(note: Hi, this is my first blog entry. Sorry it’s so long. I’ll try and make future posts much, much shorter)
June 12 2009
Exactly one month ago, voters in BC were casting two ballots: one for the regular election and one for a provincial referendum on voting reform. It was the second time that BC voters had been asked to endorse a new voting system called BC-STV (Single Transferable Vote), a proportional system designed to give voters more choice and increase fairness and representation. The system was recommended by a non-partisan Citizens’ Assembly and had received the approval of 58% of BC voters in a 2005 referendum. However, the initiative needed 60% to pass, so the majority view was ignored (what’s new?) and it was decided that a second referendum would be held. On May 12th that second vote was held and I took my first day off after six weeks of non-stop campaign organizing. It was in the hands of the voters.
We went into the campaign with the hope that we could push the 58% up, just a little, bumping it over the 60% threshold. I had been working on the campaign for a few months. Many others on our team had been working for years while thousands of volunteers had recently joined the grassroots campaign contributing immeasurable hours of their time. The stakes were high and we were emotionally invested in the cause. When the polls closed, volunteers and staff in the Vancouver area gathered at a bar to watch the results come in. We knew from recent polls that our chances were low, but many of us were still hoping for a win. Few of us expected the numbers to be as low as they were: 39%.
I left the party around 2am, and was in a taxi to the airport by 6am. The driver asked me about my stay in BC. We had a very short chat about the referendum after which he apologized. He confessed that he had voted against STV but explained that he didn’t understand what it was and would vote in favour of it after hearing my brief explanation. Two hours later, I was talking to a woman sitting beside me on the plane. She asked me about my stay in BC. We had a very short chat about the referendum, after which she also confessed and apologized.
These two experiences were frustrating but also re-assuring. Frustrating because we had clearly failed to connect with voters, but re-assuring because voter ignorance is much easier to overcome, eventually, than voter disagreement.
Upon returning to Toronto, many people asked me why we lost. I told them I needed a month to recover (and mourn) after which I would share my thoughts. Here are those thoughts. But first, let me share a fortune cookie’s wisdom. I received this two weeks after the vote: “In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.” I liked that. However, glorious as it may be, failure is also an opportunity to learn from mistakes, re-assess a situation, and move forward.
Why we lost
There is no single answer as to why we lost. There were many contributing factors. Here is a short list of reasons, factors and reflection. I’ll break it down into two categories: circumstance (external factors) and the campaign.
Many (and perhaps most) of the factors that shaped the outcome were beyond the control of the campaign.
1) Many years had passed since the heavily distorted BC elections on ’96 & ’01. Therefore, the weaknesses of First Past the Post were not as visible or apparent as they had been in 2005.
2) The proposed boundaries for STV ridings had been recently drawn. STV combines ridings into much larger districts, and can easily be interpreted as a loss of local democracy. But the ratio of politicians to citizens doesn’t change, and in many ways the results can actually increase the effectiveness of local representation. These proposals did not exist in 2005 and, sadly, were used more effectively by the NO campaign than by ours.
3) The two main parties (Liberals and NDP) were opposed to BC-STV. Voting reform would take power away from the big parties and prevent them from trading false majorities back and fourth rather than having to participate in unpleasant activities like collaboration, consensus-building, listening and sharing power. The majority of NDP members were in support of reform but the leadership was not. In fact, the NO campaign was run by two NDP backroom boys. (1 & 2) In allegiance with the NDP, BC labour was also opposed. It’s hard to win a grassroots fight for progressive change when the unions are against you. The only party that stood up for voting reform was the BC Green Party. I’ve been a card-carrying New Democrat for ten years but if I lived in BC, I’d be a Green. If you’re going to use the word “Democratic” in your name, you have to earn it. The BC NDP did not earn it and I didn’t shed a tear over their election loss, to say the least.
4) Hockey. Our task was to inform voters about a system that can seem complex at times and requires your full attention to explain. Unfortunately we had to compete against the NHL playoffs for attention and when hockey and voting reform compete, hockey wins. Secretly, many of us (ok, only those of us from Toronto) hoped that the Canucks would be eliminated early. With the Canucks out of the way, maybe we could get the voters’ attention back. Our wish came true on the evening of May 11th. Unfortunately, the election was on May 12th. We had the undivided attention of BC voters for about 20 hours.
5) The 2005 ballot was a YES/NO ballot. The 2009 ballot listed the two systems available: “First Past the Post” and “Single Transferable Vote”. We seem to do better with the YES/NO format. It puts a positive spin on reform (“YES for change”) and it also puts reform at the top of the ballot, rather than in second place.
6) Campaign funding. In 2005, the government sent a flyer to every household explaining the Citizens’ Assembly process and the proposed BC-STV system. In 2009, they took a different approach by funding two external campaigns. One was supposed to be an STV campaign, and the other was supposed to be a campaign for First Past the Post. However, since there is nothing (literally…. nothing) good to say about First Past the Post, the opposition ran a NO STV campaign. This is what we would call “negative campaigning” in an election, or “attack ads”. We were running against an avalanche of negativity. This should never have been the case. It makes no sense to me, for the government to spend millions of dollars to develop and implement a non-partisan, structured and facilitated Citizens’ Assembly process and then fund someone else to shoot down their ideas. It’s always easier to criticize something, than to promote it. Government money should never have been spent on a smear campaign that opposed the recommendation of the Citizens’ Assembly. Furthermore, if the government is going to fund two campaigns, then the funding levels have to be adequate. The major parties each spent about $5 million on their province-wide campaigns. We had $500,000. It’s enough money to spread lies and fear, not enough to educate and inform millions of people.
7) The economy. Supposedly, during times of economic instability people are less likely to support drastic change. In fact, they are less likely to even care about issues that aren’t directly related to the economy. It should be noted that voting reform does indeed affect the economy, but it’s all about perception and the perception is that it is unrelated. Speaking of perception, many people also believe that proportional governments are unstable. Ironically, coalition governments operating within a proportional framework are actually more stable than minority governments under First Past the Post. Oh, well….
8) The Name. BC-STV. It’s a lousy name for many reasons. It sounds like both SCTV and STD. More importantly, it focuses on the counting method (single transferable vote) rather than the benefits (more choice, all votes count, fair results, etc). Better names could have included BC-123 (referencing the ranked ballot) BC-Choice Vote, BC-Fair Vote, BC-Proportional, etc. It’s hard to sell something if it’s already been given a bad name.
b) The Campaign
The circumstantial obstacles were huge. To be honest, I’m not sure this referendum was winnable. Not with a 60% threshold. Not with the two major parties opposed. Not with publicly funded attack ads. Not with all that hockey. But we could have done much better, maybe even surpassing the 50% mark, which would have been an important moral victory. So, here a few thoughts on what we could have done better.
(NOTE: I joined the campaign in the final months, and didn’t arrive in BC until the final 5 weeks. So I can’t comment on what happened in BC during the prior months and years leading up to the campaign. I will say this: I think they did a good job, under the circumstances. Mistakes were made. There is no doubt that the campaign was extremely behind schedule and structured poorly. Many basic elements of project management, communications systems and decision-making processes were in disarray. But the truth is, this is normal in an election campaign and even more so for a referendum campaign. The parties run their campaigns every few years, over and over, and even they are terribly disorganised. A referendum is much harder because you’re starting from scratch. To build a province wide campaign with a mandate to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and coordinate thousands of volunteers and reach millions of voters is an enormous task. So, while much has been written about the dysfunctional elements of the campaign, I don’t feel the need to add to that discussion. Rather, I’d like to congratulate the small group of people who have been at the core of the movement in BC and have kept the ship afloat while broadening the movement and never ceasing to be persistent, committed and positive)
1) We ran the campaign like an election, not a referendum. In an election campaign, one of the dominant strategies is to stay on a positive message and not get dragged into a defensive situation where you are responding to negativity from your opponent. This works to some extent – but not when your opponent’s entire campaign is based on negativity. When you’re running against a NO campaign, I think you have to take your opponent’s message and respond clearly to each accusation, lie and smear. Perhaps we even should have brought out their arguments before they did – as a pre-emptive rebuttal. We could have run ads early in the campaign that said “During the upcoming months, the backroom boys will tell you that STV is X,Y & Z. They are just trying to cling to to an old system that gives them and their friends too much power. They’re not telling you the truth about STV. The truth is….” During the campaign planning, many comparisons were made to the Obama campaign (of course). The problem is, Obama was running against Clinton, and then McCain. He wasn’t running in a referendum against a “NO OBAMA” campaign consisting entirely of smears against him. If he had been, he would have been forced to drop his “Yes We Can” message for a little, and develop a message that responded to the tidal wave of misleading criticism that was being aired on TV, radio and in print. We weren’t running against a campaign for First Past the Post. We were running against a campaign based entirely on Swiftboating. When your credibility is being attacked that hard, you have to respond directly to the accusations and perhaps even actively discredit your opponent.
2) Our signs! Somehow, through some unfortunate lack of communication and/or foresight, our campaign signs had the exact same colour scheme as the BC NDP (blue & orange). It was important for our campaign to come across as being multi-partisan, and this definitely did not help.
3) Explaining how STV works. The trickiest part of the campaign was being able to adapt to the different needs of voters. Some people wanted to know a lot of detail about the mechanics of BC-STV: the counting, the vote transfers, the threshold formula, etc. I would say this group represented less than 5% of the population. On the other end of the spectrum were those who just needed a soft pitch about fairness and voter choice. For these folks (20%?), too much exposure to detail would actually turn them off. The Citizens’ Assembly produced an animated video showing how BC-STV works and the NO side actually put it on their website to convince people to vote NO! The video could have been effective for us, except that they put the threshold formula on the screen, which may as well just say “Vote NO”. Most voters simply don’t want to see mathematical formulas representing voting systems. So we were left with the decision of how much technical information to provide in our TV ads, leaflets, website, etc. I think in the end we didn’t provide enough information. It didn’t need to be on the homepage, and it didn’t need to highlight the math, but we could have (and should have) talked more about the basic principles of how STV actually works. An animated video was designed by the campaign to explain STV but it did a lousy job, and was probably the weakest product of the entire campaign. In the final days of the campaign, we added more technical information to the website, but it was probably too little too late. (There has been much debate about the campaign website. Overall, I think it was pretty good. It should also be noted that we had 100,000 views on the website while we lost by 350,000 votes. So in terms of altering the outcome of the referendum, the website could only play a small role.)
4) Celebrity Endorsers. When trying to add legitimacy to a new idea, celebrity endorsements can help a lot. They can also be helpful to portray a wide base of multi-partisan support. For a variety of reasons, we never really leveraged our diverse slate of endorsers including Preston Manning, David Suzuki, Naomi Klein, Andrew Coyne, Maude Barlow, Deborah Gray, Elizabeth May, Farley Mowat, Hugh Segal & many others. The reasons were: a) We were hesitant to highlight endorsers who weren’t from BC, b) We had to be careful to keep the left/right balance in harmony when publishing lists, c) We focused too much on traditional styles of endorsements (open letters, photos, quotes) and didn’t try enough creative online exposure (short videos) and d) We were worried that some of the endorsers might not be able to handle difficult (technical) questions in an interview, so we avoided putting them in front of a microphone (again, the solution here is a short edited video produced by the campaign). There were a few endorsements that were used well. Krist Novoselic (from Nirvana) has become an advocate for voting reform and we brought him to Vancvouver for a forum and interviews. Former Cabinet Minister Christy Clark told us that she was going to read a prepared statement on her radio talk show so I went to the studio and filmed her endorsement on a cheap DV camera. I threw the video on YouTube and it became our most popular online video of the entire campaign (33,000 views). More people watched her video online, than they watched our highly-produced slick promo videos. This really emphasized for me the power of celebrity as well as the effectiveness of content that comes across as genuine and unrehearsed.
5) The Citizen’s Assembly. Some people have expressed disappointment that our campaign didn’t highlight the Citizen’s Assembly as much as we could have. I would have to agree. The CA was carefully created and facilitated to ensure that the group would be multi-partisan, diverse, balanced and effective. It represented ‘the people’ and collectively they developed a voting model that put more power in the hands of voters. In a culture of deep mistrust of politicians, it could have been helpful to remind voters that BC-STV wasn’t developed by elected officials, but by their own neighbours.
In the end, the loss was tragic. For BC and for the electoral reform movement across Canada. However, there are a few positive reflections I can take with me. The first, is that we had a real growing movement of dedicated volunteers in every part of the province. These people were truly amazing. Outside of our centralized ground campaign, volunteers took initiative and made their own leaflets, signs, t-shirts and even hung a banner on a mountain!!
Another optimistic angle is the fact that voters chose democracy in both Ontario and BC. At least, they thought they were choosing democracy. In Ontario, voters thought they were voting against a system (MMP) that would give too much power to the parties through the proportional ‘list’ system. And in BC, voters opposed STV because they thought it would erode their local democracy. In both cases they were misinformed, but they point is that their motivations for voting NO are aligned with our motivations for achieving voting reform. I think we’d be in a much worse situation if we lost those two referendems due to public support for First Past the Post, a desire for false majorities (in the name of stability) or of a widespread fear of smaller parties. I don’t think any of those factors played a major role so we have a strong foundation to build on, in terms of public opinion.
While the referendum is a significant setback for the movement there remains a lot of optimism and sense that it’s a matter of when not if. Both Fair Vote Canada (click here to join!) and Fair Voting BC are embarking on a process of reflection and evaluation of strategies, tactics and organisational structure. For me, I’ll be shifting my focus away from provincial/federal reform and working with others to look at ways we can improve our municipal voting system here in Toronto.
On a personal note, I had a really great time in BC and I miss working with the team at head office. They were a really dedicated and talented group and kept things light and fun even when stress levels were internally rising.
If you took the time to read this whole thing, you’re as crazy as I am.