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Craig McInnes, The Vancouver Sun
11th November, 2004 : Vancouver (Internal)
STV: What it does means more than how it works
The Vancouver Sun , 11 November 2004
VICTORIA - Voting day is still more than six months away, but the debate over whether to change the way we elect our provincial government has already started down a path that will most likely lead back to the status quo.
Like vultures worrying apart a still-warm carcass, critics have torn strips off the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform for the complexity of the new system being recommended.
They have succeeded in focusing attention on the more difficult question of how a new system would work and away from the more important issue of what it will do.
The citizens' assembly took the opposite approach in coming to the conclusion that it's time to change our voting system.
Its first question was essentially "what do we want to achieve?" That led logically to "how can we achieve what we want?"
Not surprisingly, it was easier to state the goal simply than it was to come up with a simple solution that will work in our complex province.
The assembly's members were trying to apply the basic principles of democracy in a setting that could not have been imagined in the place of their birth.
It was much easier in ancient Greece, where the citizens were also the government, except of course for slaves and women, who did not count. All Greek citizens had the right to sit in assembly and vote on the issue of the day.
We now elect representatives to act on our behalf. The trick is to have a voting system that enables everyone who votes some measure of confidence that the legislature they elect actually represents their interests.
That did not happen in 2001, when just 58 per cent of voters got to pick all but two of the 79 members of the legislature.
It did not happen in 1996, when the party with fewer supporters formed a majority government while the party that got more votes sat in Opposition.
The citizens' assembly has recommended a system it believes can make our government more representative of the voters, called the single transferable vote system or STV.
Before we vote in May on whether to adopt the system, British Columbians will rightly want to know how it works and what it does.
On one level, STV is simple. Voters get to make more than one choice when they mark their ballots. For people who are satisfied that they know how a car works because they can make it stop, go and turn corners, that explanation will probably suffice.
For those who want to know what's under the hood, the "how it works" part of STV is a little more complicated, although it is not as incomprehensible as critics make it sound.
Put simply, voters make more than one choice, so that if their favourite fails to get elected, their second choice kicks in and, if necessary, their third.
If you want to see a graphic illustration of STV, there is a good website showing how the multiple vote counts work in Ireland, where an STV system has been used for 90 years -- www.election.polarbears.com/online/da2002.htm
But any voting system, including the system we have now, is nothing more than a tool, a means to an end. We should be paying more attention to the job that tool is designed to do than to how it works.
What STV does is deliver a legislature in which minority parties can play a role commensurate with their popular support while at the same time allowing B.C.'s sparsely populated regions to have local representation.
STV will make life more difficult for the large political parties as it becomes easier for splinter groups to elect candidates. Experience elsewhere suggests it is likely that the Liberals and New Democrats will lose members to smaller, more focused parties like the Greens and perhaps labour or social conservatives.
STV will give voters more real choice but it will also mean minority or coalition rather than majority governments.
That's the real choice we face. Ultimately, it's a decision about the kind of government we want, not the mechanism we use to get there.
[© Copyright 2004, The Vancouver Sun . Reproduced here by permission of The Vancouver Sun.]