The federal Liberal government has initiated a process for switching from the current first-past-the-post system of voting to one of proportional representation. B.C. has been there twice, both times defeating Single Transferrable Vote systems — one variation of proportional representation — by referendum. As a director of the Kamloops Chamber of Commerce in 2009, I was asked by the chamber board to prepare a report outlining how the STV works, and the pros and cons being debated.
I first published this report on the Armchair Mayor News website. What follows is the thrust of the report, which doesn’t include a recommended position for or against. It may seem long but, believe me, this is an issue that could take up many volumes.
I offer it again for the information of anyone who is trying to figure out the various nuances of proportional representation. (Please note this report was written prior to the 2009 referendum, in which 60.9 per cent voted against B.C. STV.)
HISTORY AND USAGE
Variations of the STV are used in elections for various levels of government in several countries. Ireland and Malta use it for national elections, while Tasmania, North Ireland and Australia use it for electing some other levels of government. Opponents say Ireland and Malta, the only countries to use STV for electing national legislatures, represent only .1 per cent of the world’s population, while the First Past The Post system is used in 67 countries with 45 per cent of the population living in democratic countries.
In 2004, Premier Gordon Campbell established the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform, with a mandate to examine the current First Past The Post voting system to either reconfirm it or recommend an alternative. The Assembly, which totalled 160 members, conducted 50 public hearings and received 1,603 written submissions. The result was the release in December 2004 of the Assembly’s report, Making Every Vote Count, which recommended a variation of the STV it called BC-STV. In the general election of May 17, 2005, a referendum narrowly defeated the proposal (it received 57.7 per cent support but required 60 per cent to succeed).
As a result of the closeness of the vote, the government decided to hold a second vote on the issue in the May 12, 2009 general provincial election. Premier Campbell has committed to implement the BC-STV for the following election if it achieves the 60 per cent threshold of valid votes cast, and if 60 per cent of all constituencies vote in favour by simple majority.
MAY 2009 REFERENDUM
Fair Voting B.C. has been designated by the B.C. government as the official “yes” proponent for BC-STV in the May referendum. NO BC-STV (formerly “Know STV”) has been chosen as the official “no” proponent. Each side will be provided with a budget of $500,000. Among those on record as supporting a change to BC-STV are Senator Larry Campbell, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson, former premier Bill Vander Zalm, and environmentalist David Suzuki.
Among opponents are former premiers Bill Bennett and Dave Barrett, Vancouver City councillor Andrea Reimer, former attorney-general Bud Smith, outgoing Kamloops MLA Claude Richmond, and Trinity Western University political science professor John Redekop.
Proponents of STV say it is a more democratic way of electing representatives because it produces proportional representation based more closely on the popular support received by each party. It would avoid, they say, situations in which a party receives the greatest popular vote provincewide but ends up with a minority of seats, as has happened on occasion in B.C.
“To help make this decision, the members used three values identified by British Columbians as being important to any electoral system: local representation, proportionality and voter choice. . . .BC-STV was designed to meet the specific needs of British Columbia.” (Final report, Citizens Assembly)
WHAT THEY SAY
“Election results will be fairer, reflect a balance between votes and seats, voters will have more choice and candidates will work harder to earn their support. . . .” — Final report, Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform
“STV is complicated, confusing, prone to errors and delay, it reduces local accountability, increases the size of ridings, allows MLAs to avoid direct accountability for their decisions, increases party control and allows special interests to dominate party nominations.” — NO BC-STV Campaign Society website
“Voter participation and legislative representation that is clearly reflective of voter preference are closely linked and both are fundamental to the health of our democracy. The 58 per cent approval of the STV recommendation in 2005 is itself indicative of this strong public interest.” — Stephen Owen, former MP
“Big money, from big interests, usually located in big cities, and probably controlled by men, will have even more chance to dominate and influence B.C. politics. STV is fundamentally a complex voting system. . . .” — Bud Smith and Anita Hagen (former MLAs)
“The MLA under our system . . . is virtually powerless. He can be, in the old expression, a fencepost with hair. . . . While STV will not by any means eliminate party discipline it will soften it considerably and make the MLA much more accountable to the electorate.” — Rafe Mair, former MLA
“To hear some STV supporters tell it this new electoral system will cure more ills than were ever claimed by snake-oil salesmen in the old Wild West. Unfortunately, their information is also about as accurate.” — Bill Tieleman, President, NO STV
RIDINGS UNDER STV
As proposed under STV, the number of ridings would be reduced from 85 (in the 2009 election, up six from 2005) to 20.
A riding would elect as few as two candidates or as many as seven depending on population. The new Kamloops riding would include the current Kamloops (Kamloops South), Kamloops-North Thompson (Kamloops North), Shuswap and Yale-Lillooet ridings. It would be represented by four MLAs. The total number of MLAs would remain at 85. Riding boundaries are proposed only, and subject to confirmation.
CORRECTION: Arjun Singh of Fair Voting B.C. has informed me that, under the new numbers, the Kamloops riding would have five MLAs, not four.
THE BC-STV BALLOT
Instead of marking an X beside the favoured candidate, the voter ranks candidates by number, 1, 2, 3 etc. up to as many candidates as he or she wishes. For example there might be eight candidates running for three seats; the voter might pick only one, or six or seven. Any votes beyond the bare minimum required for election of a candidate are considered “wasted” under BC STV, and would be shifted at partial value to other candidates based on ranking. This, says the Citizens Assembly, assures “that everyone’s votes count toward electing a candidate.”
USING ‘WASTED’ VOTES
While in the current FPTP system the number of votes received by a candidate is considered a measure of support for that candidate, in BC-STV anything more than what is required is considered a “waste” (also sometimes referred to as “surplus”).
The formula for determining how many votes a candidate must receive to be declared elected is called the Droop Quota, while the formula for transferring ”wasted” votes is called the Weighted Inclusive Gregory Method. This method for transferring so-called wasted votes is one of the trickiest to understand. After struggling with several different explanations, I was fortunate to receive the following explanation from Les Goddard, a member of the Kamloops Fair Voting group:
The Vote-Counting System
1] Setting the “quota”: the lowest share of the vote that allows only the desired number of elected candidates to be elected. Formula: Total votes cast divided by [# of seats + 1] + 1 Example: 100 total votes, 4 elected MLAs desired 100 divided by [4 + 1] + 1 = [100 / 5] + 1 = 20 + 1 = 21 Quota = 21 [20 would potentially allow for 5 elected] The counting process begins by counting first-choice votes.
2] Transferring votes Formula: Surplus [votes over quota] divided by candidate’s total vote Example: Candidate gets 30 first-choice votes of 100-vote total Candidate is declared elected. Surplus is 9 votes [21 vote quota], so 9/30 of a vote is transferred to second choices on all of candidate’s 30 ballots. Any candidate now over the quota is declared elected, and their surplus is transferred. This process continues until the correct # of candidates has been declared elected by reaching quota.
3] If, in any round of vote-counting, no candidate reaches the quota after a vote transfer, the candidate with the least # of votes is dropped, and his/her votes are transferred AT FULL VALUE [since these votes did not elect anyone] to next candidate.
ARGUMENTS FOR AND AGAINST
Here I take the key arguments by Assembly members in favour of BC-STV (as summarized in its final report) and provide the counter arguments of opponents.
1. BC-STV is easy to use. Voters rank candidates according to their preferences.
2. BC-STV gives fair results. The object is to make every vote count so that each party’s share of seats in the legislature reflects its share of voter support.
3. BC-STV gives more power to voters. Voters decide which candidates within a party, or across all parties are elected. All candidates must work hard to earn every vote, thereby strengthening effective local representation.
4. BC-STV gives greater voter choice. Choosing more than one member from a riding means that voters will select members of the Legislative Assembly from a greater range of possible candidates.
Arguments against BC-STV, on the same points, might be summarized as follows (my own interpretations of these opposing views).
1. BC-STV isn’t hard to use, but it is hard to understand. The formulas for determining eventual winners are complicated, compared to the current easy-to-understand FPTP system. It is a “don’t worry trust us” proposition. Most voters will not know what they’re voting for in the referendum, and may never understand how it works even if it’s implemented.
2. BC-STV puts rural voters at a disadvantage, and reduces accountability. The only way to “make every vote count” would be to ensure everyone’s favourite candidates are elected, and that’s just silly. Because it would sweep many predominantly rural ridings into ridings with larger urban populations, STV would disenfranchise many rural voters — MLAs would tend to be elected from urban areas. Larger ridings will reduce local accountability.
3. BC-STV will guarantee unstable government. If you think the current situation in Ottawa is bad, wait until B.C. has to live with coalition governments under STV. The Citizens Assembly itself has acknowledged in its report that while it’s possible for BC-STV to produce a majority government, “the province’s history suggests that governments under the new system will likely be a minority or a coalition of two or more parties.”
4. BS-STV makes it harder to understand candidates and issues. With huge geographical ridings, and potentially dozens of candidates, voters would find it very difficult to become knowledgeable. Since some ridings would have as few as two members, BC-STV will not deliver on its key raison d’être — proportional results. And campaign costs would be huge. “Take a four-MLA, Kamloops-area constituency under STV. Campaign costs would be between $200,000 and $280,000. No individual, no independent, no small-party candidate, and no aspiring female candidate will be able to afford such exorbitant election costs.” (Bud Smith and Anita Hagen)
Making Every Vote Count: The Case for Electoral Reform in British Columbia. Final report of the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.
The following are useful websites:
http://www.bc-ebc.ca/proposed_stv (This site includes the map of riding boundaries as proposed post-STV.)