The ‘no’ argument on BC-STV

I find it quite striking that the argument submitted by the campaign to defeat British Columbia’s referendum on adopting STV (and posted alongside the ‘yes’ at CBC) does not address the inter-party dimension. That is, it does not attack STV on the grounds that it would eliminate (or reduce) the tendency towards single-party governments or allow “extreme” parties into the legislative assembly.

In fact, the argument against STV is almost entirely directed at the intra-party dimension, that is the nature of the parties and the extent of individual legislator accountability one would get, buttressed by claims about the Irish experience. The core of the intraparty attack is:

STV replaces local representation with regional representation by a group of MLAs, who would be hard to hold accountable for their actions. Proponents claim that there are no safe seats with STV, but with STV many politicians in Ireland hang on for over thirty years.

Their parties run only as many candidates in each area as they think they can elect, thereby creating safe seats and increasing the power of political parties who determine who they nominate to be members of parliament. That reduces the choice available to voters.

Attacking the “vote management” incentives STV gives parties is a very smart strategy, as is arguing that members will be less “accountable” to local constituents.

Before the quoted passage, there is the usual line of attack on the alleged complexity of voting and vote-counting under STV, including a rather disingenuous claim about how transfers work. Rather remarkably, this attack is buttressed by a link to a video made by the Citizens Assembly that recommended the system.

No STV is confident that those who watch the short video (prepared by the Citizens’ Assembly) explanation of how the Single Transferable Vote count takes place will reject; so confident that it is posted on the top of the No STV website.

Nowhere are any inter-party arguments invoked. Indeed,

No STV takes no position on whether other electoral systems – such as Mixed Member Proportional – might be an improvement [on the status quo].

The Green Party, currently not in the legislature due to FPTP, is also invoked:

In this election the Green Party is supporting STV, but in 2004 it submitted a brief to the Citizens’ Assembly strongly opposing STV. They interviewed the Green Party in Ireland and reported to the Assembly on how it actually works.

(Of course, in the meantime, Ireland’s Green Party has become a member of a coalition cabinet–something that would not happen with FPTP, even if it might plausibly have happened earlier or with greater strength under MMP.)

By contrast, the ‘yes’ argument is almost entirely based upon the inter-party dimension (a preference for not having majorities that are manufactured by FPTP), as well as an appeal to BC voters to establish their province as “the foremost laboratory of electoral reform in Canada.” Their argument even acknowledges the “too complicated” objection to STV (thereby violating one of the principles of framing an argument). It invokes the majority vote in 2005 in favor of the proposal,” essentially admitting that vote was based on low information!

While I would certainly vote ‘yes’ were I voting in BC, I have to give the ‘no’ side the credit for a much stronger argument. They attack STV where it is most vulnerable, rather than attempt to defend FPTP and manufactured majorities. And the use of the Citizens Assembly video looks like a master stroke. Meanwhile, the ‘yes’ side fails to even mention the process by which ordinary citizens crafted the proposal, which was allegedly a selling point last time around.**

_______
* When it won 57% of the vote. It required 60%.

** Is deliberative democracy dead?

8 thoughts on “The ‘no’ argument on BC-STV

  1. > “Their parties run only as many candidates in each area as they think they can elect”

    Rii-i-ight. As compared to the abundant intra-party choice offered by FPTP and MMP…

    A more honest anti-STV argument might have acknowledged that Tasmania, Malta and the ACT – which use countbacks rather than by-elections to fill casual vacancies – see parties offering, say, 5 or even 6 candidates in a 5-seat district, where Irish parties might offer only 3 or 4.

    Anyone else spot the irony in someone using a computer to argue, on the Internet, that “You shouldn’t use systems whose internal workings you can’t explain in exact detail”?

  2. MSS may be right about the choice of campaign strategies by each side, although I have seen advocates for the No side talking about “stable majority government” in other venues. I have also seen lots of references to the Citizens Assembly by proponents of a Yes vote.

    I have been admiring from afar the Yes campaign’s web site, fund raising and op-eds. Perhaps I was wrong to do so.

  3. It is fair to say that I am referring only to a narrow slice of the overall campaign. On the other hand, one might expect the campaigns to make an effort to put (what they believe to be) their best arguments forward in as prominent a site as the CBC website.

  4. I strongly suspect that CBC, rather than the campaigns, chose the writers for each side. The spokesperson for the Yes side here is not someone I’m familiar with. Granted, I would only recognize some of those involved in FairVote Canada and BC-STV, not all of them. It would be interesting to know how this writer got selected.

  5. I don’t really understand how the “preferential ballots are so complicated!” idea ever got traction. Currently, every federal party uses the alternative vote in its leadership selection process. Shouldn’t the “Yes” side be pointing out that the tens of thousands of Canadians who have voted in leadership elections were perfectly able to figure out a preferential ballot?

  6. STV has, in recent decades, been adopted by Northern Ireland; by Scotland for municipal elections; and by New Zealand for regional and some municipal elections. In every case, the population had had the benefit of watching PR-STV in action next door or across the water, in Ireland and several Australian examples, for many decades.

    The major problem in BC was lack of public understanding of STV, which flowed from lack of familiarity. With a bit of attention, anyone can understand the mechanics. But what happens in practice? How does it work in real election experience? The only way to get a real feel for it is to watch PR-STV elections. Ireland uses manual counts over two or three days, unacceptable to American TV networks who compete to declare instant winners, but ideal drama for watching the actual workings.

    I don’t think STV is saleable except to those who can see it in action. American fans of PR-STV should try to make local elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts, national news somehow, and talk about nothing else except how it works in Cambridge.

    At least in Canada, I suspect the rest of us will go back to refining MMP into a saleable model. Two are on the table: regional-open-list MMP, or “near-winner” (no-list) MMP. STV is not intuitive until you see it at work. By contrast, during the Ontario referendum campaign thousands of voters spontaneously invented Baden-Wurttemberg’s “near-winner” MMP, despite having never heard of Baden-Wurttemberg, while complaining “why did the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly propose province-wide closed party lists for the 30% “top-up” MPPs?”

    “Near-winner” will do nothing for diversity. The fact remains that pure-regional-list, which did so well for women in Sweden, did nothing for women in Belgium until they adopted their version of France’s Parity Law. Just as MMP did nothing for women in Germany until the Greens entered the Bundestag with equal numbers of women and men, forcing the SPD to act which in turn forced the CDU to act. Just as STV did nothing for women in Tasmania until their Green women MHAs shamed Labour into affirmative action. And Irish PR-STV did nothing for women because, when the Irish Greens entered their parliament, they were all men until one lonely woman won in 2007.

    So “near-winner” MMP will help women if it puts a party into the House that features an equal voice for women; and no system will help women that doesn’t do so; only a Parity Law will solve that problem.

  7. Curious how, as MSS notes, the “objective” reason for a No vote was satisfaction with FPTP giving the plurality-vote party a majority of seats, whereas the “subjective” reason – focused on by the No case leaders themselves – was opposition to larger electorates. Curious because, if the next PR referendum is a proposal for MMP, that system would arguably do “worse” on the “coalitions and minority govts” criterion but “better” on the “one MP per smallish electorate” criterion.

    Australian experience with referenda indicates that, if the Yes side doesn’t get a majority the first time, it won’t on later attempts either. Several attempts to synchronise House and Senate elections have gone down to defeat (1974, 1977, 1984 and a different version in 1988), and on the second and subsequent referenda, the No side were able to make great play of the argument “This proposal has already been TWICE rejected by The People! Why are The Politicians so intent on ignoring their verdict?”

    Ironically, on the last occasion (1988) this same argument was put by the No side opposing a change from 3- to 4-year terms for the Reps, ie, they were arguing that it was better for the voters to re-open the same question (who to vote for as your MHR) every 3 years, rather than every 4. Waiting 4 years for another vote on “Who governs?” is too long, but waiting 4 years for another vote on simultaneous Senate/HR elections was too short. Whatever works. (Because it works).

  8. Pingback: What could we expect from electoral reform in BC? | Fruits and Votes

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