13 May 2009


B.C. voters prefer the lame status quo

The BC Liberals won the British Columbia election again last night, as I expected. B.C. citizens gave them basically the same proportion of the vote and a slightly larger percentage of seats in the Legislature. Much more depressingly, voter turnout was yet again lower and BC-STV was resoundingly defeated. That's over. We're back with what we had before.

The BC Liberals are not my preferred choice, but they are at least tolerably competent in many respects. I guess I can live with that. However, the STV referendum gave us the chance to make our provincial government more representative and more interesting in the future, and we British Columbians turned it down.

My gut reaction is that yesterday, we B.C. voters were, on balance, lazy and chickenshit. That half of eligible voters didn't even bother, and that of those who did, a significant majority thought our current skewed system is just fine—well, that chafes.

I don't know if the numbers bear it out, but to me it feels like more people cared about how the Canucks did in the hockey playoffs than about deciding on the people we pay to respond to climate change, or to combat poverty, or to run the bloody province. And that we'll will bitch and complain about roads or homelessness or white-elephant megaprojects or the Olympics or cronyism and then not even vote when we get the chance.

On the bright side, perhaps the Liberals will be emboldened by a third straight victory to go beyond baby steps in their environmental policy. Maybe they can take a real lead in Canada on that most important of issues. They have a mandate to. I'm not optimistic, but I hope they run with it.

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I agree, Derek. For STV to get 58 per cent support last time and then drop to 40 or so this time just doesn't make any sense. I thought there would be enough awareness this year to get the final two per cent. Unfortunately, the most likely explanation is that much of B.C. has its head up its ass. And I'm a big Canucks fan.
I agree too, Derek - particularly about the fact that people either voted against STV or didn't turn out. That is most distressing to me. It has also had the unfortunate side-effect of making me feel completely apathetic about voting and disenfranchised. The system is broken, we had a chance to fix it, and now I'm discouraged, more than ever, about my vote. I have almost never been represented by my vote. Really, why should I bother voting? In a weird way, I get it now - voter apathy. It makes sense. If you come away feeling hopeless every time, eventually you're just going to give up, because the system itself is a farce.

Maybe the Canucks had something to do with it, maybe not, but either way, low voter turnout is an indication that something serious is wrong with our democracy.
When I left the voting area last night, I chatted with a woman on the way out. She was so proud of being able to vote. I said "yeah, but our NDP candidate is a sure thing (I'm in East Van). What was really important was to vote for STV". "What's that?" she asked. Umm. I proceeded to explain it to her. "Oh, that sounds like a good idea. We weren't voting on that today though, right?"


STV probably did better last time because the Citizens Assembly had just completed its work. It was in all the headlines and had been explained to death. I think people were more comfortable with it then, and there was no vocal "No STV" lobby (that I remember) trying to convince people that it was evil.
I voted for STV last time and against it this time. What changed? This time I got a better explanation of it from the pro-STV side (didn't even check the info from the anti-STV side) and decided I really didn't like it.

That's an uncommon reaction Barb. I worry that the person who explained it to you may not have understood the model they were hoping to champion.

I've heard two lines of reasoning which people have presented as the basis of their objections to the recently proposed STV. (beyond the fact that it sounds like "Steve", and who the heck would ever vote for "Steve"?!?) They boil down in my opinion to these:

1. STV, though an improvement over first past the post, leaves significant problems with the mapping of constituent communities to their elected leaders. If the STV is adopted, it will never be amended to a potentially better model whereas the seriously flawed FPP model will be more easily overturned down the road when the 'right' STV model is put before us.

2. The electorate must be protected against it's irresponsible elements. If one holds the cynical opinion that vocal minorities within society would apply political power to sabotage the interests of the central bulge of the political spectrum distribution, then a highly empowered party system forces these people to play by more conservative rules of mainstream parties or else be left voiceless.

I personally don't subscribe to either of these positions and am disappointed by the results of yesterday's referendum, but I can concede that reasoned opposition to the model can exist. What I did find interesting and sad is that the anti-STV campaign did not present any sort of reasoning, just a talking head spokesperson complaining about its complexity and stating a mis-truth about the potential for your vote to go where you don't want it to.
I'm a bit leary to buy into the SCTV ;) "empowerment". I think it'd be a fantastic system if you assume that we'd have informed and objective (read: decisions influenced by facts and not emotion) voters participating.

Having lived in Washington State for nine years, I witnessed, from the sidelines, another form of voter empowerment - their initiative process.

Although, it's a noble idea, I saw how it can be abused and mire the state, city and counties in a lot of decisions that were made by voters fueled by not the facts, but emotions.

A lot of factors come into play there, but the main complaint I hear is that the "average" voter is not informed enough about all the issues they are voting upon and make decisions that are made arbitrarily or from random sound-bites they heard on the drive in.

I like the concept of STV, but, at the risk of sounding elitist, I think we need to find a more simple way of implementing it for Joe voter.
Nah, I did my reading, Andrew, attended a public forum on STV, and participated in a few impromptu discussions about it. I still don't like it.

I'm more inclined to go along with what chicken8er said (sorry to bastardize your lovely spelling, C8, but I can't spell text-speak very well!). So many people are barely informed about the issues, why confuse them more? Also, we have such a high population of non-native speakers--why complicate the voting process?

And another thing that I just can't shake is the fact that Stephane Dion, nobody's first choice but everybody's second choice, became the leader of the federal Liberal party in a non-FPTP method. It's a darned scary way to elect a government!

You know what's darn scary? The fact that ever since I turned 18, my vote has never counted. I have never been represented by the person I voted for in almost 15 years of voting in Canada. Tell me, Barb, why should I bother voting? My choice is not reflected in any parliament because our system doesn't reflect the popular vote.

This was an opportunity to inject some life into our democracy. Your statement about Stephane Dion tells me that you don't fully understand STV - because in STV candidates who were most voters' first choice would always have been elected.

And I fear that was the problem here. People got stuck on STV being difficult to understand. People are afraid of change. It's too bad it was misrepresented, because all it really came down to was a case of X vs. 1-2-3. That's not very hard.

Yes, there are differences in terms of local representation, but I'd rather those than the tired old 19th-century FPTP system.

I'm beyond frustrated. Now I understand why my younger siblings don't bother voting at all, despite my remonstrations. After a certain point, you just want to give up. There are many of us in this country who don't have a voice - ever. To me, that's not democracy.
I should clarify that I've never voted for a fringe party, either. But that's not what STV was after, either, anyway. :)
If it's any consolation, Paolo, my vote rarely chooses the person who ends up being the MP or MLA. My vote still counted; my choice just didn't win.

Just because I don't agree with a system doesn't mean I don't understand it. Just because my selected candidate doesn't win, doesn't mean my vote doesn't count.

In any case, STV is not something I need to worry about again and that makes me smile.

Have a nice day,
I hear what you're saying, Barb, but we'll have to agree to disagree. I don't believe that in FPTP any vote for a non-winning candidate actually "counts". I know there are different ways of looking at this and thinking about it. But I also believe the current system is one reason we have such low voter turnout.

In any case, as you say, for now at least it's a moot point.

Best wishes,
I don't know if STV was the best system, or if there even is such a thing, but I think it was a significant improvement over what we have now. I do think that the first-past-the-post arrangement is one reason voter turnout is declining.

Now that many people don't see voting as a civic duty, and with the consistently polarized electoral contests in B.C., anyone who votes Liberal in a strong NDP riding, or vice versa, or particularly someone who votes Green (or, like me, would like to vote Green) has a vote without a real effect. There's a lot of talk about Changeā„¢ in politics these days, but we didn't take a real chance for it here.

I at least think we should have tried something different, and STV was a decent option. As it is, I think any sort of electoral reform is dead for a long time in B.C., and probably in the rest of Canada too. That's a shame.

And yeah, I'm bitter about it.
My theory is that STV did better last time since it was at the end of a term that saw Liberals in 77 of 79 seats with around the same popular vote that they got yesterday. A knee-jerk reaction before the information was clearly presented. This time, the spread was much more even and in line with popular vote. Add in the complications of the process (lets face it, many voters barely get the "check or X just one" instructions), and the vote fails. The emotional weight just wasn't behind it this time.
I was really disappointed with both the election results and the results of the referendum on STV. Like you, I was expecting the BC so-called-Liberals to win, but I really thought STV had a shot. Knowing that it came so close last time, combined with the fact that I was hearing from a lot more people in favour of it than against it, I really thought it stood a good chance of passing. Not sure who all those "no on STV" voters were, but I definitely wasn't hearing from them. Guess that's just a function of the type of people I tend to hang out with.

And the low voter turnout - also very sucky. I was able to follow every second of the Canucks playoff run AND pay attention to the election and referendum. Surely others could have too.
I don't think the Canucks playoffs interfered with people's ability to learn about the vote. But it does seem that many people put more interest and effort into hockey than into voting.
Hey Derek, I feel your frustration completely. I'm one of those people who actually think it's a right not to vote as well as a right to vote. That being said, I went out and voted, but I thought all the candidates weren't very good.

It's quite possible that many people in BC were lazy, but I think a lot of it has to do with the candidates themselves. The US showed a pretty large spike in voter turnout this year. I imagine it's because people felt like there was finally someone worth voting for. I haven't actually ever associated with a candidate here in BC. Watching those ads on TV was an embarrassment, and I didn't want any of those people governing my province. I don't blame people for not voting for them.

It's obvious that there's a problem, and I'm not sure what the solution is. I talked to several people in the Chilliwack voting place I was at and none of them knew what STV was, so I suspect that wasn't communicated as well as it could have been. But I think we have 21st century problems and our political system and political representation is based on 20th century principles and expectations -- until that changes, I think you'll see continuance of the apathy that grips most people during elections.
I thought the STV would pass. I vote in favour of it. Last time it got 58% but now it just got 39%. I myself wonder why.
It would probably help if we could vote online.
I am a Canuck fan and I voted in favour of STV.

I wonder if the STV referendum being on the back of the election had something to do with voters rejecting it.
The voters of BC were very intelligent to reject STV because STV's inequitable treatment of voters' ballots (counting only some voters' 2nd and 3rd choices and not counting the 2nd choices of a large group of voters' whose 1st choice loses in the final counting round and not counting many voters' 2nd and 3rd choices until after those candidates have been eliminated) causes very undesirable problems including electing majority *opposed* candidates and eliminating majority favored candidates, nonmonotonicity, eliminating many voters before the final counting round, etc.

For a long but easy-to-read report on STV and IRV (both have all the same flaws) see:

Realities Mar Instant Runoff Voting
18 Flaws and 4 Benefits
Not everything that *sounds* good at first glance, actually is.
You have some good points, and I will defer to your statistical expertise, but many of the criticisms in your paper are specific to the U.S. approach to voting and counting votes, and seem to be targeted at U.S. presidential elections, not parliamentary-style governments like we have here.

Our first-past-the-post system has many flaws as well, and I was hoping we could at least try something different, which would then give us the opportunity to modify the system if it doesn't work the way we like. Now any hope of change is gone, probably for decades.
STV has become a trojan horse for introducing electronic voting to countries that were using hand counted paper ballots.

Scotland was pushed by non profits to adopt STV and also persuaded to use computerized voting (optical scanners) where the outcome of elections was decided by software. The result - 100,000 spoiled ballots. The election was described as "A National Disgrace".

Then there's Pierce County Washington and San Francisco California, both using voting systems that do not meet their state's standards. In both cases, exemptions were granted to allow the use of this software, even though multiple flaws were found in Pierce County's machines. Flaws that meant the precinct optical scanners could not be used in IRV elections.

In North Carolina, IRV supporters went as far as to endorse the central counting of votes that were cast at polling places. This is the easiest way to open elections up to fraud. It would be easy to rig an election this way.

There is also a push to use uncertified untested software in North Carolina, in order to make IRV seam "as easy as 1-2-3".

In NC, the IRV pilots are set up so that only some votes will be counted and only some votes will be reported, the rest will be considered as "back up" votes, and might as well be trash for the way they will be treated.
No one has suggested purely electronic voting (or online voting, for that matter) or centralized counting in B.C. -- though, of course, if BC-STV had passed, we would have to figure out how to implement it.

For municipal elections, where we have numerous candidates for multiple positions on school board and city council, as well as initiatives for park spending and so on, Burnaby uses a large paper ballot that is scanned into a machine. The paper ballots are available for manual recounts if needed.

Again, my point stands: BC-STV does not seem to me like a terrible voting system for our kind of government structure, while our current system frustrates many people. STV's success in the referendum would not have made it permanent, and we would have had the opportunity to modify it or try alternatives in later elections.

But it went down in flames. Voters are happy with what we have. Will we have a chance to try something even better than STV? No. Electoral reform is dead. And I expect turnout will continue to decline in part because of that.
If I understand correctly voting is not compulsory in BC. I live in Perth, Western Australia, and voting is compulsory. My feeling is that compulsory voting is a good thing. Amongst my (albeit it small) circle of friends there is a lot of "why the hell is voting compulsory?" attitude, but all of them at least think about voting and form a view. There aren't too many people I know who go in and vote for "M.Mouse" or some other vote canceling character.
Compulsory voting would be a good idea, but since it's never been in place here, I doubt it would ever pass legislatively -- there's no precedent for it in Canada, and I'm sure there would be even more opposition to a compulsory voting plan than there was to the STV system.

It's sort of like the landline phone system or television. In other countries, paying for each local telephone call on a landline has always been normal, and in countries like Britain, people are used to paying a licence fee for each television they own. Here in North America those ideas would be completely heretical (even though we seem comfortable paying for mobile phone minutes and cable TV service). Same with compulsory voting: normal elsewhere, perceived as weird and horrible here.