Prince Edward Island Votes for Election ReformCaitlin McLaren - 4A Chemical
Posted on: November 8, 2016
From October 29 to November 7, the province of Prince Edward Island held a plebiscite on electoral reform. Islanders had the choice of five different possible electoral systems. The referendum was unusual in that it was the first to allow participation from 16 and 17 year olds. It also permitted voting by telephone, and online. The result of the non-binding plebiscite was a narrow victory for a mixed-member proportional system with 52% of votes. The referendum itself was carried out under a preferential system, with voters ranking the options according to their preference.
PEI had a previous referendum in 2005, where Islanders had opted to stay with the first past the post system rather than change to a mixed-member proportional system. However, that referendum had a low turnout of about one third of eligible voters; for comparison, there was 82% turnout in the most recent provincial referendum. The lack of turnout and choice to keep the status quo was partially blamed on the fact that the Conservatives in power in 2005 actively campaigned against changing the system.
However, there are reasons why many people were dissatisfied with the first past the post system. For one thing, it means that the composition of the government does not directly represent the composition of the voter base. It is even theoretically possible for a majority government to be formed by a party which loses the popular vote. Furthermore, the first past the post system is vulnerable to gerrymandering, which is deliberately drawing the borders of electoral districts in order to advantage one party. First past the post also frequently leads to a majority government, which some feel does not give minority parties the power that they should be entitled to based on the amount of the popular vote they received.
The five choices Islanders could choose between were: first past the post, first past the post plus leaders, preferential voting, mixed-member proportional, and dual-member mixed proportional.
The first choice on the ballot was the current system, referred to as first past the post. In this system, voters make one choice on the ballot, and the candidate with the most votes for each district wins. Although a plurality is required, the candidate who wins for any particular district has not necessarily received a majority of the votes. This is the system used in Canada’s other provinces, as well as in federal elections.
First past the post plus leaders is nearly identical, except that extra seats would also be made for the leaders of parties who received more than 10% of the popular vote. Leaders would not run for district seats, as they do under the current first past the post system.
Preferential voting allows voters to rank their district candidates in order of preference. They could rank all or only some of the candidates. Initially, only the first choices would be counted, and if one candidate got over 50% of the votes, they would win. If not, the lowest-ranked candidate would be eliminated, and their votes redistributed to the voters’ next-ranked choices. This procedure would continue until one candidate had a majority.
The mixed-member proportional system proposed is fairly complicated. A ballot would have two parts; the first would be a normal ballot for district candidates, who would be chosen using first past the post. Those candidates would make up one-third of the Legislative Assembly. The second part of the ballot would allow a voter to choose one candidate from a set of party lists; these votes would be counted as a vote for that candidate as well as their party. The rest of the Legislative Assembly would be chosen proportionally according to the popular vote. However, it should be noted that the remaining seats are not themselves assigned according to the popular vote; instead, they are assigned in a way that will make the Legislative Assembly conform to the popular vote. For example, suppose that two parties won 15% of the popular vote, corresponding to three seats. One party did not win any district seats, while the other won two. In this case, the first party would be given three seats based on the popular vote, while other would be given only one. Candidates winning seats by means of the popular vote are considered to represent the entire province. Mixed-member proportional systems usually result in minority or coalition governments.
In a dual-member mixed system, candidates run in pairs in every district. The first member of the pair wins the seat for that district in a first past the post race; the second seat is assigned based on the popular vote, and thus may or may not be the elected candidate’s actual running mate. The seats gained by a party from the popular vote would be assigned to the candidates from districts where that party did the best. In practice, it would likely be similar to the mixed-member proportional system, but considering that this is a new system proposed specifically for PEI, there is no historical data to examine.
If you found all of these different options confusing, you are not alone. In fact, Prof. Peter McKenna, the chair of the University of Prince Edward Island’s political science department, is suspicious. He suggests that the Liberal government proposed so many options in order to confuse voters, making them more likely to choose to stay under the current first past the post system, which heavily favours established political parties. This may or may not have been at play; while the first past the post system received more of the first-choice votes than any other system, redistributed votes from other choices gave the mixed-member proportional system a slim majority of 52%.
Only 36% of eligible voters took part in the plebiscite, and the results are not binding. However, Premier Wade MacLaughlan declared that the results would be discussed by his caucus. This result may foreshadow the direction that Canada is moving in; election reform was an item on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s platform, and a promise he reiterated once in office. We in the rest of Canada may be voting in a similar referendum sometime in the future.