People often ask me about the differences between the U.S. and Canadian electoral systems. There are many, but one stands out as the most important.

Individual candidates hardly matter in British Columbia elections.

Canadians vote first of all for the party, its record or its campaign promises. And there’s a valid reason for this party-first voting tradition.

An MLA in B.C. is expected to publicly support and vote the party line. Every time. Without exception.

While differences of opinion may be tolerated during private caucus sessions, an MLA who dares to criticize his or her party or to vote against their party can expect a swift eviction notice. Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson discovered this hard truth in 2010 when he criticized his party leader on a community website.

Political parties learned long ago that if they failed to pass a piece of legislation, the public would lose confidence in them, and that, in turn, would make another general election unavoidable and its outcome uncertain.

So party leaders acquired the power to discipline MLAs who fall out of line.

And to keep them in line, well-behaved MLAs receive rewards. Some get cabinet appointments, some get travel junkets, some get pork barrel benefits for their ridings and some get other coveted appointments; the list of possible benefits is long.

As a result, most individual Members of the Legislative Assembly in a parliamentary democracy are much less powerful than members of American state legislatures or the U.S. Congress. In the U.S. system, Republicans and Democrats frequently swing their votes across party lines based on specific constituency interests. Not so much on the Big Ticket issues.

But this ability to vote independently of party affiliation, bestows greater importance on individual candidates in the U.S. system than in British Columbia.

On the flip side, it also makes American elected officials more vulnerable to the influence of lobbyists. Without a party leader telling you how to vote, the temptations dangled by outside interests, who aren’t accountable to voters, can be persuasive.

It’s also clear in B.C. politics that only the select few in the premier’s tight group of confidents have any significant impact on party policy. This is also true in the U.S. system. But as U.S. President Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan have discovered, a fracture in party unity can disrupt the plans of the boys and girls at the top.

So, unless a candidate in B.C. is embroiled in some scandal or ranks high enough in the party to have a material impact on policy, the local campaign rarely hinges on the record or actions of an individual candidate.

And that’s what makes the May 9 provincial election difficult for many voters.

What if, for example, you dislike the B.C. Liberal Party’s policies on education, the environment and government transparency … and maybe you have a particular aversion to party leader Christy Clark..

Maybe you just think that after 16 years it’s time for fresh faces in Victoria.

But what if you find the Liberal candidate more likable, smarter and more sympathetic on the local issues that concern you than the NDP candidate?

You might consider voting Green or Conservative, but if you’re at all pragmatic, you know neither of those parties has a chance to win.

If you’re interested in the direction of British Columbia generally, and how it fits with your world-view, rather than only your personal interests or those of your specific community, you have no choice.

You must base your vote on party policy, not on the appeal of any individual candidate.

 

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