Tomorrow, the BC electorate go to the polls. Included on their ballot is a referendum on whether to change to a Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. This new system would mean making electoral districts larger and with several elected candidates. The new ballots would mean rather than voting for one candidate in your riding, you would vote for up to seven candidates in a super riding. On the ballot, you rank your ordinal preference and the votes are counted. But each district has a different percent required to win (from between 12.5% to 33.3%) if a candidate gets that amount, they are the first to be elected, any “excess” votes get transferred to the next on the list in proportion to the excess until the district has selected its candidates. Proponents of this system argue that in first past the post, you end up with elections where for example 10% of the electorate vote for the Greens, but 10% of the legislature is not made up of Greens. Critics of this system argue that the complexity in tabulation require a computer to spit out the results with no paper trail or obvious correspondence between votes cast and votes received. Complexity is the least of it’s problems.
Problem 1 Electors are failing with current workload.
I believe this system has several main flaws. Those that believe the distribution of parties is the biggest problem with government, don’t actually observe government. The scandals committed by politicians of all ideologies runs the gambit from gross incompetence to outright criminal. Yet every politician who was ever jailed, everyone that rose to his or her level of incompetence was dutifully elected. Our worst politicians were all vetted by the public. Clearly, the public does a poor job of looking into the people they elect. The trend over the century as governments become more powerful with larger and larger budgets is greater voter apathy, indifference and ignorance. This is a problem in any system to be sure. With STV, in a 7 candidate riding, each party will run 7 candidates forcing an already lazy electorate to compare 30 or more candidates.
Is this even remotely realistic to assume that the electorate could possibly weigh this much information? Seeing that we do a failing job at filtering out the incompetent and the criminal when there are only 3 or 4 candidates, I think this is a no-brainer.
As pathetic proof of my argument, surveys on voter knowledge revealed a full 85% of the Ontario electorate had little or no understanding of proportional representation during their own referendum. Yet these same people would be charged with increasing the amount of information they would weigh under the new system!
Problem 2 More parties in government create less representation not more.
This seems like an oxymoron to most people but it is the law of unintended consequences in action. Under STV, proponents argue that smaller parties will get a voice in government. This sounds true until you examine how it works in practice. The more parties with elected members, the less likely there will be 50 percent majorities to form government. So how would governments form? By forming coalitions thereby including the smaller parties that were once shut out. The problem is the disproportionate power a small party has when it can make or break government. In the last parliamentary crisis, the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc formed a coalition to oust the Conservatives. I voted Liberal and had nothing but contempt for the NDP and Bloc platforms. But what parts of the Bloc and NDP policy would have made there way into legislation in a coalition with the Liberals? These deals happened after I had cast my ballot. I was sold a bill of goods that were then radically changed. I was so misrepresented, I sent a letter to the party canceling my membership. My vote ended up being a vote for someone else (transferred if you will.) This was a perversion of representation. Without provisions for ensuring that parties can’t hijack their voters intentions, leaders vying for power will make a mockery of representation by political deal making. With STV, the electorate can look forward to more of this. Negotiations between parties vying for majority status horse trade policies and projects in the interest of those that elected them. But the point is that the people who voted for them never had the opportunity to vote for or against those policies. Concessions get made not on their own merits but because they are politically necessary for getting majority votes for legislation.
The nice idea of having a small party in legislative branch is offset by the problems of top down deal making in the administration branch. When people imagine the consequence of STV, I’m not convinced, they think this far ahead.
Problem 3 Smaller parties finally get representation.
Advocates of STV would consider this a good thing. Existing parties currently shut out of government need to look past their own self interests. I’m not sure how they will welcome the Jesus’s Wrath party that elects a dozen members that hijack the political process for their own social engineering. The current system favours the center of opinion. It rewards the middle of the road. People may think this leads to unresponsive legislation and to our detriment, the status quo. They’re right, it does. But it also means that change is predictable and life is sort of stable. The extremes are trimmed off and if you want to look around the world, this is an undeniable good. I believe that if an idea has merit, a majority of people can be convinced. If a majority can’t be convinced then perhaps it deserves to be on the fringe. As much as I deride the average person, bypassing the majority rarely leads to justice. By suggesting that ideas most people don’t like ought to be acted upon for their own good, is even more contemptuous of people than I am.
Problem 4 “Ought’s” pushy brother “Is”
What this all boils down to is a judgment that the results of our elections don’t look like what they ought to. Like when a better team loses to an inferior team one might think about how you could tinker with the rules to make sure the better team is more likely to win. That way, the results of the contest would be more representative of the teams. Of course one has already concluded what the result ought to be. Proportional representation advocates do the same. They conclude what the results ought to look like then fix the rules to get that outcome. Without examining the realities of how voter fatigue already contributes to bad government, without understanding how political necessity hijacks voter intent in coalition building, without understanding how the center is actually preferable sometimes to the fringe, one will be subject to the tyranny of “IS.” The best of intentions for creating the world the way it ought to be are so often railroaded by the reality of how things actually are. Sure it would be nice if every party no matter how small got to have its “say” in the legislature. The reality is that at the end of the day, one group has to govern. We should pick that group in such a way that takes advantage of society’s best qualities, and limits its worst. STV seems to ignore that there are such qualities in society and hence becomes a victim of those qualities.