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 1996.1
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.
The Sun reports that Rick Dignard, who was one of the few members of the BC Citizens Assembly who opposed STV when it first came before the body, and was vice-president of the No STV campaign, thinks reform is not dead.
The article has quotes from several pro-STV members of the Assembly as well.
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.
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.
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%.
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.
The long-awaited convening of the Ontario Citizensâ€™ 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.
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?
As previously noted, Prince Edward Island will hold its referendum on adopting mixed-member proportional representation for its provincial legislative assembly on Monday, under rules changed late in the game by the premier in order to put roadblocks into a reform path that he himself had initiated. PEI could be the first province to go to a PR system, BC having narrowly missed the chance some months ago.
In the provincial general election of May, 2005, 57% of British Columbia voters favored a change of their electoral system from plurality (FPTP) to STV. Only 46% of voters favored the incumbent Liberal government. Yet STV was “defeated” while the Liberals “won” another four-year term as a majority government.
The referendum and its anomalous outcome was a result of a previous decision by the Liberal government to set up a Citizens Assembly to consider an alternative way to elect the provincial parliament, but to mandate that the Assembly’s proposal would require a 60% vote (and also majorities in 60% of the provincial ridings, or electoral districts). Similar rules will be in place in PEI.
Rather embarrassed by being returned to unchecked power despite being less popular than an electoral system that would have forced them to share power had it already been in effect, the BC Liberals announced that they would allow a second referendum (under the same rules).
Norman Specter, in the Globe and Mail, is not too happy about the whole situation–or the referendum on proportional representation Monday in PEI. As he notes, the second BC referendum will be at the same time as the next BC municipal elections, when turnout tends to be low.
In fact, based on the turnout in the last provincial election, only about a third of voting-age British Columbians approved STV. And, with the normally lower turnout of voters in municipal elections, an even lower percentage of voters will have the power in 2008 to change the most fundamental rule of our democratic system.
Of course, if only a third of voting age British Columbians approved STV, then less than thirty percent approved the current government. That would seem to make STV (or any form of PR) more, not less appropriate, in the sense of preventing full authority being lodged in the hands of a party with such a thin mandate.
Turning to PEI, Specter says:
Looking at that situation, one has to wonder exactly what problem is being addressed. In the last PEI provincial election, 26 of the 27 MLAs were elected with more than 50 per cent of the vote.
He has a point. Proportional representation is usually adopted only where three or more parties are splitting the vote, resulting in governments that are clearly majority-opposed rather than (nearly) majority-supported. For the record, the problem electoral reform in PEI seeks to address is super-lopsided parliaments. The PEI Conservatives won 96% of the seats on 57% of the votes in 2000, two elections after the Liberals had won 98% (i.e. all but on seat) on 55%. In between, in 1996, the Conservatives won two thirds of the seats on just 47% of the vote. Reform of some type is clearly needed, though the absence of multipartism in the electorate makes PR a tougher sell.
But Specter thinks that FPTP can accommodate three parties fairly well, and points to the last BC election. It was indeed a classic Westminster-style election,with Liberals winning their comfortable majority with 46 (of 79) seats on 46% of the vote, the NDP 13 seats behind despite trailing by only around four percentage points of the vote, and no seats were won by the Greens (9% of the vote) and other parties. While this is an outcome that PR advocates would argue is unrepresentative, it is nonetheless certainly the case that PR would never have come on to the the agenda if all BC elections turned out like 2005. But of course they do not.
PR got on the agenda in the first place because of the 1996 BC election in which the NDP won a majority of seats on only 39% of the vote while the Liberals actually had nearly 42% of the vote. Then in 2001 BC had an election like the two mentioned above in PEI, when the Liberals won all but three seats on 57% of the vote. That’s why nearly 58% of voters wanted a new electoral system, even if the rules were set up to make that insufficient.
Should a referendum on a fundamental policy or institutional change require more than 50%+1 of the votes cast? Should it require some minimal voter turnout in addition to a majority? These are important questions regarding direct democracy, and different jurisdictions have different rules on this question of referendum approval thresholds (as I alluded to in my discussion of the odd Iraqi rule.)
The question just came up (again) this week in Canada in connection with an upcoming referendum. On November 28, the Atlantic Canadian province of Prince Edward Island will vote on a proposal of an independent commission on electoral reform to adopt a form of mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation for that province. The vote will be the second Canadian referendum on adopting proportional representation, following that of British Columbia in May. (Other provinces will be following suit soon.)
According to the Guardian of Charlottetown, the PEI premier, Pat Binns, may be having cold feet. Despite the fact that this same premier appointed the Commission on P.E.I.’s Electoral Future after a campaign promise to that effect, and despite the fact that the Commission recommended that a majority of votes cast be sufficient to adopt MMP, the premier on October 20 said:
Government is not comfortable with 50 per cent plus one in a low turnout situation. If we were to have a very low turnout for some reason, and only 50 per cent plus one supported change, I would hardly think that that would be enough cause to change the system.
I think Binns has a fair point here (though I would note that one of the purposes of direct democracy is presumably not to make governments comfortable). Major changes to law, especially laws under which future lawmakers will be elected, arguably ought to receive widespread endorsement. (The possibility that major changes in California, such as the law on political spending of union dues or our electoral re-districting process, might be passed in a low-turnout special election disturbs me–more about that in some future posts.) That said, it is troubling that just over a month before the referendum, the premier is changing rules that supposedly had already been set.
What is worse is that he also is taking other actions that appear calculated to keep the turnout low, as noted in the Guardian article:
One of the factors that may affect voter turnout is the number of polls that will be set up across the province on plebiscite day. The Plebiscite Act says the vote should be conducted â€œas nearly as may be possibleâ€ to a provincial general election. But Binns said he has instructed Elections P.E.I. to cut the number of polls across the Island to cut costs. Binns said he expects the number of polls where Islanders can vote in the plebiscite to be cut to two-to-three per district. In a provincial election, there could be as many as 14 polls. [my emphasis]
In a previous referendum (in 1988, on constructing a bridge to the island from New Brunswick), the same number of polling places were provided as for a regular general election.
It seems like the premier is “shifting in the goal posts”, as Fairvote Canada put it (in a press release I received via e-mail).
In the BC referendum in May on adopting single transferable vote for provincial legislative elections, the requirement was 60% and majorities in 60% of the ridings (districts) and everyone knew that well before the vote. (The proposal itself was crafted by an independent Citizens Commission, chosen more or less at random, sort of like a grand jury.)
While the approval threshold for the BC electoral-reform referendum established the principle that such a fundamental change should only be made by consensus, it led to an embarrassing result: The BC-STV proposal won 57.7%, meaning the proposal was narrowly defeated. Yet the governing Liberal party that was re-elected on the same day received a manufactured parliamentary majority on only 45.8% of the vote. (And turnout was high, in part because the referendum was combined with a general election.)
In other words, the BC Liberals received less voter support than did an alternative electoral system that would have deprived the party of a governing majority had it already been in effect. Not surprisingly, the BC government announced in the Throne Speech in September that it will allow a second vote, in November, 2008, on electoral reform. In other words, they recognize that nearly 58% “yes” does not mean “no.”
That is precisely the problem with imposing thresholds on referenda, which supposedly are devices for discerning the “popular will”: When you get more than 50%, but less than the threshold (either in yes votes or in voters showing up), the legitimacy of the thus-expressed “popular will” is ambiguous.
If by my laws you walk, and my commands you keep, and observe them,
then I will give-forth your rains in their set-time,
so that the earth gives-forth its yield
and the trees of the field give-forth their fruit.
--Vayikra 26: 3-4