Bruce Strachan: The single transferable vote—or how to get elected without really winning

By Bruce Strachan

The single transferable vote is not representative, it is not democratic, it is not well thought out, and it is not necessary.

The STV proposal reminds me of the old axiom in government: if it ain’t broken, fix it until it is.

STV is offering up political alchemy by flogging the giddy promise of spinning skimpy ballot support into legislative seats.

The harsh reality is that STV is a complicated arithmetic attempt at vote-count manipulation, all aided and abetted by an ungainly redraw of the current British Columbia electoral-district map.

Let’s begin with the map, the first ingredient in the complex cocktail of STV.

STV reduces the electoral district count from 85 to 20. Those 20 massive districts would elect from two to seven members.

Why so big? It’s the only way STV will work. Think of the bell curve, the figurative representation of a normal distribution. In the STV proposal, if you don’t fit within that bell—a problem facing political also-rans—then squash the bell from the top, add members, and transfer the normal distribution of ballots to the margins.

That’s the STV answer to measuring electoral majorities and pluralities: if you can’t get the results you want, change the way you count.

Mathematically, STV is interesting. But from the perspective of providing fair representation in a province as diverse as British Columbians, it’s a non-starter.

STV takes the unique characteristics and distinctively regional interests of 85 individual constituencies, throws them into a mixer and churns out 20 ungainly electoral blobs.

By way of a quick snapshot, I live in Prince George and have spent 18 years in elected office. I was a school trustee and board chair, a regional district director, as well as a three-term MLA and cabinet minister. In all positions, I represented a significant urban population as well as large but sparsely populated rural area.

There are many of us in B.C. who have represented rural voters, and collectively we can tell you that although the votes are in the city, the real political work is in the far-flung reaches of the constituency. It is the rural areas that truly need the ear of their MLA and a voice in Victoria.

Under STV, rural residents would suffer the short end of representation. MLA attention in the new super-ridings would be population-centric.

Let me pose this question to Georgia Straight readers: Would you want one huge at-large city council elected from the 22 municipalities that make up Metro Vancouver? With all council members elected using the STV ballot counting system? I don’t think so.

But that’s what STV proponents are attempting to foist on the province.

Supporters of STV make the case that the system would better reflect the views of voters.

Well, so does the current first-past-the-post system.

Just take a quick trip down Canada’s political memory lane. In 1984, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives won the largest parliamentary majority in Canadian political history.

By 1993, the once-mighty PC party was reduced to two seats.

Provincially, the Social Credit Party won a record 47 seats in 1986, suffered a massive defeat in 1991 and went on to political oblivion. The provincial NDP was reduced to two seats in 2001 yet rebounded to 33 seats four year later. The NDP could form government this May.

Our current voting system serves up dramatic political shifts with ease. By contrast, in Ireland—where STV has been in place for over 80 years—one party, Fianna Fáil, has formed the government for the majority of that time.

Finally, be careful of what you wish for. STV proponents say their system would produce a wonderful multi-party rainbow of political parties in the legislative assembly. It just might, but is that necessarily good? I don’t think so.

I sat as a Social Credit backbencher, deputy Speaker, and then cabinet minister in a two-party legislature. It was raucous, opinionated, and nasty, but it was productive.

There is nothing that focuses the mind of government as much as facing a strong and determined opposition, particularly an opposition with the capacity to defeat you in the next election.

STV promises seats for Greens, Communists, the Blind Mice, Little Bo Peep, and every political movement with enough life to fog a mirror. Wonderful, but if elected, what could this political amalgam accomplish? Very little, I would suggest.

Our current first-past-the-post system is robust, reliable, and understandable. And, I can tell you from my political scars, it has never failed to accurately reflect the mood of the electorate.

Before you vote on May 12, ask yourself, if STV is the answer, what was the question?

Bruce Strachan is a director of the No BC-STV Campaign Society and a former Social Credit cabinet minister.

See also:
Shoni Field and David Wills: Why the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform chose STV
David Schreck: BC-STV is simply no better than our current electoral system
Damian Kettlewell: Single transferable vote would break down political barriers in B.C.



Wayne Smith

Mar 23, 2009 at 2:55pm

The question is, how can we get the government we vote for, for a change.

Need I remind you that in the 1996 BC election, the Liberals got the most votes but the NDP won a "majority" government? Or that in 2001, the Liberals got 58% of the votes, but 97% of the seats in the Legislature? Or that the current "majority" government was elected with 46% of the votes?

I am astonished you have the nerve to mention 1993. The insane federal election results of 1993 sparked the modern movement for electoral reform in Canada.

Yes, the Progressive Conservatives won only two seats, and many were gleeful, but they got over 2 million votes. How is it fair to those voters that they were all represented by only 2 MPs? The Reform Party, with only a few more votes, won 52 seats because their supporters were concentrated in Western provinces. But neither of those parties formed the Official Opposition. The fourth place party, the Bloc Quebecois, won 54 seats and made Canadian democracy a laughing stock around the world. Meanwhile, the Liberals elected a "majority" government with only 38% of the votes, a record low.

This is the illogical crapshoot that is winner-take-all, first-past-the-post voting. It's time we ended it.

The BC Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, a group of ordinary BC citizens with no agenda except making a better democracy in BC, spent a year learning about voting systems around the world and coming up with a new, modern voting system.

BC-STV is a voting system designed by voters to be good for voters. It will give us more choice, fair results, and better representation, and it will finally allow us to hold politicians and political parties accountable.

That's why some people don't like it.

ezekiel bones

Mar 23, 2009 at 5:39pm

"BC-STV is a voting system designed by voters to be good for voters. It will give us more choice, fair results, and better representation, and it will finally allow us to hold politicians and political parties accountable."

This is not true! BCSTV would completely disenfranchise rural areas. Most northern constituencies are already bigger than many European countries. Under STV they would be two or three times bigger. It is insanity.

As someone from a rural area I can attest to the fact that it is already hard for villages, hamlets and other remote communities to get representation from their MLAs. It would be worse under BC STV.

Anyone who votes yes to STV is essentially giving the finger to rural B.C.

Antony Hodgson

Mar 23, 2009 at 8:13pm

Ezekiel - virtually all the northern and rural members of the Citizens' Assembly felt that STV would make MLAs more accountable and responsive to their concerns by making them more dependent on votes from every nook and cranny of their district (right now, a candidate can win with well under half the vote; with STV, a candidate in the north would need the support of 2/3rds or 3/4ths of a current riding's worth of voters; this increase in need for support makes the votes of more rural people more valuable, not less, because they can't be ignored; it also makes northern districts into swing ridings, so the leaders have to pay more attention to parts of the province that they might otherwise take for granted). The members of the Citizens' Assembly had only the best interests of their fellow citizens in mind, not partisan interests, and they judged that the improvement in representation was a significant benefit of STV and that the change to having teams of MLAs representing a region would have no significant impact on local representation.

As for Strachan's comments, they border on the absurd. "How to get elected without really winning" is a far better descriptor of our current voting system. In 2004, an MP from Saskatchewan 'won' with 27% of the vote.

STV is not representative or democratic? How is a system in which as many voters as possible can effectively elect precisely the MLA they want, having choice both within and between parties, not representative or democratic? Under STV, a candidate needs the support of just under a current riding's worth of voters, about 17,000 on average, to be elected. With our current system, the average candidate needs barely 7000. The other voters are unnecessary to the process and can be roundly ignored.

Strachan raises a bizarre rhetorical question - would we want a single city council formed out of the 22 Lower Mainland municipalities? The answer is "of course" if this fictional 'city council' had jurisdiction over the affairs of the whole lower mainland - a good dose of democracy for the GVRD is actually quite badly needed. But his question is misleading because the answer is "no" if we want this 'council' to take charge of all local issues. Each level of government should have its appropriate sphere of influence. At the provincial level, we need representation from around the province, but the provincial legislature does not concern itself with hyper-local issues; rather, it focuses on province-wide concerns, so STV is perfectly appropriate.

Bruce and I partially agree that our current voting system does "serve up dramatic political shifts with ease". It certainly is hypersensitive. I'm not sure the 2 million Conservative voters appreciated having no representation in 1984, nor did the over 42% of BC voters who voted against the Liberals in 2001. Our current system produces results with only the barest resemblance to what the voters say they want. It reminds me more of a car with loose steering careening down a crowded city street; a turn of the wheel may or may not cause a change in direction, but even small turns may cause sudden lurches that cause crashes on both sides of the road and an awful lot of damage. Given BC's yo-yo politics, a little stability would probably be a good thing. That's certainly what the business community tells us.

Last time I checked, Bo Peep was only polling 0.000001% of the vote, so I don't think she'll be elected. On the other hand, a little perspective and pressure generated by a third party such as the Greens would probably focus the government's mind considerably. With an effective threshold for representation of about 12.5%, STV certainly won't produce the kaleidoscope of parties Strachan misleadingly suggests. Rather, the Citizens' Assembly hit the nail on the head by recommending a system that offers a reasonable balance between representation for as many as possible and requiring that those elected represent a reasonably large slice of society. Since STV can elect candidates with 12.5-33% of the vote, Strachan must believe that it's fair to deny representation to this much of the population (which may well include many Liberal supporters in some parts of the province - eg, East Vancouver, the Kootenays, Vancouver Island, etc). Personally, I couldn't bring myself to tell as much as a the third of the population of a riding that their views were irrelevant, but Strachan clearly doesn't care to be so inclusive.

To conclude, even if Strachan has forgotten the question, I believe that the majority of BC voters have not lost sight of the main issue - why shouldn't every British Columbian be entitled to choose who represents them in the People's house? That's where matters of public import are supposed to be discussed and decided. If we want to take the next step towards a truly representative democracy, join the 95% of the Citizens' Assembly and a million fellow British Columbians in voting for BC-STV on May 12th.

Antony Hodgson
Director, Fair Voting BC
Supporting the recommendation of the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform
Check for information on the May 12th referendum


Mar 24, 2009 at 12:03pm


Do I detect a party aparatchik, scared of losing his power?



Mar 27, 2009 at 9:31am

The idea that First Past the Post accurately reflects the mood of the electorate is laughable. Was Canada really in the mood in 1993 to have the 4th place Bloc Quebecois as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition? In 1996 in BC, when the NDP had less than 2 votes out of 5, and fewer votes than the Liberals, were we really in the mood to have the NDP in full control with a majority government? Then in 2001, when 42% of voters voted for someone other than the Liberals, were we really in the mood for a legislature with practically no opposition?

This is a silly defense for an antiquated voting system.

Jamie Deith

Harold Steves

Mar 30, 2009 at 11:18pm

Bruce Strachan says "Our current voting system serves up dramatic political shifts with ease." That is the problem.

We don't elect governments. We throw them out. Then when the next bunch screws up and tries to undo what the previous government did we throw them out too. The present BC Liberal government is destroying programmes brought in by both the Socreds and NDP and making irreversible changes to our way of life with the support of less than half of the population.

Unlike other forms of proportional representation STV gives more power to the electorate and reduces the power of the political parties to choose and discipline their candidates. There is a greater opportunity to elect MLA's like Michael Sather who opposed removing farmland from the Agricultural Land Reserve in opposition to the official party line of the NDP.

Under STV we can expect that at least three parties will be elected in BC. This should lead to greater stability and less extremes when governments change in BC. The present minority Conservative government in Ottawa quickly dropped their attempt to change the electoral process in their favour when confronted by a combined opposition. Further, because such governments must compromise, an STV government could lead to positive change. Some of the best social programmes in Canada, like medicare and improved pensions, were achieved by minority governments.

A government elected under STV would have to find common ground. In an age when environmental and economic collapse are imminent possibilities we need governments that represent all of the people.

Harold Steves