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How the Citizen’s Assembly On Electoral Reform Arrived at BC-STV

March 31, 2009

In a previous post, I wrote about the inception of the British Columbia Single Transferable Vote (BC-STV), and how the Citizen’s Assembly On Electoral Reform (CAER) rose to its role as a public organ for questioning and making recommendations on policy. While that piece was about the legitimacy of the process of public innovating public policy, this one shows why the CAER chose what they did, from my perspective as a member.

The CAER was challenged to ask itself the question “Is the present system – First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) – working?  We considered the wildly disproportionate results of the previous two elections in British Columbia, and felt that it was not representative. Though such extreme results as those were anomalous, the lack of representativeness in FPTP remained a persistent issue.  Too many votes were being lost, wasted, because only the candidate with the most could win, and that commonly was not even with a majority.  This understandably resulted in voter apathy, skewing representation even further by effect of non-representation.

The other key element was to qualify what we wanted from an electoral system.  We set about the task of finding what values such a system would require, and it was from this that the technical details would be driven. What values does one need to bring fairness and a sense of public efficacy through effecting the dry details that would make it work?

We talked about it a lot. Whatever bothered the CAER members would likely be a good gauge of what bothered electorate, since we were randomly chosen from the voters list. For example, most of us loathed having to vote strategically because a vote for your preferred candidate was a waste. After much discussion, we decided that the core values we wanted to see  in any electoral system we considered should be proportional representation, local representation and voter choice.

At first, we were all into Mixed Member Plurality (MMP), that system those humanist/industrious Germans use, which manages to get socialists and environmentalists into office yet all the while running a prosperous and stable country. But then, we thought of Italy, and its notorious collapsing governments and forced coalitions like unhappy arranged marriages, with the same forces of party discipline and cronyism wrecking the Elysian promise of  MMP’s  proportionality. What was worse, was that those tenacious people from the “North,” the folks out in Prince George and beyond kept kvetching about losing their representation; MMP would redraw electoral boundaries, to their detriment.

Well, you can’t work closely with people for eight months and not begin to empathize with and value them. Sure there are less people in the outback beyond the Lower Mainland, but it turns out that they more than pull their weight, doing the resource extraction that built this province, and its hubs of commerce – and so their well-being matters, at least as much as that of urbanites, who mainly trade and consume those resources. Moreover, these folks don’t take their infrastructure for granted, and unlike a lot of urban folk, they actually drive through snowstorms to see their MLA about getting a streetlight put in. So, the group built a model of “MMP-BC” for later comparison and kept searching. It began to dawn on us that there is no universal “best” system; there is only what works for a specific region.

STV was not popular at first. It seemed complicated, hard to get and worse to explain. Only two countries used it. So how in the world did we decide on STV? At first, we looked past the mathematical process, to see what the system actually did. The more we studied it, the more it began to resonate as a phenomenally efficient method that accounted not only for the most popular candidates, but others with significant support. Moreover, it was responsive, in that it considered people’s ranked choices, not just their first, into the results. We found that in both simulations and actual national elections, this was the system that was most likely to give the most people possible a representative that was to their preference.

We looked deeper, and found that some of the structural qualities of the system did things we liked as well, beyond our values. The fact that multiple members could run in ridings, meant that stronger parties would run more than one candidate to get more of a share, meaning that candidates from the same party were competing against each other. Therefore, a candidate had to be more accountable to their constituents., and that a candidate who was not responsive, stood a chance at losing to one who was, even someone from their own party. Party discipline would still exist, but this would mitigate it.

We also reasoned that candidates who knew the stratification of their constituency, would agree to work together on certain issues. Therefore, a fiscal conservative who was also environmental, might would be more open to discussing with his electable Green co-representative schemes on how to stimulate businesses with eco-friendly models and practices. This is coalition by choice, would have a better chance of lasting, as opposed to coalition by chance, which happens when sometime in parliamentary politics when groups are forced by chance to work with each other.

We looked at what people who used STV didn’t like about it, to see if we could make fixes where they would not undermine the values. For example, we found that Tasmanians did not appreciate having to rank every single candidate for a valid ballot, and so we said people should only rank as many as they want; it did not affect fairness or representation, so why not. It was because of such modifications that we called it by its own special, regionally specific name, “BC-STV.”

The more we looked into it, the more overwhelmingly sensible it seemed. That is why we went with the more difficult to explain and lesser-known option. We wished to be inclusive of all of BC’s society, and we wanted to give voters here the chance to choose a system that we had deductively reasoned to be the best, rather than a better known one that did not work for our region. The response on election day reflected a real enthusiasm for what we had done, so much so that the government was compelled to give it another chance, so learn about BC-STV and consider voting for real change on May 12th.

For more about the referendum, consider going to these sites:
For: Yes-STV
Against: Know-STV

6 Comments leave one →
  1. nmboudin permalink
    May 14, 2009 11:18 pm

    Rory, the first thing I want to say about your comment is how much hope it gives me that the very day after this was defeated, people have ideas about what to do next. I am not very familiar with that system, having immersed myself in STV but at the outset, it sounds at least twice as fair as FPTP, which is to say the idea has merit and deserves a fair hearing.

    Would BCers go for it? A lot of people seem to be keen for reform. If it has less math than STV, while being demonstratively fairer than FPTP, it might have “legs.”

    Do you know if it is being used anywhere, country, state or municipality?

  2. Rory Rickwood permalink
    May 13, 2009 11:04 am

    A Two-Vote Electoral System Proposed

    The need for electoral reform resonated with me. While the Single Transferable Vote concept was not acceptable to BC Voters, I believe it would be a mistake to give up on electoral reform. I believe first-past-the-post voting system is wrong because it allows disenfranchisement and encourages voter apathy.

    I would support a simpler electoral reform, such as a Two-Vote electoral system. The province would be divided into 43 constituencies which would elect two representatives. The ballot would allow a Voter to choose their top candidate using the traditional “first-past-the-post” method, and allow a second vote for Voter’s alternative choice of a political party or identified independents. Simple rule, between your two votes, you can’t vote for the same party twice (unless you wish to register an abstention).

    This simple binary voting system would not be as perfect as STV, but would result in a legislature that is more representative. Knowing you have two representatives to choose from in your constituency would encourage greater voter turnout because their votes would matter and result in increased representation.

    Could you support simpler Two-Vote electoral system?

  3. nmboudin permalink
    April 15, 2009 6:37 pm

    Hi Robert,
    I am always happy to engage in a well-reasoned debate, but I do not share your confidence in the ability of the present system to bring stability to the legislature. We have had two elections in a row in BC with highly erratic results. The 1996 one where the party with fewer votes was given the majority, followed by the 2001 contest where the party that had a slight advantage on votes that resulted in their gaining 97% of the seats in the house. The only thing equitable about that is the sense of unfairness supporters on all sides were entitled to feel at different times.
    You mention countries that have “something like STV” being unstable. Firstly, there is nothing like STV; it is very much its own thing. As for the countries that do use STV, Ireland and Malta, I understand that they enjoy governments at least as stable as any Westminster-style parliamentary democracy I can think of. They certainly have shown greater stability than Canada’s federal government did last year, when the minority Tories hung onto power by proroguing parliament, and that was under FPTP. That is just an occupational hazard when you are operating in a country with more than two major parties.
    As for accountability, it depends if you are looking for accountability to party line or to constituents. Because STV provide voters with the choice of voting across parties, if the voter’s traditional party not provide a suitable candidate, they stand a chance of finding a representative that is more to their liking. Greater voter choice has a way of increasing dialogue across party lines. As a scenario, let’s say the last candidate got elected to the riding with something like 25%, then they are going to make sure they are responsive to any support they have. It works against “safe seats.” This is something I suspect long-time partisan supporters understand.

  4. April 11, 2009 6:48 am

    BC-STV would be an absolute disaster for our province. Our current system has clearly given us much more stability than those countries which have something like STV. Even longtime prominent NDP supporter, Bill Tieleman, understands this.

    If people are looking for a system that provides unaccountability from their politicians then go ahead and vote ‘Yes’ for this truly stupid initiative.

  5. April 2, 2009 8:42 am

    Thank you for the explanation. It’s interesting to learn how the decision to go with a BC version of STV came about.

  6. Clarence permalink
    April 1, 2009 5:16 pm

    Thanks for a straightforward & honest perspective on STV! I’ve just tweeted about your blog. BC STV represents the proportional representation that voters want and discourages the conflictual, partisan politics we’re stuck with now. Don’t forget to vote in the referendum on May 12!

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