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Friday, April 24, 2009

BC STV: Bruce Hallsor, co-chair of the 'Yes' campaign, makes the case for supporting STV

This is the first of three posts you'll see here on the Western Standard about BC STV -- pro, con and 'boffin'.

Ok, first off, what is STV? STV stands for "Single Transferable Vote." It's the system they use in Australia and Ireland, though modified somewhat for BC.

I asked the people at the BC STV 'yes' campaign to give me the Twitter summary of the system:

Voters rank candidates by preference in multi member ridings. Candidates are elected by receiving a quota of first preferences based on how many seats are up for election.

Which is to say it's a form of instant run off elections, or a crude form of proportional representation. STV is on the ballot in BC on May 12th. For a lot of us, it's the only reason to go to the polls. 

But that said, it is and it isn't popular. Amongst the very few who know that there's even a referendum on, 65% support the change*

I spoke with the people from the 'yes' side of the referendum, specifically, Bruce Hallsor, co-chair of the 'yes' for STV campaign, and former Western Standard subscriber. I asked him to address the referendum from a libertarian perspective.

Continued below the fold ...

WS: From your perspective is this referendum going to be an uphill battle, or do you believe that you already have the votes to win?

Bruce Hallsor, Co-Chair of the BC-STV 'Yes' Campaign (BH): The referendum is an uphill battle, and we need the votes of all libertarians to win. We believe that there is general public goodwill toward this change because people know that the current system leads to highly centralized party structures and less freedom for MLAs and for voters. But people also need to learn about STV before they will agree that it solves the problems we presently have, and reaching all people in BC on a small budget is difficult, especially when we are competing with political parties who are spending millions.

WS: Do you believe that limits on third party advertising during the campaign are effecting your chances of winning?

BH: We have found the third-party advertising rules frustrating, because there are many groups that have come to us wanting to support STV, and many of them are turned off by the registration and reporting requirements. We also have to be careful about working with other supportive groups lest they inadvertently become third parties.  

WS: How will STV affect the Recall and Initiative Act, and will it raise the already high barrier blocking many citizen initiatives?

BH: There are a number of administrative barriers to making the referendum and recall act work effectively, beyond just the high threshold for signatures. For example, the Act requires proponents to get a percentage of the names who were on the voters list in the last election, regardless of how accurate that list was, and regardless of how much it has changed since that election. For example, in a district where 10% of the residents change every year (which is a typical turnover rate due to people moving in and out, and to mortality and to young people achieving voting age), the real threshold grows by 10% in each year after the election day. If John Smith is on the list on election day, he remains on the list three years later for recall purposes, even though he may have subsequently died, or moved to Timbuktu. If you are trying to get signatures of 40% of the people on the list, and 30% of them are already impossible to reach, the effective target is more like 57%. Whether STV passes or not will not make any difference to the real difficulty of ever achieving that kind of target anywhere. Clearly, if STV passes, the entire recall section of the Act will have to be re-written, and this could present a golden opportunity to make the law more workable and reasonable than it presently is.

WS: If STV loses this time around, do you believe that it will be brought forward again, or is this our 'last chance' to get electoral reform?

BH: It is clear that most people who are elected to serve in safe single-member ridings have no incentive to change the system to open it up and jeopardize their tenure. Given this, we should not expect that any party in government will ever give us this chance again. They will use any excuse to derail electoral reform. I believe that engaged citizens can keep the issue alive, but I have no illusion that it will be very difficult to ever have another opportunity if 60% of British Columbians do not support this reform. Happily, we achieved 58% last time, and we are finding so far that more than 60% of decided voters feel they are not well served by FPTP [First Past the Post] and are open to STV.

WS: Wherever we see proportional representation, we also see a proportionally large state. Possibly this is due to the presence of smaller hinge parties and the brokering that involves when it comes time to form a coalition. How do you address the worry that libertarians may have, that proportional representation will mean bigger government?

BH: Proportional Representation is a broad term that can be applied to many different electoral systems. Strictly speaking, STV is not proportional because voters elect candidates, and do not vote for parties. STV does deliver much more proportional results for big parties than FPTP does. It will generally eliminate situations where parties form majority governments with less than 39% of the vote, and will make it unlikely that we repeat the situation where the losing party actually wins more seats, as has happened in BC, Saskatchewan, Quebec, and New Brunswick in recent memory. 

In a typical four-member STV riding, a candidate will need more than 20% of the vote to get elected. Small fringe parties do not receive 20% of the vote, and will not elect people under STV. In a few larger urban ridings, with six or seven members, it will be possible to get elected with 12.5% or more of the vote. This will open the door for a few independents or small party candidates, but it will not lead to a legislature that is dominated by small parties. Under STV, large parties will still get a bonus of seats, and parties that get into the 45% range in popular vote, will still form majority governments. Ireland, which has had STV since 1921, had had majority governments, and has had some stable coalitions, just as BC has had since 1921. In fact, we have had the exact same number of elections as Ireland since 1921. 

STV provides stable government with fair results for large parties. Smaller parties will have a chance to get a voice in the legislature, but they will not dominate the legislature as they do in some PR countries.


If you're interested in seeing how BC STV would actually work, click here to try it out.

Next up -- the 'no' side.

Posted by Robert Jago on April 24, 2009 in Canadian Provincial Politics | Permalink


Seems a bit strange to us uninitiated

Posted by: GeronL | 2009-04-24 2:31:36 AM

Yeah, it's a vote between the crappy and the incomprehensible. Try the tester thing at the end. Somehow I voted for my 4th choice?

Posted by: Robert Jago | 2009-04-24 2:42:10 AM

This system appears to be the same one as the one they voted on before. It's a great system because (1) the final election results (by party) much more accurately reflect voter preferences and (2) it shifts power from party leaders to the general public when it comes to choosing which candidate for a given party is elected.

Changing the electoral system will not likely make the parties change their policy positions very much, if at all, so the change is of limited value from that perspective. But for people who think that having a government that reflects the will (or 'wills', more accurately) of the people is important, this is a vastly superior system.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-04-24 8:31:41 AM

Another advantage of this system is allowing people to vote according to conscience first and second according to lessor of evil. For that reason, it has the potential to signal direction to alter (large) party policies accordingly.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2009-04-24 10:30:32 AM

In theory this is a more equitable system. It gives each voter several kicks at the can instead of only one. What I don't understand is why it simply wasn't implemented by legislation, the way the fixed election dates were.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-24 10:35:03 AM


"What I don't understand is why it simply wasn't implemented by legislation...."

I think the answer to your question is this: (1) The system makes minority governments more likely than before, and the party leaders don't like that. (2) The system gives party leaders less control over who their backbenchers might be, and they don't like that either.

The move to change the electoral system really was a grass roots movement that was grudgingly agreed to. In the last referendum, a ridiculously high threshhold was set for the proposal to be counted as passed, and when the results came very VERY close to achieving that level, there was pressure for the legislature to put it in place anyway (as they could have done). They resisted.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-04-24 10:49:24 AM

I get the general gist of this but some things are not clear to me. If implemented would the voter tick off in order of preference the various political parties in BC, or would your choice be limited to the ones with candidates in your riding? This could be important since all parties are not represented in every riding. Any clarification would be appreciated.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-04-24 11:24:31 AM

You'd be limited by the parties available in your riding. But there would only be 20 ridings for the entire province - fewer even than PEI. Meaning that it's much more likely that small parties would be able to run a candidate in each riding.

Posted by: Robert Jago | 2009-04-24 12:50:58 PM

Alain and Robert,

Actually, just to be clear, the way the ballot works is you choose individual candidates, not parties. In this respect you vote the same as you do now and independents can run and be elected. But it does mean you could make your first choice a Conservative, your second choice a Liberal, your third choice another Conservative, and so on. You don't need to pick just one party.

So you rank order the individual candidates rather than just choose one (although you can still just choose one if you want to). Each party can (and likely would) run multiple candidates as there are multiple seats to be won in each riding. But the result in any riding is likely to be some candidates from one party and some candidates from another party.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-04-24 2:08:33 PM

Nothing less than mob rule. FPTP is far superior to the nonsense of proportional systems that always end in government failure. See Denmark and Israel.

Posted by: Faramir | 2009-04-24 2:21:33 PM

Bigger ridings! Good chance you'll elect people who don't care about your local interests because, first, they may be from an area far removed from you and, secondly, they will be far more interested in their own politics than local situations. Anyway, if STV passes, I'll look forward to voting for Libertarian candidates.

Posted by: dewp | 2009-04-24 2:54:40 PM


Except for the fact that the proposed BC system is nothing at all like the system's used in Denmark and Israel, you make a good point! The system is more like ther ones used in Australia and Ireland (as Robert pointed out). God forbid we should have the electoral chaos of those two counties!

Posted by: Fact Check | 2009-04-24 3:00:07 PM

I'm still not convinced about STV. My primary concern is that it's too complicated. I have no idea how the votes are tallied and if people don't understand their electoral system, they will be less likely to use it. A pure PR system seems a lot more simple and is in use in many other countries. Some of my other concerns:

1. If it is likely to create coalition governments, then it does not solve one of the big issues with a pure PR system: unstable coalitions.

2. If it will still be hard for smaller parties to win seats, then it does not further the debate within government by giving a voice to minority groups (like libertarians).

3. If no one is using this exact system, then do we really know how it will affect the makeup of the legislature?

PR has the potential to solve a number of the failings inherent in our electoral system. STV seems like an overly complex system that does not necessarily solve anything. Is this reform for the sake of reform or is there a point here?

Posted by: Jesse Kline | 2009-04-24 3:18:58 PM

it sounds like you both want PR and don't want PR, well luckily thats pretty much what STV gives you. It is not PR in the way Israel is, where people vote for parties only and leads to unstable coalitions with small voices holding sway. It is PR in the sense that within each riding the votes are transferred proportionally. But the cutoff for winning is still based on the riding, if there are 4 MLAs in your riding they need 1/5 of the vote to win, thats still a lot. In Israel the cutoff is 2%. So very small fringe parties still won't do well. But moderate sized small parties like Green, Conservative and maybe Libertarians (I don't know how big they are) could get some seats as they should if they can muster 10-20% of people's choices in a riding.

Posted by: Mark Crowley | 2009-04-24 3:34:29 PM

Thank you everyone for the clarification. I must admit that the reduction to 20 ridings for the whole province concerns me, since it appears to be just one more opportunity for the needs and wishes of rural voters to be ignored. This is especially true in the lower mainland where I reside. We have seen nothing but negative results to date with local districts being lumped into larger ones with a larger urban population. An excellent local hospital closed along with many other local services is but one example.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-04-24 8:43:10 PM

For anyone interested in reality:


Posted by: Rick Dignard | 2009-04-25 12:15:36 PM

Ireland's conservative party split in 1985. Its libertarian wing was more conservative (free-market) economically, but more liberal socially (seeking to legalize contracepation and divorce).

The new party they formed won 14 seats in the 1987 election. On four different occasions in the past 20 years they became the government's junior coalition partner. They had an influence on Irish politics and economics disproportionate to the party's small size. In particular, the party has often been credited with shaping the low-tax, pro-business environment that contributed to Ireland's Celtic Tiger economic boom during the 1990s and 2000s.

It couldn't have happened without STV.

Posted by: Wilf Day | 2009-04-25 8:01:59 PM

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