The deadline to vote on electoral reform is approaching, although that date has been pushed back – ballots must be received by Elections BC no later than Dec. 7 at 4:30 p.m.
To help undecided voters make up their minds, the Mirror asked local proponents of both first-past-the-post (FPTP) and proportional representation (PR) each to present a short argument for their side and respond to a few burning questions from critics.
Arguing in favour of change is Bonnie Brownstein, co-chair of the Campbell River-Quadra Island chapter of Fair Vote Canada, an organization that champions PR across the country.
Defending the current FPTP system is Dallas Smith, president of the Nanwakolas Council. Smith was also the BC Liberal Party’s candidate for the North Island riding during the 2017 election.
They both responded by email, with a 100-word limit for each answer. Responses have been included in full, but edited for style.
Voters can send their ballot in by mail or drop it off at the Service BC Centre at 115-1180 Ironwood St.
The ballot contains two questions: the first ask voters whether B.C. should use FPTP or PR for provincial elections.
A second optional question asks voters which of three proportional representation systems they prefer: dual member member proportional (DMP), mixed member proportional (MMP) or rural-urban proportional (RUP). Votes for PR still count whether or not the elector completes the second section.
PR ‘our best hope for better voter turnout’
The Mirror: Why should people support PR?
Bonnie Brownstein: Because less than half the votes shouldn’t give a party all the power. Because voters can vote for the candidate they like best, and know their vote will be reflected in the outcome. No more strategic voting! Because cooperation between parties leads to better decisions for all. Because most of the developed world uses PR, and they tend to outperform FPTP countries on a long list of social, economic and environmental indicators. Under our current system there is widespread disengagement with the political system. PR is our best hope to improve voter turnout, especially among youth.
Opponents of PR have said that too many questions remain unanswered about how the systems will work. How do you respond?
None of the details which remain to be decided will materially affect the outcomes under any of the systems – that is a red herring from opponents. The big uncertainty is riding boundaries, which will be determined by an independent boundaries commission, same as now. Better a rep who shares our priorities from a bit further away than an MLA from next door who always votes with a party I dislike. If voters choose MMP, leaders of the Liberal, NDP and Green parties all want open lists. All three options in Question 2 provide more voter choice than we currently have.
Some people argue that PR leads to unstable governments and that it would even result in “fringe parties” and extremists winning seats. Your response?
Opponents love to say this, but comparative studies show that this simply isn’t true – no significant difference in election frequency, and far better policy stability over the long term. The referendum legislation includes a 5 per cent threshold to keep out fringe parties. Currently in B.C. and across Canada all fringe parties combined get less than 1 per cent of the vote. Proportional systems do not lead to more votes for extremist parties. Only under FPTP can a party with minority support win all the marbles.
What do you think about claims from the FPTP supporters that PR would result in less influence for areas outside of Victoria and the Lower Mainland, causing rural B.C. to get “lost in the shuffle”?
One of the primary values that came out of the comprehensive pre-referendum process was the importance of maintaining local representation, both in urban and rural areas. All the systems provide for locally accountable MLAs, and no region of the province will have fewer MLAs than now. The systems on the ballot will actually enhance local representation, since each area of the province will elect MLAs to both government and opposition, so no region will be frozen out of decision-making by having only opposition MLAs for entire terms.
FPTP ‘fair, transparent and easy to understand’
The Mirror: Why should people vote to keep the FPTP model?
Dallas Smith: There have been six provincial elections since I have been eligible to vote, and I have to admit that I have only cast a ballot in three of them and ran myself in the last one. I believe the current system has produced stable accountable governments that have come from both sides of the political spectrum. All systems have their flaws but the current one is fair and transparent and easy to understand. I personally feel that the issue of voter turnout is different and not necessarily fixed with bringing in new untested systems with less transparency.
Majority governments have routinely been elected in B.C. with less than 50 per cent of the votes, and supporters of PR say this is undemocratic because it gives all the power to a party without the support of most voters. What’s your response?
I think that both existing and new parties need to do a better job of reaching out to communities large and small, rural and urban, young and old, to help people understand the importance of voting, why their vote does count and what people should be taking into consideration as they prepare to cast a ballot, not just in the months before elections. I hope the new limits on fundraising will result in the parties going back to a more “grassroots” type of communicating, engaging the voters more regularly and meaningfully, resulting in more interest and hopefully more turnout.
Critics of FPTP have often pointed out that in “safe ridings” where a given party routinely wins, voters who oppose that party are essentially “throwing their vote away.” How does FPTP benefit those voters?
The concept of the safe riding is a bit of a fallacy in my opinion. Some regions have different issues and needs and it’s up to the candidates in those ridings to work with their parties to build platforms that take those issues into consideration. Some have been more successful in creating the optics of “safe ridings” but that doesn’t mean those voting for a different party are throwing their votes away. Under FPTP the candidate with the most votes represents that riding and is accountable to the riding. If they aren’t, they likely won’t win the next election.
Supporters of PR often point out that it’s used in many successful and prosperous democracies, including Switzerland, New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries. Why do you think it’s not appropriate for B.C.?
There have been two other attempts recently to look into voter reform in 2005 and 2009 that were a lot more transparent and non-partisan and were both defeated. The fact that there are forms of PR successfully implemented in other countries is debatable, but BC deserves to have a voting system that is fair and transparent, and with all the unknowns to be decided after the fact, I know I’ll be casting my ballot to keep the system that we know and understand.