Something in the Soil: Electoral Reform in Prince Edward Island

What do iron oxide and electoral reform have in common? Both are found in abundance on Prince Edward Island.

The fertile red soil of Prince Edward Island is home to just under 150,000 inhabitants, who are represented by a legislature of 27 members. Its size, however, has not prevented it from tackling, for the second time in a decade, a major question of democracy – what type of electoral system should be used to elect its representatives?

Why electoral reform?

Throughout PEI’s history, provincial elections have often produced extremely lop-sided results in the legislature.  For example, in PEI’s 2000 provincial election, the Liberal Party won 33.8% of the popular vote, but only a single seat in the legislature.

Similarly, in the 2003 provincial election, the Liberal Party won over 42% of the popular vote, but only four seats in the legislature. The disproportionate results produced by PEI’s provincial elections led to discussions on electoral reform.

In 2003, PEI’s Commission on Electoral Reform recommended the province consider a mixed-member proportional system (MMP). An independent Commission on PEI’s Electoral Future was set up to educate the public and draft a clear question on the issue. This idea was put to the public in a plebiscite on 28 November 2005.

Ultimately, the majority of those who participated in the plebiscite (64%) voted to maintain the first-past-the-post electoral system, while 36% voted in favour of the MMP proposal.  However, the turnout was much lower than anticipated; 32,265 valid ballots were cast, a turnout of only 33%.

Following the result, there was criticism that the plebiscite itself was not sufficiently explained, and that the campaign around the actual plebiscite did not allow for enough time or resources for Islanders to be able to make an informed decision. Other factors—including a CBC television strike, limited polling stations and a lack of public funding for “yes” and “no” campaigns — led to low public interest and engagement in the issue.

The Confederation Bridge, linking Prince Edward Island to the mainland. Photo: Thinkstock.com

A new season

A decade later in its June 2015 Speech from the Throne, PEI’s newly elected Government committed to engage Islanders to “strengthen” the electoral system. Later that summer, it set up a special committee in the legislative assembly to consider alternative voting systems that would be presented to Islanders for consideration.

Following initial consultations and engagement with Islanders in early 2016, the legislative assembly’s Special Committee on Democratic Renewal recommended in April 2016 that voters be able to rank the following electoral system options in order of preference from one to five (one being most preferred) in a plebiscite to be held in November 2016:

  • Dual Member Proportional Representation: Under this system, single-member districts would be amalgamated into dual-member districts. Voters would only vote once, but their vote would be “for two ranked candidates running under the same party banner.” The first listed candidate on the ballot (per party) would win a seat in the same manner as the current first-past-the-post system, such that the most popular candidate in every district would join the legislature. Then the second seat for each district would be allocated to make the province-wide outcome of an election proportional to the votes received across the province by each political party.
  • First-past-the-post (the current system): Under the current system, voters vote once in a riding represented by a single member of the legislature. Whichever candidate in an election garners the most votes is elected as the representative for that riding.
  • First-past-the-post Plus Leaders: Under this system, voters would continue to elect representatives under the first-past-the-post system. However, party leaders would not run in individual districts but rather would be elected if their parties received a certain threshold of the provincial vote (recommended at 10%). Thus, the popular vote would be used to elect party leaders, and the numbers in the legislature would vary depending upon the popular vote.
  • Mixed Member Proportional Representation: Under this mixed system, voters would cast two ballots: one for a candidate in a single-member district, and another for a political party (where seats would be filled by candidates presented on a list for a political party). Seats in the legislature would be a mix of single-member district seats and political party seats. The second vote, for the political party, would be used to allocate seats to political parties to compensate for any disproportionate results in the first-past-the-post elections.

In terms of the party list seats, the Special Committee considered the use of “closed lists”, where the political party determines the order in which its candidates receive seats, and “open lists”, where voters cast their ballots directly for candidates put forward by political parties. It recommended that “open lists be incorporated into a model of mixed member proportional representation for the province so that voters have a degree of choice among the candidates presented by way of party lists”.

  • Preferential Voting: Finally, preferential voting, also called alternative voting, would maintain single-member districts but adjust how representatives are elected. Under this system, to be elected a candidate would have to obtain more than 50% of votes cast in the district. Voters would express their preferences by ranking the candidates on a ballot. If no candidate received a majority after the first ballot count, the candidate with the lowest number of votes would be eliminated and that candidate’s votes would be redistributed based on voters’ second choice preferences. Such a process would continue until one candidate surpasses the 50% threshold to be elected.

In addition to presenting different systems of voting, the Special Committee indicated a desire to enable electronic voting, “provided that standards for security, accuracy, privacy, integrity, cost-effectiveness, and auditability can be assured” as a way to increase voter participation.

Fresh (electoral) produce?

Will Prince Edward Island’s fertile soil yield a bumper crop of democratic reform as it does potatoes? Whatever the outcome, now that electoral system reform is being explored at the federal level, PEI’s electoral reform experiences will offer potential lessons, if not fresh produce (food for thought!), for its federal counterparts.

Authors: Dara Lithwick and Erin Virgint, Library of Parliament