As this fall’s referendum on electoral reform looms closer, one of the most-repeated claims made by advocates of proportional representation is that ‘every vote counts’ under each of their three proposed systems. A second claim is that pro-rep will end the days of disproportionality in B.C. politics.
On the first point, the reality is that, far from making every vote count, pre-rep takes power away from voters and gives it to political elites.
Under our present first-past-the-post system, MLAs are more likely to put the interests of their local constituents first because achieving local support is the only way to get into office.
Under pro-rep, party interests come first. Under the mixed member proportional and rural urban proportional systems, many MLAs will be selected based on their placement on party lists, which means their first priority will be party interests, not local voter interests.
Further, all three pro-rep systems are more likely than our current system to result in minority governments. When this happens, mainstream parties end up making backroom deals with smaller parties to get into power. This means the voters don’t ultimately choose which party forms government, the politicians do.
Similarly, while calling for change to ‘make every vote count,’ the pro-rep camps don’t mention the overriding of local preferences in the name of so-called proportionality. Under first-past-the-post, every single MLA is elected because they received more votes in their local district than any other candidate. That’s the number that matters.
The dual member proportional system will result in two-MLA districts. While the first MLA is the candidate that received the most votes, the second MLA may not be the candidate that received the second-most number of votes. Sometimes a third-place candidate may get to be the second MLA, meaning province-wide proportionality trumps local preferences.
Under mixed member proportional and rural urban proportional, ridings are expanded so that there are fewer MLAs elected through local preference, and more MLAs selected from party lists. Again, we see provincial numbers overriding local votes.
The final thing you don’t hear during the ‘make every vote count’ chorus is that all three pro-rep systems will reduce local representation in small towns and big cities alike. Under first-past-the-post, MLAs are elected by voters in local electoral districts, meaning all MLAs in the legislature are directly accountable to the constituents they represent.
Under mixed member proportional, up to 40 per cent of seats that today are held by locally elected MLAs will be replaced by MLAs selected from party lists. Rural urban proportional involves the creation of huge urban ridings such as the Capital Regional District, which may have up to seven MLAs and potentially dozens of candidates on the ballot. And under dual member proportional most ridings will be doubled in size, losing important distinctions in political culture.
It will be clear to readers by now that ‘making every vote count’ is not only an empty promise, it is the very opposite of what pro-rep will mean for B.C.
The claim that pro-rep will end disproportionate power for political parties is equally misleading.
As mentioned, political deal-making becomes necessary under pro-rep-induced minority governments, which places the power to choose government into the hands of politicians rather than voters. In these cases, disproportionality is amplified, not diminished. Parties that received only a fraction of the popular vote will wield a hugely disproportionate amount of influence in their role as kingmaker.
We had a taste of this in B.C. after the 2017 election, when just three Green MLAs got to decide which of the two larger parties to support to form government. In some cases, this decision can even come down to the individual preference of a single MLA, rather than the collective will of all voters. This kind of scenario would become far more common under pro-rep.
Also concerning, pro-rep encourages the development of small, extreme parties that aim to amplify divisions in our society. Consequently, disproportionate power could come to rest in the hands of extreme interests.
Our current system has its flaws. But don’t believe those who claim they have a fix-all method that will simultaneously make every vote count and end disproportionality in our political system. Pro-rep will take power from voters and give it to political elites, override local preferences, undermine local representation and give disproportionate power to small parties that received only a fraction of the popular vote. Let’s keep our current system and ensure voters come first.
Caroline Elliott is a former political aide with the B.C. government. She is pursuing her PhD in political science at Simon Fraser University.