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Bill Tieleman, Georgia Straight

2nd December, 2004 : Vancouver (Internal)
STV Shenanigans Confusing

Georgia Straight , 02 December 2004

» In British Columbia, which is a couple of years ahead of Ontario on this issue, a citizens' assembly has just recommended a whacko system called the "single transferable vote".  — Ian Urquhart, political columnist, Toronto Star

TORONTO--Once again, British Columbia has become the butt of national jokes, this time thanks to our Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform's decision to ask voters to change our current first-past-the-post electoral system to the single transferable vote.

On November 18, Ontario Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty announced that the province would follow B.C.'s lead and appoint its own citizens' assembly to review its electoral system and recommend possible changes.

That announcement has focused Ontario's attention on the B.C. STV proposal, and the results are not positive for British Columbia's long-suffering reputation.

Immediately after attending McGuinty's announcement, I witnessed the following exchange: one of a group of reporters asked University of Toronto political scientist Graham White, "Hasn't the B.C. experience been a bit of a fiasco?"

"Not necessarily," White replied. "But B.C. is B.C." At this remark, White and the entire group of reporters and observers guffawed with great gusto.

Yes, Ontario, B.C. is indeed B.C., and STV is confirming the national opinion that we are a little, well, eccentric out here on the Left Coast.

But having watched proponents of the single transferable vote make their case in recent weeks, it is hard to argue that we don't easily earn our bad reputation.

To hear some STV supporters tell it, this new electoral system will cure more ills than were ever claimed by snake-oil salesmen in the old Wild West. Unfortunately, their information is also about as accurate.

For example, Ryan Fugger writes in a letter to this paper published on November 18: "Only once in Ireland's long history with STV has a party gotten more than three percent of the overall vote and failed to win a seat."

But another letter writer, Daniel Grice, says: "Candidates in a five-seat riding as proposed in Vancouver will need 16 percent support to be automatically elected. This makes it easier for community leaders with widespread popularity to get in, while raising the bar enough to limit harmful fringe parties with only three percent popular support." So, does STV keep fringe parties out or count them in?

Grice also claims: "Bill Tieleman misleads his readers by stating that STV is used in chaotic Northern Ireland, when it's the southern stable Republic of Ireland that has used it for nearly a century." Actually, both use STV.

Even some Citizens' Assembly members who recommended STV are clearly confused about its effect.

In a response to my recent column on STV posted on the Citizens' Assembly Web site, CA members Shoni Field, Vancouver-Hastings, and David Wills, VancouverPoint Grey, argue that STV favours independent candidates.

"PR-STV is one of the easiest systems for independent candidates to get elected. In the last Irish election, thirteen of the 166 seats were filled by independents," Field and Wills wrote.

But by focusing on Ireland and ignoring other STV jurisdictions, the Citizens' Assembly may be misleading the public. In fact, studies of Malta's use of STV since 1921 disprove many of the assembly's claims, including the assertion that independents prosper under STV.

"Of the 3,082 candidates standing in elections from 1921 to 1996, only 59 (1.9%) have been independents and only three were ever elected, the last of them in 1950," wrote Wolfgang P. Hirczy de Miño and John C. Lane in an article titled "STV in Malta: Some Surprises", published in Representation (winter, 199697).

Other claims about STV's advantages are equally suspect. "Small third, fourth, and even fifth parties stand a good chance of finally being represented in B.C. under STV," writes math instructor Fugger.

The Maltese facts indicate otherwise. "Over the years, Malta has moved from a multi-party to a two-party system. In the 1950s and 1960s a number of smaller parties secured a substantial number of votes and some seats in the legislature. None of them lasted for more than a few years. Since 1971 the two major parties--the Nationalists (NP) and the Labour Party (MLP)--have dominated the electoral arena with no serious competition from any other party," Hirczy de Miño and Lane wrote.

"Even though the electoral system permits it, Maltese voters rarely split their voting preferences among candidates of different parties. In 1996 only about one per cent of the votes for the major parties were transferred to a candidate of the rival party," they continued.

Lastly, Field and Wills say STV provides proportional representation. "Tieleman says that those who want proportionality are out of luck. Not true. Any reasonably careful examination of PR-STV will show that it produces proportional results," they state.

STV in Ireland is not the only example. Hirczy de Miño and Lane wrote: "It is striking that Malta falls short on proportionality and representational diversity in the legislature, both of which are counted among the strengths of PR systems."

Assembly members Field and Wills pose this question: "Does Tieleman measure a system's success by politicians' contentment? We use a different measure: voter satisfaction."

In fact, I measure a system's success by the results. The evidence to date shows that STV does not necessarily solve any of the "problems" identified by the Citizens' Assembly in its poorly considered call for a new electoral system.

What it does show is that British Columbians are being given very selective information by STV proponents, and that STV is a very dubious proposition indeed.

Bill Tieleman is president of West Star Communications and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio's Early Edition. E-mail him at

[© Copyright 2004, Georgia Straight and Bill Tieleman. Reproduced here with their permission.]
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