Have your FPTP and vote PR too

One voting system doesn’t fit all of B.C.  That’s why I like the Rural-Urban system of proportional representation. It recognizes the vast geography of parts of our province and the diversity of people in others. Rural-Urban PR is one of the three systems offered in the mail-in ballot on October 22.

image: Fair Vote Canada

Rural-Urban PR was recommended by Canada’s former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley. It was used in Alberta and Manitoba for 30 years where Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton used Single Transferable Vote to elect multi-member ridings from 4 to 10 MLAs and the rest of the provinces used First-Past-the-Post to elect rural MLAs.

Dense urban areas lend themselves to a Single Transferable Vote, a system proposed by the citizens’ assembly in 2004. STV combines small ridings into larger ones that would be geographically related such as in the Fraser Valley. Instead of electing one MLA from four ridings, four MLAs would be elected from one riding.

STV uses a ranking system similar to what’s now used in Kamloops’ municipal elections. Unlike Kamloops, where we have no political parties, candidates would be listed by party affiliation. A ballot would look something like the one below.

example of urban ballot

Four parties are running plus one independent.  Choose as many candidates as you wish in order of preference where 1 is your first choice, 2 is next and so on. If your first ballot doesn’t elect a candidate, your second choice could because it’s transferable.

If you like one party only, vote for candidates only in that party. If you like one party but a candidate in another, you can vote accordingly.

Ballot counting occurs in rounds. First choice candidates are placed in piles and if ballots exceed a predetermined threshold, they are elected. The second choice of those elected MLAs is transferred so that someone else could be elected. The process continues until all the positions are filled. Finally, the losing candidate’s votes are transferred and a final count done.

Counting ballots in rural ridings is simpler. Unlike the First-Past-the-Post system used in Alberta and Manitoba, there is an extra regional vote.

example rural ballot

In the second part of the ballot, you vote for vote for just one candidate. The successful candidates will be determined by the proportion of votes received. In this ballot there are 16 candidates running but not all will be elected.

The advantage of Rural-Urban PR, in general, is that voters select the candidate of their choice. In the existing system, parties select that candidate. This relieves pressure on parties to select the candidate most likely to win because the vote is essentially a popularity contest.

The advantage of the urban portion of the system that candidates would represent the mosaic of voters and opinions found in metropolitan areas.

The advantage of the rural system is that one candidate still represents a geographic area while another represents a larger region.

If you can order from a menu, voting is not complicated. The president of Fair Vote Canada says: “If you can order a coffee at Tim Hortons, you can vote.” I agree.

New Zealand’s experience with electoral reform

I sat down with Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008, to talk about her country’s experience with electoral reform. She was in Kamloops on June 21 at a reception held at a local pub where about 70 people had gathered.

   image: Wikipedia

“You have five minutes for the interview,” the organizer of the event told us. We made our way to a quiet table.

Two referenda were held in New Zealand, she told me. The first in 1992 was non-binding. It asked whether voters wanted to retain the present first-past-the-post (FPTP) system or if they wanted a change. And if they wanted a change, which of four systems of proportional representation did they prefer?

The results were overwhelming with 85 per cent in favour of a change. Of the four systems, Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), was a clear favourite.

A second referendum was held a year later. This time the referendum was binding and the results closer with 54 per cent choosing MMP over FPTP.

I wondered how proportional representation had changed the culture of political parties. MMP leads to minority governments, Ms. Clark told me, which means that parties need to get along, not only after election but before. “Be sure to make friends”, she said, “you never know when you’ll need them later.”

After 20 minutes, I had asked all my prepared questions and we just chatted. “I thought the interview was only going to be five minutes,” the organizer scolded when he found us. Ms. Clark returned to the group where photos were taken and she gave a speech.

Afterward, I thought about the similarly of our upcoming mail-in referendum this fall to the one in New Zealand.

Two questions make sense to me: Do you want a change? If so, want kind do you want?  However, a B.C. lobby group called Fair Referendum disagrees. In a robocall call, they said that there should be just one question. I had to chuckle. The Fair Referendum proposal illustrates what’s wrong with our voting system. They want a single question with four choices, three of which are a type proportional representation and one being the existing FPTP. Those in favour of change will have their vote split three ways and those who don’t want change will have one choice. The ballot is rigged so that even if, say 60 per cent want change, 40 per cent will make sure it doesn’t happen. It seems obvious that’s what Fair Referendum hopes for.

The referendum, to be held from October 22 to November 30 by mail-in ballot, is shaping up along party lines. The Greens and NDP favour proportional representation and the BC Liberals oppose it.

Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone says the referendum would be biased in favour of the NDP and that’s probably true –but only because the BC Liberals choose not to cooperate with other parties.

The Greens and NDP have made an extraordinary effort to be nice to each other because, as Ms. Clark suggests, it’s the only way that future governments under proportional representation will work. It’s a shift in party culture that the BC Liberals have yet to realize.