Proportional Representation: What the referendum could mean for BC

Oct 4 2018, 10:20 pm

BC’s electoral referendum is right around the corner – but why should you care?

According to Megan Dias, who has a masters degree in Political Science from UBC, proportional representation could mean that voters will have more choices in upcoming provincial elections.

When people have more choice and when people can identify with a party and not feel like they’re wasting their vote every time they go to the ballot box, that probably incentivizes people to actually go out and vote more often,” she said.

First-Past-The-Post and Two Party Systems

Dias says that the reason two parties have controlled a majority of BC seats over many elections is because of our first-past-the-post electoral system.

She argues that first-past-the-post encourages wasted votes. If people feel like the party or candidate that they like the most won’t win, then they’ll feel like their vote will be wasted by voting for them. For this reason – people tend to vote for a candidate because they’re popular even though they only somewhat represent the voter’s values. This means that the less popular candidate that is closer to the voter’s values lose a vote that they otherwise would have had.

Over time, she says this ends up stopping all parties from being competitive except for the two that have the best chances of winning. In BC, the two competitive parties have been the NDP and the Liberals.

The more proportional, the more parties

Systems with proportional representation aim to achieve the same number of seats in the Legislature as the percentage of the popular vote. This means that parties that receive 30% of the vote would also receive 30% of the seats.

Dias says that people’s votes are less likely to be wasted in a system of proportional representation. She says that this gives people the confidence to vote how they truly identify along the political spectrum, which causes more political parties to gain seats.

Proportional Representation

Arm casting ballot (Shutterstock)

Coalitions and minority governments

Yes, proportional representation means more parties with power… which means there are more choices. But Dias says that more choice also means a higher chance of coalitions and minority governments.

A coalition government is any combination of parties that have decided to work together to form a majority in the legislature. Dias says that because there are more parties in the legislature, there is a higher chance of a coalition or minority government.

Truths about coalitions and minority governments

Dias listed the following factors that are common in proportional representation systems:

  • Co-operation. Since there would be more parties with seats, it’s less likely that one party will gain a majority. This means parties would have to work together and compromise to achieve legislation.
  • Less obvious who to hold accountable. In a majority government – at least people can generally know which party/leader caused problematic or successful legislation.
  • More progressive/re-distributive policies. Dias evidenced that most administrations that pass these kinds of policies come from coalition/minority governments. For example, Health Care and the Canadian Pension Plan were passed under minority governments.
  • Legislation is slower. In a majority government, the winning party can come into power and implement their policies right away. In non-majorities, parties have to compromise to reach agreements which can take time.
  • Higher chance of extremist parties. While she did say that other countries have found safeguards against this – proportional representation makes it easier for any party to gain seats in the legislature. That means that proportional representation is more likely than First-Past-The-Post to give extremist parties seats.
  • Voter turnout is higher. For whatever reason, proportional electoral systems have had a higher voter turn-out around the world. She said this is probably because people feel like their vote may actually matter.
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