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Canadian Press

September 6, 2004

B.C.'s Citizens' Assembly on electoral reform getting close to decision

Greg Joyce

Less than a year before British Columbia plays host to the 2010 Winter Olympics, provincial voters may be choosing their government using a different, more fair and more popular system.

Some might say it's about time. 

"Most democratic systems in the world have moved to some kind of proportional representation system," said political scientist Michael Prince of the University of Victoria. 

"We're one of the last holdouts, along with the Americans and the Brits."

British Columbians, along with all Canadians in provincial and federal elections, have been "holdouts" to a plurality system commonly known as first-past-the-post.

It's simple: the candidate in a riding with the most votes wins the seat, even though he or she may get less than 50 per cent of the total votes cast for all the candidates.

This can result in anomalies that aren't popular with voters or parties.

  If any province needs electoral reform, surely the wild, polarized politics of B.C. make it a strong candidate.

The last two B.C. elections generated complaints that the first-past-the-post system does not fairly represent all voters.

The former New Democratic Party government was elected to a second term in the 1996 election even though the party received fewer votes than the Liberals.

The current Liberal government won a massive 77-2 seat majority in the May2001 election with less than 60 per cent of the popular vote.

That 1996 NDP win may have been the impetus for the Liberal party to keep its 2001 campaign promise to appoint a Citizens' Assembly on electoral reform if it won the election.

The assembly's 161 members - chosen randomly from the 79 ridings in B.C. -have spent a huge amount of time in 2004 studying electoral systems around the world in practice and theory.

Now, the next two months are decision-making time: the assembly will recommend a new type of voting system or it could decide to stay with the status quo.

Next weekend, the 161 members gather in Vancouver to hear from nine speakers who have been selected for the excellence of their original presentations earlier in the year.

One of those speakers includes Jim Nielsen, a former Social Credit party cabinet minister who argues in favour of the current system.

Any recommended change will result in a provincewide referendum. If B.C. accepts the new system, it will be used for the May 2009 election.

Prince and his University of Victoria political scientist colleague Norman Ruff suggest a new system is likely.

’ÄůMost liberal democracies around the world have gone this way," said Prince. "We're kind of the odd people out now."

Ruff, who favours a form of proportional representation known as  mixed member proportional (MMP) believes change is needed.

"I've never been a crusader for reform but I think there are enough problems with our political system that it's time to give electoral reform a try."

Ruff believes the assembly in the end will choose between two options: the MMP or the single transferable vote (STV), both forms of proportional representation.

Mixed member is used in different variations in New Zealand, Scotland and Wales.

Under MMP, voters get two votes: one for their favoured candidate in their riding and the other for their preferred party.

"It's the one where it keeps an air of familiarity with it and you keep your local MLA."

Until MMP took over as the "flavour of the past two decades," says Ruff, the single transferable vote (used now in Tasmania and Malta) was the preferred system for electoral reformers.

It gives the biggest weight to the preferences of the individual voter, says Ruff, because voters are asked to rank candidates on the ballot by numbers, rather than choosing a party.

The Citizens' Assembly delegates have been hearing submissions and attending public hearings all year.

The assembly's mandate allows them to design a system specifically for B.C. as long as it is consistent with the Constitution and the Westminster parliamentary system.

The assembly has received about 1,500 submissions from citizens. The submissions and descriptions of the various electoral systems are available on the assembly's comprehensive website (

While a change is certainly possible, in the end the assembly may decide to stick with what voters know.

"The status quo is always an option and status quo deserves a good look," said assembly spokesman Don MacLachlan. "A change in the electoral system is not a foregone conclusion."

The assembly's research officer, political scientist Ken Carty, is looking forward to the weekend presentations.

"These presentations are cast in terms of general principles - around local representation, around plurality or majority principles, around proportional principles."

Ruff expressed hope that a better system might end the polarization that has been a hallmark of B.C. politics for decades.

"Under our system, there is a sense that a vote for anything but the two main parties is a wasted vote and a move to proportional representation tends to improve representation of smaller parties."

B.C. might be a little ahead of the other provinces in this regard, but many have shown similar interest.

Federal NDP Leader Jack Layton said his party is proposing a national assembly to study changes in the way politicians are elected to Parliament.

Layton has been pressing for a reassessment of the traditional first-past-the-post system.

Quebec, New Brunswick, Ontario and Prince Edward Island have all taken some steps aimed at electoral reform.

If B.C. voters do have a new system in 2009, Ruff thinks it will be remembered as one of the current government's greatest achievements.

"It will be one of the initiatives the (Premier Gordon) Campbell government will be most remembered for."

Here are some types of electoral systems being considered by the Citizens Assembly for adoption in B.C.:

Families of electoral systems: Majority, Plurality, Proportional representation list, Proportional representation by single transferable vote, Mixed.

Majority: Fundamental principle is the winning candidate must obtain more than 50 per cent of vote. A runoff may be required if there are more than two candidates. The run-off election or ranking system is known as an alternative vote. The AV system was used in B.C. elections in 1952 and 1953.

Plurality: The system used in Canada, federally and provincially. The winning candidate is the one with the most votes in a riding.

Proportional representation (PR): Systems vary widely but are designed to ensure the range of opinion in the legislature reflects the range of opinion in the electorate. Two types of PR systems: PR-List (variations used in Belgium, Finland and Switzerland) and PR by single transferable vote (variations used in Ireland and Tasmania).

Mixed: A system that mixes two or more different systems to try to obtain their advantages and minimize disadvantages. Germany elects half its 600-member parliament from single member districts using the plurality system; half are chosen from a party's regional list of candidates.

Some facts about B.C.'s Citizens' Assembly examining the province's electoral system:

What it is: Created by the B.C. government, it is an independent assembly of 161 citizens who have met often to examine different electoral systems.

Makeup: One man and one woman from each of the province's 79 electoral districts, plus two aboriginal members and assembly chairman Jack Blaney.

Range: Members range in age from 19 to 79 reflecting the province's gender, age and geographical makeup.

Mandate: To spend several months studying electoral systems around the world, accepting public submissions. A final recommendation is to be reached by December 2004.

Referendum: If change is proposed, a recommendation goes to all voters in the form of a referendum at the next provincial election, May 17, 2005.

To pass: The referendum must be approved by 60 per cent of voters and by simple majority of voters in 60 per cent of the 79 ridings. If it passes, the new system would be in place for May 2009 election.

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