Dennis Pilon: B.C.’s voting system referendum—the politics of choosing

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      By Dennis Pilon

      Time is running out for voters to cast their ballot in B.C.’s voting-system referendum before the November 30 deadline. Those still undecided have got to figure out whether to support B.C.’s current first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system or proportional representation (PR).

      How should they go about doing that? The media focus on getting informed, perhaps by reading up on the different PR models that appear on the ballot. Academics suggest the choice is between different "visions" of democracy, one focused on decisiveness, the other inclusion. People defending B.C.’s traditional FPTP voting system complain the whole process is rigged and confusing and that voters should choose what’s simple (i.e., the status quo). The NDP and Greens and PR supporters say it’s all about fairness. 

      But they’re all wrong. In my study of voting-system reform across 18 western countries over a 150-year period, the pattern of conflict remained remarkably consistent over time, with recent B.C. events no exception. When people start fighting over how to vote, it’s never about voting-system details or their supposed complexity or abstract questions of fairness. It’s always about power and the threat that democracy can pose to those who wield it. This was true in Belgium in 1899, Sweden in 1907, Switzerland in 1918, Germany in 1947, and New Zealand in 1993. 

      So forget claims about complexity and getting informed on the details of the different PR models. All you really need to ask yourself is this: do you want more or less democracy? It’s that simple. In the present context, if you want more democracy you’ll vote for PR. If you’re satisfied with less, you’ll stick with B.C.’s current first-past-the-voting system. Frankly, you don’t even need to worry about the second ballot question. Any of the PR models would do the job that needs doing—i.e., make B.C. more democratic.

      The democratic arguments for PR are obvious to anyone but an ideologue. Instead of the distorted results for political parties, legislative-majority governments that only represent a minority of voters, and half the votes counting for nothing—the typical results of B.C.’s present FPTP system—PR would accurately translate voter support into legislative representation, lead to governments that actually represent a majority of voters, and see nearly every vote contribute to the election of someone the voter prefers.

      But who would want less democracy? A lot of people, actually. Millionaires, corporate CEOs, lobbyists, top bureaucrats, patronage appointees, politicians—basically those who control or benefit from the way B.C.’s current voting system works now. Under FPTP, they spend money to influence or control a political party so that when that party wins power the government rewards them with laws and government contracts and patronage appointments, very much at the expense of average voters.

      FPTP facilitates this by allowing a party with only a minority of votes to win a legislative-majority government. With such power, no one can stop the winning party from rewarding their friends and no one can get a look at their books until they’re turfed from office. Any PR system would be an existential threat to this way of doing politics, weakening the ability of such elites to effectively "go over the heads" of the electorate by virtue of their connections and wealth.

      The real politics animating the present B.C. voting-system referendum revolve on this key issue: who should have more influence? Average voters or traditional power brokers?  The NDP and Greens are for PR and tend to support policies that go against some very powerful financial interests in the province, particularly on labour and environmental issues.

      But critics complain their support for PR is just electoral self-interest. There is no denying that B.C.’s current FPTP voting system presents challenges to both parties that PR would remedy. The Greens need PR because the present voting system dramatically underrepresents them and their voters. The NDP need it because electoral competition from the Greens is making their ability to win elections under the present system less and less likely.

      But here ii just so happens that party self-interest coincides with the public interest in improving B.C.’s democracy. By contrast, the B.C. Liberals’ opposition to PR is self-interest of the worst sort. They like the current system because they regularly win majority governments, even though a majority of people usually vote for others. Indeed, the political right in B.C. has done very well with FPTP, winning 20 out the 24 elections since 1933, when the province’s distinctive left-right political dualism first emerged. But more to the point, the B.C. Liberals need FPTP and the legislative dominance it typically grants to deliver on the promises they make to their funders and to keep such deals under wraps (e.g., away from public scrutiny) while they are in power.

      They call it "democratic struggle" for a reason. Some people, despite protestations to the contrary, do not want the great mass of people to have much influence on politics. This referendum is a chance to change that. A vote for PR is a vote for more democracy for B.C.

      Dennis Pilon is an associate professor in the department of politics at York University. He is also the author of Wrestling with Democracy: Voting Systems as Politics in the Twentieth Century WestThe Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada’s Electoral System, and coeditor of British Columbia Politics and Government.