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.