Tuesday, March 24, 2009

BC-STV: It Depends Where You Live

One of the more perplexing things about BC-STV, the proposed electoral system on the ballot in the upcoming BC provincial election, is that it changes depending on where you live. Most people in the province would find themselves in an electoral district represented by four or five members. However, there is significant deviation from this median. For instance, the BC Electoral Boundaries Commission or BC-EBC (starting to look like alphabet soup?) has proposed that in order to avoid an overly large electoral district in Northern British Columbia that the districts for Northeast and Northwest BC be limited to just two members. The people of Victoria and environs will have, by contrast, seven representatives. What is the difference? Quite a bit actually.

First of all, it severely limits the chance that anyone except for the Liberals and NDP would get elected in these electoral districts. Why? Because in order to get elected in the new Northern electoral district of Peace River you would require 1/3 of the vote plus 1. By contrast in Victoria you would only require 1/8 of the vote plus one. With a high threshold, the riding will be a difficult target for smaller parties. If the Greens were polling at 15% province wide, they would be wise not to waster their time in the north. The high threshold in these two member ridings would threaten to lock the ridings into a permanent state of 1 NDP MLA and one Liberal MLA with neither party able to get the requisite 2/3 of the vote to dislodge the opposing member. This predictable scenario could lead to the ultimate disaster for the people of Northern British Columbia: politicians stop having to listen to their concerns. If you are a strategist designing a platform for either major party you would be unlikely to put anything in to court northern voters, as there is no plausible reward and a high chance that there would be no punishment for the omission. The only competition would be within the party to determine which candidate gets on the ballot.

More technically, a vote is counted differently depending on how many members need to be elected. The transfering of votes which is the hallmark of STV happens more often depending on the number of candidates and the number of seats available. If there's only two seats, which in turn would drive down the number of major party candidates on the ballot (assuming the parties are strategic in the number of candidates they run in each district: a fairly safe assumption), thus inevitably driving down the number of transfers. Advocates of STV view the transfers as a way of understanding voter intent on a deeper level. If you don't have as many transfers, you have a more shallow interpretation of voter intent.

Canadian geography is always going to be an argument against a system which elects multiple members per electoral district. In the case of BC-STV, as currently proposed, the lack of density in Northern British Columbia would fundamentally make the electoral system different in the North than in the more populous south. The question is whether or not British Columbians are comfortable having different electoral systems depending on where they live.


Matt Guerin said...

Under our current Winner Take All system, the "problem" you identify actually happens in the vast majority of ridings already, not just those in the north. In the BC-STV map, officials decided that ensuring practical local representation in a district not too large trumped the need to ensure more proportional results. Based on BC's geography, this was inevitable. So while a district with 7 members is going to see those elected roughly in proportion to first vote intentions, those in more remote areas will see less proportional results, but still have more than one MLA to turn to.

Under the current system, most ridings are considered one-party strongholds and thus opposing parties rarely put in much effort. In Peace River areas of BC for example, the NDP need not even try, based on voting history. In east Vancouver, the Liberals might as well not try. Of the 85 ridings up for grabs under the current system, only about 30-40 are truly in contention and they decide who governs the province. Voters in the other ridings might as well not show up.

Under BC-STV, while the results in some larger, fewer-member districts may not be much more proportional, overall the results across the province will be much more so. And that is a vast improvement over the current system which almost never produces a legislature that reflects how voters actually voted.

Anonymous said...

Matt is exactly right, there is no accountability in the North. Peace river has always voted to the right of the spectrum.

What you miss though is the power of an independent in the North.

When vote splitting is gone, look for some popular independents to come in on the right and offer real competition to these areas. This is what we see in Ireland in their rural 2 seat riding. Also, unless the major parties consent to run only one candidate each, their will be internal competition.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, 3 seat in ireland.

Wayne Smith said...

Well yes, proportionality is limited when you elect only two or three candidates in a riding. But not as much as when you elect only one!

There is no perfect voting system, but whatever its shortcomings, any proportional voting system is vastly better than what we have now.

Frédéric Van Caenegem said...

Hi Aaron!

What you illustrate is actually the flexibility of the BC-STV system. True, the ridings in the North of the province will have less MLA's and have less "proportionality" than Victoria for example. This decision came from the Electoral Boundaries Commission (http://www.bc-ebc.ca/). After listening to the people of BC, they realized that in the North of the province, people didn't like the idea of huge ridings. Therefore they made the ridings "smaller" in the North.

And in case the Commission was wrong, not a big problem. BC-STV can be adapted and the ridings could be merged together in the future if it's what the people want.

Miles Lunn said...

It is true in the North they will be less proportional, although I think another problem you could get is how many candidates a party decides to run. For both the BC Liberals and BC NDP, they might only run one candidate or two in areas they are weak in as this would greatly increase their chances of getting a seat there rather than running a full slate. For example, Richmond has three seats and all are safely BC Liberals. However, if the NDP ran only one candidate, they could conceivably win one seat there.

My opposition to STV is it is too complicated for your average voter. A voter should know how their vote will be counted and its effect.

Wayne Smith said...

"My opposition to STV is it is too complicated for your average voter."

The argument here appears to be that BC voters are too stupid to deal with a fair voting system, so therefore they must stick with an unfair one.

I'm afraid this argument is too complicated for me to follow.

Miles Lunn said...

Wayne Smith - They are other forms of proportional representation that are easier to understand i.e. MMP. Besides first past the post in my view is a very good system. It means stability which means government can make the tough decisions without having to cut some backroom deal with another party and then once their term is up voters will judge. It means better local representation and in a province as large as BC, this matters especially in rural areas. It keeps fringe parties (i.e. the far left and far right) out of the legislature whereas in most European countries you have communist parties and fascist parties with representation in parliament as well as single issue parties. Instead a successful party must appeal to a wide variety of voters and take positions on several issues. In addition, this idea that some votes are wasted is nonsense. Every vote is counted even if your candidate doesn't get elected and the reality is you cannot ever please everyone. If one is concerned about vote splitting, I would suggest adopting IRV like Australia has which at least ensures every candidate is supported by the majority of their constituents.

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