The public is supposed to be benefiting from an engagement between campaigns meant to champion the two systems up for consideration in this May 12 referendum in B.C.: our existing system, first past the post (FPTP), and the alternative recommended by the BC Citizens’ Assembly, the single transferable vote (STV). 

Instead, we have one serious, grassroots campaign for STV, and this other rump bunch of political elites who campaign as ‘No STV’ and refuse to admit that they are stumping for the status quo.  Nice public process.

Things could have been much different.  We had successful model of public education in New Zealand, where an independent body was commissioned to put together public education materials on voting systems and blanket print, radio and TV with them in the run up to their two referendums in the 1990s.

By the time of the votes, surveys of public knowledge found that 80 per cent of voters could answer basic questions about the voting systems and their associated consequences.  Compare that with the recent Canadian referendums on voting systems in P.E.I., B.C. and Ontario: hardly anyone knew the referendums were occurring let alone what they were about. 

But after BC STV surprisingly gained 58 per cent of the popular vote in the 2005 referendum the provincial government decided they couldn’t avoid holding another vote. 

Needless to say the conventional political elites were freaked out by the referendum results and worried that the public had just taken to STV as a populist whack against politicians of all stripes — and they weren’t far wrong. 

Survey work on public views suggested that most people knew nothing about STV but voted in favour because ‘citizens’ had recommended.  In pitching a new referendum, BC’s political elites came up with other ways killing the initiative while appearing to let the people decide. 

Interestingly, they did not decide to adopt the New Zealand model of public education.  Instead, the government opted to give yes and no campaigns public money to make their respective cases.  And therein lies the roots of our current referendum debacle.

While giving two sides some money might sound fair, it doesn’t necessarily lead to a good process of public engagement on a matter of important public policy.  Instead, in the B.C. campaign thus far, it has contributed to a politicization of the process, one where the traditional political elites running the NO STV campaign have decided advantages over their more populist, grassroots Yes STV adversaries. 

Their advantages?  Ruthlessness, campaign experience, media framing savvy and a recognition that in politics truth is less important than what people can be led to believe.    For instance, the strategy of focusing the public debate around STV, yes or no, has been brilliant because it has meant that no one is talking about the existing system, first past the post, and its terrible performance (which, after all, is the reason we’re having this debate and referendum in the first place). 

No STV have also been successful in getting media to frame public debate around the complexity of STV counting and the size of STV multi-member ridings, again, instead of comparing STV’s broad performance (e.g. questions of representation, government and party system stability, voter satisfaction, etc.) against our existing system. 

And the No STV crew, themselves all veterans of major party campaigning, understand how to toss political bombs into the public discourse in such a way that reasonable public discussion becomes impossible.  Now, as the campaign nears its end, No STV is giving up any pretense of making fact-based claims, hoping that the campaign will expire before anyone can challenge their misinformation. 

However, there is evidence that No STV may have over-played their hand.  Despite the lack of media coverage, despite the fading memories of the anomalous 1996 and 2001 elections, and despite the diminished role of the BC Citizens’ Assembly members in this campaign, recent surveys suggest that a sizeable number of voters in BC are still interested in STV. 

As some people still work out which system they prefer in this last week, it is important that they get reliable, factual information to base their opinion on. It is out there. Indeed, in my own book on the topic, though it argues that any form of PR would be better than our existing FPTP system, one could find all the relevant and defensible arguments for the status quo.  But my point here is that the No STV forces are not a reliable source of anything for the voter who genuinely wants to engage the debate on this issue.  Let me expand in more detail below just why this is so.

Let me be clear from the start — I have a position on this question.  I think B.C. voters should adopt STV.  I don’t think the existing system, FPTP, is doing the job that B.C. voters want from their democratic institutions.  As I say in my work, there are a lot of arguments for the current system, FPTP, but few are democratic ones.  But I come to this position by studying all the relevant debates and evidence germane to the topic. 

Of course, the fact that I’ve had the chance to study this topic in detail doesn’t mean I’m right about which voting system is best or that people should agree with me.  But it does mean that I have engaged opposing views and evidence on this topic and done so in a systematic way.  As noted above, I tend to provide enough information in my work that a critical reader could draw very different conclusions from my own, if they wished to. 

Part of this is the nature of academic work; as an academic you can’t just write any old thing because the claims you make may be challenged by other experts in the field.  On the other hand, part of it just reflects my democratic commitment to fair debate – let’s hear everyone’s side, lets try to be persuasive for our own position, and then let’s have people make up their own minds. Sadly, this is not what the No STV group is doing.

Anecdotal versus systematic evidence or ‘the art of cherry picking’

Anyone who does serious research knows that you can’t just pick out the evidence that makes your case. Instead, you have to adopt a method that approaches the potential evidence in a systematic way. 

For instance, if you want to get a sense of how a voting system works, you might want to examine its performance in a number of countries or over a number of elections.  But this is just the opposite of what the No STV group do in making their arguments against STV on their website or at public meetings. 

For instance, on their site they claim that STV does not produce proportional results for parties, and then they cite results from the 2007 Irish general election to shows a deviation from pure proportionality of about 5 per cent.  They claim that STV will not allow independents and third parties to get elected, and then cite election results from STV-using Malta to back their case.  Or they argue that STV will not alter the combative nature of politics, and then post a video from the Irish legislature of politicians mixing it up. 

But such evidence proves nothing.  For instance, when we look at Irish election results over time it is fairly clear that they are generally proportional, even if there are particular elections one can find that are more or less proportional.  Or if we look beyond Malta to other STV-using locales we see that STV has allowed both third parties and independents to get elected.  And one can find a bad video for any occasion, as reality television has repeatedly demonstrated.

The selective nature of the No STV approach can be seen in their characterization of possible workings of coalition government under STV.  Instead of examining what has actually happened in STV-using Ireland under coalition they point to Canadian hostility to last winter’s coalition proposal or direct readers of their website to Israel as a model of what we might expect. 

This ignores that coalitions operate under very different incentives under our voting system (they are unstable because they are always watching the polls for when they might turn a minority into a phony majority government) and that Israel (a) doesn’t use STV and (b) has unstable coalitions for very specific socio-political reasons that can’t be blamed simply on their voting system. 

Similarly in their characterization of possible gains for women under STV, the No STV side refer only to the national results in Ireland and Malta, two strongly Catholic and traditional countries as concerns gender roles, and ignore the better results at the sub-national level in Australia, where women gained 41 per cent of the seats in the 2008 election to the Australian Capital Territory (improving on the 38 per cent they gained in the previous contest) using STV. 

As demonstration of their techniques in research, in an April 17 press release they decried Yes STV attempts to highlight possible progress for women with STV by citing claims from two female politicians that STV has not produced results for women.  But both women turned out to be on the No STV board of directors and neither had any credentials in research questions about women’s representation.  In other words, No STV cited themselves as the experts to back up their claims.  Well, that makes things easy!

Conclusion: If No STV says it, don’t believe it

Voting systems are arguably one of the key mechanisms for allocating power in modern democratic societies.  Depending on the one we use, it may allow one party to control things, or force political elites to have to work together and bring some of their backroom deliberations out in to the open.  BC’s referendum on the voting system is of historical importance and a very rare opportunity to change our electoral machinery in a way that the existing political elites clearly don’t want.

What people need to understand is that No STV is a political organization.  Their claims about STV or the current system make no sense in light of what we know about comparative elections and institutions across western industrialized countries.  There is a reason it is getting harder and harder to find ‘experts’ willing to endorse our existing FPTP voting system — the present system is largely indefensible by any democratic criteria we might fashion. But No STV’s arguments make sense when we understand them as part of a political battle to keep the status quo power arrangements in place.

Dennis Pilon teaches politics at the University of Victoria and is the author of
The Politics of Voting: Reforming Canada’s Electoral System.

Look for more from Dr. Dennis Pilon on the STV debate tomorrow at