By James Fife
Choice. It’s a pretty mysterious thing. While I have tried to articulate in these articles some of the reasons why Marilyn and I made the choice to take the plunge and uproot our lives from San Diego to Victoria, somehow I don’t feel I’ve ever quite hit on the essence of it. Maybe some of it too subtle to draw to the surface. Maybe it’s such a combination of many things that pointing them out individually loses something. Whatever the case, it’s often difficult to explain some choices we make, even ones that have big consequences in our lives.
For instance, after decades, I still can’t explain why—as I have mentioned previously—I spent two portions of my life involved in two rather different fields of endeavor: linguistics and law. I know I have had a long-standing interest in both, but I’m at a loss to explain why. Something inside me—early exposure or training or something less rational—instantly attracts me to language or law. And it is more than just a passing fancy, because it was enough to convince me to spend a lot of time and effort studying and then actively partaking. First as a teacher and researcher in theoretical linguists and then, later in life, as a lawyer practicing in the public sector. There’s no clear explanation for why these two areas. It makes we wonder if there is a third (or more) lurking inside me waiting to be sparked to life.
These ruminations on the mystery of choice come to me strongly now, because I am surrounded in both Home South and Home North with a public manifestation of choice in one of its synonymous forms: elections. An election is a choice. And given some of the choices I’ve seen made in that arena during the last few years, only deepens the mystery to me why people choose the way they do. I’m sure there are professionals in marketing and politics (as if those were different things) who have intricate theories about why people choose what they choose—and what can be done to influence that choice.
From my standpoint, it looks like political choices are no different from the other mysterious choices I was just mentioning. There may be a lot of overt considerations that can be identified, but there is probably an iceberg-like lower level of factors that contribute. For instance, my interest in Albanian verb structure or appellate review standards is so ingrained in me, I can’t fathom why Marilyn has so little concern for either. I suppose that prompted the saying “It takes all kinds to make a world.”
Which brings me back to my talk of elections. My interest in law all my life has naturally branched into politics. As I mentioned before, one of the fascinating areas of comparison for me has been the differences in politics and government North and South. It’s been a goldmine for ruminations in the years of transition, given the developments in the U.S. and their effects on Canada. I feel at times like the child of divorcing parents, being on the inside of a roiling relationship between two sides to which I have allegiances, old and new.
I’ve been comparing U.S. and Canadian systems recently in my efforts to possibly seek admission to the B.C. bar when the final move North comes. I’ve been intrigued by the many unexpected differences and striking similarities (under different labels) between American and Canadian law. It’s both intriguing and disturbing. Again, the two countries’ laws reflect different choices. Their laws and systems reflect many small factors that add up to a preference on how to do things. A very concrete example now comes up with the coming elections in California and B.C.
In California this year, all of our Congressmen and one Senator are up for a vote, as are all our state-wide officials. There are probably hundreds of candidates on the various local ballots across California, plus a dozen state measures and who knows how many local ones to vote on. Sounds like a lot of choices. But because of a choice made a few years back, one “choice” is remarkably limited. California now has a system of limiting the general election choice to the two top vote-getters at the primary election; no other party candidates or independents appear on the ballot. That means our “choice” for Senator this year is between two members of the same party. Good news for members of that party; not so good for anyone else.
B.C. faces a similar choice this election cycle in the vote on proportional representation. I am in favour of PR. In my travels, I’ve heard the debate on PR numerous times. The opponents always argue the same thing: the efficiency of winner-takes-all (as we say in the U.S.) or first-past-the-post (as we say in Canada). It avoids fragmented legislatures and indecision and inertia. But when I look at the U.S. Congress (definitely not selected under a PR regime) I don’t see unity, decisiveness, or momentum. Having just two choices (or one, like the California senatorial vote) may seem like efficiency, but there’s something very disturbing to me about squeezing all the myriad elements that I have mentioned go into choice down to just One or The Other. That just doesn’t seem to correspond to the way people choose, even for very important decisions for the rest of their lives.
So, as I have for years, I continue to back the use of PR, so that the many different aspects of choice can be more accurately reflected. This referendum is important, because the ground rules we set have important consequences for years to come. In the U.S., because we retain the equally outdated and anti-democratic system of an electoral college to select our presidents, we repeatedly (as in 2016) are saddled with a president that most voters did not choose. In the amazing world of B.C. politics, where a candidate can win a seat in a riding by less than a dozen votes, it downgrades the nearly equal number of voters who saw things differently. Not to mention the many who maybe voted a third way.
Like any choice, there can be positive and negative consequences of PR. The pluses greatly outweigh the minuses to my mind. Because, in the end, PR reflects that it’s your choice that matters. That will sometimes hurt and sometimes help particular parties or viewpoints. But it will always be more true to the truth. I wish we had that option in Home South. In Home North, in B.C., this November, we have that choice.