October 18 2018

Keivan Hirji: Eby's electoral reform referendum looks like the work of a shady car salesman

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Have you ever been in the market for a new car and when you go to the car dealership you end up with a car salesman who just doesn’t give you the choices you want? This describes B.C.’s fall referendum on our voting system.

For example, let’s say I like sedans and I currently drive a sedan but I am interested in changing to an SUV.

The car salesman provides four options: a Lincoln Sedan, a Toyota SUV, a Honda SUV, and a Nissan SUV. I am open to buying an SUV, but I only like the Toyota. If the Toyota is not available, I want to stick with driving a sedan.

The salesman tells me this is not possible, I cannot have a sedan as my second choice. If I test drive the Toyota SUV, but the colour I want is out of stock, he will only sell me one of the other SUVs, even though the sedan I want as my second choice is sitting on the showroom floor.

Infuriating, right? How does this make sense? It doesn’t, yet this is what voters will face on the ballot this fall.

In this analogy, the sedan represents first-past-the-post and the SUVs represent the different forms of proportional representation.

Attorney General David Eby has set up a two-part ballot for the B.C. NDP government’s referendum on electoral reform. Part 1 will ask voters to choose between FPTP or PR as their preferred electoral system. Part 2 will ask for their preference of three systems of PR, each offering different styles of legislative representation and bound to produce varied election results.

Moreover, two of the three proposed systems of proportional representation are not in use anywhere and would subject B.C. as a guinea pig in electoral experimentation. Is it a good idea to conduct experiments with our electoral system? How we vote determines how we elect our government.

However, the real problem with the ballot structure is that the first question is what is known as a “false dichotomy,” a logical fallacy. It assumes that an individual is either supportive of FPTP or supportive of all forms of PR. It trivializes this important issue into a black-and-white question when, in actuality, it has many shades of grey. It is not as jointly exhaustive as Eby would have you believe.

The FPTP option describes a very specific system of voting, whereas the PR option is ambiguous. If an individual prefers one system of PR, they are pigeonholed into tacitly supporting all three as a collective, which may not reflect their true preference and tips the scales in favour of proportional representation.

Moreover, Eby and his colleagues are reluctant to provide any concrete description or clarity of what the versions of PR will look like in practice. Voters are urged to select a system without knowing how it will redraw electoral boundaries. Those boundaries would only be determined after one of three proportional representation systems is chosen. It’s like the car salesman saying, “oh and by the way, I can’t tell you any of the specs for the SUVs. Not the engine size, not the gas mileage, nothing. But trust me, it is the right purchase for you!”

The referendum on electoral reform is arguably more important than elections themselves. Perhaps it is the kind of referendum that should be governed by an independent body as to mitigate political bias, and not a politician who campaigned on dismantling the current electoral system.

While it is certainly important to be open to democratic reform, it is too important of an issue to use a fallacious and imbalanced referendum question or to gamble without knowing the prize you are betting for.  You wouldn’t put up with this kind of tactic from a car salesman so why would you put up with it from the attorney general?

Keivan Hirji is a former advisor to the deputy premier in the B.C. Liberal government and a former advisor to the leader of the opposition for the B.C. Liberal caucus.

Original article is available here.