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Thoughts on BC – mostly on electoral reform.

Some thoughts on the BC election/electoral reform referendum yesterday:

Gordon Campbell comes through again, winning a third straight term as Liberal premier, which makes him only one of four leaders to be elected 3 straight terms. Whether you like him or not, that’s impressive. That’s my one thought on the general election; the rest of this blogpost deals with the failure of STV to pass in the electoral reform referendum.

I’m disappointed that STV failed, though not really surprised, as it appeared it was going to have difficulty passing when in the last few weeks of the campaign, polls had it slipping. What is surprising to me though is how much of a turnaround there has been in the last 4 years. When it was last voted on in BC, it had 58% (Even in a poll taken in March, it was at 65% support). Now, there’s been almost a complete flip on the numbers against it. I wasn’t following the part of the electoral referendum campaign as it pertained to the advertising campaign for and against it, but I’m going to be interested to find out why exactly the No-STV side was able to strike a chord this time with the public to turn them against the exact same system that almost got passed last time.

Regardless of the exact reasons, the folks who are for electoral reform are going to have to re-think their strategy, I believe; particularly the folks at Fair Vote Canada. Obviously, something in the strategy for selling electoral reform is not working, or else they are not countering the “status quo” folks arguments very well. I believe they are going to have to open their minds to the fact that perhaps Canadians aren’t ready to embrace such big change in voting systems, and perhaps be flexible in not rejecting out of hand other electoral reforms not as wide-sweeping as they’d like.

For example, I know lots of people at FVC automatically reject Instant-Runoff-Voting as a voting model (some of those folks have called IRV worse then FPTP), but perhaps that’s what they’re going to need to aim for. I was not a big fan of IRV either back in 2007, and posted against it, but after the rejection of MMP in Ontario in 2007, I had to take into account that perhaps that was the voting system that would have the best chance to pass a public that may be more resistant to changes in the voting system then anticipated. I know Matt Guerin of Liberals for Electoral Reform felt the same way as I did, and I think the Fair Vote people are going to have to acknowledge that with the Ontario result and especially the BC one. This is a province that is supposed to be the most ripe for electoral reform, and we instead saw a massive rejection of change. Pro-electoral reformers can blame Carole James and the NDP all they want for not supporting STV, but I don’t think her views on the system caused such a massive flip in voter sentiment against that system from 4 years ago. Perhaps more piecemeal change is what is needed to be aimed for. I’m told the FVC folks are having a conference in June in Ottawa to discuss approaches to better selling electoral reform, and that would be one of my first suggestions; do not discount voter models you may not like, but may be more sellable to Canadians.

Related to that, I’m half-beginning to think Citizen’s Assemblies need to be ditched as the avenue for proposing electoral reforms, as they’re 0 for 2 (maybe 0 for 3, if the PEI vote on electoral reform a few years ago was also a Citizens Assembly recommendation that PEI voters rejected). Apparently, voters don’t trust their fellow citizens in making voter reform recommendations, so maybe it really does need a panel of academics, political scientists, and politicians to make a more convincing case.

One thing that those who are anti-electoral reform can’t ignore; something clearly needs to be done to reform the electoral system, or make it so that more people feel their vote matters, because yet again, in yet another election, we see very poor voter turnout. When I last looked, voter turnout was down near only 49%, so less then half of BC voters who were eligible to vote had bothered to exercise that choice. Those numbers may go up when the full vote has been counted, but it still is lamentable.

Last point of mine is that this should not end the fight for electoral reform nationally or in other provinces. With declining voter turnout in provincial and national elections, something obviously is causing voter disconnect, and something needs to be done to counter it. I do not accept the argument that the status quo is all hunky-dory; the voter turnout rate declining with every election is proof of that.

UPDATE: David Graham, who was against MMP and STV, but supports the IRV model, points to me a definition of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) and how it works.

UPDATE 2 @ 12:31 pm: Another Liberal blogger, Danielle, agrees in a way with me; her view is not only should IRV not be discounted, but it must be the de facto choice of the electoral reform movement in Canada.

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19 comments to Thoughts on BC – mostly on electoral reform.

  • I remember that post from when it was written. It’s as distortive as the rest of the pro-PR lobby’s nonsense.

    What we /have/ is a two party system. Giving us IRV is what will allow other parties to break into the political marketplace, like the Greens. It also assumes that changing the electoral system will not change the political culture, which of course flies in the face of the pro-PR arguments in the first place. Having IRV promotes inter-party cooperation and big-tent politics. PR promotes antagonism, posturing, and small-tent politics, and joyous situations like Belgium’s year without a government.

    The final argument is if you like the idea, go for STV. Which was just defeated.

    IRV is the only viable alternative to SMP. If you’re serious about reform, get behind it.

    • Partisan non-partisan

      @David Graham,

      David, again you misrepresent the evidence from comparative research on democratic elections.

      Research shows that IRV basically works like FPTP in terms of its relationship to the party system and electoral/legislative behaviour – ie. little inter-party cooperation, antagonism and posturing (sound familiar Canadian House watchers?).

      Also, by throwing out that stink Belgian red herring, you demonstrate your lack of regard for the facts. Belgium is probably the most linguistically divided country in the world. No serious political commentator would pretend that country could have even survived if its elections had been contested under a single-member winner take all system (this prognosticator thinks they would have all become French or Dutch, with Brussels going to crap).

      And BTW, the American members of Fair Vote that I have talked to have said they are jealous of Canada’s multi-party democracy and our ability to have PR on the political agenda. They only advocate IRV because of the legally entrenched two-party system in most states, but all know that PR-elected legislatures provide manifestly superior governance. They’d probably wish you’d stop using their name to criticise their friends and allies in Canada.

  • Matt,

    Proportional Representation will never fly in Canada. It has been defeated by the requisite supermajority three times so far. FVC’s ideological bent for PR is so strong that they will never accept the democratic will of the people, something that they purport to be promoting.

    I would much prefer SMP over PR and will fight to the death to keep PR out of this country. If SMP remains the compromise system, it is one that I can live with. If it is not one FVC people can live with, then they will need to come around to IRV. If not, then the status quo will remain.

    That there is no grassroots support for IRV is an incorrect assertion. There is little grassroots support for PR. PR is a deeply partisan, not grassroots, movement. IRV (or full run-off) is already used as the basis for the internal democratic systems of most political parties, as controlled by the grass roots. There are few people other than those who want fringe parties to have vastly disproportionate power who do not believe IRV is a better system.

    We will switch to IRV if and when it becomes the broad consensus/compromise position of the public. By pushing for absurd proportional systems that don’t really work anywhere they are implemented, those who want electoral reform have successfully prevented us from moving to an actual improved system for years to come.

    For that, they have nobody to blame but themselves.

    • @David Graham, FVC’s ideological bent for PR is so strong that they will never accept the democratic will of the people, something that they purport to be promoting.

      Bingo. You nailed it.

      IRV or preferential balloting is inherently more democratic, encourages community consensus building, and forces political opponents to be respectful to one another. It may not fix all of the ills of our system, but it will fix some. And most importantly, people would get behind it.

  • Most members of FVC are steadfast supporters of proportional representation ONLY. They hate IRV even more than FPTP. Yes they are ideological about it. Continuous defeats might change some of their minds, but more than likely those types would simply give up on the issue as a whole rather than switch to a different system they think is even more regressive than our current one. Those who think the next generation will simply come around and support PR eventually are kidding themselves, I think. It just doesn’t seem to be in the political DNA of Canadians to embrace a PR system.

    There is no organized grassroots movement in favour of IRV. Maybe you should start one? That would be necessary in order to convince anyone in the political class to even touch electoral reform again in the future.

  • Matt,

    The fact that FairVote Canada is against IRV is what baffles me. FairVote USA recommends — you guessed it — IRV. I believe if they were serious about worthwhile improvements, they would go for IRV. That they’re not belies their inherent dishonesty with the public they seek to convince.

    I don’t believe FVC _is_ a strong grassroots movement. If it was, all of these referendums would have won a decisive victory. More importantly, as FVC is particularly excellent at defeating itself, if we have a referendum on IRV and FVC opposes it, it is virtually guaranteed to pass.

  • I appreciate your comments, David. Eliminating strategic voting is a worthy result. There is just no impetus now to have any kind of change after 3 crushing electoral reform defeats. Switching to IRV would face steadfast opposition from the considerable grassroots involved with Fair Vote Canada. The political class would see no reason to pursue IRV now because such a move would have little grassroots support and many would argue energy is better spent on more pressing issues. And many in the political class like forcing strategic voting as it benefits their parties.

    I might favour IRV in principle. I also think many in the public would find it far more preferable. I just don’t think it’ll ever get off the ground.

  • Matt,

    The improvement that IRV offers is tangible, but does not cause the discomfort that all forms of PR cause with the Canadian electorate. By and large I find that pro-PR folks are very urban and don’t understand why a country with an average population density of a whopping 3 people per square kilometre might object to being ideologically rather than geographically represented.

    IRV’s improvement is the virtual elimination of strategic voting. The trouble is that people in places like Guelph, where I live, Green supporters vote for the Liberal to prevent the Conservative from winning. Replace the three parties and apply to any riding. With IRV, every voter gets the chance to first-pick who they really want without allowing the person they really don’t want to win.

    My only real problem with SMP is strategic voting. IRV solves it and, to me, that makes it a huge improvement.

  • Sadly I agree that electoral reform is largely a dead issue now in Canada, at least for this generation. The people have voted overwhelmingly to keep our current system now 3 times. One thing for sure is the arguments in favour of proportional representation don’t seem to wash with people. They just don’t want it in any form, it seems to me.

    As for IRV, I do agree with many at Fair Vote Canada that such a change would provide no real improvement to our current system – it would only worsen the flaws of our current system and seal other parties out even more. At least under FPTP, a strong local Green candidate could win theoretically (although we have yet to see it happen.) I do agree that instant run-off is good when electing a President or Leader or other type position in order to ensure majority support. But electing 308 MPs, I’m not sure how it’s better. The people seem to be saying they don’t mind the current system at all. I guess it’s up to us to listen to them and move on.

    Next time the second place party wins a majority government in Quebec or elsewhere, we can always say we gave you ample chance to fix the current system and you rejected it every time. So voters get what they vote for.

  • Ontario rejected MMP in 2007 so I find it no surprise that STV didn’t go through out west. Say what you will but people want to maintain the status quo and so we have things like this happen.

  • comment salvaged from Steve V’s blog:
    The notion that BC is destined to lead the country on electoral reform was perhaps a foolish one. Clearly what they do as a province may have little bearing on what the other 9 provinces choose to do with electoral reform. We’ve simply lost approximately 2 in 11 fights for several years.

  • I think instant run-offs, or a preferential ballot system would pass in just about any Canadian jurisdiction if it were proposed. And it probably would not require a referendum to be considered valid and credible. The fundamental problem with STV and particularly with PR is that either of these systems represents a dramatic shift away from geographical/community representation to ideological/partisan representation.

    I don’t believe the current model of FPTP is fair, but I do believe that moving to a run-off or preferential ballot is something that more people would rally behind. It would eliminate the fear of “wasting” votes, and would promote community level consensus on electing a representative.

    I hope electoral reformers take this up next, as I truly believe it is the only reform with a remote chance of acceptance.

  • Kuri

    One thing that stand out to me is that the Pro-STV side did a fairly comprehensive campaign with a big volunteer based, a lawn sign campaign, fundraising to supplement the public money, an office to organize all this and a big effort into “new media” and internet campaigning. The No-STV (or rather, Pro-FPTP) side put virtually all of their money into highly emotional and misleading television ads. And it seems to have worked. This fascinates me one level because it’s completely counterintuitive to everything currently trendy about campaigns: it’s a top-down, low-participation approach; it talks down to people rather than engaging them; and it puts all the eggs in one basket, so to speak. It really makes me wonder if all the Obama-inspired buzz about new volunteerism and bottom-up campaigning and citizen engagement is crap, to be honest. I’m feeling rather Schumpeterian about democracy today.

  • I don’t think dumping citizen assemblies is the answer – i don’t think they’re the problem. I’d dump the requiring of a referendum. No one voted on adopting FPTP way back when or on any other changes made to the voting system (like letting women vote), so why do we need to vote on changing FPTP for something else? Or, if we have to have a referendum, why the need for a super majority (60%)? If individual MPs and MLAs and entire governments can get elected with well below 50% support, why would some form of PR require 60% support overall and in all ridings or whatever the asinine requirements were?

  • [...] election. What this means is that electoral reform has failed now twice in BC and once in Ontario. Scott observes that electoral reform advocates might want to go for something like instant-runoff voting [...]

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