Third time lucky? British Columbians prepare to vote on electoral reform in 2018.

Author:Moscrop, David

Canada's westernmost province thinks of itself as distinct. Here you can surf in the morning and ski in the afternoon. We fell trees and produce wine. We have valleys and mountains and an ocean. But we share at least one thing with the rest of the Canadian federation: an electoral system. British Columbia uses the single-member plurality or first-past-the-post (FPTP) system to decide who will serve in the Legislative Assembly in Victoria.

At least for now. Like other Canadian provinces--Ontario in 2007, Prince Edward Island in 2005 and 2016-B.C. has put electoral reform to the people and is going to do it again. In 2005 and 2009, the province asked its citizens if they wanted to switch from FPTP to a proportional electoral system, specifically the made-in-B.C. version of the single transferable vote (BC-STV). (1) Each time, voters said "No thank you." Sort of. In 2005, nearly 58 per cent of voters chose Yes, but the final tally of affirmative votes came shy of the 60 per cent adoption threshold set by the provincial government. In 2009, STV was decisively rejected, receiving a meagre 39 per cent support. (2)

Now it has come time once again for a repeat of the provincewide ritual of asking the people if they would like to reform their electoral system. During the 2017 provincial election campaign, both the New Democrats and the Green Party pledged to support a referendum on changing the way British Columbians vote. After an unlikely series of events, the New Democrats formed the government for the first time in 16 years, with 41 of the legislature's 87 seats. The NDP was able to win the support of the Greens, which gives the government a narrow working majority in the legislature. So we're once again off to the electoral reform rodeo.

We are sure to see a lot of goring. The NDP's plan for putting electoral reform to a popular vote was under the gun before it even began. According to its summer agreement with the Greens, the government will hold the electoral reform referendum concurrently with the October 2018 municipal elections across the province. That means British Columbians are set to begin voting on whether or not to adopt a new system in less than a year. By the time legislation is presented to enable the vote, set a threshold for the proposal to pass, set the rules for public financing of the Yes and No campaigns and offer a specific question and system (or choice of systems), there will be even less time for proponents of reform to organize and stump for a Yes vote.

Compared to the duration of past attempts at changing the voting system, a year is a blink of an eye. The origins of the 2005 vote bubbled up from the 1996 general election, in which the New Democrats won a majority government despite receiving fewer votes than the B.C. Liberal Party. During the following provincial election in 2001, the Liberals, led by Gordon Campbell, campaigned in favour of electoral reform. To his credit, after winning that contest and becoming Premier, Campbell tapped former party head Gordon Gibson in 2002 to design a citizens' assembly process to come up with a recommendation for changing the voting system. The assembly was convened in the fall of 2004 and reported its recommendation for BC-STV at the end of that year. The referendum was held in May 2005, concurrent with the provincial election. Starting from Gibson's appointment to head the citizens' assembly design, the process took nearly two years and eight months--or more than double the current timeline. If the province had decided that 50 per cent plus one was sufficient for adopting a new electoral system, a proportional system would be in place in B.C. today.

The 2009 reform vote drew on the province's experience four years earlier but lacked the salience and public...

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