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Who Killed BC-STV?

For most voters, the more they knew, the more they liked it. But not Liberals.

By Ken Carty, Fred Cutler and Patrick Fournier 8 Jul 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Fred Cutler and Ken Carty are professors of political science at UBC, and Patrick Fournier is a professor of political science at the University of Montreal.

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Logo for 'yes' side's 2009 campaign.

British Columbians spoke clearly last month when 62 per cent voted against changing our electoral system to single transferable vote [STV]. Just four years earlier, 58 per cent voted in favour of the very same system. What happened?

Opponents of STV claim that British Columbians were better informed and came to their senses, recognizing the system's flaws this time. The advocates of reform suggest there was more misinformation in the 2009 campaign and that voters with more and better information were more likely to vote for change.

The Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of B.C. sponsored detailed scientific surveys in both 2005 and 2009. Voters were asked if they knew about the referendum and the BC-STV system, general attitudes about politics, likely consequences of the change, familiarity with the provincial Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform that proposed it, and a host of background information. These surveys tell us why voters made the choices they did and what was different this time.

The surveys tracked the drop in support for STV but show hardly any change in attitudes that explain a 'yes' or 'no' vote. There was more awareness of the referendum this time -- 66 per cent versus 56 per cent in 2005. And voters were slightly more interested in it. But this didn't translate to big gains in knowledge; in fact, scores on a STV facts test were only slightly higher. More than one in three people admitted they knew absolutely nothing about it.

General support for coalition governments

Had British Columbians' attitudes about government and the electoral system changed over these four years? In 2005, voters were strongly inclined to proportionality, choice among multiple parties and even coalition governments. In 2009, they still favoured coalition over one-party governments, though this was down from 62 per cent to 52 per cent. There was a small drop in support for proportional representation, but three-quarters of the province still thinks it is unacceptable for a party to get a majority of the seats without a majority of votes.

There was even smaller change in concern with STV's complex vote-counting procedure and the possibility of unstable governments. And three in four voters continue to prefer a multi-party over a two-party system. The marginal changes in these attitudes contributed to the loss of support, but they are nowhere near enough to fully explain the 20 percentage points drop in support for STV.

Neither of the two main political parties took a position on STV in either year. Commentators thought Liberal supporters would naturally shy away from changing the system that gave Liberals power, and that NDP supporters would be more sympathetic to a change.

Liberal support plummeted in 2009

In 2005, not surprisingly, NDP, Green and undecided voters were more pro-STV, with support in these three groups well over 60 per cent. But Liberals were unexpectedly supportive too, splitting 50/50 on STV.

All this changed in 2009. Support among Liberal voters dropped 30 points, leaving only one in five voting for BC-STV. Among those who were still deciding which party to vote for during the campaign, support for STV dropped from 63 per cent to 43 per cent. Those two groups are the key to understanding the rejection of STV because both NDP and Green voters dropped less than 5 points and remained above 60 per cent. The Liberal-NDP gap in support for STV jumped from 10 points in 2005 to nearly 35 points in 2009!

So what drove Liberals away? It wasn't more information. For Liberal voters, knowing more about STV didn't make a difference. For other voters, the more they knew, the more they liked it. It wasn't the riskiness of a change for Liberals, either -- they say they like risk more than other voters.

What changed was that Liberals became more positive about the existing system's seat majorities producing strong single-party governments. Liberals were about 10 per cent more positive about representatives making decisions rather than the people, 20 per cent more positive about parties winning a majority of seats without a majority of the votes, 10 per cent more positive about one-party rather than coalition governments.

All this shows that the context was tremendously important. We are further away from the problematic election results of 1996 and 2001. The Liberals had a much more moderate second term. And then there was the coalition government scare at the federal level.

Faded luster of Citizens' Assembly

Another key reason for the drop in support involves the role of the body that proposed BC-STV, the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform. After the 2005 vote, we published an analysis showing voters who knew about the Citizens' Assembly and its deliberations were far more likely to vote in favour. Voters said yes if they knew the Citizens' Assembly was made up of ordinary folks and not stacked with government-appointed elites.

In 2009, the influence of the Citizens' Assembly all but evaporated. Decisions were primarily determined by views on the substance of STV. Some may applaud this greater independence. Others will lament that voters were still not very well informed about STV -- respondents scored an average 2.5 out of 6 questions correct on our 'test' -- and were unable or unwilling to rely on the informed judgment of their fellow citizens in the Citizens' Assembly, as they did in 2005.

Ballot wording changed this time

So far, we have explained about two-thirds of the drop. The rest, we suppose, comes from voters seeing the choice very differently in 2009. A different question on the ballot may have reinforced this, especially for the one-third of voters who walked into the booth unaware of the referendum.

Survey researchers know that different question wording can produce big differences in public opinion measures. In 2005, the ballot asked simply if B.C. should "change to the BC-STV electoral system as recommended by the Citizens' Assembly". Times were good, the Liberal premier initiated the process, and a bunch of ordinary citizens had "recommended" the change. There was no reference to the status quo. Liberal voters would not have seen it as an obvious threat to the party.

In 2009, the ballot asked voters which electoral system BC should use "the existing electoral system" or the "single transferable vote electoral system proposed by the Citizens' Assembly". It explicitly mentions the status quo and the new system is only a proposal. Some voters must have thought that the question applied to counting the votes in the current 2009 election. And Liberal voters could have more clearly understood this status quo-versus-change question as a threat to their government.

BC-STV failed at the ballot box because of the disappearance of the positive influence of the Citizens' Assembly and because Liberal voters were more positive about the current system. The wording on the ballot may also have heaped dirt upon STV's grave. But it did not go down because voters learned more about the system itself.

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