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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

What the hell is STV and is it contagious?

The STV or single transferable vote is an issue that British Columbia voters will be asked to vote to approve or reject on May 12th. It is an issue that has received relatively little coverage in an election campaign that seems to have garnered little interest from voters. But STV holds the potential to radically alter the way in which we elect our politicians here in British Columbia.

In order to pass it needs 60% of voters to approve it. Current polls suggest that the public is evenly divided on the issue. Instead of the present first past the post system where we have 85 ridings each electing one MLA, STV would instead have only 20 ridings each electing 5 to 7 MLAs.

Obviously in rural areas these ridings would be huge and would include about 350,000 people each. Instead of voting for your favourite candidate, you would have the option to vote for up to seven candidates you like much like you do when you vote in a municipal election. As is the case in a municipal election you do not have to vote for all seven positions. You can instead plump your ballot by only voting for one or two or three candidates the choice is yours.

The theory is that by having this municipal style voting at the provincial level it would result in more representative government. It would certainly help the Green Party which routinely gets around 12% of the vote but has yet to ever elect an MLA.

Under STV it is likely that instead of being shut out, the Greens would finally get some MLAs elected. That is why people who support the Green Party of BC have been speaking out in favour of STV. STV also has other more conservative supporters such as former Socred MLA Nick Loenen.

These supporters, I presume, believe that under STV it would allow Liberals to run as Liberals and Conservatives as Conservatives without causing a vote split that would allow the NDP to win as would be the case under our present first past the post system.

But STV has its critics, most notably Bill Tielman of the BC NDP who feels that STV would make politicians even less accountable to the voters and even more beholding to their political party. He notes that Malta which has an STV system has not elected an independent politician since the 1950s or a third party candidate since the 1960s.

Ireland, which also uses the STV system, seems to be an example of where party discipline takes precedence over all other matters. However is our first past the post system that much different?

Perhaps the most troubling fact about STV is the complicated system used to figure out who has actually won an election. According to the Citizen’s Assembly which recommended adoption of this system, “The BC-STV system recommended by the Citizen’s Assembly uses the Weighted Inclusive Gregory method under which all votes are counted and assigned to other candidates still in the count according to the voters’ preferences, but the ballots are given separate transfer values depending on their origin (that is, whether they are first preferences, or transfers from one or more other candidates).”

With both the BC Liberals and BC NDP opposing this change it is my prediction that STV will fall short of the 60% required to be approved in this election.

However this is such a sleeper election that who knows what could happen.  On May 13th we may have woken up to Carole James as the Premier and STV being the way we are going to elect BC politicians for at least the next three elections.  That is why it is best you to take the time to inform yourself and vote on May 12th.

[Cross-posted at The Insider – BC Lobbyist]

Posted by Mike Geoghegan on May 5, 2009 in Canadian Provincial Politics | Permalink


"First past the post" is a misleading metaphor, because it doesn't matter who pulls out ahead initially; all that matters is who has the most votes when all the ballots are counted. A better expression would be "democratically elected."

The fact that the results would be "weighted" by political appointees behind closed doors according to a complex formula few people understand is not likely to bolster the people's trust in the STV's vaunted fairness. More likely they'll come to the conclusion that an STV system would dilute the individual's vote to the point of pointlessness.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-05-06 7:10:08 AM

To Shane Matthews, do you really believe a system that ignores the voices of about 60% of the electorate to be democratic? FPTP was designed for a 2 party system not a real democracy that is open to real debate. The citizens coalition has given us a great gift with the BC-STV system and on May 12th BC finally has a real choice, to lead Canada out of the democratic woods.

Posted by: Louis Poirier | 2009-05-06 10:13:26 AM

If we don't choose to trial a new election process because we don't understand how it works or because we don't want change or because we enjoy the paternalistic partisan political relationship we now have then...we will keep getting the same government that most of us complain about. Come on B.C. let's become involved in governance of our society - this system of voting will call us all to a higher level of consultation. But I believe we can do it.

Posted by: Ahda | 2009-05-06 10:34:10 AM

STV makes a lot of sense since instead of one major party in control you have a balance of ideas and voices. Right now we have two real choices only, and on top of that once ielected with a majority we have NO CHOICE and can be bullied into private and sneaky agendas such as has been the current case. If counting ballots is more cumbersome it is worth the effort to ensure fair representation and a better system of checks and balances

Posted by: Louise Manelia | 2009-05-06 10:47:29 AM

Louis, it is democratic in the sense that each voter casts one vote for the leader of his choice, and that his vote counts for exactly as much as anybody else's. Neither of which would be true under the STV. A proposal is not a "gift," and I will be the judge of whether or not I should cast my vote for it.

If you would have me vote "yes," you must convince me. And you will have an easier time achieving that if you leave out the emotional pleas. Passion and policy do not mix.

P.S. As for "leading us out of the democratic woods," an STV system would produce more coalition (read: minority) Parliaments, and as the current example in Ottawa shows, they're generally not very effective. Or long-lived.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-05-06 11:14:17 AM

Ahda, did I misread, or did you really just say that it's not necessary to understand a new voting system before putting your support behind it? Spoken like a true sheep.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-05-06 11:16:37 AM

Louise, the past few years of the Canadian Parliament, with its constant election politicking, backroom coalitions, and shameful Question Periods, demonstrate that minority governments in this country do not work. Nothing gets done. Everyone is too busy preparing for the constant elections and counter-elections to actually spend time crafting policy, which is the basic function of all governments.

You seem to think that the STV will give you more power as a voter. It won't. Your participation in government will still be restricted to casting ballots every now and then. Although under STV, that might happen a lot more frequently.

P.S. What do you mean, "bullied into private and sneaky agendas"? That makes no sense. All parties have agendas and conduct much business behind closed doors. That won't change with STV. If anything it will increase, for such is the way coalitions are made, and broken, as political expedience dictates.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-05-06 11:23:27 AM

BC-STV is the recommendation of the citizen's assembly on electoral reform based on three key values: (1) fair election results, (2) increased voter choice, and (3) effective local representation.

This electoral system is a compromise between fair and proportional results province wide, and local representatives that are chosen by voters and accountable to voters.
BC-STV was chosen by ordinary people from British Columbia, not by politicians or back-room power brokers.

Posted by: Brett | 2009-05-06 9:28:14 PM

There's nothing wrong with a minority government, you just need civilized politicians to be part of it! Just think back to kindergarten where we all had to share and cooperate.

Part of the problem at the federal level is that politicians know if they can squeak out a few more votes then they'll get all the power. We've got to stop this from happening.

If there was some form of STV (or other PR system) this would probably not happen.

And, if BC already uses STV at the municipal level, what's wrong with using it at the provincial level? I think people already understand the system and that's why they're going to support it.

Posted by: MP | 2009-05-07 7:46:52 AM

BC-STV was chosen by ordinary people from British Columbia, not by politicians or back-room power brokers. - So were Larry Campbell and Glen Clark.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-05-07 8:36:09 AM

Actually, MP, you are quite incorrect. The coalition that tried to topple the Conservatives consisted of the NDP and the Liberals only, who between them do not have enough MPs to outnumber the Conservatives. That didn't stop them though; although not accepting the Bloc as a former member of the coalition (or the Bloc not accepting them), a letter of understanding from the Bloc was proposed as good enough to seize power. Even when a would-be coalition falls far short of the number of seats, there are always backroom deals, like that one.

Minority Parliaments do NOT work in this country; they never HAVE worked in this country. And given the political pizza that is Canada, or even B.C., BC-STV would almost guarantee a minority Parliament every single time. Sorry, not interested. I will vote no.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-05-07 8:40:03 AM

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