Apr 22, 2009

That other election: STV


By now, you have probably seen the lawn signs. True, they look a bit like NDP colours but they are actually non-partisan pro-STV signs (not signs for a guy named Steve, with an Eastern European spelling of his name, running for the dippers). You may remember STV from the 2005 BC election, where STV captured a majority of votes – a larger share of the popular vote than the Liberals won in their 2001 landslide – but not the 60% threshold required for victory. It was a narrow-enough margin that the BC government decided to put it back to the people one more time.

Our pre-election edition of BC Commentary takes a closer look at that other vote on May 12, the referendum on the Single Transferable Vote, aka STV, a system of proportional representation. With an economic crisis on our hands, and controversies about the carbon tax, few people are talking about STV in the lead-up to the vote. That is a shame, because whether you end up voting for or against STV, the referendum provides us an opportunity to take a step back and look at what we like, and do not like, about our electoral system.

In the spirit of democracy, our special edition breaks from our usual publishing pattern, and includes a number of articles written by CCPA members who have taken an interest in the issue of democratic reform, including one who served on the 2004 Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform that recommended STV. We have also included a simple primer on the STV process, and since CCPA has no organizational position on STV we have both the yes and no sides represented.

Over the coming days, I will post articles from the BC Commentary on this blog, and maybe some of our other bloggers will weigh in, too. But let’s begin at the beginning. I think one of the downfalls of STV the last time around was that proponents had a hard time explaining it. So here is Ross Johnson on how the system works:

A Primer on STV

By Ross Johnson

Single Transferable Vote, or STV, is a preferential voting system intended to reflect in the number of seats won by each party elected the overall proportion of votes received. It differs from other proportional systems in that it minimizes wasted votes and allows voters to cast votes for different parties. Voters are able to vote for their favoured candidates regardless of party affiliation.

A BC STV system would have 20 multi-member ridings with between two and seven elected members per riding. More populated urban ridings would have more elected members, while rural areas would have fewer members because they have smaller populations. To allow the sparsely populated northern areas of the province to have anywhere near manageable-sized ridings the number of seats in the Legislature has been increased to 85.

To see how this works let’s take a five member riding as an example: A political party could run anywhere from zero to five candidates. All party candidates have an equal chance of being elected since the political party who nominated them does not enter them on a list in preferential order (as happens under some other forms of proportional voting systems). Independent candidates may also run.

Voting is straightforward: voters rank candidates in preferential order, e.g. 1, 2, 3 etc. The counting for STV is more complicated, and will be done by computer, with a paper back-up. The first requirement is to determine how many votes are needed to win one of the seats. This “Droop Quota” is determined based on the following formula:

Number of valid ballots cast
Quota = —————————————— + 1
Number of MLAs in riding + 1

For example, if 1,000 valid ballots were cast, and five seats were up for grabs, then the Quota would be 1,000 divided by (5 + 1) = 6, which equals 166.6. Adding one, this yields a rounded 168 votes needed to win a seat.

We begin by counting first preferences on all ballots. If no candidate has reached the quota of 168 votes then the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated and the second place choices from those ballots are distributed to the named candidates.

Let us assume that Candidate A now has received 200 votes, and is thus elected with 32 more votes than necessary. These 32 surplus votes are then redistributed to other candidates in proportion to Candidate A’s total votes. Because a portion of each vote has already been used to elect a candidate, only the “unused portion” is transferred, based on a formula to ensure a fair redistribution. For example:

Candidate’s surplus votes 32
Transfer Value = ——————————— = —— = 0.16
Candidate’s total votes 200

In this manner the count continues. The surpluses of each elected candidate are redistributed at the appropriate transfer value. When there are no surpluses from elected candidates to distribute, the candidate with the least number of votes is dropped and those votes are distributed at full value. This process continues until all seats are filled.

For a by-election the preferential ballot remains, but the election will probably be for one seat in a particular riding and therefore the quota would simply be 50% +1 for election. If more than one seat is to be filled, the ballot will be handled as in a regular STV election.

Putting aside the math, the outcome of this process is that STV will produce a Legislative Assembly that reflects the popular vote.

If there are three or more parties running, STV will often not produce a majority government immediately. This means that the leadership of the party with the greatest number of seats will have to negotiate with other parties in order to have a majority with which to run the government, or possibly to form a coalition. Sometimes, to make a coalition work, a small party has to be brought into the government, a development that would give them more clout than their voter support warrants because they can threaten to pull out of the coalition, possibly leading to the fall of the government.

Political parties originally started as a vehicle to aggregate interests. Individual politicians found that working on their own was very ineffective and so those with common interests came together to form parties. One of the roles of parties ever since has been to bring together people with common interests and to express those interests in the elected legislative body.

With STV there has been little discussion around the party choice of candidates. The Voting Districts are very large and so parties would have to develop methods of getting groups together to choose candidates. Party control weakens because voters can preferentially vote for a member of any party on the ballot. One of the consequences is that this may limit a party’s ability to aggregate interests, which could mean that the government does not really know what the electorate’s main issues are. With STV voters can vote preferentially for the candidate of any party and this could encourage party members to campaign against each other.

No electoral system is perfect, and a different electoral system is not necessarily a panacea for the widespread political alienation being experienced by people living in liberal democracies, whatever their electoral system. Citizens tell pollsters that they feel powerless politically. A change in voting procedures will still leave them “mere” voters, able to elect representatives from candidates put forward by parties, but unable to have much control over the policies a party or government will adopt.

Ross Johnson, PhD, is a CCPA member and a retired political scientist from Langara College.

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