Not all PR systems are made equal

Mail-in ballots for B.C.'s referendum on electoral reform began appearing in mailboxes across the province this week.

Voters will have to answer not one but two important questions: do we want to adopt a form of proportional representation and, if so, which of the three proposed options do we want?

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Whether you intend to vote yes or no to the first question, it's import to take the time to answer the second as well. Not all systems of proportional representation are made equal - and that is especially true for northern voters, because two of the three proposed systems will treat rural voters differently than urban ones.

So let's look at the three proportional representation systems on the ballot, with an eye on what they mean for northern voters:

Dual Member Proportional (DMP)

This system was invented in Canada and isn't used by any level of government anywhere in the world.

Under DMP, urban and semi-urban districts would be combined into larger districts served by two MLAs. Parties would run a primary and secondary candidate in each district. The primary candidate that receives the most votes in each district would be elected to the first seat in the district. The second seat in each district would be awarded to a secondary candidate so that each party's share of the seats in the legislature roughly matches its share of the province-wide popular vote.

Like all three of the systems proposed, only parties that receive at least five per cent of the popular vote would get any of the secondary seats.

However, large rural districts like those in the north will remain roughly the same size and get only one MLA, elected just like in the first past the post system. In short, if you live in the north and like proportional representation you're out of luck in this system - no PR for you.

Yes, your vote will count towards the provincial popular vote, but those votes will be used to appoint MLAs in the Lower Mainland who will likely never set foot in Prince George.

This system would further concentrate B.C.'s political power in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island areas, at the cost of the north and rural B.C. And when it comes time to hand out the grease, each urban district will have two squeaky wheels while northern and rural ridings will have one.

Rural-Urban Proportional (RUP)

Like Dr. Frankenstein's monster, this proposed system is a one-of-a-kind creation stitched together from spare parts brought back from the dead.

Under RUP, urban and rural districts would elect MLAs using two completely different voting methods.

Urban districts would be combined to create larger districts served by multiple MLAs using a Single-Transferable Vote (STV) system.

For those who don't recall, STV was the system proposed in B.C.'s 2005 and 2009 referendums on electoral reform. In 2005 STV received 57.7 per cent support, but fell short of the 60 per cent needed to be approved. In 2009, British Columbians voted 60.9 per cent against adopting an STV system. But here it is again, dug up from the electoral graveyard for another go in 2018. STV works by allowing each party to run a number of candidates in each district, up to the total number of seats available. Voters rank the candidates first, second, third, fourth, etc. and through a complex, multi-stage counting process the MLAs are elected.

The good and bad news is that under RUP, rural districts would have a completely different way of electing MLAs: they'd use a Mixed Member Proportional system (which I'll get into below). The idea of having two completely different ways of counting votes and electing MLAs, based on where you live in the province, seems unnecessarily complicated and fraught with unintended consequences. One of those consequences is that single-MLA rural districts would be competing to get heard against urban districts with three, five or more MLAs.

Mixed Member Proportional (MMP)

This system has been used successfully for decades in places like Germany, New Zealand, Boliva, Lesotho, and the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales in the United Kingdom.

Under MMP, each district elects a local MLA in the same manner as the first past the post system - making up at least 60 per cent of the total MLAs in the legislature. In addition, there would be regional MLAs appointed to represent defined regions - northern B.C. would likely be one region - who are drawn from a list provided by each party. Those regional seats would be allocated to ensure each party which received at least five per cent of the vote provincially has roughly the same percentage of seats in the legislature as their share of the popular vote.

This system has the advantage of treating all voters in the province equally, ensuring each district has one - and only one - MLA dedicated to it and a proven international track record.

The downsides of this proposed system is that the individual districts will be somewhat larger than they are currently, regional MLAs will be drawn from some type of party list rather than elected directly and some of the important details remain to be hammered out.

Would voters have one vote or two? Would B.C. adopt an open list, closed list or an open list with party option?

Those are the sort of questions the government should have answered before putting the issue to referendum, along with the proposed district boundaries for all three proposed proportional systems. Unfortunately, they didn't and voters can only rank the proposed systems based on the information currently at hand.

Ultimately, whether B.C. stays with first past the post or adopts MMP, we'll be well-served by an imperfect, but functional, electoral system. Which of the two you prefer is a matter of which benefits and drawbacks you place more importance on.

As for DMP and RUP, both are unproven systems which will leave rural B.C. voters looking in from the outside.

For more information on the referendum and proposed options, go online to elections.bc.ca/referendum/.

--News editor Arthur Williams

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