News from British and Canadian Conservatives

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Lies about STV

Proponents of the STV voting system which is proposed for BC's Provincial Elections have been making some wildly positive claims about the benefits of the system. They argue that it is "fair", "easy to use", "proportional" and provides "local representation". Yet Winston Churchill described it thus:

... the worst of all possible plans, the least scientific and most unreal. The decision is to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates.

So, who is right? Fortunately, there are plenty of countries already using STV to give us some real-world examples of the truth.

STV is fair

For this one, we need look no further than the last Irish General Election, in 2007. Since the STV system almost invariably gives no single party a majority, it has become customary for the parties to enter pre-election alliances, so that the voters know which groups will work together to actually run the country. In 2007, the two alliances were as follows:

Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrats, on a centre-right pro-market and low taxes platform.
Fine Gael-Labour-Green, on a centre-left, red-green platform.

The results were inconclusive. Neither of the two groups took a majority of the seats, due to the small number of Sinn Fein representatives who were elected but are not part of either alliance. Their links to Irish terrorism make their particular brand toxic to the other parties, meaning that they can never join the government.

After much horse-trading, the Green Party decided to join the FF-PD coalition. Does this sound like a fair system? Supporters of the FG-L-G coalition who have lent their lower preference votes to the Greens to enable their coalition to form a government have ended up propping up an administration which they opposed. Fine Gael and Labour supporters feel justly agrieved that they ended up voting against their own parties.

STV is not fair to voters. It represents a massive transfer of power from the electorate to professional politicians, who get to choose who governs regardless of voters' wishes.

STV is proportional

It is possible to argue that the above does not matter, as long as the politicians choosing the government are representative of the electorate. However, that is not always the case. During the 1990s, the Irish STV elections actually produced a less proportionate parliament than the First Past the Post system would have achieved! Yet, that pales into insignificance when compared to the Maltese experience.

At the 1981 General Election, Malta had two main parties - the Nationalist Party and the Labour Party. The Nationalist Party won 51% of the vote. Yet, Malta elected a majority Labour government.

Proportional? Absolutely not.

STV is easy to use

Scotland started using STV for municipal elections in 2007, having previously used First Past the Post. How easy did they find the new system to use? The number of ballots rejected for incorrect voting was a shocking 7%. 142,000 people had managed to spoil their ballot papers, which represented a dramatic increase from previous elections. Under First Past the Post, typical rejection rates were less than 1%.

In fact, the system would be better described as "easy to manipulate", as a well organised and resourced campaign can use tactics to manipulate the result to produce a result which is deliberately disproportionate.

All the MLAs provide local representation for their riding

Just how local is representation, when proposed ridings like "Northwest" cover 300,000 square kilometres?! The two MLAs cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as providing local representation to such a wide areas. In fact, there would be nothing to stop both MLAs from living in one small town on the edge of the riding, meaning that the rest of the area could be ineffectively represented in the legislature. To put the area into context, the UK covers 245 sq. km and is the 79th largest country in the world, and several provinces are smaller than this one proposed riding.

Peculiarities of the proposed BC system

To make matters worse, the BC system has been designed in such a way that any proportional result would be purely coincidental. The size of the ridings varies wildly, with the sparsely populated areas (understandably) containing far fewer voters per MLA than metropolitan ridings. Of course, the same can be said of the existing First Past the Post system, but no-one is claiming that the current system is proportional.

Moreover, empirical research of existing juristictions using STV has shown that proportionality is unlikely to be achieved if there are fewer than six MLAs per riding. To achieve such a balance, BS would need to combine its three largest ridings in the north, covering approximately 700,000 sq km. If it were an independed country, it would be the 15th largest in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and ahead of Mexico with 6 or 7 MLAs. So British Columbians have a choice - local representation or proportional representation. Those who claim otherwise are either lying or simply don't understand the system.

STV as advocated for BC is a compromise that produces the absolute worst of all worlds. It is neither proportional nor does it provide local representation.

Voting coincides with the BC General Election on Tuesday. Visit the no campaign's website for more information:


Skinny Dipper said...

I hope you will be satisfied if the NDP forms the government in BC someday thanks to First-Past-the-Post.

Wayne Smith said...

BC-STV provides the best hope for the Conservative Party to elect somebody to the BC Legislature in the foreseeable future.

Frédéric Van Caenegem said...

Thank you for showing the very few extreme cases that sometimes arise under the STV electoral system. Extreme situations that are very common under the current FPTP system!

John Maszka said...

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Dan Hassett said...

I'll be satisfied as long as the people of BC get to choose their government. FFTP requires parties to form pre-election coalitions which command support, whereas STV leaves the decision to a tiny political elite after the election.

I have no doubt that STV offers the best short term chance of a Conservative gain, but the price to pay is far too high. BC would never have the opportunity to elect a Conservative government.

Finally, although the situations described were individually extreme and rare, the details of BC STV means that one or more of them is likely to happen more-or-less every election, if BC STV is adopted. And the discrepencies are far more common than under FPTP. Since Britain's Reform Act of 1832, only once has the largest party come second in terms of share of the vote. That was February 1974, and no party won overall control. That was also the last time that Britain did not elect a majority government. You find a similar picture in the overwhelming majority of FPTP electorates around the world, with Ottawa being the rare exception in recent years.