November 17, 2004
two, three - get ready for B.C.'s new way of voting
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.'"
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
If the 1-2-3 system is implemented, Baer expects British Columbians
would see significant changes come to the legislature after the 2009
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."
polarized political climate would undergo some major revisions, he
points out, and that could result in a more competitive multi-party
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."