EDITORIAL – This referendum is now invalid; scrap it and start over

Mixed Member Proportional seat allotment. (Image: Elections BC)

An editorial by Mel Rothenburger.

THE REFERENDUM on electoral change in B.C. should be called off, right now.

Premier John Horgan invalidated the process this week when he unilaterally changed horses on a detail of the mixed member proportional option for proportional representation.

He said if prop rep is approved, and if MMP is the preferred option, he’ll direct NDP MLAs on a legislature committee to oppose what’s called the closed-list appointment of MLAs.

That committee, often referred to as an all-member committee because it will include members of all three parties, will decide details of the new system. Most of the committee members will be NDP and Greens, so Horgan has the clout to tell it what to do — and he’s just proven that.

In MMP, 40 per cent of seats would be awarded to people on party lists. Under a closed list, voters wouldn’t vote on the party choices. Up until Horgan’s announcement this week, the closed vs. open list was to be left to the legislature committee to decide.

Changing the conditions for one of the options halfway through the referendum means those who vote from this point onward will do so under a different understanding than those who have already submitted their ballots.

That’s clearly unacceptable, and represents a major blunder on Horgan’s part. There’s no way the referendum result can now be rendered legitimate. Will Horgan change other fundamentals he thinks will give prop rep a better chance of winning?

The other compelling reason to call the whole thing off is the pathetic rate of return of mail-in ballots. Having not set a minimum turnout to make the result acceptable, Horgan has set up the very real possibility of a tiny percentage of the population making 100 per cent of the decision.

Of course, I suppose Horgan could change his mind on that as well.

The need to throw out this referendum and start over isn’t even anything that should be a matter of disagreement between the two sides. No one who is sincere about wanting a fair and legitimate process can argue with conviction that this process has been a good one.

Better to begin again and map out a referendum plan that includes a citizens’ assembly with proper consultation, a detailed plan for implementation of the winning option, and options that won’t be changed on the premier’s whim.

Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops and newspaper editor. He publishes the opinion website, and is a director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He can be reached at


About Mel Rothenburger (6803 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

13 Comments on EDITORIAL – This referendum is now invalid; scrap it and start over

  1. Ken Mcclelland // November 18, 2018 at 4:23 PM // Reply

    Yes it should be scrapped, for both reasons. Let’s say for arguments sake the turnout ends up at 30%. 30% of 2.5 million voters is about 750,000. 50% + 1 of 750,000 is about 375,000. 375,000 of 2.5 million is 15%. Do we really want to accept 15% of the registered voters making this decision? The complaint, ad nauseum, has been that “39% of the vote equals 100% of the power.” A pretty sad day for democracy if 15% of the electorate equals 100% of the decision-making power re this magnitude of change. Any responsible government would deem this result inconclusive therefore invalid.

  2. Perhaps it takes a bold act of leadership to make long lasting (and overall beneficial) improvements to the way we live. As Ms. Bepple recently reminded us in her well-written op-piece published in this very site, it was a centrist government that introduced ICBC, the ALR and even medicare at the national level. This is arguably another one of those moments, the benefits of which will be well realized years down the road.

  3. The declaration that Closed Lists are off the table is a HUGE positive, and means there will be no way for party hacks to make backroom deals to put people in the legislature that are not first and foremost accountable to voters. And it means each and every MLA is elected by us

    Previously those opposed to ProRep complained about Closed lists, now, taking them off the table is undemocratic.


    I find it hard to believe anyone would object to this happening — except of course those fervent objectors to the whole referendum vote. So, my questions to those who have already voted are as follows:

    1) Did you vote to change to ProRep?
    2) And then vote MMP?
    3) If Yes to both questions, do you now object to Closed Lists being off the table?

    I’m betting 1 and 2 are a big fat NO… making 3 irrelevant

  4. Give some thought also to the fact that the first two options have never been in use throughout the world, does it not follow that people would be expected to select the third?

  5. Seriously, Mel? This is utter nonsense and reeks of desperation. Since when is clarifying your own party’s position on an issue which remains to be decided by an all-party committee “changing the rules”?

    Much like candidates can clarify their party’s position all the way through an election campaign, Horgan has simply made his own party’s position on closed lists crystal clear: they still don’t like them. All parties have spoken against closed lists up to this point, so Horgan’s strengthening of his previous statements should surprise no one. The Liberals have done nothing but rail against closed lists from the beginning, and Horgan and Weaver have stated their preference for open lists several times — this particular preference has been on the NDP website for months.

    The question of open vs closed lists on the regional portion of the ballot under MMP is still up to the All-Party Committee. If PR wins and the MMP option is chosen, we now know for sure that the NDP will support open lists for the regional portion of the ballot. It gives voters greater certainty if they disliked closed lists, but as before, the NDP will not have a majority on the committee. As before, the final decision will still be decided by the committee, with input from the public. Voters who supported MMP on ballots they have already mailed in were obviously OK with both open and closed lists.

    I’ve been talking to voters about this for literally months as a volunteer with Fair Vote Kamloops, and I can say with 100% certainty that I haven’t spoken to even a single person who preferred closed lists. Voters like having more choice, not less, in my experience.

    Could the process have been better? Certainly. But to suggest that having one party clarify their position on one of the options that remains to be decided by the all-party committee is baseless, even silly.

    The systems are reasonably well-defined, and none of the items on the “to be decided” list would substantially alter the functioning of any of the systems. They are pretty arcane details if you read the list. The open vs. closed list was probably the biggest single difference to the way any of the systems is perceived by voters, so I actually applaud Horgan for clarifying where the NDP stands on that. Do I wish they had made the same statement two months ago? Absolutely.

    The process missteps detract from the larger question: do we want to upgrade our democracy to a fairer, more representative system which has been recommended by each and every citizens’ assembly across the country? The evidence for Pro Rep is clear, consistent, and compelling. If we vote down PR because of these issues, I feel we’d be cutting off our nose to spite our face.

    We don’t get a redo after two elections if we stick with FPTP. We are stuck with it until the next time that there is sufficient political appetite to bring it back, which could be a very long time. If we choose PR, we get a chance to review it after two elections — it it’s not working, then we can readily switch back in less than 10 years.

    Folks, let’s not let ourselves get distracted by false claims like this, which we’ve seen so many of from the “No” side during the campaign. PR is still the better way to go, despite the potholes on the path to get us there. Less than half the votes shouldn’t give a party all the power.

    • Mel Rothenburger // November 18, 2018 at 11:55 AM // Reply

      The issue here is not closed vs. open lists, it is about changing the rules of the game part way through. Horgan has effectively done that. My second point was turnout. How can a referendum result based on a tiny minority of the voting population be considered valid? Why would anyone want that? With respect to the constant “don’t worry, we’ll have another crack at it two elections from now,” we both know one government can not bind a future government on policy.

  6. Sean McGuinness // November 18, 2018 at 8:15 AM // Reply

    You can’t invalidate the referendum at this point, and besides who is going to make that decision? Horgan? That in itself is tampering with the democratic process. Despite what you might think, there may be many on the ‘No’ side who think they will win. How will they feel if the referendum is suddenly cancelled?

    I’m not aware of any minimums for voter participation in any election or referendum. Municipal elections in Kamloops have seen some pretty low turnouts but no result has ever been rendered invalid because of this (as far as I know). What about the people who took the time to fill out a voter form and mail it off. Are their votes to be rendered invalid simply because a lot of other people couldn’t care enough to do this?

    • Mel Rothenburger // November 18, 2018 at 11:50 AM // Reply

      As the editorial states, both sides should be concerned about the validity of the referendum process. P.E.I. is a good example with respect to minimum turnout. In 2005, P.E.I. voted 64 percent against changing from FPTP to Mixed Member Proportional. MMP was approved in a 2016 referendum by 52% of the turnout but the result was disallowed due to low turnout of only 36.46 percent. A new referendum will be held at the time of the next provincial election on or before Oct. 7, 2019. The question will be a simple Yes/No on MMP.

      • Sean McGuinness // November 18, 2018 at 5:08 PM //

        Thanks Mel — I wasn’t aware of the PEI referendum. According to wikipedia, voter turnout in PEI is usually high, around 80 percent. So 52% was low. Apparently there was no threshold for voter turnout, but the legislature voted to invalidate the results, choosing to put the question (with only two choices) on the ballot in the next election. Maybe this will happen here.

      • Let’s talk about PEI, shall we? Pro Rep won on the ballot there, fair and square. The incumbent government decided to disregard the vote, belatedly making noises about insufficient participation despite not having set a minimum threshold. Thus providing yet another example in the long line of incumbent governments weaseling out of implementing Pro Rep. When was Canada first promised Pro Rep? About 100 years ago! Apparently, it has always too “inconvenient” for the government in charge to actually follow through and put it into place, so we see calls for more consultation, studies, Citizens Assemblies — anything to put it off until after the next election. Let’s face it — it’s hard for a government with less than 50% support to give up the very system that just gave them a “majority” government.

  7. I agree that The process hasn’t been perfect. However, your editorial seems to be derived from a list of B.C. Liberal talking points. They seem to want to focus on the process, rather than the benefits and weaknesses of the systems presented. A vote for PR or FPTP is not a vote for or against the process (or John Horgan).

    All three parties have supported open lists all along so it should come as no surprise that there would be open lists, not closed. I don’t think his clarification will have changed the votes of people who voted for PR much. It was needed because of misleading advertisement and rhetoric from the no side trying to make people afraid of PR.

    Returns are at 18% which is not pathetic. I’d like to see a far higher return rate (and we will), but if people choose not to vote that’s on them.

    I wish you could be a bit more balanced on this issue.

  8. Mel
    And as I have stated before, is it just me that sees the irony that we are using a “first past the post” voting system to determine whether or not we want proportional representation?
    Just Sayin’

  9. This is rather tiresome parroting of BC Liberal talking points – which are not very well thought-out to begine with. I’m out.

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