Election, part 4: STV – Can democracy be reinvigorated in BC?

[Part of a set of four bulletins about land reform and the 2005 BCelection. Shorter versions of these articles appear in the April issueof Lands & People.]

In this era of spin doctors,pollsters, and party discipline, we seldom hear politicians speak withsincerity, from their heart. Political statements are usuallyrestricted to what the powers-that-be in that particular politicalparty have determined to be the issue of the day. As a result it feelslike the information coming out of our political process has gonethrough multiple wash cycles and arrives at our door only when it issanitized beyond obvious meaning and often loaded with disguised intentlike a computer virus.

Politics, which used to be battles overideas and policies fought out on doorsteps and in town halls, with theoccasional whistle-stop appearance, is now largely clashes ofadvertising budgets and spin doctors.

Statesmen have been replaced with salesmen. And politicians are no longer regarded as heroes, but as clever used car dealers.

Underour current first-past-the-post system voter turnout levels aredropping. Youth, First Nations, immigrants and people with low incomesno longer view their vote as a responsibility but as superfluous.

Thesetrends are exacerbated when our electoral system allows a party withthe minority of votes to win a majority government (as in 1996), orwhen a strong electoral showing can produce an overwhelming majority inthe legislature (as in 2001).

Such distortions underminedemocracy. That’s why most British Columbians want change. Agroundswell of support for electoral reform led the BC Liberals toconvene a Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, an independent,non-partisan assembly of citizens formed to examine how our votesdetermine who gets elected to sit in the BC Legislature.

Whilewe have been critical of the BC Liberals’ commitment to open andtransparent government on forestry, mining and oil and gas issues, wehave to recognize them for the Assembly. We are not aware of anotherexample of a government giving a randomly selected group of citizensthe power to investigate electoral systems and propose an alternative.

TheCitizens’ Assembly recommended that BC adopt the single-transferablevote system (STV). More than 80% of the members endorsed STV, whileless than 20% wanted a mixed member proportional system (MMP) such asAdriane Carr had advocated in 2003.

British Columbians willvote in a referendum on STV on May 17, 2005 as part of the nextprovincial election. To pass, the referendum would have to be approvedby 60% of all voters, and by a simple majority of voters in 60% of the79 electoral districts. If the voters endorse a new system, thegovernment has promised it will enact the system by the followingprovincial election, in 2009.

How does STV work?
Singletransferable vote retains the same number of ridings (79) as thecurrent system. However, ridings would be combined so that some urbanridings would elect as many as seven MLAs, and rural constituencies asfew as two. The current ratio of voters to MLAs would not change. Thenew map of electoral districts would be drawn up by the provincialElectoral Boundaries Commission, with public input.

Voterswould still have a single ballot paper under BC-STV, but they will useit to rank the candidates in order of preference. Voters rank as manyor as few candidates as they wish.

A weighting system duringballot-counting ensures those candidates with the highest preferencesare elected. Limited space in this newsletter prevents a fullexplanation of how the votes are counted. However, if you areinterested, sign up for Dogwood Initiative’s online town hall, date andtime to be announced on our home page. During this session, we willexplain the system, answer questions and host speakers for and againstthe system.

One thing that can’t be debated is that STV,uniquely, increases the likelihood that at least a portion of everyvote goes to elect a candidate of the voter’s choice. The voter’s firstpreference is the most important. Other preferences will only be usedto support another candidate if the voter’s first choice has no chanceof getting elected or has more than enough support to get elected.

Arguments in favour of STV

Results would be more proportional

Althoughthe STV system doesn’t guarantee proportional representation, the wayMMP and other systems do, under STV a party winning 57.6% of the votewould not get 75 seats more than the party that wins 21.6% of the vote,as happened in 2001. Although our analysis indicates that claims offull proportionality under the STV system are exaggerated, it would atleast prevent the wild disproportionality possible under the currentsystem. And results from jurisdictions such as the Australia (where theSenate is elected via STV) suggest that the results can be fairlyproportional.

It lessens the power of political parties
Proponentsargue that by increasing voter choice–voters have more options on theballot, and thus more power–the control of parties over candidateswill lessen. Since candidates will be elected as individuals, they aremore likely to take independent positions and not just follow thedirection of the leader. Supporters of STV also like the fact that thevoters choose individuals, rather than having to put all or part oftheir vote to a particular party, and let that party choose its MLAsfrom a list.

Smaller parties have a better chance
Underthe current system, small parties have no chance. As a result, theLegislature lacks diversity. Under STV, there is a good chance thatindividuals from smaller parties would get seats: not only the GreenParty, but others as well. People may play safe with their firstranking, but rank fringe candidates second or third, based on themerits of the individual candidate, or the voter’s support for theparty’s position on a particular issue.

Arguments against STV

Results would not be proportional enough

Thereis no guarantee the results would be proportional at all. The resultsmay be more proportional, but it is mathematically possible for them tobe the same as under the current system. The fringe parties thatreceive a few per cent of the popular vote are still unlikely to reachthe threshold of support needed to gain seats: see the next argumentfor an example.

It gives an advantage to the conservative vote
Opponentsargue that the number of members a riding will host is an absolutelykey factor in all considerations about the partisan fairness of STV.Combined with the tendency of rural voters to be more conservative andurban voters to be more liberal, the argument goes, the smaller numberof MLAs in the combined (2- or 3-person) ridings in rural areas and thelarger number (up to 7) in urban areas will disproportionately resultin more conservative MLAs being elected.

That statement may becounter-intuitive at first. The argument goes like this: in a smallerriding with 2 MLAs, a candidate in the STV system needs 34% of votes toensure victory. If, say, 30% of the electorate prefers liberal orprogressive candidates and mostly ranks them highest, and 70% preferredconservatives, it’s certain the first candidate elected would beconservative. That candidate needs support from less than half of theconservative voters, though, which leaves more than half of their votesfree for the next most popular conservative candidate. In this mix, the30% who don’t support any of the conservative candidates are unlikelyto see their preferred politicians elected. Conversely, in an urban,seven-member riding, only 13% is required to elect an MLA. Here, aconservative minority will likely be able to get their candidateselected.

In the abstract, this argument has some strength. It’shard to be sure how it would play out with real numbers, but if theconservative political parties (the Liberal Party an d others such asthe Unity Party) run a strategically low number of candidates in ruralridings, they’re likely to squeeze o
ut all the liberal vote. Thisproblem would disappear if all ridings had the same number of MLAs(e.g. 8 ten-member ridings or 20 four-member ridings). If the number ofMLAs correspond to the population of the riding, however, that solutionwould create vast ridings in rural areas, which exacerbates the nextcomplaint about STV.

Large size of rural ridings decreases accountability
Anotherconcern about STV is that rural ridings are larger than underfirst-past-the-post. Rural ridings are already large: merging them willmean that vast, diverse regions will all vote for the same pair or trioof MLAs. The degree of local representation will drop. Acounterargument, however, is that under the STV proposal, provincialridings will be no larger than existing federal ridings.

STV creates potential for gerrymandering
Althoughit hasn’t been discussed much, the potential exists to water downconservative or liberal votes by consciously merging, say, threeridings that tend to vote one way with one that votes the other, e.g. 3conservative ridings with one liberal riding. For example, combiningVancouver-Hastings with North Vancouver-Seymour, WestVancouver-Garibaldi and West Vancouver-Capilano. This would mean thatis was very unlikely that a liberal or progressive candidate would beelected. Canadians like to think this wouldn’t happen here, but weshouldn’t discount the chance that bizarre ridings could be created. Aclose examination of recent gerrymandering throughout the U.S. cannotbe dismissed as a possibility in BC.

Conclusion

Eachelection, there is widespread frustration with the inequitable resultsof our first-past-the-post system. People want change, or at least agood public conversation about alternatives. That conversation isfinally getting under way, sparked by Adriane Carr’s promotion of theMixed Member Proportional system, and then by the Citizens’ Assemblyand its STV proposal.

We at Dogwood Initiative haven’t made upour minds whether STV is the best system. We do believe, however, thatthe dialogue about the best system is healthy and necessary if ourdemocracy is to renew itself and move toward a civil society. Thepublic conversation is just starting, and the STV system iscomplicated, so we suspect that it will fail to meet the high thresholdfor approval on May 17. The worst case scenario is that support for STVis so low, that the debate about the best electoral system dies on itstender new vine. For that reason, we encourage you to support STV, evenif you’re not sure about it. Doing so will, in all likelihood, be avote for continued dialogue, rather than a nail in the coffin of ourcurrent system. And that can only be good.

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