Friday, May 08, 2009

Why I'm voting 'Yes!' to STV

You probably know who you’re voting for in Tuesday’s provincial election. I’m not going to try to influence your decision, other than to urge you to vote with brain on and eyes wide open.
But I do want to influence your vote on changing B.C.’s electoral system. You’ll have the chance to vote on that issue as well as pick an MLA when you go to the polls this Tuesday, and hopefully you’ll vote yes to STV.
The acronym stands for Single Transferrable Vote. Far more informed people than I can give you the lowdown as to the details of STV (I’ve listed some Web sites at the bottom of this column), but the short version is that it’s a way of voting in which the makeup of the legislature more closely mirrors the popular vote. If 45 per cent of voters pick Party A, 30 per cent pick Party B and 15 per cent pick C, then that will be the party breakdown inside the House.
The party that wins the biggest percentage of the popular vote still forms government, as is the case now. But individual MLAs wield more power in an STV-elected legislature. Ruling parties don’t get the run of the place to the same degree as they do under our current system.
The theory is that such proportional representation creates governments that are more responsible to those they govern. Critics of STV rightly note that there’s a higher risk of unstable minority governments under such a system. Supporters point to the benefits of more coalition-building and compromise, and the much greater chance of smaller parties and independents getting elected.
Many countries of the world use versions of STV. British Columbians were very close to that point themselves in 2005, when nearly 58 per cent of provincial voters said yes to the province’s initial STV referendum.
Alas, the threshold had been set at 60 per cent for that referendum (and this one), and so the vote failed. Now we have a second opportunity.
As I mentioned, I’m not an expert on voting systems. I doubt many of us are, or plan to become one in time for Tuesday’s election. Fortunately, a group of 160 randomly chosen British Columbians have already done the legwork for us.
Known as the Citizens’ Assembly, those 160 hard-working volunteers put in close to a year of research, public hearings and community presentations in 2004 after being asked by Premier Gordon Campbell to take on the task of assessing voting methods and recommending the best one.
The one they picked was STV. And if that’s the informed opinion of a diverse, apolitical citizens’ group after many months spent learning and listening, then that’s good enough for me.
In a “first past the post” system like the one we have, the only votes that ultimately count are those for the victorious party. The 1996 election year revealed the risks of such a system, when just 39 per cent of the popular vote went to Glen Clark’s New Democrats and yet the NDP still formed a majority government.
The 2001 election highlighted another quirk in the system. That time out, Gordon Campbell’s Liberals won 57 per cent of the popular vote, yet claimed 98 per cent of the seats in the legislature. For the next four years, B.C. was essentially a dictatorship, and not a particularly benevolent one.
With STV, every vote counts. You rank your vote - picking a first choice, a second, a third and so on - and thus are no longer picking one candidate but helping select a team of MLAs for your riding. Your first pick may or may not go on to win election, but your vote will still count for the candidates who were your backup choices.
The surplus votes of a landslide - wasted votes as well in their own way, seeing as the candidate didn’t actually need them to win - are also eliminated under STV. Once a candidate has secured enough votes to win election, any surplus votes for that same candidate instead go to voters’ second choices.
No voting system alone guarantees fair governance, of course. STV is merely a different way to vote, not a panacea for all that’s wrong in the legislatures of our country. But I think it’s our best chance for reminding governments who they work for.
Here are a few STV sites to get you started: Citizens' Assembly; Wikipedia; STV campaign; Michael Gobbi site. Or check out the Webcast of a Times Colonist-hosted debate on STV.
See you at the polls May 12.

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