Is B.C. the future?

UPDATE: Not even close. So B.C. remains with “first-past-the-post”, which is a misnomer because there is no post to pass nor is there a second person who passes it. Is it time to give up?

British Columbia votes today on what supporters hope will be the future of representative democracy in Canada: a proposal for electoral reform based on the principle of the single transferable vote.

STV is essentially a method for preferential voting, meaning that instead of marking an X for the person you want elected (or, in many cases, the person most likely to defeat the person you don’t want to be elected), electors rank candidates in order of preference, and the ballot is counted so that if the first choice is not elected, the vote is transferred to the next candidate.

The second part of the proposal involves merging of electoral districts, so that instead of 85 representatives of 85 districts, there will be 85 representatives for 20 superdistricts, between two and seven for each.

The goal is to bring British Columbia closer to proportional representation, a mythical utopia where the number of seats awarded to each party is consistent with the distribution of the popular vote.

Why I don’t like proportional representation

I’ve never been much of a fan of proportional representation. Not because I don’t believe small parties should have a voice, but because it assumes that legislators are mindless automatons who blindly follow party doctrine. Many such systems literally involve party lists, so that the party decides on its own legislators, who may or may not represent local interests.

It might make sense to some, especially with the way politics work these days, that this is the way it should be. Since most representatives are party loyalist automatons, and party switches so rare, why not recognize that in law?

The problem is that this ignores the very point of our current democratic system, that legislators are elected by communities to represent their interests. And if you go that far, why not take it to its logical conclusion – why have legislators at all? Just put the party leaders in a room and assign weights to their votes.

Why I like BC-STV

British Columbia’s proposal avoids the problems I outline above with proportional representation by continuing to have local districts, and continuing to have electors vote for candidates directly. The only annoying thing is that with multiple seats you have multiple candidates per party (competing even against each other, some might argue), and that means if you live in an urban district you might see a list of dozens of candidates instead of just a half dozen or so.

The main argument against STV is that it’s complicated, which is kind of an insulting argument, I think. Besides, it’s only complicated to count. It’s not complicated to rank candidates when you’re voting.

Other arguments have been made against proportional representation in general that also apply to BC’s STV proposal, mostly along the same theme:

  • It encourages small extremist parties
  • It makes majority governments almost impossible to create
  • It results in unstable coalition governments

Of course, the entire point of proportional representation is to give a voice to small parties, and I like the idea of minority, coalition governments. Sure, they’re not as disciplined financially, and will tend to do what’s popular more often than what’s right, but is that really so different than what we’re used to in politics? I’d rather have the checks and balances even if it means having too many cooks in the budget’s kitchen.

Besides, if you get Judy Rebick and Deborah Grey to agree to something, it must be good.

If it passes, other governments should study the outcome and consider whether they too should have a similar system.

3 thoughts on “Is B.C. the future?

  1. newironshapes

    BC and Ontario ruined their perfectly decent electoral reforms by throwing in pointless multi-member districts and “regions” which just made everything more complicated and difficult to explain and, to the man on the street, making reform seem like a needless complication of things, bound to cheat him of something, somehow…

    I think STV / MPR are worthy options to explore but I would have voted against them too because of the “regions” business in the Ontario reform, for example.

  2. DAVE ID

    Just that the proponents of this change are the ones who are mostly on the losing end of elections and want to change the system to get themselves elected, I’d be worried. Without even analyzing their proposed system.

  3. Isaac Lin

    Single Transferable Vote has the failing of only counting the alternate preferences of those whose higher choices were dropped, rather than trying to take into account everyone’s list of prioritized choices. A Condorcet method voting system like that used in Australia looks at everyone’s ordered list of choices, resulting in selecting the choice that everyone prefers to every other option, or the one that comes the closest. It is of course an even more complicated system than Single Transferable Vote. For better or worse, complexity is a concern, because the electorate must have faith in the fairness of the voting system. In my experience, it’s hard to even get people to agree on what should be considered to be fair. (Those who have studied the matter have established very reasonable criteria for fairness, but as with most things mathematical, a certain aptitude for abstract reasoning is needed.)


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