British Columbia·Analysis

Eby's complicated referendum might be too much for voters to unpack, experts say

The details of British Columbia's upcoming mail-in referendum on electoral reform are complex, even to people well versed in the minutiae of political science.

With so much information and so many questions, there's plenty — unfairly or not — for opponents to seize on

Attorney General David Eby said B.C.'s electoral reform system was designed to ensure a fair balance of competing priorities. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

Two questions. Four options. Three new systems of voting on the table.

One ballot for one question and a ranked ballot for another.

An all-party legislative committee for some of the details if passed, and an independent commission for others.   

The details of British Columbia's upcoming mail-in referendum on electoral reform are hard to summarize in a sentence (or two, or three), even to people well versed in the minutiae of political science. 

"People are going to hear all this stuff, and too much of it is going to sound like gobbledygook, so it's a bit of an easier time for the No side," said UBC political scientist Gerald Baier. 

It's ironic, because Attorney General David Eby was in charge of deciding the details of how the referendum would be conducted. But after extensive public consultation failed to reveal a clear choice on what type of proportional representation people would prefer, he opted to give the public three options, instead of a simple choice. 

His government, along with the Green Party, has committed to campaign for the Yes side on the first question — the straightforward query of whether B.C. should stick with first-past-the-post or adopt PR.

But Eby has chosen an overall system — a complex question with details to be determined later — that doesn't lend itself well to the gut-level, emotional politics of referendums. 

"There's some elements of what it will look like, but from the standpoint of an individual voter ... there certainly is more complexity," said Baier.

Pros and cons of all 3 systems 

There are tradeoffs between dual member proportional, mixed member proportional and rural-urban PR. Voters open to the concept of PR will consider which system best represents their political values in the months ahead.

But Baier says that for simplicity's sake, advocates for the Yes side should champion one of the three. 

"Coalesce around one of these, because that's going to improve the chances of it passing if they're going to have a ranked ballot," he said. 

"If they can all agree on one, it might take a little bit of air out of the No side, who go 'they don't know what they want, and it's all so uncertain.'"

If early online polls are an indication (though one must always take them with a grain of salt), the public has a slight preference for mixed member proportional, which would have at least 60 per cent of the seats decided under the current system (though with ridings nearly double in size) and the rest determined based on the percentage of votes parties receive in each region of the province. 

That would eliminate some of the confusion to the public, especially since it's a relatively common system across the world, unlike the other two options. But it would also give opponents a clear target to focus their specific criticisms on, including highlighting the number of details — like the maps for future electoral boundaries — that will only be determined after the election. 

Again, more tradeoffs. 

Andrew Wilkinson discusses his opposition to the electoral reform referendum on May 30, 2018. (Mike MacArthur/CBC)

Rhetoric already high

But if the first question period after the announcement proved any indication, a rational debate around value tradeoffs over various electoral systems doesn't appear to be in the cards.

"It is massively biased, a stacked deck, a rigged game," said B.C. Liberal Party Leader Andrew Wilkinson, whose party chose not to submit any recommendations to the public engagement process.

"They want to shut down British Columbians," fumed John Horgan in response, right before his government argued against a Liberal motion to have a formal debate in the legislature.   

So far, the discussion is about the politics rather than the pros and cons of the different systems itself.

That will change in the weeks ahead. Elections B.C. will be in charge of educating the public and $500,000 will be given to representatives of both sides of the debate. 

But day one showed how difficult it will be for nuance to be a big part of such a political discussion.


Justin McElroy


Justin is the Municipal Affairs Reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering local political stories throughout British Columbia.


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