Sunday, April 19, 2009

A More Comprehensive Argument Against BC-STV

My last post on BC-STV was criticized as being a minor issue not worthy of consideration. I realized that while I have commented extensively on the topic, I haven't really put my thoughts together clearly. So here's an attempt. As I argued in this post the problem identified by Gordon Campbell, first as leader of the opposition and then as Premier, is not solved by this electoral system. That's important. It's important not because I think British Columbians should only act within the framework of Mr. Campbell's thinking, but because in order to change something as fundamental to democracy as the method of election, you should have a reason. The burden of proof is always going to be, no matter what the issue, on those advocating change. The first question you have to ask of anyone promoting a new electoral system is what do you seek to accomplish with this change? What's wrong with the current system? How does your proposed system fix those problems? Let's go to the source here for the problems and solutions. First the problems as identified by the pro-STV folks. I'll abbreviate the arguments because this post is going to be ridiculously long as is, the link is above if you want to hold me to account.
  1. Governments can receive fewer votes than the opposition
  2. Lack of regional representation in Cabinet
  3. Majority governments are tyrannical
  4. Safe seats are an offense to democracy
  5. The ills of modern democracy
Here's what they say BC-STV does for the province:
  1. It's new and tailor made
  2. Quasi-PR makes government work for the people
  3. No More Safe Seats!
  4. More diversity in the legislature
  5. Irish people prefer it to FPTP
Okay, that's the argument being presented to British Columbians. Does it hold water? Almost without exception, no. Let's do this one by one.
  • Under BC-STV can a party win fewer votes than the opposition and still win government? Yes. Is it slightly less likely, maybe, but there's no particular reason for that to be true. First, you have to figure out which ballot you count to determine whether or not this happens under STV. Past that, the right number of second place ballots fall the right way in the right ridings, it can happen. It's well within what even proponents concede is the deviance from true proportionality.
  • Will BC-STV guarantee balanced cabinets? No. The Premier remains the sole decision maker when it comes to cabinet. Just because he or she has an MLA from a given region does not guarantee their inclusion in Cabinet. Also, there is a strong tradition in Canadian democracy of appointing cabinet ministers from outside the legislature if there is a need for diversity.
  • Are majority governments tyrannical? Maybe. That's a subject for debate. But the only part of the argument that has to do with the electoral system is 40% of the votes=60% of the seats. You could get 51% under a strict PR system and 100% power in Canada. Tis the nature of our parliamentary system, not our electoral system. The proponents claim no decrease in the stability of governments (ie no increase in short-lived minority governments). Therefore, you can expect just as many tyrannical majorities.
  • Safe seats are a problem in any electoral system. Canada actually has a pretty good record of throwing out the bums. Witness the elimination of almost the entire NDP caucus in BC in 2001. No safe seats there. Where are all those So-Cred safe seats these days anyway? BC-STV will create safe seats just as easily, particularly in northern ridings with only two MLAs.
  • This electoral system as panacea argument is laughable. I suppose the argument here was formulated by looking at Ireland's two ideologically indistinguishable major parties whose differences, as I understand it, date back to their original positions on independence and the relationship with the UK. The BC Liberals and BC NDP aren't going to magically agree on everything. They will still try to find wedge issues to get votes. No electoral system changes that. Politics is a reflection of a lot of things, least among them is the electoral system.
  • Oooh a shiny, new, made-in-BC electoral system... give me a break.
  • Government will work for you! More snake oil. Governments elected in all different electoral systems break promises and do things that are unpopular. If you don't like your government, vote it out. That's what representative democracy is all about!
  • Safe seats I've covered.
  • The increased diversity argument is familiarly erroneous. As was pointed out by a commenter criticizing my expensive electoral system here, you actually have fewer candidates under STV. I'm not entirely sure why the same parties, nominating fewer candidates, who will have to spend more to campaign in bigger ridings will all of a sudden be forced to represent the diversity of British Columbia. As I've argued before, we need to make it easier to run for office if we want to see more diversity. An electoral system without prescribed quotas will not change the make up of the legislature. Oh, yes, you might get a couple of Greens who will either have no power or have all the power if they end up as king makers. Enjoy!
  • Canadians have rejected MMP twice and BC-STV once, albeit narrowly. Maybe Canadians prefer FPTP? Seriously, what works in Dublin doesn't necessarily work in Vancouver. BC isn't Ireland.
There's no convincing argument here. Presumably, if there was a stronger argument out there, the official proponents of this thing would get it on their website. I'm not in love with FPTP. I see its faults. I'm less in love with the other choices available. BC-STV is a particularly poor option.


Spudster said...

Your third argument against proportionality is a little misleading. While you are right to say that any party with more than 50% of the seats in a legislature will hold a majority government, the fact remains that BC-STV is much more likely to result in minority governments that first past the post. Once a districts elects 5 or more candidates, the system then becomes proportional enough that parties with mid levels of support can expect a seat. Also, preferential ballots allow people to vote across party lines, which will make the results more proportional than what the droop quota percentage may suggest.

There is one very valid argument about BC-STV and it stems from the size of the proposed ridings. I come from a large FPTP riding and this is a big problem. However, I have an honest belief that the number of seats in the legislature will be increased dramatically after BC-STV is voted in because public sentiment will call for such a thing to happen. Once the number of seats are increased by a large margin, the size of ridings will not be so much of a concern.

Finally, your dismissal of BC-STV promoting ideological diversity is incorrect. Our current system for election forces voters to strategically vote for the party most likely to win that least offends them. For Greens, this often means being forced to vote NDP. For BC Conservatives, this often means voting BC Liberal. Under BC-STV, people who support less popular parties are free to vote for those parties while still ensuring that their vote will hold weight if the party or candidate they voted for wasn't popular enough to win. This is a much greater reflection of ideological diversity than our current first past the post system which encourages voters to vote for the lesser of two evils.

Skinny Dipper said...

You mentioned that Canadians rejected BC-STV once. Actually, 58% of British Columbians supported BC-STV in the 2005 referendum. I hardly call that a rejection. A majority of voting British Columbians supported BC-STV; the government rejected the result of the majority.

You seem to want to keep the status-quo antiquated First-Past-the-Post voting system in perpetuity. The First-Past-the-Post voting system gives the premier and his inner staff absolute power over all decision making in the province. The MLAs have very little power vis-à-vis the inner staff. The legislature is little better than a rubber-stamp parliament.

Aaron Ginsberg said...

Spudster, your honest belief is not backed up by the proposal on the table. You aren't being asked to vote for the idea version of BC-STV that you may like. Frankly, I'd be surprised to see British Columbians demanding more politicians any time soon. Also, an overwhelming majority of ridings would have fewer than 5 MLA's under the proposed boundaries. Finally, strategic voting won't go away, it will just change to reflect the new reality.

Skinny, the rules were clear before the vote. The rules were and still are similar to the rules for amending the Constitution. The vote failed. The only reason I brought that up is to point out the absurdity of the "it's popular in Ireland" argument. The power of the Premier's office has nothing to do with the electoral system. Even if STV produces more minority governments (something its official advocates deny), there's no guarantee of more power for the backbench MLA. Ask a member in Stephen Harper's caucus how empowered they feel by having a minority government.

Mark said...

So, in the choice between a system that is truly awful, and a system that is less than perfect, your choice is truly awful? This makes sense for what reason?

Even allowing the strawman and red-herring arguments you use against STV, it's still a vastly better system than the truly atrocious FPTP system.

John said...

"The rules were and still are similar to the rules for amending the Constitution."

I'm sorry but that couldn't go unchallenged, you should have looked that up before commenting.
You should know that the amendment of the constitution only requires 50% support from at least 7 provinces (as long those 7 make up 50% of the population).

So as long as Ontario and 6 other provinces gave 50%+1 support then ANY constitutional amendment can pass. That's a fact.

I'm amazed you think the threshold should be much higher for changing our electoral system than it was for the Charlotte Accords which would have dramatically re-shaped our federation including creating a Triple-E Senate. That would have had far more reaching results than changing from FPTP for the lower House.

I think it's pretty damn fair to say that 58% support for changing the electoral system is pretty overwhelming and under any fair standard would have been sufficient to move forward, but hopefully 60% is achieved this time and the trend identified in the latest poll showing 65% support holds.

Aaron Ginsberg said...

The first threshold of 50% support in 60% of the ridings echos the constitution.

Aaron Ginsberg said...

The 60% threshold is consistent with the principle established in the clarity act that you don't make massive change on a 50% +1 vote.

John said...

But Aaron EVERY riding is BC gave OVER 50% support to STV in the last election, I fully agree with needing 50% across even 2/3 of ridings, but needing 60% support overall is far beyond the standard of amending our constitution. I'd say 58% support was pretty damn substantial and should have been sufficient by any reasonable standard.

We're not talking about even more drastic change than the Charlotte Accord so your comparison to the Clarity Act is bizarre, that's about separation from the country, not changing the electoral system. I think Charlotte is the much better parallel since that would have changed our electoral system (for the upper house) and many many more significant changes. The same standard should be used over 50% support across 2/3 of ridings and let's say even 55% overall if you need better than 50%+1.

Aaron Ginsberg said...

John, this is a massive tangent that I'd like to wrap up. The rules are set. The rules are known. They haven't been changed. Is the field a little slanted? Maybe. Any advocate for change is going to face an uphill fight. I don't think you can accuse the Premier who set up the Citizens' Assembly and will have held two referendums on the subject of being anti-change. If it wasn't for Gordon Campbell, this would never have gotten on the ballot.

Jamie said...

Aaron, probably the strongest pro-argument that you have left out is that MLAs and parties would have little choice but to accept greater accountability to their constituents. With candidates from the same party competing with each other for a district's seats, voters will be able to replace a Liberal with another Liberal. Add to that STV's much stronger record of electing independents and you have a recipe for redistributing power from the party insiders to the voters.

All views expressed in this blog are those of the author and the author alone. They do not represent the views of any organization, regardless of the author's involvement in any organizations.

All comments are the views of the individual writer. The administrator reserves the right to remove commentary which is offensive.

The author is not responsible for nor does he support any of the advertisements displayed on the page