Single transferable vote equals multiple problems

STV [single transferable vote] is a system designed for political scientists and mathematicians, not voters....The local government elections were a disaster and an international embarrassment...

-- New Zealand National Party MP Nick Smith, November 3, 2004

While British Columbia's Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform has overwhelmingly chosen to propose the province adopt a new electoral system called "single transferable vote", New Zealand is currently in an uproar over botched STV elections.

Local-government voters in New Zealand have been waiting for more than a month to find out who won the elections, leading to calls by Opposition members in parliament to scrap STV and go back to the first-past-the-post voting--the electoral system currently used in B.C. and Canada.

The complexity of the voting calculations and the delays, errors, and confusion seen in New Zealand are just some of a long list of serious flaws in the STV system.

The Citizens' Assembly consists of 160 ordinary British Columbians who were picked at random and asked to study electoral systems, then to recommend either keeping our existing electoral system or proposing an alternative.

The assembly voted for change and picked STV over the more widely used mixed-member proportional-representation system. A vote on adopting STV will take place at the same time as the May 17, 2005, provincial election; if approved, it would be in place for the subsequent election.

These well-meaning people have worked very hard and are very sincere. But the system they are recommending is very, very wrong.

For starters, why would B.C. change its way of electing members of the legislature to one favoured in just a few places like Tasmania, Malta, the Australian senate, and Northern Ireland?

Do Malta's 370,000 people know something about voting systems that the rest of the world has missed? Are Tasmania's 472,000 residents on the leading edge of democracy?

But let's not pick on the fine folks of Malta. The problems of STV apply equally anywhere it is used.

The short version of criticism of STV is that it is complicated, confusing, prone to errors and delay, and not truly proportional, and that it reduces local accountability, increases party control, and allows special interests to dominate party nominations.

STV is based on voters ranking their choices for elected representatives in multimember ridings, instead of the current first-past-the-post system where they pick one candidate to represent a single riding, with the winner being the person with more votes than any other candidate.

The Citizens' Assembly has suggested ridings would have between two to seven winning MLAs. Each voter would rank every candidate from first choice to last, or rank any number they desired. Then a computer formula would tabulate all the votes and announce the winners.

To understand the multiple problems STV would introduce, let's look at what might happen in Vancouver. Presume the "riding" of Vancouver had seven MLAs to elect.

First, it's clear that STV would be similar to Vancouver city elections. To get elected, candidates would need to win a large number of votes across the city. That means less local accountability and a need for big-budget, major-party financing to win.

Second, the number of candidates would be staggering. If the B.C. Liberal, New Democrat, Unity, Green, Conservative, Reform, and Marijuana parties all ran full slates, there would be a minimum of 49 candidates. Then add any other parties and independents.

Third, just try to figure out how many votes you would need to win election. STV requires the use of a complicated mathematical formula to determine who is elected. You can choose between the Droop Quota, which is: (voters divided by seats + 1) + 1 vote, or the Hare Quota or at least four other alternatives.

Fourth, just try to figure out how best to use your vote, because voting preferences are transferred. The candidate with the lowest number of votes in a riding is eliminated, and their votes are transferred to the voters' second preferences, and on and on and on until the required number of MLAs are elected.

That means three things: voters will face a daunting task if they actually want to knowledgeably rank all possible candidates; major parties will strongly urge their supporters to only vote for party candidates, with no second preferences; and you have to totally trust computers to count the votes accurately, with no scrutineers.

Fifth, the complexity will discourage voting and increase spoiled ballots. In the New Zealand local elections for the Auckland District Health Board, there were only 850 invalid votes in 2001, before STV was introduced, but 12,349 invalid votes in 2004, amounting to 11 percent of all votes cast.

Sixth, if you dislike the problem of bloc voting dominating party nominations now, watch out. Under STV, each party will need to hold a massive nominating meeting to pick all seven Vancouver candidates for office. If one candidate can sign up a majority of those attending, that individual will also have the ability to choose the other six candidates as well.

Seventh, the only way a third party or independent can win a seat is if major-party voters decide in large numbers to throw them a bone. But why would NDP or Liberal voters trying to elect their parties to government give preference to other candidates who could defeat their first choices?

Those who want to see proportionality--where a party that wins 10 percent of the popular vote gets 10 percent of the seats--are out of luck.

The STV system is fundamentally flawed. Fortunately, for STV to be adopted in B.C. it will take an overall majority vote of 60 percent to approve the change, as well as a simple majority voting in favour in 60 percent of B.C. ridings.

And a simple "no" vote won't require quotas, preferences, or computers to figure out.

Bill Tieleman is president of West Star Communications and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio's Early Edition.