May 6, 2009

The Case for STV


One final article from our BC Commentary special:

The Case for the BC Single Transferable Vote (BC-STV)

by David Huntley and Michael Wortis

BC-STV has many advantages over the current First-Past-the-Post system (FPTP) used for electing our MLAs. BC-STV will achieve a reasonably proportional representation of parties, with the number of MLAs of each party in close proportion to its fraction of the popular vote. Voters will be able to vote for their preferred candidates without fear of wasting their votes, and they will be able to rank the candidates offered by their preferred party, thus determining which are elected. As well, BC-STV will reduce the imbalance of power between voters and parties. It achieves all this while preserving local representation.

Because BC-STV is a proportional system, the make-up of the legislature will reflect the party preferences of the voters. These party preferences will change from one election to the next; but, since they cannot be distorted as they are under FPTP, there is a lower probability of large policy swings from one election to the next. This seems likely to lead to increased political stability and a greater tendency towards consensus legislation.

Legislatures in which one party has more than half the seats will occur when a majority of voters cast their ballots for a particular party, but this happens rarely in B.C. Thus, single-party majority governments will become less frequent, and MLAs will have to work together, either in minority governments or, more likely, in coalition governments. The history of proportional and FPTP systems shows that both can lead to stable governments and both can lead to unstable ones.

Minority governments are usually unable to pass legislation that the majority of the people do not want and are likely to find common ground through compromise and accommodation. Minority governments in Canada have been responsible for some of our most progressive legislation, most notably Medicare and the Canada Pension Plan.

Coalition governments are ones in which two or more parties have a formal working relationship in order to form a majority. Nearly all European countries have coalition governments because they use some form of proportional representation for their elections. It is no coincidence that these countries have the most equitable societies.

Larger ridings under BC-STV will mean that there will be more names (~12-18) on the ballot, so the conscientious voter will need to learn the views of more candidates than at present. It is this feature which allows voters to decide which of the candidates from each party are elected, thus shifting party policy and removing deadwood.

Some people express concern that the larger ridings will mean a dilution of local representation, especially in sparsely populated rural ridings. This is not true. There will be the same number of MLAs and the average distance for a voter to his or her nearest MLA will be the same as at present. Nearly all ridings will have MLAs from two or more different parties, thus giving the voter a choice of MLAs to go to for assistance.

With BC-STV, voters with a strong preference for an independent candidate or one from a smaller party can mark their 1st preferences to such candidates without fear of “wasting” their ballots. If such candidates receive relatively few votes, these votes are transferred to the voters’ 2nd and possibly 3rd preferences, etc., during the counting process. If a candidate receives more votes than are needed for election, each of these votes is split into two portions; one portion, which is enough to elect that candidate, stays with that candidate, and the remainder is transferred to the next listed preference on that ballot, thus using the full value of that ballot. The result is that far more ballots count towards the election of a candidate than under FPTP.

After the election, each voter will be able to see which candidate or candidates his or her vote helped to elect. Under FPTP, it is usually the case that about 50% of the votes are for the candidate who is elected. By contrast, under BC-STV about 90% of the votes in a five-member riding will have contributed to the election of at least one MLA. Thus, a far higher number of voters will feel they have an MLA who represents them in the legislature, and this will lead to increased voter satisfaction and participation.

FPTP normally results in the winner-take-all (majoritarian) governments that we are used to. In contrast, proportional representation (PR) usually leads to governments that work by consensus. Which is better? In his 1999 book ‘Patterns of Democracy’, renowned political scientist Arend Lijphart studied 36 democracies and showed that consensus governments do significantly better than majoritarian governments, as measured by several indicators of quality, including proximity of government policy to voters’ preferences, voter satisfaction, voter turnout, ratios of the highest to lowest incomes, distribution of economic power, and women’s representation in parliament and in cabinet. Consensus democracies tend to be kinder and gentler as judged by social policies that enable all people to maintain a decent standard of living, environmental performance, energy efficiency (GDP/energy used), incarceration rate, use of death penalty, and foreign aid. None of the indices examined by Lijphart were significantly better for majoritarian governments than for consensus governments.

In conclusion, the legislature or parliament we get with FPTP is frequently not the one the voters wanted or voted for, resulting in public policies that are different from those wanted by the public – a situation which risks leaving voters cynical and weakening democracy. Many of these problems can be solved or, at least, alleviated by adopting an alternative electoral system. The Single Transferable Vote system (BC-STV) was overwhelmingly recommended by the BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform as the best system for B.C. We agree.

David Huntley and Michael Wortis are Professors Emeriti in the Department of Physics at Simon Fraser University. A comprehensive article of theirs on STV appeared in the April 2007 issue of the CCPA Monitor. David is a long-time member of the CCPA.