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Yes side holds lead in electoral reform vote

Canadian Press

Vancouver — The Yes forces in British Columbia's battle for electoral reform are demanding the newly re-elected Liberal government press ahead with changes to the voting system, despite incomplete results in Tuesday's referendum.

Ballot counting was suspended early Wednesday with the Yes side leading in 72 out of 73 ridings that had reported results so far. The province has 79 ridings.

To succeed, the referendum proposal that would give Canada its first system of proportional representation needs a simple majority in 48 ridings and a 60 per cent majority in the provincewide popular vote.

The Yes side had garnered 57.2 per cent when counting stopped around 12:30 a.m. local time on Wednesday. Almost three-quarters of the votes in those ridings had been counted.

Yes campaign co-chairman Bruce Hallsor said the results signal a clear majority of British Columbians want change.

The Yes side will be asking to meet Premier Gordon Campbell and Opposition Leader Carole James of the New Democrats to push for implementation of the reform proposal before the next election, scheduled for May 17, 2009, under British Columbia's fixed election dates.

"A clear majority passed it," said the Victoria lawyer. "British Columbians want a change and we believe both parties in the legislature should support what the majority of British Columbians have done."

Mr. Hallsor said the 60 per cent margin required by the electoral reform referendum was an artificial threshold, compared with simple majorities required by other such initiatives.

"The reason for that is if something passes by a majority and doesn't get implemented, it's profoundly undemocratic," he said.

"We are now faced with the prospect of the next election being operated under a system that has been rejected tonight by a majority of British Columbians."

Results were slow in coming because referendum ballots were to be counted after the normal election votes.

Voters were asked to rule on a form of proportional representation called the single transferable vote (STV), proposed last year by the province's Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform.

The proposal would scrap the existing first-past-the-post system, where the candidate with the most votes wins the seat.

Instead, British Columbia's 79 ridings would be reconfigured into a number of larger electoral districts with as many as seven legislature members, depending on population. The number of seats would remain the same.

In an election, voters faced with ballots of maybe two to three dozen names would rank their favourite candidates in order of preference. They could vote a straight party ticket or mix and match their choices.

Proponents say the system, used only in a handful of other countries, ensures no votes are wasted, unlike the present winner-take-all approach, and the outcome more closely reflects the overall popular vote.

But opponents criticize STV as a recipe for coalition governments and legislative drift as small, special-interest parties hold the balance of power and that it would reduce MLA accountability.

Shoni Field, a spokeswoman for citizens' assembly alumni, said the group supports Hallsor's push to implement STV.

She said they're "looking forward to working with Premier Campbell to honour the clearly expressed will of people," she said. "This is a strong result.

"There's no precedent for a 60 per cent bar. If 50 per cent plus one was enough to break up the country it's enough to do all sorts of things. Fifty-seven is a clear expression of where people wanted to go."

STV opponent Bruce Strachan, a former provincial Social Credit cabinet minister, conceded the results do show B.C. residents' desire a change.

"I think they were cynical about politicians, about politics," he said from Prince George, B.C. "They were hoping that anything that can change the current pattern and the feeling about politicians and political events at all is a good thing."

Mr. Strachan said Mr. Campbell should read the message of widespread dissatisfaction with the current system.

"Who knows what the next exercise will be but I think they're certainly obligated to continue to look at a better way of electing representatives," he said. "If STV does die tonight or tomorrow, I think there's still some expectation they should look at another system."

Mr. Campbell said the early results showed "a real hunger to move and to look at ways of improving our system of electing our legislature."

If the measure is defeated, Mr. Campbell said he is still willing to look at different ways to reform the electoral system.

"I'd like to wait until the final result before we decide where we go next," he said.

The vote was being closely watched elsewhere in Canada. Several provinces are launching their own electoral reform initiatives.

"It's become a touchstone," said political scientist Dennis Pilon, an expert on electoral reform at the University of Toronto. "That's really focused people's attention and made it seem very real."

If the measure goes down to defeat it may demonstrate STV is too complicated to sell to voters, Mr. Pilon said.

But a defeat won't derail the push for reform elsewhere in Canada, he said.

"These other provinces have got their process going already," said Mr. Pilon. "I don't see them grinding to a halt at this point because they've already invested quite a bit of time and energy."

Political scientist Allan Tupper of the University of British Columbia said it's significant a majority of voters opted for what many saw as the most radical and complicated form of proportional representation.

Mr. Pilon said advocates for proportional representation may start pitching many people's preferred choice of mixed-member proportional representation, where voters elect one member directly and another based on a party's share of the popular vote provincewide.

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