Friday, April 17, 2009

BC-STV is a Bad Idea

For the second time, we in BC are being asked to vote for a fundamentally flawed change to the way we elect members to the provincial legislature.

I went to the BC-STV website to "get the facts" so I could prepare a typical computer-geek detailed rebuttal to the single transferable vote system. I got that, but I also realized something more important: They're completely ignoring the social dynamics of what makes our current voting system, or any voting system, bad or good.

Before I go further, I should mention that I think the first past the post system of electing a single member for a geographic region based on who gets the most votes really sucks in many ways. However, I was able to describe it in a single sentence, and anyone can understand it.

More importantly, it's easy to implement a very transparent system to count the votes and ensure that the correct result is recorded. Immediately after the polls close in a Canadian provincial or federal election, a group of people representing different political views sit down together to look at and count every vote. Without widespread, serious physical intimidation, there's no way the votes will be recorded wrong in a significant way. The confidence we have in our voting system is like air, it's so all pervasive that we take it for granted, until we lose it and suffocate.

The BC-STV website doesn't even explain how the votes would be counted, or in fact what the exact rules for counting the votes are. They talk about "change back from your loonie" and "spending your vote", but they can't (or are afraid to) articulate how the counting would actually happen. That's not transparent.

In order to maintain transparency, the STV system would have to publish every single ballot (anonymously, of course) so that others could verify the election outcome. There's no other way to ensure transparency. Transparency is about people's perceptions. It doesn't really matter whether someone tries to steal the election somehow, it matters whether people think someone could steal the election somehow.

There are simpler systems that maintain transparency: straight proportional representation where you vote for a party and they get a percentage of the seats, or mixed, where your vote counts once for your electoral district and once for a proportional representation. All systems have advantages and disadvantages, but at least these approaches maintain the transparency of voting.

As someone who's voted all my life for parties that get fewer seats than their popular vote said they should get, I want a different voting system. But as someone who's seen in other countries how hard it is to build a society that can settle differences through voting rather than violence, I know that faith in the voting system is extremely important. And that faith will only come through transparency.

What's sorely missing from the debate here is a discussion of the social dynamics that distort any voting system. Big money advertising, toeing the line on internal party politics, attack ads, lying during campaigns, lobbyists, powerful special interest groups (for example, white males) and others, are issues that need to be looked at in this context.


James Gilmour said...

What's more important: having a voting system you can describe in a single sentence or having a voting system that gives fair representation to those who vote? I think you need to review your priorities.

From the voter's point of view, BC-STV could hardly be much simpler. You just mark "1, 2, 3" etc to show you preferences for all the candidates you want.

All the BC-STV ballot data could easily be published, anonymously, after the elections so that anyone could check the counting. That's what was done for the City of Glasgow after the local government STV elections in Scotland in 2007 and that's what will be done for all the other councils in Scotland once some new legislation has gone through our Parliament.

No matter what voting system you use, there will always be pressures of various kinds on the political system. But the unique feature of STV, including BC-STV, is that the power of election lies with the voters. That will make the MLAs more accountable to their local constituents and shift the balance of power away from the party machines.

Larry Reid said...

Thanks, Edinburgh. I agree that the ideal is to let me express my preferences. I'm only saying that it's also important to be able to prove that my preferences were indeed respected. I'm encouraged to hear that the Weegies at least get the raw data published so someone can check. If STV is approved for BC that's something we'll have to insist is included in the legislation.

The fact that you commented on my post brings up another point: At the official BC-STV site, there's no way for you to submit your comments to them. It's all their propaganda, one way. That's their right, I suppose, since they're paying for the site. But it's not politics 2.0 if you ask me.

Willem said...

I think transparency - to the minority that is interested and is thus potential whistle blowers - is quite important. STV uses elementary school math, and as you have noted scrutineers could verify that the published ballots from each polling station agreed with the ballots they saw when recording the ballots... A little bit more complex, but still transparent to the majority of people if they are interested... Worth the benefits. Ireland seems to have done well with STV despite the religious conflict there (STV was in fact adopted there partially to help deal with this conflict better).
I think your concerns aren't on the website because they just aren't what most people are interested in learning about STV!