Unopened referendum voting packages collecting in a “return to sender” basket in a B.C. apartment building lobby. (Twitter)

Lack of public response threatens B.C. referendum credibility

Of the few who have voted, poll finds most rejected proportional representation

Premier John Horgan is promoting B.C.’s electoral reform options as a way to improve voter participation, but a lack of returned ballots raises doubts about the credibility of the result.

More than two weeks into the mail-in voting period, and a day after Horgan’s televised debate with B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson over the three types of proportional representation being offered, only 3.7 per cent of ballots had been returned to Elections B.C.

Courtenay-Comox and Boundary-Similkameen voters had the highest response at 11 per cent by Friday, but Delta North, Maple Ridge-Mission and others had returned only a handful of ballots. A grand total of 14 Surrey-White Rock ballots were received, out of more than 42,000 mailed out to that constituency starting in late October.

Out of 3.3 million voting packages mailed out province-wide, just over 120,000 had been returned by Friday.

READ MORE: Horgan, Wilkinson square off in TV debate

WATCH VIDEO: Deadline for voting only two weeks away

In the debate, Horgan said proportional representation will appeal to those “tuned out and turned off” by the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system that gives big majorities to one party or another in many regions of B.C.

“We have seen voter turnout go down election after election after election,” Horgan said. “The best way to invigorate our system is to encourage people to participate and you do that by giving them options, giving them choices.”

In fact, turnout in the latest provincial election was up, from 57 per cent of registered voters in the 2013 election to 61 per cent in the 2017 election that resulted in an NDP minority government. And according to Elections B.C. statistics, the largest increase in participation was among voters under age 45.

The lowest turnout in B.C. general elections was in 2009, where just over 50 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots, re-electing the Gordon Campbell government and rejecting for a second time a proposed “single transferable vote” method of proportional representation.

In last week’s debate, Wilkinson called the current three choices “a dog’s breakfast” that few people understand, and referred to unopened ballot packages landing in recycling bins or returned to the sender.

According to the latest public opinion poll, those who did mail in their ballots right away have been more likely to decline the choices offered by the NDP government. Insights West surveyed more than 800 B.C. residents, finding a virtual tie between FPTP and some form of proportional representation, 41 per cent to 42.

But among respondents who had already voted, 58 per cent said they chose to stick with the existing system.

Horgan pointed to recent provincial election results as demonstrating the unfairness of FPTP.

“In Quebec, 37 per cent of the vote made 100 per cent of the power,” Horgan said. “In Ontario, 40 per cent of the vote, 100 per cent of the power.”

Wilkinson used most of his time in the brief TV debate to press Horgan to explain how the options would work, particularly in larger, multi-member constituencies that would result.

“You’re asking us to change to something where we don’t know where the boundaries will be,” Wilkinson told Horgan. “We don’t know how many votes we get, we don’t know how many MLAs we’re going to have, and particularly we don’t know how these votes are going to be redistributed around the province.”

Completed ballots must be received by Elections B.C. by 4:30 p.m. on Nov. 30, meaning they should be in the mail by Monday, Nov. 26.


@tomfletcherbc
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