It's bad enough already

British Columbians are being asked to decide whether to radically change the way MLAs are elected. In the past, we’ve used the old first-past-the-post system of electing candidates. Now, the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform has recommended that we implement the single transferrable ballot (STV) as a new way of electing provincial representatives. There are lots of sites out there, pro and con, on this issue. Here are my four reasons for voting no.

  1. It’s too damn complicated. I’m a reasonably smart person. Moreover, I’m a reasonably smart person who enjoys politics. And although I understand STV, it took me the better part of an hour to figure it out, and I’m still not sure I fully “get” it. Any voting system that requires a flowchart and complex mathematical formulas and can’t be explained in less than five minutes to your mom is too complicated.
  2. There’s no accountability. Or, if you prefer, you can’t actually vote against some candidates. Under the current systme, you can specifically vote against someone by casting a ballot for the person most likely to be elected if not the guy you hate. Under STV, those opportunities don’t actually exist — you run the very real risk that your potentially excess vote will go to someone you don’t like even though you never actually cast a ballot for them. For instance, if I’ve got a real hate on for the NDP candidate in my riding (and I do), I can easily make that work in my favor by casting a vote for the Liberal candidate. Under STV, this kind of voting isn’t possible anymore.

    Also, because a group of MLAs would represent an electoral district, it’s tough to figure out who you complain to, or who your beef is with. Say all four leading candidates in Victoria managed to win seats, and I’m annoyed about something the province has done. Do I complain to Shiela Orr, Carole James, Jeff Bray, or Rob Flemming? Say I get pissed with one of these MLAs. Can I play them against each other, or do I have to be stuck with one of them, or…? It’s the same problem I’ve had since I moved out here and had to start dealing with slates of candidates for city council — I grew up under a ward system, where you had an alderman and a mayor. Well, we have a mayor (and a damn fine one, if I do say so myself), but which municipal councilor do I bug if I have an issue? Who do I pester to get things done? How do I make that decision? That’s never been made clear to me, and I’ve lived here (as I say, as a politically-interested resident) for an awfully long time now. At least provincially and federally, I know who I can complain to.

  3. And I can’t rank those assholes anyway. For those of us who view the majority of candidates with little more than thinly veiled contempt, the idea of ranking a half-dozen or so isn’t particularly appealing. When the majority of your voting comes down to “who do I hate less?” the prospect of having to rank candidates in order of slime appeal isn’t, um, very appealing. Moreover, there’s very little you can do about it anyway, aside from leaving the name off the ranking. But I don’t understand what happens when you do that, either.
  4. It’s too much friggin’ work. To my mind, this is the best argument against STV. Even if I wanted to rank all the candidates in my electoral district, and wanted to do it honestly (i.e., no #1 followed by five or six #12s), it would be waaaaay too much effort to try and figure out how I felt, relatively speaking, about each individual candidate. I would probably have a clear favorite, but after that, it might get kinda muddled. Who do I like more, the Sex Party candidate or the Marijuana Party candidate? Democratic Reform or some random independent? How do those four compare against each other? I don’t know. I bet you don’t, either, and the number of people who do is a teeny tiny minority of the population. So how are candidates going to be ranked? The same way they’re picked now — at random. Only this time, there’s a very real chance that a candidate ranked entirely by random is going to get elected, and who the hell knows who you’re actually going to end up voting for?

Proponents of STV like to talk about how it will lead to a greater diversity of opinion and more representation. Yeah, I don’t think so. I think we’ll end up with a lot of coalition governments, and we all know how much fun those things can be. A lot of people were honked off in the wake of the last provincial election that we had “no effective opposition”; I hate to break it to these folks, but when you have a majority government, you can more or less do whatever the hell you want, whether you have a majority of two seats or a majority of a zillion seats. (The only issue is party discipline, but that’s a separate problem that has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the opposition.) STV won’t fix that. STV won’t fix problems of local representation, either — it’s tough to do that when you’re confronted with a larger electoral district and multiple representatives.

A strong argument can be made that STV will increase voter participation and encourage people to become informed and, hopefully, vote. But that’s shouldn’t be the point of electoral reform. It shouldn’t be a coercive tool to get people to pay attention to a subject most of them hate. I’m a political wonk and I hate the amount of work that’s involved in finding out who believes what (and there are some real shockers, like when I discover that, modulo their fiscal policy, the Green Party is exactly what I want at the federal level). Normal people won’t put in a tenth as much work, and so the STV will be wasted because they’re going to do what they always did — vote for the candidate they understand and trust and acknowledge, and then leave the rest of their slate blank. And, like I said, I don’t really know what happens when there are more candidates than rankings. People are lazy. They don’t put that much effort into making voting decisions now. They’re even less likely to put effort into a system that requires much more, um, effort. Under FPTP, their laziness doesn’t hurt. Under STV, laziness is a dangerous thing.

I also don’t see the need. Was what we had so terrible, so broken, that it was unsustainable? It’s not like we’ve had cases of rampant electoral fraud, or suspicious results, or people promising to deliver states with black-box voting technologies that magically end up doing exactly that in opposition to exit polling data, or people who can’t figure out how to use their existing ballots. This isn’t, you know, Florida. If we had problems that we coming out of the system, then yeah, I could see the logic behind looking at alternatives. But we don’t, and I don’t.

Is it broken? Nah. Bent, maybe, but not broken. Not worth overhauling right yet.