British Columbia·Analysis

3 strikes and you're out: Decisive referendum sounds death knell for electoral reform in B.C.

For the third time in 13 years, British Columbia voters have rejected electoral reform, with over 61 per cent casting ballots to stay with the first-past-the-post system.

With most ridings rejecting change, it's hard to imagine any appetite for another vote anytime soon

Over 1.3 million B.C. voters cast ballots in the electoral reform referendum. (Elections BC)

In the end, it wasn't even close. 

For the third time in 13 years, British Columbia voters have rejected electoral reform, with over 61 per cent casting ballots to stay with the first-past-the-post system. 

The margin of victory was more than 300,000 votes, a resounding win for the status quo and defeat for all three proportional representation options presented to the public.

A majority voted against proportional representation in Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey, Kamloops, Prince George and Kelowna.

Pretty much everywhere that wasn't Greater Victoria, the west Kootenay or the northern half of Vancouver made its opposition clear. 

If you're a proponent of proportional representation, there aren't a lot of silver linings.   

"While many people, myself included, are disappointed in the outcome, we respect the people's decision," wrote Premier John Horgan in a statement sent from Mexico.

Horgan's absence from the province for the result could be interpreted as a sign he knew Thursday wouldn't be one for celebration.

Rigged game or shoddy campaign?

In his "victory" statement, B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson repeated his central claim since the campaign months ago — the referendum was a biased process. 

"This was a flawed process from the beginning as the NDP stacked the deck to satisfy the Green Party and remain in power. This has never been about improving our democracy, it was always about power and control," he said.

Keen observers will note Wilkinson used only one of the two pet phrases he often repeated when opposing the referendum: while "stacked deck" was still in use, "rigged game" had disappeared. 

The reason, presumably, is something isn't rigged if the preferred result doesn't happen.

But the No side kept to a consistent message during the entire campaign, attacking different parts of the three electoral reform options on the table, raising technical questions about the nature of each system and lambasting the entire process as too confusing.

For its part, the Yes side opted against getting into the weeds of each system in debates and the B.C. government opted against providing even provisional maps.

Horgan decided halfway through to suddenly endorse one option, a cabinet minister failed to explain the different systems when pressed by reporters, and, in the end, the campaign had settled on cute one-liners about proportional representation being "woke" and "lit." 

Instead, it was put to bed and snuffed out. 

Election speculation 

For the Yes side, the focus after the defeat quickly shifted to the inherent difficulty of passing complex public policy via referendum and complaining about the negative campaigning of the No side. 

"We knew it would be challenging to help the public learn enough about ProRep to feel confident in giving up the status quo," said Vote PR B.C. spokesperson Maria Dobrinskaya.

"We're proud of the positive information campaign we ran. We didn't resort to fear tactics or distortions, as our opponents did."

Whether voters agree is mostly irrelevant. Unless B.C. has another massively disproportionate election result, similar to 1996 or 2001, it's hard to imagine a scenario where a fourth referendum happens anytime soon. 

"I think electoral reform is finished… from our perspective, we now move on," said Finance Minister Carole James. 

Instead of Monday morning quarterbacking, attention for most will turn to the government's next budget and whether the NDP/Green partnership continues. 

"If we look back on the fall session, we saw once again the… number of initiatives we've been able to bring forward, whether we're talking about affordable housing, whether it's child care, whether it's the poverty plan," she said.

"Those are all pieces that we worked very closely with the Greens on, and I'm looking forward to the session in February. It's an opportunity to continue that good work."

Tune in February to see if that optimism continues. 

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