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January 16, 2009

BC's or Ireland's: Which voting system?

Imagine the regret if BC voters adopted the "single transferable vote" (BC-STV) in the May 12, 2009 referendum only to discover later that it is worse than the current first past the post system (FPTP). It is impossible to test drive BC-STV, or even get an idea of what it would be like by looking at where it is used: Ireland, Malta, Australian Senate, Tasmania and some municipalities. STV functions differently in each of those jurisdictions, but some of its proponents say that they believe its adoption in BC would be like Ireland. That is not necessarily true, but for the sake of argument it is worthwhile to have a closer look at how BC's electoral system compares with Ireland's.

With the exception of 1952 and 1953, BC has used its current voting system for all of its 150 year history. The system is simple. Each constituency elects one MLA and whichever candidate gets the most votes wins. BC used to have some constituencies that elected two MLAs, but then voters got two equal votes and whichever two candidates got the most votes won. It was considered a reform in 1991 when all constituencies elected just one MLA.

The Republic of Ireland uses STV for all Dáil (lower house) elections, Seanad (senate) elections, Presidential elections, European elections and local elections. The single transferable vote is just one vote, even though there may be 5 members of the Dáil to be elected; however, voters can number as many candidates as they choose and the numbering is used to transfer a fraction of the voter's vote when circumstances warrant during various rounds of the count.

Since WWII BC has elected majority governments. In Ireland, one party, Fianna Fáil, has formed the government in all but 19 years since 1932, as a majority government until 1989 and as the major party in coalition governments since 1989. It is currently government in coalition with the Greens; it's last partner losing 6 of 8 seats in the 2007 election. STV was used as the voting system since 1922, so contrary to what supporters of STV say, it is hard to conclude STV keeps one party from dominating politics.

The following table compares BC and Ireland on key factors related to voting. Unless otherwise noted information on the 2005 BC Election is from the Chief Electoral Officer's Report and information on Ireland is from Ireland's Citizens Information and

2005 BC Election 2007 Ireland Election
population 4,197,000 4,156,000
area 944,735 sq km 70,280 sq km
eligible voters 3,049,153 3,110,914
total votes cast 1,774,269 2,084,796
voter turnout 58.2% 67.0%
Number to be elected (MLAs or Dáil member) 79 166
Population per elected member 53,127 25,036
Number of candidates (all BC or all Ireland) 412 471
Candidates per elected member 5.2 2.8
Number of registered political parties 45 14
Maximum election expenses (all candidates plus central party) $3,670,165 Included in candidate maximum.
Expense limit per candidate Average $65,565 $67,251 in a five-seat constituency, $56,576 in a four-seat constituency and $45,306 in a three-seat constituency
Proposed BC-STV Ireland 2007
Number of multiple-member areas (constituencies) 20 43
Population per average STV area 209,850 96,651
MLA or Dáil member per area 2 to 7 3 to 5

BC and Ireland have roughly the same populations and the same number of eligible voters (not all of BC's eligible voters register to vote). Ireland is a country and as such has issues that a province doesn't have. Those factors may not be relevant to an analysis of STV, although it is important to keep in mind that any differences in politics and outcomes between BC and Ireland could be attributable to any of the differences, not just the difference in how representatives are elected.

In the May 17, 2005 provincial election only the NDP and Liberals were successful in electing candidates: NDP 33, Liberals 46; together with the Green Party, they were the only parties to run full slates of 79 candidates. In Ireland the practice is for parties to run no more candidates than they expect to win in each of the areas that elect 3 to 5 members. Contrary to what supporters of STV say, partial slates are not a universal feature of STV; in Malta parties run more candidates than there are positions to fill.

A claim made by some supporters of BC-STV is that it would be easier for third parties or independents to be elected if the rules were changed to be more like Ireland. In 1991 the BC Reform Party was able to elect members to the BC Legislature under our current system, and in 1996 the Progressive Democratic Alliance was able to do the same. Contrary to what supporters of STV say, those examples suggest that it is NOT how we elect our MLAs that determines whether "third parties" win seats.

STV supporters also claim that the system gives voters greater choice. It is hard to see that from the table above unless one means electing twice as many politicians gives greater choice. By greater choice, STV supporters might mean the illusion that is created by ranking as many candidates as a voter chooses, but the voter still gets just one vote and the rankings are just instructions on how the vote may be broken into fractions and counted. The number of candidates running in the 2005 BC election and the 2007 Irish elections were about the same even though Ireland elected 166 members and BC only 79. In BC 25 of its 45 registered political parties fielded candidates, three parties fielding full slates. Ireland had one dominate party and 13 others. How is that "more choice"?

STV supporters say: "Strengthening local representation should be a test of any electoral reform." Think of the difference in geography between BC and Ireland. Under BC-STV some of the electoral areas would be several times larger than all of Ireland. Voters sometimes complain that in municipal elections most of the candidates are elected from one part of town, leaving other parts feeling unrepresented. With our current first past the post system, people know who their MLA is and regularly see their MLA at community meetings and events. Under BC-STV some communities that used to have representation may find that all of the elected members come from the other part of a large riding. The average size of a electoral area under BC-STV is more than 13 times the size of an electoral area in Ireland, making it unlikely that you'd see your MLA when you stop in for a pint of Guinness.

Contrary to what supporters of STV say, it is expensive to campaign. In the 2007 Irish election, Fianna Fáil spent €3,650,240.55, which is $5,485,216 at the 2007 exchange rate. It looks like the price to win in politics is just as high in Ireland as it is under FPTP in BC where, in their central campaigns, the BC Liberals spent $3,670,165 and the NDP spent $3,078,049. It is tricky to compare party spending between Ireland and BC because the figure for Ireland is the total, but the figures for BC are just what the parties spent centrally; campaigns for local candidates could also spend an average of $65,565 (although most don't spend anything close to that much). When actual spending by constituency as reported to Elections BC is added to the central party spending, the total spending in 2005 for the BC Liberals was $7,758,375 and total spending for the NDP was $5,884,001.

It is interesting to note that in Ireland in 2007 the Green Party spent €553,858.70 ($832,283). In 2005 in BC the Green Party spent only $43,901 on their central campaign, when spending in all constituencies is added, the Green Party in BC spent $$281,448. Powell River-Sunshine Coast and West Vancouver-Garibaldi were the only constituencies where the Greens spent over $10,000. Many might think that the Green Party's inability to elect a single MLA is more related to the organization and financing of their campaign than to the electoral system. do we really need to change BC's electoral system to be like Ireland's just because the Green Party can't raise enough money to run a campaign?

Most British Columbians have no desire to become experts on politics in Ireland, let alone Malta and Tasmania, yet they are being asked to adopt the electoral system used in those places. If BC-STV passes many of us will have to live with it for the rest of our lives. The referendum does not contain a sunset clause, and we cannot count on another referendum. Some people, including some opponents to STV, would like to see adoption of a true system of proportional representation such as that used in Germany or New Zealand. Adopting BC-STV would kill the chances of seeing a referendum on that option.

As is usually the case, the only way voters can sort out the truth about STV is to do some research for themselves. Alternatively, voters may simply be safer staying with the system that has served BC well for most of the last 150 years.


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