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November 15, 2010

Equality or One-Mountain-One-Vote?

Rather than setting a date for the BC Liberals to choose a replacement for Gordon Campbell, the party's executive has scheduled an extraordinary convention for February 12th to consider a change to the rules on how a leader will be selected.

The party's constitution currently provides for a new leader to be elected in a vote by all members of the party (who pay a fee) in a system called one-member-one-vote, but in the proposed change all votes are not counted equally. As described in the party's news release, if the proposed change is ratified, votes would be weighted through a point system to ensure each electoral district is counted equally.

The BC Liberal Party's constitution is not available online, so we can't see what it specifies with respect to how many delegates each of the 85 constituency associations is allowed to send to the February 12th convention or how those delegates are selected. There is also no public information on the total membership of the BC Liberal Party or on how that membership is distributed amongst the 85 constituencies. It is not surprising that information is not public, but it is vitally important to any potential leadership candidate. The two voting systems require radically different types of campaigns. In a one-member-one vote system, there is an incentive to sign up as many members as possible before the 41 day cutoff prior to the leadership vote. In the proposed system with equal weight given to each constituency, all a membership signup campaign does is to dilute the effective weight of each of the members in whichever constituency is receiving the new members, hence the advantage of signing up new members is reduced to changing the proportion of the vote any particular candidate may receive from the constituency associates that receive new members.

There is nothing inherently right or wrong about either of the voting systems. The one-member-one-vote system appeals to the populist side of most of us in that it seems fair that a vote from a member in Surrey would count exactly the same as a vote from a member in Atlin. On the other hand, when we vote in a general election, votes in Atlin count for much more than votes in Surrey. In the 2009 general election, the northern Stikine constituency had a population of 21,116 and it had 14,725 eligible voters; the Vancouver Island Comox Valley constituency had a population of 64,464 and it had 50,195 eligible voters. Even though Comox Valley had almost three and a half times as many eligible voters as Stikine, both constituencies elected just one MLA. Some pundits have called the inequities in our electoral system one-mountain-one-vote, but successive electoral boundary commissions and governments have defended the inequalities as providing equal "effective" representation (a concept used in rulings on boundaries by the Supreme Court of Canada). The variation the BC Liberals will introduce if the proposed voting system is adopted on February 12th is that the points allocated to each constituency would be distributed between candidates in the same proportion as the votes cast by members in that constituency; those "weighted" votes would then be totaled for the entire province.

It will be fascinating to see if any of the potential leadership candidates either criticize the proposed weighted voting system or work behind the scenes to try to defeat it. We may never know, but all British Columbians have an interest in what the BC Liberal Party does with its leadership rules, because whoever wins the race will automatically be premier - for two years or more unless BC's set election date legislation is changed or manipulated (as Stephen Harper did with similar federal legislation).