The legislature’s chambers will be empty this week, and B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson will be on the road, selling his side of the electoral reform debate. He is telling voters the mail-in referendum this month offering proportional representation is a rush job and should have been handled by a citizen’s assembly with the politicians kept “a hundred miles away” from shaping a new electoral system.
Understanding the rush means returning to the wild weeks after the election of May, 2017, when the NDP and the Liberals were courting three Green Party MLAs who held the balance of power in the new legislature.
The NDP won the support of the Greens, who had made electoral reform a top demand. To end 16 years on the opposition benches and assume the mantle of premier, NDP Leader John Horgan agreed to hold a referendum on proportional representation in the fall of 2018, and to campaign in favour of the change. The new system, if approved, was to be in place before the next provincial election.
It fell to Attorney-General David Eby to work out the details.
Mr. Eby, who was also juggling massive files, including money laundering in casinos and a financial mess at the Insurance Corp. of B.C., launched a public consultation, and in the absence of any consensus, spent three months writing a report that offered three options.
A simple yes/no question had been promised, but with the clock ticking to get the ballots in the mail, Mr. Horgan’s cabinet approved the options in the May 30 report.
Ballots must be returned by the end of November and the results are expected by mid-December.
The next scheduled provincial election is the third Saturday in October, 2021, which seems a long way off, but changing such a fundamental aspect of democracy is not a small undertaking.
If voters choose change, an all-party committee of MLAs will be appointed to work out key details. What they have to do depends on the option.
For example, if mixed-member proportional representation (which Mr. Horgan supports) is the winner, the committee will have nine issues to decide, including the total number of MLAs in the next parliament, the type of party lists that will be used to put forward candidates, and how many MLAs will be elected under the present, first-past-the-post system and how many will be chosen from party lists to ensure the legislature reflects each party’s overall voter support. Given the Liberals' opposition to change, it’s unlikely to be a smooth, quick process.
Next, an electoral-boundaries commission would be struck to draw the new ridings. That is expected to take a year.
The government estimates that amendments to the Election Act and a new Electoral Districts Act would be completed by the end of the spring of 2020 legislative session.
From there, Elections BC estimates it would need a minimum of 13 months after the finalization of legislation to be ready to deliver a general election.
In that time, they would have to assign voters to their new electoral districts, deregister and reregister constituency associations to the new boundaries, complete a full boundary redistribution (10 months) and then begin the full voter enumeration process (another three months). As well, they would have to update their computer technology to tabulate voters under the new system.
Anton Boegman, B.C.'s Chief Electoral Officer, told reporters at a briefing it is “going to be tight.”
In the 2001 provincial election, the Liberal Party promised a citizen’s assembly to consider changes to the electoral system. It took two years to appoint members, another 18 months for the assembly to complete its work, and a referendum (which failed to get the required support of 60 per cent) was conducted in the 2005 election.
Had it passed, B.C. voters in 2009 would have chosen their MLAs in a single transferable vote system. The change would have taken eight years.
The NDP and the Greens were not prepared to wait that long. In their haste – if voters shy away from the unanswered questions and the hyper-partisan debate – they may not get the change they want at all.