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Debating STV, Round Three

Does our system now give parties too much power? Are STV ridings unfair?

By Shoni Field and David Schreck 5 May 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 round three of The Tyee's Great How-We-Elect Debate between David Schreck of NoSTV and Shoni Field of BC-STV. You'll find previous rounds' questions posed and debated here. And an explanation of STV here.]

QUESTION FIVE: Doesn't the current first-past-the-post system give draconian powers to political parties, making them unresponsive to the voters?

David Schreck, who is against STV, answers:

Parliamentary democracy gives power to government, as opposed to the U.S.-style system with its checks and balances that are frustrating U.S. President Barack Obama despite his victory.

The power governments have with parliamentary democracy is what enables political parties to make campaign promises and deliver on them or be held accountable rather than blaming a paralyzed Congress as happens in the United States. Changing how representatives are elected does not change parliamentary democracy.

In a debate on CKNW, Dennis Pilon, STV supporter and political science professor, said that STV would produce more minority or coalition governments. While that might make elections occur more often than every four years, if true it would unfairly and disproportionally increase the power of any small political party that held the balance of power.

In other words, draconian power is what STV could deliver by enabling small parties to hold a government to ransom.

Many of the arguments advanced by supporters of STV are based on wishful thinking about how governments might behave in a make-believe world. We don't have to make believe to see parliaments and governments elected with STV.

Following Ireland's 2007 election, the long governing Fianna Fail party formed a coalition with the Greens. That coalition government is now at a record low 14 per cent in the public opinion polls.

Writing on April 18 in the Independent.ie (the online version of the Irish Independent newspaper) columnist James Downey wrote: "How can we change the system, and how can we produce politicians, and especially political leaders, who can work a new system properly? New parties are no answer. We know what tends to happen to them."

Downey went on to say: "In your bleaker moments, you have to wonder if we have really given ourselves the politicians we deserve."

It sounds like the Irish need electoral reform, or maybe supporters of STV need to realize that changing how politicians are elected doesn't change politics.

Shoni Field, who is for STV, answers:

With FPTP, political parties are the gatekeepers to politics and government. No one can attain political office without entering through the party gates.

The single-seat districts of FPTP give parties a monopoly, offering voters just one choice in each district.

In contrast, with BC-STV, parties offer voters a slate of candidates. This simple but important mechanism ensures greater responsiveness to voters under BC-STV. It removes the iron-clad control political parties now have over the people's representatives.

With FPTP, your MLA becomes party property the day after the election. In the legislature, your MLA will vote, as told. You have lost your representative, you have lost your voice, and it makes a sham of democracy.

STV empowers people, affirming them in their task as citizens. It engages people, connecting them to their governing institutions. Voters participate in a party's nominating process, allowing voters to shape the partisan tickets.

Do MLAs have a realistic chance of re-election as an independent under the first-past-the-post system? No! Their re-election is entirely due to carrying the party banner. MLAs are beholden, not to the voters, but to the party. With BC-STV, just knowing that popular MLAs can run as independents and get elected gives an MLA some leverage to exercise some independence.

With BC-STV, voters can remove an unresponsive incumbent, painlessly. Compare that to FPTP. For example, for the voters in South Delta to remove the highly unpopular Val Roddick, requires the Liberal voters to abandon their party, their leader and their political interests. STV puts voters, not parties, in the driver's seat. The shelf-life of MLAs is determined by voters, not parties.

When 40 per cent of the vote can win you 60 per cent of the seats, power becomes concentrated in the premier's office. BC-STV allows members of the cabinet and the legislature to perform their vital functions.

Giving voters one single election choice constrains political participation. Campaigns are reduced to just one question. And parties won't let us forget that there is only one ballot question. Examples: "Get rid of the NDP" (2001), "Give Campbell a strong opposition" (2005), "Keep BC strong" (2009).

FPTP denies voters participation in the full range of issues and questions. The one X expresses complete, absolute support for the local candidate, party, leader and platform and total rejection of all alternatives. STV de-links that bundle, allowing voters to express opinions on a wide range of issues. No longer can parties frame the ballot question and hold voters hostage.

This is power to voters! No wonder partisan political interests hate STV, and people like it.

QUESTION SIX: Won't the different-sized ridings proposed under the BC-STV system produce unfair results? Isn't it true that, under BC-STV, a candidate will need only 12.5 per cent of the vote to win in a seven-member riding, but 33.3 per cent in a two member riding?

Shoni Field, who is for STV, answers:

With BC-STV, most MLAs will be elected with the same level of support for the first time ever. It is first past the post that elects MLAs with unequal support.

It is true, that in a two-member district a candidate will need 33.3 per cent of the vote to get elected and in a seven-member district a candidate will need 12.5 per cent of the vote to get elected.

But this use of percentages obscures the simple fact that some districts will have more MLAs and a larger population than others. So while the percentage of the vote necessary to get elected differs, the actual number of votes does not.

If voter turnout is similar to the 2005 election, the vast majority of MLAs will need the support of approximately 20,000 voters in order to get elected. There are a few exceptions that apply to both STV and FPTP. In the most northern and rural districts, the Electoral Boundaries Commission has set a lower MLA/voter ratio in a few exceptional cases to preserve local representation for the least populated parts of our province.

For the first time in B.C. we will see most MLAs elected to the legislative assembly with relatively equal popular support.

This is in stark contrast to the randomness of our current system. In 2005, Shirley Bond was elected in Prince George-Mount Robson with only 5,885 votes, while Ron Cantelon in Nanaimo-Parksville received 16,542.

How is that equal?

In the same election, Andrew Black lost in Comox Valley with 13,261 votes and Virginia Green lost in Vancouver-Fairview with 12,114 votes.

That's just odd...

Regardless of how little support our MLAs have, our current system gives them sole power in a constituency with no expectation of accountability. For instance, in 2005 Val Roddick was "elected" in Delta South with only 37 per cent of the vote. As she was the only MLA for that district, 37 per cent of the vote gave her 100 per cent of the power. In the last election, 45 per cent of the legislative assembly was elected with less than half of the vote in their districts, meaning more people voted for another candidate than for the "elected" MLA. And yet, that MLA is the sole representative for the constituency.

How is that fair?

The vast majority of British Columbians would much rather have fair local election results in their districts, with a predictable threshold for election than the completely random margins of victory that currently elect MLAs in single-member ridings.

David Schreck, who is against STV, answers:

BC-STV is based on 20 enormous electoral areas, each of which would have up to 350,000 residents and elect between two and seven MLAs.

The single-transferable-vote counting system means that an MLA would be elected in the two-MLA Peace River (the Northeast electoral area) with 33.3 per cent of the vote, but an MLA in the seven-MLA Capital Region would be elected with 12.5 per cent of the vote. Actually the last of the seven elected would probably win with less than that because of the way the complicated STV count works when there are no further votes to transfer.

STV supporters argue that 12.5 per cent of an area with a population of about 350,000 is roughly the same in terms of the absolute number of votes as 33.3 per cent of an area with a population of 64,000, or at least the differences are no greater than under our current system.

That misses the point acknowledged by STV supporter and political scientist Dennis Pilon -- that with STV most voters vote party line. That is why the percentage vote for a party is what matters. It also misses the point that parties have more power under STV by limiting the number of candidates that are allowed to run.

If seven MLAs are to be elected, but a party doesn't expect to be able to win more than three of the seats, it may only run three candidates. That is what happens in Ireland. As explained by the Irish Green Party and quoted in the B.C. Green Party brief to the Citizens' Assembly: "The rule of thumb now is: run the same number of candidates as the number of seats you hope to win. Unless the party is sure of one quota in first preference votes then there is little point in running a second candidate." For the B.C. Greens, that means if the party support in a region is 12 per cent, the choice of voters is limited by the party nominating only one candidate.

B.C. would have fundamentally different voting systems in different parts of the province with different numbers of MLAs in each area and different percentages required to win. What might be semi-proportional in the Capital Region would be very different in the Peace River.

Such an unequal system might not withstand a constitutional challenge, but neither the government nor the Citizens' Assembly produced a legal opinion on the constitutionality of BC-STV. If STV passes, it might not withstand a Charter of Rights challenge on its inherent inequality.

On Thursday we ask: Doesn't the current first-past-the-post system work against minority and women candidates?

And: Won't the proposed BC-STV system lead to a perpetual series of unstable minority governments?

And then The Tyee's Great How-We-Elect Debate wraps up Monday with a final word from each camp. Read the full debate so far here.

Related Tyee stories:

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