Posts about past referendums

Posted April 23, 2019:

Prince Edward Island held a referendum on whether to adopt Mixed Member Proportional voting. The results were disappointing, following a grossly underfunded campaign characterized by misinformation about Pro Rep:

PEI referendum on MMP: 49% yes, 51% no.

In November and early December 2018, British Columbia held a mail-in referendum on MMP too:

2018 BC Referendum on Electoral Reform results have been announced by Elections BC

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Dec. 21, 2018:

A grossly underfunded educational program has left British Columbians still uninformed and misinformed about proportional representation in 2018, the same as in previous B.C. referendums in 2005 and 2009. They can’t be blamed for rejecting modern Pro Rep voting (which has overwhelming support among electoral experts on grounds of better representation and practical benefits). In the 2018 referendum campaign, political types who seek 100% of the power with 40% of the vote spread a sea of wild exaggerations, to prevent true majority rule under the modern style of voting used by most major democracies.

Opponents of fair voting succeeded in spreading enough fear that overall support among British Columbians fell from its usual 70% to 50%. As explained below Dec. 15th, this led to a VotingBC forecast of a 55% win for First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) due to higher voting and opposition to proportional representation (PR) among the older generation. The actual 61% FPTP win was much greater than the projected 55% win. This resulted because there was an even higher proportion of older folks who voted than did younger voters, compared to the 2017 B.C. election. According to one report, five out of six young adults did not even receive a ballot.

The polling is unmistakable: the majority of young people supported PR. If their support holds firm as they age, then there will be a clear majority support for proportional representation in British Columbia a generation from now.

For future efforts at reforming our little-understood voting system, whether municipally, provincially, or federally, VotingBC maintains that an appropriate alternative to a referendum would be to consult a Citizens’ Assembly of randomly selected citizens as follows:

Proposal for a four-stage electoral reform process:
1) A minister for democratic affairs appoints a small committee of about six recognized academic electoral experts.
2) The small committee’s only task to be to choose a large committee of about thirty recognized electoral experts.
3) The large committee’s task to be to delineate one complete electoral system, including the boundaries to be used for the first election if the system is implemented (using mainly some combination of present or past boundaries, without worrying about the niceties that an independent boundaries commission would spend years fretting over).
4) That candidate electoral system to be submitted for a yes/no decision to a truly randomly selected Citizens’ Assembly that is given some months and the resources to evaluate first-past-the-post versus the proposed system.

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Dec. 15, 2018:

A new poll has disturbing news for B.C. women. VotingBC calculates that, if only women had voted in BC’s referendum on voting modernization, proportional representation (PR) would have been approved by about 53% (based on the data gathered by Mario Canseco’s Research Co. on voting in the 2018 B.C. Referendum on Electoral Reform). This would be significant for women, because if PR were approved, research suggests we could expect about 8% more women to be elected to the B.C. Legislature.

Of course, in reality the poll was not limited to only women. Overall, it found equal support for PR and First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) in its online survey of 801 British Columbians. Assuming the actual referendum voter turnout pattern (demographically speaking) was similar to that of the 2017 B.C. election, we calculate that PR has been defeated, with FPTP gaining approximately 55%.

Sad day for women.

The reason for FPTP’s victory is that, while the poll showed British Columbians were evenly divided between PR and FPTP (38% each, with the rest not voting), on average older voters are more often registered to vote, more often cast their vote, and more often vote for FPTP. (Other recent polling found the same equal support for PR and FPTP among British Columbians, but higher support for FPTP among those who actually voted. Outside a referendum campaign in which opponents are active, public support for PR is generally about 65 – 70% in surveys.)

If younger adults increased their voter turnout to the average among registered voters, we calculate FPTP would have won with a reduced vote of only about 54%. And in an ideal world, if all adult age groups were equally likely to be registered and to vote, then FPTP and PR would have been close to tied.

Therefore, it appears that the 2018 B.C. Referendum on Electoral Reform has been defeated. Elections BC has yet to release the official tally.

The underlying reasons for the defeat are many and complex, but a huge factor with senior voters has to have been the scare tactics and false information spread widely by opponents of PR.

The first mistake the B.C. NDP government made, in February 2018, was to sow doubt about what to do. By offering three PR options, they made it clear that even they weren’t certain about what was the best option for B.C.

The government’s second major mistake was offering voters two Pro Rep options of limited experience, called Dual Member Proportional and Rural-Urban Proportional. Unless you’re an electoral specialist who understands the careful design of these systems and their similarity to existing systems, it’s natural to dispel them as untested.

The next mistake was to offer the third option, Mixed Member Proportional, without promising a specific type of MMP called “open-list”. That’s MMP in which voters choose all MLAs individually, without the political parties being able to favour certain candidates by putting them high on a list. MMP was worth extra consideration because surveys showed it was the leading contender. Open-list versions of it have worked well for many years in the German provinces of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg. The premier and the NDP belatedly made a commitment that MMP, if chosen by voters, would be of the open-list kind, but this commitment was informal and not set in the referendum legislation. This allowed opponents of Pro Rep to claim that MLAs would be “appointed” by political parties instead of elected! (An untrue statement under any form of MMP, but with a grain of truth.)

The fourth major mistake the government made was giving Elections BC a mandate to word the referendum questions such that neutrality and fairness were secondary to “clarity”. The result was a referendum ballot question that was biased against Pro Rep and toward the status quo.

The government’s fifth and arguably biggest mistake was not promoting electoral reform as vigorously as the paving of roads and construction of bridges. During the referendum campaign the government was silent about practical benefits. (Among many benefits, Pro Rep has been estimated to increase economic growth by 1%, for example.)

VotingBC warned the government of all five of these pitfalls, in its Feb. 2nd, 2018, submission to the “How We Vote” consultation.

Instead of a vigourous campaign to sell his promised electoral reform, the government leader merely told us, eloquently, that Pro Rep would reflect the diversity of the province by making every vote count. In other words, it would give BC Green supporters a fair share of seats; but this is not especially appealing to the majority of British Columbians, who are somewhat hesitant about the BC Green Party. Pro Rep would also make it impossible for Andrew Wilkinson, leader of the BC Liberal Party, to win total power with 39 to 49% voter support, so his opposition, and that of many of his followers, was understandable.

Unfortunately the Elections BC Voter’s Guide limited itself to mechanical details of voting systems in an attempt to be neutral, leaving voters confused and indecisive. The Guide was lacking any mention of the benefits of Pro Rep or the problems and costs of First-Past-The-Post. Much of the public remained puzzled as to what the fuss was all about.

In our current voting system we nominally vote for a candidate. In reality, most of us are unfamiliar with the candidates and rely on voting by party, so the election results should accurately reflect party support. The ways in which FPTP frequently cheats voters by misrepresenting their intentions are well known among specialists; the false majorities, vote-splitting, wrong winners and regional misrepresentation.

In contrast to Pro Rep, FPTP frequently awards a majority of seats to a party with only minority support, e.g. every B.C. election since 1952 except 2001. International studies have looked at this subversion of true majority control. The findings: poorer leadership and governance outcomes in almost every area. FPTP does tend to keep taxes lower, but it’s not clear whether that is an advantage since it does so by running up bigger government debts and providing fewer government services. Overall, the overwhelming majority of experts conclude Pro Rep is superior to FPTP.

It took 46 years to get women’s suffrage after B.C. joined Canada. Will further electoral reform take as long?

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