Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

4/26/2005

Breaking news: British Columbians ill-informed about breaking news

File under: Character Writ Large, Sound And Fury, Home And Native Land, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 3:59 pm.

On May 17, British Columbians go to the polls for a vote and a meta-vote: the vote, on the new provincial government; the meta-vote, on whether to reform the way that British Columbians choose their governments. Right now, BC’s government, like those of the other nine provinces and three territories, is a parliamentary system, with the province divided into 79 constituencies, each of whose electors select one representative to send to the legislature. The representative who receives a plurality of votes in the riding wins. An advantage to this system is that every voter has, in theory anyway, a local representative to the provincial government. A disadvantage is that that government has the potential to be anything but representative: the most dramatic example of this in Canada was the 1993 federal election, which saw the Progressive Conservatives get over 20% of the popular vote - and fewer than 1% of seats in the House of Commons.

The proposal is to replace this system with single transferable voting (STV), a system already in use in Australia, which would broaden the consistutencies and allow voters to rank their candidates from most to least favourite. Each constituency would then send between two and seven representatives to the provincial legislature.

With the referendum on STV a mere three weeks away, it would seem that Teh Media would have a lot to say about this new system, right? Well, they do, and they’re all in agreement: STV is complicated, and Canadians don’t know much about it. And that’s about it:

  • From the Vancouver Sun:

    [Pollster Angus] Reid predicted that the system of proportional representation will fail to get the support it needs to become law because it is too complicated.

    “No one can explain what this is all about. I’ve got a PhD in stats and I can’t explain it,” he complained.

  • More from Reid, on the polling company’s own site:

    Very few adults in British Columbia are informed about a proposal to elect lawmakers in a different way, according to a poll by The Strategic Counsel released by CTV and the Globe and Mail. 42 per cent of respondents in the Canadian province say they know a little about the single transferable vote (STV) system, while 47 per cent know nothing at all.

  • The Globe and Mail agrees, spending six paragraphs rehashing British Columbians’ ignorance before making some lame attempt to remedy it with an STV By Dummies, For Dummies approach, and concluding with a poll reiterating how ignorant we all are:

    The STV system would ask voters to number the candidates on the ballots in order of preference.

    By tallying alternative choices, candidates who in the current system might have gone down to defeat could win.

    The number of ridings would be reduced and each riding would have more than one MLA.

    Under the STV system, if a party received 40 per cent of the votes, it would obtain 40 per cent of the seats in the House. (Ed’s note: no, it won’t. STV will approximate proportional representation better than a parliamentary system, but it’s completely inaccurate to equate the two.)

  • And here’s a bizarre and dreadfully formatted article from the South Delta Leader that raves about how much people are learning about STV. The article then links to some cartoons on a partisan website (see also, “Dummies”, above) that, according to a promoter of STV, “provide the ‘ah-hah!’ moment that seems to clarify this for most people who see it”. Presumably the South Delta Leader’s readers would react the same way if its journalists then followed up with any actual information about STV, which they don’t: all we get from them after this is some pap about how all the cool people are supporting STV.

And that’s pretty typical of the usual suspects. Summary: silly BCers, not understanding the news that we’re not reporting. A refreshing exception is an informative page from CBC, which even held a mock election illustrating the difference between STV and the current first-past-the-post system.

I’m unimpressed. As usual, a community of nonjournalists provides more useful and more accurate information. Now that I am finished for the term, I might do some reading on the mathematics of the STV system, which the Wikipedia article discusses at considerable length. (Do any of my readers have any recommendations?)

The alternative media is somewhat better: searching for BC commentary about this, the only online editorial I could find was from the alternative news site, The Tyee, which comes out strongly in support of STV. It’s pretty typical of commentary in the lefty press: informative, egregiously one-sided, and painted with an overcoat of if-only-you-knew-you’d-agree-with-me that is virtually guaranteed not to win any new converts.

Fortunately, if journalists aren’t explaining current events to us, there’s regular folks…for now: a disturbing article in the hipster Terminal City paper reports that ordinary citizens who know something or other about the referendum, and have partisan opinions about it, aren’t allowed to write about them publicly unless they first register with the government:

As of March 1, anyone maintaining a site specifically created for the purpose of promoting one side or the other of the single transferable vote debate without notifying the election office is in violation of the referendum regulations.

The Terminal City article links to two low-traffic (because after all, British Columbians don’t know anything about the referendum!) blogs on the topic: the pro-STV STV For BC - Vote Yes!, and the anti-STV Single Transferable Vote in BC. I’ll be going over them both detail this week, because I think I’m already well-enough informed on how ill-informed I am about the issue.