Monday, May 18, 2009

Good-bye BC-STV; we never even knew you

Well, that was a huge disappointment. On May 12th, British Columbians voted overwhelmingly (61%) to keep the status quo, essentially reversing the results of the last referendum.

So what went wrong? Well, credit to the No side in running a very effective fear and misinformation campaign. It was clear that their goal from the outset was to raise fear and confusion in the people and their messaging of “Too complicated” and “Enormous ridings” went a long way.

But that was only part of it. I was listening to CKNW the day after and Bill Good was interviewing Dr. Dennis Pilon, a political scientist at UVIC. He pointed out, basically summarizing Dr. Fred Cutler’s (UBC) research findings, that a lot of people didn’t understand BC-STV the last time; but voted yes because there was a lot of press given to the Citizen’s Assembly (CA) and the good will that it generated was enough for people to put their trust in the recommendation.

This time around, we’ll probably find that people still didn’t understand BC-STV, despite the heightened awareness, and now we also didn’t have as much attention paid to the CA. Additionally, the ballot question was worded differently so that people now had First Past the Post (FPTP) as an option to choose. So people did what came naturally when they don’t have a good understanding of an issue, they choose what’s familiar to them.

In my opinion, the multimember ridings are what eventually did us in. Making that change raised the unfamiliarity two fold as people now had to deal with the fear of larger ridings as well as trying to wrap their heads around the additional calculations needed with the Droop Quota and Weighted Transfer. It was here where the No side focused its attack. And while I understand that the CA’s mandate was to find the best system and I agree with their findings, ultimately, it was too much for the average person to swallow.

If it was me, I would have introduced Instant Run-off Voting (IRV, BC-STV with single member districts) instead. It uses the same basic concepts; but I believe they are easier to explain as it is more widely used and people are more familiar with the idea of winning with 50%+1 of the vote.

And while you don’t have the proportionality, you do get the benefits of preferential balloting which I think would have a greater impact on the political arena. And it still leaves the door open for STV further down the road.

That’s all well and good for other jurisdictions but that means squat for us as, sadly, I don’t think we’ll be seeing anymore reform measures in my lifetime. But that doesn’t mean we can’t give up the cause. If there was one thing that had become clear to me, we need to start from the bottom up.

Municipal elections are a good starting point where IRV can be introduced. Also, someone mentioned starting reform measures at the universities and colleges for their student body elections (why not high schools even?). Us young folk are generally open to trying new things so this should be much easier. This then has the added benefit of creating a generation of citizen that now has experience with electoral systems other than the God-awful FPTP.

But that’s still going to be a challenge, one that Fair Vote Canada will have to show leadership on if we are going to make any headway in this issue.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Andrew Coyne: Where the hell have you been?

So Andrew Coyne wrote an open letter to British Columbians in Maclean’s magazine that gives a very persuasive argument about the problems with first past the post and how it leads to so many problems with politics, in general, that have disenfranchised voters. I say: A) Well said and I completely agree, and B) What the F%$# took you long? Do you have any idea how difficult it’s been to campaign out here and to get anybody of any stature to say anything positive about BC-STV on a medium that has any reach? Why the hell did you have to wait until the 11th hour to speak up? Sheesh.

A vote that really counts

Politics is broken in Canada, writes Andrew Coyne. But B.C. could help fix it next week.

Dear British Columbia:

I know you’re kind of busy right now, and maybe it’s not my place, being from another province and all, but could I just ask you, on behalf of the rest of the country, to please vote Yes in the May 12 electoral reform referendum? I wouldn’t intrude, except it’s terribly important—important not just for B.C., but for all of us.

Because politics is broken in Canada, and electoral reform—changing the way we vote—may just be the key to fixing it.

B.C., you hold that key in your hands. If the referendum passes, it will not only transform the politics of your province, it will put electoral reform squarely on the map for the country as a whole. Whereas if it fails in B.C.—after the failure of reform efforts in Ontario, Quebec and P.E.I.—it may be the last we’ll see of it for some time.

By now you’re probably familiar with the broad outlines of the debate. Under the old system, in use federally and in all 10 provinces, you mark an X beside the name of the candidate of your choice, and whomever gets the most votes in each riding wins. Hence its popular name: “first past the post.” If you don’t mind, I’ll shorten that to FPTP.

Under the proposed new system—recommended after months of study and debate four years ago by the B.C. Citizens Assembly, a group of randomly selected men and women from across the province—you’ll instead rank your favourite candidates in order of preference: 1,2,3, and so on. And in place of today’s single-member ridings, each riding will elect several members. (Of course, that means there’ll have to be fewer, larger ridings, to keep the legislature from exploding.)

Who gets in? You start by counting up the first choices. Then, as candidates are either eliminated from contention or assured of election, voters’ second choices are redistributed among the remaining contenders. And then their third choices, and so on. (It’s a little complicated, but that’s the returning officers’ problem, not yours. All you need to know is 1, 2, 3 . . .) That’s why it’s called the single transferable vote, or STV.

Why does this matter? Here’s why: under the current system, the candidate with the most votes wins, no matter how few he gets. In a typical six- or seven-person race, candidates often win with as little as 30 per cent of the vote. But that candidate and his followers then get 100 per cent of the power to represent that riding.

What’s true for a single riding is even more true in the aggregate. Under FPTP, governments routinely win “majorities” with 35 or 40 per cent of the vote. Sometimes they even win a majority of the seats with fewer votes than their rivals: that’s how Glen Clark won B.C.’s 1996 election over Gordon Campbell. And sometimes a party will take nearly all of the seats with little more than half of the vote: that’s how Campbell was able to rule all but unopposed after 2001.

Under STV, by contrast, the power to represent a riding is shared. Say it’s a five-member riding: if a party gets 20 per cent of the vote, it gets 20 per cent of the representation, or one member; a party that gets 40 per cent of the vote would get two members. Again, the same is true in the aggregate: a party’s representation in the legislature will tend to be proportional to its share of the vote. STV is a form of “proportional representation”—PR for short. (I promise that’s the last acronym.)

Well, so what? So the parties’ share of the seats don’t always precisely mirror their share of the vote. It may be a little unfair, but whoever said life was fair? It works, doesn’t it?

No. We’ve only just begun to describe the problems with the present system. So if your view of this tends to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” end of things, let me try to convince you: it is broke.

Let’s just revisit that fairness question, for starters. The issue isn’t fairness for parties. It’s fairness between voters. Take the last federal election (just to broaden this out from B.C. a little). The NDP, with 2.5 million votes, won 37 seats, meaning it took roughly 68,000 NDP votes to win one seat. Meanwhile the Bloc Québécois, with 1.4 million votes, took 49 seats: about 35,000 votes per seat won. So, quite literally, one BQ vote was worth two NDP votes.

This is pretty fundamental. If there is a bedrock principle of our democracy, it is supposed to be one person, one vote. Every vote is equal, and every vote counts. Yet that is simply not the case in Canada today. Indeed, if you’re a Green voter, your votes might as well not have been counted at all: 938,000 Green votes were worth exactly zero seats.

Well, the Greens. What’d they get: seven per cent of the vote? Except it isn’t just Green voters who are disenfranchised in this way. The same is true of any voter in any riding who supports any other candidate but the winner. In most ridings, that’s most of the voters. Strange but true: in a typical Canadian election, over half the votes . . . don’t count.

And of course, even if you do happen to vote for the winning party, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee effective representation—if you live in a “safe” seat, or indeed a safe region, such as FPTP tends to produce. Since only the leading candidate in each riding gets in, a party that can bunch its votes geographically, like the Bloc, will do relatively better than a party whose vote is spread more evenly, like the Greens. Parties that take a narrow, regional view are thus rewarded at the expense of parties with a broader, national perspective. Politics divides along regional lines, rather than along ideological differences. In place of debates, we get grievances. Sound familiar?

The result is a highly distorted picture of the country. To look at Parliament, you would think there were no Liberals in Alberta, no Conservatives in Toronto—and that federalists were the minority in Quebec. Add to this the phenomenon of vote-splitting, which further limits voter choices: rather than simply vote for the party they like, they are forever being told they must vote against the party they dislike. Anyone who might think of starting a new party, out of dissatisfaction with the choices on offer, is likewise told not to bother: after all, they will only “split the vote.”

By now you may be suspecting this is about much more than the way we count the votes, and of course you’re right. The case for electoral reform isn’t only about what happens on election day—it’s about what happens every day in between. And this is really how we should think about FPTP: not just in terms of the distortions and anomalies it produces, but the incentives these present the political players—the rewards and penalties that accrue, depending on what strategies they choose. In essence, FPTP is a highly leveraged system: a two per cent swing in the popular vote can result in a much larger change in relative seat counts. In that tiny sliver of the vote can hang the difference between a majority government for one party, or a majority for the other.

Much of what we deplore in our politics can be seen in this light. Faced with such massive down-side risk, politicians are inclined to play it safe—very safe. Hence the parties tend to hug as close to each other as they possibly can, minimizing their policy differences while attacking each other in stridently partisan terms. Only at election time do they take off the wraps; in the concentrated time frames that our campaigns allow, that typically means the sorts of wedge-issue gimmicks that can be reliably expected to yield small gains in the short term. Because a small gain is all they need.

How would PR—STV, in particular—change all this? In every conceivable way. Under STV you’d have a much better chance of actually electing someone in your riding who represented your point of view: not only supporters of the leading candidate would get representation, but also second and third parties. In fact, because second and third choices, even for last-place candidates, are redistributed, everybody’s vote would count. There would be less reward to vicious partisanship: candidates would hesitate to offend each other’s supporters, for fear they might need them on later ballots.

If everybody’s vote counted, there would be fewer safe seats, or regional ghettoes: since every riding would offer a potential gain or loss of at least a member or two, every riding would be contested—and not only among the established parties. New and small parties would now stand a fighting chance. No longer could the fear of splitting the vote be used to terrorize voters into line: a vote for a new party need no longer be considered wasted.

Among proportional representation systems, STV is noteworthy for the way in which it preserves the local representation that is the most cherished feature of our existing system. Indeed, with multiple members in each riding, voters will benefit from competition to represent their concerns, even between elections.

Moreover, given the chance to rank their choices rather than mark a single X, voters will no longer face the Hobson’s choice that so often bedevils them at present: between the candidate they like, running for a party they despise, and the candidate they loathe, running for the party they support. They can vote the party line with most of their choices, but also give a nod to a particularly ?ne independent or rival party candidate. And that means greater autonomy for candidates from the parties—with enough second and third choices, a candidate can get elected even without the bosses’ blessing.

It’s true, as opponents point out, that PR would make majority governments unlikely, given how rarely a party wins more than 50 per cent of the vote. But would it really? It would certainly make one-party majorities less likely. But nothing would prevent the formation of stable multi-party majorities—real majorities, that is, not the phoney ones we have today—as is the norm in the dozens of countries around the world that use some form of PR. In this sense, reform would not mean the end of majority government, but the beginning of it.

We think of minority governments as unstable because, in our present winner-take-all system, they are: the payoff from that two per cent swing is such that every party has its finger poised over the election button, ready to press it the minute they get a pop in the polls. But take away the leverage—let a two per cent swing in the popular vote mean a two per cent change in seats—and everyone is forced to calm down. Politics becomes more incremental, a matter of long-term persuasion, rather than short-term gambles.

Indeed, many of the most common criticisms of PR could better be applied to FPTP. Instability? That would well describe the changes of government Ontario endured in recent elections, from Bob Rae to Mike Harris to Dalton McGuinty. Or if the concern is that fringe parties, representing a tiny fraction of the population, might wield disproportionate influence—well, what do you call the parties’ obsession, under the existing system, with that sliver of the electorate known as “swing voters,” on whose every whim their fortunes depend?

So you see, B.C., it all comes down to you. If there’s anywhere electoral reform is most desperately needed, it’s probably in federal politics: the damage FPTP has done, particularly in terms of regional ghettoization, is most acute there. But reform is most likely to occur at the provincial level first. And that means you. You came so close in 2005, when you voted 58 per cent in favour of reform—just shy of the required 60 per cent margin. If it’s ever going to happen, B.C. is the place. And now is the time.

So come on B.C. Pluck up your courage. Show us the way. Light a candle for electoral reformers everywhere. We’re depending on you.

Your friend,
cc The Rest of Canada

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Test Drive BC-STV in Your Riding.

Here's another website ( that allows you to see what voting would be like in your own riding using BC-STV. You simply click on the your riding then rank your choices. The simulator does an automatic running tally and will even tell you what percentage of your vote went to which candidate. You want to know more, then you can look at how the voting went, round by round.

Monday, April 27, 2009

New TV ad for BC-STV!

Hey, good stuff. We finally got a TV ad together (you can check it out here) to counteract the one the No side's putting out.

Ads like this will be really useful in raising awareness about BC-STV; but getting it on the air will not be cheap. Donations are really needed as the No side has an extra $225,000 to spend on TV time slots. If we have any hope of closing that gap, it will have to come from grassroots support. You can go to the website to make a donation to our cause. Even if you can only donate $5, that will still help. No contribution is insignificant.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

March Letter to the Editor I wrote in response to another ridiculous opinion piece.

I’m a little late in posting this but… oh well.

So there was a letter to the editor that came out in my local paper (Langley Advance) at the end of March in criticism of STV. It was full of the usual half truths and deceptive argumentation that has become the bread and butter for the No camp. So I decided to write a letter in response. Interestingly enough, I had put the link to my blog at the end of my letter but it wasn’t included when it was actually published. I found it curious as the editor has made no secret of his complete and utter disdain for BC-STV and the Citizen’s Assembly (he’s actually a snotty prick about it). Anyways, below is the letter and I’ve put my responses in red under the pertinent points.

STV system not that simple

Dear Editor,

After re-reading the technical report of December 2004, published by the Citizen's Assembly, entitled Making Every Vote Count - the Case for Electoral Reform in British Columbia, here are some comments for voters' consideration in the forthcoming second round:

Elections: Politicians don't like STV

Dear Editor,

Some of D.B. Anderson's points [STV system not that simple, Mar. 20 Letters, Langley Advance] need to be clarified.

1. Be careful what you wish for.

2. Gordon Gibson and other proponents of STV keep saying that, if the Irish can do it, so can we. However, page 11 of the report says, "The Irish government has twice tried to use referendums to abolish STV." Did the reform attempts fail, as they have in Italy and Israel, as to their fractured Proportional Voting Systems, because it takes 60 per cent approval to be rid of these things?

While there were two referendums in Ireland to abolish STV, they did not fail because of a required 60 per cent threshold. They failed because the Irish voted to keep STV, 52 per cent in the first referendum and 61 per cent in the second.

The Irish referendums to change from STV were initiated by politicians and rejected by citizens, while the B.C. referendum was to change to STV, and was initiated by citizens and campaigned against by politicians and political insiders.

3. How many voters in 2005 knew the assembly's ballot question meant that, with STV, you get multi-member ridings? For suburban ridings, they recommend as many as seven MLAs. The logic has never emerged, and there could be dozens of names on the ballot. While B.C. has had two-member ridings in the past, it means MLAs must spread their time and energy over all of the riding's communities, instead of a few.

Under BC-STV, there will only be one riding with seven MLAs; the majority will have four. This is because multi-member ridings provide more accurate and proportional election results. And there will not be dozens of names on the ballot. Based on sample ballots from Ireland, there will be around eight to 16, which is hardly overwhelming.

4. Although the 2005 vote was 55-58 per cent yes province-wide, with two ridings dissenting, 60 per cent of voters later polled said they voted yes even though they did not understand the issue.

The fact that 60 per cent of voters voted yes in the 2005 vote without understanding the issue only tells half the story. What we do know is that, when voters do understand STV, approval goes up to around 80 per cent. So the fact that STV missed passing the ridiculously high 60 per cent threshold is simply due to people not being fully informed.

This is why people should be taking the time to educate themselves on this extremely important issue.

5. How many have heard of the Droop quota and the weighted Gregory method? Well, those are formulae used to count the ballots in this system that the advocates always say is "simple." Look it up.

Droop decides who wins a seat outright. It divides the total votes in a riding by the number of MLAs to be elected, plus one, then adds one.

In a single MLA riding, the result would be total votes over, plus one plus one plus one. The result is 50 per cent plus one wins the seat - the same as at present, when only two people run.

But once you have multi-members, the percentage needed to win drops dramatically. If three MLAs are to be elected, Droop dictates that the total votes are divided by three, plus one. Then 25 per cent wins a seat. How is this more democratic than our current, first-past-the-post system?

Next, the Gregory method calculates what fraction of surplus votes goes to your second, third, etc. choices.

It is the surplus votes cast for an elected MLA over the total votes received by that MLA. Rarely will a whole vote be transferred, as some think. It'll be a fraction - a tiny one.

Wait. It gets even "simpler."

If there are still surplus choices, that MLA's fraction can be multiplied by another MLA's fraction to give an even smaller one. Our vote can count - and count - and count.

The Droop quota decides how much a candidate needs to win a majority of the vote; it's 50 per cent plus one in a single-member riding.

The percentage goes down in multi-member ridings, because the ridings are bigger, with more voters. The actual number of votes a candidate needs to win remains roughly the same. The Gregory method determines the fraction or percentage of a vote that gets transferred from an elected candidate to remaining candidates. So if a candidate has 10 per cent more votes than needed to win, all of those candidates' votes get transferred to the next choice that's listed, at a value of 10 per cent. It's a different concept, but by no means complicated.

The principles underlying STV are actually very logical and simple.

6. So who does this counting? At present, even the most unsophisticated poll clerk or scrutineer can count our Xs. STV will certainly require that we trust contracted nerds with costly high-technology to count and report.

The media will be shut out. No more CBC predictions.

STV will use paper ballots, just as we use now. Just like in the Vancouver city elections, scanners will probably be used to speed up the count, but the ballots can be counted by hand, if needed.

Ireland has managed for 80 years; I'm sure they can give us one or two pointers.

Always glad to be of help.

D.B. Anderson,


STV is not perfect, but it is better than our current system, which is badly flawed.

Regardless, there are no good reasons to not at least try it out. It's always a lot easier to change back to our current system, and you can bet it would be with the full support and blessing of our politicians.

Clifford Thai, Walnut Grove

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Nice objective piece on BC-STV by the CBC

There was a nice backgrounder on the CBC website that gives a good, neutral take on BC-STV and how it came to be recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly. It’s a good place to start for people who are unfamiliar to BC-STV (although is probably an even better place to start, this is a pretty good option too) as it has accompanying links to external sites that are pertinent to the subject.

B.C.'s referendum on proportional representation

Is it time for a new electoral system?
Monday, April 6, 2009 By Mike Laanela, CBC News

For the second time in four years, B.C. voters will be casting a second ballot during the provincial election that could fundamentally transform the way we choose our provincial politicians.

Along with voting for their local MLA, voters will be asked to decide if they want B.C. to adopt a new proportional representation electoral system that would change how ridings are organized and MLAs are elected. Proportional representation is also known as the single-transferable-vote system, which in B.C. has been dubbed BC-STV for short.

Currently, B.C. is divided into 85 ridings, including six new ones created for this election. Voters living in each riding elect one candidate to represent them as a Member of the Legislative Assembly, known as an MLA.

This system is called first past the post, because only one candidate in each riding gets elected. It is the same system used to elect members of Parliament in Ottawa and the provincial representatives in every other province in Canada.

Several years ago, the province created a Citizens' Assembly to study the electoral system and determine whether there might be a better option for B.C.

In 2004, the assembly recommended that B.C. switch to a new proportional electoral system.

What is BC-STV?

The new system is very different from the current one in four main ways.

First, the number of ridings would be reduced from 85 smaller ones to 20 larger ones, known as electoral districts.

Second, instead of electing just one MLA in each riding, the voters in each electoral district would elect two to seven members to the Legislative Assembly.

The exact number of MLAs in each district would be determined by its size and total population. Large rural areas might only have two MLAs while smaller, densely populated urban districts might have as many as seven MLAs.

In simple terms, if there were five seats in a riding, the five candidates with the most votes would be elected as MLAs.

That would mean that candidates from parties that don't usually get enough votes to win a seat, such as the Green Party, have a better chance of getting elected, and that more than one member from a popular party, such as the BC Liberals or the NDP, might be elected in one district.

Because of that, the overall results would better reflect how people voted, according to the members of the Citizens' Assembly.

Transferring votes

The third way the system would change would be in the way people vote.

Instead of marking an X beside one name, voters would rank candidates from most favourite to least favourite, by writing 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., right on the ballot.

The fourth change would affect how the votes are counted. This is the most complicated part of the STV system.

Candidates would need a certain number of votes to be elected, based on the number of MLAs the district is electing and the number of people who vote.

If no candidate receives enough votes to be elected, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the counting, and all of the votes for that person are then distributed to the next choice on each ballot.

The votes are then recounted to see if any candidate has enough votes to win.

The process continues with the lowest candidate being eliminated and his or her votes being transferred to the next choice on the ballot until all the required candidates are chosen to represent the district.

No more 'wasted' votes

The counting system gets more complicated during the counting of the votes if a candidate gets more votes than the exact number they need to be elected.

If that happens, the so-called extra or surplus votes are redistributed to the next choice on the ballots.

But in order to be fair, everybody who voted for the winning candidate has their vote redistributed but only a fraction of each vote is transferred, based on how many extra votes the winning candidate had.

The reason for this is so that everyone's extra vote gets counted and no vote is ever wasted, according to those who designed the system.

In order to keep track of the thousands of calculations this would require, computers would be used to count the votes in the elections.

Why change?

There is much debate about how well the new system would work and what sort of results it would produce.

Critics of BC-STV have several complaints about the system.

Some say it is too complicated for people to understand how their vote will be counted, and therefore it may make the voting process confusing.

Critics also say the BC-STV system been unproven in real life situations, and other countries with similar systems have had trouble with the results.

They also say the electoral districts would be too large and voters would not know who represents them, and that while a majority government is possible, the BC-STV is more likely to produce unstable minority governments or coalitions of two or more parties.

On the other hand, critics of our current system have said it does not reflect the real choices of voters.

For example, candidates often win their seat with about 40 per cent or less of the votes, simply because they have more votes than any of the other candidates.

That means situations arise in which 60 per cent of the people, the majority of voters, did not support the candidate who was elected.

In addition, parties that might get only 10 or 20 per cent of the votes across the province never get any candidates elected because they don't have enough votes in one single riding.

This time, in order to encourage debate about the referendum, the B.C. government is funding two independent campaigns during the election, one on each side of the question. More information on the STV system can be obtained on the respective websites of the pro and con campaigns.

The second referendum

In 2005, voters in B.C. voted nearly 58 per cent in favour of adopting the new system. But according to a law passed by the government, more than 60 per cent of voters must approve the new system for it to pass.

Not only that, more than 50 per cent of the votes in at least 51 of the province's 85 electoral districts must support the change.

That's because the government believes the change must be supported by a significant majority of the population in all areas of the province to become the new electoral system.

Because the result was so close last election, but so many people said they did not understand the issue, the government decided to hold the referendum again.

There is also a neutral Referendum Information Office, with a mandate to provide objective information to voters about both electoral systems.

If B.C. voters approve the new system, by law, it would take effect in the 2013 provincial election.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Brilliant! An interactive STV Simulator!

Here is a great website ( that uses a flash game to demonstrate how BC-STV works.

It provides two examples to illustrate how votes are transferred after candidates are either eliminated or after they are elected. Additionally, it gives you the option of running your own elections where you can set the number of seats, the number of votes, and you can mark the ballots as you wish and then see how your scenarios play out.

Back to How Does BC-STV Work?.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Nice Explanation of BC-STV by Nick Loenen

I thought that this was a great article by Nick Loenen, who’s been a real driving force behind the movement for electoral reform in BC. He’s also written a book on the subject, called "Citizenship and Democracy, a case for proportional representation".

Anyways, Mr. Loenen gives a great overview of how STV works and even addresses some of the more common myths that are thrown out by its critics.

A New Voting System: How it Works

by Nick Loenen, Ladysmith Chronicle, March 11, 2009

On May 12, British Columbians will be asked if they wish to keep the current voting system or to accept a new way of electing MLAs, as recommended by the Citizens Assembly.

The assembly selected the single transferable vote, adapted it to our provincial needs and called it BC-STV. It joins existing ridings into multi-seat ridings consisting of two to seven seats. Within those larger ridings groups of like-minded voters will elect one MLA as their representative.

When filling in the ballot, voters do not select one candidate among many, but rank candidates 1, 2, 3 etc. On average, there will be fifteen to twenty names on the ballot and voters can rank as few or as many as they wish. To make it user-friendly, candidates will be grouped on the ballot by party affiliation. Many voters go only to the party box of their choice and rank one or all the candidates in that box. Voters may rank candidates from different parties if they want. Independent candidates, too, will be listed and have a very good chance of being elected for simply being good local representatives without any partisan affiliation.

What happens to all these rankings? Think of your vote as one dollar. When ballots are counted, your vote, all one hundred pennies, goes to your first choice candidate. If that candidate is eliminated for not having sufficient votes, your vote, all one hundred pennies, goes to your second choice candidate. If that candidate is elected, but with a surplus of say ten percent, it means ninety pennies of your vote have been spent and the remaining ten pennies will go to your third choice candidate. And so on, until all of your vote (pennies) has been spent. In the current system you lose all one hundred pennies if you don't vote for the single winner.

Is it possible for the more populated areas to snatch all seats? No. Each existing riding has sufficient numerical strength to elect its own MLA. The more densely populated areas cannot elect more MLAs than they are entitled to by their numbers. Each MLA goes to Victoria representing the same number of voters. To ensure nearly all voters can point to someone in Victoria they helped elect, MLA’s surplus votes are redistributed among remaining candidates according to voters’ wishes. Some MLA will need the few scattered voters in the more remote regions of the riding to get to Victoria. No area or neighbourhood will go without representation.

During the 2005 referendum, it was suggested BC-STV is too difficult. Vancouver Sun reporter Neal Hall asked voters in Ireland if they thought it difficult and found no one to support the claim. Ireland has used this system since 1921, and twice the Irish voted by referendum to keep it.

With such a large riding, is it not more work and more expensive for candidates to campaign in an election? No. Candidates do not need all the votes, just enough to fill one seat. Candidates will carefully pitch their platform to one group of voters. BC-STV establishes a very close link between each MLA and a particular group of voters. This also explains why independent candidates do get elected with BC-STV.

Nick Loenen is a former Richmond City Councillor and MLA. For more visit: or contact:

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Clearing The Mists: A Response To A David Schreck Essay

David Schreck is the secretary-treasurer for the No Side and has his own website dedicated to criticizing BC-STV. He’s written, and is writing, several esays on the topic; but I’m choosing this one because it’s a good example of the usage of straw man arguments which are "based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position. To ‘set up a straw man,’ one describes a position that superficially resembles an opponent's actual view, yet is easier to refute." (wiki).

The first example is in the fourth paragraph:
Since WWII BC has elected majority governments. In Ireland, one party, Fianna Fáil, has formed the government in all but 19 years since 1932, as a majority government until 1989 and as the major party in coalition governments since 1989. It is currently government in coalition with the Greens; it's last partner losing 6 of 8 seats in the 2007 election. STV was used as the voting system since 1922, so contrary to what supporters of STV say, it is hard to conclude STV keeps one party from dominating politics.
Mr. Schreck is misrepresenting the purposes of an electoral system. It’s not the job of an electoral system to ensure that certain parties do or don’t get elected; that’s up to the voters. What an electoral system should do is ensure that the results of an election accurately reflect the preferences of the voters, according to the votes they cast. STV does that very well, our current system does this very poorly. If they want one party to form successive governments, like in Ireland, they should get that. If they only want representation from two parties in parliament, like in Malta, they should get that. If they want representation from smaller parties, like in both Ireland and BC, then they should get that too. So contrary to what Mr. Schreck says, STV supporters are not claiming that STV keeps one party from dominating politics; we’re saying that STV gives more accurate and fair election results than our current first-past-the-post (FPTP)system.

Moving on to paragraph seven, Mr. Schreck discusses the number of candidates parties will run:
In the May 17, 2005 provincial election only the NDP and Liberals were successful in electing candidates: NDP 33, Liberals 46; together with the Green Party, they were the only parties to run full slates of 79 candidates. In Ireland the practice is for parties to run no more candidates than they expect to win in each of the areas that elect 3 to 5 members. Contrary to what supporters of STV say, partial slates are not a universal feature of STV; in Malta parties run more candidates than there are positions to fill.
What STV supporters are saying is that the number of candidates that a party runs depends entirely on what election strategy said party wishes to take. But that it is highly likely that parties will put out partial slates since we see that occurring in Ireland, where, like BC, there is a greater level of support for smaller parties which cuts into support for the major ones. In Malta, where politics is dominated by two parties, they’ve chosen to take another strategy toward elections which they are free to do. So contrary to what Mr. Schreck writes, STV supporters don’t claim that partial slates are a universal feature of STV.

Next paragraph:
A claim made by some supporters of BC-STV is that it would be easier for third parties or independents to be elected if the rules were changed to be more like Ireland. In 1991 the BC Reform Party was able to elect members to the BC Legislature under our current system, and in 1996 the Progressive Democratic Alliance was able to do the same. Contrary to what supporters of STV say, those examples suggest that it is NOT how we elect our MLAs that determines whether "third parties" win seats.
The problem is that Mr. Schreck’s examples are flukes. And he’s got his facts wrong. Both flukes occurred in 1996; the Reform party got about 9% of the vote for two seats (under STV they’d have gotten 5-7) and PDA got one seat based on 6% (would have gotten 4-5). Conversely, in the very next election, the Green Party got 12% of the vote and zero votes and that’s been the story ever since, not just in BC but in all of Canada. In Ireland, the record consistently shows that a party’s share of the seats accurately reflects their share of the vote. Under our current system, the record consistently shows that smaller parties get shut out, despite getting sufficient support in the polls. So contrary to what Mr. Schreck claims, his examples are isolated cases and are not typical of how smaller parties win seats under FPTP.

Next paragraph:
STV supporters also claim that the system gives voters greater choice. It is hard to see that from the table above unless one means electing twice as many politicians gives greater choice. By greater choice, STV supporters might mean the illusion that is created by ranking as many candidates as a voter chooses, but the voter still gets just one vote and the rankings are just instructions on how the vote may be broken into fractions and counted. The number of candidates running in the 2005 BC election and the 2007 Irish elections were about the same even though Ireland elected 166 members and BC only 79. In BC 25 of its 45 registered political parties fielded candidates, three parties fielding full slates. Ireland had one dominate party and 13 others. How is that "more choice"?
Uh… actually, being able to rank your candidates isn’t an “illusion” of more choice. It is more choice. Under FPTP, you can only mark an X. And if your candidate doesn’t get elected, then that’s it; you’ve thrown your vote away. Under BC-STV, you can vote for who you want. And if he/she doesn’t get elected, you also have the option of having your vote transferred to an alternate candidate, if you so choose. That’s “more choice”.

Additionally, under our current system, you can only choose from one candidate per party. If you don’t like him/her then tough luck, deal with it. Under BC-STV, you have the option of choosing among multiple candidates of the same party. So if you don’t like a particular candidate but still want to vote for the same party, you have another candidate from the same party to choose from. That’s “more choice”. The fact that a party is able to table a full slate under our current system is irrelevant from a voter’s point of view as you can only choose from one candidate from that party, not several like under BC-STV.

Contrary to what supporters of STV say, it is expensive to campaign. In the 2007 Irish election, Fianna Fáil spent €3,650,240.55, which is $5,485,216 at the 2007 exchange rate. It looks like the price to win in politics is just as high in Ireland as it is under FPTP in BC where, in their central campaigns, the BC Liberals spent $3,670,165 and the NDP spent $3,078,049. It is tricky to compare party spending between Ireland and BC because the figure for Ireland is the total, but the figures for BC are just what the parties spent centrally; campaigns for local candidates could also spend an average of $65,565 (although most don't spend anything close to that much). When actual spending by constituency as reported to Elections BC is added to the central party spending, the total spending in 2005 for the BC Liberals was $7,758,375 and total spending for the NDP was $5,884,001.
Contrary to what Mr. Schreck claims, campaign financing is irrelevant. BC-STV supporters never said it wasn’t expensive to campaign, we’re not the ones bringing the issue up. When the Citizen’s Assembly looked at different electoral systems, they were concerned about doing what was best for British Columbians, not look after the interests of political parties. The fact that Mr. Schreck is even making it an issue shows just where his priorities lie.

It is interesting to note that in Ireland in 2007 the Green Party spent €553,858.70 ($832,283). In 2005 in BC the Green Party spent only $43,901 on their central campaign, when spending in all constituencies is added, the Green Party in BC spent $$281,448. Powell River-Sunshine Coast and West Vancouver-Garibaldi were the only constituencies where the Greens spent over $10,000. Many might think that the Green Party's inability to elect a single MLA is more related to the organization and financing of their campaign than to the electoral system. do we really need to change BC's electoral system to be like Ireland's just because the Green Party can't raise enough money to run a campaign?
Many might think that the Green Party's inability to elect a single MLA is more related to the organization and financing of their campaign than to the electoral system; but those people would be wrong. Looking at the past elections, the Green party have garnered around 10% support in the voting booths. Under STV, either in Ireland or here, that would translate to about 10% of the seats (6-8 in BC). Under FPTP, that translates to zero. So how much they spent is irrelevant to the fact that our current system grossly misrepresents what voters want.

The usage of straw man arguments is a disingenuous and dishonest way of debating. If this is what the No side has to rely on to confuse people into voting "no", what does that tell you about the strength of their position?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Criticism #5: BC-STV doesn’t guarantee proportional results

This is one of the more bizarre arguments thrown out by BC-STV critics and I think it's a sign of just how desperate they are if they have to resort to such ridiculous and backward thinking criticisms.

In his website, Bill Tieleman tries to make the case that we shouldn’t vote to change to the Single Transferable Voting system (BC-STV) because it doesn’t guarantee proportionality:
  • Q: Does STV give proportional results? That is, if a party gets 10% of the popular vote in B.C. would it win 10% of the seats?

  • A: No. STV supporters say it is more proportional than first-past-the-post (FPTP) but there is no guarantee that seats won will correspond with popular vote. Proportional representation electoral systems such as List PR are designed to ensure such proportionality, not STV.

    If a party got 10% of the vote under STV it would be unlikely to win a seat in any constituency in BC. Look again at the example of a constituency of 100,000 voters electing three members: the number of votes needed to win is 25,001, which means that a party would need at least 25% support to win one seat of the three.
Funny how he doesn’t use a 7 or 6 seat riding for his example which is where the Green Party would be making their gains. What's also curious is if a two or three seat riding is supposed to be so bad, then how are our current single member ridings any better?

Mr. Tieleman’s buddy, David Schreck, former MLA, adviser to Premier Glen Clark and now Secretary-Treasurer of the No STV campaign, has his own website for disseminating misinformation about BC-STV called Strategic Thoughts. In one of his essays (November 1st, 2004), Mr. Schreck presents a hypothetical situation under BC-STV where a Green Party candidate would win 10% of the vote without getting elected. Of course, he relies on this dream scenario playing out by making the assumption that out of 100,000 voters, not a single one is willing to vote outside of party lines.

A scenario that is so unlikely to the point of absurdity. Notice also how in both examples, they only look at single ridings instead looking at elections as a whole. When BC-STV supporters talk about proportionality, we're referring to the results of an entire election, not individual ridings.

Now on January 13th, 2009 during his CKNW debate with Shoni Field, Mr. Schreck actually did point to one election in Malta in 1981 where one party one more seats while the other party won more of the popular vote. But what he failed to mention was that in that election, the parties were only separated by a margin of 1.8% in the popular vote, with the seat distribution being 34 to 31, almost a tie.

No matter what electoral system is used, there’s always a risk of distortion in close races. The point is that under our current system, distortions occur even when the race isn’t close, such as when parties win 50-60% of the seats with only 40% of the vote.

The thing is if you take a step back and look at election results in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Malta over the long term, you see that the percentage of seats a party wins is consistently around 2-3% of their share of the popular vote. Election results more closely mirror the percentages of votes that have been cast. That’s how it should be. Conversely, one only needs to look at our own country to see that in our FPTP system, a party's share of the seats is consistently off by as much as 10% to 20% of the their share of the popular vote.

So while BC-STV may not be perfectly proportional, it’s a heck of a lot more proportional than our current system. That‘s the whole point.

Back to Criticisms Mainpage.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dr. Fred Cutler: Understanding the Yes Vote in 2005

Dr. Fred Cutler is a professor at UBC and, as his research, had conducted a series of surveys in both BC and Ontario during the run-ups to their respective referendums on electoral reform. He published based on his findings. For me, Dr. Cutler's topic was the most interesting of the three speakers because it gave great insight into people's views and attitudes towards electoral reform, the Citizen's Assembly (CA), and what reasons factored into them deciding to vote Yes. Most importantly, his findings had real implications with respect to strategies that should be adopted by the Yes side during the upcoming campaign and the message we need to be getting out.

As background, he got some base-line information on people's attitudes about proportional representation (PR) and people in politics. With respect to PR, people surveyed largely were in favour of its general principles. They actually liked the idea of coalitions, the idea of greater choice, and disliked the artificial majorities produced by first-past-the-post (FPTP). However, they did have concerns about the possibility of government instability with PR. Surprisingly enough, they didn’t have much concern about the complexity of the electoral system. On their views on politicians and people in politics, I have to admit that my notes a re little hazy here; but I’ve got written down that “ordinary folks will trust and believe ordinary folks when expertise is not required” which I think is supposed to mean that they will tend to be more trusting of fellow citizens. However, the people polled believed that ordinary people can become experts over time.

Not surprisingly, when he first started surveying people in January ’05, only half of the people surveyed were aware of the CA and what they were all about. Even less (about 30%) were aware of an upcoming referendum, and even less that that (~20%) had a working knowledge of single transferable vote (BC-STV). As expected, awareness of the referendum and BC-STV ramped up in the months leading up to the referendum. Still, referendum awareness never got higher than 50-60%, knowledge of BC-STV remained even lower, and awareness of the CA only increased by a small amount (a few percent).

Nevertheless, people generally liked what they learned and the more they learned, the more likely they were to vote Yes for BC-STV, which is shown in the following slide (click to expand):

What’s apparent from the slide is that a key factor in getting BC-STV passed is ensuring that people are well educated about both the CA as well as BC-STV. Interestingly, Dr. Cutler did an ideal extrapolation, where he looked at what would happen in an ideal situation. He speculated that if an ideal situation were to occur where 100% of the population had a good working knowledge of both the CA and BC-STV, BC-STV would pass with 80% support.

Along that line of thought, Dr. Cutler investigated the question of how awareness of the CA influenced voters’ decision. He found that knowledge of the CA satisfied two kinds of citizen: the populist (who comprised 2/3 or the public), and the non-populist (the remaining 1/3).

Populists are kind of your “Ordinary Joe” type of citizen. They are generally skeptical of the so-called “elites” and their decisions and fall into the “ordinary folks trust ordinary folks” designation; knowledge of the CA was more important than the actual elements of the proposal. So for them, the message needed to emphasize the representative nature of the CA.

On the other hand, Non-populists were the opposite in that they tended to be more accepting of “elite” decisions; they needed to know that member of the CA became experts. Also, they needed to know more about the proposal itself. For them, the message needed to emphasize the expertise of the CA; however, knowing about how BC-STV worked was still twice as important.

Nice to know, but as Dr. Cutler pointed out, there’s no way of knowing if a person is a populist or non-populist; it’s not like you can ask a person. So basically, one needs to get both messages out simultaneously if one wants to cover one’s ass.

In terms of hard numbers, Dr. Cutler found that knowledge of specific aspects of the CA raised the yes vote by differing amounts. If people were told that CA “members wanted what’s best for BC”, the yes vote went up by 22.8%. if they knew that the CA “represented people like me”, +12.8%. if they knew that CA members “became experts”, +7.6%.

Dr. Cutler then went on to discuss why the yes vote only got 37% in the Ontario referendum. The public’s views on PR were no different than in BC, the CA in Ontario was set-up the exact same way in both provinces, and like BC-STV, the more people knew about Ontario’s Mixed Member Proportional system the more likely they were to vote for it. So what changed?

Apparently, the CA didn’t get the same level of publicity in the media so awareness of it didn’t have the same impact as it did here in BC. Also, there was more frustration in BC as compared to Ontario in light of recent election results, so there was a greater appetite for change.

So ideally, when talking about BC-STV, we would discuss the CA first, highlighting that they were ordinary citizen’s from across the province, that their goal was to do what was best for BC, that they became experts on electoral reform, and that their decision was nearly unanimous. But of course, ideal is hard to achieve. So the lesson that Dr. Cutler thought should be taken is that we ensure that British Columbians are as educated as much as possible about both the CA as well as BC-STV.

Back to Musings Mainpage

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dr. Ken Carty: BC-STV and the Electoral Boundaries

Dr. Ken Carty is a professor at the University of British Columbia and was the Chief Research Officer for the Citizen’s Assembly (CA). His talk at the 2009 BC-STV Conference was mainly about what the electoral maps, as proposed by the Electoral Boundaries Commission (EBC), would look like under the single transferable vote (BC-STV), a topic that was about as exciting as it sounds.

All credit to Dr. Carty, he’s actually a very good speaker and he did well to make his topic more interesting for his audience. It was just the case that his topic happened to be a bit on the technical and dry side.

At any rate, Dr. Carty started off by talking about how, under BC-STV, our 83 provincial ridings would be combined into 20, with 2-7 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in each. The electoral map that was proposed in the CA website is actually pretty close to what was but together by the EBC. The northern ridings would look like our current federal ridings while the Vancouver ridings would be a bit larger (Apparently, the current Vancouver provincial ridings already look like their federal counterparts. I’m not sure how it works out that way, but whatever).

Malapportionment, the discrepancy in riding populations from riding to riding, would be improved under BC-STV so that there would be greater uniformity in the ratio of MLA’s per voter. Supposedly, it’s more difficult to draw maps with smaller ridings leading to the greater variability that we currently see.

The number of MLA’s per riding, also known as the District Magnitude (DM), would range from 2-7. Half of the ridings, 10, would have a DM of 4, only one riding would have a DM of 2 and one would have a DM of 7. 16 ridings would have a DM of 4 or greater. This is significant because the higher the DM, the more proportional the election results. Interestingly enough, the average DM under BC-STV would be 4.15 compared to 3.86 for Ireland. So elections under STV in BC could or should actually be more proportional than in Ireland.

Dr. Carty then got into consequences of adopting BC-STV, the most obvious being fairer election results. There’s likely to be increased diversity as citizen’s would now have the opportunity to get representation from more than one party/candidate. Political parties and candidates would likely behave differently as the incentives provided by BC-STV vs FPRTP would be different. Parties likely wouldn’t run full slates, and there would be greater intra-party competition between candidates, affecting candidate behaviour both before and after elections.

Back to Musings Mainpage

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dr. Dennis Pilon: Putting FPTP On Trial and Countering STV Myths

Dr. Dennis Pilon is a professor at the University of Victoria and author of the book, “The Politics of Voting”. His speech, as one would guess, had to do with the myths that are put forth by the BC-STV critics.

He started off by saying that he thought it would actually harder for the Yes side to achieve the 58% majority that we got last time. His reasoning was that the No side was caught by surprise the first time around, they thought that nobody would pay attention to the referendum and that it would eventually just fade away. That it almost passed means that they won’t be taking the Yes side for granted this time around. Combine that with the fact that they will be taking lessons from the Ontario referendum to go more negative and that they will also be better funded means that we’re going to have a nasty fight on our hands. I would agree.

So his proposed strategy involved a two pronged approach. One, was have reasonable but strong responses to the (many) negative distortions that are forthcoming. Two, and this makes a lot of sense to me, is to go on the offensive and turn this into a referendum on first-past-the-post (FPTP). Most of our energy has involved responding to the negative attacks and putting out the fires that keep popping up. Instead, include our own criticisms of FPTP, force the No side to justify sticking with the status quo and try to put them on the back foot.

Dr. Pilon then got into the myths that are being thrown out by the No side. I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of his responses because, to be honest, I don’t really have the time; but also because I already have written, or will write, about these myths in my Criticisms section. But here’s a list of the myths that he addressed:
  • BC-STV is too complicated (done that)

  • BC-STV is anti-party (who cares, this is supposed to be about voters, not parties)

  • BC-STV will lead to less accountability ( done that)

  • BC-STV swill mean less diversity in our elected officials (sort of addressed this in my “BC-STV and Women” post

  • BC-STV is not proportionally representative (or not PR enough) (post to come)
He then went on to outline the (many) problems with FPTP:
  • Election results don’t reflect the actual vote

  • The winner-take-all nature of results oversimplifies the political views of a riding

  • The same all-or-nothing nature of FPTP suppresses diversity

  • FPTP gives artificial majorities

  • Creates situations of strategic voting
Dr. Pilon concluded by re-iterating the point that we have an uphill battle to climb. We have to convince people to make a change from the status quo (always more difficult), the population don’t know what they don’t know, and we have to achieve a supermajority as opposed to just a simple majority. These factors will make our goal much more difficult to achieve. So it’s going to take all of our collective efforts if we’re going to be at all successful in meeting the challenge.

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Musings from the 2009 BC-STV Conference

I went to the BC-STV Conference this past weekend (January 10th and 11th) obviously being a BC-STV supporter and also to just satisfy my curiosity about what goes on during these events. Unfortunately, due to work commitments, I was only able to make it to one day, and a half day at that.

Still, there was a lot to see and it was definitely worthwhile to hear the different speakers during the afternoon session. Below is a recap of some of the more salient portions of their speeches and presentations.

Speaker #1: Dr. Dennis Pilon: Putting FPTP On Trial and Countering STV Myths
Speaker #2: Dr. Ken Carty: BC-STV and the Electoral Boundaries
Speaker #3: Dr. Fred Cutler: Understanding the Yes Vote in 2005