Saturday, October 23, 2004

Reaping the whirlwind

Earlier today, a slim majority of B.C.'s Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform expressed a preference for a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. The chairman of the assembly expressed the delegates' disappointment with our current first-past-the-post system on the grounds that many votes are "wasted".

The STV ballot system allows voters to rank all of the candidates in their riding in the order that they prefer them. If no candidate wins a majority on first choices alone (that is, winning in the same way one would win today), lower placing candidates are eliminated until second, third, fourth and fifth place preferences, from the ballots that picked them, select a winner.

Sound a little hard to understand? It was a little confusing in the 1952 B.C. provincial election when a similar system was used.

The Liberals and Conservatives, loathing each other to dissolve their electoral alliance, came up with the scheme. The plan was that anti-CCF voters amongst the Liberals and Conservatives would hold their nose and vote for the other party (Liberals for Conseravtives and Conservatives for Liberals) as their second choice. Their plan backfired, with the rise of the anti-CCF B.C. Social Credit Party, which won thousands of second choices.

Those complaining about the "democracy" of first-past-the-post shouldrecall the election night results of B.C.'s first STV election. The socialist CCF was leading with the most first choice votes and a plurality, but not a majority, of the seats. In a first-past-the post system, they would have won the election. But, as second and third choices were distributed, the Socreds eked out a 19-18 lead in seats over the CCF.

W.A.C. Bennett formed a minority government. In 1953, another STV election gave the Socreds a majority. Before the next election, the Socreds returned B.C. to first-past-the-post.

In an STV election we could have several political situations that should dismay electoral reform advocates. I can imagine the NDP and Greens making a deal where the Greens don't run candidates in 10-20 ridings in order to force NDP voters to vote for Green leader Adrienne Carr because there is no NDP candidate in Carr's riding. Green voters, under such a deal, might be forced to vote Liberal if they really dislike the NDP candidate in their riding.

I recall the last French presidential election. France's electoral system holds a runoff between the top two candidates if no-one wins the election. The main left candidate Lionel Jospin, finished third, forcing left-leaning French voters to face a choice between the conservative Chirac and the extremist Le Pen, a nauseating choice for them. Not a STV ballot, true, but one can imagine some dismaying final results in some B.C. ridings that no one could have foreseen.

Do British Columbians really want to roll the dice when they vote in provincial elections? One would hope not.