May 5, 2009

The Case Against STV


More from our BC Commentary special on STV:

The Case Against STV

By David Schreck

Will STV “make your vote count”? Actually, BC-STV can make your vote worth less and make your MLA less accountable. Our existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) system is not perfect, but it is better than BC-STV.

Inequality is inherent in BC-STV. The Northeast (Peace River) would get two MLAs while the Capital Region would get seven. Some voters would see their vote dead-ended, not electing anyone and not transferred, while others would see their vote help elect more than one MLA. What’s fair about that?

No one should vote for STV unless they can understand how votes are counted. Supporters of BC-STV say that it doesn’t matter if people don’t understand how votes are counted. They argue that most people don’t know how their car works but they can still drive it. That analogy is misleading. In deciding whether to buy a GM or a Toyota vehicle, prospective purchasers need to know a lot more than just how to drive each car, such as whether the company will be in business next year and whether the warranty will be any good.

In deciding between voting systems, British Columbians need to know a lot more than just how to vote. They also need to know how votes are counted in order to be able to adequately compare FPTP and BC-STV. B.C. voters are not test driving BC-STV; we could be living with it for decades

The first word in STV is “single”. That is exactly what it is, a single vote, even though a constituency will elect from two to seven MLAs. With BC-STV the minimum number of votes required to win, the “Droop quota”, varies depending on the number of MLAs to be elected. In percentage terms the quota is equal to 12.5% of the total votes cast in a seven-MLA constituency, rising to 33.3% of the total votes cast in a two-MLA constituency. Those percentages are important because any votes in excess of the quota get redistributed to other candidates based on the instructions each voter gave by way of candidate rankings.

It can take a dozen rounds of adjusting votes before the count is finished. The last candidate to be elected usually has fewer votes than the quota, because there remains one position to fill and no further votes to transfer. The remaining candidate with the most votes in the final round is declared elected. That means that in a seven-MLA constituency, the seventh candidate to be declared elected wins with less than 12.5% of the total vote.

For a real-life example, look at the actual count in the May 24, 2007 Republic of Ireland election for the district of Dublin North, which had four representatives to elect and 13 candidates. The website allows you to see how votes were counted, how complicated vote counting is under STV, and that there are always some voters whose vote doesn’t count as much as the vote of others. In Dublin North, the vote count took ten rounds of redistributing votes, but the 5,256 people who voted for Brendan Ryan (who lost) did not have their second preferences transferred. You can pick any other real life example of STV and you’ll see that there are always some voters whose vote doesn’t get transferred and whose first preference doesn’t win.

Anyone who has ever had more than one boss at the same time for the same job knows that accountability can go out the window. With BC’s existing system of single MLA constituencies, accountability is clear. If you don’t like what your MLA did, or what your MLA’s party did, vote for a different candidate. With five MLAs representing one enormous constituency, each could say a problem is someone else’s responsibility or fault.

From an MLA’s point of view, large multiple member regions would make it impossible to service all the school boards, municipal councils and community organizations that would be in regions two to seven times larger than our existing constituencies. Supporters say that candidates would carve out their own constituencies within the large regions, which, if true, is another way of saying they would ignore large numbers of voters in the region since they would know that they could get elected, not with the most support, but with a minimum support of 12.5% to 33.3%.

Many of the assertions made by proponents of BC-STV cannot be verified, including the claim that STV is more likely to produce coalition governments because it is more likely to elect MLAs from more than two parties. Actual experience with STV, apart from municipal elections, is confined to Ireland, Malta, the Australian Senate and Tasmania. Only two parties have ever had their candidates elected to Malta’s parliament, although other parties continually try. By contrast, with our existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system, British Columbians elected MLAs from four different political parties (NDP, Social Credit, Reform and Liberal) as recently as 1991 and from three different parties in 1996.

There are 37 registered political parties in BC. They don’t all run candidates in all of the ridings, but most of them run candidates in one or more ridings. It is hard to support any claim that FPTP limits the choice offered voters or the ability of small parties to elect MLAs in BC; witness the Reform Party, or Gordon Wilson’s Progressive Democratic Alliance in 1996. The issue for STV enthusiasts is not electing an MLA or two from small parties as much as it is about holding the balance of power in a coalition government.

For no apparent reason, STV proponents are fond of claiming that the voting system would be the same, and yield similar results, in BC as it is in Ireland where coalition governments are common. There are big differences between Ireland and BC: BC is less homogeneous (Ireland is predominately white and Catholic); Ireland has 166 Members of Parliament for roughly the same population for which BC would have only 85 MLAs; and the Northwest, just one of BC’s 20 BC-STV electoral districts, is more than five times larger than all of Ireland.

There is no reason to believe that a government formed after an election using BC-STV would be like Ireland’s or any other. British Columbians would be rolling the dice with a new electoral system and would have no basis for predicting the consequences. The only thing that can be said for certain about BC-STV is not about what kind of government it might deliver but about what the 20 regions with 85 MLAs would look like, how votes are cast and how votes are counted.

STV should be rejected because its multiple-MLA electoral areas decrease accountability, its complex rules for counting votes are not fair, and allegations made by its proponents are not true.

David Schreck is a political commentator, economist and former NDP MLA for North-Vancouver Lonsdale. Retired, he keeps active with his website, He is Secretary-Treasurer for the No BC-STV Campaign Society.