For those outside of British Columbia we have a referendum on May 12th to determine if the province should shift from its current voting system, called First Past the Post (FPTP), to Single Transferable Vote (BC-STV).
Watching the back and forth over the referendum on BC-STV has, I sense, left most citizens of British Columbia exasperated and confused. On both sides, people pronounce that a change will either bring political nirvana to the province, or utter disaster. It’s all a little over dramatic.
The truth is, the current system is not a disaster nor is the proposed change a nirvana. Both have strengths and weaknesses – this is because fundamentally, they are seeking to accomplish different things.
At present, our system favours geographic representation. In BC we don’t have a single election, we have 85 individual elections – one in each riding. Consequently, a party that wins 34% in each individual race could win every seat. This means that ideologically – a single perspective get represented. It is rare, but it is possible.
BC-STV is an attempt to create electoral outcomes that better reflect not how individual ridings voted, but how people voted across the province. In short, it seeks to enhance ideological representation by enabling voters who are distributed across ridings to elect representatives whose ideas resonate with them.
The challenge is, one cannot have it both ways. You cannot strengthen province wide ideological representation without weakening local representation. And herein lies the central trade off between the two systems: Local accountability versus great ideological representation at the provincial level.
Both are noble objectives. They just happen to be incompatible, one comes at the expense of the other. For me, this reduces any assessment of BC-STV to this question: do the benefits of improved ideological representation outweigh the costs of reduced local accountability? I think the answer is no.
In part, this is because I happen to place a high value on local representation. Others who think geography is less important than ideology will likely disagree (these are legitimate, and likely irreconcilable perspectives).
However, I’m also concerned about BC-STV because to achieve better ideological representation, I believe it makes some significant and problematic trade-offs (listed below). That, and there are the infamous unknown unknowns involved in adopting a new system.
The biggest problem with BC-STV is that, to achieve a balance between ideological and local representation, it presents votes with a system that is almost impossible to understand. I’m a policy wonk and a political junkie, as such I’m genuinely interested in these things and like to think I know a little about them. I’ve just gone through the literature umpteenth times and while I understand how it works, it is grossly complicated. I have not ideas of what its implications will be nor am I sure that the manner and order by which votes get weighted is fair.
One thing you want from an electoral system is that it be easily understood. This is important so that people know exactly who they are voting for and what their vote means. BC-STV is so complicated that the Vote No campaign websites directs readers to the explanatory video developed by the Citizens Assembly (their opponents). Even its advocates can’t explain it simply.
In order to create greater ideological representation BC-STV has to weaken local representation. It does this by making ridings (districts for Americans) larger. Consequently, in BC-STV we would end up with mega ridings, the largest being 372,000 sq km. But the ratio of elected officials to votes would however, remain the same meaning that each “riding” would be served by somewhere between 2 and 7 MPs. This has several problematic implications.
First, who’s accountable? When there is a problem in your riding who do you complain to? Who is your elected official? Do you complain to all seven? The one you voted for? The member who is part of the government? All of them? A 7 member riding dilutes the connection between the voter and their representatives.
Second, it can create problematic feedback loops. If voters who vote for the Green Party only ever contact the Green Party representative and Liberal Party voters only contact the Liberal Party member in their riding we run the risk of creating a selection bias driven echo chambers. Party’s actually become more ideological and partisan.
Finally, individual MPs voices are diminished. In our current system, MPs influence derives from the fact that they have a machine on the ground and that they know their riding better than anyone. Large ridings make this harder to sustain. More importantly, when there are multiple candidates from a single party in the riding, the party can choose to deploy more resources towards candidates that will not challenge the party or its leader. The outcome is that BC-STV actually weakens the independence of elected officials.
Small Parties, Big Voices
I’m not opposed to coalition governments per se but, unlike many BC-STV supporters, I do not think they are inherently good either. BC-STV supporters are correct in asserting that smaller parties will have a greater voice. What often isn’t explained is that that voice won’t be proportional to the number of seats they elect – it can end up being disproportionately influential. Imagine a small party that garnered 8% of the provincial vote holds the balance of power in the legislature. It can effectively make any demand it wants to prop up the government. As a result, a platform supported by just 8% of voters suddenly becomes dominant. I know many of my environmentalist friends are excited by the prospect of the Green Party holding that balance of power… but there is no guarantee that this would be the outcome. What if the nascent Conservative Party were to be that force? They would almost certainly force the Liberals – arguable the most progressive party on the environment and First Nations issues – to move backwards on issues like the Carbon Tax and the New Relationship.
For these and other reasons, I’m ultimately opposed to BC-STV. Is FPTP perfect? Hardly, but BC-STV is still less so.
I now there are a lot of readers out there who are supporters so feel free to vent below in the comments section. I’ll try to respond to counter arguments as best I can.
For those who want to know more and educate themselves before tomorrow’s vote, here is a link to the BC-STV site and to the No STV site.
Hmm, maybe I'm wrong, but I think the votes only get counted in the riding not provincially – so if a small party gains 8% of the vote in a riding (this would have to be a large riding in order for the candidate to win with 8% – in fact that may be pretty much impossible) they would be elected as a member for that riding.
David, do you believe in electoral reform per se? Do you think the FPTP system needs reforms at all? And if so, what would you like to see?
I voted yes for STV. While it won't be nirvana, I think it could improve our current system. I hope that having multiple elected officials representing a riding (albeit a larger one) will improve MLAs’ accountability and responsiveness. And as a voter, I think I would be more engaged and interested if I had to make more than one choice on the ballot.
I am voting NO to STV. I know who I want in and I don't want bits and pieces of interference from the one party I highly dislike. No input what so ever. I canadate 1 vote. It's terrible to admit I do not trust our government leader's-I really don't and that is a terrible feeling. The feeling we are going to get screwed for another 8 years repulses me. Please we need a break.
I'm voting YES too.I think it all comes down to whether you like the current system or not: if you do, you have no real incentive to change it; if you don't, what's there to lose, really?The system is simple on the front end. That's all that really counts.Accountability – STV improves the chances that there will be an MLA in my riding who is responsive to my interests vs. none. Small parties, big voices – this is a problem under ANY system where minority voices have a chance of winning seats. It's a good problem to have!
Excellent analysis, thank you. I'm still voting Yes, mostly because I don't believe that our MP's regularly vote based on their own consituency's needs – they seem to go more often along party lines (ie, ideological). So, if my assumption is true, then the most important thing is to have the province's ideological majority in power.As for accountability, I'll be contacting every one of my riding's MP's on issues that matter to me, and hold them all to account in the next election – every bit as accountable as our current system. I also have better hope that at least one of them will respond, and that at least one of them will be in a position of power to make a difference.
I'm actually a fan of a bicameral system where you have one house based entirely on equally created ridings and the other which is weaker, but pure or regional PR.
I'm not sure the Israeli's are happy to have this problem… lots of small parties have held the country hostage on a number of small niche issues… Again, I'm not convinced everyone will feel this way when a new Conservative Party starts forcing a government to adopt elements of its agenda.
The bigger parties will have to find a way to work together then, rather than letting the small party hold them hostage.
I like that too. Can we have a BC Senate?
I respectfully disagree with your conclusion. Here is where we part in your argument:”For me, this reduces any assessment of BC-STV to this question: do the benefits of improved ideological representation outweigh the costs of reduced local accountability? I think the answer is no.”For all practical purposes, there is no geographical representation or local accountability in our current system. Over time, the parties have come to determine priorities, in which the only nod to local representation usually takes the form of pork barrel investments in government held ridings.Maintaining the fiction of local accountability only serves to heighten geographic tensions. Issues become embroiled in whether an initiative is good for my neighbourhood, or bad for my neighbourhood, or “is some other area getting a better deal?”, rather than focusing on the more substantive issue of “what is best for all of us?” which is where the government should focus.I strongly believe that FPTP encourages regional squabbling, as it pits one “area” against another. Voters try to get as much power as they can in this battle by selecting someone who will be part of the government. Rather than selecting the right ideology, or the right person, they engage in a game of guessing, prediction and playing the market with their vote, desperately hoping to make a difference.With STV, not only are the final results reported, but so are the first vote preferences. This helps the voting public reflect its true views to itself. This is critically important in a society where we cannot count on the media to give us a true picture, and we most certainly cannot trust the government, those who benefit from the ongoing systemic distortion, to be honest about the need for change or for the prospects for the “other” parties. They know where that could lead ….Jim
Good analysis, by the way, even though I think you came down on the wrong side. :)
Why is it that the NO side has no grassroots campaigning? Simply put, the majority of NO support is from the politicians and their supporters who benefit unfairly from a system designed in the 12th century. Come on, when was the last time you commuted to work by horse and buggy? Democracy has evolved into something more diverse and complex, so our voting system must, too. Most Western-style democracies switched to some form of PR 50-100 years ago. How is local democracy served when the result is a foregone conclusion? Why do we use a voting system where some votes count for nothing?Christy Clark, former Liberal cabinet minister says it best in her YouTube video. She voted NO the first time because it was in her best interests as a politician. This time, she is voting yes as a citizen.
Going to cast my vote for Green candidate (another pointless exercise under the current voting system). Sigh.
Since I'm still (technically/legally) a British Columbian, I decided to vote NO on STV – largely for the issues you outlined above.Firstly, I think people need to be judicious in their distinction between the political system and its subordinate entity, the electoral system. Pulling the big lever on the electoral system is tempting – dramatic changes make for dramatic results and people are desperate for a shake-up – especially in the BC political miasma.Thus secondly, it's important to recognize that local accountability can't be enforced by an electoral system – merely allowed. People are suggesting the STV be used because it seems more in tune with how they vote currently – which should make one question the wisdom of the system (since it enables behaviour which these same people are unhappy with).Dave, your bifurcation of geographic and ideological representation is salient and is something that needs to be discussed in more depth. Canadian democratic institutions were structured largely on the assumption that these two things would more-or-less align, BC is a perfect example of the fallacy of those assumptions.The interesting assumptions around the existing system are terrifying – if STV does not pass, will its supporters simply resign themselves to dominance? If this isn't a self-fulfilling prophecy, I haven't seen one.
Your analysis is the only one I have read that satisfies me. I disagree due to the more basic difference in our values as you have outline — you've nailed that too!I agree with your assessment that representation ought to be geographically based. However, this breaks down when the provincial government has control over issues which should be left to local jurisdiction. Suddenly the interest of the province takes precedence over local communities, and the citizen feels disenfranchised.Further, in the north, the ridings are so big that they encompass several geographically segregated areas, which is the home to many small communities, each with different needs. STV, with its bigger districts, would have provided the communities there a mechanism to form larger affinity groups across the electoral boundaries.Underlying that is a different issue… I think that local municipal governments should have more power. Higher levels of government should provide standards and guidelines but leave governance to the lower levels. How would that be done? I'm not sure. Maybe the 2.0 movement will have citizen rampaging and driving the power back to city council hands. It would also need the governments above to relinquish some power.