B.C. puts election reform to test in provincial ballot

By Tom Olsen
Published May 16th 2005 in Calgary Herald
British Columbia voters head into an historic provincial election Tuesday that could transform how government is chosen and create an electoral reform template for the rest of Canada.

The Alberta government is closely monitoring the vote, with at least one MLA -- a potential replacement for Premier Ralph Klein -- touting a similar overhaul for Alberta's electoral process.

"I think in Calgary and Edmonton there could be room for exploring this," said Foothills-Rocky View MLA Ted Morton. "Have a citizens' assembly and let the two cities decide."

Advance polls started Thursday and will culminate in a general election in which British Columbians are asked to both choose a government, and decide whether to move from the traditional simple majority wins system to a form of proportional representation called a single transferable vote.

The so-called STV springs from the province's citizens assembly, a 160-member body struck by Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell to recommend ways to strengthen democracy in the province.

Set up in 2003, the assembly became part of the B.C. Liberals' platform after the party lost the 1996 election to the New Democrats despite having a larger share of the popular vote.

If passed, the 79 ridings in B.C. would be radically reduced -- models suggest a number between 15 and 25.

Each riding, however, would have multiple MLAs so the number of representatives in the legislature would stay the same.

Voters would be able to rank their picks for MLA, meaning if their first choice doesn't win the most first-place votes, that candidate could still win a seat with strong second- or third-place preferences.

In theory, the makeup of the legislature should more closely reflect the wishes of the electorate.

B.C. has a history of massive majorities, which would be altered under a new system.

"STV tends to produce, more frequently, minority or coalition governments," said Barbara Greeniaus, director of the electoral reform referendum information office. "Because, as you can imagine, it's much harder for one party to get the majority of the seats."

That's one reason the Alberta government officially favours the status quo of first-past-the-post.

"It's given us stability," said Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Ed Stelmach. "We do have issues across Canada in terms of representation, but I would say history will prove we've had stable governments and have positioned ourselves very well compared to other countries. As a result, we have gained in economic growth and recognition around the world as a place to do business."

Stability's important, but that's not the biggest reason the Tories would refuse STV or another model of proportional representation, said New Democrat leader Brian Mason.

"In the last election, the Conservatives received 73 per cent of the seats and less than half the popular vote," said Mason.

"If the voters' preferences were actually taken into account on a party basis, we would have a minority government right now."

For eight elections from 1926 to 1955, Calgary and Edmonton used STV -- multi-member ridings which were ranked by voters.

Rural constituencies had single MLAs, with the candidate earning a majority declared victorious. If no one reached a majority outright, the least popular candidate was dropped from the ballot, with second then third preferences re-distributed until a winner was declared.

Morton suggests a return to that.