Monday, February 09, 2009

STV Debate: Some Basics

The debate over electoral systems is an interesting one. It is also a frustrating debate to engage in, principally because of some logical leaps made by proponents of various forms of change. I believe I've made this argument before, but it bears repeating. When discussing an electoral system it is useful to measure it on what it promises to do and the reasons for its introduction. In the case of First Past The Post, the system is designed to provide a means of finding the most popular candidate in a given area to represent those people in a legislature. That's it. Parties and national vote totals are not a consideration. So when people complain about the popular vote not being reflected in parliament or in a provincial legislature, there's a good reason for that: the popular vote is not a determinant in electing MP's or MPP's or MLA's as the case may be. In fact, the province-wide or national popular vote is as relevant as voter turnout in determining the shape of the legislature. FPTP is a system of bringing people from various areas together in a congress (if you'll excuse the term) to make decisions. In Canada, this was a salient system in a country blessed with great amounts of land and few people. That's why we have FPTP in Canada. It is organic. Usually, electoral systems are devised with a certain goal in mind based on the existing political system. Generally, they are introduced to fix some problem.

In BC, the problem that the Campbell government originally wanted fixed was the lopsided 2001 provincial election where the government won a overwhelming majority, leaving little in the way of an opposition. Also, the 1996 election where the NDP retained power in spite of garnering fewer votes than the Liberal opposition. If that is the problem that needs fixing, the obvious answer is some system where there is province-wide proportionality guaranteed to political parties namely the Liberals, NDP and Greens. As I understand it, the Citizens' Assembly in BC rejected PR systems like the one recently defeated in Ontario and PEI because they disliked with the idea of party lists. Instead they proposed STV. The only problem is that STV doesn't remedy the problem that was at the crux of the matter. STV is designed to provide a voice to minorities (e.g. Protestants in Ireland). Thus, while it is nearly impossible to generate the results seen in the 2001 election under STV, there is no guarantee of proportionality. Furthermore, the 1996 BC Election which got Premier Campbell on the electoral reform path in the first place, could easily happen under STV. I'd argue it's not even that much less likely to happen under STV than FPTP. If the goal was to eliminate the possibility of a repeat of the 1996 BC Election, this is not the system to fulfill that goal. This is the problem with STV that I've never heard explained away. If BCers want an electoral system which will ensure that party preference is reflected in the legislature, they should reject STV and look at PR. If the idea of a party list is as repulsive to them as it was to voters in Ontario and PEI, than they should stick with the system they have.


scott451 said...

All electoral systems are proportional to greater or lesser degrees. As you point out STV is more proportional than FPTP.

But why would choose to keep a completely disproportional system because its replacement isn't proportional enough. Voters in BC will be given a choice between two systems. One will be more proportional than the other.

There are a few MMP proponents who claim that rejecting STV is necessary to leave the field clear for MMP but these people have no designed system or time line for implementation.

I recommend that proponents of PR vote yes to STV and then work to change the system after its implementation. If STV is defeated in May it may be the end of our chances for PR for years to come.

Antony Hodgson said...

Aaron - FPTP does not elect the most popular or most broadly supported candidate - for that, you need a preferential ballot and a counting method like Condorcet voting or instant runoff voting (like Australia uses).

Even if we agreed that this was what FPTP was supposed to do and what it does do (both of which I dispute), our representatives don't act as independent local representatives. Rather, they are party property. Voters use party affiliation to guide their votes, and they understand that the right to govern is given (by convention) to the party that wins the most seats and MLAs/MPs vote in line with what their party leader tells them. We most emphatically do not hold a series of votes in parliament after election to determine who will enter into cabinet and who will be prime minister or premier, nor does parliament function as a congress - rather, the prime minister controls cabinet and relies on the government to implement his policies without engaging in significant and meaningful debate in the legislature.

Since parties are so central to the functioning of our legislatures, it's perfectly understandable that voters expect our legislature to reflect party preferences. The fact that our current voting system doesn't produce this outcome is therefore a valid and powerful critique given the way parties act after being elected.

STV would largely fix the problems you describe. There is no way that the 2001 result would recur under STV, nor would the 1996 result, since the NDP won 53% of the seats on 39% of the vote. Under STV, the expected outcome in 1996 would have been about 39%(+~4%) of the seats to the NDP, 42%(+~4%) of the seats to the Liberals, and the remainder to other smaller parties and independents (~10%). You almost certainly would not have seen either the NDP or the Liberals win an outright majority.

Your conclusion commits the fallacy of the false dilemma. Our choice is not between PR and our current system. STV offers very reasonable correspondence between vote percentage and seat percentage because each seat is awarded when a candidate wins a certain number of votes (about 17,000 on average across BC - more in urban ridings, less in rural ridings, as the EBC sees fit). For every set of votes, a party wins a seat. STV offers other advantages through its focus on candidates, so voters can make more nuanced and sophisticated choices. If BC voters "want an electoral system which will ensure that party preference is reflected in the legislature", they should support STV. Rejecting it in favour of some mythical 'better' PR system for which there is no reasonable route to adoption would be fruitless, especially since the Liberals have never expressed any interest in any other reforms, the CA rejected MMP 80:20, and MMP has failed spectacularly in two previous and recent Canadian referendums.

Frédéric Van Caenegem said...


Interesting article and good analysis. Yet, I believe you made one mistake that is crucial.

It is true that, as you say: "there is no guarantee of proportionality" in BC-STV, but there is an EXTREMELY HIGH PROBABILITY OF PROPORTIONALITY in STV, contrary to FPTP whose purpose, as you mentioned, is not proportionality at all.

Absolute certitudes are just not of this world. STV serves the purpose of PR (Proportional Representation) while limiting Party diktat that would come from Party lists systems that electors rejected in both Ontario and PEI.


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