An intriguing idea for election reform goes to a vote today in British Columbia

By Matthew Soberg Shugart
Published May 17th 2005 in San Jose Mercury News
Fair elections are a cornerstone of democracy, but are California's elections fair? Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said our electoral system is "rigged to benefit the interests of those in office, not the interests of those who put them there.''

Since legislators are the ones who draw the lines that define legislative districts, that result is no surprise. Schwarzenegger advocates the creation of a non-partisan panel to draw district lines.

This is well-intentioned, but it is very feeble compared with the opportunity voters in British Columbia have today. They can adopt a system that removes the incentive to gerrymander and represents minority viewpoints better.

The proposal has little visibility in the midst of today's general election, because neither side has funded much of a campaign. The outcome is unclear.

But if approved, British Columbia's reform would "blow up the boxes'' of politics-as-usual far more than Schwarzenegger's plan. If the voters agree, their 79 provincial legislators will no longer be elected from 79 separate districts. Instead, adjacent districts will be combined into multi-member districts. The plan is called BC-STV, for British Columbia Single Transferable Vote. It is similar to STV systems already used in Ireland and Cambridge, Mass.

Under STV, voters indicate not only their first choice, but also a second and third choice, and so on, ranking as many candidates as they wish. One -- and only one -- of these preferences can be used to elect a legislator.

Candidates will be elected based on an "electoral quotient.'' It's a little complicated, but for a five-seat district, a winning candidate would need about 16 percent of the vote.

The current system of single-member districts actually allows winners opposed by a majority. Californians are less aware of this problem than British Columbians because third parties rarely even bother to run in our legislative elections and because so many of our districts are uncompetitive. But Schwarzenegger himself was elected with less than 50 percent, as was his predecessor, Gray Davis. Thus we see that many Californians will vote for a third party, when given the chance. STV gives them that chance.

Under STV, any candidate who obtains the quotient is elected. However, some candidates will have more votes than needed, yet there may not be enough candidates with the quotient to fill all the seats. This is where the ranked ballots come in -- the "transferable'' vote.

If you voted for a candidate who has more votes than needed, your vote is transferred to your second choice. If your second choice now has the quotient due to first place votes plus transferred second preferences, then she is elected. Likewise, if you voted for the last-place candidate, your vote cannot help elect him, so your vote is transferred to your next choice.

This process continues, electing candidates as they reach the quotient, and transferring the votes for unelectable candidates to their voters' next choice, until all seats are filled.

With STV, the supporters of the second-largest party, and not only the largest, will have a representative from their district elected with their votes. And third parties also have a chance of winning, if they have either a quotient's worth of the first-choice votes, or can attract enough second preferences.

This proposal did not come from politicians or special interests. It came from a remarkable Citizens Assembly consisting of 160 ordinary people. The members were selected at random from throughout the province, sort of like a super-grand jury, and charged with deliberating about democracy and how to make it work better.

Meeting on various weekends throughout a year, these citizens decided almost unanimously that STV would be an improvement. District lines are less important because differing views are represented within each district. Minorities are empowered to elect representatives. Every vote counts.

Today, the voters of the province will decide if they agree.

Whatever the outcome, Californians should demand a similar opportunity to consider whether there are better ways to ensure that legislators represent the interests of those who put them there.

MATTHEW SOBERG SHUGART is professor of political science at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California-San Diego. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.