Guest post by Devon Rowcliffe – On the Single Transferrable Vote (STV)

Devon Rowcliffe was kind enough to answer a request on our part to write an entry on STV. We asked Devon to be as balanced and neutral as possible, and his entry follows here. Thanks for contributing to the BC Vote blog!

On May 12th, British Columbians will participate in a referendum about whether they would like to change their voting system to the B.C. Single Transferable Vote (BC-STV).

Our current voting system, First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), has its advantages, such as strong local representation. However, it also has several significant flaws, such as skewing the overall election results. Two recent elections were particularly troubled by this. In 1996, the BC Liberals received the most votes, and yet the BC NDP formed government. In 2001, the Liberals received 57% of vote, but were given 97% of the seats; the NDP received 21% of the vote, buy only got three% of the seats. You may remember that between 2001 and 2005, there were 77 Liberal MLAs and just 2 NDP MLAs – the latter not even enough to form an official opposition.

Another problem with FPTP is that it causes the two biggest political parties here in B.C. to control all of the power in our Legislature. Voters who don’t like either party feel unrepresented by our democracy. Our current voting system pressures many voters to choose the “least worst” of the big two parties, because it prevents smaller political parties from winning seats. This arguably causes elections to become negative events for many voters who prefer other parties, rather than positive and inspiring opportunities for them to engage in our democracy. Many of these voters become apathetic about our democracy, and simply choose not to vote at all.

In 2001, the new government recognized the possible need for a change to our voting system. They established the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform, which was comprised of 180 randomly-selected British Columbians who were brought together to study all possible voting systems, and to recommend the best system.

Around the world, the number of countries and jurisdictions using our current FPTP voting system is steadily shrinking. In its place, most areas are implementing a form of proportional representation (where the percentage of seats awarded is close to the total percentage of votes received). The most common one is called “Mixed Member Proportional”, or “MMP”.

MMP was the second choice of the Citizens’ Assembly, primarily because it offers proportional representation. However, there were concerns that local representation, the strongest asset of the current FPTP system, would be significantly reduced under MMP.

Instead, the Citizens’ Assembly recommended another form of proportional representation: the Single Transferable Vote (STV). They praised this particular system because it offers both local representation (MLAs who represent a particular constituency) and proportional representation (as this PDF illustrates: ).

Under BC-STV, rather than marking an “X” beside one candidate’s name, you would rank the candidates according to your personal preference: 1, 2, 3, and so on. BC-STV’s ranking system allows for overall election results to be proportional, while also maintaining the relationship between elected MLA and their local constituency (as we have now under FPTP).

Opponents of BC-STV emphasize that the current 85 electoral ridings would be merged into 20 larger ridings under BC-STV, and that having several MLAs in each riding would hurt representation, as several MLAs in one riding might all come from the same community. BC-STV proponents argue that all MLAs would still represent their local communities, and that candidates will still come from each of the different areas of the new constituencies, as the political parties would want to represent all communities in the new ridings. BC-STV proponents also note that the larger riding sizes under BC-STV would be about the same size as our current federal ridings. Further, BC-STV proponents argue that having several MLAs in your riding could be advantageous, because if your local government MLA is ignoring your concern, you would also have an MLA from the opposition to turn to for help.

Opponents of BC-STV argue that BC-STV is confusing, because the counting of ballots is more complex than under the current FPTP system. Proponents of BC-STV argue that this is irrelevant because voters don’t actually count ballots; they simply vote. Under BC-STV, voters would rank the candidates on their personal ballot, and proponents of BC-STV argue that this is easy to do.

Opponents of BC-STV argue that BC-STV would result in fragile coalition governments, which would frequently fall apart and cause constant elections. BC-STV proponents argue that the current system creates “false majorities” (where a party gets 39% of the vote, and yet receives 100% of the power because they get more than 50% of the seats due to FPTP’s unproportional results), and that this leads to polarized politics, rather than cooperative or consensus-based governance. BC-STV proponents also argue that minority governments can be stable (as we’re now in our third-consecutive minority government at the federal level), and point out that Medicare and the Canadian flag were both implemented during minority governments. They also argue that coalitions are not necessary under minority government, as parties can informally cooperate together to pass legislation, as the past three federal governments have done. BC-STV proponents also claim that the notion of false majorities resulting in stable government is a myth, and insist that it would be better to have a voting system that creates proportional results, rather than false majorities.

BC-STV proponents argue that BC-STV would allow for a greater diversity of candidates to become elected as MLAs, thus eliminating the need for strategic voting. They also feel that by allowing more parties to be elected, many voters alienated by the current voting system would become interested in participating in our elections and democracy again.

In 2005, B.C. voters participated in the first referendum on whether to adopt BC-STV. Although support did not meet the required 60% threshold, the government noticed that a majority of British Columbians supported BC-STV (almost 58%), and that an overwhelming number of electoral ridings supported it (97.5%). As such, the government felt that voters had expressed a desire for electoral reform, but that a second referendum would be needed, one in which both the proponents and opponents of BC-STV would have more financial resources to explain the system to B.C. voters.

On May 12th, British Columbians will have a second opportunity to adopt BC-STV as our voting system. Whether you plan to vote to keep our current voting system or to change it to BC-STV, please be sure to exercise your right to vote on Tuesday, May 12th.

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