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November is Coming: Proportional Representation Referendum

Guest Contributor Kelly Hutchinson | April 30, 2018
November is Coming: Proportional Representation Referendum
First-past-the-post masks the true political diversity of BC.
First-past-the-post masks the true political diversity of BC.

Electoral reform has been a major issue in Canada and BC since the early 1990s. The appetite to do away with our old system and modernize our democracy reached such a high level of national attention, that the Federal Liberals used it as a key part of their platform to clinch a majority government in 2015.

Here at home, attempts to switch our voting system to Proportional Representation by way of Single-Transferable-Vote (or STV) have occurred twice before. In 2005, it almost even passed the 60% threshold with 57.7% of BCers voting to switch the system. Now 13 years later, on the campaign trail and at the doors, I am still surprised to see puzzled faces when I mention there are different ways we can vote in our elections.

It is such a sad reality that at this moment, 6 months away from arguably the most important vote of my life, very few people know what the words “Proportional Representation” mean. But it’s not exactly a surprise either. So knowing this, on Saturday April 21, Fair Vote Canada aimed to help change the status quo with their so-called “Day of Action”.

Indeed, a couple of weekends ago, across 20+ major cities in BC, volunteers with Fair Vote Canada all took to the streets of their respective neighbourhoods to raise awareness of the vote. For example, in Penticton, Dianna McGregor of Fair Vote South Okanagan Similkameen hosted a 2-day booth at the Spring Okanagan Makers Market at the Penticton Trade & Convention Centre. In Kamloops, Gisela Ruckert hosted an information table outside a busy intersection in downtown Kamloops. Even as far north as the Peace Region, my colleague Jay Sanders out of Fair Vote Prince George, set up a tent in his local farmer’s market to distribute information on electoral reform.

Here in Kelowna, I knew our event should aim to reach the largest amount of people in the shortest amount of time. At this stage in the campaign, the goal is primarily to have voters learn the words “Proportional Representation” and find out that this is something they can vote on and should pay attention to.

On Saturday morning, I packed up my car with a banner reading “☑Proportional Representation” and drove to the pedestrian overpass at the Parkinson Recreation Centre. There I met up with several other local activists and organizers who helped me carry it to the top of the bridge. And help I needed. This sign was 60ft and over 100 pounds. Strong winds and a high bridge posed a challenge to actually finding a safe way to display it. We all knew dropping a 60 foot canvass banner on rush hour traffic is not a great way to win the hearts of the electorate.

Eventually we had it tied down behind the guardrail and headed back to our cars to pull out signs for volunteers to hold leading up to the bridge. Volunteers spaced themselves 100 meters apart and held four black and blue signs reading:

"In November 2018 | Make Every | Vote Count | Vote Yes to..."

Our volunteers waving on the pedestrian overpass at the Parkinson Recreation Centre.

By this time a field reporter from Global News showed up to take pictures and attempted to interview a supporter for a quote or two. But we were busy taking our own pictures, waving at traffic and enjoying the occasional honk of an individual tired of their vote never electing anyone. I unpacked my camera and decided to take some video of my fellow volunteers to ask them why they had, once again, taken time out of their busy lives to support me.

False Majorities

One of the most common complaints of First Past The Post is that it is entirely possible to achieve a majority government with far less than 50% of the vote. In fact, it is more than just possible, it’s historical. It often works out like this and when it does we say the government has a false majority. Since the system is winner-take-all, a narrow lead of 1-2% in a handful of ridings translates into total power for the winner and nothing for the other parties. Sadly, often these losing parties have 60%+ of the vote.

Make no mistake, First Past the Post is a reasonable system if your elections only have two parties in them. But people are not binary in opinion and there are often several opinions on issues. So, quite rightly, we introduce other parties and get to see our system suffer from the tragic effects of vote splitting. This was all eloquently explained to me as I held the camera in front of one of my go-to mentors for all things political, former school trustee Terry Robertson.

“In too many elections, the winner under First Past the Post have a majority of the seats but not a true majority of the votes… that’s not democratic!” - Terry W. Robertson

Low Voter Turnout

At the next sign, I saw my friend Tessa Wotherspoon. We had met on the campaign trail in previous provincial elections. We have hung posters, phone banked, and knocked on enough doors to know a few things about politics. So to seasoned campaigners like Tessa and I, we know where the benefits of electoral reform really are: voter turnout.

We both watched the election results of our most recent election and we may have been less than enthused with the results, but it was the voter turnout that really stung. 29%. The lowest in any history that I am aware of. In what universe is this acceptable?

You can argue there are a lot of reasons explaining the low voter turnout. For one, the election was in the winter! But it is untenable to deny the extensive research that shows voter turnout rises 5-8% on average in countries that convert from FPTP to PR. It is very intuitive as less votes become wasted, more people feel like voting makes a difference, and almost everyone the day after election day gets to point to someone in the parliament and say “That’s who I voted for!”. He or she might not have power, but they are actually there working.

“New Zealand’s switch in 1996 is a classic example of how adopting PR was able to reverse declining voter turnout.” -Tessa Wotherspoon

Strategic Voting

I got bridge level and saw that my friends from The Council of Canadians had joined in. Allisa Bennett, a well know activist in town reminded me of a great reason British Columbians should seriously consider abandoning First Past the Post. Strategic Voting.

For those familiar with elections, it is commonplace to think to one’s self I don’t like Candidate X and much prefer Y. But I really hate Candidate Z and they lead the polls currently. X is the only candidate in reach of catching Z. So I will hold my nose and vote for X. This peculiar thinking that leads so many voters to abandon their values and vote tactically is entirely logical, and completely avoidable. Under almost any Proportional system, there simply is nothing to gain by looking at the polls or even knowing how others will vote. You just look in your heart and vote for whose values most align with yours and let the votes sort themselves out.

“I know people who voted their entire lives for people they don’t really like because of strategic Voting!” - Allisa C. Bennett

Policy Swing/Lurch

Holding down the end of my banner was a new friend to me and local math professor Wayne Broughton. I credit Wayne with actually teaching me about some of the lesser-mentioned failings of our current system. Like many us have experienced, just when you think you know it all, you run into a teacher!

One of the lessons was that First past the Post leads to a system where majorities are traded back and forth over the years. In BC, this is obviously between the NDP and the BC Liberals. It’s a problem because, once a major switch happens, a large amount of the government’s business is simply trying to undo the work of the previous one. Wayne explained to me how Proportional systems tend to lead to more balanced, centrist, and stable policy that can be added to consistently. “More pencils, Less erasers!” as another volunteer explained to me years ago.

“The increased need for cooperation under PR can lead to more stable policy and governments” -Wayne Broughton

As I made my way down from bridge I had felt really proud to have taken the time do what little I can to stick up for this issue. My favourite part of the day is when we all saw an ambulance, sirens on, coming toward the bridge. All the traffic had long diverted to the side. As it approached the bridge, I remember thinking to myself that the situation seemed a bit off as it wasn’t exactly racing. Just before it went under the bridge, it honked twice to the cheering of the volunteers. Who knew we had friends in the PSHA?The traffic resumed and I looked back at the ambulance that was turning off onto Burtch Avenue. Its lights were completely off.

Fair Vote Canada has moved into BC and is stepping up big time for the “Yes” side.

As fun as the day was, Fair Vote Kelowna has a tremendous amount of work to do if we are to prepare people to vote in this referendum. At the time of writing this, volunteers are making phone calls, booking rooms, and making presentation slides for upcoming events. Our next major event is May 7th 2018 at the Okanagan Regional Library Downtown from 6:30pm - 8pm.

We will be discussing the latest news about the referendum and explaining everything you ever wanted to know about Proportional Representation. In the meantime, there is a wealth of information available on https://www.fairvote.ca/pr4bc and some amazing YouTube videos by CPG Grey that I would recommend to anyone curious about the topic.

Kelly Hutchinson

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