Dear British Columbia:
I know you’re kind of busy right now, and maybe it’s not my place, being from another province and all, but could I just ask you, on behalf of the rest of the country, to please vote Yes in the May 12 electoral reform referendum? I wouldn’t intrude, except it’s terribly important—important not just for B.C., but for all of us.
Because politics is broken in Canada, and electoral reform—changing the way we vote—may just be the key to fixing it.
B.C., you hold that key in your hands. If the referendum passes, it will not only transform the politics of your province, it will put electoral reform squarely on the map for the country as a whole. Whereas if it fails in B.C.—after the failure of reform efforts in Ontario, Quebec and P.E.I.—it may be the last we’ll see of it for some time.
By now you’re probably familiar with the broad outlines of the debate. Under the old system, in use federally and in all 10 provinces, you mark an X beside the name of the candidate of your choice, and whomever gets the most votes in each riding wins. Hence its popular name: “first past the post.” If you don’t mind, I’ll shorten that to FPTP.
Under the proposed new system—recommended after months of study and debate four years ago by the B.C. Citizens Assembly, a group of randomly selected men and women from across the province—you’ll instead rank your favourite candidates in order of preference: 1,2,3, and so on. And in place of today’s single-member ridings, each riding will elect several members. (Of course, that means there’ll have to be fewer, larger ridings, to keep the legislature from exploding.)
Who gets in? You start by counting up the first choices. Then, as candidates are either eliminated from contention or assured of election, voters’ second choices are redistributed among the remaining contenders. And then their third choices, and so on. (It’s a little complicated, but that’s the returning officers’ problem, not yours. All you need to know is 1, 2, 3 . . .) That’s why it’s called the single transferable vote, or STV.
Why does this matter? Here’s why: under the current system, the candidate with the most votes wins, no matter how few he gets. In a typical six- or seven-person race, candidates often win with as little as 30 per cent of the vote. But that candidate and his followers then get 100 per cent of the power to represent that riding.
What’s true for a single riding is even more true in the aggregate. Under FPTP, governments routinely win “majorities” with 35 or 40 per cent of the vote. Sometimes they even win a majority of the seats with fewer votes than their rivals: that’s how Glen Clark won B.C.’s 1996 election over Gordon Campbell. And sometimes a party will take nearly all of the seats with little more than half of the vote: that’s how Campbell was able to rule all but unopposed after 2001.
Under STV, by contrast, the power to represent a riding is shared. Say it’s a five-member riding: if a party gets 20 per cent of the vote, it gets 20 per cent of the representation, or one member; a party that gets 40 per cent of the vote would get two members. Again, the same is true in the aggregate: a party’s representation in the legislature will tend to be proportional to its share of the vote. STV is a form of “proportional representation”—PR for short. (I promise that’s the last acronym.)