Bill Tieleman: Why STV failed in B.C.

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
- Sun Tzu, 544-496 BC

The single transferable vote failed for multiple reasons.

The proposal of the Citizens’ Assembly to replace our current first-past-the-post electoral system with STV was always fraught with peril, but it was only narrowly defeated in the 2005 referendum nonetheless, receiving 58 percent of the votes but needing 60 percent to pass.

And British Columbians for BC-STV released a poll on April 15 stating: “Voters are giving a big thumbs up to electoral reform with 65 per cent saying they will vote for BC-STV in the upcoming referendum.”

But on May 12 just under 39 percent of voters supported STV, while 61 percent backed FPTP.

So what went wrong this time? Lots.

In brief: the giant STV ridings scared off voters, as did the incomprehensible STV voting system.

The fact that the only two tiny countries that use STV as a national electoral system—Ireland and Malta—had a track record going back to the 1920s that often contradicted the cheery claims of the BC-STV proponents didn’t help.

And British Columbians for BC-STV ran an unfocused campaign that attempted to replicate the approach major parties use in an election.

The yes side hired staff, rented offices, purchased 10,000 lawns signs, ran phone banks, lined up celebrity endorsements like David Suzuki, former B.C. Liberal deputy premier and now talk-show host Christy Clark, and former premier Bill Vander Zalm, and put an amazing 5,000 volunteers on the campaign.

British Columbians for BC-STV also raised probably $200,000 or more from supporters across the country and brought in high-profile advocates from Alberta, like Rick Anderson, the former senior advisor to Reform Party leader Preston Manning; Ontario, like feminist commentator Judy Rebick; and even former grunge rock star Krist Novoselic, the bass player from Nirvana.

British Columbians for BC-STV deserve full credit for their commitment to an energetic campaign that pulled out all the stops.

But you can’t sell a bad idea no matter how hard you try. And tactics are not strategy.

No STV, the official group funded by the province to oppose STV and defend FPTP, took the completely opposite approach.

No STV ran a disciplined campaign based on polling research and focus groups conducted by Ipsos Reid to direct its television, radio, and print advertising and messaging.

There were no staff, no offices, no lawn signs, no endorsements, no phone banks, and no outsiders brought to B.C.

Each side was provided with $500,000 for their campaign by the province and all available funding—including the less than $20,000 raised separately by No STV—was used to maximize the advertising buy.

The majority of the funds were put into television, with the remainder spent on print and radio, including some in ethnic media.

The entire ad buy was concentrated in the final two weeks of the campaign leading up to the May 12 vote.

That’s because our polling showed that, as of March 30, 60 percent of all voters had no idea the on STV referendum was happening just six weeks later!

We knew that voters wouldn’t start thinking about STV versus FPTP until the last part of the campaign.

We also know that because voters already had great knowledge of FPTP and its simplicity, there was no need to explain the current system.

But explain STV? Well that’s a different and very long story.

In 2005, there were no proposed STV riding maps created for the referendum, so voters had no real idea how their existing single-member constituency would be replaced by a multi-member riding.

And post-election research showed most voters never understood STV but voted for it anyway—probably as a protest vote after the lopsided B.C. Liberal win in 2001, when they took 77 seats to the NDP’s two.

This time, the independent B.C. Electoral Boundaries Commission provided clear maps that showed how reducing the 85 ridings down to 20 enormous one would look—and it wasn’t pretty.

The new STV ridings were often absurd.

The proposed North Island-South Coast STV riding stretched from Tofino and Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island, east to Comox, north to Port Hardy and then jumped over the Georgia Strait to include Sechelt, Gibsons, and Powell River!

And the proposed Cariboo-Thompson STV riding would have stretched from Quesnel in the north down to the United States border!

Once many voters realized that their communities would not only share MLAs over a far-flung area but that they might not have anyone representing them, their minds were made up to reject STV.

It also helped that ridings would have up to seven MLAs and 350,000 people, making it easy to argue that would take away local accountability and responsibility of MLAs to voters.

And the different sized ridings—seven members in the Victoria area but just two in Peace River country—meant dramatically different percentages of the vote were needed to elect an MLA. And the further you were from Victoria, the more votes you needed to send an MLA there.

That also meant the degree of proportional representation provided by STV—not a strictly proportional system even in optimum circumstances—would range from some in Victoria to next to none in smaller rural ridings.

Secondly, the complex STV vote-count system simply could not be explained in less than 10 minutes.

Here’s just one part of the 12 steps required for an STV election, according to the Citizens’ Assembly’s technical report: “If a candidate on the first count gains more than the minimum number of votes needed to be elected, the candidate is declared elected, and the number of votes in excess of the number of votes needed to be elected (the surplus) is recorded. All of the elected candidate’s ballots are then re-examined and assigned to candidates not yet elected according to the second preferences marked on the ballots of those who gave a first preference vote to the elected candidate. These votes are allocated according to a ”˜transfer value.’”

I could explain how the “Weighted Inclusive Gregory method” works for redistribution of the surplus of the vote, but you get the idea.

The proponents for STV argued you can easily rank your choices 1, 2, 3. But the math involved showed you would have no idea what happened to your vote—because there are far more mathematical combinations possible than there are 6-49 lottery pick possibilities!

These are powerful arguments against STV, but there were even more.

It became obvious to many voters that STV would increase, not decrease, the power of political parties.

The huge STV ridings would mean a need to reach far more voters in a 350,000-person STV riding than in a single-member riding of about 50,000 people, making candidates even more dependent on political parties to get their names and message out.

And claims that smaller third parties and independents could be more easily elected under STV were shot down by the cold hard facts of politics in Malta.

In that STV country, Maltese voters have failed to elect a single third-party candidate since the 1960s and no independent since the 1950s. Ouch.

Finally, the Citizens’ Assembly had recommended that if adopted, STV be kept for a minimum of three elections—that’s 12 years, running to 2025—before considering any changes.

For those who support true proportional representation like that under the mixed-member proportional system, the STV lock-in would have likely meant no chance of adopting a better system.

In the end, the weight of negative arguments against STV became overwhelming for a strong majority of voters, and its 58 percent support in 2005 evaporated into just 39 percent on May 12.

The future of electoral reform in B.C. is unclear, but what is certain is that STV is now dead.

Bill Tieleman is the president of No BC-STV Campaign Society. He is a political commentator, columnist, and owner of West Star Communications. His blog is at



Mike Hansen

May 19, 2009 at 2:19pm

Most of us know that in "third world countries, like Canada", elections are opperated and governed by the American government. How else would 'democracy' prevail'! That's why Canadians don't get the political change they deserve. Be it here in B.C. or federally, the only politicians to get elected are the ones that disrespect the People's needs and gives away our resources to a foreign nation. Our elections are not in the 'Peoples best interests' but predetermined and calculated in the "best interests of America".

Sovereign Vanguard


May 19, 2009 at 2:31pm

It also doesn't help the pro STV campaign that so many hard core right wingers favour it. When you have the likes of Gordon Campbell, ex BC Reformer Bruce Hallsor and Reform Party strategist Rick Anderson either advocating for STV or giving their blessing for it then that yucky sensation you feel is your skin crawling off looking for a place to escape being slimed by association.


May 19, 2009 at 8:09pm

And every single thing Tieleman said can be countered by a pro STV expert. I particularily enjoyed Dennis Pilon eating Shreck for lunch on this issue.

No it failed for the same reason, the NDP lost. The apathetic voter with the brain and concentration of a nat. You see them driving every day.

Of course if Greenies had thrown their support behind it in 2005 it would be in now. Another example of how irresponsible and dangerous Greenie politicians are even to themselves.


May 20, 2009 at 12:11am

While I disagree with a lot of Tieleman's statements, he is correct in pointing out that the BC-EBC's Appendix P maps were probably the biggest detriment to the BC-STV campaign and probably were one of the few legitimate arguments against the change.

As a result of Bill 39, the EBC turned the Cariboo-Thompson into a five seat district stretching from the border to Quesnel and turned the Kootenay's into a four seater. The original maps had issues as well, they chose to divide Kelowna in half and the North Island / Sunshine Coast region ended up being stretching from Tofino to Gibson to Port Alberni.

The early decision to remove 3 seats from rural areas, led to a public perception that STV would do the same.


May 20, 2009 at 11:36am

Another point that Tieleman could have mentioned was that many anti-STV people were NOT pro-FPTP. They were, and are, pro-MMP. Therefore, much of their energy was lost to the electoral reform movement because, unlike in New Zealand, the most important choices were not given to citizens at large.

Most electoral reformers who I know are adamantly in favour of some type of MMP. STV was seen as a last-minute electoral gamble that was foisted on British Columbians by a northern cabal in the Citizen's Assembly. Many of the problems with STV were quite legitimate, but you were automatically labeled as pro-FPTP if you mentioned them. Indeed, many criticisms of STV, such as how STV proportionality is actually measured compared to a list system, were never addressed. I tried, but all I got were answers to different questions. And, frankly, many of the STV supporters came across as sunny-eyed fanatics who would not tolerate dissent. It's hard to debate with glass-one-third full types.

Di Sturbed

May 20, 2009 at 12:28pm

Almost everything Bill says about STV is a half truth or is otherwise misleading. I don't have space to debunk all of it so let me just point out 2 blatant false statements:

Bill says "the further you were from Victoria, the more votes you needed to send an MLA there." <<FALSE>> In fact, you need a lot more votes to get elected in urban ridings like Victoria than rural ones in Peace River. That's true under FPTP and it's true under STV. Check the Elections BC website and calculate the quota values.

Bill says "But the math involved showed you would have no idea what happened to your vote" <<FALSE>> In fact, the Referendum Office website states "you would be able to track your vote – so long as you remember whom you voted for, and in what order."

Why is Bill still spreading lies about STV if he's sure it's dead?


May 20, 2009 at 1:13pm

<In fact, the Referendum Office website states "you would be able to track your vote – so long as you remember whom you voted for, and in what order.">

I think Tieleman could have made it clearer. The point is that, under MMP or FPTP, a vote is a vote. It won't change (though it might be wasted under FPTP). Under STV, however, how your vote is allocated depends on many unpredictable factors. Do any candidates make the initial threshold? If so, (contingent) surplus votes are distributed fractionally. If no candidates make the initial threshold, then the bottom candidate's votes are re-allocated as whole votes. Then they try again to see if anyone meets the threshold. In other words, a vote is not necessarily a vote. You might be able to follow it in a post-hoc fashion, but not before.

Don't apologize for Tieleman

May 20, 2009 at 2:42pm

The two items I pointed out are falsehoods, plain and simple. Tieleman is a communications consultant. If he wanted to make it clearer, he would have.

STV is a very elegant way of translating voter sentiment into representation. It recognizes that most people have preferences. If I can't have A, then I'd like B. Simple as that. And if you don't want your vote transferred, just mark a 1. Then it's just like FPTP.

Di Sturbed

May 20, 2009 at 9:24pm

All of you who voted no for STV because you're holding out for MMP have played right into Tieleman's hands. He's doing fine by the current system thank you; and he doesn't want anyone rocking the boat.

And if you think MMP will get a smoother ride if it ever did get put to the voters, you're fooling yourself. Check out what happened in Ontario.

Antony Hodgson

May 21, 2009 at 12:36am

It's frustrating, but not surprising, that Tieleman does not engage in any real analysis or produce evidence to support his views, but instead simply continues to spout the same nonsense he used to sow uncertainty amongst BC voters. He actually seems proud that the No side made no attempt to engage BC voters in any sort of conversation, but simply held all their funds in reserve for a one-way, last-minute, elitist campaign of media broadcasting.

Personally, I'm proud that even though the proponents were heavily underfunded for the task (not even having enough money to send one piece of mail to each household in BC), we nonetheless did everything we could to reach out and talk to people about how our voting system works. Though we clearly did not reach enough people, I believe that most of those who supported STV in this referendum did so because they understood its elegance much more deeply than the last time around. I look forward to seeing the academic studies that will emerge to test this hypothesis.

Just to set a few points straight:

1. The No side frequently said that you couldn't control in advance whether your vote counted or not, or how much went to any particular candidate, without ever noting that precisely the same argument applies with even more force to our current system - with FPTP, your vote only 'counts' (in the sense that it helps your indicated candidate get elected) if a plurality of the other voters agree with you. If they don't, your vote doesn't count at all. You can't know in advance (unless you live in one of the 75% of the ridings in the province that are considered safe, in which case voting either way is often pointless - if you live in one of these, you may well know that your vote won't count at all - that's a heck of a motivation to vote!).

2. Tieleman kept saying that STV was not proportional, or wasn't proportional in the more rural ridings, but never acknowledged that even in the most rural ridings it would be far more proportional than FPTP and that province-wide STV would have about 1/6th the disproportionality of FPTP. He was never honest about this, whereas proponents always conceded that there was a trade-off between local proportionality and district size, as requested and supported by the northern and rural members of the Citizens' Assembly.

3. Tieleman kept cherry-picking arguments - you always heard him talking about Malta not electing independents, but he never, to my knowledge, made a balanced statement such as "It's true that in Ireland they've elected over 25 independents in the past three elections, but Malta hasn't elected one in 50 years, probably because Malta is such a highly polarized society that close to 99% of voters vote for one of the two major parties. Since BC voters are not so devoted to the two major parties, typically giving 10-20% of their votes to smaller parties and independents, we would likely elect several members from other parties and/or independents." This statement is true and balanced, but Tieleman believes that this is too complicated a thought for BC voters to hold in their little tiny heads, so he would never bother them with it.

In conclusion, I accept that Tieleman and Schreck were strategically and tactically smart and achieved their partisan goals, but by failing to make any effort to engage BC voters in a real, nuanced discussion of what would be the best voting system for our province, I think that they have failed the people of BC and have increased public cynicism about politics. This will not serve us well in the future.
Antony Hodgson
Director, Fair Voting BC
Supporting the recommendation of the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform
Check for information on the May 12th referendum