Referendum a chance to reflect on democratic values

Majority rules, but what majority matters most to British Columbia voters?

Everybody is asking the wrong question when it comes to the upcoming referendum on proportional representation.

There’s a lot of sound and fury coming from both sides of the political spectrum as the parties have taken their respective — and predictable — positions on the issue.

But the debate over proportional representation or First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) has been cheap so far, as partisan positions take precedence over a far more fundamental concept.

Any time a government wants to tinker with the electoral system, voters need to sit up and take notice. Proposing changes to the electoral system goes beyond partisan politics and directly affects the foundation of our democracy.

The key issue at stake for this referendum is determining how British Columbians wish to form government.

That’s a big deal and one that should not be taken lightly.

Under the current system, cloned from the British parliamentary system, 87 candidates are elected to the legislature in 87 different ridings, each claiming individual electoral victories through the majority threshold of votes.

The upcoming referendum insinuates that FPTP is a flawed electoral system and that a proportional representation system is better, or at least more representative of how the entire population of British Columbians votes on election day.

Looking at some of the last few elections, it’s easy to see why the province is having the proportional representation debate.

Going back to 2001, the B.C. Liberal Party had the largest margin of victory in provincial history, winning 77 of 79 seats. However, looking at the numbers, the Liberals captured 57.6 per cent of the popular vote out of a total voter turnout of 55.4 per cent.

In hard numbers, that means the B.C. Liberal Party collected 916,888 votes out of 1,591,306 total votes cast.

However, that total is not representative of the fact that there were 2,254,920 registered voters for that election, according to Elections B.C.

Once the math is done, that means the B.C. Liberal Party only captured 40.6 per cent of the total registered vote.

And that is the most common refrain from the proportional representation advocates — how can a party form a majority government with less than 50 per cent of the popular vote?

Election reform advocates argue that under a proportional representation system, seats in the legislature would be proportionally reflective of the entire provincial vote count.

Elections BC is a non-partisan office of the legislature that has provided information on all three proposed proportional representation systems on the ballot, if you’re looking to do some research on the options.

On the flip side of the debate, FPTP proponents defend the current system by arguing that electing representatives with a majority vote in each riding preserves the integrity of regional representation.

Parties can field candidates in any particular riding and the one with the most votes wins a seat at the legislature.

In FPTP, representation is determined by a single winner-take-all candidate in each of the 87 ridings.

The winning candidates convene in the legislature, and the party with the most affiliated candidates form government.

FPTP advocates argue that the current system ensures that each MLA is accessible and accountable in each electoral district, which, on average, is populated by roughly 53,119 voters, according to the 2015 Electoral Boundaries Commission final report.

It’s the regional voters within each electoral district that decide who gets into the legislature, not the overall percentage of the provincial vote.

And that right there is the crux of the whole debate over election reform.

Should government be formed by a collection of the 87 successful candidates in individual ridings who share a particular political party affiliation or should government be a reflection of the overall provincial vote?

How do voters want the legislature to govern — as a reflection of the overall provincial vote percentage or as a collection of party-affiliatted ridings?

It’s a question that strikes to the heart of what a democracy looks like and touches off a fascinating debate over what majority rule means.

Tinkering with democracy is no small policy endeavour, but the referendum is a chance for British Columbians to determine how the province will be governed going forward.

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