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Was the STV referendum set up to fail?

By Stuart Hertzog
May 22nd, 2009

Complex voting system and huge electoral areas sealed its fate

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victoria, bc — Although it missed its 60% majority goal by a hair’s-breadth in 2005, and despite the provincial government handing out $500,000 each to the ‘Yes!’ and ‘No’ camps to spend as they wished, the 2009 BC referendum on proportional representation went down in flames.

Only 38.74% of valid votes were cast in favour of BC-STV, missing the mandated threshold of 60% by a country mile. Just seven of British Columbia’s 85 electoral districts cast 50%+ of the valid votes in favour, when at least 51 50%+ electoral districts were needed for it to pass.

BC-STV almost made it in 2005 (big PDF) when it received 57.69% of the 1,749,339 total valid votes cast. 77 of the 79 areas topped the 50%+ support threshold. The 2005 STV referendum failed by only 40,454 votes—a mere 3.85% of the total.

Even Yes-Man couldn’t save them

The magnitude of this year’s rejection of BC-STV is somewhat staggering. With almost $750,000 spent on 14,000 lawn signs and buttons, using radio and TV advertising, a web site that received over 100,000 views, dedicated speakers, and 5,000 volunteers, the ‘Yes!’ side attracted only 583,494 (38.74%) of the 1,506,040 eligible votes, compared to the ‘No’ side’s 922,546 votes (61.26%).

Why the enormous drop in voter support? What went wrong for BC-STV?

It’s easy to be critical after a loss. Any campaign, however well-financed and professionally run, can still go down to defeat. Certainly Fair Voting BC, which headed the BC-STV campaign, introduced its share of hubris, as campaign organiser Dan Grice reveals in exhausting but honest detail on his blog.

Grice points to the constant fight over slogans caused by the over-control of messaging by the Fair Voting BC board of directors as being responsible for too many missed deadlines. An unwise decision not to use print media or produce a printed information package meant that many people had no way of learning how STV worked, or even what the 2009 referendum was about.

“If there is one lesson to learn from internal organisation, I suggest that any future campaign avoid death by committee,” Grice concludes sadly.

Handicapped by complexity

Leaving aside the inevitable self-important idiocy that passes for intelligence in any strongly-opinionated group, the Fair Vote campaign was handicapped by the sheer complexity of the task of explaining how the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) system works. They created this simplistic video to do the job:

The problem was not just that computer illiterate voters had no way of seeing this information, as Grice suggests. Those that could began to realise that STV broke the link between a vote and the value of that vote to a candidate. There was no way of knowing where each fraction of a vote ranking went in the final calculation, a fact gleefully seized upon and exploited by the ‘No’ side.

“If (your first choice) vote (is) for the absolute loser, your second choice will probably get counted, and if you vote for the first winner, (only) a portion of your second choice will get counted,” wrote ‘No’ campaign’s David Schreck in Reject BC-STV, a November 2008 article on his web site Strategic Thoughts.

“It’s no wonder that supporters of STV want to talk about how votes are cast but not how votes are counted,” Schreck gleefully pointed out.

Flawed referendum process

It wasn’t that the ‘Yes!’ side had any choice in the matter. STV was nominated in 2004 by the Citizens Assembly as the proportional representation (PR) system British Columbians had to accept or reject, willy-nilly, even though it has been used consistently only in Ireland, Malta, the Australian Senate and Tasmania, according to the ‘No’ side often with very mixed results.

Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), another form of proportional representation, was considered by the Citizens Assembly. I understand that MMP was the overwhelming recommendation of those people who presented their views to the Assembly, but the majority of the 159 members favoured STV.

“We looked at it for the entire last weekend,” Assembly alumni Wendy Bergerud told me after one of her many pro-STV talks. “But we rejected it in terms of the choice it gave to voters. STV offered more choice, and we wanted that.”

But the primary process problem wasn’t the choice of STV over MMP. It was the fact that the BC government mandated that the system recommended by the Citizens Assembly would be the only one offered to the province’s voters. Instead of the referendum question being whether British Columbians wanted some form of proportional representation or keep the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system, as happened in New Zealand, it was: “Take STV, or keep FPTP.”

Ostensibly given the power to chose, BC voters in effect were being subtly democratically hobbled. The Citizens Assembly was turned into a $5.5 million focus group that the politicians could hide behind. With just a little manipulation, the Assembly could be pushed into recommending an unpalatable PR system.

Can anyone say, “Tilt?” Or am I being just a wee bit cynical? (See new information in the sidebar added below)

Gargantuan electoral areas

One thing in all this is clear: BC’s political élite doesn’t want proportional representation. Both the Liberals and the NDP like the present system and believe that they can make it can work for them. The 2005 referendum came within a hair’s-breadth of passing. Something had to be done to stop STV.

The show-stopper was delivered, perhaps unwittingly, by the BC Electoral Boundaries Commission, set up in 2005 to redraw BC’s electoral regions. This exercise takes place from time to time as the population changes.

This time, the Commission was ordered to prepare two maps: one for the existing single-member plurality (SMP) system and another for BC-STV. The resulting Preliminary Report, delivered August 15, 2007 alarmed both the NDP and the Liberals. It added four new Lower Mainland constituencies to reflect the increasing urban population, at the expense of rural representation.

The resulting rural rage forced the government to allow the Commission to increase the total number of seats to 87, which enabled it to add in its Amendments the three new electoral districts it had removed in the North, Cariboo-Thompson and Columbia-Kootenay regions.

Proposed boundaries under STV

The proposed new electoral map gave people their first glimpse of how the province would be carved up politically under proportional representation. It was a shocker: 20 electoral regions, some huge, covering vast regions larger than many European countries, some stretching over the Georgia Strait. The Capital Region electoral district around Victoria would be represented by the most MLAs, with no less than seven to be elected from a possibly huge list.

It quickly became obvious that the claims that STV would deliver a more balanced result and would allow independent candidates and small parties to be represented in the legislature, were hollow. How could a small party or an independent afford the huge expense of campaigning in these gigantic areas?

“In a system that combines from two to seven current ridings into large multiple-MLA regions, the costs of campaigning for MLA would exceed the million dollar plus cost of running to be mayor of Vancouver,” wrote Schreck.

Is BC electoral reform dead?

More than anything else, the sheer size of the new electoral regions and the illogical areas they covered, killed BC-STV stone dead. This bird would never fly. The rural/urban balance still rankled rural voters, and the preliminary results show that BC-STV won more than 50% support only among the better-informed, Internet-conected, inner-city voters of Vancouver and Victoria.

So what now? Is electoral reform dead for ever in BC, and perhaps in Canada? With a mailing list of 5,000 frustrated volunteers, Fair Voting BC may be tempted to lie low and lick its wounds for a while, then come back to worry the bones of what increasingly is looking like a stale and unpopular political system.

Although it cannot be proved that BC-STV failed by design, not even the ‘No‘ side won this referendum. With a participation rate of only 52.54%, the absolute winner in 2009, at an overwhelming 57.46%, was Political Apathy.

We desperately need a democratic system that everyone can support.

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Where they pushed or did they jump?

[Added May 25, 2009]

According to long-time BC environmentalist Paul George, who observed the entire process, a concerted effort was made by Assembly chair Dr. Jack Blaney and director of research Dr. Kenneth Carty to steer Assembly members away from MMP towards STV. George’s wife, Green Party of Canada deputy leader Adriane Carr, is strongly in favour of MMP. According to some reports, Carr had to be dissuaded from opposing the STV referendum this year.

“”Every time MMP came up, these guys shut it down,” Paul George told me. “It was a done deal from the start that the final choice was going to be STV, and they made sure that it happened. I was disgusted with what went on.” However, Kenneth Carty claims to have been surprised by the contrast between the public support for MMP and the Assembly’s choice of STV. In a June, 2006 paper The Shifting Place of Political Parties in Canadian Public Life he wrote that:

“Many anticipated that (the group’s conclusion) would be some form of mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system… recently adopted in New Zealand, Scotland and Wales and enthusiastically endorsed by the Law Commission of Canada. And while the Assembly carefully considered an MMP system, it ultimately opted (by 4:1) to recommend the far less well-known single transferable vote (STV) electoral system, whereby people can rank their choices among candidates and parties. Few countries use STV to elect their national legislatures, and it is worth reflecting on why these citizens ultimately chose it, by 20:1, over our current, familiar single member plurality system.”

Why, indeed. Was it pushed, or did the Assembly turn away from MMP due to the fact that the BC government initially refused to allow any increase in the number of seats in the legislature, as ‘No’ proponent Bill Tieleman points out in his comments? (See below) Because of this, the two academics could inform the Assembly that choosing MMP would mean that the new electoral areas would have to be huge.

“MMP was DOA thanks to that restriction,” Tieleman concludes.

That MMP could not be made to work in BC when many European countries about the size of BC in population happily use it, is puzzling. Interestingly, Tieleman also comments here that many of the ‘No’ side members support MMP. Could there be a future for proportional representation to return as a BC-MMP referendum question?


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