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Let’s Keep Vote Reform Alive

STV was a dud, but we need more women in government.

By Mitchell Anderson 26 May 2005 | TheTyee.ca
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British Columbians faced a tough choice on the May 17th referendum ballot: vote for an obscure and baffling system called BC-STV the majority of voters don't even understand, or stick with our antiquated "first past the post" system that is increasingly discredited.

In their wisdom, voters responded with a resounding, and perhaps transformative, "maybe".

The referendum question on BC-STV needed 60 percent support to succeed. It got 57 percent.

This elegant result defeated the "pig in a poke" presented to BC voters, while keeping the important issue of electoral reform in BC very much alive.

Where are the women?

There are two lessons that we should take from this result.

The first is that BC-STV is a dud. A poll by Ipsos-Reid in late April showed that 64 percent of British Columbians knew "nothing" or "very little" about BC-STV. A second poll by Nordic Research Group poll on the eve of the referendum showed that only 37 percent of respondents could even name STV.

This was in spite of the government mailing a 20-page explanation of this arcane system to all 1.5 million households in the province, followed by a second mailing from the BC Referendum office.

British Columbians were voting for change. They were not voting for BC-STV.

Which brings us to the second lesson. There is clearly a strong demand from British Columbians to change our electoral system, and for good reason.

Voter turnout remains dismal in BC with only 55 percent of eligible voters bothering to cast a ballot this week. This is in spite of redoubled efforts by Elections BC to increase voter turnout as well as the many campaigns to increase turnout among youth.

The representation of women in BC politics is also terrible. Only 23 percent of newly elected MLAs are women. The critical issue of proportionality also remains far from ideal. The Liberals received 46 percent of the popular vote but 58 percent of the seats. The Green party had 9 percent of the vote and got no seats at all.

What public wanted

While BC-STV has now failed, electoral reform continues to move forward. Just one day after the election, both Gordon Campbell and Carole James have stated that improving the voting system is a priority that should be revisited before the next election.

This is stunning rebuke to the cynical argument made prior to May 17th that while voters might not like or even understand BC-STV, they had better vote for it or electoral reform in BC will be set back for years.

Carole James has also revealed that she does not favour STV -- a sentiment shared in the vast majority of the public submissions of the now defunct Citizens Assembly.

In fact, fully 80 percent of the public submissions to the Citizens Assembly process were in favour of some form of "mixed-member proportional" (MMP) system, used in some variety by most established democracies around the world. Unlike STV, MMP has a solid record of delivering proportional results and achieving gender equity of elected officials.

The main advantage of MMP is that it preserves local representation while also ensuring that elected seats accurately reflect the popular vote. Under MMP, minority and coalition governments rather than simple majorities are far more likely.

Because different parties know that they may one day have to work together, the public debate tends to be more respectful than the embarrassing spectacles seen regularly in Victoria or Ottawa. Coalitions also mean that governments are much more accountable to the people between elections - not just on voting day.

Countries that use MMP also have better representation from women - up to 42 percent in Sweden. This system has also been shown to significantly increase voter participation - over 80 percent in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, and the Belgium.

Lower the threshold?

There is little doubt that if BC voters had been given the chance to choose the much more popular system of MMP, the results of the referendum would have been very different.

For reasons that remain unclear, the Citizens Assembly instead chose to disregard the vast majority of public input and recommend BC-STV, an unfortunate artifact that is now water under the bridge.

As for the die-hard boosters of BC-STV, the rules of the referendum are clear and though they came close, they lost. They should now graciously admit defeat, and either pitch in on the new struggle for a more palatable system of electoral reform, or clear out of the way.

Some BC-STV zealots have now suggested that the referendum threshold of the 60 percent should now be lowered retroactively to allow their preference to succeed. Can you image the outrage if the threshold was retroactively raised had BC-STV had achieved 63 percent support?

The winds of electoral change are blowing in a new direction today. We should embrace the elegant answer from BC voters and move forward with the momentum they provided to transform democracy in BC.

Mitchell Anderson is a freelance writer in Vancouver with an interest in electoral reform.  [Tyee]

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