A vote for change?

One of the most interesting outcomes of the HST referendum has little to do with taxes and fiscal policy: the participation rate in the referendum.

One of the most interesting outcomes of the HST referendum has little to do with taxes and fiscal policy: the participation rate in the referendum.

According to early analysis by Elections BC, 1.6 million voters took the time to mark their HST ballots and mail them in.

This represents 52 per cent of registered voters in the province, roughly the same percentage that voted in the 2009 provincial general election.

Putting aside all the bluster about which side this turnout benefits, the more intriguing question is how we got these unexpectedly high numbers?  After all, this was a referendum held in the summer on a relatively complicated taxation issue, falling on the heels of a federal election, and interrupted by a postal strike. Why didn’t most voters toss their package in the recycling bin or leave it somewhere to collect dust? (Well, some 48 per cent did do that).

Compelling arguments are made from various perspectives. Some have suggested the motivation for voters to register their opinion on the HST came from anger brewing over the past two years. Others have claimed that having only two clear options meant that people perceived their vote as important in a simple majority result. Or maybe people voted because they always do. Whatever the reason, it is interesting that the mail-in ballot did not deter voters, as some had speculated it might. It may have actually encouraged more people to vote than otherwise would have with a traditional process.

There are a number of critics of online or mail-in voting, equipped with valid concerns about potential fraud and privacy. Those concerns need to be addressed. But they shouldn’t prevent change from occurring.

The province recently rejected a pilot project by the City of Vancouver that would have tested online voting in the upcoming municipal elections. That is unfortunate.

Despite some complaints, so far it seems the mail-in HST referendum was successful in terms of participation. Was it a victory for democracy? Not quite — still only half the population actually voted. But this experience may suggest that B.C. voters are ready for more options than the traditional ballot box.

Bob Simpson is the Independent MLA for Cariboo North.

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