Fair voting in BC

The Citizens’ Assembly worked it out in 2004.
We can make it happen in 2009

by Nick Loenen

On May 12, 2009, British Columbians will take to the polls to vote for BC’s next premier. They will also vote to replace the current “first-past-the-post” voting system with a proportional voting system known as the BC single transferable vote (BC-STV), which was almost unanimously recommended by the BC Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. This will give British Columbians:

1) Fair election results.
2) Effective local representation.
3) Greater voter choice.

You can help. Learn more at:


The Citizens’ Assembly at the Wosk Centre for Dialogue

On October 24, 2004, after nearly one year of discussion and deliberation, the Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform voted to recommend replacing BC’s current voting system, known as “first-past-the-post,” with a single transferable vote system adapted to our province’s needs. It is called BC-STV. The randomly selected 161 members of the Assembly, consisting of one woman and one man from each constituency, supported the recommendation almost unanimously.

The historic vote followed three hours of final discussions. At the end of that debate, Vaughn Palmer, Vancouver Sun’s senior political columnist, turned to Les Leyne, his counterpart at Victoria’s Times Colonist and asked, “Les, have we ever seen a political debate of such high calibre conducted with so much civility and goodwill?”

That was a fine tribute to the ordinary British Columbians who made up the Assembly, their work and their public mindedness, but it is also a shameful indictment of the legislature, the political parties and our political culture. Civility and goodwill? Why can our governing institutions not be more like the Citizens Assembly? Is that not what Canadians want?

The Assembly recommended a preferential ballot. Instead of voters selecting one of many candidates, voters rank any number of candidates. Voters don’t vote many times. Each voter gets just one vote. Think of it as one dollar’s worth, but the dollar might be spread around in support of more than one candidate, based on how the voter ranks the candidates. That is the essence of the preferential ballot.

What does a preferential ballot do for politics? It has a civilizing influence. Two real, live examples: I was a candidate in the 1993 federal election. The party nomination meeting was contested by five and conducted by preferential ballot. It was clear from the start that no one would win on the first count. The winning candidate would need second and third place support from members whose first loyalty was with a competitor. Is that conducive to negative, personal attacks? Of course not. I was constructive and found common ground with some of the other candidates and their supporters and hence won the nomination.

Some years ago, the then president of the Richmond non-partisan association phoned to say that prior to an upcoming nomination meeting to fill one slot for a by-election, membership numbers had suddenly swelled from the normal 300 to 400 to nearly 3,000.

Three competing blocks of instant voters were determined to get the nomination. I advised the president to go with a preferential ballot. They did and not one of those three big camps won. Those large groups competed with each, but a fourth candidate had built bridges to all three of the big groups and won on the fourth count.

First-past-the-post, our current voting system, is a winner-take-all system. Only one candidate can win. Only one party can win; all others are losers. In our system, there is no constructive role for losers. Politicians win by attacking and diminishing others. Canadians don’t like attack ads, but under first-past-the-post, that is how it is done.

Legendary BC premier WAC Bennett often said, “Politics is war by another name.” Winston Churchill said, “The difference between war and politics is this: In war you get killed but once; in politics, often.” Must it be thus? No. Politics is not war and should not be conducted as if it were.

A preferential ballot rewards constructive behaviour; you win by building bridges, by reaching out. It promotes the politics of inclusion, cooperation and consultation. It does not thrive on conflict; it thrives on conflict resolution.

You want the legislature and parliament to be more like the Citizens Assembly? Change to BC-STV. Are you offended by the recent events in Ottawa, a politics that thrives on placing party interest ahead of the public interest? Change to BC-STV.

Today, faced with unprecedented public policy challenges and the need to rescue an economy destroyed by excessive self-interest, we need politics that are constructive, a system that rewards politicians for placing the common good ahead of partisan interests. We need the Citizens Assembly’s recommendation – BC-STV.

Electoral reform will not solve all our problems, but no parliamentary reform or lasting democratic reform will take root until we have a voting system that rewards those who place the common good ahead of partisan advantage.

Electoral reform is not sufficient, but it is a necessary condition for all other reforms. It must be thus. Why? Politics are about power and the voting system allocates power. Under a changed voting system, political power is dispersed and shared political behaviour becomes more civilized.

Changing the rules by which political power is allocated is the first and highest priority.

The question is can we change the voting system? Yes, we can. In 2005, British Columbians came within a whisker. This time, the movement for electoral reform is better organized with more feet on the ground and voters are more knowledgeable. Building on that solid majority of 58 percent who supported the Assembly’s recommendation last time, people will be invited to join that majority, and perhaps, perversely, but best of all, recent events in Ottawa have angered Canadians who know we deserve better.

It can be done, but it is up to ordinary British Columbians. On this issue, political leaders will follow only if the people lead. Without you, it will not happen.

We have just one last chance on May 12 and I ask you to make a commitment.

Let each of us resolve, and all of us together resolve, to commit our energies and our resources for the next few months to this great undertaking that was born in the Citizens Assembly among the people’s representatives. This is an undertaking that transcends all of us. It is an undertaking to make politics more civilized and to rekindle the promise of democracy for our province and for our nation.

Can we do it? Yes, we can!


Nick Loenen, a former Richmond councillor and MLA, has written extensively on voting system reform and can be reached at nick.loenen@stv.ca To learn more and to get involved, visit www.stv.ca

The Single Transferable Vote (STV)

Proportional representation by the single transferable vote (STV) method rests on the assumption that voters can choose between candidates rather than parties. Voters rank candidates in order of preference by numbering the candidates on the ballot. The ballots are then counted in a way that insures the candidates with the highest preferences are elected.

The principle is straightforward:—that a variety of minority and majority opinions are represented in government. A candidate needs a certain number of votes to be elected, and this quota can vary according to the particular STV system used.

Source: Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform

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