Question for electoral reform referendum will be ready by fall, says B.C. premier

Pressure is mounting on the B.C. government to firm up details of the upcoming referendum on proportional representation.

A vote by mail in ballot is to be held by the end of November

The referendum, to be held by Nov. 30, will ask people in B.C. if they want to drop the current first-past-the-post system in favour of a form of proportional representation.

Pressure is mounting on the B.C. government to firm up details of the upcoming referendum on electoral reform.

A vote by mail-in ballot is to be held by the end of November, but the government has yet to set the actual date or release the details on how it will frame the question on proportional representation.

Premier John Horgan says there is still plenty of time to come up with the question — or potentially​ multiple questions — that will be on the ballot and still ensure people are able to cast an informed vote.

"People will be enjoying their summer. They will be getting on with their lives and when we come back in the fall, there will be a question," he told reporters at the legislature.

This is the third time people in B.C. have been asked to decide if they want to change the electoral system. Referendums on switching to an electoral system based on the Single Transferable Vote failed in both 2005 and 2009.

Opposition pressure

At the legislature this week, the opposition took aim at a lack of clarity this time around on how the question is being formulated.

"In 2005 and 2009, British Columbians were asked questions formulated by an independent body that took more than a year to develop those questions in co-operation with the academic community, with elections B.C., and the entire process was clear and transparent," said Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson.

"Instead, today we have a referendum with no date. We have a question, apparently, to be decided by cabinet. We don't know if there will be one or more questions."

Alternative system or change mandate?

The timeline to start the public conversation on electoral systems that could potentially replace the existing first-past-the-post vote is getting tight, said Max Cameron, director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at UBC

"We don't even know, at this point, whether the ballot question will be about picking a system or whether it will be about a mandate to design a process to pick a system," he said.

With a vote by mail-in ballot on proportional representation to be held by the end of November, pressure is mounting on government to firm up details of the vote, so campaigns can get underway. (CBC)

Given the time constraints, Cameron said it would make sense for the province to ask for a mandate to make a change, rather than ask people to vote for one or more alternatives.

That mandate could include striking an independent committee that would recommend the best alternative to the existing system, he said.

The referendum on electoral reform is a key element of the confidence and supply agreement the minority NDP government struck with the Green Party. 

Sonia Furstenau, the Green spokesperson on electoral reform, said her party is happy with a mandate-only question as long as the determination of a new system is to be handed over to an independent body.

"That's a way of ensuring there's a lot of trust in the process and that is going to be really important."

Campaigns anxious to get started

Under proportional representation, voters elect representatives in proportion to the way they voted, not the current first-past-the-post system, where the candidate with the most votes wins.

Groups that are gearing up to advocate for and against changing the voting system are also anxious for more details.

And there is still a question mark around what sort of funding the campaigns would receive to make their pitch prior to the referendum.

"We don't know what the rules are. We don't know when the vote is. We don't know whether we can raise money and businesses and unions can participate or not," said Bill Tieleman with the No B.C. Proportional Representation Society.

But some on the yes side say it is possible to start discussing the pros and cons of electoral reform without all the details.

"Those discussions are already happening, and I think there is a lot that we can do to have the conversation about what our democracy looks like currently," said Maria Dobrinskaya, a spokesperson for the Vote PR B.C. campaign.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said the vote would be by online ballot. In fact, it will be a mail-in ballot
    Apr 26, 2018 7:03 PM PT

About the Author

Megan Thomas

Reporter

Megan Thomas is a reporter for CBC in Victoria, B.C. She covers stories from around Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. Follow her on Twitter @meganTcbc.

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