The special committee tasked with exploring alternatives to P.E.I.'s first-past-the-post voting system has sanctioned a slower approach on what could become one of the biggest issues addressed by the 27 members elected in the last provincial election.
Premier Wade MacLauchlan's original mandate would have led to a plebiscite in the spring of 2016. The committee has recommended the plebiscite come in November instead — at the end of a six-month public education campaign.
"We had a lot of really good presentations," said committee member and PC MLA Sidney MacEwen, "but an underlying theme that we kept receiving was, 'Don't rush this. Let's get this right. Let's do it right this time.'"
MacEwen said P.E.I.'s 2005 attempt at electoral reform "started with good intentions, but then got derailed."
That sentiment is shared by committee chair, Liberal MLA Jordan Brown.
"A lot of us have heard that a feeling was the last plebiscite suffered from issues relating to the conduct of the plebiscite, I guess I'll say."
Electoral reform rejected in 2005
Maybe electoral reform won't be such a big issue this time around.
'Ultimately it's up to the people of Prince Edward Island how they wish to have their democracy work. ' — Committee chair and Liberal MLA Jordan Brown
Perhaps, like the fabled ghost ship of the Northumberland Strait, electoral reform on P.E.I. is something that appears periodically (once a decade in this case) with a flash of bright light, then sinks away into darkness leaving little trace of its passing.
When Islanders were asked to consider switching to a mixed-member proportional voting system in 2005, they soundly rejected the idea.
But some, including some current members of the Special Committee on Democratic Renewal, maintain reform wasn't given a fair shake in 2005.
Voter turnout was low, driven down by the fact that only one in five polling stations was in operation. Much of the public education was compressed into a four-week period leading into the plebiscite, which some have suggested wasn't enough time to provide voters with a comfortable understanding of the new model.
In addition, the question offered only two choices: first-past-the-post or a switch to mixed-member proportional. That's been criticized by voters who wanted reform but didn't like the particular alternative on the ballot.
A different approach
This time, the committee wants to introduce online and telephone voting to increase voter participation.
It's also recommending a two-step question: ask Islanders first if they think there's a need to change the system, and only then ask what that change should look like.
The committee is looking at four alternatives to the current system.
There are two different forms of proportional representation. The third possibility is a preferential (or ranked) ballot option, which was the model outlined in government's White Paper on Democratic Renewal. And there's a fourth alternative, billed as a "tweak" to the existing model where seats would be added for the leaders of parties that receive a certain percentage of the popular vote. (Among proponents of that last model is Government House Leader Alan McIsaac, who made a pitch for it at one of the committee's meetings.)
The committee hasn't decided whether all those options should be included in the plebiscite. It also hasn't said what size majority should be required to bring change. Proponents for change felt the threshold of 60 per cent decreed by the administration of former premier Pat Binns in 2005 was yet another factor that helped ensure the status quo was maintained.
As to why P.E.I. might want to consider a new electoral system, the primary reason given has always been the province's history of lopsided election results. Although the current Legislative Assembly is the most balanced in two decades (and includes the province's first Green Party MLA), the governing Liberals still won 67 per cent of the seats with 41 per cent of the vote. The NDP won an historic 11 per cent of the vote and were shut out.
It's not our system
There's been no independent commission struck to examine electoral reform this time around. In 2005, there were two: one headed by a retired justice and the other by a former school superintendent, in addition to the involvement of the chief electoral officer.
This time there are five MLAs (a majority are Liberals) who, just weeks after being elected, were tasked with looking at alternatives to the electoral model that brought them to office.
"We are all here as elected officials that all came by virtue of the existing system," said Brown, addressing the P.E.I. Legislature after tabling his committee's first report.
"But that doesn't mean that we have a right to that system, or to be elected in a certain way… Really what we are is we're representatives of our constituents.
"Ultimately it's up to the people of Prince Edward Island how they wish to have their democracy work. And I think we need to ensure that their will is the result of this process."