Opinion: STV - yes or no?


Electoral Reform in B.C.: If Not Now, When?

by David J. Mitchell, President & CEO of the Public Policy Forum; a former member of the B.C. legislature.

David J. MitchellIn the looming provincial election, British Columbians have two important choices to make. One will decide who will represent them in the legislature for the next four years - an important decision, to be sure. The second choice, however, has a potentially farther reaching impact. In fact, the referendum on electoral reform could affect democracy in British Columbia for generations to come. In this sense, one can argue that it'sthe more important decision.

B.C. is establishing itself as the foremost laboratory of electoral reform in Canada. As a result, many observers outside the province will be keenly watching the election results on May 12 and not only to see which party will govern the province. Indeed, if British Columbians vote in favour of changing their electoral system to the Single Transferable Vote, pent-up frustrations in other jurisdictions will almost certainly be unleashed as well.

Of course, this won't be easy. Nor should it be. Changing the basis of our democratic franchise should require careful thought and a clear and strong majority.

Last time around, in 2005, B.C. voters came tantalizingly close to approving this major reform. This was after the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform had studied the matter carefully and made a thoughtful recommendation in favour of the STV. Some critics said that the proposed new system was too complicated. In spite of that, in the referendum accompanying the last provincial election, a majority of the ballots cast in almost every electoral district were in favour of the STV and 57.7% of the voters province-wide supported the initiative - less than 3% shy of the 60%. So close!

Many observers were surprised by the astonishing level of support in favour of a reform that represented historic change. To the government's credit, a commitment was made to put the question to the electorate again, this time with more information and public funding to those for and against. So, here we go again.

What's at stake? The opportunity to reform a system that was established in centuries past and was based at the time on the votes of a small number of male landowners. The STV represents a modern, democratic and much more representative system that would see the legislature actually reflect the diversity of the broader community.

Other critics of the STV suggest that it will increase the likelihood of minority governments. This may not necessarily occur. But even if it did, wouldn't occasional minority governments be preferable to any single party with less than a majority forming an all-powerful government capable of making decisions without considering the concerns of groups not otherwise represented in the legislature?

Change, no matter how well conceived, will always be threatening to some. What seems evident though, is that the current system, with its antiquated and rigid party structure, implies that on most issues of public policy, there are only two possible perspectives: government and opposition. In reality, British Columbians understand that the world is more complex. Therefore, perhaps a somewhat more complex balloting system is necessary in order for a broader spectrum of views to be represented in the legislature.

The limitations and absurdities of the current first-past-the-post system are well known. In 1996 although the Liberals earned the largest number of votes province-wide, the NDP formed a majority government with less than 40% of the ballots cast. In 2001, the Liberals won 97% of the seats in the legislature (77 of 79) with less than 58% of British Columbians' support.

Such vagaries and inconsistencies are the unfortunate hallmark of the present and dated system of voting. British Columbians once again have the opportunity to lead the way in Canada by approving the STV in the upcoming referendum. If not now, when?

Don't take a chance on STV

by David Schreck, Secretary-Treasurer, No STV

David SchrekOn May 12, B.C. voters will be asked if they want to adopt a complicated voting system that is only used in Ireland, Malta, Tasmania and a few foreign municipalities, but that is not the way the question will be worded. The referendum question asks whether voters prefer our current system or the Single Transferable Vote (STV).

Our current First-Past-the-Post electoral system is easy to understand - the candidate with the most votes wins and represents one single riding. The party that wins the most ridings forms government.

The Single Transferable Vote would create giant ridings of up to seven members of the Legislative Assembly representing over 300,000 people - losing local accountability and responsibility of MLAs to voters.

STV's complicated voting system means your single vote will be fractionalized and distributed so that you may never know how it was counted. You can mark your preferences but you have no control over what part of your single vote gets distributed to any of your preferences.

STV supporters use the analogy of your vote being like a dollar and you decide to spend it on several candidates, but that is misleading because STV does not allow you to determine whether your first preference gets 50 cents, 10 cents or nothing at all. How much is spent on each candidate depends entirely on how the vote count unfolds.

Those who vote for sure losers, like the Work Less Party, get to have their vote transferred at full value to their second choice, but those who cast a serious vote have their second preference count for a small fraction of a vote. What's fair about giving sure losers a second vote and serious voters a small fraction?

No STV is confident that those who watch the short video (prepared by the Citizens' Assembly) explanation of how the Single Transferable Vote count takes place will reject; so confident that it is posted on the top of the No STV website.

STV replaces local representation with regional representation by a group of MLAs, who would be hard to hold accountable for their actions. Proponents claim that there are no safe seats with STV, but with STV many politicians in Ireland hang on for over thirty years.

Their parties run only as many candidates in each area as they think they can elect, thereby creating safe seats and increasing the power of political parties who determine who they nominate to be members of parliament. That reduces the choice available to voters.

Our First-Past-the-Post system is used by much of the world, including the United Kingdom, the United States, India and Canada. STV is used only in Ireland and Malta to determine representation in a national parliament.

No STV takes no position on whether other electoral systems – such as Mixed Member Proportional – might be an improvement but if BC-STV is not rejected by voting for First-Past-the-Post system, BC-STV will be in place for a recommended minimum of three elections – until 2025!

Changing how we vote for MLAs won't change politics for the better and it might make it considerably worse, if Ireland's nasty politics are any indication. Supporters of STV make many claims about STV but they cannot point to anywhere in the world where STV produces the results they claim it does.

In this election the Green Party is supporting STV, but in 2004 it submitted a brief to the Citizens' Assembly strongly opposing STV. They interviewed the Green Party in Ireland and reported to the Assembly on how it actually works.

You can get that brief on the top of the links page on the No STV website. The Green Party in Ireland was asked whether their members of parliament ever broke with the party whip and they replied that it would make national headlines if that ever happened.

Vote First-Past-The-Post on May 12 – don't take a chance on STV.