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New voting formula elicits little passion

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Vancouver — Under the radar screen of most media, in church basements and local cable-TV shows across the province, a low-key but pivotal campaign is going on that could change forever the face of politics in British Columbia.

The prize is next month's binding referendum on a proposed new electoral system for B.C. known as the single transferable vote, or STV. The question will be decided on May 17 when the province goes to the polls to elect its next government. The stakes are huge. A yes vote will make Canadian history and change the way British Columbians have chosen their provincial politicians for the past 50 years.

Yet many are not even aware of the referendum. Fewer still know anything about STV, an alternative to the first-past-the-post system used now.

A poll done this month by Nordic Research Group found that only 9 per cent of 801 respondents could name STV as the province's proposed new system.

Perhaps that is not surprising. Despite the importance of the referendum, there has been no government-funded information campaign beyond a household mailing, and both the Liberals and NDP are staying on the sidelines.

And raising interest in a system that sounds like it might be a sexually transmitted disease, a monster car or a return of the SCTV comedy troupe is tough.

The result, so far, has been a throwback to old-style, grassroots politics. Voters are being engaged for the most part in small meetings, one-on-one discussions and media debates far from the mainstream.

One night last week, shipwright Rick Dignard spoke to the Electoral Society of Elphinstone, a rustic hamlet on the Sunshine Coast. The next night, he debated STV on a call-in cable TV show.

"I'm not used to that kind of stuff," Mr. Dignard said afterward. "I kind of stumbled on my first sentence, but after that, my wife said I did fine. I'm not getting a dime for any of this. I'm just standing up for regular Joes."

There were only a handful of calls. "They had some trouble with the line," Mr. Dignard explained.

In the Okanagan, physiotherapist Sheila MacDermott has also been busy. She gave four talks on STV during the past week, the largest to 50 people at a church in Naramata.

"It's been a bit of a juggling act with my job and all, but as people hear more about STV, the more interested they get. It's all very exciting and new."

Both Ms. MacDermott and Mr. Dignard were members of the province's unique Citizens' Assembly, a group of 160 voters chosen at random from across B.C. that was empowered to recommend changes to the long-standing, first-past-the-post electoral system.

To the surprise of many, the assembly opted for STV, a complex, little-known formula used in Ireland that proponents such as Ms. MacDermott say will end the stranglehold of political parties and produce a legislature more reflective of the popular vote.

Mr. Dignard is against STV. "The story is not all rosy. They say it will do everything, but that's not the case."

And so the modest battle is joined. Even the two major pro and con groups are little more than rag-tag organizations operating on shoestring budgets of less than $20,000.

"It's kind of endearing," said Andrew Petter, dean of law at the University of Victoria and a former NDP cabinet minister, who supports STV.

"There really is a Frank Capra sort of campaign going on. It's basic community politics on a provincial scale."

In the scenic community of Smithers in northern B.C., for instance, discussion at Bulkley Valley Christian High School centred on the best way to choose a good pizza. Students tried out both STV and first-past-the-post voting, with nine toppings for three pizzas to choose from, to see what kind of pizzas they would end up with.

Among 74 students, more than a third ended up with pizzas they didn't want using first-past-the-post. When they employed STV, only two did not get at least one of their top three topping choices on a pizza.

STV is harder to explain than it is to understand, once you get the hang of it. But there is a lot of math involved.

Basically, the province would be divided into fewer, larger ridings with from two to seven candidates elected in each one. Instead of voting for one candidate with an 'x', voters would rank candidates in their riding in order of preference -- 1, 2, 3, etc.

A mathematical formula determines the quota of votes needed for election. As the counting goes on and candidates, one by one, are either elected or eliminated, their votes are transferred to the voter's next choice, and so on, until all MLA's for the riding are selected.

STV advocates say the system will put an end to circumstances such as in 1996 when the NDP formed a majority government despite receiving fewer votes than the Liberals, and 2001 when the 42 per cent who did not vote for the Liberals were represented by only two of the 79 seats in the legislature, both NDP.

According to a crude projection of the 2001 election results, STV would have given the Liberals 47 seats, the NDP 19, Green Party 10, Unity Party two and the Marijuana Party one seat -- still a majority for the Liberals but with a more formidable opposition.

The proposal has prompted remarkable alliances in a province where politics is usually a take-no-prisoners blood sport.

Mr. Petter spent 10 years in an NDP cabinet. But he will be sharing a debate podium next month with the anti-government Canadian Taxpayers Federation to argue in favour of STV.

"We have strong views on many things, but this is not a partisan issue," Mr. Petter said. "The time has come to look at an alternative system that will put more value on people's votes and change our negative, political culture."

On the other side, high-profile New Democrats such as Glen Clark's former communications director, Bill Tieleman, ex-NDP MP Anita Hagen, and retired union leader Jack Munro have joined two previous Social Credit cabinet ministers, Bud Smith and Bruce Strachan, to form the cleverly named Know STV, which is strongly against the transferable vote.

"This crosses political boundaries," said Mr. Tieleman. "Some of us probably disagree on 99 out of 100 issues. But the one issue we agree on is STV. It's the wrong system for British Columbia.

"With very large ridings and multiple MLAs, there will be a real lack of local accountability and responsibility. And results take days to figure out."

The main adversary of Know STV is Fair Voting B.C., headed by former Socred MLA Nick Loenen, a long-time campaigner for proportional representation.

He's at a meeting almost every night. "The first reaction people have when they hear STV is always bewilderment. But as they get more familiar with it, the lights start to go on," Mr. Loenen said.

"If I only had time to talk to every voter in B.C.," he added, wistfully. "We have a good product. STV will end governments acting like dictators. There will have to be consensus, and people like that."

Mr. Loenen and Mr. Tieleman agree on one thing. Neither has a clue how voters are leaning. In order to become law for the 2009 election, STV must be approved by 60 per cent of all voters and by more than half the voters in at least 48 ridings.

"If people don't know anything about it, do they vote no, or do they vote yes, or do they not vote on it at all?" Mr. Tieleman wondered. "At this point, it's a mystery."

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