Friday, May 15, 2009

Post-Election Analysis (2) : Is electoral reform dead or is it just STV that is dead?

Of the 48% of the electorate who bothered to vote, 2/3 said they weren't interested. It sounds like the punch line to a bad joke.

Two ironies jump out at me from the long electoral reform process that we have just been through. First, it was ironic that even though the underlying premise of the whole exercise was that government was in a conflict of interest in deciding issues of electoral reform , Liberal backbenchers prevailed upon the premier to have a 60% threshold for approval--not needed to decide conscription or Quebec independence or Newfoundland's entry into Confederation, but necessary when MLAs jobs are at stake! Interesting! Second, it was ironic that the vote that finally defeated BC-STV was based on a turnout of about 48% of the population--an historic low which merely underscores the need for electoral reform. Bill Tieleman and others have proffered the solution of compulsory voting, but one gets the feeling that that solution is only treating a symptom and not the disease. To the extent that the problem is that voters are just too busy nowadays, compulsory voting is a satisfactory answer; to the extent that declining sense of voter efficacy, cultural shift, paucity of meaningful choices and unrepresentative legislatures are behind voting decline, more drastic measures are needed.

That being said, BC-STV is dead. The surprisingly low support for the system recommended by the Citizens' Assembly (39%, down from 58% in 1995), has even caused me to reconsider my own preferred solution, STV-lite. I was prepared, in the event of a "moral victory" of a 50% +1 vote, to wage an extensive campaign for a system that would be less proportional than BC-STV, but better at local representation ( 3-member ridings for big cities; dual ridings for southern interior and small cities; single rdings for the north). But perhaps the fatal flaw in STV was that its very name drew attention to a complicated vote-counting system. Perhaps the Citizens' Assembly should have understood that the perfect was the enemy of the good and that reaching for proportionality through STV was going to be a difficult sell. Better to drop the preferential ballot altogether and go back to the drawing board.

Specifically, we should go permanently back to 60 single -member constituences. The rest of the Legislature would consist of "at large regional MLAs", 4-6 larger electoral districts of 4-6 members each, depending on population densities and so on. An open list could still give voters the option of ranking the individual candidates of their preferred party, if they so wished; the "dual ballot" would be a simpler concept to understand than STV. Parties would be motivated to field lists that are ethnically and gender-balanced; local representation would hardly suffer and would arguably improve from having a "regional" dimension as well as a local one. Proportionality would be improved mildly. And minor parties would have a slightly better chance of getting elected (voter thresholds for 6-member seats being in the 16% range). Would a referendum be needed to validate such a proposal? I don't thinks so, but if so, then only a 50% threshold should be needed for this less drastic, and ultimately more sensible compromise.

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