The outcome of the electoral reform referendum in British Columbia was announced last week with little fanfare, accompanied by a few statements from politicians. This was a different postal vote than the others the province has held in this century. The level of participation was satisfactory, but British Columbians who did not cast a ballot readily admit to being confused.
The Research Co. exit poll of British Columbians mirrored the results of the referendum, with 49% of respondents reporting they voted for the first-past-the-post system, 31% voting to move to a proportional representation system, and 20% not casting a ballot. Once the non-voters are removed, the result of the exit poll is 61% choosing to retain the existing system and 39% opting to change it.
The survey was designed to have a larger proportion of non-voters, in order to properly study why these citizens decided not to take part in the postal vote. The No. 1 issue for those who chose not to vote is “not feeling informed enough” (48%). While some non-voters also claimed they never received a ballot (18%) or simply forgot to mail it (17%), nothing came close to the uneasy feeling of being in the dark.
The notion of a process that would have done more to engage the more than half of British Columbians who chose not to exercise their right has been discussed prominently in the aftermath of the referendum. Some have openly questioned if the provincial government did all it could to inform residents, and whether a discussion devoid of politics would have made a difference in the minds of voters.
The exit poll suggests that the process was likely more to blame than the appetite of residents for a different system. When British Columbians are asked to imagine a different scenario, with a reform proposal that is guided by an independent citizens’ panel – not politicians – and would provide an option for proportional representation, 41% of respondents would vote for change and 36% would vote to keep first past the post.
With this different question, 15% of British Columbians who voted for first past the post in the referendum would switch to support proportional representation. A further 15% of these voters who endorsed the status quo would be undecided. Simply put, a less political and more participatory process could move some voters who disliked the choices on their ballot.
The survey shows that large majorities of British Columbians support concepts such as attempting to eliminate “strategic voting” (75%), having a system that does not disadvantage independent candidates (70%) and a party not governing with a majority of seats but with fewer than 40% of all votes cast (63%). Still, more than half (52%) also believe we should take no further steps at this time aimed at changing our electoral system. The concept of a legislature that is more representative of vote totals is popular. The way in which the decision was put to voters was not.
I will offer some words of caution about what this all means for the future of our province. Reading the result of the referendum as a barometer of possible political allegiance in the next provincial election – whenever it may happen – is misguided.
The analysis goes like this: if you have a majority of voters in ridings held by the BC New Democratic Party (NDP) or the BC Green Party supporting first past the post, this means that the seats are in danger of going to the BC Liberals in the next election. This is simply not supported by data. While BC Liberal voters from 2017 were decidedly more likely to support first past the post (82%), only 53% of those who voted for the NDP and the Greens favoured proportional representation.
The numbers do not point to a disenchantment with all policies, simply a disagreement with one. Pick-your-poison elections – yes or no, in or out, remain or leave – are decidedly different from provincial ballots. If they were the same, the 2016 victory for the “Leave” side in Brexit would have led to the rebirth of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). In the first election following Brexit, UKIP finished with 1.8% of all votes, down from its best showing of 12.6% in 2015.
Our province has had experiences with this conundrum before. In 2011, many assumed that the defeat of the postal vote on whether to keep the harmonized sales tax (HST) in ridings that had voted for the BC Liberals signalled the demise of the ruling party. The April 2012 byelection victories for the BC NDP solidified this thinking. Thirteen months later, the BC Liberals were re-elected with a majority mandate.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.