Colby Cosh: B.C. reveals plans for its electoral reform vote, but parts of the pig remain in the poke

At last, the unveiling! On Wednesday, B.C. Attorney-General David Eby finally released his plan for this autumn’s electoral reform referendum in the province. The referendum was announced on Oct. 4, meaning that Eby took 238 days to decide on a basic design for the ballot. The referendum itself must, under the statute, be held no later than Nov. 30: this leaves at most 184 days to prepare educational materials for the referendum, allocate and spend public funds on designated advocacy groups, and organize the logistics of the thing.

Somewhere in there, B.C. electors will need to find time to study the options and decide how to vote. But let’s face it. Most of us slugabeds are much less busy than an Attorney-General.

Faithful readers of my column will expect me to complain at this point that the two-question format is vote-rigging. I wouldn’t dream of disappointing anyone. The existing traditional method of choosing a B.C. legislature is being made to meet a 50-per-cent-plus-one standard against all other alternatives combined. It is not to be put on a transferable ballot with the other dreamed-up electoral systems, which would allow it to benefit from being a relatively popular second-best choice.

Election-reform fans will object to loaded words like “dreamed-up.” But look at the menu Eby created

to go under Question Two on his ballot. He’s got three shiny new electoral systems in his showroom. The system B.C. discussed and voted on (twice) before, BC-STV, has been spurned as an unwelcome stray.

One of the proposed systems is referred to as “Dual-Member Proportional,” and, without going into the details, Eby admits that “This system was recently developed specifically in the Canadian context and is not currently in use” anywhere. Another of the systems is an STV-plus-MMP hybrid referred to as “Rural-Urban Proportional.” It’s not used anywhere, either, “as a single integrated system”: it is two electoral systems some other places use, but that nobody has previously thought to solder together.

The third system on Eby’s ballot is good old straight-up Mixed-Member Proportional, of the kind they’re always said to be crazy about in Germany and New Zealand and Lesotho … but Eby, fearing the wrath of a regionally divided province, proposes a variant that is only regionally proportional. In other words, all the options on Question Two of the ballot have a strong element of the fantastic: none is fully analogous to any voting system in actual use. Reformers very much like to assure us that their alternative systems have been road-tested, and that their personal favourite is already on the verge of sweeping the democratic world, but that plea will not strictly be available to them in B.C. now.

That is not my main concern with the reform process Eby has outlined. And even when it comes to what I have described as vote-rigging, there is a partly compensating element of fairness: those who prefer first-past-the-post on Question One will still be allowed to support the least-bad alternative, whatever that is, on Question Two. The objection I would emphasize, and I hasten to add “from outside B.C.”, is that very major details of the alternative electoral systems are being left up in the air, to be decided by the legislature only after the referendum.

The biggie among these is not, to my mind, the electoral map, although of course the referendum voters will not be shown one of those. The more serious open question is the role and nature of candidate lists. Two of the varieties of PR in the Eby buffet (you’ll remember her from NBC’s “Friends”) involve selecting geographically unmoored “winning” candidates from ranked lists to provide overall proportionality. These lists can be “closed”, with a party pre-setting the order in which winners are taken from them, or “open”, which would leave voters free to rank a long list of candidates, and which makes both voting and vote-counting more complex.

Even if you as a B.C. voter like the odour of one of these systems, you won’t be given an explicit advance choice between closed or open lists. When the political parties are designing the actual system, they may, being political parties, decide that they definitely prefer the control that comes with closed ones. This is almost too important to be referred to as a “detail” of the voting system that emerges from this process. It is something B.C. voters of all dispositions should pay attention to now, and demand assurances upon.

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