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16th November, 2004 : Vancouver (Internal)
Electoral system named
Members of BC's Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform met November 13-14 to refine details of their recommended electoral system. They also gave a name to this system: BC-STV, short for British Columbia Single Transferable Vote.
Under the BC-STV system, voters rank candidates by numbers on the ballot paper. BC-STV is designed to make every vote count and to reflect voters' support for candidates and parties as fairly as possible.
Now it's up to the voters of BC, who will cast ballots on BC-STV in a referendum in the next provincial election, on May 17, 2005.
On Sunday, Assembly members also prepared a draft question which they propose for the referendum: "Do you agree that British Columbia should change to the BC-STV electoral system as recommended by the Citizens' Assembly in its final report? Yes/No."
The provincial government says that if voters approve the BC-STV model in May, it will introduce legislation so the new system of translating votes into seats in the legislature could go into effect for the provincial election of May 2009.
The Assembly meets again November 27-28 to finish work on the report and to wrap up its work. Then the Assembly disbands, and the office begins to close.
The Citizens’ Assembly is an independent, representative, non-partisan group of 160 randomly selected British Columbians, including chair Jack Blaney. Details of its work and the BC-STV system are at www.citizensassembly.bc.ca
BC-STV was custom-built by members to meet the needs of BC and to address three over-riding values: local representation, voter choice, and increased proportionality – the concept that each party’s share of seats in the legislature should reflect its share of the popular vote.
BC-STV is fair. Each party’s share of seats in the legislature reflects its share of voter support. This proportionality means voters’ views are fairly represented.
BC-STV is easy to use and gives voters more choice. Voters rank candidates in the order of their preference (1, 2, 3, etc) – picking and choosing between candidates from the same party or from several different parties, including independents. Candidates are elected based on voters’ choices.
BC-STV gives more power to voters. Voters can select and rank candidates from any or all parties – including independents. Voters decide which candidates from any one party are elected, so all candidates must work hard to earn voter support. This ensures effective local representation.
What would change?
While voters would see some changes under BC-STV, other things would stay the same. There would still be 79 MLAs in the legislature, each elected by a riding to represent constituents. The number of MLAs from each region would stay the same; voters would still have the same level of representation.
The changes, while subtle, could have significant effect on BC politics. Voters using BC-STV would see three major changes from the current system:
1) Instead of writing on the ballot a single "X" for a single candidate as now, the voter would be able to rank candidates (#1, #2, #3, #4, etc.) according to the voter’s personal preferences.
The voter would be able to mark preferences for as many or as few candidates as the voter wishes. The voter thus can rank candidates of more than one party, all of the same party, and/or independents and minorities.
2) BC’s constituencies would no longer be single-MLA ridings. Existing ridings would be combined so that each new riding would elect more than one MLA. (In the past, even under our current electoral system, BC has had some ridings with more than one MLA.)
The Assembly’s model would allow the size of ridings and the number of MLAs elected in each riding to vary across the province to reflect local and regional conditions. In sparsely populated areas, ridings could have as few as two MLAs and, in denser urban ridings as many as five, six or even seven MLAs.
Ridings with two MLAs, such as those anticipated in northern BC under BC-STV, would still be smaller than federal electoral districts.
3) Elections would be less likely to produce majority governments. Advocates of majority governments say they are necessary because they can act quickly and decisively. Others, however, point to the many successful democracies in the world that regularly have minority or coalition governments, saying minority and coalition governments can result in a more collaborative approach to governance.
Single Transferable Vote (STV) systems in various formats are used in Ireland, Malta and Australia and a number of municipalities. Ireland has had STV for over 80 years. Despite attempts by government to kill STV, the Irish have repeatedly voted to keep it.
Complexity vs making votes count
While BC-STV has been greeted with positive reviews, some critics have focused on STV’s “complexity”. Although BC-STV is straightforward for voters – the Irish have managed just fine for decades – it is more complex for those who count the ballots – Elections BC.
The trade-off is that BC-STV’s counting process is designed to maximize the number of votes that contribute to electing candidates – those candidates the voters support. Making that happen requires a bit of math for Elections BC – and a new way of thinking about how to make votes count.
Often under our current winner-take-all system more than 50% of the ballots cast province-wide do not contribute to electing an MLA. Also, under our current system, voters often cast their ballot “strategically” – choosing to vote for a candidate with a better chance of winning, rather than voting for their favourite candidate.
Under BC-STV, voters can confidently mark their favourite candidate #1, knowing that, when the first preferences are counted, if their first choice doesn’t have enough support to be elected, their ballot will be transferred to their next ranked candidate.
So, even if a voter gives his/her #1 ranking to an unpopular candidate with no chance of being elected, that voter’s ballot can still contribute to electing someone that the voter supports – the #2 or #3 ranked candidate on his/her ballot. In every round of counting, when the least popular candidate is eliminated, that candidate’s ballots are redistributed to the next ranked candidate that is marked on each ballot.
BC-STV has another interesting feature: that is how it handles “surplus” ballots cast for winning candidates. For example, if candidates only need 10,000 first-choice ballots to be elected in a riding, but a popular candidate actually gets 20,000, it could be said that ½ of each of that candidate’s ballots was unneeded, unused – even wasted.
Again, BC-STV works to make sure every ballot counts fully and fairly, so it addresses the “wasted” portion of each ballot by allowing that unused portion to be transferred to the second ranked candidate that is marked on the ballot.
Final report of the Assembly
Members also began to work on their final report to the people of B.C. The report must be delivered no later than December 15.
The summary final report will be a 16-page document that examines both the current electoral system (often known as First Past the Post) and BC-STV. It will explain why the Assembly has recommended BC-STV.
You can request that a copy be sent to you by going to our website, www.citizensassembly.bc.ca, or by calling 1-866-667-1232.
The Assembly members’ final meeting will be November 27-28. Assembly meetings are held at the Wosk Centre for Dialogue, 580 West Hastings St., Vancouver. All plenary sessions are open to the public. Saturday meetings usually run from 8:30am to 5pm with breaks. Sunday sessions are usually held from 8:30am to 12:30pm.
Where to get more information
Information on BC-STV can be found on the Assembly’s website www.citizensassembly.bc.ca. Additional resources are being developed and will be available shortly. In addition, you can obtain information – such as fact sheets – from the Assembly’s office. Just call us at 1-866-667-1232.
Knowledge Network documentary
Knowledge Network has been closely following the work of the Assembly from the start. In January, it will air a one-hour documentary on the Assembly. The first scheduled broadcast is slated for: January 27, 2005 at 9pm. Subsequent broadcasts are planned as well.
Hansard TV is broadcasting Assembly plenary sessions. These broadcasts will take place on Saturdays and Sundays, starting at 9am. This is the remaining schedule:
• On Saturday November 20 and Sunday November 21, our November 13-14 sessions will be broadcast.
• On Saturday December 4 and Sunday December 5, the Assembly’s November 27-28 sessions will air.
• Future broadcast dates are also being considered.