Katherine Wagner.

Citizen’s Ink: Proportional Representation a flawed process with murky choices

As clear as lentil soup and no one is sure if the green bits are kale or spinach or something else.

In both 2005 and 2009, I cautiously voted “yes” to STV-BC. This month, when my referendum package arrives, I’ll be voting “no” to the proposed changes.

The process and the options are deeply flawed and my vote – at least this time – will be to keep the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system.

I’ve always harboured concerns about electoral systems which consistently result in coalition or multi-party governments, but BC-STV struck a balanced approach.

A single transferable vote (STV) allows citizens to vote their heart with fewer concerns about splitting-the-vote in favour of a candidate they don’t support or “wasting” a ballot on a long-shot candidate. Basically, votes are tallied and if a candidate reaches the 50 per cent plus one threshold, they win. Otherwise, the candidate with the least votes is dropped and the second choices of those ballots are counted. This process continues until a representative is chosen and it is possible to have STV within a FPTP system.

While I was not a fan of larger electoral districts, I respected the work of the Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform. For two years, 161 randomly-chosen adult citizens from across the province consulted, studied our voting system and alternatives from around the world, and collectively recommended BC-STV.

Pre-referendum in 2009, the government provided a detailed map of proposed new boundaries. They also, correctly, remained neutral during the referendum.

I urge everyone to carefully read the details (and lack thereof) of the current proposals on the B.C. Elections referendum site.

The NDP/Green government is proposing an unknown, but significant, number of MLAs be chosen from party lists following provincial elections. This is an aspect of PR the Citizen Assembly felt didn’t fit with British Columbian values.

Political parties selecting representatives post-election is based on the assumption voters cast ballots for parties, not people. Our choices are more nuanced than that. The behaviour, record and trustworthiness of individuals running for office are at least as important to voters as party policies and promises.

PR encourages backroom deals to form government and MLAs appointed from party lists would move us away from, not toward, more open government.

For four decades I’ve been a politically active, involved member of the public and for close to 10 years I was an elected representative of the local school board. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: what takes place behind closed doors is seldom, if ever, fully focused on the needs of the public.

Transparency is essential to accountability.

In this referendum, the Elections B.C. website makes it clear how vague the choices are. For example, the first choice Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) includes two possibilities for ballots and three possible types of party lists.

MLAs would be chosen from (by the parties, not the voters). The number of MLAs under this system is unclear, but there would be fewer ridings and “a legislative committee will determine the number of MLAs in each region.”

Further, “the exact ratio of district MLAs to regional MLAs would be decided by a legislative committee,” and “a legislative committee will determine the number of MLAs in each region,” plus “an independent electoral boundaries commission will determine district and regional boundaries.”

I defy anyone to figure out what this means in practice.

It’s as clear as lentil soup and no one is sure if the green bits are kale or spinach or something else.

A vote for a change to the system we use to elect the provincial government is also a vote to trust a minority/coalition government to decide on the shape of the final result. That’s a big no for me.

The NDP/Greens promise a referendum to revisit the reforms in eight years, but no government can bind a future government. Will those who benefit take a risk on a referendum that might roll the changes back?

Will the two current large parties, the B.C. NDP and Liberals even exist in eight years? Without the incentive to work together as big-tent coalition parties, will the factions splinter into new parties?

I’m not opposed to the possibility of changing our voting system, but I’m very concerned about the unintended consequences of the choices currently on the ballot.

Plus, are we even focused in the right direction? Voter turnout and citizen engagement in the political process are at historic lows. It’s unlikely that simply changing how we elect MLAs and government will alter this to any significant extent and the increased complexity may drive the voter turnout lower.

If fundamental changes to our democratic system are worth doing, they are worth doing right.

In this referendum, I’m voting against a flawed process and murky choices.

Katherine Wagner is a member of the

Citizens’ Task Force on Transparency, a

former school trustee and member

of Golden Ears Writers.

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