BC-STV, and why it’s annoying that I’m ineligible to vote for it.

April 30, 2009

This article was written by Darren Peets, recently graduated PhD student in Physics from UBC and formerly of the UBC board of Governors. If you are on FaceBook you can read the original post here.

On May 12, 2009, BC residents have the extremely rare opportunity to change their voting system. Not having lived in BC the last 6 months, I’m not eligible to vote, which is rather annoying given the importance of this referendum. But I can encourage others to vote. I wholeheartedly support BC-STV, and would be voting Yes.

Under the current system, each constituency in BC elects one MLA, whomever gets the most votes in that riding. Under the proposed system (overwhelmingly recommended by a randomly-selected group of ordinary citizens), constituencies would be pooled in groups of 2-7, and voters would have a preferential ballot, where they rank the candidates, and their vote or fractions of it are shifted to lower choices as their first choices are elected or eliminated.

The STV (single transferable vote) part, where you rank the candidates, means that you can vote for whomever you want, and strategic voting becomes secondary. If you support the Marxist-Leninist Party and the Christian Heritage Party, you can put them at the top of your list. If they aren’t elected, your vote isn’t wasted, it passes to your third choice. Is one party scary? Put them last. Hate that party but like one of their candidates? Rank that candidate higher, and increase the odds that they’ll get elected at the expense of some of their compatriots. You can vote for your true first choice, knowing that your vote will pass to other candidates if your first choice doesn’t get in, and you don’t have to worry about trying to block evil parties or candidates from getting elected by guessing who their best competitor is. It’s unlikely one party will sweep a multi-member constituency, so you can have some say over who represents each party in your riding. Note, though, that you only have one vote, so who’s 12th and 13th on your list is not particularly important if your second-place candidate wins (if they win in a landslide, a good fraction of your vote may be transferred). While ranking candidates is marginally more mentally challenging than marking a single X, the system’s really not so complicated. The vote counting is similarly a bit more involved, but not difficult to explain. I’ll get to that a bit later.

The best part, for me, is the multi-member constituencies. The larger a riding, the closer the results will be to proportional (this isn’t proportional, but it’s more proportional than the current system. At the size proposed, a good third party will pick up some seats, and most ridings will have both a government and an opposition MLA, so almost everyone will feel represented. Even better, multi-member constituencies are good for candidates and bad for parties. It doesn’t suffice to be a candidate for the most popular party, you need to be the most popular candidate for that party. This should weaken the parties, and improve the chances of well-known, well-respected, popular, and responsive MLAs. I grew up in a riding where one party could have run a tree stump and it would still have been elected. The actual candidate appeared to me to have skills and language ability closely resembling those of a tree stump, had done nothing in the community, and was content to be a trained seal, heckling from the last row, and voting blindly with the party rather than the constituents. I see no downside to having stronger, more independent MLAs.

It has been pointed out that large ridings will be hard for politicians to cover and hard to campaign in, and that it may not be clear who represents you. To the first concerns, well, I see no reason to make it easy on politicians, and I’d point out that federal ridings are already several times larger than provincial. As for who represents you, several people do. Go to the one who’s most responsive or in the best position to help. If one ignores you, return the favour when marking your next ballot. A particularly helpful MLA will get ranked higher, and the MLAs will usually realize this.

The large ridings will also lead to large ballots. You get that in city council elections, and you deal with it. Here, the candidates will be grouped by party for your convenience.

If the government decides to shovel money off the back of a truck only in ridings that supported them, they’ll find that they elected MLAs in all or almost all ridings. The large ridings also make it much more difficult to adjust a riding’s boundaries to benefit one party or another.

It has been pointed out that the proposed system is more likely to create coalition and minority governments. This is likely true, but not a large effect (as I mentioned, it’s not truly proportional). In other countries, this sort of government is the norm, and the parties have to co-operate. They know that people don’t want elections, and they know they’ll be punished if they’re seen to have triggered a needless election. Our vicious, polarizing politics would need to change, and it’s likely that the most partisan, unco-operative politicians would get booted out. In coalition or minority governments, parties have to prioritize, compromise, and try to bring each other on board if they want something passed. For something to become law, at least two parties have to be willing to go along with it. The compromises may well be hammered out behind closed doors, but that’s where legislation is made now, and this at least gets some different voices behind those closed doors.

Before getting into the gory details, because a good number of my friends will want to read that, but most won’t, a couple of final-ish thoughts:

First, this is a choice between BC-STV and the current system. Other systems are not on the ballot. If you believe BC-STV is an improvement, vote for it. There is no perfect voting system, and what you like is not what other people will like. If everyone holds out for perfection, nothing can ever improve. There are parts I would have done differently, mainly in the vote-counting, but I see BC-STV as a
significant improvement over the current system, and would be whole-heartedly voting for it if it were still legal for me to vote. Better is not the enemy of best, and you shouldn’t vote as if it is.

Second, it’s actually been proven that there is no perfect voting system. If you write down everything you want in a voting system, you’ll find parts of your list conflict. You can’t have true proportionality and still have constituencies — some constituency would have to elect unpopular candidates. Proportionality in the current system, for instance, would require about 10 constituencies to have Green MLAs, despite those candidates only getting a small fraction of the vote and finishing second, third or fourth. You might like the stability of a majority government, but that’s at odds with local representation (your representative should vote with you, not with the party) and a truly proportional system would almost never produce a majority. BC-STV strikes a balance, and I think it’s a pretty good
balance, all things considered.

Third, the voting is not complicated. Anyone can count to three or ten and express a preference. The vote-counting is a bit more complicated, but it’s not that bad. I’d like everyone to understand it, but I recognize that many won’t care. Once the voting system is in place, people will generally just trust other people to ensure that it’s done correctly. The candidates and parties will watch the counting, because they have a vested interest in ensuring that it’s done right. Recounts would still be done by hand by judges, and I expect there’d be recounts in almost every riding. So faith in the system will not be misplaced. People like me who are interested will know how it’s done in detail, but we’re a minority. Much as I’d like them to, the average person doesn’t need to know the full details behind the vote-counting any more than they need to know how their car’s airbag decides to inflate, how the 911 operator knows where their (landline) phone is, or how TCP/IP works in their internet connection. Knowing that the ranking is important and your vote or parts of it will pass to lower-ranked candidates as needed would suffice.

Now for the gory details:

Every voter gets one ballot and one vote, but they can express a preference for how that vote is transferred when each surviving candidate at the top of their list is elected or dumped.

There’s a quota of votes that a candidate needs in order to be elected. If V valid ballots were cast and there are N seats to fill, the quota is V/(N+1) plus one. If you check this with N=1 (the current system), you’ll see they’d need half of the votes (50%) plus one. If there are 5 seats to fill, a candidate would need 1/5 plus one.

First, every first choice is counted. This is identical to the current system so far, but now the quota is applied. If the first-place candidate has met the quota, they’re elected. If not, the last-place candidate is eliminated. If a candidate is eliminated, all of their votes pass to their voters’ second choices. If a candidate is elected, their excess votes (over and above the quota) are distributed to second-place choices. So, if a candidate got 10% more votes than the quota, everyone who voted for that candidate has 91% (100/110) of their vote count for the elected candidate, while 9% (10/110) passes to their
second choice.

At this point, the process repeats: If anyone’s met the quota, they’re elected and their excess votes are distributed. If not, the bottom candidates are dropped and their votes distributed until someone has met the quota. Unsurprisingly, the process ends when the correct number of MLAs have been elected, and ballots are dropped once they run out of ranked candidates.

You can make up your own mind, but please vote!

Darren Peets is a postdoctoral fellow at Kyoto University and PhD Physics Alumni from UBC.

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