Friday, November 16, 2018

British Columbia's Electoral Reform Referendum

The first thing that needs to be said about this is BC may well vote to change its electoral system. Much of the polling to date has been favourable to electoral reform although the margin has been tightening and the most recent survey has those favouring the existing first-past-the-post system ahead by one point 50.5% to 49.5% - effectively a tie.

The question on the ballot is in two parts. The second part asks the electorate to choose among three options. When I looked at the choices it struck me that of three there is only one realistic choice and that is Option Two.  Here is my analysis of the three options.

Option One is called dual member proportion, explained by Elections BC here. One key aspect of the proposal that is also its greatest weakness is that parties would normally be expected to nominate a primary candidate and a secondary candidate in a series of two member districts. Without going into the details the result is proportional (indeed I find the design rather ingenious), but we have a political culture that would not at all understand the idea of primary and secondary candidates. The system is new and is not in use anywhere, so it is highly likely to have some unforeseen consequences.

Option Two, which I would support if I had a vote, is Mixed Member Proportional (the Elections BC page on it is here). In this system you vote for a local candidate in a local constituency and that constitutes about half the legislature. Remaining members are chosen from lists in regional districts on the basis of overall province-wide proportionality. This system is in place in many countries around the world, notably Germany and New Zealand, but also in sub-national parliaments such as Scotland. There is deep experience with it and it is probably the system that best reflects generalizations made about PR by political scientists such as Arend Lijphart:
"The conventional wisdom concerning the choice between majoritarian electoral systems and proportional representation (PR) – and, more broadly, between majoritarian and consensus forms of democracy – is that there is a trade-off: PR and consensus democracy provide more accurate representation and better minority representation, but majoritarianism provides more effective government. A comparative analysis of 18 older and well-established democracies, most of which are European democracies, shows that PR and consensus democracy indeed give superior political representation, but that majoritarian systems do not perform better in maintaining public order and managing the economy, and hence that the over-all performance of consensus democracy is superior."
A recent poll by Mainstreet Research reports that this is the preferred option in BC.

Option Three, which Elections BC labels as Rural-Urban Proportional actually would deploy two systems, the Single Transferable Vote in multi-member urban districts, while Mixed Member Proportional as described above would be used in rural areas. This makes little sense to me and it baffles me to see it as an option. The Single Transferable Vote requires voters to rank their choices, 1, 2, 3 etc. It then requires a complex, indeed an opaque system for counting the votes. It has been used in the past in a number of Canadian jurisdictions but no longer. In my view it is not strictly proportional (political scientist Rein Taagepera has demonstrated how it can actually produce a non-proportional outcome) but more often than not, and certainly more than FPTP, it generally does produce proportional outcomes. Apart from the complexity a new system will be seen as more legitimate if it is the same everywhere, a virtue that characterizes the first two options. However, it was recommended by a Citizen's Assembly in BC in 2005 and supported by a majority in a subsequent referendum but failed as the government of the day required a super-majority of  60% and the YES vote obtained was 57.7%, so it fell just short. This would explain its presence on the ballot here, although I think it would make more sense as a province-wide choice.

If one views this period of Canadian history as a whole one can see numerous attempts at fundamental electoral system reform.  Even if this one fails it appears increasingly likely we will see successful electoral reform in the near future. In Quebec the newly elected Coalition Avenir Qu├ębec government has promised a new electoral system by the time of the next election without a referendum.