Choosing a new voting method for British Columbia: the 2018 referendum and the choices on offer

jq final

As British Columbia prepares for a referendum on the voting method for provincial elections, Jameson Quinn (in the first of two posts on the subject) discusses the historical background to the vote, analyses the options on the ballot, and sets out the rules the campaigns will have to follow. 

From October 22nd to November 30th, British Columbia (BC) will be carrying out a vote-by-mail referendum on changing the voting method for provincial elections from choose-one (aka First Past the Post, or FPTP) to some form of proportional representation (which I’ll abbreviate as pro-rep, since the initialism PR has too many other meanings to work well in the age of Google).

In this post, I’ll discuss the context and structure of this referendum, from a largely neutral point of view. I’ll save opinionated advocacy for a separate follow-up post.

This will be the third time the province votes on such a change. The first of BC’s voting reform referendums traces its roots back to the 1996 provincial election. Then, the NDP (center-left New Democratic Party) got 52% of seats despite having 39% of votes, less than the Liberals’ 42% (the province’s rightmost major party). This ‘wrong winner’ election (the province’s first since 1954) motivated Liberals to put voting reform (without specifics) on their platform.

In the following election, in 2001, the Liberals won an overwhelming 97% of the seats on 58% of the popular vote. To carry out their electoral reform promise, a prominent Liberal designed a process wherein a Citizens’ Assembly of 161 randomly-selected people from around the province would meet to study the problem and propose a solution. The Assembly was balanced by gender, age, and electoral riding, and also included two explicit First Nation representatives. After a year of meetings in 2004, they proposed (by a vote of 146 to 7) a Single Transferable Vote system called BC-STV.

This system was then put to a referendum concurrent with the provincial election in 2005. None of the major parties endorsed the proposed new system, and the governing Liberal party was generally seen as opposing the change, as it would have reduced the number of seats they would have been holding. BC-STV got 57.7% support, short of the 60% threshold, and so did not pass. Because of the high support, a second referendum was scheduled for 2009.

In the second referendum, two things changed. First, a map of electoral boundaries was drawn, showing how BC-STV would lead to substantially larger ridings, especially in the sparsely-populated north of the province. Second, the Liberal party openly campaigned against a change. The result was that this time BC-STV got only 39.1% support, falling far short of the 60% threshold.

The current referendum grows out of the 2017 election, in which a three-way voting split of 40.4% Liberals, 40.3% NDP, and 16.8% BC Green party led to a seat division of 43, 41, and three seats respectively. The NDP and Greens entered into a coalition with a bare majority, and a key point in their agreement was holding another referendum on proportional representation.

Unlike in 2001, the new government did not want to hire a consultant to design a process that would create a commission to draft a proposal so as to have a referendum; they wanted something that would be ready in time for the next regularly-scheduled provincial election in October 2021. They crafted a consultation process which centred around a survey (available both online and via mail), running from October 2017 through February 2008, to set the stage.

This is where I come into the story. I’m a board member of the Center for Election Science (CES), a PhD student in statistics at Harvard, and a long-time voting reform activist. Though the CES is a US-based nonprofit, we are interested in voting reform more broadly. We were concerned that the survey could end up recapitulating the recent ineffective ERRE process at the Canadian Federal level. In this process Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who had promised before his party won power that ‘2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system’, sent the issue to be studied by a committee and a survey of Canadians. Perhaps predictably on a complex issue which most voters are little aware of, the survey results did not reach an unambiguous conclusion, and Trudeau’s government decided not to pursue the matter further.

We at the CES felt that this issue deserves in-depth discussion rather than just superficial questions on a survey. Ideally, in our eyes, this would have meant another Citizens’ Assembly; but since it was not our place to create one, we instead organised a symposium. Over a dozen top experts and activists from around Canada met in Vancouver for three days in February 2018, near the time the survey was to end, to craft recommendations for the referendum. The main organisers were Mira Bernstein (a mathematician who got involved in voting reform through the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group at Tufts University), and myself.

On May 30th, BC Attorney General David Eby released his report on the consultation, in which he laid out how the referendum would be structured. He cited our symposium’s recommendations several times and followed most, but not all of them; and I have been privately assured that they were influential. His proposal was essentially adopted by the legislative assembly; I’ll discuss its points one by one.

To begin with, the referendum was scheduled for this November, via postal ballot. This will be the fourth such postal referendum British Columbia has held; in the last two, turnout was 52% and 55%. That’s below the 57% that voted in the last provincial general election, but well above the 36% turnout in a 2016 electoral reform referendum in the smaller province of Prince Edward Island, where mail-in voting was not permitted and voting was only open for one day.

Here’s what the ballot will look like:


The first question is which electoral system BC should use, with two options: the current FPTP system or a pro-rep system. Whichever one gets over 50% of the votes will win — the 60% threshold in the previous two referendums is not being imposed this time around. Polling from Angus Reid suggests that pro-rep has a slight lead—33% to 31%, with 36% not stating a preference. Note that this was a sample of all BC residents, and the 64% total for both sides is already higher than the historical turnout numbers above.

On the one hand, this is extremely close, and supporters should not count on this passing. The 2% difference is narrower than the +/- 3.5% confidence interval for sampling error of this poll, and arguably the generally older population of FPTP supporters are more likely to vote than the generally younger one of pro-rep supporters. Furthermore, in the 2009 referendum, the ‘no’ side saved most of its money for a last-minute ad blitz that was effective with undecided voters; since many of the same people are running the ‘no’ campaign this time, we can expect similar tactics. On the other hand, a separate poll of general opinions (not specifically mentioning the referendum) showed pro-rep had 57% to 43% support in BC, and a majority in all provinces with large enough sample sizes to measure. If undecided voters break in those proportions, the referendum should pass.

If pro-rep passes in the first question, the second question asks voters to choose among three different proportional voting methods. Though voters are allowed to vote on this question even if they choose FPTP on the first question, it is probable that those expressing an opinion here will on average be more favourable to pro-rep in general, and tolerant of more complex systems in particular, than the average voter. The government, media, and pro-rep supporters have all done their best to educate voters about the different options here, but inevitably many voters don’t have the attention to spare to go into the details. And the ‘no’ campaign has been suggesting that its followers should just leave this question blank.

In order to deal with this issue, the symposium, as well as other civil society groups, suggested that the government should have created a citizens’ jury. Like a citizens’ assembly, this would have been a group of citizens selected at random; but unlike a full assembly, instead of studying the issue at length and developing a proposal of their own, they would have simply studied and discussed the options available and presented recommendations to the voters — ‘After studying and discussing the available options, X% of us think you should do Y’. We argued that this would have provided voters with informed guidance without the inherent biases of the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns; essentially helping them answer the question ‘how would I vote if I had the time to look at this in more depth’. However, no such jury was created, perhaps due to time constraints.

The voting on question 2 is via ranked voting with successive elimination (the method called ‘Alternative Vote’ in the UK, ‘single-winner Ranked Choice Voting’ or ‘Instant Runoff Voting’ in the US, or ‘preferential voting’ in Australia). This method is probably adequate for this purpose, and certainly better than choose-one. Although it has been criticised by voting theorists for its potential to prematurely eliminate centrist options in polarised scenarios (‘centre squeeze’), that problem probably will not occur in the current case, since there is no obvious way that the three options fit on a linear spectrum. 

The three system options are:

  • Dual Member Proportional (DMP): invented by Alberta resident Sean Graham (a participant at our symposium), this novel pro-rep system can be seen as a form of MMP in which each district elects one representative (MLA) via FPTP, and then the ‘balancing’ members are chosen to ensure proportionality with the constraint that there must be one per district. Thus, each district ends up with two representatives, usually of different parties (except for a few single-member districts in rural areas where dual-member districts would be too large).
  • Mixed Member Proportional (MMP): this type of pro-rep system is common internationally, but details vary. If this option is chosen, those details would be settled after the referendum by an all-party commission. Our symposium had suggested that it should be made clear that any MMP system should follow an open list model similar to that used in Bavaria, and not the kind of closed list ‘additional member’ system used in places like Wales or Scotland; we felt that the latter kind of system has problems both with excessive strategic vote-splitting and with centralised party power. However, this was one of our recommendations that the Attorney General did not adopt, though it may be that it would still have weight with the all-party committee if MMP is chosen.
  • Rural-Urban Proportional (RUP): this is another novel pro-rep system consisting of STV in urban areas, combined with MMP in sparse rural areas. It is intended to give the advantages of STV as chosen by the 2004 Citizens’ Assembly, but to better accommodate BC’s low-population north.

As noted, the details for all the options — including electoral district boundaries and, for MMP and RUP, how the list seats should be assigned — remain to be worked out by a committee of politicians. Opponents of pro-rep have argued that this is a serious problem; that it is impossible for voters to truly know what they are voting for or against. Supporters like myself mostly think this risk is low. All of the systems on offer ensure both proportionality and locality, so issues of specific boundaries are not high-stakes. And given the relatively non-politicised process of setting up the referendum, we have reason to hope that the politicians in charge will pay enough attention to the concerns of citizens, and to the guidance of academics and theorists, to avoid serious missteps when designing method details.

All three of these options give a high degree of both proportionality and locality. If we assume that the MMP system chosen would be a Bavarian model, none of the three are ‘closed list’ systems; that is, all three give more power to voters than to parties in determining which candidates win. It is notable, and in my opinion encouraging, that at least two of these systems are novel; it seems that there was a willingness to design new systems to fit the conditions in BC, rather than just adopting off-the-shelf methods. Polling suggests that if pro-rep is adopted, MMP is the most likely winner among these three options.

The Attorney General’s recommendations were also key in setting the referendum campaign rules. Official ‘yes and ‘no campaigns were designated without controversy, and each was given $500,000 of public money and limited to a budget of $700,000. The ‘yes’ group represents a pooling of talent from various voting reform organisations in BC, with support from groups like the BC Federation of Labour, BC Government and Service Employees’ Union, environmental groups, and left-leaning think-tanks and advocacy groups; though it has also received sympathetic statements from voices on the right, such as the BC Conservative party. The ‘no’ group is led by veteran anti-pro-rep campaigners Bill Tieleman and Suzanne Anton, ex-politicians with the NDP and Liberal parties, respectively. The Liberal party is strongly against a change to pro-rep, and BC business interests such as mining, generally aligned with the Liberals, have also opposed it. There has also been a separate group called Fair Referendum, funded by a lumber executive, that has advertised against the idea of a referendum, while not suggesting how to vote (and thus avoiding funding rules).

A final recommendation (and now, bill) of the Attorney General was that, if pro-rep is adopted, there should be a follow-up referendum after two elections to ask voters if it should be kept. I’m not aware of any objective studies of the impact of this commitment to a follow-up, but it seems likely that it calms voters’ status quo bias. The promise of a future referendum emphasises that, unlike a change such as Brexit, alteration to the electoral system is not irrevocable; if the new system does not work as planned, it is not hard to return to the old one.

In my next post, I’ll be more open about my reasons for thinking that pro-rep is the right move for BC (and that the ‘no’ campaign arguments reflect desperation). I’ll also talk more about the relative advantages and disadvantages of the various voting method options. I hope this post has helped set the context and explained why this referendum is worth paying attention to.

This is the first of two posts on the upcoming referendum on the voting system in British Columbia. The second post will be published tomorrow morning.

About the author

Jameson Quinn lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and serves as a board member of the Center for Election Science, a US voting reform nonprofit.