On May 17, 2005, British Columbia held a referendum on changing its electoral system. Voters were asked whether or not to adopt a Single Transferable Vote system.

The referendum results indicated a majority for the proposition, but not enough to meet the 60% threshhold. Consequently, the BC legislature has announced a new referendum to be held after the electoral commission considers the new census data and offers both redistricting on the current plan and an STV multi-member constituency model. This site was a personal attempt to gather and analyze information as a guide to voting in the 2005 referendum. I became opposed to STV but believe that the info gathered here may be of value to anyone wanting to understand the options to be voted on in 2009.

The 2009 referendum failed. I will leave this website up, in case anyone wants the info, but I believe STV is done for B.C.

Comments and contributions are welcome.

New Items

Final Thoughts

When the Citizens' Assembly opted for STV, way back when, I decided to find out why. I am as ready as anyone to accept a "reformed" system, but I felt that most of what I was seeing as reform, was BS. Much of reform follows the Newt Gingrich "Contract with America" model -- and if anyone believes that had anything to do with reform, I have a bridge to sell you. But, the (then) leader of the Opposition espoused reform. So, following Mr. Campbell's ascension to Government Leader, we have set election dates in BC. The notion that these set dates have been used in an undemocratic manner is, I suppose, moot. But, due credit to Campbell, he did follow through on a pledge to reform the electoral system.

Campbell's supposed reform happened to coinincide with a long-standing push in BC for proportional representation. The fact that this would destroy local representation everywhere outside of the Lower Mainland was not lost on the political scientists looking into the matter. Nick Loenen and Julian West both proposed varieties of STV that would preserve a form of local representation in the Interior, the North, and upper Vancouver Island. They wrote up their notions and pressed for them. At some point, Julian West separated himself (or was separated) from Fair Vote Canada and started Fair Voting BC. Fair Vote Canada was the major national voice for proportional representation, so certain questions are immediately raised. Anyway, West went on to promote a hybrid STV/PR mix he called "STV with Circuits". So there was a certain amount of STV thinking propagated in BC. And, since the national Fair Voting Canada group was cut out, STV became the by-word for many PR-minded people in British Columbia.

Campbell chose Gordon Gibson as the main man to fulfill his reform promises. Gibson had once been leader of the BC Liberals, then watched his opposition caucus cross the floor to join with government. The experience seemed to sour Gibson on politics and he retreated into bureaucracy, where he felt more in control. (I use that term "control" advisedly and suggest that people that think I read Gibson wrongly look at his record with, say, aboriginal groups.) Throughout his career, Gibson has had the general bureaucratic predjudice that He Knows More Than You Do and the best thing is to just let him run the show. Still, he came up with a seemingly democratic concept: the Citizens' Assembly.

So what was wrong with the CA? First, it was self-selected for members opposed to the current Single Member Plurality system (or FPTP, if you insist). Invites to apply to be a CA rep asked, "Do you want to change things?" Right away, the CA was designed to shift the BC political system. Second, the CA was staffed with pro-STV people. Chief among these was Ken Carty, resident political scientist, whose scholarly work was based on studying the Irish system. But the CA head, Jack Blaney, was also an STVer and, early into the CA, made certain disparaging remarks about other kinds of proportional representation that demonstrated his slant. Finally, however sincere he might have been about reform, Campbell read the polls that showed most British Columbians were disgusted with politicians. Therefore, he decreed that the CA could not recommend any system that increased seats in the Legislature. That meant that any form of proportional representation except STV was dead in the water, since any list system would have to have more seats to give proper representation to any British Columbian outside a major population center and Campbell thought that adding more seats (i.e., more "politicians") was politically non-feasible. So, STV or nothing for the CA, which was selected to shift the system.

How corrupt this was! To pretend that here was a free group of citizens with the freedom to select the best available political system when the game was rigged for one outcome.

But STV almost won the first vote! Because people were voting out of disgust with politicians and a disbelief in politics generally. The cynical adoption of this line by right-wing groups like the Fraser Institute and the Canadian Taxpayers' Federation sent up warning signals. Of course, the right-wing power brokers, those who have wealth and influence, want to end the power of parties -- e.g., groups of people with similar interests -- because that is the only opposition that can affect them.

The second time around, these groups had discovered that, after all, STV did not diminish the effect of parties, so they lost interest in promoting it. Further, the funding of the different sides (which was demanded by the Yes faction) imposed a certain clarity of argument on the STVers. If they were going to receive funding, then they had to share the campaign's points. There were fewer lunatic rebels. In the first referendum, Gordon Gibson's silly argument that STV would cripple parties was a major argument on the CA website (still is, in fact, see for yourself). The website and leaflet that went to every home claimed that the Greens, Unity, and the Marijuana Party would have gained seats in the previous election (page 7). This was a flat-out lie, but it was part of the official CA line and part of the info handed out at the polls when people came to vote on the referendum. People were angry at the BC government then and willing to vote for anything that would dump Campbell, or at least, allow an alternative. This nonsense, which was devalued in the second referendum, was a major part of the campaign.

So STV lost the support of the right-wingers that had funded it first time around, it lost the immediate impact of the pro-CA agitprop (including a documentary repeatedly shown on the Knowledge Network), the different STV factions had to toe a (yes) party line, and people were simply not so upset with the current government.

Most people will put up with a lot before they support serious change. There are always airheads demanding revolution, but this time, no one could see the necessity. The propaganda was less vital, the funding diminished, the people decided not to change. This was a victory for democracy.

Why the Low Vote for STV? And What's Next?

As of midnight on election day, STV has gotten less than 40% of the vote. Last time, it got more than 56%. Why the difference?

Three reasons:

First, last referendum, most people were voting emotionally. They were angry at the Campbell government and, since the opposition had fallen to two seats, were apprehensive about democracy itself in BC. This time, people were less upset about the government and more confident in the system;

Second, there was less unanswered STV propaganda. Last referendum followed several showings of documentaries on the Citizens' Assembly, leaflets promoting STV (which included the phony pie chart and other misinformation) were given out at polling places, the STV website then (and now) propagated false beliefs about the system. No opposition, no defense of the status quo, was raised until late in the day. This time there was organized opposition;

Third, this time people actually reflected on the question. Because this was such a low impact election, people thought about the question of electoral systems. This electorate was better-informed than the one before. I have stated elsewhere that I would trade the 60% majority for an off-year referendum. That is, give people a chance to consider the question apart from a general election. Give the question the attention it deserves. A low-key election served the same purpose: people considered STV and rejected it. This result echoes polls that shows most Canadians are happy with the system that they have.

So, now what? Carole James has promised to move on electoral reform. She wants MMP (which is NDP policy). How to achieve this? Well, she might simply introduce a bill in the legislature. Chances are, it would be defeated. Then, she might ask for another referendum. That might or might not happen, but it should be remembered that MMP failed an Ontario referendum by about the same percentage that STV has failed in BC. Maybe it's time to accept that most folks are happy with the system that we have now. [May 13, 2009]

Information on the Referendum

Elections BC has posted info on the referendum. Here's the gist:

[February 9, 2009]

Flirting with Coalition Government

Ever since the Opposition parties announced the formation of a Coalition, the Press has been telling us what a bad idea that is. "Press" includes Andrew Coyne of Maclean's who is, of course, a great supporter of PR government, including STV. Now we all know that coalition governments are more likely under STV than the current system, so is Andrew changing his mind? No! Because when the notion of a Liberal-Conservative coalition comes up, he is all for it. In other words, coalitions are okay if they include the parties I like, but not if they include the ones I don't. Do I have to point out how this undermines the entire rationale of PR? (Which is that all voters are represented.) Anyway, expect this discussion to continue whether or not the current Coalition actually survives the long Christmas break. [January 12, 2009]

Archive of past New Items

Notes and Sources:

The official Referendum website.
The Final Report of the Citizens' Assembly has been mailed to every household and gives a basic overview of the system. The Technical Report gives a detailed look at how elections will be managed under STV.
All of the 1,603 submissions to the Citizens' Assembly are available.

The Citizens' Assembly process itself has been much-discussed. An overall look at the CA process by an outside observer.

Links to various materials about STV and voting systems in general given in the Final Report.

Official results of the 2005 in PDF or Excel format by constituency with maps. Earlier elections.
A handy synopsis of the 2001 election.

Other places are considering electoral reform and the background papers that they have produced are of great interest. So far, there are Canadian papers from New Brunswick, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, a preliminary paper from Saskatchewan, and the federal government.
In addition, there is the Report of Great Britain's Commission on Voting Systems and the Scottish Parliament's research paper on STV.

In November, 2001, the Fraser Institute held a conference on political reform in BC. The papers from that conference include thoughts on referendum and recall, party discipline, and electoral systems. Although the speakers were all in favor of reforming the system, they had varying ideas on how to do it. There is a debate between Nick Loenen and Andrew Petter on electoral systems, including STV, as well as articles on the MP/MLA's freedom within a party by Ted White and Peter Dobell. The thoughtful article by Barry Cooper on direct citizen participation, such as referendum, is also well worth reading.

Other websites, pro and con:
The official Yes site
The official No site.
Citizens' Assembly Alumni Website

In 2001 a number of blogs and opinion sites discussed BC-STV. It is not clear whether that will be allowed by Elections BC this time around.

Increase the Size of the Legislature

The Electoral Boundaries Commission's report called for four seats to be added to the 79-seat legislature, but hinted that two more seats could be added by legislative action. That brings us to 85 seats. That isn't enough, particularly if people seriously want a system that is as proportional as possible. The legislature's size should be keyed to population, rather than simply being set as a number of seats. A 1/40 - 45,000 member/population ratio would have around a hundred seats in the BC legislature. Alberta (currently 87 seats) has about 1/40,000. Manitoba, about 1/21,000. If people want to see serious reform, they should consider increasing the BC legislature's size.

The Mechanics Of The Single Transferable Vote

are fairly easy to figure out. This website has a good visual explanation of the mechanics. British Columbia will be divided into ridings with more than one seat. Voters mark the candidate that is their first choice with a "1", their second choice with a "2", and so on. The votes are sorted out and candidates who have enough first-choice votes are elected. If they have more than enough votes, the surplus is distributed to the second choices on their ballots. The surplus is then distributed to other candidates, those that were "2" on the winner's ballots. This vote is distributed proportionately. If the winner got twice as many votes as needed, then every number 2 on the ballots that placed him first, will get half a vote. After this distribution, if there are still seats to be filled, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and his or her votes go to the second choice on the ballots. The process continues until all the seats are filled. The details are spelled out in the Technical Report of the Citizens' Assembly.
But understanding the mechanics of STV don't really say how it will change BC. That is what this website is all about.

Following is a list of topics examined so far. Topics may be added, edited, rewritten, or removed at any time.

Why Scotland Said "No" to STV
STV vs. FPTP: Proportionality vs. Representation
A Debate on STV from the Nelson Daily News
Politics Under STV In Ireland
What About Malta?
What About Tasmania?
Other Places That Use STV
Politics and Politicians
Why Vote "No" on STV?
Should This Website Register With Elections BC?
Who Am I?

STV vs. FPTP: Proportionality vs. Representation

The demand for electoral reform in BC follows two elections with skewed results. In 1996 the NDP won 39 seats, a majority, with 39.45% of the vote. The Liberals, with more votes at 41.82%, was left in opposition with only 33 seats. In 2001, the Liberals had a majority 57% of the vote, but took 97% -- all but two -- of the seats, leaving BC without an official opposition. Similar outcomes in other provinces have led to general criticism of First Past The Post systems. The inequities of FPTP arise from the system's effort to support local representation. Individual ridings with lop-sided returns for one party may mean that party gains in overall votes, but does not necessarilly win the most seats. But seats in the legislature are not the only consideration.
A better term than FPTP is Single Member Plurality. Districts have a single member -- the one gaining the highest plurality of votes -- who represents them. Effective representation is the key. An MLA serves his or her riding not just by sitting in Parliament, but also by helping constituents with local difficulties and individual concerns -- the MLA is the citizen's line to the government. Furthermore, in a big province, it is important that every region have a voice. So the problem facing the Citizens Assembly was how to balance proportionality with local representation.
Local representation will certainly suffer under an STV system. Interior ridings will be huge. Furthermore, ridings will effectively have less representation since each MLA will have to serve a super constituency made up of two to seven of the old ridings. MLAs from the same party may be able to share this burden somewhat, but a key feature of STV is that all candidates run against one another -- cooperation among MLAs is less likely than competition. STV offers a certain amount of proportionality but it is nowhere near as effective in this regard as a Mixed Member Proportional system. In fact, most who wanted to reform BC's system seem (to me) to prefer an MMP system along the lines of those used in many European nations.
So, if STV diminishes local representation, is only partly effective in achieving proportional representation, and isn't the first choice anyway, why is it the system that we're voting on? The answer is that the Citizens' Assembly was not allowed to recommend any system that might either add seats or affect current electoral distribution. Most alternative proposals involve either adding seats or a drastic redrawing of the electoral map or both. This means that the only alternative system possible for the Assembly to offer was STV.

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Why Scotland Said "No" to STV

Scotland changed its electoral system to a "mixed member" form some years ago and has had a few problems. The Arbuthnott Commission was delegated to investigate and, in January 2006, has released its final report. For BC, the important part of the report concerns the Commission's dismissal of STV for their country. The Commission made the following points about STV:

Several points are similar to those made below in "Why Vote 'No' on STV?". Of course, the difficulty of representing "large" Scots regions such as the Highlands is nothing compared to that of representing BC's north. That fact that loss of accessibility to voters is of concern to such a relatively tiny place should cause British Columbians to pause a bit. Each of the other points is also applicable to BC but the Commission's concerns about clarity and complexity stand out, because one of the concerns that prompted the formation of the Arbuthnott Commission was that people didn't understand the new Scots system. Result: a drop in voter participation. The Commission thinks STV would make the situation worse.

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STV in Other Places

Some other countries have versions of STV and it's worth taking a look at how the system operates for them. No other place has the exact version of STV proposed by the Citizens' Assembly however. The place that is closest to BC is Ireland. Other places have significant differences but it's worth learning about them so you can spot the lie when someone tries to tell you, for instance, that the Australian Senate system is just like BC-STV.

Politics Under STV in Ireland

Ireland has had an STV system since 1922. The departing English thought that the Protestant minority would be better protected by such a system. The problem of religious minority has been complicated in the Republic, but is very much a great problem in Northern Ireland. Ireland's elections are fairly proportional with around 20% or less "wasted votes". Though smaller in area (Ireland is slightly smaller than the proposed Kootenay riding), Ireland's 4.2 million population compares to BC's 4.3 million. The Dáil, Ireland's parliament, has 166 seats -- more than double that of BC's parliament. The high ratio of voters to representatives and the country's small area combine to give a very local flavour to Irish politics. The political system developed by Ireland under STV merits a close look.

The two major Irish parties are Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. FF has been the dominant party and the only one able to form majority government, though it has not done so since 1977. Fine Gael is the opposition party and has managed to bring together a half-dozen coalition governments over the years. Both FF and FG are center-Right parties, though FG has occasionally adopted social-democratic policies. In the 1980s a rancorous split within Fianna Fáil spawned the Progressive Democratic party. PD is a Right-wing party with Thatcherite principles that picks up a few seats in each election. Three times, PD has joined with its old enemy, FF, to create a coalition. The two have become adept at working together and a merger might bring FF back within reach of majority government. The Left is represented by the Greens, Labour, and Sinn Féin. SF has been either outlawed or restricted for much of its existence and remains marginal. Labour has had a distant third-place finish in most elections, but has been a key player in FG coalitions. The Greens took six seats in the 2007 Dáil election, enough to allow them to replace PD (who only managed two seats) as the senior partner in another FF coalition.

In the 1980s FF control began to slip and every government formed since 1982 has been a coalition. Finn Gael and Labour first formed coalitions in the 1940s and again in the 80s. Labour teamed briefly with Fianna Fáil in 1993 but could not work with FF and abandoned them to form the "Rainbow Coalition" (without an election), the closest to a Left government Ireland has ever had.

The task of assembling a coalition government has become more and more difficult since 1987. Occasionally parties make agreements before elections but most of the important negotiations take place afterwards. In 1997, eight people -- two senior TDs (members of the Dáil) and two political advisors from each of the two parties involved in coalition-- determined the shape of Ireland's government. "[S]ome commentators argue there is a potential for proportional representation electoral systems and coalition government to undermine democracy, by taking the choice of government away from the electorate and giving it to politicians in smoke filled rooms... In short, the membership of coalition government may not ultimately reflect the wishes of the electorate."[Connaughton]

As the parties negotiate, they have to consider the viability of proposed legislation. In 1992 a system was introduced where specially appointed bureaucrats called Partnership Programme Managers were brought in to advise the politicos on legislative policy. Each cabinet minister appointed one Programme Manager and the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and Tanáiste (deputy PM), two each. Thus, Programme Managers were political appointees and might spend as much effort shaping government as advising it. So, in 1992, Fianna Fáil accused Labour of using their advisors to maneuver government policy.[Connaughton] Programme Managers were distrusted by the civil service who saw them as usurping their own power and corrupting the the non-partisan ethic of career public service. Since 2002 programme managers for cabinet ministers have been discontinued. Instead, parties now hire "special advisers" who play the same role.

Irish political campaigns are a mixture of partisanship and localism. Voters identify with parties and rivalry between parties is fierce. Negative campaigns, such as that by Fianna Fáil against Labour in 1992, are not uncommon. Although political parties create a national policy and strategy, in any given riding these must be balanced with local concerns:

...campaigns have three elements. First, there is the national, essentially partisan campaign, run by party HQ and senior party figures and which seeks (subject perhaps to some constraints) to maximise the party's vote. Secondly, there is a nationally directed campaign in the constituencies. This seeks to organise the constituency campaigns with a view to maximizing the party's representation in the Dáil. Thirdly, there is the local campaign itself, where the party is brought into direct contact with the voter through the candidates, and the candidate employs his or her personal attributes to the full.[Marsh]
The major parties have become more centralized in the last twenty or so years. Local candidates are expected to adhere to the national party policy and subject their own campaign to the national strategy. Candidates who not follow the party line must do without resources -- i.e., leaflets, advertising, personnel -- supplied from the central office. The value of these items has risen steadilly and Ireland has begun to talk about spending limits and similar reforms.

The overall party strategy may require that fewer candidates run in a given riding then seats are available. Under STV, every candidate runs against every other one and it is possible for a party to split its votes among several candidates and not elect any. Furthermore, the ranking of candidates may have a profound effect on results. Parties have several strategies for dealing with these problems. First, there is "balliwicking" whereby candidates agree on certain ground rules to minimize the harm they do one another. Such rules might include not campaigning in the opponent's balliwick or campaigning only at certain times. Balliwicking helps even out the votes for a party in a riding, but that may not lead to the desired result. Most parties also use "direct vote management":

Here the objective is to divide the vote up between the candidates so as to maximise the number of seats obtained. The need, or opportunity for such a strategy is the fact that preferences can only be transferred to a candidate who remains in the race. A party's candidates may sometimes win enough votes to expect two seats but fail to get them because too many votes go to one candidate and the second is eliminated before those votes can be transferred, or finishes as runner-up when the first candidate has votes to spare. Equalising votes between candidates is a difficult operation. It requires a fairly accurate assessment of the party's overall voting strength, both in terms of first and later preferences. (Local polling has been used, particularly in FG, to provide information in this respect.) It requires a set of voters who are willing to vote for the candidate that they are advised by the local party to vote for. And it requires the stronger candidate to give up votes by advising supporters to vote for a running mate - and risk defeat in the process. It does happen.[Marsh]
Normally, a candidate will ask for a voter's "number one". Failing that, the candidate may request a second or third choice vote. A friendly voter may or may not be asked to rank other candidates of the same party. Candidates frequently lose to another member of their own party as opposed to being defeated by a candidate of a different party. The difficulties of organizing an effective campaign and the problems created by coalition government have resulted in strict party discipline -- no party can afford a loose cannon. So, Fianna Fáil will automatically expel a TD from the party who even abstains from a vote, never mind opposes it!

Independents are regularly elected to the Dáil, 4 - 10 per election. Independents tend to focus on local issues and be elected by voters looking for a local benefit. This practice brings charges of pork-barrel politics. Of course, the local hope is that an election will be close enough, as in 1997, that a coalition will have to woo independent votes. When, as in 2002, a coalition can be formed without independent assistance, those members will have little influence on government policy.

The striking fact about the Irish electoral system is its domination by a professional political elite. Political parties control campaign strategy -- including how many candidates to run -- and select special advisers who shape government. Although STV is supposed to diminish the power of political parties, in Ireland it has the exact opposite effect.


On STV in Ireland, Michael Gallagher, The Archetypal Single Transferable Vote System
For general information on Irish political parties, Wikipedia, and the Swift Guide.
A useful list of Irish election results.
Irish Times election stories for 2007.
The Scots Local Government Report on STV has a close look at Ireland
Two important sources for this topic: Bernadette Connaughton, Politico-Administrative Relations under Coalition Government : The Case of Ireland and Michael Marsh, Candidate centred but party wrapped: campaigning in Ireland under STV
A lengthy paper by Lee Komito, Politics and Clientelism in Urban Ireland: information, reputation, and brokerage, examines Irish Politics in detail. Chapter Four on Political Culture is especially interesting.

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What About Malta?

Malta has been effectively a two-party system for half a century, no third party has taken a seat since 1962. In 2003 the largest third party got only .7% of the vote. The two main parties are very partisan and competitive. As we say in BC, Maltese politics are polarized. In 1981, one party managed to win a majority of seats even though its opponent received the majority of first-place votes. The opposition party boycotted the legislature for almost a year until the governing party agreed to reform the STV system. The reforms were approved by the electorate (after a second national election where the winning party again received fewer votes than the opposition) and the constitution was changed in 1987. Now, if a party with the majority of first-place votes gets fewer seats, then additional seats are created for that party to give it a majority. This happened again in 1996. So, in three of the last seven elections, Malta has had a wrong majority. This is not supposed to happen under STV. Further, Malta has gone from a multi-party to a two-party system -- again, not supposed to happen. Finally, many have noted that Malta's legislature has fewer women than most other European nations. When the extreme polarization of Maltese politics is added to the mix, you can see that none of the "benefits" supposed to arise from STV have materialized in Malta. It is hard to believe that British Columbians would want to create a system like Malta's, where MLAs would be added by parties after the election to balance the legislature. STV advocates who use Malta as a model are advocating a failed system.
See: Malta: STV With Some Twists and a detailed analysis of Malta's electoral system including background papers and election results. The Malta section of the Scottish Local Government STV report, and the Maltese Government White Paper on Electoral Reform of 1990.

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Northern Ireland

Other places that use STV include Northern Ireland, which the chaos of revolution has made a very special case. Results in recent Northern Ireland elections have not been satisfactory from the viewpoint of proportionality. Several proposals have been made to reform STV in Northern Ireland. The Jenkins Report (which is unlikely to be adopted) suggested changing to a party-list system. More probably Northern Ireland will see some sort of redistricting.

Increasing polarization between Sinn Féin and unionist parties has become evident in Northern Ireland's elections. Parties encourage their followers to "plump" their vote, ranking only the party's candidates and no others. This results in more effieciency from a party point of view but means that small parties lose their effectiveness. Polarized voting in a small country (1.7 million) and a tradition of gerrymandering could mean, over time, a repeat of the Maltese problem. But a fragile peace means that electoral system reform is far less important than maintaining a working government and the 2007 coaltion of Sinn Féin, unionist, and other parties is working so far.

See: Northern Ireland elections.

The CAIN project has more on Northern Ireland.


Australia has a bewildering number of different kinds of voting systems, some of them belonging to the STV family. The most important aspect of Aussie political culture is that everyone must vote. Everyone. Must. Vote! Non-voters are made to suffer via their tax returns. Now whether through STV or Instant Run-off Voting, many places have a lengthy ballot with many candidates, and compulsory voting means that the voter must mark them all (or, sometimes, a minimum number)otherwise the ballot is spoiled -- what Australians term an "informal vote." See, you MUST vote and, even if you've spoiled your ballot, well, mate, that's voting, too.

Australian Federal Senate

Australia's Senate was created a hundred years ago but the system has been changed or reformed numerous times. The current system is more or less the one introduced in 1949. The Australian Senate, like that of the US, is supposed to aid less populous states to have a meaningful voice in government. So, New South Wales (pop. 6 million) and Tasmania (pop. 450,000) each have twelve Senators that serve six-year terms. Territories have two senators that serve three-year terms. About half the Senate seats are contested at each election but there are exceptions when the Senate is elected off-cycle. Got all that? Okay, here's the important STV stuff: The candidates are listed on the ballot and the voter must rank them all. I say again, ALL candidates MUST be ranked or, whoops, you just cast an informal vote.

Now, Tasmania might have two dozen or so candidates from six or seven parties and a couple of independents, but New South Wales could have a hundred or more from twenty parties. That's a lot of candidates to rank. Faced with too many choices, voters began casting donkey ballots, i.e., ranked the first name "1", the second "2", and so on through the list. This meant that candidates whose names began with "A" were more successful than those at the end of the alphabet. Well, that was easy enough to fix, just randomize the names. Of course, that just randomized the donkey vote, giving the "Z" names the same chance as those beginning with "A". And there was a significant, and growing, number of informal ballots cast by voters who couldn't be bothered even to use the donkey option. Consequently, in 1984, the "group-ticket" option was introduced. A voter may mark a single box beside the party of choice which will then distribute its preferences according to a published plan. About 95% of Australian voters select this option.

So, informal voting fell off and there were no more donkey votes. But group voting has offered parties and candidates a new opportunity to manage the vote to their own benefit. One method is to use micro-parties whose preferences aere manipulated to keep votes away from major candidates:

The game reached new heights at the 1999 NSW election. A plethora of so-called "micro" parties created a ballot paper the size of a tablecloth, with 264 candidates and 81 groups across 3 rows. Despite finishing 29th on the primary vote, Malcolm Jones from the Outdoor Recreation Party stormed to victory with just 0.2 per cent of the vote, or 0.04 of a quota. Jones harvested preferences from 21 other parties, including 8 that had achieved a higher primary count.[Green]
Other tactics include preference-swapping deals between parties:
The 1998 election saw the most extensive use of preference corralling as swaps between the major parties, Greens and Australian Democrats worked to prevent victories by candidates from Pauline Hanson's One Nation. Despite One Nation easily outpolling the Australian Democrats in five states, it was the Democrats that elected five Senators and One Nation a single Senator. Perversely, the Democrats recorded by far their best vote in Victoria, the one state where it failed to elect a Senator, and where One Nation's preferences instead elected Australia's first Asian born Senator. Now the 2004 Senate election has seen these strategies reach new heights. All sorts of bizarre deals were done in a bid to engineer the Senate result. In NSW, these complex deals elected a third Labor Senator at the expense of the Greens. In Victoria it resulted in the election of Stephen Fielding from Family First, despite receiving only 1.9 per cent of the vote.[Green]

There are major efforts underway to reform the Australian Senate. In the meantime, BC-STV allows the voter to mark one, some, or all of the candidates, so should avoid some of the difficulties faced by Australian PR-STV.

See: Antony Green, "Above or Below the Line? Managing Preference Votes". Australian Broadcasting Company Guide to 2004 Senate Elections. Parliament of Australia's Senate Brief: Electing Australia's Senators Remember, when you read the articles, that "informal vote" is Australian for "spoiled ballot".

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Tasmania uses STV to elect its Legislative Assembly, the state lower house. One important Tasmanian electoral innovation is that voters don't have to rank every candidate, but they do have to rank at least five (each Tasmanian district has five seats). So the state has never had to bring in the group-ticket option. But the "rank five" requirement does make Tasmania's system work very differently from that in Ireland or the proposed BC-STV.

Irish political parties tend to run no more candidates in a riding than they think can win a seat but Tasmanian parties always run a full slate since they don't want any surplus to go to their opponents. Also, if there is a vacancy in the house, say from a death or resignation, the seat is filled, not with a by-election (as it would be under BC-STV) but by a Countback system that recounts the ballots from the last election and redistributes surpluses. Since vacancies are filled only by people who ran in the election, each party likes to have a few unsuccessful candidates on hand to fill those seats. Surplus votes are distributed by a slightly different method than BC-STV as well.

In the 1950s, the 30-seat Assembly had a string of minority governments and often found itself unable to carry through a legislative program. The Tasmanian Year Book(1967): "...one of the virtues claimed for the Hare-Clark [electoral] system is the adequate representation given to minorities. In a small House of 30 members, this virtue tended to be too evident and led to situations where the government of the day did not have the necessary majority to carry all its legislation with confidence." The Assembly was increased to 35 seats and, after one more "hung" government, elected seven straight majority governments. Yet, in 1998, the House was reduced to 25 seats as part of a manipulative Liberal-Labor effort to make it more difficult for Greens to win seats. The fact that this makes minority government more likely does not stop the Liberal and Labor parties using fear of minority government as a campaign message.

See: The 2006 Tasmanian results, including transfers, can be found here and media analysis here. Tazzie electoral rules: Tasmanian Election 1998, A Background Report

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The Australia Capital Territory (the Capital region around Canberra, similar to the District of Columbia) gained home rule in 1989 and has had five elections since. In its first two elections the ACT used a D'Hondt voting method but this proved unsatisfactory and the ACT then switched to a Hare-Clark system similar to Tasmania's. Something worth noting is the introduction, in 2001, of computer voting.

See: ACT Factsheet,"Electing Members of the Legislative Assembly".

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Australian State Legislative Councils

Not content with just a federal Senate, the Australian states also have them except there, they are labelled Legislative Councils. Four Legislative Councils: New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia, and Victoria, are elected with forms of STV. These elections all follow the same STV rules as the federal Senate. That is, there is a group ticket option and the voter must rank all of the candidates -- except in Victoria.

Victoria, second-largest of Australia's states, has enacted a number of reforms in its upper house, the Legislative Council. Among these, the Council is now elected by STV. The first vote under the new system took place November 25, 2006.

The Victoria voting process borrows from both the Australian federal Senate and Tasmanian lower house STV systems. There are eight ridings, called "provinces", with five members each, similar to Tasmania's five five-member districts. Voters need not rank all the candidates, as they must in a federal Senate election, but must rank at least five, exactly as in Tasmania. But voters also have the option of voting above-the-line, that is, choosing to vote for a single party and that party's ranking of candidates, the same as voters in federal Senate elections. (See: Tasmania and the Australian Senate voting rules).

It is noteworthy that 95% of voters chose to vote above-the-line. This may mean that voters wanted to maximize their party's chance of getting the most seats. By choosing to vote above-the-line, voters showed they prefer a contest between parties, as opposed to one that emphasizes personalities.

See: Official details of the Victoria process, including a sample ballot. Group tickets for above-the-line voting as posted by the parties involved. Some pre-election discussion of the process and post-election results.

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Politics and Politicians

An argument frequently used to support STV is that "politicians hate STV, so it must be good." This is a pretty shoddy argument -- I suppose politicians hate child abuse as well but that's hardly cause to support the torture of children. Furthermore, it seems to me that not all "political insiders" (another pet accusative) oppose STV. How do we categorize Gordon Gibson, ex-MLA and former head of the Liberal party, now a paid pundit for the Fraser Institute? Or Nick Loenen, an MLA who was "inside" the last Social Credit government deep enough to help persuade Van der Zalm to resign? It seems to me that there are knowledgable people on both sides of this question. Aside from politicians, there is division amongst political scientists as well -- some think STV is a good idea, some are opposed, some seem joyfully willing to try anything at all, much in the spirit of a nuclear scientist presented with a new bomb: "Let's test it!" But the attack on politicians is a symptom of a general disaffection with politics that has been part of mainstream thinking for the last thirty years or so.

Politics is as old as humanity. Insofar as we are social animals and depend on interaction with others of our species, so we are all politicians. Individually we have little power, so we form organizations, interest groups, and parties that will promote our interests and represent our will. It is necessary that these groups present a united front so there is discipline, by whatever name, within any group that lasts. Yet it also follows, as the night the day, that these groups will spawn professionals whose interests are self-serving and who work to support the organization itself, not the aims of its members. This is not a new problem nor one that has a ready solution. People will organize and then it is up to the membership to keep an organization on the right track. These are not words of comfort to those who would prefer that their political system work quietly and cleanly without requiring any upkeep or maintenance, but I think the history of human organization shows a rather constant cycle of corruption and reform.

The Reform party was created by people who were zealously intent on cleaning up the system. Yet, in 1988, Preston Manning, the original leader of the party, pressured a local riding group to disallow the nomination of the controversial Doug Collins, even though the party constitution specifically stated that the local association had the authority to nominate whomever it wanted. Though Manning succeeded in the short run, the membership pushed through a constitutional change to make it more difficult in the future for party brass to dictate a nomination. In 1994, an Abbotsford NDP riding nominated Sam Wagar, a practicing Wiccan, to stand in the upcoming by-election. Embarassed at having a witch as candidate, the New Democrat Party organization voided the nomination, even though local constituency control has been a principle of the party going back to its CCF roots. Liberal party control of the nomination process, both provincially and federally, has been the subject of numerous stories and the cause of much anger. Several disgruntled would-be nominees left the party and ran as independents in the 2001 election. Interference in the nominating process by party organizations is often cited as a cause of political disaffection -- it is even mentioned in the Citizens' Assembly report under "Other Issues", although outside the CA mandate itself. In fact, STV will not change the way that political parties work -- they will still have their own consitutions and memberships who will hold the ultimate responsibility of keeping their party principled. Looking at the example of STV in other places, I think that the power of the party organization is increased, not lessened by STV. How could it be otherwise with a system so complex? It requires political expertise to determine election strategy, and expertise is what the professional politico has to offer.

In a famous movie, Jimmy Stewart played Mr.Smith, an honest man who is elected and goes to Washington to fight the good fight for his constituents. He runs head-on into corruption, holds a courageous one-man filibuster, and, with the help of a free and unbiased press, wins a great victory for the forces of Good. Every one of us wants to vote for a Mr.Smith and hopes that the candidates we do vote for are moral and incorruptible. The notion of a Parliament of Mr.Smiths is part of the current vision of political reform. Only, instead of corrupt developers, in B.C. Mr.Smith must contend with the evils of party politics. "...party bosses ...have reason to hate STV, because it shifts power from the political parties to the voters and the individual MLAs." The notion that each representative should be independent of everyone except the voters is a seductive idea that, in Canada, has been taken to heart by a number of groups and movements, from the Progressive party of the 1920s to Reform in the 1980s. The fact is, no party has managed to last without discipline. Further, politicians who are free of party strictures are more likely to fall under the sway of special interests. The weak party system of the United States has many examples of Congressmen and Senators more or less openly allied with oil or pharmaceuticals or whatever group that can fund their campaign. When they are working, parties help keep politicians focused on policies supported by the membership.

One myth about STV is that it will enable local parties to select candidates free from the influence of Party Central. In fact, the opposite is true. Ian McKinnon, one of the nine chosen to make final representations to the Citizens' Assembly, puts it bluntly: "For PR systems, particularly closed-list systems, the power to determine who will and who will not be elected from a party lies more with the party apparatus and insiders than with constituencies or voters." McKinnon points out that: "The FPTP system is rooted in a view that individuals are elected from constituencies; parties as the principal focus of elections came later." This is the exact opposite of the STV myth that is being sold to British Columbians. McKinnon further notes that FPTP is the system that best enables the local voice: "Within the FPTP system as we know it in Canada, there is significant local independence in determining who will be the local candidate." and: "While there are criticisms of some nomination processes, the local focus of the FPTP system allows Members of Parliament to retain a measure of independence within their party. It is extremely rare for a sitting MP to face opposition from central party forces at the riding nomination. In contrast, sitting MPs have been upset by active local campaigns."

Two more good words about political parties: participation and accountability. The membership and nomination meetings in a constituency are the places where an individual's voice can be heard and his or her vote counts the most. Participation in democracy is most open at this level. Governments must be held accountable for their actions. If that government is a loose association of individuals that operates according to some private agreement worked out behind closed doors, then when a writ is dropped, it will vanish like smoke as each politician returns home to campaign. On the other hand, a governing party that disappoints the electorate will suffer for it -- as did the NDP in 2001 or Social Credit in 1991.

People who believe that STV will solve all the problems they see in the political system are very mistaken. Those who want a political system without party politics are asking for the fried ice cream -- it just don't come that way.


Ian McKinnon, Considering Electoral Reform: Taking into Account Political Parties and Governance Issues

W.L. Morton, The Progressive Party in Canada, U. of Toronto Press (1950) This is the book on idealistic politics in this country. Radicals, dreamers, and World War I vets combine to form the kind of party so many present-day reformers want to have. For a brief moment the Progressives hold the balance of power, then succumb to the flaws inherent in their organization. Ex-Progressives go to the CCF or agri-protest parties. A small rump stays on in Manitoba, morphing into an ordinary political party and finally merging with the Conservatives. Anyone who has read the Progressives' story and still wants a weak party without discipline is an idealist who relishes self-destruction.

It is interesting to look at the parties created in Canada between the wars and recently and contrast them with the American experience. The US has not created a successful political party since the Republicans in the 1850s. Is the weak-party American system superior to Canada's?

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Why Vote "No" on STV?

Because STV is damaging to our political process and because STV will not deliver the benefits that are claimed for it. STV would seriously damage the system of local representation that is at the heart of the parliamentary system. Currently, people vote for an individual who represents them and is directly responsible to them. Under STV, with several MLAs per riding, no one can be held accountable for local problems. Furthermore, in British Columbia, many ridings will be so large that entire areas may go unrepresented. Since all candidates, even those from the same party, run against one another, all candidates will tend to focus their efforts on areas with a high concentration of votes. The effect of STV will be to emphasize the isolation of rural voters. It may be that Lower Mainland and Victoria residents will not be inconvenienced to any great degree, but consider the Interior constituent who must travel 150 miles to see the local MLA. The services offered by MLAs to their constituents are of vital importance. The Liberal party has recognized this and set up a website template for their MLAs to use. In the Interior, land use problems take up a significant part of an MLA's time; in urban areas, services to immigrants, including information in languages other than English, are important. MLAs and their parties recognize the importance of constituency services. An MLA who ignores his or her constituents will suffer at the polls.

A second damaging aspect of STV is the centralizing influence it has on politics. Right now, the local constituency association is where individuals have the most say in government. They can influence party policy and select candidates who best represent their interests. But under STV, local associations will have to accept guidance from the central party office. How many candidates to be fielded is the most basic example of a question that will be determined, not locally by individual party members, but centrally by the politicos at party HQ. A glance at STV as it operates in Ireland and Malta will show that party organization becomes more centralized under STV. This is even more evident when one looks at how government is formed under STV coalition. In 1997, eight people -- four elected Dail representatives and four political operatives -- decided the shape of Ireland's government. "[S]ome commentators argue there is a potential for proportional representation electoral systems and coalition government to undermine democracy, by taking the choice of government away from the electorate and giving it to politicians in smoke filled rooms... In short, the membership of coalition government may not ultimately reflect the wishes of the electorate."[Connaughton]

In an STV election, with voters asked to choose several MLAs, there will be many names on the ballot. Wealthy candidates who can afford massive advertising or celebrities of the Arnold Schwartzenegger type who have name recognition, will benefit. Ordinary candidates will suffer. In fact, the STV system invites an American style of politics with candidates belonging to the special interest that can promote their campaign.

Promoters of STV have made a great many promises on the system's behalf. Many of these promises are obviously false -- STV will not enhance the chances of women or minorities, for example -- but the most bizarre claim is that STV will diminish the power of political parties. A look at the way STV works in Ireland or Malta should end that myth. Politicians in BC have shown a great deal of independence over the years. They leave their party to form another or to run as an independent. Even if they stay within the party they will vote against their own party's government if it promotes policies unpopular in their constituency. Neither party discipline nor the FPTP system seems to have hampered individual MLAs in speaking their mind and representing their constituency as best they can. Anyone who claims otherwise does not respect the facts.

But there is one thing STV should do, it should make election results more proportional -- the proportion of seats a party gets should be closer to its percentage of the vote. I say "should" because it doesn't always work that way: consider Malta where three of the last seven elections have had "wrong majorities" -- the party with fewer votes got more seats. But, in BC, we should expect that STV would have more proportional results than FPTP -- that is, if we accept the major premise of STV, that having your third or fourth or fifth choice elected is as good as electing your first choice. Still, proportionality is STV's best argument and, if you find it compelling, then you should vote "Yes". But before you do, consider the reasons to vote "No" and weigh your choice carefully.

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Should This Website Register With Elections BC?

According to the current Elections BC rules, this website should not need to register. It is non-commercial and represents my personal views. I am not affiliated with any organization. Last referendum, Elections BC made some broad, heavy statements about stopping websites that "directly or indirectly" promoted one or the other referendum positions. I am glad to see them change this and clarify their policy.

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