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Even though the election writ hasn’t been dropped, the unofficial election campaign in P.E.I. is surely underway.
Accelerated nominations and government announcements – among them, to bring high speed internet to rural P.E.I. and to build more affordable housing units across the province – are signs the incumbent Liberals are gearing up for a spring vote.
And, depending on how much stock you put in opinion polls that predict a tight three-way race among the Liberals, Progressive Conservatives and Greens, it could be one of the closest in years.
Could it be so close that two candidates wind up with exactly the same number of votes in one of the 27 electoral districts? Unlikely, but possible.
On election night in 2015, Liberal incumbent Alan McIsaac finished with two votes more than PC candidate Mary-Ellen McInnis. But after a judicial recount, they were tied with 1,173 votes apiece. On P.E.I., there’s only one way to break such a tie.
According to Section 102 of the P.E.I Election Act, “the returning officer shall, in the presence of at least two of the persons authorized to be present under subsection 94(1), toss a coin to determine the winning candidate.”
Yes, the winner of a tie vote is decided by flipping a coin. Who gets to call heads or tails? As it turns out, neither candidate. In an interview after he won the coin toss, McIsaac said the chief electoral officer explained that rules set up beforehand meant the candidate whose last name was closest to the first letter of the alphabet would be given “heads”. In this case, the first three letters of the candidates’ last names were the same – MCI – so the fourth letter would be used. On that basis McInnis was awarded heads, McIssac tails.
“The DRO for our riding flipped the coin and it came up tails,” McIsaac told then CBC host Evan Soloman. “The fourth letter in our names decided the fate, you’re exactly right.”
Fair? Maybe, but surely there’s a better way.
In B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, and N.L., a byelection is called to determine the winner of a tie-vote. I think that’s the fairest way to go, better than in Ontario and N.B. where the returning officer casts the deciding ballot and far better than in N.S., where the winner’s name is drawn out of a box.
I don’t expect the next session of the legislature will last much longer than it takes the Liberals to present and pass a budget before going to the polls.
But if there is time, there should be an amendment to the Election Act to change the tie-breaking mechanism from a coin toss to a byelection.
In 2015, the Liberals would have had a majority government with or without the seat that was awarded to them by the coin toss.
But another time, especially if it’s a close election where three parties get more than a handful of seats, it could mean the difference between a majority or a minority government, or a party that’s left holding the balance of power.
That’s a decision that should be made only by voters, not by a coin toss that should have been amended out of existence years ago.
Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.