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To STV or not to STV… that is the (referendum) question

How it works, and why B.C. should, or should not, vote ‘yes’ for the Single Transferable Vote System

"He passed a series of observation monitors let into the walls behind plates of toughened but still badly scratched perspex. One of them showed some horrible green scaly reptilian figure ranting and raving about the Single Transferable Vote system. It was hard to tell whether he was for or against it, but he clearly felt very strongly about it. Ford turned the sound down."

— Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Book Four: So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

"STV strikes me as the worst possible option that could be recommended, which probably accounts for why it’s principally used just in Ireland and Malta and hasn’t spread."

— David Schreck

"Some people say to me, ‘don’t fix it if it ain’t broke, and the system ain’t broken’, to which I say ‘where have you been for the last four years? There’s no opposition government, just a deflated NDP minority… STV could be what this province needs."

— Norman Ruff

There’s always some debate about exactly what Greek philosophers had in mind when they coined the concept of democracy more than 2,000 years ago as a means to rule their disorganized clusters of city states. But it’s a safe bet that even the ancient Greeks – who invented mathematics and science – would be at a loss to explain modern party politics, where the party that wins the most jurisdictions or votes, even by the slimmest of margins, calls the shots for the next three to five years.

And the lengths that political parties go to in order to win the majority of ridings is astounding – kissing babies…putting on hard hats and nodding thoughtfully at construction sites… repeating carefully scripted buzzwords until they get stuck in voters’ heads… bashing the character and competency of other candidates… even making promises they have no intention of keeping.

It’s enough to turn anyone’s stomach. It’s no wonder that people are staying away from the ballot box in droves these days – especially young people who are more prone to being idealistic. In the 2001 provincial election only 27 per cent of British Columbians aged 18 to 24 bothered to cast a ballot.

There’s also a strong sentiment among voters that the political system we currently enjoy is broken – true representation appears to be impossible when the makeup of legislative bodies, like the Legislature in British Columbia, does not actually reflect how the people voted.

The last two provincial elections have driven this point home with relish. In the 2001 election the B.C. Liberal Party won 58 per cent of the popular vote, but through our First Past The Post single member riding system, they managed to claim 77 of 79 seats in the Legislature, or 97 per cent of all seats.

The NDP Party, which won 22 per cent of the popular vote, earned just two seats. The Green Party, which earned 12.3 per cent of the vote, came away with no seats at all.

When you consider the fact that only 55.1 per cent of all eligible voters in the province bothered to cast a ballot in 2001, that means only 31.9 per cent, or less than a third of all eligible voters, cast votes for the Liberal Party – hardly an overwhelming mandate, but still enough to take 77 of 79 seats.

The Liberal Party itself got the short end of the post in the 1996 election. They won the popular vote by more than 40,000 ballots, claiming 41.8 per cent of all votes. Yet the NDP, which won just 39.5 per cent of the popular vote, took the majority of the Legislature with 39 seats to the Liberal Party’s 33.

In that election just 58 per cent of all eligible voters decided the outcome, which means that the 39.5 per cent of voters that went for the NDP reflected just 23 per cent or less than one quarter of all eligible voters.

After these elections, the cry of "electoral reform" was taken up by citizens and shortchanged political parties across the province.

That cry was answered.

The Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform

In 2003 the Liberal government commissioned the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform through an Order-In-Council. It’s mission: To "assess models for electing Members of the Legislative Assembly and issue a report recommending whether the current model for these elections should be adopted."

The Citizens Assembly was comprised of two representatives from every riding that were selected by a supposedly impartial process. After almost a year of weighing the merits and minuses of voting alternatives currently at use around the world, such as preferential ballots and proportional representation, the members voted.

Of the 158 members of the assembly, just 11 voted to keep the current First Past The Post (FPTP) system in B.C. And, after weighing the various alternatives, members voted 123 to 31 in favour of the Single Transferable Vote system, as opposed to the mixed member proportional system that is in use in countries like Germany and New Zealand.

It was a controversial choice – STV is a bit of an unknown and of all forms of proportional representation it represents the most radical change to the current system of government. Currently the only countries using STV are the Republic of Ireland and Malta. Regional districts using STV include the Australian state of Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory, and the Australian Senate.

The STV system was actually invented in the 19 th century, and has had a colourful history. It has been widely used in electoral districts in the U.S. and Canada in the early 20 th century, but was repealed for a variety of reasons – mostly for being a little too democratic. Legislative bodies got bogged down at times, parties struggled, parties formed coalitions, and the wrong people sometimes got elected. Some U.S. jurisdictions did away with STV when African Americans and communists were elected.

For B.C., where there are a handful of viable political parties, but little party loyalty among voters, the proposed BC-STV will no doubt complicate things for politicians and the party system.

Still, when British Columbians go to the polls on May 17, proponents of the STV system are confident that people will vote ‘yes’ to a referendum adopting the STV system.

It won’t be easy. For the referendum to pass a full 60 per cent of voters and a majority of voters in 48 ridings will need to vote ‘yes’ to this question: "Should British Columbia change to the BC-STV electoral system as recommended by the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform? Yes/No"

Right now, the vote could go either way, with the majority of British Columbians still undecided. An Ipsos-Reid poll taken in February revealed that only half of voters were aware of the referendum, and two-thirds of people who were aware didn’t understand how the BC-STV system would work.

A smaller poll taken on Vancouver Island found that approximately 30 per cent of voters were for STV, 20 per cent were against and 50 per cent didn’t know or had not yet decided.

The "yes" side in B.C. is led by an optimistic and underfunded group called the Yes Campaign. They believe that the end result, if the referendum is successful, will be more democratic representation in the Legislative Assembly, more compromise between party platforms, and better government.

Elections B.C. is helping by getting the information out, and the STV vote is part of election media coverage, but otherwise it’s a very grass roots movement.

The "no" side is generally led by political commentators who either support the current single member riding system or would have preferred to see another type of electoral reform other than BC-STV brought into place. Among other reasons, many believe that STV will result in minority governments and coalitions that will ultimately be less effective and more chaotic than governments elected under the current system.

The "no" side is not funded per se, but includes well-placed and influential editorialists at The Vancouver Sun, The Province and The Victoria Times-Colonist, as well as political commentators for the CBC radio and CKNW. The fact that none of the major political parties in the province will back the STV is also significant – even the Green Party, which arguably has the most to gain, has decided to stay out of the campaign.

The debate is raging fast and furious on radio shows, on editorial pages and on the Internet, and it’s safe to say that the argument will only get louder as May 17 and the election draw nearer.

STV: What is it and how does it work

The Single Transferable Vote system is considered by its supporters to be simple and by its detractors as needlessly complex. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

The basic premise of STV is that votes shouldn’t be "wasted." For example, if you decide to vote for a Green Party candidate, knowing full well the candidate has little or no chance against the Liberal or NDP candidates, your ballot will be counted but won’t really count for anything.

To prevent your vote from being wasted, STV would give each voter the chance to pick candidates based on their preference by ranking their choices on a ballot.

At the same time ridings would be expanded in size and voters would elect anywhere from two to seven MLAs to allow for proportional representation, or a more accurate reflection of the popular vote within a BC-STV riding. The number of MLAs elected for all of B.C. will remain at 79.

The major parties would likely run more than one candidate in each riding. As a result, if you were a diehard Liberal Party supporter you could still vote for two to seven Liberal candidates in your riding, according to preference.

But if you wanted to vote for individual candidates rather than a single party, you could rank your preferences any way you want – preference number one could go to the Liberal, number two to a Green Party candidate, number three for another Green Party member, number four for your favourite NDP candidate and so on.

Where it gets a little tricky is tabulating the votes.

In each riding, a candidate would have to receive a predetermined quota of votes. In a riding where seven MLAs are elected, that quota would be just over 14 per cent.

All voters’ first preferences are counted. If a candidate is elected by meeting the quota, all "extra" votes are then transferred to the voter’s next preference.

If no one is elected after that point, the candidate with the fewest votes is dropped and their votes are transferred to the voter’s next preference, and so on and so on, until all of the spots are filled. A riding could go through a dozen iterations or more before a candidate is selected.

The exact methodology for establishing ridings and electing MLAs was made available by the Citizens Assembly in December in a 280-page technical report, but judging by the negative views of some commentators, it still doesn’t answer all questions or concerns.

Still, with the BC-STV system not coming into effect until the May 2009 election, assuming the referendum is successful, there’s lots of time to clarify the details. Voters may not get another chance like this for a long time.

At the same time, the "no" side believes that the public does not have enough information to make a choice and that the process has been misleading. Since the province will be locked into whatever is decided for at least the next few election cycles, they would like people to exercise caution and vote against changing the system.

The case for BC-STV: Norman Ruff changes his mind

Dr. Norman Ruff, the eminent professor of Political Science at the University of Victoria and a familiar face in provincial politics for the past 36 years, has had a change of heart. He was originally opposed to the BC-STV system for various reasons, including concerns over representation in B.C.’s sparsely populated rural northern areas. But, taking the long view, he believes that the province should at least try STV because the current system is not working.

"I was skeptical at first but I’ve come around to thinking it would be a good idea to try it," said Dr. Ruff. "I’m giving neutral talks on STV, explaining the history of it and so on, but I don’t mind telling you I’m going to vote ‘yes’ personally."

Dr. Ruff said he likes the idea of personal preferences coming into play when ballots are counted. If your first choice isn’t elected, there’s still a chance that your second or third choice will get enough votes.

"It’s not just marking an ‘X’. It gives me as a voter a much more effective choice in choosing a representative," he said. "If I’m a committed party supporter, I get to rank people within the same party, kind of like an American-style primary election. And if there’s a candidate from another party that would make a good representative, I can give some of my preference to them as well – even to an independent.

"If there’s five MLAs for a riding, chances are that you’ll have voted for at least one of those five. I think that makes the system a lot more accessible for some people, and leaves them feeling that they have at least some representation that they can turn to."

By allowing voters to choose preferences even between candidates from the same party, Ruff acknowledges that it will diminish the political party system in some ways – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

"If you look at what’s going on in Ottawa with the whole Gomery Inquiry and the party nomination process… there’s a certain unease over the control that parties have over the political process."

But while the STV system will prevent another 2001 election happening in B.C – where the party with less than 60 per cent of votes wins 97 per cent of the seats – Ruff believes it will still be possible for parties that don’t have the largest share of the popular vote to win a majority of seats in close elections.

The creation of large ridings in the north and Interior will also be an issue – although there will be the same number of MLAs for a given area, having just two candidates in a large area will limit choice and the value of proportional representation. In many ways it will continue to function like the First Past The Post system, where votes for alternative candidates will still be wasted. "I think you need a minimum of three candidates to give voters the kind of choice they need to make this system work in rural areas," said Ruff. "Otherwise there won’t be much difference from the current system."

Despite a few drawbacks, after reviewing the positive and negative aspects, Ruff has decided that the positives will carry the day.

"Every political science professor will tell you the same thing, and that there’s no perfect political system anywhere in the world. Every system has its ups and downs," he said. "That said I think you have to go with the system that is the most representative, where all votes are counted, and where, at the end of the day, the makeup of government resembles the way people voted."

He says minority governments are also not as bad as BC-STV opponents are suggesting.

"Canadians have learned to fear that, to say that minority governments are unstable. Certainly (Prime Minister Paul) Martin’s current situation and Italy, where there is full-fledged (proportional representation) do come to mind, but to look at the data around the world it’s not that bad when a coalition government forms. B.C. is likely to see a coalition government of some kind, and coalition governments are as stable as majority governments," said Ruff.

The referendum is going to be a long shot says Ruff because British Columbians are not as aware of the BC-STV referendum as they should be, and it takes a while to properly understand how it works and what the benefits are.

"What I fear is that people will go to the polls and decide they don’t know enough about it, and refuse the ballot. In my mind that’s the worst thing that could happen, that people decide not to vote on the issue because they don’t have the information," said Ruff.

"Some people say they have to understand it; they just have to understand that it works. But I can really see it from the other side. You want to make an informed choice, and this is a really complex thing for most people to understand in the kind of time frame we’re talking about."

Even if the referendum goes through, there could be very little change in 2009 because B.C. will take a while to understand the benefits of voting for candidates from more than one party.

"The thing about STV, it’s the oldest form of proportional representation out there, it goes back to the mid 19 th century when it was first developed. At the same time it’s always had a hurdle of being unfamiliar, and because it’s not as easy to understand as First Past the Post it’s always been a hard sell," Ruff added.

"Something like this could only come from something like the Citizens Assembly – ordinary people being asked to say what they value, what they’re looking for. Given the flavour of electoral reform of the past decade, it was a unique decision. A mixed member system could have been more comfortable for everyone, but it wouldn’t have the same effect on the party system. STV is a more radical change because it puts so much power in the hands of an individual voter.

"It will be very interesting to see what happens."

The case against BC-STV – David Schreck holds his ground

As an NDP supporter, one would think that David Schreck would be in favour of the BC-STV because of the potential to increase NDP representation in the Legislature. He’s not.

Schreck is one of the leading political commentators in B.C., serving as an MLA for North Vancouver Lonsdale from 1991 to 1996 and as a periodic Special Advisor and media spokesperson to the Premier of British Columbia from November 1998 to Jan. 2001.

Schreck is featured on the Rafe Mair radio show every Friday morning, and on the Joe Easingwood show on CFAX every Thursday. He writes articles almost daily for his online website,, and has contributed commentary to provincial newspapers.

Since the BC-STV option was introduced, Schreck has been one of the most outspoken critics of the system, even if it would help the NDP return to power.

"In 2001, and I say this as a staunch NDP supporter, the amazing thing was that we elected two members, not that we were nearly wiped out," said Schreck.

"There was a huge public reaction against the NDP. And the way our system of government works, where you elect one member for a riding… normally if you got just 22 per cent of the vote you wouldn’t expect to elect anybody.

"A lot of people believe you shouldn’t elect anyone unless you have 50 per cent plus one in a constituency. In B.C. we can elect people with 38 per cent of the constituents because we have a plurarilty of parties, but with the BC-STV we will elect people with 14 per cent of support. I don’t think anyone with 14 per cent support deserves a seat in the Legislature."

According to Schreck, the entire BC-STV premise is flawed, from the Citizens Assembly that chose it, to the question he feels is biased in favour of a "yes" vote.

"They’ve been comparing the selection of the Citizens Assembly to a jury, but that is completely bogus," he said. Not only was service in the Assembly completely optional, you had to have enough free time to take part, "so it’s not a random sample, it’s a biased sample of people that participated… and had an interest in changing the electoral system," said Schreck.

Assembly members were also required to reach a consensus decision, and the process was driven by political scientists that favoured STV.

"It’s a favourite of political scientists. They have all these great theories about how it will work, but that’s all they are, theories," he added.

Schreck would also like the term "Citizens Assembly" removed from the referendum question because he believes voters will trust that name without having all the facts. "This Citizens Assembly sounds like a good thing, and the one danger I see is this (referendum) becoming a vote of confidence in the Citizens Assembly, and not an informed vote on this screwball Irish system."

Schreck believes the current system is working because it’s directly accountable to constituents, and that the BC-STV system would dilute accountability and representation. If a change is necessary, he’d prefer to see B.C. adopt the mixed member system in use in Germany and New Zealand.

As for the "yes" side’s belief that STV will take away power from political parties, Schreck believes the opposite will happen.

"I don’t think politics will change. The Citizens Assembly seems to be motivated by smashing political parties, and shaking up the system and changing politics – but do you really think they don’t have politics in Ireland?" he asked.

By increasing the size of ridings, Schreck says it will cost more money for candidates to campaign. To raise that money, reliance on political parties and fundraising will increase.

In jurisdictions using the STV, Schreck says parties only run as many candidates as they think can win, purposely limiting choice for voters.

And minority governments do have problems as well.

"Look at the chaos we’re experiencing federally right now – I don’t think that’s a good thing… by and large minority governments give minority parties more power than they ought to have, and that results in instability and bad government. It’s not a selling point to say (STV) is going to have weaker governments," said Schreck.

Most people don’t understand the preference-based voting system, because you still get just one vote, and your second, third, and fourth choices will generally only come into effect in special circumstances.

"All the count counts for sure is your first preference. Whether anything beyond your first preference is counted depends entirely on how everyone else votes and the circumstances in that riding. With seven candidates, there’s a chance your later preferences will come into play, but when you get into the smaller ridings, (preferences are) going to matter less.

"Depending on where you placed your second or third preference, your ballot may never come into play. If people understood the system, they’d understand that this preferential system is not all it’s cracked up to be."

Up to voters

B.C. is the first Canadian province to re-evaluate its political system, but won’t be the last. Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia are looking into proportional representation, and similar measures are being suggested for the federal level as well.

The BC-STV system is not a minor repair, it’s a complete overhaul. A seven member riding could have as many as 350,000 people, and ballots could contain dozens of choices for those seven spots.

Is the public well enough informed to make the right choices, or will people continue to vote for political parties instead of candidates?

Will the change get more eligible voters out to the polls, or will it create more indifference?

Can minority governments be effective in this province, where the difference between party views is often considerable?

There are a lot of questions about BC-STV, and with just a few weeks remaining until the election, not all of them will be answered. Will you take a leap into the unknown and vote "yes"? Or do you stick by the current system and vote "no".

Politics as usual, this isn’t.