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January 30, 2009

Debunking Claims about BC-STV

It is unfortunate that voters will be faced with unsubstantiated claims about what would happen if the single transferable vote (BC-STV) were implemented for the May 2013 provincial election. The proposed system is complicated and perhaps that is why simple, but inaccurate, claims are made about it.

In our existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) system the candidate with the most votes in any constituency wins. With STV there are larger constituencies that elect two to seven MLAs with the winners being those who get a minimum percentage of the vote; the percentage being 12.5% to 33.3% depending on the number of MLAs to be elected in each area. In our current FPTP system voters get one vote to elect one MLA. With STV voters still get one vote but two to seven MLAs are elected in their area; numbers put on each voter's ballot are instructions on how to allocate fractions of that voter's vote under the complicated vote counting rules.

Some supporters of BC-STV would prefer that the referendum be seen as a confidence vote in the Citizens' Assembly rather than a vote on whether BC should adopt a complicated voting system. Two of the former members of the Citizens' Assembly are actively working with the No BC-STV Campaign Society. They aren't the only former Assembly members who reject BC-STV. According to the Assembly's technical report, 31 of its members voted to have mixed-member-proportional representation (MMP) be the proposed system and 11 favoured our current FPTP system.

If electoral reform proceeded in BC the way it did in New Zealand (which adopted MMP), BC voters would be allowed to vote on several options rather than just BC-STV and the current system. In 1992 New Zealanders voted in a non-binding referendum that gave them four alternative voting systems to choose from, including STV and MMP. Voters were told that if a majority favoured change, a second referendum would be held on whether to stay with FPTP or adopt the new system. In the first referendum 70% favoured MMP, which was subsequently adopted in the second referendum held in 1993. British Columbians will not be given the option to vote for MMP even though a majority of the submissions made to the Citizens' Assembly favoured that system.

Ontario also had a Citizens' Assembly; it recommended MMP which was subsequently turned down in the province's 2007 referendum. If BC repeated its experiment with a randomly chosen Citizens' Assembly, the new Assembly might follow the example of Ontario or it might go in an entirely different direction, but no one could assume that it would support BC-STV.

In a recent email a BC-STV supporter argued that: "We currently have an archaic system that enables far too much party influence, safe-seats, the majority of voters being ruled by the minority, and clear lack of representation in the legislature. We also have a decrease in voter turnout because of frustration with the aforementioned situation." None of those points are correct, but they are often repeated by supporters of STV. Consider each point in the argument by looking at both FPTP and STV.

Party Influence

Even "fact sheets" from the Citizens' Assembly argued that party discipline may be weakened, but consider how STV works in Malta, Australia and Ireland. In Malta since 1950 only two parties have succeeded in electing representatives. In Australia 98% of those voting in senate elections choose to vote in what they call "above-the-line" voting where they cast one vote for their party rather than rank candidates themselves. In Ireland the central party determines how many candidates will run in each electoral area and central parties sometimes place their own candidate rather than one selected by local "selection conventions". The claim that parties are weaker under STV seems to be based on most BC voters not knowing much about politics in Malta, Australia or Ireland. Check it out for yourself by entering the search term "Republic of Ireland selection convention" into Google.


In Irish selection conventions each party sets strategy around the number of seats it knows it can win. Unlike BC where the winner in a "safe-seat" must take 40% or more of the vote, a politician in Ireland can be safe with as little as 20%.

Look at the political histories of the leaders of Ireland's Fianna Fail. For example, former leader Bertie Ahern, re-elected in 2007, was first elected in 1977 at the age of 26. When you use to check on Irish politicians you'll see that the site also provides links to their elected relatives. Politics seem to be a family affair in Ireland and many politicians last far longer than BC MLAs.

Majority of voters being ruled by the minority

It is a mistake to assume that everyone who didn't vote for the party in power is of one mind and would therefore agree on an alternative government.

It is true that FPTP is more likely to produce majority governments from parties that win less than 50% of the total vote. If that is a problem there are a number of ways to fix it, including runoff elections. The solution in Ireland, and countries that use MMP, is to have coalition governments. We recently saw the shock Canadians displayed when confronted with the prospect of a coalition government. Some argue that there would be less shock if parties campaigned saying that they would enter into a coalition, but parties don't do that. They form coalitions after the election when they know what they have to work with. For example, after the 2007 election in Ireland Fianna Fail entered into a coalition with the Greens after depending on just the Progressive Democrats to support them in their previous coalition. The coalition partners change but Fianna Fail remains the dominant party, majority or not.

Lack of representation in the legislature

British Columbia has a rich history of many parties being represented in the legislature. In 1991 MLAs from the NDP, the Liberals, Social Credit and Reform were all elected. In the following election a new party, the Progressive Democratic Alliance was represented in the legislature. In the 1970s BC had Social Credit, NDP, Liberal and Conservative MLAs.

A "fact-sheet" on the Citizens' Assembly website claims that BC-STV is fair because it is proportional. That is not true. BC-STV would result in fundamentally different voting systems in different parts of the province. Anything resembling proportionality is unlikely to be achieved in the four proposed electoral areas that would elect two or three MLAs, and even in the Capital Region with seven MLAs it would take 12.5% of the vote to get elected. Many MMP systems guarantee representation to parties who achieve 5% or more of the vote.

As has been shown in Malta where as recently as 2008 the party that won the highest percentage of the vote won the fewest number of seats, STV does not guarantee proportionality.

Voter turnout

It is true that voter turnout has been declining, but that is a worldwide phenomenon, including in Ireland with STV.

The facts

Claims that BC-STV will cure all that ails you cannot be supported. A comparison of our present voting system and BC-STV should be based on the facts of how votes are cast and counted, not imaginary properties. Our current system is easily understood and has served British Columbia well for most of the last 150 years. BC-STV is complex and used in so few places that it is difficult to predict what would happen if we gambled and adopted it for BC.


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