Crawl Across the Ocean

Saturday, May 21, 2005

STV Referendum Post (not-so) Mortem

Where do we go from here?
The battle's done,
And we kind of won
So we sound our victory cheer

Where do we go from here?
Why is the path unclear?1

After thinking it over for a couple of days, I have to say I'm pretty positive about the outcome of the referendum on Tuesday. True, STV getting 60% and passing would have been ideal, but I think when you consider that 60% is a pretty high bar to begin with, it was always going to be tough to reach that level, especially when trying to explain a complicated system like STV to the entire population - especially with no real budget for educating the voters and in competition with an election going on simultaneously.

Another complicating factor was that the process was designed so that elections BC would design the electoral boundaries only after the referendum. This allowed people to rightfully ask how they could vote on an electoral system when they wouldn't even know how it would affect the riding they would vote in.

A final factor was that, undeniably, some of the people who argued and voted against STV did so not because they preferred the current system to STV but because they wanted to have a chance to vote for a third system, the Mixed Member Proportional system, which was the second choice of the Citizen's Assembly. One of the reasons the Citizen's Assembly did not choose STV was that they were constrained by their mandate to not increase the number of MLA's elected in B.C., an arbitrary and unnecessary restriction.

So the real question now is, what next? The rule of 60%, while I think it is overly high2 was set before hand so it would not be right for the government to take the 57.39% Yes vote and treat it as close enough and go ahead with STV. But on the other hand, given the 57-43 vote in favour, as well as the fact that a majority voted in favour of STV in 77 of the province's 79 ridings, clearly the population of B.C. has an interest in reforming the electoral system.

Under the circumstances, the course I recommend to the B.C. government would be as follows.

1) The Assembly should be reconvened, freed from the no new MLA's restriction and allowed to present two complete systems.
2) Elections BC should be directed to draw up suitable electoral boundaries and voting rules for each of the proposed systems so that voters would know exactly what they are voting on.
3) There should be a second referendum which would allow voters a choice between the 2 systems recommended.
4) This referendum should be held on its own without being linked to another election going on simultaneously.
5) Funding should be provided to mount a campaign for both options presented as well as a 'No' campaign.
6) The ballot should ask voters two questions: The first would be: 'Which of the two electoral options presented do you prefer?' ('Neither' would be an option here). The second would be 'Do you believe B.C. should change it's electoral system to whichever of the options in question 1 gets the most votes? Possible answers would be, "No", "Yes", "Yes, but only if the preferred system is option 1", and "Yes but only if the preferred system is option 2"

Then whichever system got more votes in question 1 would have to get 50% Yes (or at most 55%) on question 2 (adding up the unconditional 'yes' votes and the 'yes' votes conditional on that system being chosen).

There's probably a simpler way to accomplish this (I'm no political scientist), but you get my point. Given the expressed desire for change among B.C. voters, they should be given a second chance to vote for electoral change, in a properly funded referendum, one which gives citizens a choice between the two systems which have a strong base of support in the province.

Note: Rafe Mair articulately makes some similar points to mine over at the Tyee.

1 From the song "Where Do We Go From Here", from the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Season 6, Episode 7).

2 See Wikipedia for some interesting history on referendums. Following from there to the article on Canadian referendums it seems we've only ever had 3 (at the federal level): One on prohibition, one on conscription and one for the Charlottetown Accord. So in the history of the federal government only 3 questions have been deemed to be of enough significance to warrant having a referendum at all. And *no* question was ever been deemed important enough to require a super-majority from a referendum vote, not even the government forcing the nation's youth to fight and possibly die in a foreign country or changing the nation's constitution.

Similar commentary from a "Yes" campaign press release:

- No other province, or country we know of requires such a high threshold for approving a referendum on electoral reform.

- PEI's referendum on electoral reform requires a simple majority.

- New Zealand's referendum on electoral reform passed with 54%.

- The two Irish referendums to replace STV with First Past the Post used a simple majority

- The BC Referendum Act stipulates a simple majority for any other referendum.

- The recent BC Referendums on Aboriginal Issues, and on Initiative and Recall all passed based on a simple majority of votes

- No former BC referendum has ever required more than a simple majority.

- The two referendums on Quebec separation required a simple majority

- The Charlottetown Accord referendum concerned very significant constitutional issues, yet required no more than a simple majority.

- Nearly all governments in British Columbia are themselves elected with considerably less than 50% support.

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  • I gotta ask: did you write this post before or after I wrote my post using the Buffy song?

    If it's the former, you're scaring me a little. :-)

    By Blogger James Bow, at 4:36 PM  

  • Before.

    I'm scaring you? - you're scaring me!

    (I'm not kidding - until reading your comment I had no idea you had any buffy related post up - check your referrers if you don't believe me! - I always come to your site via here)

    By Blogger Declan, at 4:47 PM  

  • I think the 60% of vote + 60% of ridings requirement was a good one. I would also have liked to see STV implemented (please, God, NOT proportional representation), but I would have been troubled by a 50% + 1 vote. It would have set up an endless round of kvetching about how there wasn't any real mandate for such a fundamental change, and so on. With the bar set as high as it is there will be no question that the people want the change.

    It was just a quirk of fate, as well, but to a certain extent the STV vote in this referendum was probably affected by the last two provincial elections, where the Dippers got either more than their proportional share of seats to form a government even though the Libs had the plurality (1996) or way less than their proportional share of seats to form a two-member opposition. It will be interesting to see if the support for a change in voting procedure is as high in four years, after a roughly equitable (or at least, much more equitable) distribution of seats. The Greens will be bleating, of course, but fringe parties always want to change the voting system.



    By Blogger deaner, at 12:47 AM  

  • I don't really see how a majority vote in a referendum can be seen as not a mandate for change, but that's just my opinion, I guess.

    It's true, the connection between popular vote and seats under FPTP is fairly random so opposition to FPTP spikes when the randomness leads to big/significant disparities vs. the times when FPTP randomly comes up with a reasonable approximation of the actual vote.

    Fringe parties only 'always want to change the voting system' when you have a system which disenfranchises them and their supporters.

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:03 AM  

  • Declan, in principal, I agree - but this was a suggestion to make a huge change. I think it appropriate that it needed a super-majority. Was the 60/60 formula "right"? I don't know, in the sense of being able to defend it against 75/75 or 55/55 or some other combination - but I think it was better than 50% of popular vote, period.

    As it is, the message that there is interest in reform to the voting system is pretty clear. Maybe the next time we won't have the outcome determined by people who knew nothing about how the STV system would work, and either said to themselves "anything is better than what we do now" (and voted Yes), or "I'm afraid of things I don't understand" (and voted No). It would also be nice if some of the media commentators could buy a clue before they opened their pie holes.



    By Blogger deaner, at 11:31 PM  

  • I see what you're saying, and at first I was somewhat convinced by the need for a super-majority, but I'm not convinced it's really a huge change - especially compared to say prohibition, conscription or modifying the constitution.

    I think typically the super-majority requirement is imposed on legislatures because they are an imperfect representation of the people's will. It is pretty rare to see a super-majority requirement placed on a referendum, and I'm not convinced electoral reform is so big as to demand it (but I can understand why people might disagree).

    I certainly agree about the media needing to smarten up, and the ideal of getting people more educated.

    By Blogger Declan, at 12:32 AM  

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