When University of Victoria political science professor Dennis Pilon this weekend addresses a Wosk Centre for Dialogue room full of people who want to change British Columbia's voting system, he'll advise them to spend at least as much time focussing on the problems with our current first-past-the-post system as they do selling the single-transferable vote (STV) alternative.
"That's really the greatest strength in this debate," said Pilon, who wrote The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada's Electoral System. "Many people do not understand our current system, do not understand how it works. The more people understand how it works, the less they like it."
The system gives consistently strange results, he said, sometimes to the advantage of one party, sometimes to another. In 2001, for example, with 58 per cent of the B.C. popular vote, Gordon Campbell's Liberals won 77 out of 79, or about 97 per cent, of the seats in the legislature.
But in the previous election, in 1996, Campbell was himself the victim of electoral wonkiness when Glen Clark's NDP won a majority of seats in the legislature despite losing the popular vote. Campbell's party won 37,500 more votes than Clark's, but still had to spend five years hectoring from the opposition benches.
The system needs to be changed so it consistently reflects what voters want, he said. With a referendum planned on the question along with the general election in May, B.C. has an opportunity to make that change and Pilon will be doing what he can to help inform people what they are voting on.
"I think all political scientists are both observers and advocates, though they may not be that frank about it," he said. "We come to our advocacy by observing, looking at how different systems work and deciding which one we think is in the public interest... I have studied voting systems and I think if we want a representative democracy, this is a better choice. This will give people what they're asking for. That's my opinion."
The Tyee recently spoke with Pilon about the pros and cons of the old and the proposed systems, why he thinks a change is needed and how to separate the facts from the scaremongering in the coming debate.
Why is this change needed?
"A lot of voters if you ask them will say they're unhappy with the way democracy works. They're unhappy with the way the parties are performing. They're frustrated with the kind of accountability they seem to be able to get under our current system. I do think STV will address some of those concerns."
What information do people need?
"What people need to know is what kind of results might we expect from the different systems. We know the kind of results we'll get from the current system. People need to understand, and they don't understand, that a minority of voters often get a majority of the seats. Some people might think that's okay. A lot of people might be surprised to learn that. Our system is one that tends to produce majority governments. Some people like that. Some people think that's good. And that needs to be set out so people can say, 'Right, I like that, I'm going to vote for it.'
"Or we could have this other system. This other system, if we look at how it's been used in other countries, has also tended to produce fairly stable government. Has tended to produce more parties, a broader range of choices for voters and has tended to create a coalition dynamic for governments. The bottom line is both systems have produced governments that could get things done. The question is, do people like the opportunities these different systems offer."
What are seen to be the pluses and minuses of our current system?
"Pluses: stable government, one party majority government, local representative. Minuses: not very competitive in terms of other parties getting in, a lot of wasted votes, a lot of people don't feel represented by their representative. Basically once you have the majority government and the government doesn't have to listen to you for four years."
And for STV?
"Much greater ability for voters to vote for something different. Many more votes count towards the election of somebody. Chances are there'll be someone in your local area you feel represents you. On the negative side there could be some confusion about who's responsible for decisions that get made. That's one of the things about coalition government. It's possible that parties could blame each other and the voters would feel, "well who's ultimately responsible?" But that doesn't appear to be a big problem in the countries that use STV."
Talk of a federal coalition between the NDP, Liberals and Bloc Quebecois seemed to strike many people as unfair. What may that mean for the referendum here on a system that would likely generate more coalitions?
"I think some of the concern about the coalition situation in Ottawa was the public had no awareness of this as a possibility. Some people felt, 'We just had an election and you guys were all running against each other, now you're saying you're going to get together and work together. Well why didn't you say that during the election?' That would be different in an STV system because we probably would see parties campaign with an indication of the parties they'd be prepared to work with. That is just absolutely normal in proportional representation systems.
"The other thing that's wrong is the idea that the instability we see in a minority government in our system would also be the same thing in a PR system. That's not the case. In our system, because the system tends to produce unstable results, it tends to distort the results of the largest parties, there's always the incentive for a minority government to go back to the polls when the polls appear to be in their favour. In a PR system, parties only get what they have coming, they're not going to get any more, there's no incentive to go back to the polls before it's time. Coalition governments in PR systems are much more stable."
"We've had more elections in the post-war period than most PR countries have. What that says is despite the fact that with the PR system they have more coalition governments than we have, they haven't had any more elections."
What about the counting will be hard to understand?
"The way I look at it is there's a trade off here. Our current system offers simple counting, but results that are not entirely transparent. I say to people, 'How did Gordon Campbell get 97 per cent of the seats with 57 per cent of the votes?' Almost nobody can explain it to me. Almost no one can explain why the proportion of votes for the parties doesn't match their seats, but everybody can count the plurality ballots.
"On the other hand, STV is much more complicated to count. No one would deny that. But the results look a lot more transparent. When you look at the results of an STV election, pretty much the votes match up with the seats. In terms of explaining the results, almost anyone can explain them.
"The people who foist this on the agenda are the political hacks who want people to focus on something that's actually not very important.
"The more important question is whether STV is too complicated for voters to use. If it was, countries that use it would have a lot more spoiled ballots, but that's not the case. I don't think the Irish are necessarily any smarter than we are."
Some have said MLAs will be elected with 20 per cent of the vote in some regions. How democratic is that?
"It's completely democratic. If there's five positions to be elected, why shouldn't one-fifth of the population be allowed to have their representative? I guess what it demonstrates is an inability to understand this idea of representation. One idea of representation is the legislature should reflect the diversity of opinion in the community. That means if 20 per cent of the people want X representatives, they should get it. There's something undemocratic about denying them their representatives.
"Another view suggests there should be a plebiscite on each individual who should demonstrate they have everyone's support, or at least a plurality. That leads to fundamentally undemocratic results in my view. It allows the largest coherent group of voters to get all of the representation. That doesn't seem democratic to me.
"I have no problem with the idea that in a five-member riding we basically divide up the representation in fifths. If we had a pie, that's the way we'd divide it. We wouldn't say three people could vote the other two to have no pie. That wouldn't seem very fair. Everyone should get a piece.
How will STV affect the smaller parties?
"Some people say this issue is all about small parties. The people who want this are the losers. That's not what it's about. This issue is about the voters. Are voters getting their democratic rights.
"Our current system privileges geographically proximate voters, people who live close to each other. I don't understand why we privilege that over other things we might decide need to be represented. We know from studying voting that people don't vote based on their local area, they vote based on a party identification.
"But if you're a Liberal in East Vancouver, forget about it. You might as well stay home on election day. You know you're never going to elect someone. And if you're an NDPer in West Vancouver, again, forget about it. You're not going to influence the result. Is that fair? I say 'no.' Every voter's democratic right is if their vote can count toward representation, it should. Those voters should not be orphaned. This plan will help voters of all parties."
But in somewhere like East Vancouver, aren't you just going to end up with five NDP MLAs instead of one?
"No, I don't think so. I think what we're going to see is a lot of stereotypes about the different parts of the province are going to be exploded. In the same way when you look at the federal level we have these stereotypes that the West is Conservative and Quebec's for the Bloc. Bunk. A majority of voters in the West vote for parties other than the Conservatives. A majority of Quebeckers vote for people other than the Bloc. It's this voting system that creates these images of different areas that do not actually match what people want."
And with as many as six MLAs representing each riding, how will voters know which one is accountable to them?
"The new system, I think, will be much more accountable. For one thing it will be much more competitive. Under our current system, a lot of voters are orphaned. It means their member can pretty much ignore them. In the STV system that won't be the case. The votes will really matter. That means the politicians will have to pay a lot more attention because if a significant group of voters decide not to vote for them, it could make the difference between them getting elected or not elected."
Won't bigger ridings make campaigning more expensive and therefore weight elections further towards the rich or to people who will be beholden to their backers?
"The short answer is 'no.' We know campaigns are provincially focussed. They are financed on the provincial level. The costs of campaigning are formidable regardless of what voting system is used. This is not a sincere argument. For the most part our political operatives don't really care about the size of ridings. They know our campaigns are provincial campaigns."
What will be the clincher for people deciding how to vote in the referendum?
"I think the biggest issue of this campaign is whether people think phony majority governments are acceptable in a democratic society. I would trace a lot of the ills of our present political system with these phony majority governments. These phony majority governments create governments that are insular, that don't listen, that don't consult, that don't include. They create election campaigns that are all about strategic voting and strategic appeals, so people don't feel the full range of ideas are getting expressed. They are incredibly uncompetitive. They lead to pressure, to a two party kind of system where voters feel they can't vote for an alternative.
"We need to end this undemocratic process of giving a minority of voters a majority of legislative power. I think people should get what they have coming. No more, no less."
What did you think of the media coverage of the referendum in 2005?
"The last campaign was also characterized pretty much by indifference. The media didn't really give much attention to the referendum. The problem is the news generating mechanisms are the competition between the two parties and so those campaigns create the interest for the media. In the referendum that wasn't the case.
"Now some people think with the funding for the two sides we might see more media interest generated. That might be true. My only worry is the kind of messaging we're going to get from the campaigns is not necessarily going to lead to the kind of discussion that will help voters make a decision."
The 2005 election in B.C. gave Campbell another majority, but with a much stronger opposition. Does that result make it harder to generate support for STV?
"It depends on whether you're satisfied with fluky results. I think the last result just shows how unpredictable and unreliable it is. To say this one is closer so it's okay is to ignore all the previous results. Surely what we want is a system that reliably reflects what people want all of the time, not some of the time."
Related Tyee stories:
- Hot Box for Campbell: Vote Reform
STV got a bigger vote than the 2001 Liberals. Now what?
- An Elephant Named STV
Politicians who ignore the majority will get stomped.
- Liberals reverse plan to silence parties on BC-STV vote