One, two, three - get ready for B.C.'s new way of voting

By Thomas Winterhoff
Published November 17th 2004 in Victoria News

When British Columbians go to the polls on May 17, 2005, it could be the last time the province's MLAs will be elected using the traditional "first past the post" electoral system.

If the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform has its way, our elected officials will thereafter be chosen by a modified form of proportional representation referred to as the "1-2-3 single transferable vote" system. The assembly has even given the new system an acronym -BC-STV.
Instead of sending MLAs to the legislature based strictly on the results of a simple majority vote (where the ballots cast for all losing candidates essentially count for nothing), the proposed system would utilize all of the votes to determine the political makeup of the legislature. In some cases, that could see more than one MLA elected to represent densely populated ridings.

B.C's Liberal government established the Citizens' Assembly last year with a mandate to investigate alternative ways of electing MLAs. Its members spent 10 months studying electoral systems around the world, held 50 public hearings (attended by almost 3,000 people) and received 1,600 written submissions from the public.

In part, the initiative was a response to voters who had expressed frustration with the current system, which allows for a scenario where a political party can form the government despite receiving fewer votes than a rival party.

"One of the reasons why people might be interested in change has to do with the translation between people's wishes and what happens at the legislature," said Doug Baer, who chairs the University of Victoria's department of sociology. "I actually think it's a bigger problem federally than provincially, but we have situations wherever you have more than two political parties - and even sometimes in cases where you (just) have two - where you can get perverse outcomes. There have actually been historical cases in Canada, quite a number of them, where more people have voted for Party A but Party B gets in."

Situations have also arisen where 25 per cent of voters may opt for a particular political party and yet that party gets no seats in the legislature. Baer said such outcomes can leave some voters feeling disenfranchised.

"You've got to ask: 'What's the motivation for those 25 per cent of the people voting?' Some of them will just say, 'Nuts to this. The political system is so unresponsive (that) I'm not being represented.'"

Baer notes that the current system can also lead some people to vote "strategically" in an effort to try to second-guess the outcome at the polls. They may end up voting for a party or candidate that they don't really care for, just to ensure that another party or candidate they dislike even more isn't elected.

"That's a very cynical way for people to be looking at politics-" Baer said. "I think the idea behind what the Citizens' Assembly was doing was to figure out a system where people don't feel they're wasting their vote - where people feel their vote means something."

The STV system could be implemented as early as 2009, if it's approved in a referendum to be held concurrently with the May 17, 2005 general election. To pass, it would require a "super-majority," whereby 60 per cent of all referendum votes cast in the province would have to be "yes" votes. At the same time, the "yes" votes must represent a simple majority (50 per cent plus one) in at least 60 per cent of the province's 79 ridings.
If the referendum passes and the 1-2-3 system is adopted, voters would rank candidates of all parties by their order of preference. Voters would rate as few or as many of the candidates appearing on the ballot as they wish. Those rankings would then be "weighted" to determine which candidate would become the MLA for a given riding (or more than one MLA could be elected in some constituencies).

It's not unlike how all-star team balloting is conducted in some sports, whereby a first-place vote may be worth five points, a second-place vote may be worth three points, and a third-place vote may be worth a single point.

It's not quite as simple as that, however. The 1-2-3 system still has some seasoned political watchers scratching their heads trying to figure out exactly how it would work in practice. But the general idea behind the single-transferable vote system is that the number of seats that each party is assigned in the House would more accurately reflect its share of the popular vote.

Similar forms of proportional representation have proven to be successful in other federal and state jurisdictions around the world, including Australia, Scotland and Ireland.

"Ireland is the classic example. They've had it for 92 years," notes Baer. "The politicians hate it because it gives the power to the people - not to the party. The politicians (there), on two or three occasions, have tried to get rid of it. But to do that, they have to have a referendum and every time they have a referendum, people say, 'Go away. We like this system.'"

Don MacLachlan, the associate director of communication for the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, acknowledges that the 1-2-3 system would take some getting used to, but says that it does offer a viable alternative to the "first past the post" system.

"The one thing we know for sure (is) that there is no perfect electoral system. If there were, we would all be using it," he said with a laugh. "Any one of them involves pluses, minuses and tradeoffs."

Even though the STV system could see some rural ridings increase in size, they would still have local representation and the proportion of MLAs to the riding's population would essentially remain the same. Another benefit, MacLachlan suggests, is that predominantly urban areas such as the Lower Mainland wouldn't be able to unduly influence the outcome of a provincial election through sheer numbers alone.

Although the 1-2-3 system and the method by which its votes would be tallied are more complex than the current system, MacLachlan advises future voters not to get too caught up in the math, adding that no one will ask voters to do the calculations. If the STV system goes ahead, Elections B.C. staff will be well-trained to take care of that end of things - under the watchful eyes of scrutineers from all of the participating parties.

"They will all understand it and they will get it right," he said.
Oak Bay-Gordon Head Liberal MLA Ida Chong told the News that her government is committed to implementing the 1-2-3 system if that's the option British Columbians choose in this spring's referendum.
"It will be up the voters (on) May 17 to decide whether they agree- whether the status quo should remain or whether they want to go to this system, Chong said.

"I think the challenge, of course, will be explaining how the system works," she added. "If they don't understand how the outcome is achieved, it could be confusing. I am hoping that there will be sufficient information that everyone is able to vote with knowledge and with confidence on May 17 (as to) what they would like to have."
If the 1-2-3 system is implemented, Baer expects British Columbians would see significant changes come to the legislature after the 2009 election.

"For one thing, the Green Party (would be) represented in the legislature. There'd be little doubt about that-" he says. "There's a good chance that no single party would get a majority of the seats in the legislature, so we (would) have a minority or a coalition government of some sort. That will make life interesting in B.C. politics in a way it never really has been interesting before."

B.C.'s highly polarized political climate would undergo some major revisions, he points out, and that could result in a more competitive multi-party system.

"Politicians will have to learn to compromise with politicians from other parties, instead of just standing up in the legislature for the purpose of venting and mouthing off," Baer said. "The legislature will either become an arena where people hammer out compromises or things won't get done."