How Much Makes a Valid Vote?

 Horgan photo courtesy of CBC

So, the ballots are almost in, and it looks like the referendum is going to elicit votes from about a third of voters. If the referendum is voted down, the obvious conclusion will be that the Pro Rep system did not generate enough enthusiasm to be put into practice. We’re not ready for better government. End of story until next time.

But if It Passes?

Of course, the “No” side Liberals will immediately scream “Not enough! Undemocratic!” Conveniently ignoring the fact that they have been governing on a lack of majority for decades.

How Much is Enough?

That’s a tough question, and it’s even tougher to separate it from the partisan rhetoric that has dogged this referendum. In the tradition of this blog, I will try to set aside my own desires and look at the question from a more logical point of view. Well, as much as I can. 

One of the considerations has to do with the idea that choosing not to vote is a choice in itself.

What Does Not Voting Mean?

Tradition has it that deciding not to vote means agreement with the proposition. Basically, the government is saying, “We’re going to make a change. What’s your opinion?” By not voting, you’re saying, “Go ahead. I don’t care.”

And that’s basically true in any election. About 40% of the voters, for whatever reason, don’t care enough to vote. The excuse that you don’t understand enough to vote doesn’t wash. Aware voters are the basis for democracy, as we see in developing nations where all sorts of aberrations happen because uneducated voters don’t understand what’s being done to them (America, for example). We often hear, “If you didn’t vote you have no right to complain.” Add to that, “If you don’t understand, it’s up to you to find out.” Based on all those beliefs, it would have to be a very low turnout to trash the results.

Recent Example: Prince Edward Island, 2016

A similar referendum in PEI resulted in a 55% win, but only 34.5% of eligible voters gave their opinions. Since PEI regularly has 80% turnout (What are they doing right?), the government did not consider that enough of a mandate and has scheduled another referendum in concert with the 2019 Provincial Election.

It is hard to apply this to BC, where regular election turnout usually ranges around 65%. The only way to compare is to say that our results are around 50% of our usual turnout, while New Brunswick’s were just over 40%.

Main Point of Departure

The PEI plebiscite was non-binding, so their Premier was free to do as he chose. In BC, this referendum is binding, which leaves the “No” side with little foothold for argument, since legitimacy in their FPTP system rests on a win by the rules, not by what the people of the province might want.

Of course, if there is some actual mention in the legislation of a threshold percentage of voters, there might be no argument. The Government could be legally bound to follow the referendum results.                                                                                                           

Balance of the Vote

A 60% majority of pretty well any number of voters will be definitive. Not that it’s likely to happen, but it would simplify things a lot. Dream on, John Horgan.

And the Future?

Win or lose, without a decent amount of feedback from the population, a change like this, much though I might believe in it, would create so much rancour that the benefits might not be worth it.

I am reminded of the situation in our neighbours to the south, where a great deal of the fear and anger in the Rural Right comes from too-rapid social change instigated by the Democrats with a false majority in Congress. As I mention frequently in this blog, people under the influence of fear or other strong emotions make questionable decisions and resort to tribalistic reactions of antagonism and violence. Likewise, too much change too fast might drive the already-wide gap between two sides even farther apart.

Another Referendum?

Win or lose, perhaps the best move John Horgan could make would be to tie the choice to the next provincial election, guaranteeing double the response from the electorate. Of course, recent experience shows that even this important subject is embroiled in partisan wrangling, overwhelming rational discussion of the merits of the system. Tying it to an election would probably result in more of the same melodrama.

Should the referendum go down in defeat, it will be interesting to see what happens to Andrew Wilkinson’s half-promise to provide a new referendum “done properly” by his criteria when his party comes back into power. Recent experience with the Federal Liberals makes me skeptical.

Up With the People!

Whatever the results, it’s a step forward for democracy, if a small one. Placid acceptance of the status quo is a sure recipe for stagnation and eventual failure. Switzerland took 143 years (1848 – 1971) to give women the vote.  Democracy is making glacial progress, and when progress comes slowly it gives people time to adapt. There will be another referendum, and then another. Sooner or later we’ll make the larger step and catch up to the rest of the democratic world. Of course, by then they will have found another way to make government more democratic.

Which is as it should be.

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