Now is the time for proportional representation!

Elizabeth May

The British Columbia electorate has a chance to help all Canadians. I try to make the case in my new book. Here are some key points from the book:

“The first-past-the-post (FPTP) system hails from the eleventh century. Yes, it’s true. We have a voting system invented when people thought the earth was flat. It has survived through history in times with no political parties and through the era when two parties prevailed. In such times, the flaws in the system were tolerable. People voted either Tory or Grit and, generally speaking, the party that won the most seats represented the voters’ preferences. This is demonstrably no longer the case….

The FPTP system is inherently unfair. The primary victim of this unfairness is not political parties, although the NDP and Greens have the largest reasons for complaint. The Bloc Québécois and early Reform Party benefited from its impacts. Any political platform that has the tendency of concentrating votes in one region will get a real boost under FPTP. The real victim of this electoral system is the voter. In a FPTP system it is simply not possible to say that every vote counts. Not surprisingly, following every election that produces a perverse result, the call increases for proportional representation. With the 2008 election producing a minority government with significant under-representation for the NDP and the Green Party, the demand for proportional representation began immediately. In a poll conducted during the fall of 2008, Angus Reid found that 47 percent of Canadians are ready to consider a system other than FPTP. While 33 percent of voters believe that the current system is best, 28 percent favoured proportional representation in a pure form and 19 percent liked the hybrid approach which would allocate some seats on a constituency basis, and others by proportional representation.

One of the other popular front-runners for countries moving away from FPTP has been a system of preferential voting called STV, or Single Transferable Vote. The approach taken with a single transferable vote is to keep the process as close as possible to the existing practice of voting for a candidate – as opposed to a party. In order to make it fairer, a group of local ridings or districts are pooled together. The candidate’s names are on the ballot and each voter gets to vote in order of preference for a number of potential MPs. STV has been brought in other Commonwealth nations used to the FPTP system. It is used for the Australian Senate, and for both houses in Ireland and Tasmania. It is more complicated to explain than to cast an STV ballot.

Under STV, a voter gets a single ballot, but multiple choices. The voter ranks his or her preference among a group of candidates from a cluster of districts. When the votes are counted, the votes for most popular candidates are clear. Once elected, any more votes for those elected candidates as “first choice” continue to be counted toward the “second choice. The lower-tier vote preferences are tallied up. The result is a much fairer distribution of votes to candidates who are local, but whose election has ensured a fair distribution of support among a number of choices. As described by Canadian writer Nick Loenen, who supports the STV approach,

It should . . . be noted that lower preferences cannot hurt a voter’s higher preferences, since the lower do not take effect until the higher preferences have either been elected or eliminated . . .

Expressing a preference for a particular candidate, party, platform or local issue does not compel the voter to reject outright all other options . . . Instead of outright approval or rejection, preference voting is like asking voters to register their likes and dislikes on a scale of one to ten. Preference voting registers the degree of support present among all voters for candidates, parties, and issues with exceptional precision . . . Citizens’ participation becomes more meaningful and significant.

The STV system offers the voter even more choice than the two-vote Mixed Member Proportional system. Both are huge improvements over our current archaic “winner take all” approach.

Canadians, particularly in Ontario and British Columbia, will be very familiar with the debates over these two options. British Columbians narrowly missed the chance to implement STV in a 2005 referendum. It was determined that a simple majority would not be sufficient to consider STV approved and the government set out a requirement for STV to obtain at least 60 percent of the vote before it could be enacted. STV missed narrowly when 57.69 percent of the voters supported it. The issue will be on the ballot in B.C. again on May 12, 2009. “

Want to know how it has worked elsewhere?

I asked my friend, Australian Green leader Senator Bob Brown. This is the 100th anniversary of STV in his home state. Here is his reply:

STV Bob Brown

In October, Tasmania, Australia’s island state, will celebrate 100 years of what we proudly claim to be the world’s fairest voting system the single transferable vote or STV.

In Australia, STV is commonly called Hare-Clark after English barrister Thomas Hare (1806-91) and Tasmanian barrister Andrew Inglis Clark (1848-1907). The Englishman Hare was the originator of the idea of using the single transferable vote to provide proportional representation. Clark was the Tasmanian Attorney-General during the late Nineteenth Century and a key drafter of Australias national constitution. He modified Hare's original system and it introduced to local government elections instrumental in the 1890s and, sadly, died before the 1909 statewide debut of STV in Tasmania.

A third notable proponent of STV was Catherine Helen Spence from Adelaide who corresponded extensively with both Hare and Clarke and helped ensure that in the Constitution, that the way was open for STV voting for either house of the national parliament.

STV is now favoured by all political parties, the press, and the wider public in Tasmania. It delivers the nearest possible democratic ideal of one person, one vote, one value.

In more recent decades, STV has been adopted by the legislature in the Australian Capital Territory (Canberra) and by local government in many mainland Australian cities. In 1949, it was also adopted for the powerful national Senate (upper house) which can instigate legislation or block legislation coming from the House of Representatives (Commons) in Canberra. Using STV, 12 Senators are elected from each state to the Senate.

The beauty of STV is that, unlike the system of single member electorates which Australia and Canada inherited from Britain’s Westminster system, everyone’s vote has an equal weight. Every voter is likely to help elect a representative of her or his own choice.

In single member electorates, the biggest vote-getter wins. However, there is a calamitous downside: about half the voters wake up the morning after the election to find that the candidate they voted for has lost.

Nearly half the voters end up represented by a person or party they voted against! In left-orientated electorates, conservative candidates almost never win. In right-orientated electorates, progressive candidates nearly always lose. Millions of voters have their vote ignored.

With STV, left and right (and Green) voters nearly always elect one or more representatives to take their views of affairs on to the floor of parliament. Everyone’s vote counts.

A typical STV electorate has seven rather than one elected representative. The mathematics may seem complex, but the result is simple and satisfying. Instead of one winner, there are seven. Nearly every voter has a member or party of her or his own choice elected.

There are opponents of STV. They are usually from the entrenched older parties which have for decades enjoyed the unwarranted bias of single member electorates. They will claim that STV is very complicated. But every time you see very complicated, you should read very fair.

STV is also very democratic, because it empowers every voter. It not only allows the voter to choose a party, but, as each party puts forward a list of candidates, the voter chooses persons from those lists. This ends the dictatorship of parties and gives voters a much better choice: they get to select their own candidates from a list of names put forward by each party. Of course, this also means that each party has to offer the electorate an array of personalities with different professions and skills, rather than one preferred insider.

I am a Greens party Senator. Although one million people voted Green in 2007, not one Green was elected to the House of Representatives, with its outmoded single member electorates. But there are five Greens and two independents amongst the 76 Senators in the upper house. This reflects almost exactly how Australians voted. The Liberal, National and Labour parties are also represented in proportion to their votes.

In New Zealand and continental Europe, various proportional voting systems also reflect more closely the way people cast their votes. However, in my view, STV is the best of these systems.

After 100 years, there is no way Tasmanians would give up STV. And after 60 years, there is no prospect of Australia going back to single member electorates for the Senate. We are on a good thing with STV, and were staying with it. In Australia, it is spreading. It is also the established voting system for Ireland and Malta.

If British Columbia adopts STV, you can bet that it will lead to voter satisfaction and, inevitably, other Canadian provinces will adopt STV in the years ahead.

Senator Bob Brown Leader Australian Greens