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April 26, 2009

Fairness and BC-STV

The official proponent for BC-STV has a TV ad claiming that STV is fair. Perhaps they should have asked the Irish whether they think STV is fair.

On April 28th a column appeared in the Irish Times which said: "The opportunity to vote for everybody, through the ranking of your preferences, means that in reality, you vote for no one." On April 26th Irish member of parliament (TD) John McGuinness was quoted in the Independent.ie saying: "The country is, in fact, being run by a small group within the Cabinet, together with a handful of union leaders and a small group of senior civil servants. Democracy is suffering as the Dail, the Fianna Fail parliamentary party and the people in general are not being listened to." There are calls for electoral reform in Ireland where even the website for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, in announcing that Ireland's experiment with electronic voting is abandoned, goes on to say: "…there is still a considerable need for electoral reform which can best be pursued by bringing forward proposals to establish an Independent Electoral Commission in Ireland."

The BC-STV ad mentions British Columbia's 1996 and 2001 elections. For the first time in 150 years, in 1996 BC voters elected a government that had less of the overall popular vote than the opposition. The NDP won 39 seats with 39.5% of the province-wide popular vote; the Liberals won 33 seats with 41.8% of the vote. Reform won two seats in that election and the Progressive Democratic Alliance won one, but STV supporters don't like to admit that small parties can win seats with our current system. They also don't like to admit that STV does not stop the kind of outcome BC had in 1996. In Malta, with STV, the party with the smallest percentage of the popular vote has won the most seats four times. It first happened in Malta in 1981, causing a constitutional crisis. They then amended their constitution so as to add seats when the country-wide popular vote was higher for the party with the fewest seats. They had to use that fix in their last election in 2008. BC-STV has no provision to fix such an outcome.

The reason both STV and our current system can elect governments with a smaller percentage of the popular vote than their opposition is that governments are formed by the party with the most seats in parliament. Seats are won by the vote in each constituency: the most votes in single member ridings with our current system, or by meeting the quota in multiple-member seats with STV. Neither voting system ties the number of seats to the overall popular votes for an entire province or country, contrary to what is implied in the BC-STV television ad.

The BC-STV ad also mentions the 2001 election when the Liberals won 77 of 79 seats. In that election the Liberals won 57.6% of the popular vote and the NDP won only 21.6% (the Greens 12.4%). Many would argue that it is a good thing that our system purges parties and forces change. That is why Canadians have seen some old parties die and new parties emerge. By contrast, one party has dominated Irish politics for over 70 years. It is only the current political crisis in Ireland that may force change, but even then STV might keep them from making real change. When the vote is as lopsided as it was in BC in 2001, it is not clear that STV would have produced a significantly different result. With multiple-member electoral areas requiring between 12.5% and 33.3% of the vote to win a seat, the 2001 results might have been just as distorted, depending on how many candidates each party might have run in each area. We'll never know for sure because hypothetical reconstruction of the 2001 vote depends on too many assumptions. We do know that our system returned to normal in 2005 with a balanced legislature, and a balanced legislature will be the likely result after the vote on May 12th.

No STV commissioned Ipsos Reid to conduct a public opinion poll on BC-STV. It found, based on a sample of 800 British Columbians (fielded late March, margin of error of +/- 3.5 percent, 19 times out of 20), that "a majority of British Columbians are content with the current electoral system. Three quarters (76%) feel the current electoral system is very or somewhat fair and 71% are very or somewhat satisfied with the range of choices of parties and candidates available to vote for under this system."

All over the world, people complain about politics and politicians. Changing to a complicated voting system that is being questioned in Ireland, could yield massive disappointment for British Columbians as they discover that changing how politicians are elected can aggravate their complaints.

 
 

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