After a long election, British Columbia’s referendum to upgrade to a proportional representation system lost, 61 percent to keep the current system to 39 percent.
Although many BC voters feel the current First-Past-the-Post voting system is not working well, change from the status quo to an unfamiliar system can be a tough sell at the ballot box. In the face of fear tactics and doubt from the opposition, a majority of BC voters chose to stick with the devil they know.
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This was a fierce contest. But a change to the entire province’s electoral system is a challenging issue to communicate to voters, and the ballot question itself was a disadvantage to reform. The two-part ballot question asking voters to rank three ProRep systems likely diminished voters’ confidence in the changeover process. Two of the three options have never before been used in a public election, so even among voters interested in adopting ProRep, some balked.
Nevertheless, a significant share of British Columbians came together to fight for a system that could deliver more power and choice to all voters.
Nevertheless, a significant share of British Columbians came together to fight for a system that could deliver more power and choice to all voters. The current system is not working well. Those who vote for Green or Conservative candidates are chronically underrepresented, while those who live in ridings that are “safe” for one party might as well not vote. Despite the outcome, the fact that people have a deep concern with politics-as-usual is as evident as ever. Conversations about building more trust and improving democratic systems will continue in British Columbia and beyond.
We’ll be looking to what’s in store in other provinces in the months ahead. Quebec is poised to act on its own proportional representation question issue next spring. In 2016, a majority of Prince Edward Island voters chose Mixed Member Proportional in a non-binding referendum — they’ll go back to the polls for a binding referendum in 2019.
Once countries make the leap to proportional representation, they never go back. See, for example, New Zealand, which switched to Prorep in the 1990s and saw voters defend it against a ferocious campaign to dismantle it a few years after it was implemented. Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France are the only holdouts amongst advanced democracies. We know change is hard at first. But once ProRep comes to North America, it could sweep the continent and never go back.
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