Wednesday, May 06, 2009

STV offers the chance for a better political future

I spent almost 10 years in the press gallery, watching B.C. politics from a front-row seat.
That's largely why I'm so convinced that you should vote yes in the STV referendum on Tuesday.
The current system doesn't work. Results are routinely unfair. In 1996, the Liberals got more votes than the NDP, but the New Democrats formed a majority government. In 2001, the Liberals got 58 per cent of the vote and 98 per cent of the seats. In 2005, 162,000 British Columbians - nine per cent of voters - backed the Greens, but were not represented in the legislature.
And that's not the only issue.
The current system encourages MLAs to keep their faces fixed on the leader and, as a result, to turn their backsides to their communities.
The challenge in most ridings is to get the nomination, not to win people over in the election campaign.
Voters are considering the party they want in power - or want to block. That drives their decisions on election day.
Candidates and MLAs need to keep in the party leaders' good books, to get a cabinet job or gain influence or even to keep the nomination. That effort is rewarded more than paying attention to constituents.
That leads to one the most common complaints about politicians - that instead of representing the riding in Victoria, they soon start representing the party in the riding.
STV won't fix all the system's ills. But it will be a significant step forward.
Here's how the system works. There would be fewer, larger ridings, with two to seven MLAs each, depending on population. The total number of MLAs wouldn't change.
On election day, you would no longer mark an "X" beside one candidate, rejecting the rest. You would rank as many candidates as you liked, in order of preference.
When the votes were counted, the election results would reflect the overall rankings. The method is explained well at It's used around the world - Australia has used STV in national elections for 60 years - and considered fair and representative.
So the capital region, for example, would be a seven-MLA riding. They would come from more than one party - perhaps three New Democrats, three Liberals and a Green, based on the 2005 results.
Liberal supporters would not just mark an "X" beside the party's candidate, but rank them against the others - including their fellow Liberals. The ranking would help determine who is elected.
It would no longer be enough to carry the banner of a party. Voters would be judging how well each candidate would represent their interests.
So an incumbent who had been willing to stand up for a community - even if it made the party uncomfortable - would be rewarded with votes.
A Liberal who New Democrat or Green supporters considered effective would also be rewarded with a higher ranking. That is a considerable incentive for working with all members of the community and the legislature, rather than throwing up partisan walls.
While ridings would be larger, there would also be an incentive for parties to ensure that all constituents were well-served. If the NDP decided to run four candidates from Kamloops in the Columbia-Kootenay riding, while the Liberals nominated at least one candiate from Williams Lake, the New Democrats would pay a price.
Similarly, parties would be wise to have candidates with varied backgrounds and positions to appeal to diverse voters.
Minority governments are more likely, though far from certain. But that would mean parties must learn to work together - a process that would be aided by the increased focus on constituents.
It would also mean more centrist government, rather than the peculiar right-left lurches that have been the hallmark of B.C. politics.
This is a chance to take a leap forward and shed a system that simply doesn't deliver representative, effective government for one that offers the promise of at least some positive change. We shouldn't let it slip away.
Footnote: The measure will require 60 per cent approval and majority support in 60 per cent of the ridings. In 2005, 58 per cent of British Columbians voted yes, with majority support in 77 of 79 ridings. The STV system was chosen by a citizens' assembly of British Columbians.
For more, just search on STV on this blog. Lord knows I've written enough.


Anonymous said...

The part that scares me silly is the counting of those votes.

The voting part is simplicity itself.

But the counting part seems to be wide open to interpretation and errors.

Visions keep recurring of a "surprising" George W. Bush type of win.


Skinny Dipper said...

The inside of my computer scares me. However, I love using it.

BC-STV counting of ballots may scare some people, but it is easy to rank candidates on a ballot. People will love using it.

First-Past-the-Post is easy to count. However, it produces scary outcomes. A second place party with a minority of the votes can win a majority of the seats. That's scary!

Thank you for supporting BC-STV, Paul.

Anonymous said...

It's one thing to say that STV will result in a fairer representation of votes. I suspect it will, but I have yet to be fully convinced of that.

It is a whole other argument to suggest that STV will fix our democracy, or even take one step toward addressing the real problems that face us.

The biggest problem is that people aren't involved in their own democracy. Democracy is more than something we do once every four years. Unless people roll up their sleeves and get active in the four years between elections - perhaps within the political system, but not necessarily - we will continue to have a democratic deficit.

The legislature has been reduced to theatre, and theatre of the absurd at that. Why? Because that's the only way political parties get attention, because real, reasoned, smart debate gets pretty much ignored - through the media - by the people who are supposed to be paying attention.

Don't try to argue that people getting a closer representation to what they voted will make them more interested. It won't. People, frankly, need to turn off 24 and House, and actually pay attention a little bit. Only then will the politicians start representing the issues fully, instead of in the cursory way we see now, through 12-second sound bites and meaningless messaging.

Honestly, given the level of involvement, we might as well have an aristocracy. (Well, in reality we do - why do you think the Libs are getting their rich and powerful friends to endorse them? It's a means of convincing the plebes that what's good for business is good for everyone. Unfortunately, it's not benign aristocracy.)

Maxwell Anderson said...

Great article, one of the best, down-to-earth.

The vote counting is explained fully and clearly at the government's Referendum Information Office website. It takes 5 or 10 minutes to read it, and grade 4 arithmetic. I'm amazed so many people will spend half an hour watching a sitcom, but want the whole government election process explained in thirty seconds.

BC-STV will encourage people to become more knowledgeable and involved in democracy because they'll know their vote will count; it'll make a difference and help elect someone. Under our old system about six of ten votes are either wasted on losers or superfluous to the winner; that's discouraging to voters.

Dawn Steele said...

Well said, Anon at 10:36.

I remain undecided, but very much unconvinced. I certainly don't think the current system is working well, but I'm a long way from being convinced that some other alternative may not serve us better than STV.

I think people have very unrealistic expectations of what STV can and cannot fix, and of democracy in general.

- As long as party brands confer advantages to candidates, they will be loyal to party bosses (and party brands will matter as long as we're too lazy to spend the time on doing a full work-up of what each individual candidate offers).
- As long as power is secured through a high-stakes, competitive electoral process, politics will remain a blood sport. Parties will continue to over-simplify and candidates will refuse to endorse or reject positions based on their own principles and common sense out of fear that what they say will be distorted and used against them by rivals (Would STV change the Gabriel Yiu/Kash Heed farce on crime or lead to more thoughtful positions on the carbon tax? I don't see it).
- As long as powerful lobby groups provide the funding that candidates need to market themselves to voters, we will have a system that places the broader public interest second or third at best.
- As long as the public demands no more transparency and accountability than your typical news media deliver in the most trite and frivolous of sound bites, politicians will not try harder.

Much of the problem, as Anon 10:36 notes, is due to our own laziness. As long as we continue to treat democracy as a spectator sport, we will get what any crowd of spectators gets - bread and circuses - regardless of what electoral process we choose to elect the performers.

If material change requires more public engagement, I fear we'd be going the wrong way with an arcane system that no one understands and that puts any more distance between individual citizens and the human face(s) whom they should be relating to on a personal level as active participants in the process. If STV passes and nothing much changes, I fear people will become even more disengaged and that confidence in democracy will be further weakened.

It's a pity there isn't a follow-up question asking if people see a need for change but aren't convinced that STV is the solution

Frank said...

Voting no to change our electoral system while hoping that somehow the political system will be fixed with a good speech is pie-in-the-sky.

With STV voted down it will be politics as usual for the rest of my days.

DPL said...

Hi Paul.
Has anyone noticed that the green and STV signs are in close proximity on those empty lots? Our family friend was selected for the Citizens Forum and can explain the system with greater clarity than the two guys we watched trying to debate its benefits on TV.
When folks like Christie Clark tells us STV is better than sliced bread and we should go for it, the worlds " Political interests" pops into our heads. With a "leader" such as Sterk pressing for green support and as mentioned, the two pro STV so called debators, one tends to forget the real people from the Forum and write off both the green who badly wants to get a seat, any seat, and the folks who simply want a change in a voting system. Sorry to disagree with you Paul as you appear quite strong in your arguments for change. However lets not overlook the massive issues not that well talked abut as we lurch toward another election. The two horses I mention simply won't run. I'm satisfied with my new MLA and shortly expect the local green lady to shift into another campaign to support an issue such as the one she sort of supported a few days ago , the crack cocaine folks or some other worthy endevour. On it's own STV had a chance but it collected some odd supporters alomg the way.