B.C. considers new voting system

By Jeremy Hainsworth
Published May 9th 2005 in National Post

VANCOUVER - A change to a single transferable vote system for British Columbia elections would create for a more representative and democratic legislative system, speakers in support of the proposal told a Vancouver rally on Sunday.

Environmentalist David Suzuki said voters will be taking part in a "historic opportunity" when they vote in a referendum on the issue as part of the provincial election on May 17.

"The STV will lead to a government with a much broader representation of perspectives. It will reflect much more the diversity of the electorate," he said as he endorsed the proposed system.

"We'll get much more co-operation in government and that's the way it should go."

"There'll be less party-driven politics. There will be no more safe seats," Suzuki said.

"People will have to earn the right to represent an area. They will be more responsible to their local communities than they will to their party.''

The proposal calls for replacing the current system with single transferable vote - or STV - where voters could rank multiple candidates in newly consolidated ridings with two to seven legislature members. It's being pitched as the best way to produce legislatures that reflect the popular vote while preserving local constituency representation.

The current system renders votes for candidates who don't win meaningless, something political scientists say is pushing a steady decline in voter turnout provincially and federally.

Proponents of STV argue the preferential ballot ensures no votes are wasted and gives smaller parties a chance to elect members.

Opponents of the single transferable voting system say it is confusing and would lead to constant minority governments.

Political commentator Bill Tieleman, part of the "Know STV" campaign, said the system would cause "gigantic" ridings with up to seven members, causing a lack of accountability.

"We believe the more you know about it, the more likely you are to vote no because it is a complicated and confusing system," he said.

"It would also be a very confusing and complicated system of voting that would find people having problems figuring out who to vote for and how to rank those people."

Also speaking out against the STV system are former premier NDP premier Dave Barrett and former Social Credit premier Bill Bennett.

Bennett said the current system is rooted in the concept of "one person, one vote."

"In this proposed system," he said, "you end up with partial votes determining the outcome because of the complicated counting formula.

"It allows a few to manipulate the outcome of the majority in favour of biased minorities." Barrett concurred, adding the counting system replaces voter choice with academic theory.

"Voters will lose accountability because they will have between two and seven (members) representing them in huge ridings," Barrett said.

"On every issue, buck-passing and finger-pointing would replace true representation."

Recent provincial elections have fuelled the appetite for electoral change. The New Democrats were re-elected to a second term in 1996 despite receiving fewer votes than the Liberals. The Liberals won 77 of 79 seats in the May 2001 election even though opposition parties received 42 per cent of the vote.

Suzuki called the situation intolerable.

University of Toronto political scientist Dennis Pilon agreed.

In polarized British Columbia, relatively small shifts in voter support can lead to big changes in the legislature, something STV could potentially mitigate.

"The pendulum effect is very much a product of first-past-the-post system and doesn't really reflect what British Columbians want or have wanted," Pilon said. "We need a proportional voting system. Our current system doesn't do what it's supposed to do.''

The process is being closely watched in other provinces where electoral reform is being debated because of rising dissatisfaction with the traditional first-past-the-post system. Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are all mulling changes and the non-partisan B.C. Referendum Information Office is getting calls from as far away as the United States about next week's vote.

The STV system that B.C. voters must decide on is already in use in Ireland, Malta and Australia.

Suzuki praised the citizens' assembly which studied voting systems and Premier Gordon Campbell for instituting the process.

"It was a bold initiative," he said.

Campbell promised during the 2001 election campaign that he would hold a public review of the B.C. electoral system during his first term in office. He also promised to place an electoral reform question on the provincial election ballot.

Two people - one male, one female - were chosen randomly from British Columbia's 79 ridings to participate in the citizens' assembly with a mandate to explore reforming the province's electoral system.

David Steel, a member of the British House of Lords and former leader of that country's Liberal Party, said the world will be watching to see how British Columbians vote on the issue. Steel was among the speakers at the Yes rally.

"It enhances voter choice," Steel said. "It gives power back to the people."

To pass, the referendum needs a simple majority in 48 of the 79 B.C. ridings, plus a 60 per cent Yes vote provincewide.

There are fears the referendum debate could be drowned out in the election campaign as the New Democrats struggle to regain ground lost to the Liberals who trounced them in 2001.