BC voters will have the chance to elect (note, Vancouver Sun subscription may be required for link) a new voting system next Tuesday—the "single transferable vote", or STV, which I think is a good idea.
Right now, BC uses roughly the same voting system used widely in the US: for any legislative district, the candidate with the most votes wins. This "first-past-the-post" system sounds fair, but it actually leads to all sorts of problems. For example, candidates for BC’s Liberal party won a sizable majority of the popular vote in the last election—57 percent—but the party now controls 97 percent of the legislature. On its face, that seems an unfair majority. Likewise, first-past-the-post systems are particularly prone to gerrymandering, and, if the field is crowded, make it possible to elect a candidate who has strong support from a minority of voters, but is generally disliked by the majority. In general, third-party candidates muck up the "first-past-the-post" system—turning them from legitimate political voices into "spoiler" candidates. And this, in turn, narrows the political debate and limits the scope of ideas presented and discussed in a campaign.
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STV avoids many (though certainly not all) of the problems of first-past-the-post voting. Here’s how it works. First, legislative districts are combined, so that more than one candidate is elected from each district. And second, voters rank candidates in order of preference (1,2,3, and so on). If one candidate gets more than enough votes to be elected, any "surplus" votes are distributed to the remaining candidates, in the order of voters’ preferences. If no candidate has enough votes to be elected, then the lowest vote-getter is eliminated from the running, and his or her votes are distributed to the remaining candidates, again in order of voters’ preferences.
The biggest problem with the STV is that the process of divvying up votes gets confusing, fast. Sure, it makes sense if you think about it for a while. But you have to think about it. And voters may not feel comfortable with a system that is so hard to follow, and for which they have to trust election experts to decide exactly who won an election. In this case, the fact that the system is so complicated may make voters less convinced that it’s fair and open—which, obviously, are fairly central features of an acceptable electoral process.
To help people get more comfortable with the STV, the BC Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform, the non-partisan body that recommended the STV system for BC, has put together this flash animation that explains the system. I’m not sure it will put people’s minds at ease, though. There’s nothing wrong with the explanation, but the system itself is just complicated enough, and the explanation long-winded enough, that only people with a real penchant for math puzzles will likely follow the explanation with ease.
Here’s hoping that BC residents like their math.