In 2018, British Columbians were asked whether to continue using the First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system for provincial elections, or switch to a form of proportional representation (PR). During the voting period and preceding months, a handful of journalists published neutral, well-researched articles to help British Columbians vote Yes or No according to their true preferences.1
Unfortunately, several of the major newspapers appeared to forgo serious investigation, and instead helped the No side sustain a narrative that the NDP government had “stacked the deck” in favour of change. The papers published numerous opinion pieces that undermined trust in the referendum and would have convinced reasonable people to vote No even if they preferred PR.
To illustrate the media’s coverage of the 2018 BC Referendum, I offer notes on five markedly negative and poorly researched newspaper columns and editorials. The first article is well intentioned, but the pieces become increasingly biased and misleading. The final editorial contains factual errors that even the No side advertisers were unwilling to make explicit.
- Andrew Coyne is a National Post columnist who strongly supports reforming Canada’s FPTP voting system.
- Coyne’s June 4 (2018) column criticizes the two-question ballot format proposed four days earlier by David Eby, the Attorney General of BC.
- Coyne claims the ballot design is biased in favour of the current voting system, though no explanation is given.
- Coyne’s alternative referendum ballot – the “simple question” mentioned in the title of the column – would actually have made it more challenging for voters to express a preference for or against change.
- Coyne also complains about the selection of voting systems on the ballot, though the only specific criticism is a prejudiced remark about one of the system’s inventors.
- Although the piece was written in good faith with no intent of helping either side, it clearly became a source of ideas for writers and advertisers seeking to attack the referendum process.
- Though the editors claim to be “torn”, this June 26 (2018) piece was published months before the start of voting and weeks before the official Yes and No sides were chosen.
- While Andrew Coyne’s column (above) claims the referendum ballot gives an advantage to the status quo, the Globe and Mail asserts without explanation that the ballot is biased in favour of change.
- By choosing a title with the phrase “stacks the deck”, the Globe and Mail endorses and transmits a political party’s campaign message.
- This July 13 (2018) Vancouver Sun column appeared shortly after BC Chief Electoral Officer Anton Boegman suggested changes to the wording of the referendum questions to make them more clear to voters.
- Accordingly to Vaughn Palmer, the referendum ballot was so obviously flawed that Boegman should have refused to improve it.
- The main purpose of the piece is almost certainly not to expose any wrongdoing on the part of the Chief Electoral Officer, but rather to undermine trust in the referendum process and thereby encourage people to vote against change.
- In this Vancouver Sun column from October 28 (2018),12 Rob Shaw reflects on the first week of voting by first criticizing an official No side campaign ad.
- However, the purpose of the column is to convince the reader that the Yes side is equally culpable for the low level of discourse.
- After attacking the credibility of both sides, Rob Shaw represents himself as a more trustworthy source of information by providing a seemly balanced yet severely misinformed comparison of First Past the Post and proportional representation.
- On October 29 (2018), a day after they published the Rob Shaw column, the Vancouver Sun produced one of the most error-ridden of all pieces of writing on the 2018 BC Referendum.
- The editorial falsely reports that if proportional representation were to be adopted, riding boundaries would be drawn by politicians.
- The editorial then takes one of the No side’s most deceptive insinuations – that MLAs might be chosen by parties after elections – and makes it explicit.
To give credit where it’s due, there were some news organizations – mostly small, independent, or local outlets – that interviewed genuine experts and admirably covered the 2018 BC Referendum. But the mainstream media showed little interest in researching the topic, and ended up playing far more of an influential role than an informative one.
Newspaper columnists and editors repeatedly claimed that the referendum was fundamentally flawed, and that those who facilitated or promoted the reform process could not be trusted. Hardly any information was given to back up these claims, except in the case of the Vancouver Sun editorial where the evidence provided was false. Despite the factual errors and unsupported arguments, reasonable people would have believed the media’s coverage to be reliable due to the professional standards journalists are expected to uphold.
- For an example of a well-researched article on the BC Referendum, see Electoral dysfunction? Experts abroad weigh B.C. voting systems in referendum by StarMetro Vancouver reporter David P. Ball. The provocative title and main image do no favours to the Yes side. But the content is balanced, and the piece features interviews with two local experts, two international experts, and the inventor of one of the proportional voting systems.
- Perhaps Andrew Coyne is assuming all options have an equal chance of being selected. In that case, FPTP would have a 50% chance of winning Question 1 on the actual referendum ballot, whereas it would have a 25% chance if it were listed side-by-side with three PR options. But that logic doesn’t hold water, as voters don’t make decisions at random.
- Andrew Coyne’s preferred referendum ballot format would have let No voters rank the three PR systems. The problem is, their rankings would have had no effect. In all likelihood, all but one PR system would have been eliminated on the first several rounds of counting, and votes for these systems would have mostly transferred to the remaining PR option. If the last PR option prevailed over the status quo, it would have been the system chosen only by Yes voters. Anyone who marked FPTP as their first preference would never have seen their vote transfer to any of the PR options.
- DMP ended up garnering a respectable level of support in the referendum. For every 10 voters who ranked MMP as their 1st choice, there were 7 who ranked DMP on top. RUP also proved quite popular, receiving almost as many 1st choice votes as DMP. These results suggest David Eby did in fact choose PR options likely to appeal to significant numbers of voters.
- The referendum ballot format had already been announced by the time Fair Referendum started their advertising campaign. They knew full well their changes could not be adopted at that point. In fact, they were counting on it. One of their “demands” was that all four systems receive equal funding. That would have given the Yes side three times as much money as the No side.
- In the Globe and Mail’s hypothetical election, you have to first vote for “Anybody Else” in order to choose among the non-incumbent candidates. In the referendum, all voters were allowed to choose among the alternative voting systems, even those who supported the status quo. But even if the Globe hadn’t made this error, there’s no reason why the format of a referendum ballot should match the format of an election ballot. Voting on an issue is different from voting for a person.
- Keith Baldrey’s suggestion that the referendum was designed to fail is slightly more logical than the Globe’s theory that it was “stacked” in favour of change. But there’s a much simpler explanation for the referendum’s design. In all likelihood, David Eby’s aim was to delegate the decision-making and limit his own influence over the new system. He gave voters the choice of which PR system would be adopted. And he handed a future all-party committee and electoral boundaries commission the responsibility of deciding a number of details for the winning system. There are, of course, pros and cons to this approach. But there was never any evidence that Eby was trying to give either side an unfair advantage.
- “Yeah, yeah, exactly” is not quite an election promise as Palmer implies in his piece. It certainly doesn’t suggest the same degree of commitment as Trudeau’s, “the 2015 election will be the last federal election using First Past the Post”, for example. It is fair, of course, to criticize John Horgan for answering a question in careless fashion. Nevertheless, it’s beyond absurd that the words “yeah, yeah, exactly”, spoken off the cuff, should have been interpreted by Elections BC as the sole legitimate basis for the design of a multi-million dollar referendum.
- Dual Member Proportional was an option on Prince Edward Island’s 2016 Plebiscite on Electoral Reform.
- Mixed Member Proportional appeared on the public votes in PEI 2005, Ontario 2007, and PEI 2016 (which it won).
- Rural Urban Proportional is a combination of MMP and STV, the latter of which was the alternative in BC’s 2005 and 2009 referenda.
- The article is dated October 30 due to an update, but I assume the original publication date coincided with the newspaper’s tweet.
- At the time Rob Shaw’s piece was published, the official No side had also been using some of their government-granted $500,000 on an ad implying that proportional representation would leave some voters without a local MLA. This ad was as misleading as the neo-Nazi video, as the creators were well aware that every voter would still have had at least one local MLA under any of the PR systems. Some of the systems would have provided list MLAs as well, and these list MLAs would also have had regional offices for British Columbians to visit or phone.
- The issue of party loyalty became a red herring throughout the referendum campaign. In theory, certain implementations of PR could reduce party discipline, as explained by the University of Victoria’s Daniel Westlake. But in the end, MLAs will only become more independent if voters choose to reward independence. Westlake cautions, “It is important not to overstate the influence that electoral systems have over party discipline.”
- Open lists allow the voter to mark an ‘X’ beside their preferred candidate on the party list. The order in which candidates are then elected is based on the number of votes they receive from citizens.