British Columbia

B.C. to learn details of electoral reform referendum Wednesday

Specifics of British Columbia's upcoming referendum on proportional representation are set to be announced after months of speculation.

Attorney General David Eby will present his recommendations to cabinet; mail-in vote held by Dec. 1

How British Columbians vote in future elections will be determined by a mail-in ballot provided to voters by the end of November. (CBC)

Specifics of British Columbia's referendum on electoral reform are set to be announced after months of speculation. 

Attorney General David Eby will reveal his recommendations Wednesday morning at 9:15 a.m. PT, outlining what form of proportional representation will be on the ballot for voters this fall  — if the question is approved by cabinet as expected — along with the rules of the campaign.

Despite being announced six months ago, the only things known about the referendum is that it will be conducted by mail by the end of November and, in order to be approved, will require 50 per cent (plus one vote) from those casting ballots.

UBC political scientist Gerald Baier says it will provide welcome clarity to both sides of the debate on whether B.C. should change how MLAs are elected.

"It's been a little slow in coming, but at least we'll have the actual question now, and there's going to be an opportunity in the next few months to debate whether it's a good question and campaign on either side," he said. 

Different forms of PR

While dozens of countries around the world use proportional representation to elect their representatives, the exact way votes for parties are translated into an equivalent percentage of seats for politicians varies dramatically, said Baier.

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

"This is where the question is important at this stage. Seeing how it affects things like geographic representation, because some PR systems can have that, and some don't," he said.

Maria Dobrinskaya, a spokesperson for the Vote PR B.C. campaign, said she's hopeful the question ensures less-populated areas of the province don't see a reduction of MLAs.

She also wants a system where voters have a more direct say in who their MLAs are, rather than political parties choosing elected representatives after the election based on their own lists, which happens in some countries with proportional representation.

"We've been waiting. We've been ready and hoping for an announcement for quite some time, but we're happy that it's now finally coming."

"Stable, simple, successful"

But there are those that have pledged to campaign against the referendum no matter the specifics of the system.

"Our current first-past-the-post system is stable. It's simple. It's successful," said Bill Tieleman, the president of the No B.C. PR Society

"It [proportional representation] guarantees perpetual minorities, backroom dealing by politicians, more party control, less regional representation and instability." 

Tieleman, who campaigned against the 2005 and 2009 referendum on whether B.C. should go to a single-transferable vote (STV) electoral system, said it would be helpful if the question Eby recommends is a choice between adopting one specific system or sticking with the status quo.

"Then we can compare apples to apples and have a legitimate discussion," he said. 

But he argues that any system based on proportionality would result in an inherently unstable system of governance. 

"Ultimately, [countries with PR] have to come to these coalitions ... with backroom secret negotiations between parties, and a small party that might have six or seven per cent of the vote might determine which party is in power." 

Dobrinskaya is optimistic a system that avoids some of the pitfalls of certain forms of PR will be recommended by Eby — and believes greater principles are at stake. 

"It will get rid of things like strategic voting and cynicism that comes through with plugging your nose and picking the least worst option, or the concept of safe seats," she said.

"It puts people first. It's a way of voting that works for everywhere and, frankly, it's a lot more fair."


Justin McElroy


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