British Columbia’s Referendum on a Electoral Reform
By Lindsay Bisschop
On May 17, 2005 the people of British Columbia will be asked to make a critical decision about how they will be governed. Ballots will be cast not only for representatives in the Legislative Assembly, but also on the referendum on whether to change from the current First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) electoral system to a Single-Transferable Vote (STV) system. This recommendation comes to the people of British Columbia from the Citizens’ Assembly, a representative group of citizens who have studied different proposals of electoral reform and suggested STV as the best possible solution.
Why is the Referendum on the electoral reform important?
At present many citizens are dissatisfied with the political process. People distrust politicians. For this and many other reasons, people do not want to engage in the political process. Lopsided election victories, where results are not reflective of actual votes cast, have not helped the situation. In the 2001 provincial election the BC Liberal Party won a huge majority of the seats while the NDP won 2 seats. But votes cast for each party did not correspond to the seats they received. Although lopsided results should not be interpreted as elected dictatorships, they suggest that the electoral system may not be adequate to determine the will of the people. In a democratic state, proportionality means the number of seats won by each party should reflect the number of votes each party has earned from the voters.
Additionally, recent elections in three provinces resulted in victories by parties which did not receive the most votes. For instance, although the NDP won the 1996 British Columbia election, they actually received a smaller percentage of the popular vote. In short, votes cast did not correspond to seats received. It is important not to jump to the conclusion that the NDP was therefore the wrong winner. However, the election result should provoke us to think about whether we want an electoral system based on the number of votes cast for a party or the number of candidates from a party who beat their competition in their local riding.
What exactly is a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system?
In the present FPTP system, each party nominates one candidate per riding. Then, voters in each riding choose one of these candidates. Simply put, the winner is the one who receives the most votes. A basic principle of FPTP is local riding representation—every corner of the province is represented in the legislature. Single Transferable Vote (STV) is different because voters rank candidates on the ballot by preference. Voters can rank as many or as few candidates as they wish. Voters can also choose candidates from the same party or from several different parties. The system is intended to make every vote count and reflect voters’ support for candidates and parties as closely as possible. It allows voters’ second and third (and subsequent) preferences to come into play, if their first choice is not elected. Hence representatives are elected based on voter support, not on whether they beat their competition.
Although the number of MLAs will not change, there will be larger ridings and voters will elect several MLAs per riding – between two and seven, depending on the riding population. This allows for proportional representation and gives independent candidates and those from smaller parties more chance of being elected. All are still elected by local ridings and the ratio of voters to MLA is the same. The STV system would allow the size of ridings and the number of MLAs elected per riding to vary across the province to reflect local and regional conditions. Hence in sparsely populated areas, districts could comprise as few as 2 or 3 MLAs and in denser urban districts, as many as seven.
What are the benefits and weaknesses of STV?
The major benefit of STV is that it may well give us fairer results. The objective is to make every vote count so that each party’s share of seats in the legislature reflects its share of voter support. I understand this as a better way to transfer democratic voice into democratic representation. No electoral system is perfect, but proportional election results are the fairest election results. The preference of voters should determine who sits in our legislature. That is fair.
As much as I say that STV will allow for more proportionality the weaknesses of the system must be recognized and weighed against its benefits. STV has a somewhat anti-party basis. It believes citizens wishing to support a party should be able to vote not for the single candidate the party offers, but the local candidate they may prefer. The true contention with the party system is that the real competition takes place for a party’s nomination and not for the voters’ support on Election Day.
While it is true that in FPTP system there is major competition for nominations, the time and place for local competition is divided between the competition within the party before the election and competition with other parties during the election. I do not believe it is possible to remove rivalry from the system, yet it may not be helpful to bring the inner battle out into the actual election process. The competition may divert attention away from the actual issues and platforms of the candidates and lead to more personal attacks and smear campaigns.
The concept of a “safe seat” will also disappear under STV. Since voters choose which candidates from any one party are elected, no party or candidate can count on being elected. In this way STV ensures effective local representation because all candidates must work hard to earn local voter support. Moreover this will radically transform party dynamics. Party discipline will be weakened since voters control which candidates from each party are elected. The necessity for local issues could lead many to forget about wider provincial issues and focus solely on local issues. The result would be a divided legislative body where the process would take longer than it already does now. The balance to party discipline is that it can be harmful when strictly enforced but it also helps with the expediency of making decisions.
Another argument suggests that STV is easy to use. Yet compared to FPTP, the ranking system on the ballot is complicated. Voters will be given considerable choice in selecting candidates. On a ballot with a wide variety of candidates to rank, a voter can become confused. Some suggest this complexity could hurt voter turnout. Think back to the last municipal election you voted in. The large number of names did not help you make your decision. Now consider that some scholars suggest STV ballots could have up to 60 names. Imagine trying to rank votes on a list like this. Hence the current party nomination system, although not ideal, does serve a valuable service of ‘weeding out’ candidates. In short, if we are to adopt the STV system we must be prepared to accept the responsibility to examine and ‘weed out’ candidates.
Even though all MLAs are elected from local ridings, the downside to STV is that it blurs the line of local MLA accountability. Under STV if you want to approach an MLA for assistance or information you would have to choose which of your representatives to approach. Conversely, MLAs share their representative responsibility. Therefore, an MLA could pass their responsibility to assist you to another MLA. Although not problematic in every case, this could be a problem for some issues which are political hot potatoes. Additionally, bigger ridings mean that local issues will be defined more broadly since the actual territory of the riding is much larger. Although the Citizens’ Assembly website suggests each community’s distinct personality will be represented by its MLAs, in actuality this is not necessarily guaranteed, especially in the case of smaller or medium size communities.
The final outcome of STV is a higher likelihood of rule by coalition governments. One feature of coalition governments are that they require parties to give up distinctive characteristics. Government by consensus can be positive because more input is required. However, compromise does not naturally lead to better government. Consensus still requires time which is a major drawback in developing policy for the critical social and environmental issues of today. So as with the change in party discipline, coalition governments will greatly reduce the speed of governance.
In conclusion, it must be said that STV increases proportionality and fairness. Yet it will dramatically change political party dynamics. It will increase the number of candidates on the ballot. It blurs the line of direct local representation while improving the focus of candidates on local issues. It increases the likelihood of coalition governments but slows down the process of government. Each of us, as responsible citizens, needs to weigh the strengths and weaknesses for ourselves. The points included in this article are not comprehensive. I will not tell you whether a Single Transferable Vote system is right or wrong because it depends greatly on what you deem important to elections. However, please do not abdicate your responsibility to make a choice and take the time to investigate whether your vote should be ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. (A good place to start is the Citizens’ Assembly website at http://www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/public).