Views

Should BC Change the Way We Elect? Hear from Both Sides

On May 12 you'll be asked to choose First Past the Post or STV. Today begins an in-depth debate to help you decide.

By Shoni Field and David Schreck 28 Apr 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Shoni Field is spokesperson for British Columbians for BC-STV. David Schreck is secretary-treasurer for No STV.

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[Editor's note: Welcome to the Great How-We-Elect Debate here on The Tyee. It will run five rounds over the next 10 days. By the time it's ended, we hope you'll feel well prepared to cast your vote on May 12 for or against changing B.C.'s voting system.

The current system is called First Past the Post. Whichever candidate receives the most votes in a riding automatically wins that seat and goes to the legislature, and the party with the most seats forms government. The May 12 referendum proposes a different approach called STV: Single Transferrable Voting, intended to allow more proportional representation of smaller parties in the legislature.

How STV would operate is explained in an article recently posted on The Tyee's political news blog, The Hook. A sample:

"Under the STV system, instead of the 85 separate ridings now in place, B.C. would be divided into 20 constituencies with between two and seven MLAs per constituency, depending on size and population.

"It means there could be dozens of names on the ballot in populated ridings with multiple parties vying for seats.

"Electors vote by ranking preferences for as many candidates as they wish to support, placing a 1 or a 2 or 3 beside the names, and so on.

"Winners secure a seat after they amass a quota of the popular vote. If the winner gets more votes than he or she needs to meet that quota, then his or her surplus ballots are distributed to the voters' second choice until a second candidate meets the threshold, and so on.

"That counting continues until all seats in the riding are filled..."

The Tyee asked each camp to pick a representative and respond to our debate questions. They are: David Schreck, secretary-treasurer, No STV, and Shoni Field, spokesperson for British Columbians for BC-STV.

Each round, we'll pose two questions. The representative for each side gets to address each question. The questions are weighted to reflect concerns commonly raised about one system or the other. Let the debate commence!]

QUESTION ONE: Doesn't the current First Past the Post system produce some grossly unfair results? In 1996, the NDP won even though they got fewer votes than the Liberals. And in 2001, the Liberals won 97 per cent of the seats in the house with only 58 per cent of the vote. How can you call this fair?

David Schreck, who is against STV, answers:

Our First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system is considered fair by most British Columbians. Even the Citizens' Assembly is on tape acknowledging that our current system is fair (Nov. 26, 2004).

That is not surprising since it is easy to understand that in a single-member riding, the candidate with the most votes wins. The party with the most winning candidates forms the government.

It's not so easy to understand whether the B.C. Single Transferable Vote (STV) is fair.

How is it that someone who finishes ninth on the count of first preferences out of four to be elected can win over those with more than 3 times that candidate's first preferences? The answer is found in the complex counting rules for STV. Voters can rank candidates "1," "2," "3," ... but they have no control over what fraction of their vote is assigned to each of their preferences.

In 1996, the Liberals won 41.8 per cent of the province-wide popular vote, while the NDP won 39.5 per cent. The NDP formed the government with 39 seats, the Liberals 33, Reform two and PDA one. Our system works well in producing a balanced government and opposition when the popular vote is relatively equal.

The way FPTP works, we have as many elections as there are constituencies, 85 this time. STV isn't based on the province-wide popular vote either; no one would know in advance which parties might make backroom deals for coalition governments.

In 1981, the first of four times, a majority of Malta's voters in their STV election voted for one party -- but the other party got the most seats. Since then, a constitutional amendment requires that seats are added to fix that defect with STV. BC-STV doesn't have that option so what happened in B.C. in 1996 could also happen with BC-STV.

In 2001, the Liberals won 57.6 per cent of the popular vote, while the NDP won 21.6 per cent. On a seat basis, the Liberals won all but two. When one party wins almost three times the support of its closest rival, our system purges itself. That was the history of the federal Progressive Conservatives, of the provincial Social Credit and almost of the provincial NDP. In 2005, balance was restored. The alternative to a system that purges itself is stagnation.

With STV, some members of parliament in Ireland serve well over 30 years. Proponents of STV might call that stability; others would call it repugnant.

What is fair is a matter of judgment, but most British Columbians consider what has happened in B.C. politics over the past 150 years to be fair.

Shoni Field, who is for STV, answers:

The worst of First Past the Post is how it treats voters.

In B.C., 1996 and 2001 are the most familiar offences. But wrong winners and 42 per cent equaling two seats are just the tip of the iceberg.

Stable, accountable government requires reliable voting results. When winning 40 per cent of the vote can win a party 20 per cent of the seats or 70 per cent (this really happened in B.C. in 1916 and 1962, respectively), how can you hold a government to account? When a party steadily drops in popular support -- 43 per cent, 41 per cent, 39 per cent, 37 per cent -- yet loses the first two elections and then wins two "majorities," one can only conclude that the system doesn't work.

Backroom boys are pretty stoic about the punishments their party faces -- what goes around, comes around, their turn in power is just a scandal away. It might work for parties, but does it work for voters?

Often the best we can do is vote for the party we least dislike. If you usually vote NDP, but support the carbon tax, what choice do you have? Or vote Liberal, but are against the carbon tax? Too many British Colombians 'hold their nose and vote.'

When the party you vote for wins, do you win? Not when that government makes policies for a few swing voters, in a handful of swing ridings, rather than the best interests of all British Columbians. Not when MLAs are constrained by iron-clad party discipline and can't represent you in the legislature.

And that's the best-case scenario. It gets worse.

You might elect an opposition MLA. Given B.C.'s voting patterns, it is likely that your region will have elected only opposition MLAs, so no voice in cabinet for your region. And, of course, your MLA is still muzzled by party discipline.

Or, you might be a double loser, with both your party and your candidate losing. Congratulations -- under FPTP you're now are in the majority! If only we had an electoral system that could represent you...

Under First Past the Post, the voter loses when they lose, and loses when they win. Who supports this system?

The Citizens' Assembly knew that you can't have good government unless you have the government that voters intended and politicians that represent voters. The Citizens' Assembly chose BC-STV because it gives voters fair and accurate results, greater voter choice and effective local representation; and that will give us good government.

QUESTION TWO: Isn't there something wrong with a system as complicated as the proposed BC-STV? Shouldn't voters be able to explain how they elect their representatives?

Shoni Field, who is for STV, answers:

STV is very easy to use. Voters in Ireland, Australia, Malta, Scotland and New Zealand use it successfully (the first two for 100-plus years). They understand who they elect and know that the outcome is fair and accurate. It's ridiculous to think that British Columbians aren't as capable.

The basic concept is simple -- BC-STV maximizes the number of voters who elect an MLA. Since two neighbours may have different political views, the only way both can have an MLA is if multiple MLAs represent the same area. STV does this by merging several adjacent ridings -- five, in the case of Vancouver East where I live. To win a seat, a candidate simply has to win a seat's worth of votes. Each major party will typically run several candidates. Voters indicate their top choices -- "1," "2," "3," and so on -- as few or as many as they want. Your first preferences will be counted first. If your choice doesn't have enough votes to get elected, your ballot goes to help your next choice, so it's not wasted. The top five finishers in Vancouver East will be elected. In the end, 80-90 per cent of voters get an MLA they support.

British Columbians told the Citizens' Assembly that they knew a new system would seem unfamiliar at first, but that the old system just doesn't work. They were willing to invest a little time becoming familiar with a new system in the name of a healthier democracy. They knew we could do a lot better.

Imagine a system where we get the government we voted for. With BC-STV, the government won't win large numbers of 'bonus' seats (turning minority votes into artificial majority governments) so they'll have to be accountable to the majority of voters.

Imagine a system where our elected MLAs actually represent us. In BC-STV, the voters have the final say in which of a party's candidates they prefer. If an MLA doesn't represent them well, voters can choose another without even having to switch parties. Unlike our current system, MLAs who don't represent their communities won't be re-elected. Those who do serve their communities will have leverage to push back against excessive party discipline.

British Columbians are too smart to fall for the "it's too complex, don't bother learning about it" line. Nearly 58 per cent of us voted for BC-STV in 2005 because it's far better than our current system.

David Schreck, who is against STV, answers:

In a debate on CKNW, STV supporter and political science professor Dennis Pilon said: "If you go to Ireland and you ask them, do you understand how the vote count works, they'll tell you 'no.'" Pilon then declined to explain the count to the audience!

With STV, voters understand that they can rank the candidates on their ballot, but they don't necessarily understand what happens with those numbers. Voters have only one vote, hence the first word "Single" in STV. The numbers come into play as the count unfolds.

Voters cannot influence what fraction of their vote is allocated to each of their preferences. Their third preference might get 10 per cent of their vote, one per cent or nothing at all. Voters would never know how their fractionalized vote was distributed.

The No STV group is so confident that knowing more about how the STV is counted will result in British Columbians rejecting the proposed system that a link to the Citizens' Assembly video on the vote count is the featured graphic on the top of our website. That is the same video that is accessible on the stv.ca website and on Fair Voting BC's website.

Consider the STV vote counting system using the words of the independent Referendum Information Office:

STV supporters say you shouldn't worry about the vote count. That's like mutual fund sales folks who said the stock market has nowhere to go but up, or those who sell swamp land in Florida. If you can't track your vote, don't give it to BC-STV.

On Thursday, we ask: Doesn't the current First Past the Post system shut out smaller parties? The Greens, for example, got nine per cent of the vote in the last election but their supporters have nothing to show for it.

And: Won't the massive ridings under the proposed BC-STV system be too large to represent properly? Is there anywhere in the world where they have an electoral map like the one being proposed for BC-STV?

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