Monday, 24 March 2008

The Single Transferable Vote system

In the publication How to conduct an election by the Single Transferable Vote, the following objectives for a valid election are listed:
  • To discover the wishes of the electorate
  • To ensure that as many voters as possible have an equal effect on the outcome
  • To ensure as many people as possible have their choice of elected representatives
  • To make sure that the outcome of the election is proportional to views of the nation
The publication goes on to say that multple voting systems fulfil these criteria, which is perfectly true.It is also true that multiple methods don't meet all those objectives. For instance, the United States use the Electoral College, which discovers the wishes of the electorate (the 'popular vote'), but not everyone has an equal say in the result as delegates decide who gets into the Whitehouse and there are also different types of delegates.

The authors of the publication believe that the Single Transferable Vote (STV) method achieves all the above objectives with "economy, efficiency and certainty". So, how does STV work? Basically, you have a list of candidates and you put them in your preferred order. In the first round of counting, the person who had the least '1's gets knocked out and votes for them get transferred. People who were the second choice get those votes added to their total and the person with the most votes at the end of the final round wins. There is a version of this system which uses Re-open nominations (RON). This means that if RON gets the most votes, the relevant officials have to restart the election for that position (or positions).

The Electoral Reform Society offers these arguments in favour of the STV system:
  • The system offers more choice
  • Fewer votes are wasted
  • Parties have a powerful incentive to present a balanced set of candidates (helping gender balance and opportunities for ethnic minorities)
  • Parliament is more likely to be representative of a nation's views and more responsive
  • No safe seats
  • Negative campaigning is diminished
  • Tactical voting isn't necessary
  • A more sophisticated link between constituency and representative
The Chief Executive of the ERS made the following comment in this article:
"Make no mistake. The change in the way Scotland votes has transformed the political landscape. It has empowered voters to boot out previously unshakable administrations that simply don’t enjoy popular support. It has given a voice to independents and party candidates in places that were until 2007 no go areas."
In 2003, voters in Vancouver decided they wanted to use an STV system. According to the author, a by-election (which was recent when that article was posted) would have had a very different using that method. He stated that under the current system, 66% of the people didn't influence the outcome. He went on to mention that votes wouldn't be wasted using STV. You can read the complete article here.

So, many people seem to think it's the way to go (not just in this country). A major organisation also has a large list of the system's advantages. It is also the de facto method of voting for elections in student politics. What could be wrong with it? Why would you want anything else? At the most basic level it achieves all four of the objectives at the top of this blog post.

There are problems with Single Transferable Vote though. The ERS list of advantages states that there would be "no safe seats". This is nonsense. With First Past The Post, it's true that you can get the majority of people voting for the same people every year. However, under STV voting preferences could also be the same every time. In that case it's not the system that makes the difference, it's the quality of candidates and party loyalty.

Another point was that parliament would be more representative and responsive. Unfortunately, STV doesn't stop candidates (or parties) from saying one thing during an election campaign and then changing their minds once they are elected. This is another area where the voting system makes no difference. It's not going to be more responsive either. That can only be improved with changes to governmental administration and faster decision making from the politicians.

As for a "sophisticated" link between the constituencies and representatives, I would have to disagree. The ERS says there is more incentive to campaign at a local level, which would mean that the politicians are in sync with the electorate. It's not STV that does this though - it's the approach of the politicians. You could have perfectly good local campaigning under First Past The Post aswell because you are still trying to get as many people as possible to vote for you.

The ERS also talk about reduced tactical voting. Sure, with FPTP you could hope that a third party takes away potential votes from your opponent to increase your chances - that can definitely be considered tactical. However, it's also tactical to say "if you're not putting me as your first preference, at least put me as number 2", because even if you're behind after the first round, you could always catch up later and win.

What about the article about voting and elections in Vancouver? It's true that under STV, your voting preference has greater longevity as you are allowed more than one choice. It would mean you would still have a say in future rounds if your first choice was the first to be eliminated. However, what if some voters only want to consider one person/party or less than the total number of choices? There votes aren't carried all the way through in that case. There is no real incentive to consider the views of all the candidates.

There's also the perennial evil that is voter apathy. How does STV counteract that. In all the articles and papers that I have found, nothing is mentioned about this. Getting the population of the country more interested in politics is the only real way to make a Parliament or set of officers representative. It means it is more likely that those who are elected will be the most responsive ('most responsive' doesn't necessarily mean 'responsive enough' though).

In conclusion, I don't think that Single Transferable Vote is a system that has definite advantages over other methods such as First Past The Post. I prefer FPTP because it means the party with the most votes wins and that is shown in a quicker way because there is only one round. It doesn't mean that a party is chosen because they were voted e.g. 5th choice the most times.

So, what do you think?

Technorati tags: Voting, Politics