BC: FPTP forever?

The BC-STV proposal suffered a resounding defeat in British Columbia’s referendum yesterday. The electoral reform, originally recommended by a Citizens Assembly, won only 38.2% of the vote,* a nearly 20-percentage-point drop from what it earned the first time it was on the ballot, in 2005. (Then as now, it required 60% provincewide and majorities in 60% of the districts to pass.)

One needs only to look at the results of the concurrent general election to see why FPTP retains such widespread support: The first-past-the-post system is working well for the province. FPTP, in a parliamentary form of government, is expected to produce a contest between two principal parties, one of which will win a clear governing majority. And that’s what BC got out of this election, with the incumbent Liberals winning 46% of the vote (a small increase over the 2005 election) to the New Democrats’ 42.1%. The Liberal party’s strong plurality translates into an even stronger majority of seats–49 (57.6%)–just as is expected from FPTP.

That the STV proposal managed a majority in the 2005 referendum is likely attributable to the fresh memories of how a FPTP parliamentary system can fail to do what is expected of it. Two elections prior to that, it had produced a plurality reversal (NDP seat majority despite Liberal vote plurality), while in 2001, the Liberals swept almost every seat, depriving parliament of an opposition presence.

The 2009 election represents the second consecutive return to normal performance after those two anomalies. Presumably, roughly three fifths of BC voters are relieved that they had the opportunity to revisit their yes-but-no outcome of four years ago, and cast a loud-and-clear vote against abandoning their British electoral heritage.

BC results at CBC.ca and Vancouver Sun.

* Very marginally better than the MMP proposal crafted by a Citizens Assembly in Ontario performed in October, 2007.

24 thoughts on “BC: FPTP forever?

  1. A reverse plurality needs to happen twice in a row in order for there to be real electoral reform. In BC, it NZ had that, but it was a long time after those results before an MMP referendum was held. Something underneath cause NZ to move to MMP, like the harsh economic reforms undertaken by the Labor and National parties. Did last FPTP election in NZ was it a a strange result that push the agenda for change?

    I think that NZ’s change to MMP is an exceedingly rare change in an established democracy.

    Imagine if BC had STV in this election. What would the election result have been? Would the BC Liberals be a few seats short of a majority or they have have been elected with a slender majority?

    It’s sad that STV didn’t pass, but at least the people had a say in the process and the electoral system wasn’t change for opportunistic reasons like France in 1986 or Italy in 2006.

    I guess electoral reform is dead in Canada. Is there any hope in Canada for referendums on the issue?

  2. The BC Liberals seem like a party that would do quite well under STV. They are a ‘catch all’ party that evidently is located well near the center of the BC spectrum (at least for now).

    With STV, the Conservatives presumably would have won some seats, as would the Greens. I would imagine the Liberals would work well in a minority government, with small parties on either flank.

    Of course, even if the party could do well under STV, that does not mean it doesn’t like FPTP now that it has become the center-positioned and largest party (at least for now).

    The NDP, on the other hand, seems to need FPTP, which might again some day let it win a majority on less than 45% of the vote. The NDP would have fewer potential partners (though perhaps it could reposition itself in a non-majoritarian context and cooperate with the Greens).

    Those more versed in the nuances of BC politics can tell us what of the above is wrong.

  3. Even worse than the last poll suggested — although the polls did show substantial movement toward the No side. Very disheartening for activists like myself, whose interest in these matters is practical as well as (or even instead of) academic.

    In the U.S. we are making slow but occasionally measurable progress by focusing on reform of local government elections rather than starting at the state/provincial level. I don’t know whether that approach would be relevant in Canada, though.

  4. How does local government work in Canada? We probably should not generalize, but how does local government work in British Columbia?

    I heard local government isn’t all that powerful in Canada, that the provincial government can abolish and merge cities and jurisdictions.

    In California, local government can’t be abolish unless the people in that jurisdiction vote for unincorporation. Then there are general law and charter cities, and I think a bill in the California Assembly was proposed to allow for use of STV for general law cities. Did this pass?

    Doesn’t all the Australia states use STV for local government?

  5. NSW and South Aust have STV for all local councils. Queensland doesn’t have it for any. It’s AV for single-seat wards and mayors, block vote FPTP for multi-seat wards and at-large.

  6. MSS:
    I disagree with your characterization of BC politics, though I’m not sure I know any more about it than you.

    The BC Conservatives are pretty marginal, in 2005 they were even beaten by the Marijuana Party. (Must be nice to live in a province where the pot-heads are more popular than the Tories!) So the Liberals aren’t really in the centre of BC politics, most voters think of them as the right-wing party.

    It’s hard to predict what the results might be under STV, but if the Conservatives didn’t significantly improve, they would have a lot of trouble winning a seat. So far as I know, most of their support is in rural areas, where district magnitude is small and even a 20% share may not win a seat. Of course, it’s possible that some Liberal voters are voting strategically and would really prefer the Conservatives, in which case under STV the Tories would indeed win seats, and the Grits would be firmly in the centre. Contrafactuals are fun!

    As for the NDP, you’re right that they need FPTP if they ever want a majority in the Assembly. But landslides like 2001 can spark realignment, so they have to be careful.

    You’re correct, local government in Canada is quite powerless. I’m not even sure whether cities have the right to change their electoral system. The cities also have no parties, or very weak ones–when they exist, they’re basically personal vehicles. So I don’t think PR makes sense on a local level in Canada, though IRV could work.

    I don’t know what we reformers in Canada ought to do now. Four referendums, three strong rejections, and one “not quite” is not encouraging. I suspect reform is in fact dead in Canada, at least in the near future. Most provinces are two-party systems, or moving towards it. (Er…one party, in Alberta). And while a two-party system isn’t necessarily a healthy system, it’s at least a stable one. The only real multi-party splits remaining are in Nova Scotia, and at the federal level.

  7. Apparently one factor in the failure of STV is that rural areas were convinced that the multimember ridings would be too big for the representatives elected to adequately cover the area. And there may be something to proportional representation being more suitable for densely populated areas.

    Single member district representation may work relatively less well in cities, its hard for individual members to connect with a more transient population, and city wide news media often ignores legislators representing only a small part of the city. With lower turnout in urban districts, the temptation is to provide services to a few identified groups that reliably vote and to ignore the rest of the population.

    Still, a 20% drop in support in four years is impressive and I wonder what else happened. Apparently the referendum question was worded differently.

    Another place for the results is http://bc2009.com. I’m impressed by the level of coverage on this blog. This was a mostly issueless lower turnout provincial election where the incumbent party was reelected with pretty much the same popular vote percentage and number of seats from the last time, with no breakthroughs for third parties and independents. Is it possible to theoretically conceive of a more boring election?

  8. Vasi, thanks for that. I agree that the Liberals are the ‘right-wing’ party in BC, but as you noted, some of that is strategic voting. I think the Conservatives could find a place as a minor party in STV, though they might remain behind the Greens.

    I suppose it just appears to me (from outside) that the Liberals have done a stellar job of positioning themselves as a catch-all center-right party. And that’s a good place to be under STV. Of course, it is a pretty good place to be under FPTP, too!

  9. Suaprazzodi’s and Vasi’s comments on the role of local government in Canada are very much on point, although not very encouraging from the point of view of adapting the approach being taken by activists in the U.S.

    To answer Suaprazzodi’s question about
    California legislation: two years ago Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have allowed “general law” cities and counties to adopt both IRV and STV (“general law” means not having a home rule charter). Essentially the same bill, reduced to a pilot program limited to 10 jurisdictions, is now making its way through the Legislature. You can follow its progress here.

  10. That’s awful that Arnold vetoed IRV and STV for general law cities. I would like to see STV for local government in California, that’s where I live. What 10 jurisdictions are going to try it?

    What I like about preferential voting is that it makes politicians dependent on the votes of others for elections, this being more centrist and less negative campaigning.

    Multimember districts would be a hard sell in California. At the local level, MMD are use, so it is basically just block voting.

    It would be hard to give up SMD. Some might make the argument that each of the 5 members of a district would blame each other for problems. Then the problem is that some districts elect fewer or more members, and that would be unfair to less populated areas. The larger district magnitude areas would be more proportionate but less accountable.

    It is a good point that the NO on STV made in BC. The Yes people should have said that you can vote within and across parties.

    You can see any member in that district if you have problems, and that the two largest parties have a presence in every district, and not just one party in a single member district and the minority party is underrepresented. The Yes on STV people shot themselves in the foot by not making this other counter argument.

    The problem is not choosing an electoral system, it is selling it to the people. What is the best way to sell and not to sell electoral reform?

    IRV runoff voting actually Australian style preferential voting uses Single Member Districts, and that could be a good sell for local government eliminating costly second round elections that are poorly attended.

    This is the reason why it is being embraced. I am concern, that being think it that votes are counted in an instant. I preferred preferential voting.

    Obviously it is going to be optional preferential voting, one can just rank one candidate, but can one be allowed to rank all candidates till they exhaust?

    Australia makes it mandatory at the Federal level to rank preferences till they exhaust and Papua New Guinea requires a minimum of three preferences called Limited Preferential Voting. How does this effect election results?

  11. California local government has a unique feature in which all counties have five supervisors, elected using SMD, no matter how many people live in the county. Los Angeles has five supervisors elected from single member districts each containing almost two million people. In recent years, its been impossible to unseat incumbents in these districts because of the expense under the US system of putting together a campaign for a district that size. If you can put together the money for a campaign in a two million person jurisdiction, you can put together the money to run for more interesting offices.

    There is alot not to like about this system, but it strikes me that five supervisors is the perfect number for an STV election. Of course electing five supervisors from each of the existing districts in large counties would be better.

  12. I’d love to pursue California local government and electoral reform with Suaprazzodi, Ed and anyone else who’s interested. But this is a thread about B.C., about a 1,000 miles north of us.

    To answer Suaprazzodi’s question, the 10 pilot cities and/or counties would be self-selected, with strict limits on the number of small, medium, large, northern, central and southern jurisdictions.

    Aside to the orchardist: it would be nice to have a thread on California, starting with your thoughts on the proposal for MMP that the New American Foundation put out last September. Specifically, what’s your take on the effort to sell large multi-member districts as a forum for regional interests? If it proved effective, it would help sell STV as well as MMP.

  13. Before I forget entirely, the French blog World Elections has some very interesting comments on the referendum. In particular, scroll down to the part where the 2005 and 2009 ballot questions are displayed side-by-side. There’s a substantial difference and I agree with World Elections that it could account for part of the 19% decline in support. S/he also echoes the point made here that the 1996 and 2001 results are fading from memory.

    (Hat tip to FairVote’s Rob Richie for us pointing us to this blog, which is new to me.)

  14. My guess (and that is all it is) is that if the hypothesis about the ballot effect is right, then had the 2009 wording been on the ballot in 2005, STV would have made it over the 60% hurdle.

    The words, “existing FPTP system” would have highlighted the source of the then-recent anomalies. But when you have what is pretty clearly a status quo election, “existing” does not look so bad.

    In other words, I am skeptical of the idea that the ballot wording would be a major explanation of the 19-point swing. If the 2009 wording would have an effect, I suspect it would be just to amplify the existing polarity of voter evaluation of the options before them–perhaps by a few percentage points. Of course, in 2005, a few percentage points positive would have made all the difference.

  15. People were angry at all major parties in 2005. Voters saw the Referendum as a mechanism to punish politicians; there was little discussion of STV as such and very little understanding of how it worked. The notion that parties and politicians hated it was he big selling point. The electorate was feeling more mellow this time around (though BC still has a populist anti-politician vibe) and the campaign was unexciting so people actually looked at STV. There was considerable talk against the system, unlike last Referendum. The question itself was simpler: FPTP or STV? Whereas last time voters were asked if they agreed with the Citizens’ Assembly. Since documentaries on the CA were being shown on TV, I think many voters cast their ballot for it rather than for STV.
    On some points raised earlier in Comments: proposed District Magnitudes were low under BC-STV — lower than the CA recommended, but that’s another story; it is unlikely that anyone would be elected from any other party — possibly excepting a single Green seat in a high DM riding (Vancouver West with a DM of 6 was suggested as a possible Green seat. The numbers don’t work for me. The strongest area for the Greens– West Van/Sechelt/Sunshine Coast suffered under STV districting but might still have managed a seat, IMO, though I seem to be alone in thinking so.); BC-STV ridings are huge. You could drop all of Ireland into my Kootenay district and not touch the sides. Currently, because of political pressure, it has a DM of four, but next re-distribution will bring it down to three. Going to see the MLA you prefer is not a matter of driving a few blocks — Kootenay east/west transportation is difficult and involves two time zones. A lot of voters got worried when they saw STV district maps. The preliminary vote count shows STV doing much better in urban areas than the Interior.; Finally, the Conservatives are on the increase in the BC Interior. A lot of right-wing voters are looking for a home. If the Conservatives can bring in the remnants of the old Reform party, then they are in good shape to win a couple of seats.

  16. CCBC @17If the Conservatives can bring in the remnants of the old Reform party, then they are in good shape to win a couple of seats.

    Presuming that CCBC means “win a couple of seats under FPTP”, would this be enough to trigger the return of anomalous results in say, eight or 12 years?

    Especially if, at the same time, Green Party activists were to take my advice for small party activists under FPTP: pick a riding/district where they already have some strength, move there, and put whatever resources they have into winning that seat.

  17. This latter strategy may not be as utopian as sometimes thought. Apparently the Greens have just won their first (single-member) seat in the West Australian Lower House, at a by-election over the weekend. (WA has previously elected Greens by PR to the State Upper House and the federal Senate).

    From memory, this must be the Australian Greens’ first win in a single-member race contested by all parties. Michael Organ won Newcastle at a by-election, but Labor didn’t stand a candidate so he won the left’s primary vote by default.

  18. Bob Richard @ 18: would this [the election of some Reform Party MLAs] be enough to trigger the return of anomalous results in say, eight or 12 years?
    Possibly. Four parties took seats in 1996 when the NDP formed government with fewer votes than the Liberals. The Liberals have very large voting blocs in select ridings in the Fraser Valley and a few other locales. In a tight election, there may well be anomalies. That is the price of local representation.
    Incidentally, I didn’t mention before that Wilf Hanni, the leader of the BC Conservative Party was formerly leader of the BC Reform Party.

  19. I apologise for having misled this house – it seems the Liberals didn’t run a candidate in the Fremantle by-election, so the Greens picked up the right-wing primary votes by default. The initial media reports didn’t make this clear, focusing only on “The Greens outpolled Labor for once”.

  20. Pingback: Brexit vs. BC-STV: Help with my principles! | Fruits and Votes

  21. Pingback: BC: Sticking with FPTP | Fruits and Votes

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