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May 12, 2005

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A Different Way to Elect Your MLA

Politicians will probably not like the proposed systems because it will give them less power. The public should like it because it will give the people more say in government.
By Michael Wortis (pictured on the left) and David Huntley


Last year, 160 people were chosen from the voters list by a random process and asked to make a recommendation for the voting system that British Columbia should use. The government set this up because of elections that resulted in legislatures that were not reasonable representations of the voters' expressed wishes. The 160 people, called the Citizens' Assembly for Electoral Reform, spent most of the year studying the matter and at the end overwhelmingly recommended that we convert to a voting system called the B.C. Single Transferable Vote, BC-STV for short.

The principle objectives that the Citizens Assembly adopted in reaching this recommendation were:

• fair election results, with the number of elected MLAs for each party being in proportion to the votes for each party, i.e., proportional representation.

• effective local representation, in which MLAs represent the local community and are individually accountable to that community.

• greater voter choice than we have at present, including the ability of the voters to choose among candidates from any particular party.

There are many good things that are expected to result from using BC-STV. These include:

• better representation of public wishes in the legislature in Victoria.

• the number of MLAs for each party will be in close proportion to the number of votes for each party.

• you will be able to vote for the candidate or candidates you really want to without fear that your vote may be wasted.

• if your first preference candidate receives very few votes and is not elected, your vote will be transferred to another candidate according to your preference.

• if your first preference candidate is very popular and has more votes than needed to be elected, your second preference candidate will receive some support from your vote. If that candidate is elected, your third preference candidate will receive some support from your vote, and so on.

• if a party nominates more than one candidate, it is the voters who will choose which one or ones are elected.

• independent candidates and candidates from mid-size parties will have better chances of being elected.

• MLAs are expected to do a much better job of representing their voters than at present.

• the government will be less able to pass legislation that the people do not want.

There are three changes that the voter will notice:

• Electoral ridings will be larger. Each one will have between two and seven MLAs. The total number of MLAs will remain at 79.

• A party can nominate more than one candidate in a riding.

• Each voter will rank candidates in order of preference. Number 1 for his or her first preference and, if the voter wishes, number 2 for the second preference, number 3 for the third, and so on.

It is less likely than at present that one party will have a majority of the seats and it is more likely that we will have coalition governments.

All this is achieved by using the single transferable vote. Counting the ballots is as follows:

The number of votes required for a candidate to be elected is calculated. This number, called the quota, is equal to the number of valid ballots divided by (the number of MLAs to be elected in the riding, plus one more), plus one extra ballot.

If, for example, there are 100,000 valid ballots and four MLAs to be elected, the quota is 20,001 votes. The point of having a quota is that one would like each MLA to be elected by the same number of voters, something that does not happen now. If the number of first-preference votes for a particular candidate, let us say Ann, is equal to or greater than the quota, Ann is declared elected and the number of votes in excess of the quota is called a surplus. These are assigned to other candidates in proportion to the second preferences indicated on each of Ann's ballots. This is done using a transfer value, which is equal to the number of surplus votes cast for the elected candidate divided by the total number of first preference votes received by the elected candidate.

For example, if Ann receives 25,001 first preference votes then the surplus is 5,000 and the transfer value is 5,000/25,001 = 0.2000. For each ballot for Ann, 0.2000 is added to the vote of the candidate shown as the second preference. Suppose 10,000 ballots of the ballots for Ann showed a second preference for Bill. Multiplying by the transfer value yields a total of 2,000 surplus votes to be transferred to Bill. Those voters can think of their vote as being 0.8 of a vote for Ann and 0.2 of a vote to Bill.

The next step is to consider the ballots for the candidate with the lowest number of votes, including transferred votes. This candidate is eliminated and first-preference votes for him or her are transferred at full value to the second preference candidates on these ballots. Votes for this candidate that resulted from a transfer are transferred at their transfer value to the next available preference.

If, at any time in the above, vote transfers bring a candidate's total up to the quota, the candidate is declared elected. Any surplus is transferred using the same principles as above.

If, at any time in the above, the voter's second preference has already been declared elected or eliminated, the next available voter's preference is used instead. If there is none, the ballot is not used further.

This procedure is cycled through, with candidates being declared elected or eliminated until the required number have been elected. If at the end, there are only two candidates left and one to be elected, the candidate with the larger number of votes is declared elected.

Note that each ballot is counted as exactly one vote at all stages; this one vote may consist of fractions of a vote to two or more candidates, but these fractions always add up to exactly one. After the election each voter can see exactly how his or her vote helped to elect which candidates.

The details of the ballot counting are on pages 17-20 of the Citizens' Assembly technical report, at www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/public/inaction/reports. You can view a simplified animation of the process at the Citizens' Assembly web site www.citizensassembly.bc.ca. Better still, see step by step transfers in a real election at election.polarbears.com/online/da2002.htm, where you can see what happened in any riding in any Irish election since 1982.

Politicians will probably not like the system because it will give them less power. The public should like it because it will give the people more say in government. A similar voting system has been used in Ireland for more than 80 years. The politicians have twice tried to get rid of it but the voters didn't let them.

“The STV system perhaps comes closest to an ideal electoral system. It combines the virtues of proportionality with those of preferential voting. It is a system which politicians, given a choice, would probably least like to see introduced but which voters, given a choice, should choose,” wrote David Farrell in Comparing Electoral Systems.

Anyone reading about BC-STV may find something they don't like about it. There is no ideal system. Don't lose sight of the big picture. The proposed BC-STV system is the best for B.C. It was chosen by the people for the people.

David Huntley and Micael Wortis are professors emeriti in the department of physics at SFU and are actively engaged in research.














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