A B.C. business group returned to court Tuesday to seek an injunction to delay the mail-in referendum on proportional representation set for this fall.
The structure of the vote, a two-part question offering a choice between the existing system and three new voting systems, has been a target of critics since it was unveiled at the end of May. A lawyer for the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association is arguing that the structure makes it illegal.
“We believe that the referendum questions and process are illegal because they don’t present the public with a clear choice between the current electoral system and a defined system of proportional representation, as was the case in the two previous referenda held on this matter in 2005 and 2009,” the ICBA said in a statement.
During a break from court proceedings Tuesday, ICBA president Chris Gardner said in an interview his lawyer had the day to present the case and answer questions from B.C. Supreme Court Justice Miriam Gropper. Government lawyers are expected to take Wednesday to argue why an injunction should not be granted, and he expects the judge to make a decision on that within a week.
“What we’re basically saying is that the government has artificially put in this timeline in their rush to get the referendum completed by the fall,” Gardner said. “In 2005 and 2009, the referenda occurred at the same time as a provincial election. That way there was a lot more discussion, a higher turnout. This time, very limited discussions, very limited debate.”
This year’s referendum has been arranged by B.C. Attorney General David Eby, who determined the structure of the ballot and the rules. There no minimum turnout required to have a valid result, a simple majority of votes cast required, and no regional requirement weighting for sparsely populated rural areas.
Elections B.C. has selected an official ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ committee for the vote, to persuade people during the voting period, which starts Oct. 22 and ends on Nov. 30. Each committee has been provided with $500,000 to make their case, and allowed to fundraise an additional $200,000.
Gardner said that budget isn’t enough to send a single mailed brochure to every voter in the province, and despite the official start on July 1, he expects that very few people realize the campaign is going on now. He said the government has “ragged the puck” with delay tactics in the original court challenge, and has restricted information on the options that would give voters a more informed choice.
The first referendum question asks voters if they prefer the current first-past-the-post electoral system, which declares the candidate with the most votes the winner in each constituency, or a proportional representation system. The second question offers a choice of three new systems that are designed to make the share of seats more closely match the share of total votes.
Ballots are to be mailed out in October offering three systems:
• Dual member proportional, where neighbouring pairs of districts in B.C. would be combined into one two-member constituencies, except for the larger rural districts, which would remain unchanged.
• Mixed member proportional, which combines single-member districts with party list candidates, added to give each party the number of seats determined by their share of the province-wide vote in an election.
• Rural-urban proportional representation, with multi-member districts for urban and semi-urban areas, with voters choosing their MLA on a ranked ballot. In rural areas, a mixed-member proportional system using candidate lists chosen by parties would be used.
Voters will not have an official map of the new voting districts when they make their choice. If voters choose to change to a new system, the district boundaries would then be determined by the independent Electoral Boundaries Commission.