One of the biggest issues with British Columbia’s current electoral system is that it does a poor job of translating voters’ preferences into parliamentary seats.
In the province’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, the candidate who receives the greatest number of votes in their riding wins a seat in the provincial legislature. This means that every vote cast that doesn’t go to the single victorious candidate effectively doesn’t count in the election. These are often referred to as “wasted votes.”
A recent Broadbent Institute report focused on BC and titled An Electoral System for All argues that it’s time for British Columbians to forgo the FPTP system and adopt a proportional representation (PR) system. An electoral reform referendum, to be held by mail from October 22 to November 2, asks British Columbians two questions: whether they want to move from FPTP to a system of proportional representation, and which of the three offered PR systems they prefer. More than 50 percent of respondents must choose PR over FPTP for any change to occur, with the specific PR system determined by which receives the plurality of support. Each of the three systems — mixed-member proportional, rural-urban proportional and dual-member proportional — is described in the Broadbent Institute report, and elsewhere.
In BC elections now, it’s not unusual for candidates to take ridings with less than 50 percent of the votes cast. This means many candidates or governments can get elected or win a majority despite having won only a minority of the vote, creating what are known as “false majorities.”
Imagine an election when three candidates run in a riding and the votes are split relatively equally between them: the candidate of party A receives 8,500 votes, party B’s candidate receives 8,000 votes, and party C’s candidate receives 7,500 votes. Under FPTP, party A’s candidate wins, having received the most votes. In fact, it’s as if party B’s and party C’s votes — which together represent roughly two-thirds of all votes cast in the election — hadn’t been cast at all. This demonstrates how the occurrence of wasted votes under FPTP harms a core democratic principle: political equality. If you’re a strong supporter of party C and you live in this riding, you don’t have the same opportunity to have your views represented as a supporter of party A does. If you strongly opposed party A, you could vote strategically for party B to try to prevent party A from winning the riding. This sort of strategic voting, which is common under FPTP, illustrates how FPTP pressures voters into making electoral choices that don’t fully express their true preferences. In this riding — similar to many across Canada — the votes from supporters of the least popular party simply don’t count.
So how does PR address these problems? PR systems more directly translate a party’s popular vote total into legislative seats. In an election under basic PR, if a party receives 30 percent of the popular vote, it wins 30 percent of the legislative seats, whether or not it received the most votes in any one riding. Further, PR systems seem to support democratic engagement. Globally, PR systems tend to increase voter turnout by 5 to 7 percent, and they support the election of more politically diverse bodies of legislators. These could be responses to PR systems’ capacity to make every vote count more directly than FPTP. Additionally, PR systems have the capacity to increase representation of women and ethnic and religious minorities in elected office.
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The fundamental promise of the franchise of voting is that, quite simply, your vote will count. While no individual ballot is likely to decide an election, each vote cast is — at least ideally — intended to actually influence the election’s outcome, not merely have the possibility of doing so. In FPTP elections, wasted votes don’t recognizably impact the outcome of an election or the makeup of the legislative assembly it produces.
With the upcoming referendum, BC has the opportunity to bring in an electoral system that reduces the incidence of wasted votes, promotes voter turnout and increases democratic engagement. If voters choose PR, this change could bolster electoral reform efforts in other provinces — or even federally — by demonstrating PR’s ability to invigorate democratic politics for the better.
Support for PR is growing; distorted election results, most recently in Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick, continue to demonstrate why we need to update our electoral system and implement proportional representation.
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