This view became his motivation for continuing to inform and engage Nanaimo voters.


Click here to post a comment

  • I often agree with you, Don, but I am going to vote NO to proportional representation. I still believe that the particular type of proportional representation had been decided upon before calling for a vote; there is only one of the three that I personally am comfortable with. In fact, I recommend that folks who vote NO to proportional representation, consider voting on the second question if they feel comfortable making a choice (it is complicated). That’s what I plan to do so that win or lose, I will have a say. Should the NO side lose, they will have data if they wish to bring a clearer proposal forward in the future.

    Thanks for the thoughtful column.

    • To Evelyn’s comment: is having THREE choices on the ballot not sufficient? On the last referendum there was only one, and it got support from a majority of voters who wanted change – just not enough to scale the artificial “wall” of 60% ( or whatever it was..) And there is even provision for a return to business as usual should voters change their minds in two election cycles, which was not provided for last time.
      I want to have my vote really count, and to stop scratching my remaining hair out, trying to decide what to do with the current fptp ballots! Now THAT’S complicated!

  • I haven’t voted in this referendum yet but I certainly will be voting for PR. I truly believe we have enough evidence that proves FPTP doesn’t serve the majority of citizens well. I have been reading all sorts of articles on this subject to get informed as to what the 3 voting systems mean. So when your article came into my inbox I was very interested in what your take on this was. As I started reading your column, I have to admit I got somewhat hung up on the suggestion that the question on the ballot was asking for a “Yes” or “NO” answer. I opened up my Voting package to read what the question I am being asked to vote on was. The question is asking “Which system should British Columbia use for provincial elections”. We pick one not yes or no. Also, and I’m really not trying to pick on you Don, I fully respect your opinion, you have said here if we vote for PR that “Pro Rep comes with a two year guaranteed return policy”, it is actually 2 general elections that we will have an opportunity to vote FPTP back in. I’m guessing that is a typo but I think it is important to get the proper information out to people.
    Sorry if I’m being picky!

    • I just double-checked Don’s column above and he doesn’t say we have a 2 year guaranteed return policy. He states (and I copy/pasted this sentence directly from his article:) “Pro Rep comes with a two-election guaranteed return policy.” Either he made an amendment or you misread what he wrote.

      • In my original post I also copy/pasted.
        Thank you for correcting this Don “Pro Rep comes with a two-election guaranteed return policy”

      • Both of you are faster than me. I had requested the change, just saw that is was made, and went to reply to your comment, Dorothy, when I saw it had already been noted. 🙂

    • Good catch. I’m not sure how “two-year” slipped through. It should have been “two-term” or “two-election.” The change has been made as noted below. Thanks for the heads up.

      Sorry the YES-NO parallel confused you. It’s how I’ve come to think about this referendum. Of course you are correct: voters actually choose either FPTP or PR.

  • Your arguments for proportional representation(PR) are all over the place and mostly not compelling.You say that PR will
    more accurately represent our diversity of cultures, regions and the age demographic of voters but then do not indicate how. Do we want new parties representing different cutures,regions and age? Nor do you say how our current system fails in these respects. PR will simply bring a host of complications and likely bring at least one more small party to challenge the Greens from the other side of the political spectrum. If we were to change from FPTP ranked balloting would have been the simplest and least complicated option. Not impressed by your suggestion that those who support FPTP do so
    for personal gain implying that the PR supporters would not do so. So,definitely FPTP for me.

    But good work on your helping to change the Nanaimo Council for the better.

  • I am voting for as everyone has been bitching about FFTP for years now and no one does anything about it. I also went with Rural Urban first. I have read a lot of info before my vote and I believe we need a change. This is an opportunity that doesn’t come along often so if people don’t like it they can go back of the other way in time. It looks like it’s pretty divided both ways. I noticed that the same folks who complained about FFTP for years are voting for it again. What’s up with that. Great new city council!!!