Turnout, referenda, and electoral-system change

As previously noted, Prince Edward Island will hold its referendum on adopting mixed-member proportional representation for its provincial legislative assembly on Monday, under rules changed late in the game by the premier in order to put roadblocks into a reform path that he himself had initiated. PEI could be the first province to go to a PR system, BC having narrowly missed the chance some months ago.

In the provincial general election of May, 2005, 57% of British Columbia voters favored a change of their electoral system from plurality (FPTP) to STV. Only 46% of voters favored the incumbent Liberal government. Yet STV was “defeated” while the Liberals “won” another four-year term as a majority government.

The referendum and its anomalous outcome was a result of a previous decision by the Liberal government to set up a Citizens Assembly to consider an alternative way to elect the provincial parliament, but to mandate that the Assembly’s proposal would require a 60% vote (and also majorities in 60% of the provincial ridings, or electoral districts). Similar rules will be in place in PEI.

Rather embarrassed by being returned to unchecked power despite being less popular than an electoral system that would have forced them to share power had it already been in effect, the BC Liberals announced that they would allow a second referendum (under the same rules).

Norman Specter, in the Globe and Mail, is not too happy about the whole situation–or the referendum on proportional representation Monday in PEI. As he notes, the second BC referendum will be at the same time as the next BC municipal elections, when turnout tends to be low.

In fact, based on the turnout in the last provincial election, only about a third of voting-age British Columbians approved STV. And, with the normally lower turnout of voters in municipal elections, an even lower percentage of voters will have the power in 2008 to change the most fundamental rule of our democratic system.

Of course, if only a third of voting age British Columbians approved STV, then less than thirty percent approved the current government. That would seem to make STV (or any form of PR) more, not less appropriate, in the sense of preventing full authority being lodged in the hands of a party with such a thin mandate.

Turning to PEI, Specter says:

Looking at that situation, one has to wonder exactly what problem is being addressed. In the last PEI provincial election, 26 of the 27 MLAs were elected with more than 50 per cent of the vote.

He has a point. Proportional representation is usually adopted only where three or more parties are splitting the vote, resulting in governments that are clearly majority-opposed rather than (nearly) majority-supported. For the record, the problem electoral reform in PEI seeks to address is super-lopsided parliaments. The PEI Conservatives won 96% of the seats on 57% of the votes in 2000, two elections after the Liberals had won 98% (i.e. all but on seat) on 55%. In between, in 1996, the Conservatives won two thirds of the seats on just 47% of the vote. Reform of some type is clearly needed, though the absence of multipartism in the electorate makes PR a tougher sell.

But Specter thinks that FPTP can accommodate three parties fairly well, and points to the last BC election. It was indeed a classic Westminster-style election,with Liberals winning their comfortable majority with 46 (of 79) seats on 46% of the vote, the NDP 13 seats behind despite trailing by only around four percentage points of the vote, and no seats were won by the Greens (9% of the vote) and other parties. While this is an outcome that PR advocates would argue is unrepresentative, it is nonetheless certainly the case that PR would never have come on to the the agenda if all BC elections turned out like 2005. But of course they do not.

PR got on the agenda in the first place because of the 1996 BC election in which the NDP won a majority of seats on only 39% of the vote while the Liberals actually had nearly 42% of the vote. Then in 2001 BC had an election like the two mentioned above in PEI, when the Liberals won all but three seats on 57% of the vote. That’s why nearly 58% of voters wanted a new electoral system, even if the rules were set up to make that insufficient.

0 thoughts on “Turnout, referenda, and electoral-system change

  1. Good old Norman Spector, back during the run-up to the vote in B.C., one of his inane columns provoked what is probably my most ill-tempered post in over a year of blogging.

    I wish just once he’d come right out and say what it is he’s so scared of.

  2. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

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