The 2017 British Columbia election results are in, and electoral reform is a winner! The BC Green Party made electoral reform a centerpiece of its platform, and the BC New Democratic Party (NDP) also campaigned on electoral reform. This week, the Greens and the NDP penned a “Confidence and Supply Agreement”—the Greens will guarantee support for NDP’s budgets and Premier—and they released a 10-page accord describing policies they will work together on, including electoral reform. They commit to putting an electoral reform referendum on the 2018 ballot. If voters want to adopt proportional representation, the 2021 provincial election could be the first proportional election in Canada.

Proportional representation ensures the seats in parliament closely track the voters’ preferences, making every vote count and ensuring a more diverse and more representative legislature. For example, if 17 percent of voters prefer Green, voters would have the power to elect around 15 (of 87) Green members of parliament.

Like most elections in Canada and the United States, British Columbia  elects each member of parliament from a single-member riding (district), and so two parties win all or almost all the seats. The BC Liberal Party has won a majority of seats since 2001 while the NDP won a minority of seats. The Greens or other small parties usually win no seats at all. But this year the BC Green Party came out strong, winning 17 percent of the votes and 3 percent of the seats (3 seats out 87) while the NDP won 40 percent of the votes and 47 percent of the seats (41 seats out of 87), denying the Liberal party a majority. Together, the Greens and NDP hold just over half the seats but they have support from almost 60 percent of voters.

The Green Party also considered forming a majority coalition government with the Liberal Party. (The Liberals won 41 percent of the votes and 49 percent of the seats (43 out of 87), one seat short of a majority.) The BC Liberal Party did not include electoral reform in its 2017 platform. However, when Liberal BC leader Christy Clark was a radio talk-show host in 2009, she spoke in favor of proportional representation, saying “it will force politicians to compete for all your votes” and “every vote will count.” True that, Ms. Clark.

BC’s history with electoral reform

Former Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell was a proponent of electoral reform. (Side note: Campbell worked with current Green party leader Andrew Weaver—a member of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—to pass BC’s historic carbon tax. The Green-NDP agreement that Weaver just negotiated includes annually increasing the carbon tax, which has been stalled at Can$30 since 2012). In 1996, First-Past-the-Post’s unfairness struck BC—the Liberal Party won the most votes but NDP won the most seats, prompting Liberal leader Gordon Campbell to promise electoral reform when the Liberals won power again. Liberals gained power in 2001 and Campbell enacted a groundbreaking idea: a Citizens’ Assembly to study electoral reform and make a recommendation to citizens.

Some 161 regular people reflecting the gender, age, and geographical diversity of British Columbia were randomly selected to serve for a year. These citizens studied different electoral systems used around the world, heard from other interested citizens, and deliberated about which electoral system they thought would be best for BC. The Citizens’ Assembly chose a form of proportional representation called Single Transferable Vote (aka Sightline’s favored system: multi-winner ranked-choice voting). The question of whether to adopt Single Transfer Vote went to voters in 2005, and 58 percent, including a majority in 77 out of 79 ridings said “Yes!” However, Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell set the bar for the referendum to win at 60 percent, so even with a landslide 58 percent in favor, the referendum failed and BC stuck with a system that gives riding lines more power than voters.

British Columbians got another chance to vote on STV in 2009, but by that time, many voters had forgotten about the innovative Citizens’ Assembly, both the Liberal Party and the NDP stayed neutral (the Green party endorsed STV), many Liberal voters—with their party now firmly ensconced in power—were less enthused about STV, and the ballot wording subtly nudged voters towards “no.” Just 39 percent of voters said “yes” this time.

Canada’s turbulent romance with electoral reform

BC is not the only place in Canada that has closely studied electoral reform and so far failed to adopt changes.

  • In the past century, Canada has convened nine committees, commissions, or studies about electoral reform, most recently in 2016. During the 2015 campaign, Canada’s national Liberal Party said it was committed to enacting electoral reform. Once in power, Trudeau’s government assembled an all-party committee to study the question for nearly a year. In December 2016, the committee released an extensive final report, recommending Canada adopt some form of proportional representation. But the Liberal government backed away from its campaign promises and from the committee’s recommendations.

    Canadian provinces have also conducted various electoral reform studies. In 2016, 52 percent of voters in the Prince Edward Island election endorsed using Mixed Member Proportional Voting to elect the provincial parliament. (PEI explained Mixed Member Proportional in this two minute video.)  PEI’s referendum was non-binding, so parliament immediately voted against making the change that a majority of voters want.

    How BC could move forward

    There’s a pattern here. Parties often call for electoral reform when they aren’t in power, and become less enthusiastic once they are in power. In light of this history, it may be good news for BC that NDP didn’t win a majority. With the reigns of power firmly in hand, NDP might have let electoral reform slip. But with a minority of seats, perhaps NDP’s passion for reform will continue to burn.

    BC could learn not just from past studies of electoral reform, but also from past attempts to enact change. The first lesson could be: Just enact the electoral reform. That’s what the Green Party wanted to do. After all, nearly 60 percent of voters just voted to elect members of parliament who campaigned on electoral reform, so parliament could enact that change and give voters the opportunity to repeal it. But in negotiations, the Greens acquiesced to NDP’s desire for a referendum.

    A referendum it is, and hopefully they will make it a good one. In designing the 2018 referendum, the Greens and NDP might take notes from past reform efforts in BC and elsewhere in Canada, and implement the following rules around the referendum:

    1. If an electoral method wins a majority of votes, it gets implemented. Not 60 percent, as in BC in 2005. Not now the parliament gets to vote on it, as in Prince Edward Island in 2016. Majority vote equals implementation.
    2. Give voters a choice between electoral methods. The 2009 BC referendum protected the status quo by framing the question as whether to keep “the existing electoral system” (safe-sounding) or try a new, “proposed” system (risky-sounding). More neutral framing would simply ask voters whether they prefer First-Past-the-Post or Single Transferable Vote. Or Mixed Member Proportional (another method Sightline likes).
    3. To get a true accounting of which electoral method a majority of voters prefer, let voters rank their preferences. Prince Edward Island’s 2016 referendum asked voters to rank their preferences between five electoral methods. If the referendum had used plurality voting (the one with the most votes wins, even if it doesn’t win a majority), “First-Past-the-Post” aka plurality voting would have won with a mere, yes, plurality. But the referendum let voters rank their preferences and the vote-counting eliminated the least popular options and transferred those voters’ votes to their next-ranked choice. In the instant runoff, Mixed Member Proportional won with a majority—52 percent—of votes.
    4. Let voters know that the Citizens’ Assembly “recommended” STV (the more accurate 2005 referendum language) and not that the Assembly “proposed” STV (misleading 2009 referendum language).

    Almost two decades after the Citizens’ Assembly chose STV as the best voting method for BC, proportional representation might actually get implemented in BC in 2021. If the Greens and NDP play it right.