Most developed countries use some form of Proportional Representation (PR) voting. The most frequently discussed in Canada are STV (Single Transferable Vote) and MMP (Mixed Member Proportional), but there are other possibilities as well.
Three Natural Voting System Options for BC
There are three types of voting systems that have been recently recommended in provincial or federal electoral reform processes and so are natural options for BC to consider:
- the Multi-Member approach recommended by the 2004 BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform
- the Top-Up approach recommended by the 2004 Law Commission and the recent federal Electoral Reform Commission
- the Combined Multi-Member & Top-Up approach also recommended by the federal ERC
Multi-Member systems are ‘small region’ systems in which several current ridings are grouped together and a set of MPs or MLAs elected who reflect the diversity of voters in the region. The Single Transferable Vote (STV) variant was used at the municipal level in all four western provinces and in several major cities (Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg) at the provincial level until as late as the 1970s. It is presently used at all levels of government in Ireland, for the Northern Irish Parliament, in Scottish local government elections, in several Australian states and the Senate, in some New Zealand cities, in Cambridge and Minneapolis in the USA, and most recently has been authorized for use in Ontario cities and towns.
Top-Up systems such as the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system typically have about 60% of the MPs or MLAs elected in single member ridings (the same way we do now), with the balance elected as ‘top-up’ representatives to compensate for the disproportionality of the riding elections. MMP was invented for use in Germany, and is also used now in New Zealand and in the Scottish and Welsh devolved assemblies. Canadian proponents typically recommend using ‘open lists’, where voters vote specifically for top-up candidates.
Combining Multi-Member + Top-Up approaches is a modern-day refinement of the way voting used to happen in Manitoba and Alberta. The Rural-Urban PR model was proposed by Fair Voting BC and Fair Vote Canada during the federal electoral reform process. Like typical multi-member systems, it offers multi-member ridings in the more urban areas, but also allows for single member ridings in more rural areas; because of the improved proportionality that comes from the multi-member ridings, it needs a much smaller number of top-up MLAs compared with MMP (as few as 10-15% vs 40%) to ensure proportionality everywhere.
What Path Forward for BC?
Now that the new government in BC has promised a referendum, how do we decide what voting system we should adopt?
Some have argued that multi-member systems like STV have the most legitimacy since this approach was selected by the non-partisan, representative and reflective Citizens’ Assembly. Although voters in 2005 endorsed the CA’s recommended STV system (and strongly approved of the process that led to its recommendation) with a vote of 58% in favour, the then-government did not accept this result and offered instead a second referendum in which, unfortunately, only 39% of voters were in favour.
The NDP and Green Parties themselves have stated that they prefer the top-up approach (particularly the MMP model). Although a closed list version of MMP (recommended by the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly) lost in the 2007 referendum there, voters in PEI recently voted 55% in favour of an open-list MMP model.
Fair Voting BC and Fair Vote Canada put forward a combined model to address some of the unique geographic challenges in Canada. Their RU-PR model offered tremendous flexibility to address virtually every concern politicians have expressed about STV or MMP, while retaining the primary strengths of these systems.
Refined Models Tailored for BC Now Available
Since the federal reform process concluded, there have been some continuing developments aimed at further ‘fitting’ some of these models to Canada’s and BC’s unique circumstances.
Proponents of multi-member models have addressed some of the concerns expressed about STV and have produced the Local PR proposal. Local PR (LPR) is similar to STV, but adds a counting rule that can ensure that each current riding will elect one candidate; this addresses the concern that the riding’s multiple representatives might not sufficiently represent the riding’s geography.
Similarly, proponents of the combined approach have considered how to simplify what one might think would be a somewhat complicated system. Fortunately, this has proven to be possible. With any multi-member system (eg, STV, LPR), we can add a small number of top-up members to maximize proportionality, and integrate them into the largest multi-member ridings so that, just like all other MLAs, they too end up representing the constituency they ran in.
Given that there are three primary options with strong claims to being considered for use in BC, how should we proceed?
Fair Voting BC Recommends Leaving Decision to Voters
While the government itself has the power to simply decide that one system or another should be chosen, this would open it to accusations that its choice best served party interests rather than voters’ interests.
Fair Voting BC therefore recommends that we use a process that enables all people with an interest in the voting system to express their perspectives and have that taken into account in a way that does respect the principle that the voting system needs to serve the people above all else.
We suggest two main ideas:
- Use a robust public engagement process in which input will be solicited from all stakeholders (citizens, academic experts, advocacy groups, politicians and parties). The goal should be to choose the best versions of each of the three major systems described above
- Put the resulting options to the voters using a ranked ballot, similar to what was done in Prince Edward Island. Also offer voters who support the principle of reform, but who do not feel well enough informed to decide between the options a way to indicate their support for proportional representation.
We invite you to read the sections below to learn more about the main options that have been proposed for use in Canada (and more particularly in BC). We also recommend an excellent primer prepared by the Library of Parliament.