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Saturday, October 23, 2004

Reaping the whirlwind

Earlier today, a slim majority of B.C.'s Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform expressed a preference for a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. The chairman of the assembly expressed the delegates' disappointment with our current first-past-the-post system on the grounds that many votes are "wasted".

The STV ballot system allows voters to rank all of the candidates in their riding in the order that they prefer them. If no candidate wins a majority on first choices alone (that is, winning in the same way one would win today), lower placing candidates are eliminated until second, third, fourth and fifth place preferences, from the ballots that picked them, select a winner.

Sound a little hard to understand? It was a little confusing in the 1952 B.C. provincial election when a similar system was used.

The Liberals and Conservatives, loathing each other enough to dissolve their electoral alliance, came up with the scheme. The plan was that anti-CCF voters amongst the Liberals and Conservatives would hold their nose and vote for the other party (Liberals for Conseravtives and Conservatives for Liberals) as their second choice. Their plan backfired, with the rise of the anti-CCF B.C. Social Credit Party, which won thousands of second choices.

Those complaining about the "democracy" of first-past-the-post should recall the election night results of B.C.'s first STV election. The socialist CCF was leading with the most first choice votes and a plurality, but not a majority, of the seats. In a first-past-the post system, they would have won the election. But, as second and third choices were distributed, the Socreds eked out a 19-18 lead in seats over the CCF.

W.A.C. Bennett formed a minority government. In 1953, another STV election gave the Socreds a majority. Before the next election, the Socreds returned B.C. to first-past-the-post.

In an STV election we could have several political situations that should dismay electoral reform advocates. I can imagine the NDP and Greens making a deal where the Greens don't run candidates in 10-20 ridings in order to force NDP voters to vote for Green leader Adrienne Carr because there is no NDP candidate in Carr's riding. Green voters, under such a deal, might be forced to vote Liberal if they really dislike the NDP candidate in their riding.

I recall the last French presidential election. France's electoral system holds a runoff between the top two candidates if no-one wins the election. The main left candidate Lionel Jospin, finished third, forcing left-leaning French voters to face a choice between the conservative Chirac and the extremist Le Pen, a nauseating choice for them. Not a STV ballot, true, but one can imagine some dismaying final results in some B.C. ridings that no one could have foreseen.

Do British Columbians really want to roll the dice when they vote in provincial elections? One would hope not.

Posted by Rick Hiebert on October 23, 2004 | Permalink


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If BC had the STV system in the nineties, the NDP would likely not have formed the government (second term)with their 39% of the popular vote. Most Reform voters who caused the NPD victory, would have likely held their noses and given the Liberals their second choice, boosting their rural deficit (42% of the popular vote concentrated in urban ridings) to a majority. The STV system allows one to vote according to their conscience at least for their first choice after that, the lessor of evils. Bring it on!

Posted by: John Chittick | 2004-10-24 1:42:26 PM

I'm pleasantly surprised, to be honest. I like First-Past-The-Post, but it seems to me that electoral reform is coming, and we're much better off with STV than MMP.

When we did have STV, it gave us the best government BC has ever had, the Socreds under W.A.C. Bennett; also, as Mr. Chittick has already pointed out, STV would probably have kept the NDP out of at least their second term in the 90s.

I'll wait for the details before making up my mind on how to vote. And if the NDP and Greens decide to oppose it, then it must have some merit.

Posted by: Marc | 2004-10-24 1:57:54 PM

Echoing Marc and John, I think BC will probably adopt the proposed system. The Left want to avoid 2001; the Right wants no more 1996s.

That being said, I haven't been sold on STV yet. I'm not such a hardcore FPTPer as I was a couple of years ago, but considering BC's political landscape, it'll take some convincing for me to believe that STV would be a good thing in the long run.

Marc has a good point: whatever came out of the Assembly has a big chance of getting voted in, and I'd rather have STV than MMP.

Posted by: Kelvin | 2004-10-25 2:27:43 AM

Rick's example of the French election actually demonstrates the opposite point - under STV, one would expect that many of those who voted for either Chirac or Le Pen as their first choice would have voted for Jospin as their second choice, thereby producing a palatable outcome. STV encourages moderate candidates by giving them a reasonable shot at second votes and discourages extreme candidates because virtually no-one will list them as a second choice.

Posted by: Tony Hodgson | 2004-10-27 4:57:10 PM

Just to note, BC did *not* have STV in the 50's (despite what some misinformed officials claimed at the time). What they had was a multi-member-riding alternative vote system where each voter could cast multiple ballots, one for each MLA to be elected. That system was completely disproportional and unfair in that it allowed 51% of the riding to control all the seats, much like the current Vancouver at-large system. STV also has a preferential ballot, but each voter only gets to cast a single ballot (thus "single" transferable vote), giving far more proportional results.

Posted by: Ryan | 2004-11-05 6:57:35 AM

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