Published in Vancouver Sun, May 22 / 2021
B.C.’s electoral boundaries are about to be redrawn, increasing the size of the legislature yet again, while eroding representation in rural areas outside the faster-growing major cities. It’s a losing formula that causes continued bloat in the size of the legislature, while failing those in small communities around the province.
There are two issues at play and, if we untangle them, there is a better solution for the Electoral Boundaries Commission to consider:
• Rural ridings need strong representation. Rural MLAs have multitudes of small communities located far apart, and many have large Indigenous populations. The riding of Fraser-Nicola, for example, has dozens of small communities and First Nations, compared to where I live in Vancouver-Fairview, which is one of 11 ridings in the City of Vancouver. The demands are very different on rural MLAs, and few would argue that the role of rural MLAs should be made harder.
• Representation by population. Rep-by-pop in B.C. was strengthened through the Electoral Boundaries Commission Act in the 1980s, precipitated by the Dixon case that put the focus on voter equality. At the time, some ridings were 12 to 16 times larger than other ridings. Because of urban growth, pure rep-by-pop in our system today would either dramatically increase the geographic size of rural ridings, or dramatically increase the size of the legislature, way beyond the proposed increase to 93.
How do we reconcile these mutually exclusive goals?
Let’s do something we are already doing in regional districts and weight the votes of our MLAs. In Metro Vancouver, for example, the mayor of Belcarra gets one vote at the regional district table, but the mayor of Vancouver gets five votes. Elected officials in all of Metro Vancouver’s local jurisdictions have weighted votes based on the population of their community, as they do in other regional districts across B.C. It works fine — the larger centres have clout to reflect their size, and the smaller communities get a voice and are at the table.
Provincially, we can do something much simpler than the regional district formula by having one vote for MLAs from rural ridings in regions like the North, Kootenays and North Island, and two votes for MLAs in urban regions like the Lower Mainland and the Capital Region of greater Victoria.
It would allow for sensibly drawn one-vote rural ridings that allow for fair, effective representation.
In urban B.C., we would not need to increase the number of ridings, as each urban MLA would have two votes, because they would represent roughly twice as many constituents than a rural riding.
The outcome of votes in the legislature would better reflect the population, while rural ridings would get better representation, since their MLA could focus on a smaller number of communities.
While rural ridings would lose their percentage share of seats in the legislature, they would be a higher percentage of the people in the legislature, providing them more opportunities for representation on committees, leadership roles, and in cabinet.
An important consideration is First Nations representation. The Dixon case led to the elimination of the Atlin riding in northwest B.C., which had a majority population of First Nations people. It elected the first First Nations MLA, Frank Calder, in 1949, and was represented by a First Nations MLA for 35 of 42 years until 1991.
After Atlin was eliminated, there was not a First Nations MLA elected until 2016. Protecting rural ridings provides more opportunities for First Nations representation in the legislature.
A weighted legislature, as outlined, is not proportional representation or other schemes that have failed over the years. Each voter would vote for one MLA. It also would not impact who wins elections. The votes are in the Lower Mainland, and that is not going to change. A winning political party needs to win there.
Cranking up the number of seats in the legislature is a losing game of math. It’s time to face the issue and find a way to both provide rep-by-pop and protect rural ridings.
Let the new Electoral Boundaries Commission explore weighted votes, a more inclusive solution for the benefit of all British Columbians. Then we will see if this idea floats or sinks under the weight of its own weighting.
(Thanks to Henry Waatainen for his editing help and advice)
The op-ed above has its roots in a submission I made to the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform in 2004. At that time, I put forward the idea of regional weighting to address rural representation, among other proposals. I worked in the Gordon Campbell government from 2001 to 2003 when the BC Liberals held an overwhelming number of seats – 77 of 79. As Director of Communications to the Government Caucus, I worked alongside practically every MLA in the House and gained an understanding of their jobs. We supported their constituency communications and it was apparent how rural MLAs had considerably more burdens placed on them than urban MLAs when it came to local accountability and expectations. Having followed the boundaries process closely over the years from the beginning of the post-Dixon case processes – the Fisher Commission and the Wood Commission for starters – the challenge of reconciling rural representation with urban growth was a thorny issue already by 2004. The size of the Legislature had grown from 57 seats in 1986 to 79 seats in 2001 (and now we are heading to 93). So, I made my modest pitch to consider a weighted formula. It was met with slow claps and deafening applause and so it returned to the dusty shelves of my brain for 17 years.
In addition to regional weighting, I also proposed a return to an Alternative Vote. This is the system used in 1952 and 1953 in BC, and in fact is used in party leadership selections and candidate nomination meetings. You vote once, but you rank your 1st, 2nd, 3rd (or more) choices, depending on how many candidates. The winner is the one who gets a majority. Essentially, this is how the Socreds improbably came to power in 1952 by climbing the ladder in the second and third counts, usurping the CCF who would have otherwise had the plurality of seats. WAC Bennett did away with the system following the 1953 election. Since 2004, I’ve lost a little bit of my enthusiasm for this system, but I’m still open to it. The benefit is that you can vote with your heart on the first choice and your head with the second. The upstart, little parties can get first votes without threat of vote splitting. And the least-opposed candidate should win in the end. The downside is that it can be a gang-up against the incumbent government, and it can oxygenate fringe parties that can be destructive. However, that’s democracy and an AAV system is not as rewarding to fringe parties as proportional representation.
Finally, I proposed to the Citizens Assembly that non-voting seats should be considered for leaders of un-represented parties that received a minimum percentage of the popular vote, but did not gain a seat. If, say, 10% of British Columbians vote for a party and do not return an MLA, why not provide an opportunity for that party to at least be heard on the floor of the Legislature? They could be provided rights to speak, move motions, and have many of the privileges of MLAs… except vote.
The idea of non-voting representatives is not a new one. The US House of Representatives has six non-voting members – from the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The delegate from the Virigin Islands, Stacey Plaskett, was an Impeachment Manager earlier this year.
Taking the idea of non-voting members a bit further, in 2004, I proposed seats on the floor for Indigenous British Columbians. Again, this is not a new idea. The State of Maine historically had representation in its Assembly for the Penobscot Nation and Passamaquoddy Tribe, dating back to the early 1800s, though in recent years, their representation was withdrawn.
The Cherokee Nation asserts that it has treaty rights entitling it to a Delegate to the US Congress. As well, the Choctaw Nation has rights stemming from an 1830 Treaty, but requires Congress to seat their delegate (it’s never happened). These are interesting examples that should challenge us to consider how our Legislative Assembly can include more voices. It does not require departing from the principle of elected members, represented by the people, having the final say. But, I believe, there can be room for more inclusivity in terms of voices.
Should BC consider Indigenous representation on the floor of the House? My 2004 submission was influenced by the work of trail-blazing Member of Parliament and Senator Len Marchand. Len was a great man who fought hard for Indigenous representation. He was the first First Nations MP elected in BC history, in 1968. The fact that Jody Wilson-Raybould was only the second, elected in 2015, goes to show how difficult it has been for Indigenous people to attain elected office. I wrote about this in my blog in 2015, after JWR’s election. In the 1980s, Len advocated for guaranteed representation for Indigenous peoples. His argument, as I recall, was that there should be as many Indigenous voting seats as population warrants. At the time, it amounted to about 9 seats (3% * about 300 seats), but would be more today. My 2004 proposal was more modest and attached itself to US-style non-voting seats. Since then, there are now three First Nations MLAs in the Legislature, but that shouldn’t be any reason to be complacent. Until Melanie Mark’s election in 2016, there had only been two First Nations MLAs in BC history – Frank Calder and Larry Guno – and they were both elected in the now-extinct riding of Atlin. I would like to see more First Nations elected at riding level, and I think my 2021 proposal on rural ridings will help that to some extent. In terms of non-voting seats on the floor, I would leave that entirely to the opinion of Indigenous leaders as to whether they thought the idea had merit or not. (And by the way, I recommend the biographies of both Len Marchand and Frank Calder).
With reference to the Citizens Assembly above, for those who aren’t aware, or had forgotten, it was an initiative of the Gordon Campbell government to consider options as to how BC governs itself. Former BC Liberal leader and respected commentator Gordon Gibson was appointed to develop recommendations on how such an Assembly could be structured. Two people, a man and a woman, from each of BC’s then-79 ridings were selected basically at random, plus two Indigenous members, and finally, the chair of the Assembly, Jack Blaney, who was appointed by the government. It had a brilliant staff including Dr. Ken Carty and reformed journalist Don MacLachlan. The Assembly members toured BC and heard from citizens like myself who had ideas about how BC should be represented. They produced recommendations and a report that was submitted to the Legislature, and their recommendations were put to referendum in 2005. The Campbell government required a threshold of 60% of the vote with a majority in 60% of the ridings.
While the Citizens Assembly did not take my advice, they did develop recommendations that were supported by its members. I appreciated the opportunity to have my say. In the end, their proposal, complicated as it was, almost succeeded, winning majority support in 77 of 79 constituencies but falling short of the 60% support required. Elections BC report is here. A similar proposal was put to province-wide referendum again in 2009, but failed by a wider margin. A government-driven proposal for proportional representation failed recently by referendum, in 2018. I wrote about my opposition to that proposal here.
As for the current Electoral Boundaries process, we’ll see what happens. More to say on that later.