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STV or more of the same

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Canada is not served very well by its party system, or our first-past-the-post electoral system. It's time to shake things up a bit.

Federally, we have four centre-left parties if you include the Bloc, and one party on the right. The result? In the last federal election the Conservative Party formed a minority government with 143 seats of 308 seats, while winning just 36.27 per cent of the popular vote. By way of comparison the Liberal Party earned 30.23 per cent of the vote, but just 77 seats. The Bloc Quebecois got 49 seats with 10.5 per cent, the NDP won 29 seats with 17.5 per cent, and the Green Party won no seats with 4.5 per cent.

Put them all together and almost two thirds of Canadians did not vote for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but now have less of a voice in government than the third who did.

The simplest solution could be to unite the left (minus the secessionist Bloc for obvious reasons) but that would require the parties to reconcile some acutely different views and priorities - which they could end up doing as long as we're stuck in this current cycle of minority governments, confidence motions and snap elections.

I'd rather that didn't happen. All of Canada's political parties are distinct and have values that it would be a mistake to compromise. We would also wind up with the same broken two-party system that has been so divisive in the U.S.

British Columbia has the answer to this democratic deficit. In the May 12 general election voters will be asked to cast a vote on whether to switch to the B.C. Single Transferable Vote (BC-STV) system, ditching our archaic first-past-the-post system where the candidate with the most votes wins. First-past-the-post works when there are just two parties or two candidates represented, but ironically it actually gets less democratic when more parties and candidates participate because people wind up voting strategically instead of following their conscience.

If 60 per cent of voters dare to tick the little box in favour of BC-STV - probably more than will vote for any one party this time around - the elections in 2017 will happen under very different circumstances.

I will say that I don't necessarily favour STV over other forms of proportional representation. I'm partial to the mixed member assembly (MMA) system where you vote for your leader and cabinet by clicking one box, then your regional representative by clicking another. Ridings would likely grow slightly under this system and we could end up with a few more MLAs on the payroll, but at least you can vote both your conscience and self-interest.

The STV system is quite different, and fewer jurisdictions use it. Under BC-STV our ridings will be massive, the size of three to five ridings combined, and you will be able to vote for three to five MLAs in each election. You also get to rank your picks, with more weight given to first pick than second pick, and so on.

A better explanation is at www.stvforbc.com, but in general STV gives voters more options than they currently have. You can use all your votes on one party, ranking the candidates by order of preference, or distribute your votes to the candidates you think would do the best job, regardless of party affiliation. The number of parties represented in the Legislature would likely increase - the Green Party is expected to do well under the BC-STV system, and it could resurrect a united B.C. Conservative Party as well - bringing more diverse opinions to Victoria.

It could also result in minority governments. But while minorities don't work at the federal level, where parties would sooner spit on each other than agree that the sky is blue, the optimist in me believes it could work at the provincial level where the stakes are higher and the issues are closer to home. Besides, the province doesn't have confidence votes like the federal government, and every disagreement or "nay" vote to a piece of legislation won't automatically trigger a new election.

If you haven't guessed by now, I'm voting in favour of BC-STV. There are a lot of very good questions about how it will actually work, as well as some valid concerns that urban areas will drown out rural voices, but until we try it we'll never know. The possible downside is dwarfed by the sheer potential to elevate politics to a higher plane.

It's time to accept that first-past-the-post is pretty much finished as an electoral system. Most countries have some form of proportional representation by now, especially when there are more than two mainstream political parties in the mix. In Western Europe, 21 of 28 countries already have proportional representation.

I think if B.C. can provide the example then other provinces will follow suit within one or two election cycles. And if the provinces follow, so could the federal government.

I look forward to the day when politicians will stand for things instead of against them, when an issue is something to be solved rather than an opportunity for a party to score points by using it as a wedge issue. I especially look forward to a government that will finally catch up to public opinion on issues, and steers party platforms accordingly.

It will be nice to enter a voting booth without spoiling a ballot by voting for a candidate with little hope, or sucking it up and voting for someone I don't like because they have the best chance of beating the candidate or party I like even less. It will be nice if the candidates themselves matter as much, if not more, than the parties they represent.

This is the most important election in a long time because the BC-STV is on the ballot. It missed passing in 2005 by less than three per cent of the vote, and it may be a long time before we get another crack at it if it fails again.

See you at the polls!

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