It's the votes, stupid - The Orca

It’s the votes, stupid

Katy Merrifield

Adapting James Carville’s signature insight for referendum season

Over the coming weeks, registered BC voters can expect to receive their referendum voting package in the mail – you know, that box that contains flyers destined for the recycling bin without a second glance.

If a majority of voters – or at least, a majority of those who actually vote – wish to move from First Past the Post to Proportional Representation, we’ll have a new system, supposedly in time for the fall 2021 provincial election.

So what is this really about? Simply put, it’s a choice between the existing system of electing our provincial government, and one of three new systems where the number of elected representatives more closely matches each party’s overall vote share.

Details will follow only after we commit to the new system. Don’t worry, the politicians will figure out what’s best for you after you vote.

But regardless of the details, it amounts to a system where multiple losing candidates could combine their votes to create a single winner.

On the “No” side the main argument is that we have a system that has served Canada well for a century and a half, and that the winner should be the person who received the most votes because two (or three) losers do not make a winner. Finally, they believe it’s foolish to choose a new system that has never been tried or cannot be explained before you vote for it.

With stakes so high, the breathless sanctimony is admittedly high on both sides.

The “No” folks proclaim the death of rural BC and the rise of alt-right racists. The “Yes” folks claim that Proportional Representation will be the solution to climate change, and even more implausibly, the only appropriate form of government in the #MeToo era (stay classy, BC Greens).

So: who’s winning? Let’s examine a few key indicators.

A brief survey of traditional media over the past few months reveals practical, intelligent and reasoned arguments to maintain our current system. Prominent thought leaders and established political commenters have admonished the government for putting forward a process that is flawed at best, and deliberately misleading at worst.

The No side may be winning the argument in the media, but the air war is only part of the equation. Victory tends to favour the better organized, with influence spread provincewide, but especially in key, voter-rich battlegrounds such as Vancouver and Surrey.

Here, the advantage seems to be with the Yes folks.

Unions like Unifor and the BCGEU, special interest groups like the Dogwood Initiative, and the various FairVote groups are organized third parties with significant – and crucial – Get Out the Vote (GOTV) infrastructure and large institutional mailing lists, especially compared to the No team.

While the No folks have some very experienced, talented organizers and voices, the Yes groups collectively have lists dating back well over a decade.

Ultimately, it will all come down to who votes.

You can have all the likes, retweets, emails and Twitter troll support you can handle, but victory – or defeat – comes from supporters diligently marking their ballot and mailing it in.

Here, the edge goes to the No supporters. No voters tend to be older, adhere to their civic duty (they tend to actually vote) and have seen this movie twice before in 2005 and 2009.

Also, they still mail things.

Getting them to “actually vote and mail it” will be decisive, because the referendum should be tight. One recent poll shows a province evenly divided equally between yes voters, no voters and undecided (presumably bewildered) voters.

For the most part, voters are lining up behind their chosen party affiliation – and it’s no coincidence that for the first time, parties are actively and aggressively campaigning for their chosen side.

That may be beneficial in terms of increasing turnout, but it also means that in practice, this referendum isn’t just about voting systems but also a yes/no on the current government’s job performance – and the first viable indicator of an early election.

Exciting times ahead.


Katy Merrifield was B.C.’s youngest and first female director of a successful major party leadership campaign. She also served as Director of Communications under Premier Christy Clark, Strategic Advisor to Andrew Wilkinson and Executive Director of the BC Liberal Party.