Friday, May 20, 2005

Referendum Result Points to More Modest Electoral Reform

{The following blog also appeared as an article in the Williams Lake Weekend Tribune on Friday, May 27, 2005--MC}

By casting over 57% of their votes in favour of BC-STV, just short of the threshold required for approval, British Columbians have embraced electoral reform without fully committing to a system that was either too radical or too complicated for many citizens. This result is unsurprising, since one of the constraints on the mandate of the Citizens’ Assembly was that it could only make a single recommendation to the electorate. The general question of the desirability of institutional change, about which I believe there is consensus, became conflated with discussion of the merits a particular unique proposal, about which there is much uncertainty and disagreement. No one really knows to what extent BC-STV (as opposed to the idea of reform) has been endorsed by the B.C. electorate.

Both Premier Gordon Campbell and Leader of the Opposition Carole James appear willing to carry the reform process further, so as to not relinquish the leading role that British Columbia has played in electoral reform. Logic and civic duty require that they do so within certain parameters that respect both the reasons given by the Citizens Assembly for its recommendation, and the various reasons why the 60% threshold was not met.

Accepting these parameters yields three options. First, we can correct the most serious flaw in the referendum process by devoting more time and resources to educating the public about the pros and cons of our existing single-member plurality (SMP)system and BC-STV, and then have a re-run of the referendum.

The trouble with this suggestion is that it throws us back on the horns of a dilemma between a status-quo that has been rejected and a novel system with too many drawbacks—such as vast ridings in the north and long ballots in the south. We are forced to choose between the low proportionality of SMP, which almost always yields majority government provincially, and the high proportionality of BC-STV, which almost never will. B.C. voters are offered no middle ground.

These considerations lead to the second option. The referendum result can be interpreted as endorsing the general principle of greater voter sovereignty as expressed by STV, but not endorsing a system change as radical as BC-STV. We may therefore wish to adopt a more modest proposal. Taking some of the geographically largest constituencies out of the mix (and keeping them as single–or double-member ridings), it becomes practicable to simply and equitably divide the rest of the province into 24 or 25 3-member STV districts. “STV-Lite” would offer less over-all proportionality than BC-STV, but that would arguably be a virtue. Proportionality for smaller parties in many PR-systems has all too often given them disproportional power. Most British Columbians would undoubtedly support raising the bar for achieving a majority government (typically around 38-39% of the total popular vote, and just 36% in the recent British election), in order to create more inclusive, moderate and representative governments, without completely throwing the majority government baby out with the bath water.

The third option would be a modest type of Mixed-Member Plurality (MMP). The Citizens’ Assembly rejected MMP because in order to achieve proportionality in a legislature limited to 79 seats, voters would be required to choose between province-wide party lists, and single-member constituencies would have to be nearly doubled in size. This led to a litany of criticisms of MMP: that it meant overly large constituencies, excessive central party control, “two classes of MLAs” , and comparative lack of voter choice.

However, being less ambitious about proportionality could permit a version of MMP that is far more attractive. Consider the following example. British Columbia could return, as nearly as possible, to the same 57 single-member, first-past-the post constituencies that it had over 20 years ago. This would guarantee a level of local representation to which British Columbians are accustomed. The remaining 22 seats could then be allocated among five 4- or 5-member regional districts (two in the Lower Mainland, and the others on Vancouver Island and in the southern and northern interior). Crucially, these regional seats would be open-list (voters would be able to rank the candidates on the party list in order of preference). This combination of regionality and open list ballot structure would improve voter choice and ensure that list members continue to serve local constituencies. Partial proportional representation in the form of “regional, open –list MMP” would achieve a similar degree of modestly-improved proportionality as STV-lite, but would be friendlier to political parties as aggregators of interests and crucibles of policy. Given the prophylactic effect that party discipline can have upon the influence of narrow and parochial pressure groups, that may not be such a bad thing.

How do we choose between these various options? Let us have a two-part referendum process that separates the general question of reform from the specifics of particular reforms. The first part would be a question asking citizens whether they want a new, more proportional electoral system. This should easily meet the required 60% level of approval that was narrowly missed on May 17, as well as clearing the hurdle of majority approval in 60% of constituencies. The second part of the referendum would give voters a choice between all three of the options described above (BC-STV, STV-lite and regional, open-list MMP). To avoid conflict of interest, the specifics of each of these three options could be spelled out further by a reconstituted Citizens’ Assembly. British Columbia will then truly have become the model of democratic reform for the entire country.

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