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Counting our votes

The ins and outs of BC's proposed new electoral system

Changing the way we select our political representatives could have a huge impact on our future. Credit: Ken Boesem illustration

When you head to the polls for BC’s election on May 17, you’ll also be asked the following province-wide referendum question: “Should British Columbia change to the BC-STV electoral system as recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform?”

(BC-STV stands for British Columbia Single Transferable Vote, a proposed set of rules for running provincial elections.)

THE SYSTEM
For the garden-variety voter, the proposed BC-STV system would be pretty simple to use.

When you get your ballot, instead of simply selecting the single candidate you’d most like to see win the election in your constituency, you’d rank all the candidates on your ballot in order of your preference. Beside your favourite candidate, you’d mark a “1”, beside your second choice, you’d mark a “2” and so on.

Instead of having just a single seat for each riding, there’d be anywhere from two to seven seats. So you wouldn’t be casting a vote for a single candidate; you’d be casting votes for as many as seven.

It’s a little more complicated than this, but essentially a feat of mathematical divination would then be used to interpret the election results and award the seats to the top candidates based on their overall level of voter support.

This would have a number of effects on the traditional politics of our provincial government.

THE BEST CASE
Of greatest interest to queer people may be that with so many seats in each riding, there would be room for a greater number of political parties to compete for votes.

That means that not only would it be possible to launch some kind of queer political party, such a party would also be very likely to win at least one or two seats to represent downtown Vancouver. It could mean a distinctly queer voice with distinctly queer ambitions in the legislature every day.

Under this system there’d be greater voter choice and a greater perception, at least, that every vote counts. The results from each election would be more proportional, which means the division of seats would more accurately reflect the true support of the voters.

The BC-STV system would also likely serve to mute the wild ideological swings British Columbians have endured over the past few elections because more MLAs from more parties would mean more coalition minority governments.

More minority governments would, in turn, necessitate more negotiation in government and less unilateral decision making. It would also make for more effective local representation because more parties could make MLAs less beholden to official party platforms.

THE WORST CASE
Other effects could be governments mired in committee without ever having a clear mandate to lead.

The increased likelihood and near certainty of coalition minority governments could lead to a relentless string of rapid-fire general elections.

Every decision could be a compromise leading to half-assed solutions.

It is also conceivable that, under the proposed system, socially conservative parties could galvanize into an even more dangerous threat to queer people.

There are a number of other places in the world where systems similar to BC-STV are used. In no case, though, can we point to a shining example of how life has markedly improved for citizens using an STV electoral system.

Conversely, in no case can we point to a glaring example of how STV has certainly caused damage to queer people or wider society.

BC-STV would represent a slight shift away from liberal democracy toward populism and historically queer people are easy victims of tyrannical majorities, so there is certainly some risk to balance possible rewards.

When answering the referendum question on May 17, voters should carefully weigh all the possible pros and cons.

The question might, however, be moot. The referendum could already be decided.

Indeed, the result may have been determined before BC-STV was even proposed.

THE IRONY
BC-STV is not likely to fail because it’s unpopular. It’s more likely to fail because not enough people know enough about it to make an informed decision. And even if they did, the BC Liberals have already altered the Referendum Act to make it much less likely that any changes could pass.

In February, an Ipsos-Reid poll found barely half of British Columbians had read, heard or seen anything about the Citizens’ Assembly for Electoral Reform or the May 17 referendum. Of those who had, 63 percent said they knew “very little or nothing” about BC-STV. Of those who did know something about BC-STV, two thirds said they’d support adoption of the proposed system.

That’s a wide majority of support among the tiny minority who know anything about BC-STV.

After the 2001 election, in an effort to look like they wanted to find a way to make elections appear more fair, the Liberals commissioned the Citizens’ Assembly for Electoral Reform.

The Assembly was made up of a group of British Columbians selected randomly from the voters list. They spent almost a year and $5.5 million learning about alternative electoral systems and gathering input from across the province.

The Liberals promised that the Assembly’s recommendation would go to referendum, no questions asked, in the spirit of non-partisanship. They only half kept their promise.

While with one hand they christened the Citizens’ Assembly and gave it an uncharacteristically populist mandate to find a new electoral system, with the other hand they amended BC’s Referendum Act to make it much less likely any proposed changes could pass.

The Liberals also arranged it so the Citizens’ Assembly would disband long before the referedum, and they’ve since implemented virtually no public education campaign to tell voters what the proposed system is all about.

Some members of the Citizens’ Assembly have devoted their own time and resources to form the Citizens’ Assembly Alumni Association. And the government has a very lightly funded and supposedly neutral Referendum Information Office whose pamphlets and website only add to voter confusion.

So far, there have been no media blitzes or serious commitments to popular public discourse. No public figures standing up for or against the plan. Try asking a politician how he or she feels about BC-STV and see how far you get.

The result is confusion, a disappointing lack of knowledge among voters and a missed opportunity for citizens to actually contribute on an individual level to the formation of a basic foundation stone of public policy.