Post Referendum Thoughts

May 13, 2009

Below are merely some of my (Bruce Krayenhoff’s) opinions on the 2009 BC-STV referendum and the future of electoral reform

Referendum Results Discussion – Mistakes in the Referendum Campaign

Why did BC-STV fail miserably this time around? Conditions for electoral reform were much less favorable this time around.  The 2005 election results weren’t as clearly ‘wrong’ to the general voter as the 2001 results, the Citizens’ Assembly was no longer fresh in people’s minds, people were afraid of change because of the financial crisis, and, most importantly, there was a funded ‘No side’.

Referenda in General: I am quite interested in direct democracy in addition to electoral reform, and have read quite a bit about it (several years ago).  It is not uncommon for good initiatives to be voted down by a confused public, particularly when a lot of money is being spent for and against the initiative.  Unless the proposal is very simple (And changing to a more proportional voting system is not), the public by and large does not spend the time to understand the complexities of the proposal, is easily confused, and tends to vote for the status quo.  In fact, I’ve heard from my Uncle that referenda are sometimes defeated by ‘confusion campaigns’ in the US – the ‘No side,’ says all sorts of different things which are sometimes contradictory or false, confusing the public and ultimately securing a vote for the status quo.

The ‘No’ Side: In BC we did hear some lies (i.e. about the Citizens’ Assembly thinking FPTP is fair) and contradictory statements (i.e. about proportionality) from the No Side, but by-and-large most of what we heard was dubious claims, spin, cherry-picking of facts, and some very misleading but technically correct statements.  I think there are a few actual downsides to BC-STV, but the ‘No Side’ didn’t focus on these.  The one thing that I do agree with is that BC-STV counting is complex when compared to that of FPTP.  But it’s simple enough to do by hand and can be scrutineered, so I see this as a problem only when trying to sell it to a public that is unfamiliar with it.  Also, I’ve never entirely understood northerner’s concerns with bigger ridings (Nor the No side’s if they actually have one), and the Citizens’ Assembly members from northern BC did prefer not to have single-seaters, so I’m not convinced there’s a real issue here.

How could the campaign have been run better? I learned early on that most people aren’t interested in spending much time learning/thinking about BC-STV, and without some understanding of STV and its history it would be near impossible for them to distinguish between valid and invalid arguments for/against it.  The only way that we could sell STV to these people IMO is to tell the story of the Citizens’ Assembly – of how BC-STV was designed by voters for voters through a very in-depth learning and deliberation process.  Ideally, the BC-STV campaign would have been run under a name like “Friends of the Citizens Assembly,” with Citizens’ Assembly Alumni as spokespeople and in charge (with lots of support from everyone else).  Otherwise, why should people trust us more than the ‘No Side’?  Unfortunately, the Citizens’ Assembly was not emphasized by the yes side.

Also, the yes campaign provided less information in its literature than I would have liked – which could have helped win over opinion leaders and laid a better basis for future electoral reform efforts.

The Future of Electoral Reform in BC

Provincially: Sadly BC-STV and most likely electoral reform will not be revisited provincially for a few decades.  The NDP promised that if BC-STV failed to reach 60% it would hold a referendum on MMP, which could only be intended to kill the issue permanently while making the NDP look good.  I have heard from NDPers that, while the membership is receptive and even passed a policy supporting MMP, most influential NDP insiders (Like Bill Tieleman and David Schreck who pretty much ran the No campaign) are dead against proportional representation.  An MMP system designed by politicians would IMO fail far worse than BC-STV, and that would be the end of it.

Ultimately, our system will again produce some very skewed election results, and electoral reform will be revisited in BC.

Municipally and in Smaller Organizations: One reason why the No campaign was so effective is that STV is very unfamiliar to most British Columbians, so they could claim whatever they wanted and most people wouldn’t know better.  Perhaps reform could be started at the municipal or smaller level where there are also many problems with the current voting system.  Then, with raised familiarity, reform at higher levels of government will come more easily.  At this point in time it may be necessary to promote other systems such as SPAV (Sequential Proportional Approval Voting) which have not had their names blackened, which is unfortunate, since they aren’t quite as good as STV.

In particular, at the university level support for voting reform is strong, student politicians don’t have a strong vested interest in their current voting systems, and there is interest in fairer results and in engaging more students in students politics.  All that is needed is a bit of support/interest from someone who is knowledgeable about voting systems and about the Open STV software.  I think this is a good place to start! (Or in my case continue).  [Edit: Vancity and MEC are also apparently good places to start – Vancity now uses multi-member plurality, which is horrible!]

Federally: Federally the need for electoral reform is very clear, and could possibly be implemented by a Liberal-NDP majority coalition.

P.S. I recall a Citizens’ Assembly member saying that initially he thought STV was all about formulas, but when they figured out what it did then they started to like it more.  So STV is definitely not the easiest thing to sell to an inattentive public.

P.P.S. While I am critical of some of the decisions they made (not emphasizing the Citizens’ Assembly), I do want to thank the directors of British Columbians for BC-STV for their hard work.


11 Responses to “Post Referendum Thoughts”

  1. I think you are quite right that this quickly turned into a confusion campaign. Mr. Tielman and Mr. Shreck knew full well that they were spouting lies left, right, and center, and it was entirely deliberate.

    I would have to say that the main reason I see for the defeat is that public awareness was at a pitiful low, and when asked whether you would support a change to something you have no idea about, odds are that you will stick with familiarity. I knew a friend working at a polling station and she said that a huge majority had no idea what the referendum was about, even asking if they needed to vote on it. That is where we lost, IMO.

    I am saddened by the defeat, because I think it will be a long time coming before we can even bring this up again. Our only hope is to throw as much weight behind the Greens as possible, and use them and their situation as the main lobby for change. I like your idea of starting at the Universities, Ill be attending Capiliano U this September and will be quite active in the student politics, and this would be an issue that I think we could get some widespread knowledge out on that way. Great post.

  2. wbrucek Says:

    Hi Russell,

    We should work together on this – my email is


  3. Michael Wheatley Says:

    Stick with STV and Alternative Vote. It was defeated this time due to diliberate disinformation and that should not be rewarded.

    With the 61% support in Victoria there is hope for municipal adoption here.

    Mountain Equipment Coop adopted language in the Rules specifically providing for preferential ballots which will support STV. I intend to work for STV elections at MEC and VanCity as a start.

  4. Niilo John Van Steinburg Says:

    Very thoughtful post. The only thing I have to add is that I’m not sure if it was possible at all to get the public to favour any electoral reform. As has been pointed out, despite the amount of public education and advertising (*and* every voter being sent a breakdown of the referendum), many people were not aware. I feel the main reason for this lack of awareness is simply a lack of interest. People generally don’t want to put any effort into learning anything new that is not necessary for their immediate life goals.

    How do you educate someone who isn’t listening?

    Great idea on getting university student societies to adopt electoral reform. I’ll have to see if UVic would go in this direction.

  5. Mark Crowley Says:

    It is dissapointing but I disagree that people couldn’t be convinced to change. I think we need to stop asking if they want to change to a particular system and ask if they want change at all. If any major referendum was held on that question it would show the unhappiness with the system and give politicians the mandate to push forward, there has to be something in it for them. Nationally I think the NDP are also an option since they are the third party. If the next election looks like another minority it would be great to convince the NDP to put down electoral reform down as a requirement for a coalition deal. I also think the city councils of Vancouver and Victoria would be a great small step to focus on since support was fairly high in those cities.

  6. wbrucek Says:

    Hi Guys – Great to see all the ideas for smaller organizations to get better voting systems used in!

    I think the Citizens’ Assembly again could have helped with the lack of interest – because people are interested in people, and so would be more interested in the story of the Citizens’ Assembly members!

  7. I agree with Michael Wheatley, stick with STV and Alternative Vote for pursuing electoral reform at the Local Government level. The name STV hasn’t been sullied, heck anecdotal evidence suggests that tremendous numbers of people showed up to vote and didn’t know there was a referendum on. From what I can, a majority of those who looked into the issue supported STV strongly.

    As for federal electoral reform, an addendum to your article. STV actually is on the radar federally. While I’m no fan of the current government, they have twice brought a bill before the House proposing senate reform, and both times they proposed that senators be elected by STV. The discussion on senate reform seems to be about whether to do it, not how to do it, meaning so far so good on STV being the system ultimately chosen when senate reform likely inevitably happens.

  8. To those who propose to reform VanCity and other smaller organisations for their corporate governance, when proposing STV consider pointing out that the 5 nominees for the Academy Awards are selected by STV. And yes, this is likely something that should have come up in Fair Voting BC’s literature more prominently during the election, but hindsight is 20-20.

  9. Bruce K Says:

    Thanks Steven!

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