The PEI government may be hoping public angst over electoral reform will subside by the next election, but the issue won’t be going away anytime soon.

Prince Edward Island and British Columbia are the only provinces to have had two plebiscites on electoral reform. Between October 29 and November 7, 2016, Prince Edward Islanders voted on provincial electoral reform for the second time since 2005. The results were surprising, albeit inconclusive. Using a ranked ballot, Islanders voted for a proportional representation hybrid (mixed-member proportional, or MMP). The turnout, however, was only 36.5 percent, this in a province that regularly boasts turnouts in the mid-80-percent range.

In Islanders’ first dance with electoral reform (2005), the plebiscite asked: “Should Prince Edward Island change to the mixed-member proportional system as presented by the Commission of PEI’s Electoral Future?” The result was a 64 percent “no” vote. However, voting turnout then was also low; just 33 percent of voters cast ballots.

Peter McKenna argued in Policy Options in 2006 that the first plebiscite failed because neither the governing Progressive Conservatives (PCs) nor the opposition Liberals supported electoral reform, and the two parties in fact did what they could to ensure that the plebiscite question was defeated. A month before the vote, a super majority requirement was imposed by the government, stipulating that a vote in favour of change would pass only if it received 60 per cent of the popular vote, in 60 per cent of the province’s 27 ridings. As well, polling booths were few and oddly distributed, voters had to register to be eligible to cast ballots, and little was done to communicate with the public about the changes being proposed. And so ended PEI’s initial electoral reform experiment. With the exception of a motivated few, electoral reform remained dormant for the better part of the next decade.

Flash forward to 2015. In February of that year, former University of Prince Edward Island president Wade MacLauchlan was acclaimed the leader of the governing Liberal Party. In April, the Liberal Party was re-elected in the provincial election. However, while this was its third consecutive majority mandate, the party saw a decline in both seats and the popular vote. It had won 24 seats in 2011, but just 18 in 2015. The popular vote for the Liberals had dropped from 51.4 per cent to 40.8 per cent. The big surprise of the election was the success of the Green Party and the New Democratic Party, which together received an unprecedented 22 percent of the votes cast. More significantly, Green Party leader Peter Bevan-Baker won his seat.

Especially striking was the discrepancy between the popular vote and the percentage of seats won by the Greens and the NDP: 22 percent combined popular vote resulted in just one seat.

In a province used to lopsided elections that alternated between the Liberals and the PCs, the 2015 results were a watershed moment. Especially striking was the discrepancy between the popular vote and the percentage of seats won by the Greens and the NDP: 22 percent combined popular vote resulted in just one seat. It is within this context that the issue of electoral reform emerged. In an attempt to distinguish himself from the previous administration, and to capitalize on public sentiment surrounding the election outcome, Premier MacLauchlan unveiled the White Paper on Democratic Renewal in July.

The White Paper recommended an electoral reform plebiscite to be held sometime in 2016. Islanders would be asked to choose from one of three options in a ranked ballot: the current first-past-the-post system, preferential ballot, and some form of proportional representation. The White Paper also recommended that a legislative committee of five members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) be struck to consult with Islanders over the fall and winter of 2015-16 to guide the process. The committee, the Special Committee on Democratic Renewal, was tasked with defining the plebiscite question, which had to feature the three proposed options. As well, the ballot itself had to be preferential. The committee would then submit a final report with recommendations, to be tabled in the Legislature in spring 2016.

The committee consisted of three Liberals, one PC and one Green. It received presentations from 190 individuals and groups, and some 1,000 people attended committee hearings and related public events. The committee went beyond its mandate, making its recommendations in two reports. In the first report, it recommended that a clear question be asked that would “result in a clear expression of the will of the population of the province.” Although this recommendation effectively removed any hint of the 2005 super majority requirement, the committee did recommend a threshold for success for the 2016 plebiscite. The report also recommended that 16 and 17 year olds be allowed to vote – a first in Canada – and that the plebiscite take place in November 2016.

In its final report, the committee recommended the plebiscite employ electronic voting. It also recommended that Islanders have five options to choose from instead of three. In addition to the first-past-the-post and preferential ballot outlined in the White Paper, it proposed a “first-past-the-post plus leaders” model, a constitutionally dubious proposal that would have seen unelected party leaders take a seat in the Legislature if their party earned more than 10 percent of the province-wide popular vote. It also proposed two proportional models: MMP, which was the subject of the 2005 vote, and a new model designed by University of Alberta student Sean Graham, called dual-member proportional.

To the government’s credit, most of the committee’s recommendations were adopted and implemented. Taking lessons from some of the problems identified with the 2005 vote, in 2016 Elections PEI had the resources necessary for educational awareness and operations; the initial amount was $450,000, but the final bill was closer to $1 million.

However, there were signs through the committee’s consultation process and the time period leading up to the November 2016 vote that barriers to change remained. The government began hinting that it was not in favour of any major deviation from the current system. While the government ostensibly steered clear of interfering in the process, Premier MacLauchlan and some members of his cabinet made public comments stating that they did not support proportional representation. A number of prominent PCs, including former leader Pat Mella, who opposed reform in the 2005 plebiscite, also spoke out against proportional representation.

With Elections PEI sticking to a neutral, educational role, the arguments in favour of change fell to the PEI Coalition for Proportional Representation, a volunteer network made up of 13 community groups. Highly motivated, and with an active social media presence, the coalition nevertheless lacked the organizational heft and membership strength of the two main political parties. Consequently, its support remained largely confined to urban areas and NDP and Green supporters.

Still, media coverage ramped up in the lead-up to the vote. A popular local CBC radio program dedicated one segment every day to explaining the various electoral options, as did the main provincial paper, the Guardian. The provincial CBC TV station (the only TV station with a studio on the island) hosted a live debate, which was streamed on Facebook. With 16 and 17 year olds now eligible to vote, Elections PEI set about registering these new voters in June, and it also promoted the plebiscite in high schools and intermediate schools through the fall. Over the course of the vote period (October 29-November 7), in the media and online, Elections PEI encouraged voter participation.

While the turnout of 36.5 percent was not close to the normal provincial election turnouts of more than 80 percent, a breakdown of the province’s 27 ridings showed that 22 ridings voted in favour of mixed-member proportional. By the fourth round of counting, MMP emerged as the most preferred option, receiving 52.4 per cent of votes versus 42.8 percent for first-past-the-post. Also noteworthy were the facts that some 81 percent of all valid ballots were cast online and, while the turnout was lower than expected — especially given Elections PEI’s education campaign — over 32 percent of 16 and 17 year olds voted, higher than the rate of those aged 18 to 44.

The results caught the government off guard. The Premier waited until the next day to release a statement. In it he emphasized the low voter turnout, and he questioned whether the result constituted a clear majority. This set in motion a public backlash and a heated debate in the legislature. The Green Party leader and most of the PC caucus backed the outcome, while the Liberal members held firm. Some 300 people (not a small crowd in PEI) demonstrated outside the legislature, and a #HonourTheVote campaign took off in social media as it became clear the MacLauchlan government was not planning on making any changes to the electoral system.

In the end, the government passed a motion stating that yet another plebiscite would be held in conjunction with the next provincial election, which is tentatively planned for October 7, 2019. The ballot would feature two options, the MMP system favoured in 2016, and a “second choice to be determined by the legislature.”

What, if any, lessons can be gleaned from PEI’s second plebiscite? First, beneficiaries of first-past-the-post are the least likely to favour deviation away from it – despite their rhetoric to the contrary. The behaviour of the Liberals in the 2016 plebiscite, then, is comparable with that of mainstream parties in Ontario and British Columbia, and with PEI’s experience in 2005. It is also comparable with what happened at the federal level, as the government’s February 2017 retreat from electoral reform demonstrates. As such, electoral reform continues to be an attractive, symbolic issue through which new party leaders or opposition parties can distinguish themselves, until they see it as possibly hindering their ability to maintain power.

Second, the PEI case highlights the risks that come from poor handling of electoral reform. For the MacLauchlan government, not accepting the plebiscite results has turned what was dormant issue into a lightning rod of general public frustration. Together with the heated public discussion about school closures, the government’s retreat has likely galvanized more people to support electoral reform, if only to punish the governing party for showing such blatant self-interest. A province-wide poll held in February 2017, four months after the plebiscite, found that 52 percent of Islanders supported holding the next provincial election “under a new electoral model.” Meanwhile, the Premier’s approval rating has dropped precipitously, from 38 percent in May 2016 to 29 percent in February 2017.

The government is likely hoping that public angst will quiet down in time for the 2019 vote, although judging by the fallout over the attempt to close several rural schools, that seems unlikely. The debate around electoral reform in PEI is not going away anytime soon.

Photo by Niyazz/Shutterstock.com


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