Today begins a four-part series commissioned by The Free Press and Black Press on next month’s referendum for or against a new voting system for British Columbia.
The first article is by senior UBC Professor of Political Science Ken Carty.
Dr. Carty was unanimously confirmed by a Legislature Committee to act as research director for the Citizens’ Assembly. His job was to answer questions from members about pluses and minuses of all electoral systems.
In the first part of our series, Carty lays the groundwork for the two alternatives we will vote for May 17 – our current system (commonly called “first past the post”), and a new system called BC-STV.
Canadians know their political system is troubled. Citizens no longer trust politicians. Membership in political parties is lower than in most democracies. Our legislatures are full of individuals who vote as they are told.
And voter turnout in elections is plunging.
Prime Minister Paul Martin calls this a democratic deficit. He thinks the problem can be fixed by changing a few parliamentary rules. Most Canadians know better. They believe we need to change in the way politics works, so our politicians reflect the views of their constituents and respond to their needs. The place to start is at the heart of our democracy – the election system.
The premiers know this. Half of them have launched their province on electoral reform. In most, experts, politicians and non-partisan judges have been given the job. In British Columbia, the government handed it over to the citizens of the province. That was the beginning of a real change, for nowhere else have politicians trusted citizens to decide how they want to elect their politicians.
Electoral reform comes down to two simple questions. Do we want to keep our current winner-take-all first-past-the-post system? If not, what should we replace it with?
The B.C. Citizens’ Assembly said “No” to the first question, and recommended something called BC-STV for the second.
Abandoning the current election system is not to be done lightly. It has served Canadian democracy well.
First-past-the-post elections usually produce strong governments, and at the next election voters know who to credit or blame.
Every voter knows who his or her representative is, and every elected politician speaks for a part of the province.
And it is a simple process -the person who has the most votes is elected.
But this system has problems. Picking one name doesn’t give voters much choice. There is no connection between the number of votes a party gets and the number of seats it wins. Strong governments can too often become elected dictatorships. And party discipline turns our local representatives into Victoria’s spokesmen, not ours.
Given our history, a switch to BC-STV system is likely to produce coalition governments in which parties will be forced to accommodate one another.
Voters will no longer have a single representative in Victoria so their electoral districts will grow in size. And counting the ballots on election night will be more complicated.
On the plus side, BC-STV will give voters more choice, and more kinds of choice. It is a proportional system, so the number of seats a party wins will reflect the share of votes it earns. And with no safe seats, all politicians will have to pay as much attention to what their local voters want as to what the party bosses tell them.
May 17, we will choose a new government. But the more important choice will be in the referendum when we get to choose what kind of government and politics we want for British Columbia’s future.
Proponents of a new system talk about the benefits of BC – STV.
Ken Carty, senior Professor of Political Science at University of B.C., was research director for the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.