Brexit vs. BC-STV: Help with my principles!

As I noted earlier, I happened to be in British Columbia while the British were voting to leave the EU.

[Note: If you want to make general comments on Brexit and what happens next, please comment at the earlier thread. I’d like to keep this one on the narrower topic raised here.]

I never liked the BC-STV vote having been “defeated” in 2005 despite a clear majority (57%), due to a threshold of 60% having been set. But I do not like the UK “mandate” to leave the EU by a vote of 51.9%.

Is there a principle that reconciles my two positions? Or do I just have no principles regarding referendums*, and assess the rules for passage by whether I like what is being proposed? Help, please!

(I have written about referendum approval thresholds before.)


* Other than that, in general, I’d rather not have them. I rather like representative democracy and deliberative institutions.

BC election 2013

British Columbia’s general election is today.

All indications are that the NDP will defeat the incumbent Liberals, in power since 2001, by a wide margin, although the race has tightened during the campaign. BC’s First Past the Post electoral system has a history of periodically producing anomalous results, but a near-total wipeout of the losing party no longer seems as likely as it did when the election was called. The last time the NDP won a BC provincial election was in 1996, when it was the beneficiary of a plurality reversal: it lost the vote to the Liberals, 39.4%-41.8%, but won the seats, 39-33. The only other time the NDP won an election was 1991, when their 41%-33% vote lead translated into a whopping 51-17 lead in seats. Today’s result could be similar.

The Greens, who won their first seat in federal politics in a BC riding (district) in 2011, have some shot at picking up their first provincial seat. The Green Party has won as much as 12.4% of the vote in a provincial election; that was 2001, when the Liberals defeated the NDP in a landslide. In 2005 and 2009, the party’s votes declined to 9.2% and then 8.1%.

As the election has tightened, the Greens’ odds of winning a seat may have declined. The BC Greens leader says her party has a chance at 4-5 seats on southern Vancouver Island, and that she will resign if she does not win her own seat. She is running against an NDP incumbent; given the strong NDP winds blowing this year, her odds would seem not so good.

The Liberal Party ran an ad in the Victoria Times-Colonist that has created some controversy. It praises the Greens for their environmental leadership, apparently hoping that a strong Green vote in the region will allow the Liberals to win some three-way races. NDP leader, Adrian Dix, responded to the ad by saying:

They will say anything, they will do anything. What the Liberals are saying is our path to get to power is for you to vote Green. I say the way to change the government, to get a new and better government, is to vote NDP.

The Green candidate in the Oak Bay-Gordon Head riding also had an interesting response to the ad, saying that if his campaign could afford a full-page ad, it would say the same thing about their environmental leadership and the NDP’s “flip-flopping”. Moreover,

What it would acknowledge is Ida [Chong, the Liberal incumbent] is certainly not in the lead … she’s not even second in this riding.

That’s a great example of the expectations game in FPTP elections: if you can convince voters that a given candidate is in third place, you might be able to promote strategic defection your way. The district in question was won by the Liberal with a margin of only a few hundred votes in 2009, without the presence of a strong Green challenge.

The other small party to watch is the Conservatives, who long have been scarcely a factor in the province’s politics. The last time the party placed as high as third was in 1979, with 5.1%. The now defunct Reform Party, which was a Western splinter from the Conservatives that later re-merged with it, was third with 9.2% in 1996. ((And probably a factor in the plurality reversal that year, though I have never looked at riding-level results to see to what extent.))

The BC Conservatives could have a chance at a seat this time. As the Tri-City News notes about the contest in Coquitlam-Burke Mountain :

If there is one thing Shane Kennedy is hoping voters remember when they head to the polls next week, it’s this: they needn’t cast a ballot for the NDP to get rid of the Liberals.

A bit deeper into the story is this interesting policy note:

He agrees with the Liberal’s stance on bringing the Northern Gateway pipeline to B.C. but said the money it generates for the province should be used to fund green industry.

Kennedy is also quoted as advocating more bus service for the area, so we have both local and provincewide–and not necessarily obviously “conservative”–positions being advocated in attempt to secure the seat.

Nonetheless, as with the Greens, the overall tightening of the race probably works against any BC Conservative candidate.

Good headline: “BC Conservatives woo voters with liquor.”

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 and Vancouver Sun.

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

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?

BC-STV, take 2

British Columbia is now just over a week away from its (second) referendum on the proposal to change to single transferable vote for future provincial legislative assembly elections. The referendum will be concurrent with the election to the next provincial assembly, by FPTP, at which the Liberals will be seeking a third term. The voting takes place on 12 May.

The election race could be tightening, with a recent poll putting the Liberals on only 42%, the NDP at 39%, and the Greens 13%.

If the race is (at least) that tight between the top two parties, and the Greens are that strong, just about any outcome is possible, given the past history of this province’s FPTP but multiparty elections–the history that initially put electoral reform on the map over the past decade. In fact, the item just linked includes a section about how the poll is an “echo [of the] B.C. Liberals’ 1996 defeat.” In that year the NDP won its most recent assembly majority despite the Liberals’ having won their first-ever voting plurality.

The referendum requires 60% to pass, plus majorities in 60% of the provincial ridings (electoral districts). Sixty percent of votes is probably at least 20 percentage points more than it would take either party to win 60% of ridings, depending on margins and geographical distribution of the vote.

There are YES and NO sites regarding the referendum that are worth a look.

I have addressed many of these issues in past B.C. plantings.

Ontario Citizens Assembly has held first session, so Beware!

Via Fair Vote Canada:

The long-awaited convening of the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform took place at York University campus on the weekend of September 9-10. One hundred and three citizens, representing every riding in the province, began their work to determine whether Ontario needs a new voting system.

Assembly Chair George Thomson welcomed the 52 women and 51 men who will be meeting on several weekends each month through the fall and winter to learn about voting systems. They will hold public meetings across the province from late November to the end of January, and then make a recommendation in April or May on whether the voting system should be changed. If they do recommend a new system, that recommendation will go to a referendum, all but certain to be held with the October 4, 2007 provincial election.

The agenda for this first weekend session included an introduction to the role of voting systems. To gain first-hand experience on how different voting system can produce very different outcomes, the Assembly used three different voting systems to select their snacks for the three coffee breaks on the second weekend. To wrap up the weekend, Assembly members discussed what they expect elections to accomplish. The next five weekend sessions will go into detailed reviews of all major voting systems.

The Citizens’ Assembly sessions are open to the public. For more details on the schedule and topics, visit

As always, J.H. Snider has regular updates and links to news accounts, including a rather hysterical warning from Ian Urquhart in the Toronto Star of 9 September about “a leap of faith into electoral darkness.” In the Star article, we get these nuggets:

Two years ago, a similar assembly in British Columbia recommended a loopy new system called the “single transferable vote,” which hardly anyone understood…

Urquhart alleges that in BC,

the research director for the assembly was an individual who was already predisposed toward the single transferable vote…

I know who this is, and while he has done research on STV and probably thinks it has been, on balance, pretty effective over the past 90 or so years in Ireland, to say that this makes him “predisposed” (as in biased in favor of) the system strikes me as unfair and unreasonable for the reporter to say (unless he has some very specific evidence). Essentially, he is calling into question the sholarly integrity of an professional researcher. Anyway, in Ontario, the reseach director will be a:

professor of political science with no published record on the issue of electoral reform.

Wonderful. We certainly would not want someone who actually is an expert on electoral systems working to assist a group of citizens–most of whom have never thought about electoral systems before–tasked with recommending either a new electoral system or the retention of the current one! (I do not wish to imply that the scholar chosen is unqualified or will not do a good, professional job. I simply am questioning the principle of having chosen someone who is not a specialist in the field. Additionally, Wilf notes in a comment that the model of a non-specialist Academic Director supported by a team of elections experts was precisely the model that Fair Vote Ontario recommended.)

Urquhart also fears that “the playing field is already tilted against the status quo.” In a sense, that is probably correct. Given that jurisdictions do not regularly hold such extensive reviews of their electoral systems (though perhaps they should!), the very fact that a process is underway suggests there is doubt about how well the status quo serves the jurisdiction. And well there should be, though my own research on reform away from plurality shows that Ontario is not one of the cases that is most “objectively” in need of reform. The province has not had the record of severe anomalies that British Columbia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, or pre-reform New Zealand have had.

Then, even after criticzing BC-STV, Urquhart implies that proportional representation necessarily is a system of “party lists” notwithstanding that there are no party lists under STV. He also claims that under PR candidates run on such lists “rather than in constituencies” (my emphasis), notwithstanding that one can have both, if one understands “constituencies” to mean single-seat districts and the form of PR adopted is MMP. (Of course, most non-MM PR systems, including STV, indeed have constituencies; jurisdiction-wide party-list systems, a la Israel or Ukraine, are exceedingly rare.)

Urquhart says that “permanent minority government” would be a cure worse than the disease, which he diagnoses as “presidentialization.” The latter term–highly misleading in any parliamentary system, but that’s a topic for another day–refers to the concentration of power in the premier. Apparently it has not ocurred to Mr. Urquhart that the reason the premier is so powerful is that there are no checks and balances on a single minority party (in votes) that is frequently given a majority (in seats) by Ontario’s current electoral system. Your premier will be a whole lot less “presidential” (not that he is now, but, again, that’s a topic for another day) once you have an electoral system that ensures, when there is no party with a majority of votes, that a minority party leads a minority government–or else, of course, a majority coalition.

The idea that one can genuinely empower “ordinary MPPs,” as Urquhart wishes–at least without real presdentialization, that is, electing legislators and the executive separately and eliminating confidence votes–is quite frankly naive. Under a parliamentary form of government, individual members are arguably at their least powerful under plurality voting and the resulting tendency towards single-party governments. PR–of some form–is essential to what Urquhart claims to want to accomplish.

It seems Urquhart and his newspaper could use a primer from an electoral systems specialist. But of course we can’t be trusted to be objective about our areas of research specialization, can we?