Aug 20, 2018

The case for electoral reform

By and
Original image: mohamed_hassan / Pixabay

Debunking the claims of proportional representation naysayers

This is the fourth post in a series explaining the benefits of proportional representation and debunking myths from the ‘No’ side of BC’s 2018 electoral reform referendum. More from the series is available at

Let’s cut right to the chase: British Columbia needs proportional representation (pro rep). In this post, we outline the clear and compelling case for change.

Our current electoral system is broken. It severely distorts our political choices, prevents us from working together with the long-term in mind, and hands total governing power to politicians who often fail to win even half of our votes. As well, our votes go to waste far too often, with most of us living in “safe ridings” where the outcome is a foregone conclusion. This means that a large portion of voters are left with a representative who does not share their political values, and thus can’t effectively represent their views or concerns in the Legislature.

Something is wrong with this picture. If the promise of our democracy is that our votes count and our politicians rule by our consent, then our existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system leaves much to be desired. Surely, we can do better.

This is why voting ‘Yes’ to pro rep in the upcoming fall referendum is so crucial. Pro rep helps to solve many of the problems of our current system by making every vote count, tying election outcomes to the popular vote, and giving politicians only the power they deserve. And, as another recent post in this series discusses, it would all still include a key strength of our current system: local representation.

We deserve a democracy where we vote for the representatives we want, not strategically against those we most dislike. We deserve to be liberated to vote our values, and feel safe knowing it made a difference. Under pro rep, this will be the new normal. Here’s why:

Every vote matters

Pro rep means that your vote always leads to representation in the BC Legislature, regardless of whether your preferred local candidate wins. How? Because as long as your choice is not extremely unpopular (meaning, as long as the party secures at least 5% of province-wide support), your vote counts beyond your riding, ensuring a legislature that fairly reflects the diversity of our preferences across BC.

This means that if a party wins 30% of the vote, they get 30% of the seats. It’s that simple. So if a party wins a sizable portion of votes across the province, but only a few victories in individual ridings, any pro rep system will guarantee that they receive fair representation in proportion to how many votes they received.

When every vote matters, our politicians have to pay serious attention to each of our votes if they want to get anything done. Under pro rep, candidates can’t rely on winning a small but consistent fraction of the public’s support; they can’t focus on a minority of voters and comfortably assume this is enough to win majority power. Rather, they have to act in a way that secures majority support. That’s why pro rep means great accountability.

A move to pro rep will mean that your vote does what it is supposed to do: it makes a difference in how we’re governed.

This reality means more voters turn out. Whatever the direct cause is, the evidence is clear: voter turnout in countries with pro rep is 5–7% higher than in counties with “winner-takes-all” systems like ours. That is important, because a huge number of people are not voting (and the long-term trends are disturbing), and are thus left unrepresented. And can you blame them? Politicians are endlessly focused on catering to their base or voters in swing ridings, leaving out huge swaths of our population. And people understandably often feel FPTP wastes their votes. Pro rep means a more healthy and vibrant democracy. That’s worth supporting.

In the end, a move to pro rep means that your vote does what it is supposed to do: it makes a difference in how we’re governed.

More choices

We know that the views of nearly five million British Columbians are more diverse than what two parties can offer. But our current system makes it almost impossible for independent politicians and non-dominant parties to be competitive, leaving us with a democracy that fails to represent the many and gives disproportionate power to the few.

Instead, pro rep levels the playing field, giving us a competitive democracy where more parties have a chance to get elected, and a greater diversity of views finds political expression.

If you are a “free market” oriented person but frustrated with the BC Liberals, pro rep will provide to you with more alternatives, instead of forcing you to either hold your nose or sit out the election. Similarly, if you are “left leaning” but frustrated with the BC NDP, you will have choices beyond towing the line or opting out.

Voters are frustrated with a lack of choice in our democracy, and are tired of often settling for the “lesser of two evils” when they vote. Pro rep puts an end to this restrictive exercise, by giving British Columbians the freedom to participate in their democracy on their own terms.

Opening the bandwidth of what is possible

Our current two-party system narrows our political choices and limits our discourse, discouraging bold and long-lasting policies. FPTP can only reflect so many viewpoints in the rooms where policies, laws and other important decisions are made—and what does get through tends to be heavily shaped by elite interests, if not catering to them outright. When we limit our capacity to consider a wider range of views and evidence, it takes years to address serious issues like climate change and unaffordable housing, and change only happens when we’re deep in crisis-mode, if at all.

British Columbians cannot afford to wait until we are unbearably deep in poverty, priced out of our cities, and experiencing the full impact of climate change for our representatives to take action.

Any decent democracy has to reflect its population to govern well. While pro rep is not a one-stop solution for truly fair representation, we need it to get there.

Legislatures that better reflect all of us

Where pro rep is used, the makeup of legislatures better reflects the diversity of voters. Representation of women and ethnic minorities is enhanced, thus increasing the likelihood of the issues they prioritize being on the agenda.

While BC made important strides in the 2017 election for ethnic and gender representation, we simply don’t elect enough women, racialized, or low-income people (among other groups) to seriously reflect our population.

Pro rep systems tend to elect more women than systems like ours by a measure of 1.5 to eight per cent, also coming out ahead when it comes to racialized and Indigenous representation.

And when it comes to representing the class makeup of society, more proportional systems are also more likely to elect representatives from working-class and low-income backgrounds.

Any decent democracy has to reflect its population to govern well. While pro rep is not a one-stop solution for truly fair representation, we need it to get there.

Better policy

When our elected officials do put their heads together across party lines, their constituents benefit for generations to come. Research demonstrates that diversity and dissent have enormously positive effects at the decision-making table. By going beyond groupthink and pandering to authoritative leadership, these conditions also produce more creative and innovative solutions to highly sensitive and emerging issues. In the face of impending climate catastrophe, deepening inequality and legislated poverty, and a dizzying housing crisis, we need pro rep, as it is a proven system that will offer bold and dynamic solutions.

It turns out that the combative nature of pure FPTP politics ends up wasting an immense amount of time and public resources. That’s because of a problem inherent in FPTP known as “policy lurch.” As power and false majorities swing between two parties, each new government spends a chunk of its first years essentially undoing the policies of the previous government, and so on the pendulum goes. This seesaw of single-party majorities leads us nowhere, even if decisions do get made “decisively” each time, as the proponents of the status quo contend.

Pro rep, in contrast, incentivizes parties to make decisions together, gathering the input and expertise of one another to build long-lasting policies that cannot simply be rolled back for partisan purposes, especially when they’re designed with the majority in mind. When New Zealand made its move to pro rep in the 1990s, former prime minister Helen Clark was initially concerned. But the change to the nation’s political culture—in terms of how much more collaborative, consultative, and transparent things became—led to results that not only satisfied the public, but has led Clark to sing pro rep’s praises across the world.

This is the kind of shift that our province needs.

More accountable government

While it may not make sense that political parties win total power with less than half of the public’s support, this is a feature of our current system, not a freak occurrence. Under pro rep, this will almost never happen. A ‘Yes’ vote in the fall will provide us with a system that makes sure any government needs a majority of our support. Oftentimes this kind of politics means that multiple parties have to do something radical: they have to work together.

If our hyper-partisan governments only aim to please four out of 10 of us in an election year, they’re not very accountable to the overall public.

The problem with our current system is this: If you only need 40% to win outright power, then you don’t need to concern yourself with the other 60%. You are probably more concerned with your elite donors. For example, arguably, the last BC government didn’t need to worry about raising welfare or, for far too long, housing unaffordability, because they didn’t consider the people affected as part of their 40% vote.

The point is, when every vote counts, every voter matters.

British Columbians deserve better than single-party governments ruling by decree and politicians who are too stubborn to work together.

A more cooperative politics

Pro rep usually results in minority or coalition governments. And that’s great! It means multiple parties often have to work together to pass policy, as is the case throughout most of the democratic world, as well as our own province at the moment (i.e. with a minority government). British Columbians should be excited about this prospect: our nation’s most popular and long-lasting policies—from the Canada Pension Plan, to Old Age Security, to Medicare itself—were enacted under minority federal governments.

In BC today, under a transparent minority agreement, we’ve seen a cooperative situation that is tackling housing, exposing rampant corruption, increasing investments in education, healthcare, and infrastructure, and taking seriously the need to protect the coast. BC’s minority government has introduced bold new policies, such as public child care—the first new social program of a generation—and progressive tiers to property taxes—a first in North America. Despite the possibility that it could fall any day, it has proven stable and effective for over a year. If BC votes to include proportional representation in our democracy, we can expect more of this.

British Columbians deserve better than single-party governments ruling by decree and politicians who are too stubborn to work together. A ‘Yes’ vote solves both of these problems.

In summary…

We deserve to be liberated to vote our values. This fall’s referendum represents a game-changing opportunity.

Pro rep means:

  • No more need to engage in strategic voting against who we most fear
  • Every vote will count
  • Higher voter turn-out
  • Better representation of women and minorities
  • Enhanced local representation
  • More political choice and more diversity of ideas
  • More cooperative government
  • More accountable government

This fall, between October 22nd and November 30th, we have so many reasons to vote ‘Yes!’