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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 3, November/December 2004

A new voting system? It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3

by Susanna Haas

The Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform recently recommended that British Columbians adopt a new voting system—the Single Transferable Vote (STV) process that’s often called "as easy as 1, 2, 3." Now the decision is up to the voters of B.C., who will cast ballots on STV in a referendum in the next provincial election, on May 17, 2005.

Educators can now bring this unique moment in Canadian history into the classroom. Capture this opportunity to teach about political and electoral systems, active citizenship, voting, and critical-thinking skills.

Students and educators can participate in the process by learning, developing opinions, and getting involved in the debate.

A package for teaching about the citizens’ assembly has been recently published at www.citizensassembly.bc.ca. "Assessing Electoral Systems: Opportunities for political education and active citizenship" is written by Paula Waatainen, a teacher at Rockridge Secondary School, in West Vancouver, who held a model assembly at her school last spring.

The citizens’ assembly web site is a fabulous resource for educators. Available at www.citizensassembly.bc.ca are:

• Fact sheets about the recommended system and other electoral system concepts

• Learning resources: readings and presentations provided to assembly members

• Video and audio recordings of assembly meetings

• Links to classroom activities and new-media teaching tools.

Prescribed learning outcomes are met brilliantly through addressing the citizens’ assembly in Grade 11 classes as well as for classes in Grades 5 and 8–12.

Develop opinions
Hold a model assembly in your school using the Assessing Electoral Systems guide. Or invite a member of the citizens’ assembly to speak to your class by contacting the assembly office at info@citizensassembly.bc.ca or 1-866-667-1232. Also, news reports on the citizens’ assembly are effective skills and processes teaching tools.

Get involved
Attend as a class, or organize public discussions in the months leading up to the referendum. And encourage your senior students and colleagues to vote in the May 2005 referendum!

The recommendation
After almost 10 months of study, research, and debate, plus 50 public hearings and 1,603 written submissions from the public, citizens’ assembly members overwhelmingly chose a made-in-B.C. proportional STV system as their recommendation to the people.

The provincial government says that if voters approve the STV model in May, it will introduce legislation so that the new system can go into effect for the 2009 election.

The STV model was custom-built by members to meet the needs of B.C. and to address three overriding values: local representation, voter choice, and increased "proportionality"—the concept that each party’s share of seats in the house should reflect its share of the popular vote.

The voter using STV would see two key changes from the current system:

First, instead of writing on the ballot a single X for a single candidate, the voter would be able to rank candidates (1, 2, 3, and so on) according to the voter’s personal preferences.

The voter would mark preferences for as many or as few candidates on the ballot as the voter wishes. The voter thus can cast preferential votes for candidates of more than one party, for independents and minorities, or all for the same party. After the polls close, the counting system gives the proper weighting to the "1, 2, 3, etc.," preferences expressed by the voters, ensuring that the candidates with the highest preferences are elected.

Second, B.C.’s constituencies would no longer be single-MLA electoral districts as now. There would be geographically larger ridings, each with more than one MLA. The legislature would remain at 79 seats, though, so the ratio of MLAs to population would be the same as now. This system would not result in any reduction in the number of MLAs representing rural areas.

STV in various formats is used in Ireland, Malta, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory, and a number of municipalities. Ireland has had STV for most of the last 100 years.

The current first past-the-post system (technically called the single-member-plurality system, or SMP) was described by members as a familiar and understandable model that has served B.C. well, produced stable majority governments, and elected local MLAs who could represent local issues and concerns.

One member said, "I want to give to the voters of B.C. the same privilege that we have been given as members of the assembly, and that is to decide their electoral system for themselves." The assembly will draft and approve the wording of the referendum question to appear on the May 17 ballot.

The assembly will produce its final report by December 15, detailing and explaining the reasons for and implications of, its recommendation. Then the assembly and its office will disband.

Susanna Haas is the project co-ordinator for the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

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