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Local representation vs more diverse MLAs

Proposed STV voting system gets mixed gay reviews

BC-STV. Think of single-transferrable voting as splitting a loonie among several candidates. Credit: JOHN CROSSEN ILLUSTRATION

Next month voters will decide whether to accept or reject a new method of electing MLAs. Whether the system would bolster or weaken the influence of BC’s gay voters is up for debate.

The voting system, called BC-STV (short for British Columbia single-transferable voting), is designed to elect a legislature whose composition more closely reflects the popular vote. (See sidebar.)

Proponents say the system’s proportional representation would help elect more candidates from minority communities, including the gay community. Opponents say the current First Past the Post system has worked well for the community.

Voters narrowly defeated BC-STV in 2005. It comes up for a vote again May 12.

BC-STV would create larger, multi-member districts.

Vancouver’s 11 constituencies would be combined into two districts, with the dividing line running diagonally a little east of the downtown SkyTrain line and mostly along Main St further south. Vancouver West would elect six MLAs, and Vancouver East would elect five MLAs.

Former MLA Lorne Mayencourt, who is gay, says he prefers the local representation of the current system.

“I think people appreciate the fact that individual MLAs are responsible, say, for West End or for Yaletown,” says Mayencourt, who represented Vancouver-Burrard from 2001-2008.

Bill Tieleman, president of the No BC-STV Campaign Society, says small districts give gay voters more power.

“If you remember in the movie Milk, the reason Harvey Milk gets elected is because they actually draw proper boundaries instead of having this gigantic at-large system,” Tieleman says.

Gay NDP MLA Spencer Herbert, who currently represents Vancouver-Burrard, says he is torn.

Under STV, Herbert says he would represent about 300,000 constituents, compared with 45,000 now.

“My resources would be spread much thinner to an extent because you’d have to appeal to a much wider population,” he says.

But Michael Byers, a UBC political science professor who supports STV, points out that gays and lesbians are dispersing across the Lower Mainland. Under STV, people from UBC to the West End, for example, could still band together to support particular candidates, he explains.

“Communities like [the] LGBT community that are particularly organized and particularly engaged at the political level will have opportunities to increase their influence through this changed mechanism,” he says.

Though Byers also notes that under STV less progressive candidates would win seats, too.

“We will get more range of perspectives in Victoria, and as a result of that we might actually have more energetic debates about LGBT issues than we’ve been accustomed to in the last few years,” he says. “But democracy is like that.”

Jim Deva, co-owner of Little Sister’s bookstore, says he opposes STV not only because he worries about losing local representation but also because he fears the system would foster minority governments.

But supporters say STV would create either a one-party government or a two-party coalition.

Shoni Field, a spokeswoman for Fair Voting BC, the official group supporting BC-STV, says the system would be a welcome change to the First Past the Post, which in her view pushes parties to ask: “Who looks most like previous politicians?”

“And that,” Field says, “means middle-aged, white, straight male, generally.”

Under STV, parties would have to put forth more diverse candidates to appeal to the many voters in the larger districts, she says.

STV is used in a few countries, including Ireland, Malta, Australia and most recently New Zealand.

Janine Hayward, senior lecturer in the politics department at the University of Otago in New Zealand, which has had STV in some local elections since 2003, says the voting system has helped elect more female, Chinese and indigenous candidates.

“The obstacles just fall away compared with the First Past the Post system,” she says.

Under single-transferable voting in 2007, Jenny Rowan was elected the first lesbian mayor of Kapiti Coast, northwest of the Wellington region in New Zealand.

She says she wouldn’t have been elected in that district under the First Past the Post system.

“The old networks — mostly old boy networks — are so entrenched that their bloc voting capacity just simply kept people like me — not only as a lesbian but also as a woman — out of any decision-making possibility,” she says.

But opponents of BC-STV point out that several gay and progressive MLAs in British Columbia, including Herbert and lesbian Jenn McGinn, have been elected under the current system.

“I think that both major parties are trying to address the issues of minority representation,” Mayencourt says.

The debate is nuanced. Even the anti-STV side doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace First Past the Post system. But critics say the current system beats a proposed alternative they deem confusing and rarely used around the world.

Herbert says it’s a tough choice. “I’m still, like many, listening to the arguments of both sides,” he says.

“I really like the idea of a local representative, someone who’s accountable to a community such as the West End,” Herbert says. “But I also really like the idea of electoral reform to make the system more effective in terms of determining the population’s actual wishes.”

BC-STV EXPLAINED

Under the current voting system, called First Past the Post, citizens choose one MLA among the candidates. The MLA with the most votes wins the seat.

On May 12, a referendum will offer voters the option to switch to a new system called BC-STV, which is a British Columbian variation of the single-transferrable voting (STV) system.

The system is designed so that the legislature will better reflect the popular vote.

Here are some changes the voting system would bring:

Voting districts: The 85 constituencies would be regrouped into 20 multi-member districts. Several candidates could win in a given district. The number of MLAs would remain at 85.

Parties: Each party can run many candidates in each district.

Votes: Citizens could vote for as many candidates in as many parties as they would like, ranking the candidates in order of preference: 1 for their first preference, 2 for their second preference, and so on.

Quota: A threshold, or quota, for winning a seat is calculated based on the number of ballots received and the number of MLAs in the district. Candidates must meet or exceed the quota to win a seat.

For this example: We’ll use a quota of 20,000 in a district that can elect six MLAs.

Rounds of vote counting: BC-STV requires several rounds of counting the votes.

Vote redistribution: You won’t have to pay to vote, of course, but think of voting as splitting a loonie among several candidates. Your entire loonie initially goes to your first preference, and if there is change left over, you can give that to your subsequent preference, and so on.

Say your first choice candidate, Jane Smith, received 40,000 votes. Then she wins a seat. But she only needed half of that vote total to hit the 20,000 quota. So you have change — an extra 50 cents, or half a vote — to give to your second choice, John Public.

Say John Public has 25,000 votes. Then he wins a seat, too. But he only needed four-fifths of that total to hit the 20,000 quota. So you only gave him 40 cents of your 50 cents. You may give the change — 10 cents, or a tenth of a vote — to your third choice candidate, and so on.

Knockout round: In a round, it’s possible that no candidates exceed the quota. In that case, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. If you voted for the candidate, your vote would be passed on to your next preference. That passed-on vote isn’t diluted because the eliminated candidate hasn’t used any portion of it. For example, if you had given the losing candidate a half vote, then a half vote is passed on to your next preference.

Repeat: The redistribution of winners’ excess votes and losers’ unused votes continues until the six MLAs in this example district are elected.