The electoral-reform process in British Columbia has advanced another step with the Attorney General’s release of recommendations. The existence of this process is a product of the deal struck after the 2017 election, which resulted in a minority NDP government, backed by the Green Party.
In either October or November, there will be a province-wide vote consisting of two questions: First, do you want to keep the current FPTP system or replace it with a proportional system? Second, which of three PR options would you prefer if the province were to adopt PR? The second part will permit voters to rank-order their choices.
The choices being put to the voters are (using the names given in the recommendations):
Dual-Member PR (DMP)
Mixed-Member PR (MMP)
I will take the three in order of most familiar to least.
Readers of this blog are probably generally pretty familiar with what MMP is. The short version is: a system in which some percentage of seats (the proposal is for no more than 40%) are elected as “compensatory” list seats, while the rest continue to be elected as under FPTP, in single-seat districts (ridings) by plurality. The key feature is the compensatory nature of the process, so that any party’s number of seats in the provincial assembly are roughly proportional to its province-wide votes. Any seats the party wins in individual ridings are deducted from this total, and remaining seats a party is entitled to hold under the proportionality principle come from the list. It should be noted that the report says “List PR seats are to be allocated within defined regions, not on a province-wide basis.” This could limit proportionality somewhat, but this proposal is likely to be the most proportional of the three (unless perhaps if the compensation regions are quite small).
Rural-Urban PR is mostly single transferable vote (STV), but in the rural parts of the province MMP would be used. This is an usual system in that it actually is two electoral systems, depending in where you are in the province: STV in urban and “semi-urban” areas, but MMP elsewhere. Under STV, voters rank candidates, but under MMP it seems that it would remain plurality. The logic is to prevent rural ridings from being significantly larger than they are now–one of the concerns raised with “BC-STV” when it was proposed in the province’s previous electoral reform process. The provision for MMP compensation regions in rural areas is obviously an effort to allow for proportional representation even in the areas where the districts will be single-seat. The proposal suggests district magnitudes of 2-9, with a preference for the higher end of that range.
Both MMP proposals–the full province-wide one or the rural component of Rural-Urban PR–could have either a single vote or two votes. The proposal explicitly leaves this (important!) detail to the legislature after the referendum. If there were one vote, then votes for candidates in single-seat ridings would be aggregated by party for the purposes of carrying out proportional compensation (which, for Rural-Urban, would be taking place only over the regions in which the single-seat districts were located). With a two-vote MMP (as found in Germany and New Zealand), voters can vote directly for a list of their preferred party, and thus vote for a party that is different from that of their preferred local candidate. Yet another feature to be left to the legislature to decide would be whether lists would be closed (as is typical for MMP systems), open, or flexible (also known as semi-open, but misleadingly called in the recommendations “open list with party option”).
DMP is a system not actually used anywhere (but see the earlier P.E.I. proposal), and it is a bit complex. In general, each district would elect two members, although the recommendations allow that the “largest rural districts could remain unchanged as single-member districts.” Each party could nominate two candidates, and they would be ranked by the party. Thus we have a closed-list system. Voters would cast a single party vote. The first seat in each 2-seat district would be won by the first-ranked candidate on the party with the most votes in the district. The second seat would actually be allocated based on province-wide votes. It is thus a two-tier compensatory closed-list PR system. How would the assignment of the compensatory seats to districts–given that there is no separate list or compensation district–be done? The proposal says only, “The process for allocating the second seat in each district is fairly complicated.” (Perhaps it would be something like the provisions in Slovenia or as an option for parties in Denmark.)
DMP ensures that all candidates, even those elected on province-wide votes, would represent a riding. It also ensures that one member in each 2-seat riding is elected based on the riding’s own votes. (Exception: it seems there would be a 5% threshold for any party to win seats under any of the list-based provisions being proposed; if that is correct, then it is conceivable that a party could win a plurality of votes in some riding but not be entitled to a seat.)
A puzzling aspect of DMP is the one on independents. If an independent places first in a district, that candidate is elected. That is straightforward enough. However, it is also the case that if an independent places second, that candidate is elected and “the district is removed from the remainder of the second-seat allocation process.” I don’t understand the logic of that provision.
Each proposal allows for the assembly to be increased from its present 87 members up to a maximum of 95, but does not require that the assembly size be increased.
An observation: Why not do DMP with open lists? Have the voter vote for a candidate, rather than a party. It would be a lesser break with FPTP while still being quite proportional. A potential answer: it could mean the candidate with the most personal votes is not elected (because that candidate is on a party that is overall less popular than another in the district). That could be addressed by making it more like MMP–the leading candidate wins the first seat, but that seat is deducted from the compensation entitlement. Otherwise, the DMP provisions would apply. It is interesting that the DMP proposal is explicitly closed list, whereas the list type in the MMP variants would be left up to the legislature.
Any of these systems would seem like a clear improvement for BC. Rural-Urban is an odd mix, but it could work. MMP is proven. DMP is unusual but not based on wholly unknown principles.
(For further reading, see On Elections or Sightline)