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Monday, May 04, 2009

Short for "Stymies Traditionalist Voters"?

The biggest choice in next Tuesday's B.C. election may not be whether the B.C. Liberals or the N.D.P. forms the next government. Rather, voters in the province are being asked to adopt a "single transferable vote" (STV) system in future elections, in place of "first past the post".

While an "STV system" may seem to be the answer to get representation for smaller parties (hello, Libertarians), I'm not so sure about it. I'm amazed that no one seems to be talking about what happened in the 1952 and 1953 elections when B.C. used a system very much like STV. I'm discouraged that no one is looking closely at how similar voting systems have played out in other countries. But, most of all, I'm fearful of what could happen to small-c conservative parties in B.C. under an STV.

Shotgun readers have already read some good introductory comments from those for and against the proposal. However, being a conservative who tries to learn from the example of history, I wonder why no one seems to be looking to the past when it comes to this idea, and trying to profit from it.  

The STV ballot system would allow voters to rank all of the candidates in their riding in the order that they prefer them. If no candidate wins the "quota" of votes required to be elected on first choices alone, lower placing candidates are eliminated until second, third, fourth and fifth place preferences, from the ballots that picked them, select a winner.

Another change that would happen would be the creation of huge ridings under STV. Vancouver, for example, would have 2 electoral districts that would continue to elect 11 MLAs. In the riding that I would be in under STV, for example, I would be able to cast five first choices for MLA. (If we had STV for this election, however, I would be truly dismayed, as neither of my first two choices for party have any candidates running in my part of the city under the proposed STV boundaries).

Then, you rank your other choices in order. In my example, I would pick five second choices and write "2" beside these candidates, then I could pick five third choices and so on.  

I can understand why partisan Libertarian might like the idea, or say, a member of a provincial Christian Heritage Party. It is indeed daunting to think of the idea of having to find 15,000 Libertarians, say, in a riding under first-past-the-post. Far better to use STV, if you are the strategist of a party with limited resources in a riding that will elect 6 MLAs, say, and you decide the run the leader of the B.C. Christian Heritage Party and no other candidates and thereby husband your time and money and elect your leader by squeaking in on third and fourth choices. 

Does casting a STV ballot, as I've described it above, sound daunting to you? It was a little confusing in the 1952 B.C. provincial election when a similar system was used.

The B.C. Liberals and B.C. Conservatives, loathing each other enough to dissolve their electoral alliance of the 1940s, 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 Conservatives 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 in 1952. 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 and received the right to try and form a government. But, as second and third choices were distributed, the Socreds eked out a 19-18 lead in seats over the CCF.

(In the library, I pulled the microfilm files of the Sun and Province newspapers to read about this election once. I was struck by the columnist--I think he wrote for the Province--who wrote in the edition after the 1952 vote that all he could comment on was that we in B.C. had elected a government. He just had no idea who. One small argument against STV, then, could be that if such an election is held in the midst of a national emergency, taking several days or weeks to form a new, or a coalition government caused by STV balloting, could be very destabilizing.) 

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.

The results of the 1952 and 1953 elections proved acceptable for the right in B.C., even though the Socreds would sometimes prove to be "big government conservatives". However, I can imagine a soft-liberal/hard left grouping of two or three parties sharing around 45-50 per cent of the vote and using the STV system to manipulate the vote to stay in power for 20-25 years. Just because the only time that STV has been used worked to help the right before does not mean it would happen again, especially given how liberal urban B.C. can be now.

Although I often back the wrong pony, I prefer how first-past-the-post allows me to vote for the candidate closest to my beliefs and that person alone. I dislike voting against candidates. But you have to vote against candidates by using your preferences under an STV system, and a recent news story from Europe may illustrate my point.

Western Europe is electing representatives to the European Parliament, under a ranking and proportional representation system that is similar in some ways to B.C.'s proposed STV. In the Parliament's "north-west" riding of England, however, what is making news is not what Labour and the Tories, who expect to win the most seats here, are doing, but rather how best to stop the nativist British National Party from winning the last of the riding's seats. As the story from today's edition of The Independent explains, another party is so afraid of the BNP that it has withdrawn from running to stop the party's leader from winning a seat. Voters are being urged to use their third, fourth and fifth choices to vote for a Green candidate to stop the BNP.

This would not happen under first-past-the-post. I can imagine votes being very casual, in large ridings about who their sixth, seventh and eight choices would be, only to be shocked when their I-want-to-finish-this-ballot choice leads to someone they intensely dislike being elected by the skin of their teeth. This means that in preferential voting systems like the proposed B.C. STV, parties spend a lot of time and effort ensuring that their core supporters make all their choices, one through the end, in the way party leaders want. I recall an election in Australia some time back when the controversial One Nation Party was still active. Australia has its voters rank their choices (as under the proposed BC-STV) and I recall that in this particular election, it became a huge news story when some candidates did not instruct their core voters to rank One Nation dead last in their suggested preferences.

The Australian example leads me to my strongest misgiving about the B.C. STV proposal. I'll agree that the idea that forcing the B.C. Liberals to depend on the second choices and the legislature votes of a more strongly conservative party is a very attractive one. But, I have reason to pause.

In Australia, right of center governments for the past few decades have been made up of two parties. The Liberals, a moderately conservative party, dominate urban and suburban areas, while the Nationals, a more conservative party, has redoubts in the countryside. When the "right" wins elections, both parties form a coalition government. The core supporters of each party are supposed to select the other as their second choice and the parties never run against each other except when the seat is held by a Labour representative and both of the two parties has a chance at winning. How that has worked out in practice over the past decades is that slowly the Liberal party is tending to gain MPs while the Nationals are slowly losing MPs. The Nationals are finding it harder and harder to be the more conservative junior partner in the coalition.

Under BC STV, I can imagine, based on what has happened in Australia, a strongly conservative junior party gaining some cabinet seats and some say in policy. But, in B.C., aspiring politicians and donors would flow to the B.C. Liberals, the senior partner in the coalition and the one--most certainly the one controlling the most powerful cabinet positions and the ones controlling social policy. (Can't allow the pro-life leader of the smaller second party to be Health minister, they would argue--it would lose votes for both parties...) The moderately conservative bigger party would be permanently able to frustrate the smaller, more conservative one.

I would hate to see a smaller, strongly conservative party never be able, thanks perhaps to the systemic long term changes forced on it by B.C. STV, to emulate the B.C. Liberals. The B.C. Liberals for decades elected only a few MLAs and then none at all under the Bill Bennett Socreds. Under the right circumstances in 1991, when voters wanted change quickly, they were taken from nowhere to the Opposition and set on the road to being the new non-NDP coalition. As unhappy as I can be with the B.C. Liberals, I am happy that the only alternatives to the party are to their right. Who knows, perhaps lightning can strike again?  

I hope, for the reasons that I've outlined, that B.C. voters decide not to buy the pig-in-a-poke that is the B.C. STV. Can they learn from history and realize that there are many good reasons to suspect that there may be a dead cat, and not a delicious suckling pig, inside this particular electoral system bag?  

Posted by Rick Hiebert on May 4, 2009 in Canadian Provincial Politics | Permalink


A bit of confusion here.

You would not "be able to cast five first choices for MLA." That's the block vote for at-large candidates for municipal council. With BC-STV you have one first choice, then one 2, one 3, and so on. If the BC Conservative Party candidate, for example, gets 17% of the vote on the final count in that district, he's elected. Final count? Well, suppose the Liberals get 38%, elect two MLAs, and after their other candidates are eliminated their left-over voters add up to 5% and their third preference was the Conservative Party man who got 12% on the first count, that's the 17% he needs to win.

The 1952 and 1953 elections were not STV at all. They were winner-take-all, but with a preferential ballot (called Instant Runoff Vote in the USA).

Would a Conservative junior partner be worse than having to vote for the single Liberal candidate? You tell me.

Posted by: Wilf Day | 2009-05-04 10:31:23 PM

"In my example, I would pick five second choices and write "2" beside these candidates, then I could pick five third choices and so on."

Rick, you clearly do not understand STV. You rank candidates 1-2-3-4-. Seeing as you don't even understand the basics of the system, I don't think we can take your opinion on it seriously.

I would recommend you take a day or two to talk to political scientists (I recommend Dennis Pilon at UVic) who will gladly explain to you how it works and how hard-working and popular libertarian (or socialist) candidates can get elected under that system.

Posted by: Partisan non-partisan | 2009-05-04 10:31:49 PM

As a small c conservative, you should take a look at the fact that both the BC Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Taxpayer Federation have endorsed STV.

Our current system amounts to taxation without representation, not only for supporters of smaller parties, but for conservative voters in NDP ridings and likewise NDP ridings in Liberal safe seats.

Additionally, the nature of first past the post politics results in huge pre-election pork barrel spending as governments try to buy votes. The money is rarely distributed fairly, instead our politicians tend to dump it all into a handful of competitive seats.

Unless you are part of the leader cult, Gordon Campbell or Carol James can do no wrong, BC-STV will give you choice.

It will give you MLAs in your community who can fight for your issues. If they don't, then good luck on anyone giving them their first or second choice.

Posted by: Dan | 2009-05-04 11:17:39 PM

Rick, thanks for this column. It's good to see any coverage of the referendum, even if I don't agree with the position you've taken.

Your main concern seems to be whether a small libertarian party will do better under STV than under the current system. If it were MMP that was being proposed, I could say definitively that it would. But with STV, it's a bit more complex. The Libertarian Party would be most likely to win one or two seats in the biggest ridings, probably the Vancouver seats. This is because those ridings elect the most members: The MLAs elected will be most proportionate to the votes cast and so a small party stands its best chance in those ridings. Two or three may seem to be a sucky outcome. But it would just be the beginning. One or two seats in the legislature would represent a beachhead. Because Libertarians are smart, they will perform well in both the leg and the media - the result will be more of their MLAs elected in the big urban ridings and even in the rural ridings in subsequent elections. But STV gives us a fighting chance.

Compare this outcome to the current system, where Libertarians will never have a hope in hell of accumulating enough votes in a single riding to win a single seat.

I share this concern of yours, but I find that looking for instructive historical lessons or from other STV states to be more distracting than helpful. BC in '52 and '53 used a system that was similar to STV only in the sense that it allowed voters to rank-order their choices. This is also the system that Australia uses for its lower house, and it has very different consequences than STV. Ireland probably represents the best example of what BC would look like after STV, but that would take a LONG time. And there are alot of other things about BC that aren't going to go away just because STV comes along.

For me, the killer argument for STV is local representation. Opponents of STV claim that it will hurt local representation because the ridings get bigger. But the ridings only get much bigger in the urban areas, where the distance that separates ridings is not really that big. And we know from Ireland that reps under STV are much more attentive to local concerns than they are under our system. This is because they know that they are running against candidates from their own party - they have to convince voters to vote for THEM, not just their party. Right now, Liberals in the Fraser Valley can disappear for four years and still romp to victory four years later on the coattails of the party label. But under STV, they'll have to fight for their re-election, and they'll do it by becoming stellar constituency reps.

Anyway, a long reply, but thanks again for your post.

Posted by: RK | 2009-05-05 2:14:44 AM

Just add my agreement that Mr. Hiebert's description of the voting process of BC-STV is incorrect. Voters give a ranking of their preferences for all candidate, 1,2,3,4..., and the counting selects the 5 MLAs(or however many in your riding) that are most preferred by the voters. This changes many of the properties you were talking about. Its actually simpler and more powerful than your description indicates. And small party conservatives should be just as excited about this change as Green party members are. Finally, loud but dispersed minority voices in our province will be heard. Democracy should listen to everyone in proportion to their numbers not based on how concentrated they happen to be in swing ridings.

Posted by: Mark Crowley | 2009-05-05 2:39:16 AM

If you want to do a real analysis, Manitoba used a hybrid STV/AV system:


It was removed because the parties feared the social credit was making a come back.

Posted by: Dan | 2009-05-05 9:43:41 AM

The example of the UK European Parliament contingent has nothing to do with STV. There, there are 8 seats available through a party list proportional representation mechanism. If a party wins 1/8th of the votes (12.5%), they win a seat. The BNP won 6% of the vote last time vs 5% for the Greens (and less for Respect). The three major parties won about 85% of the vote, so won all but one of the seats.

Since there is no preferential ballot there, the way there would be with BC-STV, there is no mechanism for deciding that the supporters of the Greens plus Respect plus several other smaller parties would rather see the Green candidate elected over the BNP one. This is not a problem with BC-STV - its preferential ballot encourages honest voting by ensuring that voters' intentions will be accurately translated into the representation they want. If preferential balloting were used in the UK, the majority of these small party supporters would coalesce around a suitable candidate - likely the Green one mentioned in this story.

Hiebert is dead wrong to claim that STV forces you to vote AGAINST someone - the truth is that that is exactly what our current system does. Most voters are familiar with the dilemma of voting for the person you want to vs the one who is most likely to defeat the person you like least. With STV, you say what you want, and your vote does its best to give you that. To the greatest extent possible, you get the MLA you want, no matter how other people vote.

Posted by: Tony | 2009-05-05 10:28:28 AM

I can't get excited about STV. It's not going to make the sun shine any earlier in the morning. It's just going to elect a slightly different bunch of representative dictators. We're not going to get less interfering governments by adhering to someone's new and weird definition of democracy. (And if "democracy" is your goal, have you looked into Arrow's Impossibility Theorum?)

The purpose of picking one form of voting over any other form would be to show that "liberty" (i.e. restrictions on what government can do) would win out. Unfortunately, special interests are likely to cotton on quicker than anyone else to whatever new rules on on the books.

I see this unexciting STV debate as just a diversion from real issues --- such as getting more choice in health care or privatizing the 95% of the land mass in BC that is still crown land (i.e. run like some kind of disfunctioning condo).

Paul Geddes, President, BC Libertarian Party

Posted by: Paul Geddes | 2009-05-05 10:33:01 AM

My opposition remains the reduction in ridings which will result in many rural areas having no say due to being lumped in with larger urban areas.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-05-05 10:54:29 AM

If I did make an error in describing how people would vote, I certainly regret it.

That said, I refer to the "How to vote" handout that I, and all B.C. homes, received from Elections BC, which I tried to read carefully to find out how STV would work. You would think that there would be a careful description of exactly how the BC-STV would work, but there isn't. I'm being asked to vote on it, after all.

The fact that I could make such a mistake, when Elections B.C. should be making sure that I know exactly about what I am voting for is a bad sign. I would suggest that it makes the proposal even more of a pig-in-a-poke than I feared.

(I would retain, though, my apprehensions about the use of "preferential voting"--a feature of STV--due to what has happened in practice when preferential voting has been used.)

Posted by: Rick Hiebert | 2009-05-05 11:51:21 AM

"My opposition remains the reduction in ridings which will result in many rural areas having no say due to being lumped in with larger urban areas."

This won't happen under the proposed system.

Posted by: RK | 2009-05-05 1:27:24 PM

RK, how do you arrive at the conclusion that the reduction in ridings will not result in grouping many rural areas with urban areas? Based on the information I have read, it cannot be otherwise. If you have proof showing this is not the case, then please provide it.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-05-05 6:02:39 PM

Assume STV is chosen. So I have an issue I want brought forward. Instead of having a representative 5 miles from me I now have 5 representatives scattered over a large area. Who do I take my concern to ?

And if te response is not what I hoped for, do I take it to the next one etc till I find the waco that was elected cause everyone thought they had to put sown five numbers but only knew two. So they just randomly slapped numbers beside some other names?

Face it folks - most people are fed up with politics and pay no attention to it. Another group is dedicated to one party or the other cause they have always been.

Do you think these people are going to study the issues and vote - no - they will either not vote or will put down the 1 and 2 choices and leave the other options blank.

That means someone who has three friends and a large family that gets 131 votes ranked at 5 will get a seat cause only a thousand dared to number as high as five !

Poor system. I want a representative I can go see with my issue and I expect him to respond, not for me to play a game of chess and find the correct pawn to go with.

remember the Alamo - your turn may be comming !

Posted by: Wade Pascoe | 2009-05-08 1:38:46 PM

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