VICTORIA — A few days after the New Democrats approved Attorney General David Eby’s questions for the referendum on electoral reform, Premier John Horgan asked the independent watchdog on elections to vet Eby’s wording.
“As you are aware, my government is going to conduct a referendum on our electoral voting system,” the premier began his June 11 letter to Chief Electoral Officer Anton Boegman.
“The attorney general conducted an independent consultation with British Columbians on how the referendum would be worded … The Cabinet has accepted his recommendations.”
Now the New Democrats hoped for an endorsement of sorts from Boegman for the first of two questions on the fall ballot-by-mail.
“The review we are seeking is in your opinion whether the question is simple and clear enough for British Columbians to understand,” wrote Horgan. “If not, could you suggest appropriate language that is clear and simple?”
It is not within the legislated powers of the chief electoral officer to vet referendum questions crafted by the government, a fact Horgan went on to acknowledge.
“I understand this is not within the mandate of Elections B.C.,” the premier conceded, before suggesting a workaround: “Your opinion should be given to the Speaker of the legislative assembly who will share it with the three house leaders.”
Horgan’s request to the chief electoral officer fell well short of telling the whole story about the framing of the questions.
Eby’s two-question ballot with multiple choices was substantially different from what Horgan himself promised before the election: one question with a yes/no choice between the status quo and a single alternative.
As for the “consultation with British Columbians” that the premier referred to in his letter, the attorney general did conduct one. But as Eby himself had to admit in his report on the process, “there was no consensus from the public engagement questionnaire on the ballot structure,” and “no apparent consensus respecting which voting systems should appear on the referendum ballot.”
Undaunted by the lack of clear direction from the public, Eby concocted a two-ballot structure that fudged Horgan’s promise of a single question.
The first offered what Eby’s own report characterized as an “apples to oranges” choice between a specific voting system (first past the post) versus a concept (proportional representation).
The second question invited people to rank three versions of PR chosen by Eby himself. Two were “not in currently in use” anywhere. For the third, Eby deliberately left a dozen key aspects to be decided after the referendum by a committee where New Democrats and their partners, the Greens, would have a majority of the votes.
All this should have been enough to set the alarm bells ringing at an office, Elections B.C., that is supposed to be neutral and non-partisan.
Nevertheless, Boegman wrote back, via the office of the Speaker, giving the premier what he wanted. Far from being cautious about fielding the request, he professed to be “pleased” by the opportunity to vet Eby’s wording.
“While my office does not have a legislated mandate to review referendum questions,” he wrote, “it is appropriate for Elections B.C. to complete this task to ensure that voters understand how to mark their ballot to express their preferences in the referendum. This will improve the accessibility of the referendum process for all eligible British Columbians.”
He went on to suggest minor changes to the wording of the first question, such as replacing “elections to the legislative assembly” with the simpler “provincial elections.”
Presuming those changes were incorporated, “I believe that this question is simple and clear enough for voters to understand,” wrote Boegman.
Though Horgan had not asked him to review the second multiple choice question, Boegman proceeded to do that on his own initiative.
Again he suggested tweaks such as replacing “vote for the voting systems you wish to support by ranking them in order of preference” with the simpler “rank in order of preference.”
Having said that, Boegman again wrote: “This question is also generally simple and clear enough for voters to understand.”
After offering his twin seals of approval to the revised wording of the questions, Boegman tried to provide his office with a bit of cover against assumptions that he was going all-in on Eby’s two-ballot structure and the multiple choices.
“Given the non-partisan nature of my office, and the legislated role of cabinet in setting the referendum question, our review is limited to assessing the clarity and simplicity of the question,” he wrote. “The review does not extend to the structure or format of the ballot questions.”
The caveat was lost in a swell of reaction as New Democrats seized on what they took to be an endorsement of Eby’s questions and their content from Elections B.C.
Eby himself put out a press release announcing that the questions had been revised with the approval of the chief electoral officer. PR supporters celebrated the smackdown of Eby’s critics by the independent watchdog on elections.
In fairness to Boegman, he was only a few weeks into his term as chief electoral officer and probably didn’t realize the extent to which his narrow verdict on the wording the questions would be touted as a broad-brush endorsement of everything done by a partisan attorney general.
Still, for appearances of neutrality in the coming referendum, better if he’d passed on Horgan’s invitation. Instead the NDP set a trap and he walked straight into it.
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