Crawl Across the Ocean

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Columnists and PR - What's the problem?

Columnists like to write about electoral reform, but they don't seem to like studying or researching it.

Here's a copy of the letter I wrote to Ian Urquhart of the Toronto Star after he published this column filled with half-truths, quarter-truths and worse.


Dear Mr. Urquhart,

I am writing to you because I feel you have done your readers a disservice with your inaccurate portrayal of the Single-Transferable-Vote System (STV).

To begin with, your description of it as 'whacko' seems odd when you consider that it was originally promoted by the famed political scientist John Stuart Mill, is the recommended system for the group which has been studying electoral systems longer than anyone (Britain's Electoral Reform Society), has been successfully in use for over 50 years in stable democratic countries, and was overwhelmingly chosen by the Citizen's Assembly members in B.C. after long and careful consideration of all the alternatives.

Furthermore, you imply that STV is a rejection of compromise when in fact the opposite is true. Our current system has a large number of ridings with one person elected per riding. Party List PR has only one riding (the entire country) with a large number of people elected from it. STV compromises between these two extremes by having a smaller number of ridings than our current system (larger number than PR), with more people elected from each one (fewer people than PR). MMP compromises between the two extremes by effectively running the two systems in parallel, with some people elected under our current system and some under Party List PR.

By making this compromise, STV addresses your fear that "voters would lose their constituency-based representatives in the Legislature" by ensuring local representation. At the same time, it largely corrects the problems with proportionality, and strategic voting that plague the current system. Finally, it also avoids the problem of letting parties rather than voters decided who gets elected under a party list system like is used in much of Europe, while also being less prone to electing fringe/extremist parties than pure PR.

On this topic, your comment that "It seems tailor-made to elect extremist and fringe elements." is also untrue. Consider for a moment that the new assembly in Northern Ireland adopted STV for electing it's members and realize that you are suggesting we reject a system used in Northern Ireland, because it may elect extremists here in Canada! More to the point, even with 7 member ridings, a 'fringe' party would have to get at least 12.5% percent of the vote over a fairly large area (say the city of London, for example) in order to elect someone.

As an example, the Green Party, which received almost half a million votes in the last Federal election, likely wouldn't have won a single seat (or only a very few), even if 7 member ridings were used all across the country (they would have gotten more seats under MMP however - which makes your rejection of STV in favour of MMP on the basis of it favouring extremism a little odd as well).

The ranking of candidates from 1,2,3 etc. actually works against fringe candidates because all the members of the mainstream moderate parties are likely to choose other moderates as their second, third, fourth etc. choices. That is, not many people with a non-extremist first choice will make an extremist second (or third) choice.

"The B.C. assembly noted that the system is now in use in Ireland, Malta and Tasmania. Hmmmmm."

I imagine my parents, who immigrated here from Ireland back in the 60's, wouldn't be the only ones who wonder what you are implying with "Hmmmmm". Is Ireland not a successful, peaceful, democratic country? Have you checked to see whose GDP/capita is higher lately? Maybe you could clarify what it is about Ireland that is so different from us. Is everyone there whacko perhaps?

Anyway, It's not like the list of countries using our system is so impressive either, and if you can find any place in the world which has switched to it in the last 100 years, let me know (lots have switched away from it).

"If we end up with the B.C. model, that delay will be a blessing."

I find it amazing that you can reach that conclusion when you haven't made any kind of comparison of the pros and cons of STV with our current system. Especially bearing in mind that pretty much anybody who ever has made a serious attempt at such a comparison has concluded that STV is better than our current system.

As a journalist, you have a great deal of influence in your ability to reach readers and you also have an incredible luxury in being able to analyze political topics as a full time job, while most of us who are interested in these things have to do them on top of a full time job.

Bearing this in mind, I feel that you also have a responsibility to actually research the topics you write about in order to provide information which will inform rather than mislead - something you have failed to do in this column.

If you ever plan on writing about this topic again, I urge you to please visit and read the following links before you do so.

The Electoral Reform society (the section on voting systems is quite good):

Dave Pollard's excellent post on the topic:

The Wikipedia entry on STV:

If you made it this far, I thank you for your patience and look forward to your next column on the topic (assuming that you agree with me by that time, of course).

Declan Dunne, Vancouver.

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