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November 7, 2008

Reject BC-STV

On May 12th BC voters will be asked if they want to turn the system used to elect MLAs on its head by changing how votes are cast and how they are counted. It's the counting part that gets really complicated. Under the single transferable vote (BC-STV), winners would not be the candidates who get the most votes, but the candidates who get at least the minimum number of required preferences, with that number varying from 12.5% to 33% depending on the number of MLAs to be elected in each constituency. That's one of the reasons I oppose BC-STV and will be voting in favor of the existing electoral system. Analysis of voting preferences by region indicates that even with BC-STV it is unlikely that the Greens would win a single seat. In other words, BC-STV fails to deliver anything close to proportional representation. The discussion below indicates why that is the case, and it expands on why BC-STV should be rejected.

The May 12th Referendum question is:

"Which electoral system should British Columbia use to elect members
to the provincial Legislative Assembly?

  • The existing electoral system (First-Past-the-Post)
  • The single transferable vote electoral system (BC-STV) proposed by the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform"

The proposed voting system is the same one that was narrowly turned down in 2005, when the threshold for approving the Referendum was at least 60 per cent of the provincewide popular vote and majority support in at least 60 per cent of the province's electoral districts. Of the 1,749,339 people who cast votes in the 2005 Referendum, 57.69% voted yes. The Referendum passed in 60% of the electoral districts, but it failed the required 60% popular vote by just over 2% (40,410 votes).

Some critics argued that the 2005 question was worded like a vote of confidence in the process that led to the Referendum, rather than as a clear choice between electoral systems. It was a yes or no question on whether voters supported the recommendation of the Citizens' Assembly. Less than a week before the 2005 vote, Ipsos-Reid did a survey that found: "Two-thirds (66%, up 2 points from early in the campaign) of British Columbians still say they know "very little" or "nothing" about the proposed BC-STV system." Apparently not knowing about the system, didn't stop people from voting yes or no.

This time the question is worded as a clearer choice and voters have the benefit of being able to see the proposed BC-STV constituency boundaries that would be implemented for the 2013 provincial election if the referendum passes in 2009. To pass it will require the same double majority threshold as in 2005, 60 per cent of the provincewide popular vote and majority support in at least 60 per cent of the province's electoral districts.

If the 2005 Referendum is any indication, most voters won't pay much attention to the details of BC-STV as they focus on the provincial election and who will form the next government. The province is funding one proponent and one opponent to BC-STV to the tune of $500,000 each, to help the public decide which electoral system should be used in 2013.

On May 12th voters will elect one MLA in each of 85 constituencies, up from 79 in 2005. If the Referendum passes, the number of MLAs will remain at 85 for the 2013 election, but they would be elected from 20 multiple member constituencies with as many as 7 MLAs to as few as 2 per constituency.

In 1986 BC still had dual-member constituencies, but there is not much in common between that old system and the proposed new system. In the 1986 provincial election, Mike Harcourt and Emery Barnes both ran as New Democrats in Vancouver Centre, and Grace McCarthy and Doug Mowat both ran as Socreds in Vancouver Little Mountain. Oh for the good old days! In those double-member ridings, voters got to cast two votes that were of equal weight, two "Xs" rather than rankings of "1" and "2".

Supporters of the BC-STV system spend a lot of time explaining how a person would vote under that system. There's nothing difficult about how you would vote under BC-STV, the trouble comes with how you count the votes. Voting under BC-STV means ranking the candidates starting with a 1 and continuing for as many candidates as the voter wants to mark. It would be possible, even in a 7 MLA constituency, to mark a 1 next to just one name and stop there; that would be a valid ballot. It would also be possible, if 50 candidates were running, to number them from 1 through 50. In the old double member ridings in 1986, a Socred supporter would mark an X next to both McCarthy and Mowatt. When the votes were counted, whichever two candidates got the most votes won. It is not anything like that with BC-STV. The way STV votes are counted, regions that now are divided into three or four constituencies with one party winning in all of them, are merged into single larger multiple-MLA constituencies with a counting system that will result in winners from more than one party.

Winners in the BC-STV system would be those who receive a specified minimum number of votes, the Droop quota (see the note at the bottom of this article). You can think of it as the opposite of the system BC has used since it became a province. Instead of determining the winners by counting who gets the most votes, STV determines the winners by counting who gets at least a minimum number of votes. Simply counting the number of 1's next to each candidate's name is just the starting point, since that won't produce the required number of winners for each riding. Part of the idea behind STV is the notion of "wasted votes". Supporters argue that a vote is wasted if a candidate gets more votes than is necessary to win, or if a candidate gets a hopelessly small number of votes. To fix that, rules are put in place on when to count the second, third and other rankings. If a candidate gets more than the Droop quota, the excess above that quote is allocated to other candidates according to the second choices of those who voted for that winning candidate. Since different voters might have different second choices, everyone's second choice is examined and allocated in proportion to the ratio of votes above the quota to the total vote count for the candidate. If there aren't enough winners after that process is completed, then the second choice of voters who voted for candidates who didn't reach the Droop quota is examined, starting with the candidate who had the fewest votes. That means if you vote for the absolute loser, your second choice will probably get counted, and if you vote for the first winner, a portion of your second choice will get counted. If you vote for someone in between the top and bottom candidate, your second choice may not get counted. It's no wonder that supporters of STV want to talk about how votes are cast but not how votes are counted.

In the past 50 years, the NDP has won a seat twice on the North Shore. In 1972 Colin Gablemann won in North Vancouver-Seymour, and in 1991 I won in North Vancouver Lonsdale. No one would say that the four North Shore seats are a hotbed of NDP support, although Craig Keating did do well (but lost) in North Vancouver Lonsdale in 2005 with 39.8% of the vote. In 2009 the boundaries of the four constituencies will not have changed very much from those that were in place in 1991 for North Vancouver-Seymour, North Vancouver-Lonsdale, West Vancouver-Capilano and West Vancouver-Sea to Sky (formerly West Vancouver-Garibaldi). If we look at the total vote by party for the North Shore region in 2005, we get Liberal 55.0%, NDP 27.1%, Green 15.8% and others 2.0%. Under BC-STV in a region with 4 MLAs, the Droop quota as a percentage of the total vote is 20%; therefore, it is highly likely that if BC-STV passes the NDP will win one of the four seats allocated to the North Shore, the Liberals will win three and the Greens will win none. While I support the NDP, I do not think it is democratic to win a seat in a multiple-MLA region with just 20% of the vote when history shows that under the system we've grown up with my party has only won twice anywhere in the region over more than 50 years. It will be fascinating to see if Liberals on the North Shore rush to the polls on May 12th and vote for a system that will almost guarantee that my party will win a seat at their expense.

Under BC-STV in 2013, the largest electoral region in the province would be the Capital Region which would elect 7 MLAs. The boundaries for the proposed Capital Region don't exactly match the current boundaries, but taking the 7 current constituencies that overlap or are contained within the proposed region, the 2005 regional vote was Liberal 39.2%, NDP 47.6%, Green 10.7% and others 2.6%. Under BC-STV for a region with 7 MLAs the Droop quota as a percentage of the total vote is 12.5%. That means it is unlikely the Greens could win a seat even in their strongest area with the voting system changed to favor them. Don't take my word for it. Use the maps and data available on the Elections BC website and do the calculations for yourself.

There are other reasons not to support BC-STV with its multiple-MLA regions. Supporters of the system argue that it would make it possible for independents and small parties to get elected. The opposite is more likely the truth. Under current campaign financing rules, in the October 29th by-elections the candidates' local campaigns in Vancouver-Burrard were allowed to spend up to $83,625 and their provincial party could spend a further $91,875. It is almost impossible for small parties, including the Green Party, to raise that kind of money. In a system that combines from two to seven current ridings into large multiple-MLA regions, the costs of campaigning for MLA would exceed the million dollar plus cost of running to be mayor of Vancouver. Of course, many throw their hats in that ring, but only those with the big bucks stand a chance.

With very large numbers of voters in a region it is impossible for a candidate to reach a significant portion of the electorate by going from door to door. The cost of buying ads or distributing leaflets keeps independents and small parties out of serious contention, and it makes the power of the established parties all the greater relative to the power of the individual candidate. Those who think that MLAs would be more independent from party machines under BC-STV have no idea of the costs and mechanics of running successful campaigns. If they don't understand Canadian politics, perhaps a glance at what Obama did to McCain on the spending front would make the realities of campaign finance clearer.

There are other problems with BC-STV from the viewpoint of how MLAs serve their constituents when there are so many of them, to how political parties pare down their candidate lists and run less than full slates (see the Irish examples). Those issues pale in comparison to the flaws discussed above. BC-STV would not be likely to deliver a system that would elect Greens or any other small parties. It would deliver a system where few could understand how ballots are counted, and it would increase the costs of campaigning, and therefore increase the power of political parties. It would turn our system on its head, so instead of choosing winners on the basis of who has the most votes, it would elect MLAs on the basis of who got 12.5% to 33.0% of preferences after first, second and third choices got distributed.

It is difficult to find any benefit that would be certain to come from changing our voting system to BC-STV, but it is easy to identify real problems. In 2009, let's hope that voters become more informed about the choices before participating in the Referendum.


Here is the proof on what percentage of the vote is sufficient to guarantee a seat to a minor party in a multiple member consistency with BC-STV.

The counting rule provides that a candidate wins if that candidate gets more votes than the "quota" where:

Quota = [(number of ballots in the riding)/(number of MLAs in the riding plus 1)] plus 1

Let X be the number of ballots in the riding, and let N be the number of MLAs in the riding, then the quota as a percentage of the vote is:

Quota/X = {[X/(N+1)] + 1 }/X = (X + (N+1))/(N+1))/X = (1 + (N+1)/X)/(N +1),
but as X becomes large (N+1)/X approaches zero,
Quota/X = 1/(N+1).

Hence, with 2 MLAs a candidate can get elected with just 33.3% of the vote and the percentage decreases as the number of MLAs in a constituency increases: with 3 MLAs, one wins with 25%; with 4 it takes 20%; with 5 it takes 16.7%; with 6 it takes 14.3%; and with 7 an MLA would be elected with only 12.5% of the total vote.

November 8, 2008

Plumping, Municipal Elections and STV

On Saturday, November 15th, thousands of candidates for municipal councils and school boards will learn their fate when polls close on the municipal elections that are held every three years. A lot of interest is focused on Vancouver where information on the risk to property taxes that arises from financing the Olympic Village is kept from the public. Meanwhile on the North Shore, two of the three municipalities don't have contests for mayor as the incumbents have won by acclamation.

I'll be voting in the District of North Vancouver, but although 9 candidates are running for 6 council positions and 8 candidates are running for 4 school trustee positions, I will vote for only one member of council and one school trustee. That is called plumping. The reason voters plump is to keep from voting against themselves. If there is only one candidate I prefer, then I could be helping to defeat that candidate if I mark an "X" next to the names of other council and school board candidates as well just because I am allowed to. My second, third, fourth or even sixth preference would receive an "X" from me with equal weight as my first choice. Before anyone says that is why BC-STV is good, because it ranks candidates by marking preferences starting with a "1", consider how plumping is done with STV.

Some voters in jurisdictions that use STV worry that the candidate they mark with a 2 or 3 will defeat the candidate they mark with a 1. That can happen after votes are transferred between candidates in STV's complicated counting system, where votes can be transferred a dozen times before the count is over. There are plumping strategies to stop 2s and 3s from defeating 1s which nullify the claims proponents make in favor of STV. Those strategies increase the power of political parties and minimize the chance that voters will vote across party lines. Most importantly, those strategies are not just theoretical; they are used frequently in jurisdictions that vote with STV.

In Australia where the single transferable vote is used to elect the senate (as well as the upper houses of four Australian states and the Lower House of Tasmania), the law requires voters to not only mark a "1" next to their first preference but to continue to mark preferences through the entire list of candidates. When there are 79 candidates for six positions, as there were for the 2007 Australian election to the Senate from New South Wales, voters must mark the candidates with the number 1 through 79 or their ballot is spoiled. Voters are offered an alternative to writing the numbers 1 through 79 by using what are called "tickets" which are pre-marked ballots. Over 96% of Australian voters, 98% in New South Wales, take the short cut of marking just one "X" for a predetermined, pre-ranked, slate or ticket of candidates. This undermines the benefit claimed by advocates of BC-STV that the system reduces the power of political parties and gives voters more choice by allowing them to rank their first three or four preferences across party lines.

The two main parties in Australia are the Liberal/Nationals coalition and the Australian Labor Party. The "ticket" for the Liberal/Nationals in New South Wales listed their candidates with preferences 1 through 6 and then went on to list preferences 7 through 79 for other parties. All a voter had to do was mark an "X" next to the Liberal/Nationals ticket to cast a ballot with rankings for all 79 candidates predetermined. Not surprisingly, that ticket put rankings for Labor well towards the end of the list. Similarly, the "ticket" for the Labor candidates listed their candidates with preferences 1 to 6 and then ranked the rest, with the Liberal/Nationals getting rankings in the 60s and 70s. Both parties knew that they wouldn't win all six positions, but running six candidates and providing already fully marked ballots is the equivalent of plumping in our municipal elections. The internal politics whereby parties determine which candidate gets recommended rank 1 and which gets recommended rank 6 must be very interesting.

I believe that the more British Columbians understand how STV works in places like the Australian senate, the more they are likely to vote in favor of keeping our existing electoral system (First-Past-the-Post) and rejecting BC-STV.



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