Democracy denied with STV propaganda

The proposal that's come out of the Citizens' Assembly will, in my opinion, make it much harder for women to actually be represented....The reason that's the case is that because the Citizens' Assembly, while it's made up half of women, is not made up of people who have actual active experience in politics.

-- B.C. Liberal MLA Christy Clark, Voice of B.C., January 5, 2005

Last month, every household in the province received a 20-page booklet from the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform strongly advocating that B.C. adopt a new electoral system called the single transferable vote.

The booklet is full of arguments in favour of STV, but it is also just plain full of it when it comes to verifiable facts.

Regrettably, voters are not being informed about key STV flaws, and when they choose on May 17 between STV and our existing first-past-the-post electoral system, many may decide based on faulty information.

For example, the fact that STV performs poorly in ensuring that women are represented in legislatures is never mentioned. Liberal MLA Christy Clark rightly points out that STV, where every constituency is much bigger and elects between two and seven MLAs, makes it harder for a woman MLA to meet the challenges of personal life while serving a very large riding.

If they read the Citizens' Assembly handbook, voters might wrongly presume that more women, not fewer, would be elected under STV.

"This [BC ­STV] will provide increased opportunities for candidates from under-represented groups," the handbook states.

But STV is one of the worst electoral systems in the world for electing women. In Malta, where STV has been used since 1921, women make up just 9.2 percent of the legislators, with only six women elected out of 65 representatives. In Ireland, the only other country to use STV nationally, just 13.3 percent of elected officials are women.

By comparison, in British Columbia under our FPTP system, women make up 22.8 percent of our MLAs, 18 out of 79. Although not representative of our society, it is significantly better than under STV.

And in Canada, women represent 21.1 percent of members of Parliament, with 65 women out of 308 seats.

Countries with more than 35 percent women elected, such as Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands, all use party-list proportional-representation electoral systems, not STV.

Andrea Reimer, a Vancouver Green party school trustee, is another woman in politics who is concerned about STV.

"It certainly doesn't have a good track record for women if you look at the stats," Reimer told the Georgia Straight. Reimer said that although STV could be designed to be more proportional, the BC ­STV design is "not that proportional and therefore won't be good for women".

But avoiding STV's drawbacks for women is only one of the booklet's many flaws. Another is that the Citizens' Assembly publication ignores the country of Malta in its arguments--and for good reason.

Citizens' Assembly member Rick Dignard is highly critical of the assembly's report and its choice of STV. And he said he's not surprised Malta was not discussed, because Malta, which has used STV since 1921, contradicts much of the assembly's arguments for STV.

"Malta was kept very quiet, and I'd keep Malta quiet too if I wanted STV," Dignard said in an interview.

The assembly claims that "BC ­STV is also the only proportional system that allows independent candidates a real chance to be elected," but Malta hasn't elected an independent since 1950, and only three before that!

The assembly booklet also says that smaller parties will be elected, but in Malta no third-party member has been elected since 1962. Under FPTP, B.C. has elected MLAs from small parties as recently as 1996, when members were elected under the B.C. Reform party and the Progressive Democratic Alliance.

Perhaps the most outrageous fabrication is the most important one. The assembly produced a pie chart that shows the percentage of popular vote for each party in the 2001 election, the seats actually awarded, and an illustration of legislative seats "if BC ­STV had been in place".

The BC ­STV seat distribution mirrors almost exactly the percentage of popular vote: a result that would only be possible un-der a party-list proportionalrepresentation system, not STV. This blatant distortion claims that the Marijuana and Unity parties would have won seats in the legislature with just three percent of the vote, which is ridiculous.

"That pie chart bugged me; it's completely misleading," Dignard said. "It's taking advantage of people who don't know about this. It's not just not going to happen--it can't happen.

"STV's an experiment. It's silly to say all these things are going to happen. They talk about 'facts'. There are no facts; they're pulling this stuff out of thin air," Dignard added.

It's not just Malta that the assembly ignores: it's also reality. In one section of the booklet, it states that "British Columbians are concerned with declining voter turnout."

But voter turnout is not declining! The 2001 B.C. election saw 70.95 percent of B.C. registered voters cast a ballot, while in 1996 an even stronger 71.5 percent of registered voters went to the polls. Those turnouts are higher than every single election between 1952 and 1979 except one. Some decline.

The Citizens' Assembly's 160 members received 1,603 submissions from the public, a small fraction of which favoured STV. Now 2.7 million B.C. voters are being asked to accept a dubious electoral-system experiment that would change the province, without any idea of the unintended consequences or damage that could be done.

And all that most voters received to help them understand the choice is a misleading piece of pro ­STV propaganda. Quite an exercise in democracy.

Bill Tieleman is president of West Star Communications and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio One's Early Edition. E-mail him at