Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Why Change to BC-STV?

You shouldn’t be voting to switch to BC-STV if you don’t have any problems with the following aspects of our political arena:
  • an electoral system that more often than not produces outcomes that misrepresent the actual votes cast in an election.

  • mud-slinging and partisan rhetoric dominating political discussion at the expense of mature, civil debate.

  • feeling that you are restricted to voting who you think is more likely to get elected, as opposed to voting for who you truly want.

These are some of the criticisms of our first-past-the-post (FPTP) system and are aspects of elections and voting that really turn people off of politics in general and, in my mind, are significant contributors for the fairly high level of political apathy that we see today.

But what if there was a way to improve upon some, or even all, of these more distasteful facets of politics? Wouldn't you think it'd be worth it to even try? Especially given how important an issue this is; this referendum will have a direct impact on how we are governed as a province.

But can BC-STV really have a positive impact on these more unsavoury elements of our current electoral system? Let's take a closer look.

Proportional Representation:

This was the feature of our FPTP system that served as the impetus for the movement toward electoral reform in the first place. One of the most obvious flaws our electoral system is that elections results, with respect to seats won, are not often an accurate reflection of the actual popular vote. In fact, I’d say accurate representation is probably pretty rare.

This fact was highlighted during recent elections here in BC:
  • such as in 1996 when the NDP won more seats than the Liberals despite the fact that the Liberals won more of the popular vote

  • or in 2000, when the Liberals won 97% of the seats in the legislature (77/79 seats) despite winning only 58% of the popular vote

  • or the fact that the green party, despite consistently balloting at around 10-15%, never able to get elected to a seat anywhere.

With BC-STV, the percentage of seats that a party wins will, as much as reasonably possible, correspond with the percentage of actual votes that they win in an election. The Republic of Ireland is a good example of this and you can see an illustration of this at the Northern Ireland Elections Website which shows the 2007 election results and even shows past results from the 2003 election right underneath (scroll down a bit).

What you’ll notice about the results is how the number of seats won by a party corresponds fairly well with their percentage share of the vote. It’s even closer if you convert the number of seats won into a percentage of the total seats in the assembly, which is a more appropriate comparison anyway.

So, for example, the DUP won 36 seats which are about 33% of the seats in the assembly; they got 36% of the popular vote. The UUP got 18 seats which works out to be a little under 17% of the seats in the assembly; they won 14.9% of the popular vote.

If you continue on across the table, what you find is that the percentage of seats that a party wins in the assembly only differs from their share of the actual vote by around 2-3 percentage points. That’s quite improvement over the 40% difference that the Liberals achieved in 2001.

More accurate elections results that more accurately reflect the desires of the electorate. What a novel concept.

Political Antagonism:

This is probably the one facet of politics that I dislike the most and if it doesn’t annoy the heck out of you, it should. Political debates should revolve around a mature discussion about the merits of a public policy. If a politician has taken a particular stance on a particular issue, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect they be able to defend their position in a rational, mature manner without resorting to partisan rhetoric, mudslinging or character attacks.

Unfortunately, this, more often than not, seems to be the default mode for many politicians.

But can switching to BC-STV really discourage this type of infantile behaviour? Apparently, it can to some degree. There was an interesting article in the Washington Post that noted how the overall tone of campaigning had improved with the implementation of Instant run-off voting, the single member version of STV:

“Advocates said the new system has made campaigning more civilized -- candidates don't want to lose out on the chance to be a voter's second or third choice by appearing too negative”

The same thing was noted in a New York Times article covering the same election:

"An early effect has been to introduce a new civility among the candidates, something many San Franciscans have wholeheartedly embraced. Because the winner in each district might be determined by voters' second and third choices, candidates have quickly learned that it is best to be on friendly terms so as not to alienate their opponents' supporters."

This is only one example; but it does give one pause to think.

It actually makes sense if you think about it. In any election where you have more than two candidates running, it’s pretty rare for a candidate to win a majority vote in a single round of voting. So for any one candidate to win a majority under STV, they would have to be a second or third choice for an opposition candidate’s voters. That’s unlikely to happen if you’re constantly slagging your opposition or going overly negative on them. You have to become more respectful in your campaigning. I think that would be a refreshing change for voters.

Voter Choice:

This is just my opinion; but from hearing people talk, this strikes me as being one of the biggest reasons for voter apathy. It’s understandable; it’s hard to get excited about voting if you feel that your vote will just go to waste. But this is in part due to a weakness inherent to the FPTP system, vote splitting.

In any election where you have two or more parties of similar political philosophies or policies, you’ll get competition for the same pool of voters, splitting up the collective power of their vote. You can see this happening in our current federal election where the Liberals, NDP and the Green’s are splitting the left of centre vote. This gives an advantage to the Conservative party, who will win the election, not because people really like them, but because the people that dislike them like multiple parties. In fact, because of vote splitting, the Conservatives, or any political party, can win a majority government with only 40% of the popular vote.

What this means is that voters are often left with a choice of voting for not who they truly want, but voting for who they think has the better chance of getting elected (to beat who they dislike). They have to vote against someone as opposed to voting for someone.

BC-STV address this by giving the option for ranking more than one option. So that you can vote for who you truly want, and then rank your alternative choices after that, in case your first choice gets eliminated.

Now I’m not sitting around singing Kumbaya by the campfire with these pie in the sky delusions that simply switching to BC-STV is going to solve all of our grievances with our FPTP system or with politics in general; BC-STV is not a perfect system and never was it claimed to be. But it has been demonstrated to be better and to help improve some of the problems that a lot of us have with our current system. That in itself should be a good enough reason to vote for a change.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Three's Company election Part Deux

Part of the citizen’s assembly’s proposal involves combining ridings, so that instead of having one MLA per riding, you’d have multiple MLA’s, two MLA’s or more, per riding so that you’d be voting to elect more than one candidate at a time.

So how would that change things from our single-winner example? Not by much. Let’s go back to that example but instead of voting for one “Favourite Three’s Company Character”, we’re now voting for two “Favourite Three’s Company Characters” simultaneously. We’d have our first round voting results as before (Jack 33%, Janet 16%, Mr. Furley 25%, Chrissy 19% and Larry 7%) and, as before, we still don’t have a winner with a majority vote.

(Incidentally, the number of votes needed to win in this case, or any case where you are voting to elect more than one position simultaneously, would not be 50% + 1 because it’s mathematically impossible for two people to get 50% + 1 at the same time. In this particular case, with two positions being elected, a majority would be 33.3% + 1. There are calculations to figure that out; but you don’t need to worry about them right now, I’ll discuss them in a future blog post).

As with the first election, we’ll eliminate Larry, take a revote…

FTCC Part Deux: Second Round Results

and find that Jack now has enough votes to take the first of the two “Favourite Three’s Company Character” crowns that are up for grabs. Congratulations to Jack.

Great, we have one winner; we need another. So we’ll move on to the next round and as before, we’re redistributing votes. Except this time this time, instead of redistributing the votes on an eliminated candidate, we’re now redistributing the votes of candidate who has just been elected. (Also, because we’re now back to voting for one available position, the number of votes required to win will again be 50% + 1).

FTCC Part Deux: Final Round Results

And we find that a large majority of Jack’s voters, making their second or third choice, went to Mr. Furley giving him the second title (gee, fixing elections is kind of fun). Congratulations to Mr. Furley.

Again, as in the single-winner example, the ballot itself remains unchanged; you’re ranking your choices as before. That's all you have to do. Except this time not only are you indicating “If my 1st choice is eliminated, this is who I would vote for next", you’re also saying, “If my first choice is elected, and there are still other positions to be filled, this is who I would vote for next”. Again, you can rank some of the choices…

… you can rank all of the choices…

…or you can rank just one.

The choice is entirely yours.

Now this may seem like a lot of work to vote in an election and it is; but not for you the voter. The only thing that changes for you is that you’re writing numbers down by a few names (or one, if you choose) instead of one X by one name. Then you can just walk away; the rest of the work is taken care of by the counters.

But by just making this minor adjustment in the way that we vote, we can have a significant impact in results of future elections. Results that are fairer and a more accurate reflection of the desires of voters. Don’t you think it’s worth it?

Back to How Does BC-STV Work? Mainpage.

If we were voting for our favourite Three's Company character

The following is an example of how The Single Transferable Vote works in a single-winner (eg voting for one MLA in a single riding) election.

Let’s say that we’re having an election, we’re voting for our "Favourite Three’s Company Character". Our four candidates, in no particular order, are:

And a vote is taken giving us results of:

  • Jack = 33%

  • Mr. Furley = 25%

  • Janet = 16%

  • Chrissy = 19%

  • Larry = 7%

Poor Larry, so unloved.

Anyways, under our current system, Jack would be declared the winner outright, this despite the fact that 67% voted against him. He would win with a minority share of the vote having benefited from opposition to his popularity being split amongst the other candidates. What would be nice is if there was a way of ensuring that whomever gets elected does so with a majority of the votes (in this case, more than 50%); because then it can be argue that the candidate truly has the support of the people.

One way of addressing this problem is by voting in rounds, called Run-off Voting (it's fairly commonly used, with variations used to in leadership conventions, some presidential elections etc., the CBC used it when we voted for the new Hockey Night in Canada theme song). With Run-off Voting, you take a vote, eliminate the lowest vote getter if there is no winner, take a revote of the remaining candidates, and then repeat until someone wins a majority vote, which in this case is 50% + 1. Let’s see how that would work.

So entering the second round of voting, Larry would be the first to go, having only garnered 7% of the vote. Now, in a revote, the people who originally voted for the remaining four candidates (Jack, Janet, Mr. Furley and Chrissy) wouldn’t be changing their vote; their candidates are still in it. It’d only be Larry’s voters who would have to make a switch. So what we’re really doing is simply taking Larry’s votes and redistributing them amongst the other four candidates: in other words, Larry’s voters are now going to have to vote for their second choice candidates.

And let’s say in the second round that about half of them vote for Jack and the other half vote for Mr. Furley, just to make it easy.

Second Round Results

Since we still don’t have a candidate winning over 50%, we’ll continue on to the next round. Where we eliminate Janet and find her voters favouring Mr. Furley and Chrissy a bit over Jack.

Third Round Results

Ooo… Jack’s got to watch his back.

Ok, one last round and…

Final Round Results

Schnikeys. Over half of Chrissy’s voters switched to Mr. Furley, giving him a dramatic come-from-behind victory. He wins the title “Favourite Three’s Company Character”. Congratulations Mr. Furley.

What Run-off voting does is ensure that a winning candidate does so with a majority vote, more accurately reflecting voter preferences. The only problem with this is that it’s very time consuming as it requires voters to make multiple trips to the voting booth along with the necessity of recounting votes every round.

STV does the same thing as Run-off voting and even improves on it so that you get the benefits of voting in rounds without the need to go back and forth to the voting booth. This is achieved in the way the ballot is set up:

This is what the ballot would look like in this particular election. You’d have all the candidates listed as before, except instead of marking an X by your candidate of choice, you would simply rank the candidates from you first choice to your last choice.

That’s it. It’s that easy.

What you’re saying by your ranking is “if my first choice gets eliminated, this is who I would vote for in the next round”. So instead of having to make multiple trips to the voting booth, you only have to make one. You can rank some of the choices, as above…

… you can rank all of the choices…

…or you can rank just one.

The choice is entirely yours.

Back to How Does BC-STV Work? Mainpage.

How Does BC-STV Work?

The way that the Single Transferable Voting (STV) System calculates votes and moves votes around can seem a little complicated and intimidating at first blush. But the steps themselves are not really that complicated when you break them down; it’s more of a matter of repetition. At any rate, it doesn’t really matter since you don’t need to understand the calculations to know how to use STV itself, and using STV is really quite simple. I posted about a website that walks you through an election and even create your own.

Nevertheless, I still think it’s helpful to have an understanding of the broader principles that form the basis of STV. This is especially true when you consider that the majority of criticisms of STV rely on fear-mongering, half-truths or outright lies in order to deceive people into voting against it; having a bit of knowledge will help you recognize the valid criticisms from the dishonest ones.

So the following is an explanation that works around the nitty-gritty math and calculations that can overwhelm those who are unfamiliar with STV. It’s very much a simplification; but one that, hopefully, will better help you understand the underlying principles. So that you don’t just know what is happening but why as well.

The system can basically be summarized into a handleful of steps:
  1. Voters rank the candidates on the ballot in the order of their preference (1,2,3,4 etc...) indicating "if my top choice gets eliminated or elected, my next choice is who I will vote for in the next round of voting"
  2. Count the votes.
  3. If none of the candidates has a majority share of the vote (eg. 50% + 1 for a single member riding), then eliminate the candidate with the fewest votes and transfer their votes to the next choice on the ballot. Repeat step two.
  4. If a candidate has a majority share of the vote and there are still seats to elect, then eliminate the elected candidate and transfer their votes to the next choice on the ballot. Repeat step two.
  5. Repeat the above until all seats have been filled.
If you can understand the above steps, then you can stop reading here. That's all you need to know. If you want a more detailed explanation, keep reading.

Explanation of BC-STV in a single-winner election.
Explanation of BC-STV in a multiple-winners election.

Friday, September 12, 2008

What is BC-STV?

BC-STV is basically the BC version of the Single Transferable Voting (STV) system, which is a form of preferential voting. It was designed to produce proportional representation meaning that the results of an election, i.e. seats won, would more closely mirror the percentages of votes cast. Another design goal is to ensure that election winning candidates do so with a majority vote, more accurately reflecting voter preferences.

The recommendation to switch to this system of voting from our current system (known as plurality voting) was first made by the Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform. The decision to accept this recommendation was put to a referendum during the last provincial election in 2005. Unfortunately, it failed to get the required supermajority (60%), missing by only 2%. However, it can be argued that this was largely due to a lack of awareness as a lot of people went to the voting booth either not really understanding STV or not even being aware that a referendum was being held.

The good news is that because of the close result, we will be having another opportunity to vote on this very important issue. Hopefully, we’ll be able to use the time to raise awareness about STV as it has been consistently shown that when people who are introduced to STV and feel that they understand it, the vast majority of them are willing to vote for it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

I can have a blog that sucks too!

Wow, my first post! Welcome to my blog! Dedicated to disseminating and sharing info about a bunch of stuff, although right now, I'll be dedicating most of my posts to BC-STV. Hopefully I'll be able to get built up sooner rather than later; but I'm a total noob when it comes to this stuff so the learning curve is going to be a bit on the steep side, I think.