A week after Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government announced $1 million in funding for registered groups to debate the single transferable vote (STV) electoral system, two prominent organizations from opposing sides of the fence put forward two different appraisals.
“I think it’s tainted money,” said Bruce Hallsor, president of Fair Vote B.C., an organization that favours the STV proposal. “They’ve set it up so it will not be used as effectively as it could be. They’re basically talking about dividing the money up among a number of groups that apply. They haven’t established particular criteria for those groups, and they say anyone who accepts the money can only use it for advertising. Moreover, if they raise money, they still can only use it for advertising.
“It seems profoundly undemocratic.”
Meanwhile, Know STV, one of the opposition’s most salient groups, is coalescing anew, with members forming a strategy on how best to access the funds.
“It’s been sort of a hibernation period,” said Bill Tieleman, 24 Hours columnist and Know STV member. “We’ll be contesting the referendum for the second time, and we’ll be a strong voice for now and obviously hope to apply for funding and get some funding. We’ll see how that works out.”
Currently, British Columbia, as with the rest of Canada, uses a voting system called first-past-the-post. That system calls for winners to reap a plurality of votes in a given riding, which is different than winning a majority. In a situation with five votes and four candidates, wherein three candidates secure one vote each while the fourth gets two, the fourth candidate is off to the legislature. The majority of votes, meanwhile, lies between the other three candidates.
In 2004, the provincial government struck the B.C. Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. Charged with exploring systems used in other parts of the world, the assembly came up with the STV system, which is used in places like Australia and New Zealand.
That system calls for larger ridings represented by more MLAs — anywhere from two to seven, depending on population densities. A preferential ballot is also in the proposal, an idea that allows voters to have a second choice. Finally, there are partial transfers, which allow portions of a vote — usually for a landslide favourite — to find its way into the camp of a second choice candidate.
In 2005, British Columbians had their chance to vote on the system. A 60 per cent majority was required, and the yes camp rustled up 58 per cent, enough to compel the government to initiate a second referendum.
This time around, the $1 million will be split between the yes and no camps. Groups and individuals have until Sept. 5 to comment on the fund’s distribution. The money goes out in January 2009, with respective campaigns ramping up for a referendum that coincides with the May provincial election of the same year.
“We believe that the single transferable vote is too complicated,” said Tieleman. “It’s an unfair electoral system. And it is only used nationally in small island countries throughout the entire world, and it doesn’t offer proportional representation as some of its advocates claim.”
According to Hallsor, the current system holds little in the way of democratic participation.
“In single member ridings, all that matters to an MLA is winning their party’s nominations,” he said. “If you’re a sitting MLA right now and you want to continue being an MLA after the next election, your job is to make sure your party bosses like you so you win the nomination.”
Both sides are confident their position will win the day. According to Tieleman, too many years have passed since 1996 and 2001, two provincial elections that produced results in the legislature dramatically out of line with the popular vote. But, said Hallsor, with 58 per cent of the voting public supporting a relatively new idea in 2005, not to mention their increased fundraising success, the 2009 referendum on STV will more than likely cross the 60 per cent threshold.