British Columbia

B.C.'s referendum on proportional representation

For the second time in four years, B.C. voters will be casting a second ballot during the provincial election that could fundamentally transform the way we choose our provincial politicians: they'll be voting on whether to replace the current first-past-the-post electoral system with a type of proportional representation known as single transferable vote.

Is it time for a new electoral system?

For the second time in four years, B.C. voters will be casting a second ballot during the provincial election that could fundamentally transform the way we choose our provincial politicians.

Along with voting for their local MLA, voters will be asked to decide if they want B.C. to adopt a new proportional representation electoral system that would change how ridings are organized and MLAs are elected. Proportional representation is also known as the single-transferable-vote system, which in B.C. has been dubbed BC-STV for short.

Currently, B.C. is divided into 85 ridings, including six new ones created for this election. Voters living in each riding elect one candidate to represent them as a Member of the Legislative Assembly, known as an MLA.

This system is called first past the post, because only one candidate in each riding gets elected. It is the same system used to elect members of Parliament in Ottawa and the provincial representatives in every other province in Canada.

Several years ago, the province created a Citizens' Assembly  to study the electoral system and determine whether there might be a better option for B.C.

In 2004, the assembly recommended that B.C. switch to a new proportional electoral system.

What is BC-STV?

The new system is very different from the current one in four main ways.

First, the number of ridings would be reduced from 85 smaller ones to 20 larger ones, known as electoral districts.

Second, instead of electing just one MLA in each riding, the voters in each electoral district would elect two to seven members to the Legislative Assembly.

The exact number of MLAs in each district would be determined by its size and total population. Large rural areas might only have two MLAs while smaller, densely populated urban districts might have as many as seven MLAs.

In simple terms, if there were five seats in a riding, the five candidates with the most votes would be elected as MLAs.

That would mean that candidates from parties that don't usually get enough votes to win a seat, such as the Green Party, have a better chance of getting elected, and that more than one member from a popular party, such as the BC Liberals or the NDP, might be elected in one district.

Because of that, the overall results would better reflect how people voted, according to the members of the Citizens' Assembly.

Transferring votes

The third way the system would change would be in the way people vote.

Instead of marking an X beside one name, voters would rank candidates from most favourite to least favourite, by writing 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., right on the ballot.

The fourth change would affect how the votes are counted. This is the most complicated part of the STV system.

Candidates would need a certain number of votes to be elected, based on the number of MLAs the district is electing and the number of people who vote.

If no candidate receives enough votes to be elected, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the counting, and all of the votes for that person are then distributed to the next choice on each ballot.

The votes are then recounted to see if any candidate has enough votes to win.

The process continues with the lowest candidate being eliminated and his or her votes being transferred to the next choice on the ballot until all the required candidates are chosen to represent the district.

No more 'wasted' votes

The counting system gets more complicated during the counting of the votes if a candidate gets more votes than the exact number they need to be elected.

If that happens, the so-called extra or surplus votes are redistributed to the next choice on the ballots.

But in order to be fair, everybody who voted for the winning candidate has their vote redistributed but only a fraction of each vote is transferred, based on how many extra votes the winning candidate had.

The reason for this is so that everyone's extra vote gets counted and no vote is ever wasted, according to those who designed the system.

In order to keep track of the thousands of calculations this would require, computers would be used to count the votes in the elections.

Why change?

There is much debate about how well the new system would work and what sort of results it would produce.

Critics of BC-STV have several complaints about the system.

Some say it is too complicated for people to understand how their vote will be counted, and therefore it may make the voting process confusing.

Critics also say the BC-STV system been unproven in real life situations, and other countries with similar systems have had trouble with the results.

They also say the electoral districts would be too large and voters would not know who represents them, and that while a majority government is possible, the BC-STV is more likely to produce unstable minority governments or coalitions of two or more parties.

On the other hand, critics of our current system have said it does not reflect the real choices of voters.

For example, candidates often win their seat with about 40 per cent or less of the votes, simply because they have more votes than any of the other candidates.

That means situations arise in which 60 per cent of the people, the majority of voters, did not support the candidate who was elected.

In addition, parties that might get only 10 or 20 per cent of the votes across the province never get any candidates elected because they don't have enough votes in one single riding.

This time, in order to encourage debate about the referendum, the B.C. government is funding two independent campaigns during the election, one on each side of the question. More information on the STV system can be obtained on the respective websites of the pro and con campaigns.

The second referendum

In 2005, voters in B.C. voted nearly 58 per cent in favour of adopting the new system. But according to a law passed by the government, more than 60 per cent of voters must approve the new system for it to pass.

Not only that, more than 50 per cent of the votes in at least 51 of the province's 85 electoral districts must support the change.

That's because the government believes the change must be supported by a significant majority of the population in all areas of the province to become the new electoral system.

Because the result was so close last election, but so many people said they did not understand the issue, the government decided to hold the referendum again.

There is also a neutral Referendum Information Office, with a mandate to provide objective information to voters about both electoral systems.

If B.C. voters approve the new system, by law, it would take effect in the 2013 provincial election.