The YES side ahead in the BC referendum on electoral reform, but it's close

It's time for me to cover my last event in 2018: the referendum on electoral reform in BC. After the Ontario and Quebec elections earlier this year, as well as the Vancouver mayoral election very recently, I hope to continue the perfect streak.

British Colombians like me have started receiving their voting package in the mail. I got mine a couple of days ago. We have until November 30th at 4:30pm to send our ballots back. BC isn't new to this voting by mail referendum thingy. We already voted this way to repeal the HST in 2011 and to refuse a 0.5% sale tax increase to finance public transit in 2015 (although it was then called a plebiscite, but whatever). This is a great way to vote and it cuts cost.

Alright, before writing a wall of text, for you busy people, here are the current chances BC will adopt proportional representation next month:
Based on the latest Angus-Reid poll and 20,000 simulations
The PR side's confidence interval is 46.4 to 56.7% while it's 43.3-53.8% for the FPTP. A close race but PR is currently ahead.

Polls on BC referendums have been pretty good in the past (see below) but we only have one poll. I used the same margins of error as I do for regular Canadian election (so around 5%, far superior to the theoretical margins of the poll itself). I believe this should be enough to capture the uncertainty that exists but I might increase this later. I also allocated the undecided proportionally, which may or may not be a good idea (see below).

Information and analysis

For some reason David Eby, the current NDP cabinet minister in charge of this referendum, has decided to make the question more complicated than it ought to be. Instead of just asking people if they want to switch to the mixed-members proportional system, he decided to first ask if we wanted to have a proportional system or keep the current first-past-the-post. This isn't a bad idea in itself. The problem I see is for the second question asking us to choose between three proportional systems. One is the commonly requested mixed-member one (MMP, i.e: German system but without the complicated overhand seats). We also have the dual-member proportional system (DMP), a system that isn't used anywhere in the world and was invented by a student in mathematics at the university of Calgary. The system itself is fine to me but I don't get the point of including it. MMP is just fine and can be adapted to have "Canadian specificity". Finally, there is the monster of a system than is the urban-rural system (RUP) where urban regions would have the STV (Single Transferable Vote, on which BC voted in 2005 and 2009) while rural areas would have MMP. This is a stupid proposal if you ask me (oh but Bryan, aren't you supposed to be neutral on this site?). It's a wet dream for nerdy political scientists (Fair Vote Canada likes this system...) that nobody outside of some political students will even take the time to research. I totally understand the theoretical arguments in favour of this system, but we live in the real world. If you think the same people who were uninformed and refused the STV in 2009 will all of a sudden learn about two systems and vote yes, you are delusional.

This whole referendum format is weird and overly complicated. And because the government decided to rush a referendum with 3 systems, all of them are half defined. Many "details" are left to be decided AFTER the referendum. And by details I mean "minor" things like the number of MLAs and the boundaries of the electoral map! This is absurd and if this referendum fails next month, Eby and the NDP should be blamed for it. We can already see how this lack of details is helping the NO side.

Lack of polls

We literally only had one poll so far, from Augus-Reid. I know Mainstreet will include 1-2 questions in their next general poll. I fully expect Research Co. to poll as well.

According to this poll, we pretty much have a perfect split between keeping the current system, switching to a proportional one and people that are undecided. However, Angus-Reid has been asking a similar question for a while now. And the answer to this question doesn't match exactly with the most recent one. Let me explain.

AR has included the following question in its BC polls for over a year:

Q13.B.C. could keep the First Past the Post system or adopt a new system that allocates seats roughly in proportion to the total number of votes a party receives.Please indicate which of these two broad options you prefer for B.C.

Only two options were offered: current system or proportional representation. No option to be undecided! At least according to the PDF of their polls. At this question a majority of people from BC usually support PR (around 56-59%). It hasn't moved much.

But in their very last poll, they decided to include questions more specific to the actual referendum. The main difference being that AR allowed respondents to be undecided (as well as not voting, etc).

They also asked a question about which of the three proposed systems is preferred and, no surprise, it's MMP. Honestly I have zero doubt that if the referendum is successful, MMP will be chosen. So I won't focus on this part.

In the same poll with a perfect 3-way splits, AR also has a question about FPTP vs PR in general and guess what? 57% of people in BC support PR!

So either allowing an undecided option affects the YES side more or people like the general idea of PR but don't like the specific project offered to them during this referendum. Or a mix of both. For my simulations, I used the numbers 31%-33%-33% for the FPTP, PR and undecided respectively. In other words, I trusted this poll and not the generic question. Some of you might be surprised that a 2 points lead with simulations using a 5% margins of error would give almost 70% chances of winning, but it is what it is. Obviously it'd be better if we could get more polls confirming the (even small) lead of PR over FPTP, but this isn't a perfect toss up right now. A 2-points lead with 5% confidence intervals can indeed mean the FPTP side is ahead, but it could also mean the PR side is ahead by 7! Uncertainty works both ways. And a 2 points lead with 33% undecided is actually a 4 points lead once we remove/allocate the undecided. So close but not a perfect toss-up, not based on this poll (and the ones before).


When I started collecting data to write this article, I thought I'd find that past referendums had seen the undecided mostly breaking for the "safe" or "status quo" option. But actually I haven't.

First of all, polls seem to have been fairly successful with BC referendums, including the ones by mail. Insight West nailed the results of the transit plebiscite. Ipsos was almost perfect for the HST referendum. They also had the right result for the STV referendum in 2009.

It should be noted that mail-in referendums and referendums held during a general elections could be very different. The latter tend to be forgotten during the campaign but then most people still vote since they receive the ballot when they go to their polling station. We have evidence that many people had no idea there was a referendum in 2009 for instance. Mail-in could be different since you only vote on that one issue. I think it's reasonable to assume that the influence of undecided (or unaware) voters is much bigger if the referendum is held at the same as the general election as undecided might simply not send a ballot this year.

So far, I don't have any reason to try to allocated undecided non proportionally (there is a pun somewhere here I'm sure). And the Augus-Reid polls tend to indicate that undecided might actually be more likely to vote for PR than against. It seems proponents of PR are just less sure of their choice and if we allow them to declare themselves as undecided, they will do so.

Now obviously the big question is: will these undecided even vote?


Mail-in votes in BC have been quite successful regarding turnout. The HST one got 53% of registered voters sending back a ballot, quite similar to general election (of course, some might argue that it should be higher since you can vote by mail and it's easier). The transit plebiscite got 48%.

At the same time, it is reasonable to assume people cared more about a sale tax and transit than the electoral system. You might feel strongly differently, but it's likely because you are the type of people who read blogs like mine. So keep that in mind. The Angus-Reid poll shows that many don't consider it a priority.

Maybe our best look at turnout is from the mail-in referendum on electoral reform in Prince Edward Island last year. With only 36% of registered voters, this was far below the norm for the small province. If the same pattern were to hold true in BC, we could end up with a turnout below 30% (since BC has a relatively lower turnout in general).

This referendum has also not generated much coverage so far. The YES camp's site is only ranked 26850 on Alexa while the NO site is even lower (72,674). Google Trends shows a rising interest however.

With the municipal election behind us and the ballots being received, this campaign might finally get started. According to Mike Smyth from the Province, the YES side won the first week.

Still, I think a turnout of 40% would already be great.

Maybe the last source of uncertainty is the fact all three major political parties are involved in this campaign, as opposed to 2009 where only the Green even mentioned the referendum. This might help with the turnout. It might simply come down to which party gets its vote out the most. The BC Liberals absolutely want to avoid PR as they think it'd mean no chance to form the government in the future. NDPers and Green voters are in favour.