Published on April 6, 2011

Electoral Reform: What British Columbia got right, and what the UK got wrong

By Amy Deerans

Amy worked as an intern at Involve in early 2011 and has now left. Among other things, she assisted in the maintenance of the Involve website and was responsible for writing up case studies of Involve projects.

cartoon man choosing between voting yes or noBeing South African and setting great significance on the value of democratic participation, I’ve been following the debate over the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum with interest. I am particularly fascinated in the process leading up to the referendum. With the relatively high levels of dissatisfaction over government and MP performance over the last few years, fed by the expenses scandal, I think it’s encouraging that the public are involved in deciding whether a different voting system would make a difference or not. People are debating, thinking and talking about their views on what works and what doesn’t. The referendum is giving people an opportunity to have a direct say in how their country will be run. Although arguably the opportunity is limited, because I think the level of public participation is constrained. In reality, there is little space for meaningful dialogue. As colleague Annie Quick argued in her blog, The AV Referendum: How to get the conversation back on track there are no formal arrangements in place to deliberate on the issues. All debate on electoral reform is polarised between the two camps.

The AV system to be offered to the electorate in the May referendum is a controversial system. It’s not perfect, but then First Past the Post (FPTP) isn’t either.  All systems have their pros and cons and none are without an element of failure. As observed by Hix et al. (2010) whichever system used will involve a trade-off between representativeness (favoured by AV supporters) and government accountability (favoured by FPTP supporters). This is a difficult decision for the electorate to make.

However, I think the greatest flaw to effective participation is that the options presented to the public, of FPTP or AV has been decided by politicians. This is particularly distressing; they are badly placed to make this type of decision as they are the ones who stand to win or lose the most depending on which electoral system in place. The public should have had more say in the proposed alternative to FPTP, such as the case in British Columbia, Canada.

In the beginning of 2004, British Columbia (BC) established a Citizen Assembly on Electoral Reform composed of 160 members, one man and one woman from each of BC’s 79 electoral districts, plus two Aboriginal members. Members were randomly selected by a civic lottery that ensured age and geographical distribution. Over the first 7 months, the Assembly went through a ‘learning phase’ where experts were brought in to discuss the ups and downs of various voting systems and their effects on the political process. Afterwards, members deliberated over which electoral system to recommend as an alternative to FPTP. The Assembly members voted to recommend STV (single transferable vote) and this was what was presented to the BC legislature. This recommendation was put to the public in a referendum in 2005 and needed a double majority; 60% of all votes cast plus simple majorities in 60% of the 79 districts. Although it did have majority support in 77 of the electoral districts, only 57.7% of votes were in favour and the motion was not passed into law. Despite failing at the last hurdle, many observers were surprised that the vote was so close to succeeding, particularly given the lack of spending on publicity about the referendum and the choices to be made.

Although the voting system was not changed, the BC case shows that the public are very much capable and willing to determine what works best for them. It suggests that citizens can (and should) play a more decisive role in determining which electoral system would work best.

I think two differences between the UK and BC case stand out. Firstly, BC citizens were given a lot of power over the electoral reform. Public participation started off with a clean slate: the Assembly could discuss and thoughtfully consider the merits of all voting systems before narrowing down the alternatives. This is unlike the UK, where the public have been presented with the (politically) pre-determined options. Secondly, the results of the Citizen’s Assembly were taken directly to the electorate in a referendum as opposed to being approved by Parliament before being offered to the public.

The BC case can be seen as a very successful example on deliberative democracy on a very difficult topic, one in which there are strong reasons for not allowing the usual decision makers to wield and influence the outcome, considering their vested interests. How can the public have any faith in how these decisions are made if it’s the politicians who are making them? Next time there’s a major decision to be made about the future of the UK’s democracy, I hope the UK will learn from BC’s example and give the public a more direct say in framing the discussion before the final act of ticking a box in the polling booth. Democracy would be richer for it.

Image used: man choosing between yes or no by renjith krishnan

6 Responses to “Electoral Reform: What British Columbia got right, and what the UK got wrong”

  1. April 6, 2011 at 5:15 pm

    I certainly hope this will only be the start of a process of reform in the UK, and it’s a shame the choice we’ve been offered is so limited, but I think in many ways it’s actually a good thing.

    I disagree quite strongly with your suggestion that this referendum is a choice between representativeness and accountability. Representativeness is rooted in accountability. MPs who know they can be held accountable by the electorate will be better representatives, or face losing their jobs! AV is a simple upgrade to the current system that retains what is good about FPTP, the direct link between one member and one constituency, without adding any of the deficiencies associated with other systems.

    Were we being asked to choose between FPTP and a PR system, that seeks to represent a broader range of views in parliament, the choice you describe would be an accurate one. But we’re not. What we have here is a chance to make sure the system we have in place as a base is the best it can be before we move on to that discussion. To me that seems a healthy thing.

  2. Denis Cooper
    April 7, 2011 at 12:25 am

    In this country any constitutional reforms which may benefit the people have to be wrung out of the political elite like blood from a stone. We’re only being allowed THIS referendum as a result of a freakish combination of circumstances. You can sure that if we say “no” to AV the political establishment won’t react by saying “Oh dear, seems we got that wrong, we must come up with something better and put that to the people”.

  3. Kris Witherington
    April 11, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    A lot of the activities undertaken by BC also took place as part of the Jenkins report in 1997. After a review of all the options the commission set up by Blair recommended an AV+ system that used AV for single member constituencies and then topped up from party lists. Jenkins suggested that AV itself was not a sufficient enough difference from FPTP to justify a referendum.

    Blair parked the report and dropped it from the Labour manefesto in 2001 and 2005. This had more to do with ditching the behind the scenes negotiations with the Lib Dems to form a coalition as part of the third way project. By 2010 Labour were only considering AV as an option so the Conservatives were unlikely to offer AV+ or STV as part of the coalition agreement.

  4. October 12, 2011 at 11:16 am

    AV has been rejected.
    FPTP is broken, it produces unfair results – it can’t reflect the votes in a multi party democracy, and many people know their vote won’t make any difference.

    Direct Party and Representative Voting (DPR Voting) is a more democratic system because each vote in every constituency makes a difference to the election result.
    It provides a way of introducing proportionality while retaining much of the existing familiar electoral system.
    It addresses the main criticisms of the FPTP and avoids the main criticisms of other proposed systems of electoral reform.
    It preserves the relationship between MPs and their constituents and doesn’t need frequent changes to constituency boundaries.

  5. Janos Ratkai
    May 24, 2015 at 8:24 pm

    Votes would not be wasted & individual MP accountability and geographical representativeness would still be kept & satisfaction of voters maximized if:
    The voters vote in the same way they used to vote (i.e. 1 “x” for 1 individual candidate, no order numbers, no party lists); then the constituencies are taken one by one (e.g. the candidate with the highest % got 72%, the second got 70%, the third got 69.9%, etc.):
    1) 1 MP candidate who has the highest % gets the seat (in our example in the first step the candidate with 72%)
    2) the votes for the non-winning candidates in this constituency would not be lost but inherited by the remaining other candidates of the same party (equally) and added to their own votes.
    3) The %s in the remaining constituencies are recalculated. Go to 1,
    This way
    – simple to vote (avoiding a serious disadvantage of the order ranking preferential systems),
    – the geographically concentrated parties are not advantaged, the geographically scattered voters have a say too,
    – geographically representative system (since each constituency has exactly 1 MP)
    – the voters are not encouraged to lie about, distort their preferences (e.g. voting against the most hated candidate/party: tactical voting for a popular though not really favorite candidate instead of the real favorite; or giving a misleading high number to the popular rival),
    – this system favors the more popular candidates, so the parties cannot sell secure party list seats to the rich or lobbyists who are not elected by voters
    – this system is basically proportional, but discounts the transferred votes, as more and more total (own+inherited) votes are spent on getting a seat.

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