Agents of Change
It took legal action to overcome the Legislative Assembly’s reluctance to tamper with a constituency system that seemed to be working (voter turnouts, after all, were consistently among the highest in Canada). Basing his case on Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (guaranteeing voting rights), Charlottetown resident Don MacKinnon launched a suit against the Provincial Government in 1991, arguing that the significant population imbalance between Island constituencies essentially meant that his vote counted for less than a vote in a rural riding. Census numbers backed his claim. By 1989, 5th Kings had 1,021 voters per member while 5th Queens had 5,982. The provincial average was 2,788 voters per member; the variance from the average thus ranged from -63% to +115%. Federally and in most other provinces, the allowable deviation was +/- 25%.
Our newly elected Government has pledged, in the June 2015 Speech from the Throne, to "initiate and support a thorough and comprehensive examination of ways in which to strengthen our electoral system, our representation, and the role and functioning of the Legislative Assembly."
In finding that Prince Edward Island’s distribution of seats did not satisfy constitutional requirements, the Prince Edward Island Supreme Court (Justice Armand Desroches) sought “effective representation” by balancing “absolute voter parity” with mitigating, non-population factors such as community history, community interest, projected rates of growth, and special geographic features. While Justice Desroches opined that the protection of historic rural interests warranted a measure of flexibility, he ruled that redistribution must follow further, timely investigation.
The decision set the stage for significant electoral reform. In 1994, the Election Act and Electoral Boundaries Commission, chaired by MLA Lynwood MacPherson, proposed a sweeping reform of the Legislature, abolishing the dual member structure in favour of thirty single-member ridings. The county format was retained, but seats were re-apportioned according to population: ten in Prince County, fifteen in Queens, and only five in Kings (Carruthers). Liberal member Ross Young counter-proposed a 27-seat House with a 9:13:5 distribution of seats. His compromise bill was at length adopted. (Electoral Boundaries Act, S.P.E.I. 1994, c. 13)
In his 1993 ruling, Justice Desroches had echoed others’ position that electoral boundaries be adjusted by a non-partisan, independent commission. While the number of seats in the Legislature was now set, the periodic necessity of re-drawing constituency boundaries proved equally contentious. Evidently believing that the 2004 Report of the Electoral Boundaries Commission had privileged voter parity over mitigating considerations such as “community concerns,” the Conservative government appointed a Special Legislative Committee on Electoral Boundaries, which involved Elections PEI in the process of boundary-drawing (Report of Committee). After much tinkering, the new electoral map was approved by the Legislature with a mandated variance of +/-15% in the population of ridings.
The constitutional quest for “voter parity” drove the electoral reform of 1994 and the periodic re-jigging of constituency boundaries that has followed. But it also opened up another line of debate, this time over voting systems. Since 1773, elections had been decided by the traditional “First-Past-the-Post” [FPTP] or plurality model; put simply, the candidate with the greatest number of votes wins. As many political observers noted, the plurality system rarely mirrored the popular vote. Although a party might garner a significant share of the popular vote, those votes often failed to translate into seats. Indeed, the increasing trend in Island politics by the late 1990s was towards huge majorities based on a relatively modest majority of the popular vote (Carruthers, Cousins). Frequently reduced to one or two members, the Official Opposition was challenged to function effectively in the Legislature, Out of seven general elections from 1989 to 2011, only one, in 1996, resulted in a balanced majority.
During its round of public hearings in 1994, the MacPherson Commission heard for the first time serious advocacy of some form of Proportional Representation to either supplement or replace the existing “first-past-the-post” system. The opinions mirrored a national trend, largely impelled by declining voter engagement, toward electoral reform. After being returned to power with a crushing majority in 2000, Premier Pat Binns gingerly took up the issue.
After preliminary investigations by Elections PEI, retired Chief Justice Norman Carruthers was appointed a one-man commission in 2003 to investigate the appropriateness of adopting alternate systems of voting on Prince Edward Island. Carruthers' report recommended adoption of a Mixed Member Proportional System, with twenty-one seats elected by the existing plurality system and ten additional members elected on a separate ballot from party lists (Carruthers). In 2004, the Commission on Prince Edward Island's Electoral Future adjusted Carruthers' seat breakdown to seventeen and ten, respectively (McKenna). The option was then put before the electorate in a 2005 referendum.
Although Carruthers had encountered considerable public apathy in the course of his public hearings, the referendum campaign reached a wider audience. Advocates of the Mixed Member Proportional scheme stressed that the composition of the House would more closely reflect the popular vote; no one's vote would be "wasted"; that it would produce stronger Oppositions and more diverse Legislatures, making Governments more responsible to the people; that more women and minorities would enter the House; that forms of Proportional Representation had become the norm rather than the exception around the world. Opponents warned of Party lists stacked with hand-picked "party insiders" and/or urban elites; of unstable coalition governments since no party was likely to win an absolute majority; of special interest, fringe parties that would paralyze the business of the House.
Many voters simply may have felt the system didn't need fixing. Others may have been discouraged by Premier Binns' announcement that a "yes" would require 60% of the total votes cast as well as a majority in 60% of the twenty-seven ridings, an almost impossible expectation. In any event, only 33% of the electorate turned out to vote in the referendum. Of those that did, 64% voted "no." (McKenna).