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Electoral Insight – New Ways of Building Democracy

Electoral Insight – November 1999

People Power – British Columbia's Experience with Recall

Robert A. Patterson
Chief Electoral Officer, British Columbia

British Columbia's Chief Electoral Officer argues that only wide support across the community will produce a successful recall campaign; factional interests alone cannot unseat a Member.

The Recall and Initiative Act, which provides British Columbia voters with a process to remove their Member of the Legislative Assembly, was passed in 1994 and brought into force in 1995.

The Act resulted from a referendum held in conjunction with the October 1991 provincial general election.

Two questions were asked in the referendum:

a) Should voters be given the right, by legislation, to vote between elections for the removal of their Member of the Legislative Assembly?

b) Should voters be given the right, by legislation, to propose questions that the government of British Columbia must submit to voters by referendum?

The questions were put to the voters as the result of an agreement between the Social Credit government of the day and the new Reform Party. In essence, the agreement was that, in exchange for having the direct democracy questions placed before the electorate, the Reform Party would not run a full slate of candidates at the next election, thus preventing the right wing vote from splitting.

The government was in the last few months of its five-year mandate when the Premier resigned. Under the new Premier, the government hoped to engage the Official Opposition New Democratic Party in the "direct democracy debate" during the election campaign, thus diverting the attention of voters from other issues. Unfortunately for the government, the Leader of the New Democrats stated early in the campaign that he was going to vote "Yes" to both questions and the debate never took place. In October 1991, the New Democrats formed the new government.

For question a, the "Yes" option received 81 percent of valid votes cast.

For question b, the "Yes" option received 83 percent of valid votes cast.

On June 23, 1992, the British Columbia Attorney General moved that the Select Standing Committee on Parliamentary Reform, Ethical Conduct, Standing Orders and Private Bills be empowered to examine and inquire into all matters and issues concerning the two referendum questions. The committee was referred the matter on March 25, 1993, and reported on November 23, 1993. Legislation was introduced on June 16, 1994.

Provisions of the Act

The recall legislation includes these basic provisions.

a) Upon a successful petition, the Member ceases to hold office and the seat of the Member in the Legislative Assembly becomes vacant.

b) An application for a recall petition cannot be made within 18 months of a Member's election. This would allow time for a Member, once elected, to learn the duties of the job. Additionally, this period would discourage the phenomenon of "sore losers" immediately sponsoring a recall to overturn the election.

c) Only those who were registered voters in the Member's electoral district at the time of the election and are still registered at the time of signing the petition, although not necessarily in the Member's district, are entitled to sign. The Committee was of the opinion that recall should be viewed as a "reconsideration" by the electors of the choice they made at the last election.

d) More than 40 percent of the eligible voters who were registered in the Member's electoral district at the time of the election must sign the petition in order for it to be successful. (Using today's figures, the required number of verified signatures could vary from a low of 5 800 to a high of 18 470.) The committee had recommended a 50 percent figure, but this was reduced during debate in the committee stage of the Bill. These figures were seen as sufficiently high to protect the public interest in that a Member would not be subject to harassment.

e) A proponent has 60 days in which to collect the required number of signatures. The proponent may be assisted by volunteers who are registered voters (anywhere in the province) and have been resident in the province for at least six months before registering with the Chief Electoral Officer as canvassers.

f) Once a petition is submitted, the Chief Electoral Officer has 42 calendar days in which to verify the signatures contained therein. Verification is done by scanning the petition sheets to create digital images. Each petition signer's voter record is searched for on the computerized, permanent provincial voters list. Where a match is found, the signer's digital signature from the petition is visually compared (on a split-screen monitor) with the voter's digital signature on file from the voter-registration application.

g) If sufficient matches are verified, the proponent's petition-financing report is filed on time, and the expense limit has not been exceeded, the petition is declared successful and the Member ceases to hold office. [Expense limit: base $25 000; increased by 25 cents for each registered voter in excess of 25 000; and this combined number is again increased, if the population density of the riding is less than two registered voters per square kilometre, by 15 cents times the number of square kilometres, to a maximum increase of 25 percent of the base figure.]

h) If a vacancy is created, the Chief Electoral Officer notifies both the Member and the Speaker, upon which the Speaker issues a warrant for the issue of a writ of by-election within 90 days.

i) The recalled Member can be a candidate in the by-election.

The Implementation of the Act

The 18-month hiatus for Members ended on November 28, 1997, and on that day two applications for recall petitions were filed with the Chief Electoral Officer; one against the Minister of Education, the Hon. Paul Ramsey, and the other against government MLA, Mr. Helmut Giesbrecht. Both Members represent geographically large districts, but with the majority of a stable population base concentrated in one or two communities.

As the government has a three-seat majority, both recall campaigns were seen by some as attempts by interest groups to oust the government by forcing by-elections that the government would supposedly lose. Both proponents put forward the position that the recall campaigns resulted from the Members' performance in their respective electoral districts.

Both campaigns became acrimonious and personal. There were allegations of influence and/or control coming from outside the districts, and there were allegations of voter intimidation. To some degree, there was outside participation, and the pressure felt by some who received letters from union leaders was seen as intimidation. The legislated requirement that the signed petition sheets must be available for public inspection at the end of the verification process was also seen as an intimidation factor.

The petition against the backbencher was withdrawn on the last day of the petition period (February 3, 1998), as the proponent claimed to have fallen some 1 500 signatures short of the number required. Rather than submit the signatures that had been canvassed, the proponent burned the petition sheets to prevent public inspection.

The petition against the Minister of Education was submitted on the February 3, 1998, due date. The line-by-line signature count determined that the petition contained 8 323 unverified signatures, 585 signatures short of the threshold number of verified signatures required. Consequently, the Chief Electoral Officer declared the petition unsuccessful, and no signature verification was undertaken.

The proponent sought a judicial review of the basis upon which the 40 percent threshold was established. In November 1998, the proponent announced his intention to withdraw his petition, and in December 1998, filed a Notice of Discontinuance, following disclosure by the New Democratic Party that their analysis of the recall petition sheets indicated only 6 521 possibly valid signatures.

Mocking the Legislation

Five subsequent recall petitions were issued between December 12, 1997, and January 27, 1998, including one against the Leader of the Official Opposition, Mr. Gordon Campbell, and a second against the Minister of Education. These were seen by the public as frivolous attempts to mock the legislation. For example, two reasons stated for recalls were: "We can't blame everything on El Niño", and "they desire recall so they may elect someone less boring". None of these attempts went further than the issuance of the petitions.

The seventh petitioner was more aggressive. The petition was against a government MLA, Ms. Evelyn Gillespie, in a semi-urban district. The Member contended that the recall was the result of a personal issue, claiming that the proponent was not satisfied with the Member's position vis--vis a child custody dispute in which the proponent was involved. The proponent contended that the recall was the result of the Member's failure to adequately convey the wishes of her constituents to government. The proponent was required to collect more than 17 048 valid signatures. Rather than organize a door-to-door canvass for signatures, the proponent relied on people to drop in at one of a few sign-up locations in the district. At the conclusion of the petition period, the proponent claimed the campaign had collected some 10 000 signatures but he declined to submit the signature sheets to the Chief Electoral Officer and opted to destroy them.

An MLA Resigns

A recall campaign organizer, Mark Robinson, gives boxes of petitions to Cassandra McClarnon at the reception desk of Elections BC.
A recall campaign organizer, Mark Robinson, gives boxes of petitions to Cassandra McClarnon at the reception desk of Elections BC.

The eighth petition was initiated after a community newspaper disclosed that an opposition MLA, Mr. Paul Reitsma, had penned a number of letters to the editor using fictitious names in which he criticized opponents and praised himself. Mr. Reitsma first denied doing so, but upon disclosure of additional material, he finally admitted to the authorship. This brought forward calls for the Member's resignation from many quarters, but Mr. Reitsma refused and the recall application followed after days.

The proponent was required to collect more than 17 020 signatures of registered voters. A very well co-ordinated campaign in the semi-urban electoral district, with the help of over 190 canvassers, was able to collect 25 470 signatures in the 60 days. The Member did not undertake any campaign in support of himself.

Upon the initial processing of the signature sheets, it was determined that there were 17 318 exact matches between names on the petition and the voters list, before signature verification. Another 2 945 names were identified as possible matches and the remaining 5 207 names did not have any immediately matching voter records.

Within a day of the start of the signature verification process, before the first set of signatures was verified, the Member tendered his resignation. Upon confirmation of the Member's resignation, there now being no Member to recall, in keeping with the intent of the Act and consistent with common sense, signature verification was halted.

Although the Member was not officially recalled under the legislation, the initial processing of the material submitted by the proponent clearly indicated that, had the Member not resigned, he would have been recalled.

In the late summer of 1998, allegations were published in provincial news media from an informant who claimed that there were unreported contributions and expenditures by the Members' anti-recall campaigns in Prince George North, Skeena and Comox Valley. On the heels of the published allegations, a third recall petition was launched against the Minister of Education, although no direct reference was made to the allegations in the proponent's statement of reasons for the recall. Issued October 7, this petition, too, was withdrawn on the return date of December 7. Again, citing media reports, 7 838 signatures had been gathered, about 1 000 less than the 8 908 verified signatures required to force a by-election.

Forensic Audits

As a result of the published allegations, on September 18, 1998, forensic accountant Ron Parks was engaged to conduct an investigation into the financial reporting of all recall participants from the three electoral districts. Prior to being made public on March 18, 1999, a draft of the report was provided to the RCMP and a special prosecutor was appointed by the Criminal Justice Branch of British Columbia's Ministry of the Attorney General. The decision was made not to proceed with administrative penalties or criminal prosecutions.

Although the investigation had identified recall activities by individuals and organizations other than authorized participants, Mr. Parks and the special prosecutor indicated that portions of the Recall and Initiative Act were difficult to interpret or subject to misinterpretation. Most errors identified in the financing reports were minor in nature; however, a number of authorized participants were required to submit supplemental financial reports to ensure full disclosure of contributions and expenditures.

The auditor and special prosecutor also indicated that the unique and untested nature of the legislation may have contributed to the errors and misunderstandings. Accordingly, the office of the Chief Electoral Officer of British Columbia is taking steps to ensure better understanding of and compliance with the Act, and will, in addition, table with the Legislature a report on the recall process.

Community Support Is Vital

The experience of these recalls seems to indicate that a great deal of community support is required for a campaign to be successful. It cannot be a strictly political exercise by one faction to unseat a member of another faction; there must be wide support across the political spectrum.


Note: 

The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.