New consensus emerging behind electoral reform

More than six weeks on, Islanders are still talking elections. No, not the results of last month’s May 4 vote — but the next one.

Last Thursday, Premier MacLauchlan committed to studying electoral reform as part of the government’s wider commitment on strengthening our democracy. “It’s quite reasonable to expect that reform of the electoral system would be part of the examination,” he said in the legislature, referencing the White Paper announced in the Throne Speech.

Is Prince Edward Island finally ready for electoral reform? That’s the question we asked at The Guild last week, where more than 100 islanders gathered for a panel discussion on the topic.

The discussion was lively and engaging, and although there were a few sparks, consensus quickly emerged in a few areas. Perhaps this can give the drafters of the White Paper something to work with.

First, the coin toss. “I haven’t met anyone who thought that was the right way for the tie to be decided,” said Mary Ellen McInnis, former PC Candidate in Vernon River-Stratford. There was a general agreement both on stage and in the room that ties should be settled through by-elections, not currency.

Next, Bobby Morrissey, Federal Liberal Candidate for Egmont, argued against lopsided legislatures, noting that a government with 26 members and one lonely person in opposition isn’t good for democracy. Again, a general consensus that more diverse voices in the House is a good thing.

Finally, Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker took aim at our current first-past-the-post voting system, likening it to haggis. He made the case for reform, arguing that if we had the option, wouldn’t we rather have ground beef or steak?

Luckily Islanders have a choice.

There are two main routes to improve our first-past-the-post voting system. The first, ranked-choice voting, has voters rank their choices in order of preference instead of marking an ‘x.’ The idea is that if our first choice does not win, your vote is then transferred to your second choice, and so on, until a winner is declared.

Ranked ballots would solve the problem of vote-splitting and strategic voting, giving us the chance to vote for our preferred candidate without having to worry about whoever “has the best chance.” It also forces candidates to work harder, reaching beyond their traditional base and fosters a more positive political culture. This would be a major improvement on the status quo.

But ranking candidates wouldn’t guarantee more seats for third and fourth parties. That’s where proportional representation comes in.

Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) is a proportional system that would have constituency as well as party seats in order to balance out the legislature. It maintains regional representation, while ensuring the share of the vote a party receives roughly reflects the number of seats it holds in the legislature. MMP would also eliminate the lopsided legislatures we’ve seen in recent decades.

A common strike against MMP is that it is too complicated for the public to understand and would lead to a string of minority or coalition governments. While some members of the panel expressed concern about the complexity of the system, noting that Islanders “don’t like change,” the audience howled in disagreement. One individual argued that if other countries and provinces can figure out how to navigate modernized electoral systems, Islanders can surely manage to do the same.

Another main point of contention is the 2005 plebiscite: Islanders voted against MMP a decade ago, so how much weight should that decision hold today? If the most recent provincial election shows us anything, it is that the political landscape has changed. With a voter turnout of 86 per cent, the first Green Party MLA in history, and a record number of votes for third and fourth parties, this isn’t your father’s red-blue dichotomy.

The good news is we do have a choice. On the way out of the panel last week we invited attendees to cast a ballot for the electoral system of their choice. After a thorough discussion of the options, including the status quo, 93 per cent of the room opted for a form of ranked-choice voting or proportional representation (the majority preferring the latter).

That so many Islanders attended — including MLAs, three of four Party leaders, and many others watching the broadcast from home — shows that the issue struck a chord.

With commitments from three of four federal parties, electoral reform is coming to Canada. Why not begin here? Whether we choose ranked ballots or proportional representation, either option would be a major step forward. But one thing’s for sure: it’s time to get rid of haggis.

Originally published in the Guardian, with Jesse Hitchcock.