The leaders of B.C.'s two main parties square off Thursday in a debate on electoral reform that experts say arrives after decades of electoral dysfunction that produced lopsided victories and made losers out of popular-vote winners.
Voters need to mail in their ballots by the Nov. 30 deadline to either support moving to a form of proportional representation for the next election or to keep the current first-past-the-post system. A majority of 50 per cent plus one is needed to change the system.
Premier John Horgan will debate in favour of reform, while Opposition Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson will make the case for keeping the current system.
The referendum is B.C.'s third such question on electoral reform, with previous votes in 2005 and 2009. Both ended in defeat.
Prof. Richard Johnston, an electoral system expert at the University of B.C., said current voter reform history dates back to B.C.'s 1991 election, in which Mike Harcourt's New Democrats won a majority that spelled the end of Social Credit rule. But more surprising was the rise of the Liberals under former leader Gordon Wilson, who shot from no seats to Official Opposition status, signalling a political shift to the centre from the traditional right-left parties.
"That surge to the Liberals was as clear a centrist signal as you could ever imagine an electorate sending," said Johnston.
Then came the 1996 election, where former Liberal leader Gordon Campbell received more votes but lost to the NDP's Glen Clark. Campbell promised to pursue electoral reform after his defeat, Johnston said.
But in the subsequent 2001 election, Campbell's Liberals decimated Ujjal Dosanjh's NDP, winning 77 of 79 seats and capturing almost 58 per cent of the popular vote. Campbell, "much to his credit," went ahead with the 2005 reform referendum, which was tied to the provincial election campaign, Johnston said.
The turmoil of those years provides the backdrop for the current vote, he said.
"There we were from 1991 to 2005, one of the most dysfunctional electoral operations in the world," Johnston said. "Everything that could go wrong under first-past-the-post kind of did."
Former Green leader Stuart Parker, also a former member of the NDP, said he agrees B.C.'s current push for electoral reform dates back to the 1991 election.
"When the electoral reform movement is successful, it is multi-partisan, populist and principled," Parker said. "I would say when the movement is unsuccessful, as I'm pretty damn sure it is about to be, it is because it is partisan and self-serving in character, or worse."
Johnston said both the Liberals and NDP are using this referendum to support positions that give them the best shot at electoral success, while publicly declaring their allegiance to democracy.
"I don't fault them for that, just stop adjusting your halo is all I ask," he quipped.