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Posted: January 21, 2018

Democracy needs Proportional Representation

By Joyce Green

Op-Ed Commentary

B.C. will hold a referendum, soon, on whether to change the electoral system from the existing “first past the post” or plurality system, to one of proportional representation (PR). The change is significant: under PR, the electoral results mirror the vote parties’ vote share by producing the same number of seats in the Legislature. You get what you vote for.

Want to know more about the implications of electoral change? Ann Remnant and Sjeng Dirkx will be delivering a presentation on this topic at the Manual Training Centre in Cranbrook, January 31, 7 – 9 p.m.

Under the plurality system, parties are often over- and under-represented in the Legislature (and in Parliament) because of the way in which votes are counted in each constituency. It is possible to “win” the constituency with far less than a majority of votes, simply because of the number of parties running. B.C. has typically had governments that held false majorities, in that they won a majority of seats without winning the popular vote.

For example, if Party A wins 35% of the vote, Party B wins 32% of the vote, Party C wins 30% of the vote, and Party D wins three per cent of the vote, Party A wins the seat, even though 65% of electors did not vote for it. Worse for our democracy, the voters who did not support Party A receive no political representation at all, and because this process is repeated in every constituency, representation in the Legislature – the place where laws are made, policies are debated, and governments are held accountable – is out of whack with the political intentions of citizens.

Citizens become cynical when their voting preferences are not reflected in government, and apathy is a frequent result. Citizen apathy is terrible for democratic health. Presently, our voter turnout – one measure of democratic health and of citizenship – is poor, with only 57.1% showing up to vote in the 2013 B.C. election and 61.5 % in 2017 (hardly an impressive total) and an estimated 66.1% in the last federal election. And, now-Prime Minister Trudeau, who had promised electoral reform when campaigning, has angered many Canadians by breaking that promise – apparently, because his party understands that it would have to share power in an election determined by proportional representation.

There are other reasons to change the electoral system, but these are the main ones: government legitimacy in representation, democratic health, and citizen engagement.

Still, not everyone is a fan of greater democracy. There is now a “no PR” group convened to defeat the referendum. The usual suspects are fear-mongering and lobbying for the status quo: they warn of radicals storming the Legislature and the deterioration of politics. This is disingenuous, in the age of Trump, and of Brexit, instigated largely by the fringe politician Nigel Farage – both political hurricanes produced by a couple of the last plurality, not PR, electoral systems in the world. Why the over-wrought opposition to PR here in B.C.? The reason is perhaps best articulated by Diane Watts, a BC Liberal leadership candidate, who tweeted: “If we do not defeat PR, we [Liberals] will forever be a minority.” That’s right: with PR, certain parties could not count on manufacturing a false majority, and thus would have to work with other parties on policy and legislation. Democracy works best with collaboration and moderation.

As B.C. nears the referendum citizens will hear much more about electoral reform. We encourage folks to come out and hear Ann Remnant and Sjeng Dirkx on this topic at the Manual Training Centre in Cranbrook, January 31, 7 – 9 p.m., and to log onto for more information.

We have a rare opportunity to increase the democratic quotient in our province. It should not be missed.

Joyce Green is a political scientist on faculty at the University of Regina, now living in Cranbrook. She is also a member of Fair Vote Canada.

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