Bill Tieleman: Why STV failed in B.C.

By Bill Tieleman, President, No STV, 19 May 2009.

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

The single transferable vote failed for multiple reasons. The proposal of the Citizens' Assembly to replace our current first-past-the-post electoral system with STV was always fraught with peril, but it was only narrowly defeated in the 2005 referendum nonetheless, receiving 58% of the votes but needing 60% to pass.

And British Columbians for BC-STV released a poll on April 15 stating: “Voters are giving a big thumbs up to electoral reform with 65% saying they will vote for BC-STV in the upcoming referendum.”

But on 12 May 2009 just under 39% of voters supported STV, while 61% backed FPTP.
So what went wrong this time? Lots.

In brief: the giant STV ridings scared off voters, as did the incomprehensible STV voting system.

The fact that the only two tiny countries that use STV as a national electoral system – Ireland and Malta – had a track record going back to the 1920s that often contradicted the cheery claims of the BC-STV proponents didn't help.

And British Columbians for BC-STV ran an unfocused campaign that attempted to replicate the approach major parties use in an election.
The yes side hired staff, rented offices, purchased 10000 lawns signs, ran phone banks, lined up celebrity endorsements like David Suzuki, former B.C. Liberal deputy premier and now talk-show host Christy Clark, and former premier Bill Vander Zalm, and put an amazing 5000 volunteers on the campaign.

British Columbians for BC-STV also raised probably $200000 or more from supporters across the country and brought in high-profile advocates from Alberta, like Rick Anderson, the former senior advisor to Reform Party leader Preston Manning; Ontario, like feminist commentator Judy Rebick; and even former grunge rock star Krist Novoselic, the bass player from Nirvana.

British Columbians for BC-STV deserve full credit for their commitment to an energetic campaign that pulled out all the stops.

But you can't sell a bad idea no matter how hard you try. And tactics are not strategy.

No STV, the official group funded by the province to oppose STV and defend FPTP, took the completely opposite approach.

No STV ran a disciplined campaign based on polling research and focus groups conducted by Ipsos Reid to direct its television, radio, and print advertising and messaging.

There were no staff, no offices, no lawn signs, no endorsements, no phone banks, and no outsiders brought to B.C.

Each side was provided with $500000 for their campaign by the province and all available funding – including the less than $20000 raised separately by No STV – was used to maximize the advertising buy.

The majority of the funds were put into television, with the remainder spent on print and radio, including some in ethnic media.

The entire ad buy was concentrated in the final two weeks of the campaign leading up to the 12 May vote.

That's because our polling showed that, as of 30 March, 60% of all voters had no idea the on STV referendum was happening just six weeks later!

We knew that voters wouldn't start thinking about STV versus FPTP until the last part of the campaign.

We also know that because voters already had great knowledge of FPTP and its simplicity, there was no need to explain the current system.

But explain STV? Well that's a different and very long story.

In 2005, there were no proposed STV riding maps created for the referendum, so voters had no real idea how their existing single-member constituency would be replaced by a multi-member riding.

And post-election research showed most voters never understood STV but voted for it anyway – probably as a protest vote after the lopsided B.C. Liberal win in 2001, when they took 77 seats to the NDP's two.

This time, the independent B.C. Electoral Boundaries Commission provided clear maps that showed how reducing the 85 ridings down to 20 enormous ones would look – and it wasn't pretty.

The new STV ridings were often absurd. The proposed North Island-South Coast STV riding stretched from Tofino and Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island, east to Comox, north to Port Hardy and then jumped over the Georgia Strait to include Sechelt, Gibsons, and Powell River!

And the proposed Cariboo-Thompson STV riding would have stretched from Quesnel in the north down to the United States border!

Once many voters realized that their communities would not only share MLAs over a far-flung area but that they might not have anyone representing them, their minds were made up to reject STV.

It also helped that ridings would have up to seven MLAs and 350000 people, making it easy to argue that would take away local accountability and responsibility of MLAs to voters.

And the different sized ridings – seven members in the Victoria area but just two in Peace River country – meant dramatically different percentages of the vote were needed to elect an MLA.
And the further you were from Victoria, the more votes you needed to send an MLA there.

That also meant the degree of proportional representation provided by STV – not a strictly proportional system even in optimum circumstances – would range from some in Victoria to next to none in smaller rural ridings.

Secondly, the complex STV vote-count system simply could not be explained in less than 10 minutes.

Here's just one part of the 12 steps required for an STV election, according to the Citizens' Assembly's technical report: “If a candidate on the first count gains more than the minimum number of votes needed to be elected, the candidate is declared elected, and the number of votes in excess of the number of votes needed to be elected (the surplus) is recorded.
All of the elected candidate's ballots are then re-examined and assigned to candidates not yet elected according to the second preferences marked on the ballots of those who gave a first preference vote to the elected candidate. These votes are allocated according to a ‘transfer value.'”

I could explain how the “Weighted Inclusive Gregory method” works for redistribution of the surplus of the vote, but you get the idea.

The proponents for STV argued you can easily rank your choices 1, 2, 3. But the math involved showed you would have no idea what happened to your vote – because there are far more mathematical combinations possible than there are 6-49 lottery pick possibilities!

These are powerful arguments against STV, but there were even more.

It became obvious to many voters that STV would increase, not decrease, the power of political parties.

The huge STV ridings would mean a need to reach far more voters in a 350000-person STV riding than in a single-member riding of about 50000 people, making candidates even more dependent on political parties to get their names and message out.

And claims that smaller third parties and independents could be more easily elected under STV were shot down by the cold hard facts of politics in Malta.

In that STV country, Maltese voters have failed to elect a single third-party candidate since the 1960s and no independent since the 1950s. Ouch.

Finally, the Citizens' Assembly had recommended that if adopted, STV be kept for a minimum of three elections – that's 12 years, running to 2025 – before considering any changes.

For those who support true proportional representation like that under the mixed-member proportional system, the STV lock-in would have likely meant no chance of adopting a better system.

In the end, the weight of negative arguments against STV became overwhelming for a strong majority of voters, and its 58% support in 2005 evaporated into just 39% on May 12.

The future of electoral reform in B.C. is unclear, but what is certain is that STV is now dead.

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