What’s the Case Against the Single Transferrable Vote?

Lately I’ve been inundated with advocacy for the single transferable vote (STV) referendum that’s part of next month’s provincial election. Everybody wants me to vote in favour of it. And I will, because it seems like an excellent idea (as does Beth, as it happens). If you’re unclear on how the STV works, read the Wikipedia entry, check out STV.ca (why they didn’t go with “upgrade your vote” as a slogan, I’ll never know) or watch this rather dour animation.

As you know, there was a similar referendum in 2005, but it failed to achieve the 60% threshold necessary to pass. If I recall correctly, it was basically a PR problem–the issue didn’t receive sufficient attention.

Which brings me to my question: what are the arguments against the STV? The only one I could find was that it’s more complicated than first-past-the-post. That is, people can choose to rank multiple candidates instead of just picking one. I suppose this is marginally more challenging, but voters can still just opt to select their favourite candidate and leave it at that.

I’d also imagine that the established parties might feel threatened, in that a new system will unpredictably affect their futures. What other criticisms have you heard?


  1. The other criticism I’ve heard is that this system will make it hard to get a majority government and people fear that minority governments can’t function. I don’t think that’s a particularly compelling argument since other countries with parliamentary systems can operate well with minority governments (of course, this will require people to understand that a “coalition government” is a perfectly fine thing in a democracy). Also, if the majority of people don’t vote for a particular party but get a majority government, that doesn’t seem particularly democratic to me, so arguing that STV prevents majority governments isn’t really a fair criticism. So yeah, I don’t think it’s a very good argument against STV, but it’s one I’ve heard from a few people.

  2. The argument that I have heard the most is that the STV will lead to more minority governments and minority governments are bad.

    I don’t necessarily believe the “minority governments are bad” argument, and I like the idea of the STV, so I think I’ll be voting for it.

  3. Well, there’s always the amazingly faulty logic of this argument:



    Mostly, I think the argument I’ve heard is that rural areas will have larger districts, and therefore will have less personal representation. This … doesn’t make sense to me. MLA #1 doesn’t really align with my views? No problem, I’ll go hit up MLA #2 with my concerns. Surely SOMEONE will listen, as long as my concerns are actually valid.. !

  4. One argument that I heard the last time around is that hardly anybody has used it, and the countries that have used it are looking to repeal it. No idea as to the accuracy of that claim.

    Personally, I’m 100% in favour, and hopefully it goes through this time.

  5. My memory of last election is that the referendum did receive quite a bit of attention.

    But most it in the mainstream media was (as I recall): “Gosh, how confusing!”

    I wonder whether the shift in power toward social media, and those explanatory links that existed last time getting shared more this time, will be factors this time around.

    For better or for worse, my sense is the Yes side is much more active than the No side in their online campaigning.

  6. I’m in favor of STV, and will be voting for it. There are other systems I might prefer, but the choice between STV and FPTP is a pretty clear one for me.

    I’ve heard people in the Gulf Islands argue that by expanding the riding, the chances of getting a representative with any knowledge of or concern for the issues unique to islanders are even lower than they are now.

    I’ve also heard the argument that by diluting the “brand” of any one candidate in a riding (by having other candidates from the same party), you make them more likely to tow the party line, since “I’ll just run as an independent next time” is a less credible threat.

    I don’t think personally either of these arguments holds much water.

  7. I will be voting for it.

    As I recall Darren, you stated during the federal election that you voted green. Your reason was simply that their party ideals aligned most closely with your own. The unfortunate fact is that most people whose ideals align most closely with the greens still don’t vote for them, myself included.

    STV gives us the ability to vote for the greens as our first choice, and specify in the event they are out of the running, please transfer my vote to party/candidate X.

    If STV were used in the United States, and people understood it, Nader would likely not have had the same effect that he did.

    It is in my opinion ludicrous for anybody to argue against it.

  8. I wish they would have two seperate questions attached to the election.

    1. Do you want a system of proportional rep.
    2. Do you want the STV system.

    I have talked about this with alot of my extended family, and the overwhelming responce is yes to PR and no to STV.

    My family tends to go to our MLAs and MPs offices alot to complain about _______ (fill in the blank. The though of having upwards of 6 MLAs in an extremly large catch basin. Makes me want to break down and sob. How much time is going to be wasted going to and fro MLas offices.

    I would much rather have a Mixed member system, where you would still have a local rep for your area, but there would also be MLAs at large that are chosen by Percentage vote province wide.

    The green party would get floating MLA’s, and by the time the next election came around, they would have a record they could run on and perhaps gain a territorial seat.

    I will be voting against the STV as will most of my family….sigh.

    1. Glad you are in favour of PR, Colleen. The experience of the Irish with their politicians has been that active constituents like you and your family tend to find one representative fairly close to their views, and build a relationship with that one representative. As prospective MLAs have to compete amongst each other for votes, those with strong consitituency reputations have a real advantage over “party hacks”.

      I don’t expect to change your mind with one reply on Darren’s blog, but it’s food for thought.

  9. You need to elaborate Colleen on what exactly you think the difference is between “a system of proportional representation” and STV. They are, under commonly held understanding, not mutually exclusive.

    Indeed STV is protocol one of whose underlying aims is to provide proportional representation. It’s merely a way to try to ensure everyones vote affects the outcome.

  10. While there are a few MLAs who are particularly responsive to their local constituents’ concerns, most of them seem to toe the party line anyway, so I don’t see how STV could change that very much. And the largest rural ridings are already as large as medium-sized European countries anyway.

    Interesting that the best person the No side could find to write the weird hockey analogy on their website is affiliated with the religiously-based Trinity Western University (and retired from a more mainstream institution back east). I’m not sure what that implies, but it seems odd.

    The Yes side sure has a much better website, that’s for sure.

  11. I plan to vote yes for STV, but that’s because I live in a major population center and I think STV will benefit people in population centers. If you look at the proposed STV maps, the regions are geographically huge and, headcount wise, most are dominated by a single population center. Because of this concentrated population, most of the candidates in a region are going to be from the population centers and voters are going to tend to vote for local representatives which will leave the rural areas unrepresented. I personally don’t really care about the problems of the rural areas, but if I lived in one I’d be campaigning hard against BC-STV.

  12. Hey Darren – I was just about to contact you about STV. Glad others were thinking the same thing. As President of Fair Voting BC, the sponsor organizaion for the BC-STV campaign, the only problem is that I havent been blogging much. Just wanted to add that if people want nifty blog badges to show support, they can get them here:

  13. I’m really glad to see this discussion – feeling more informed now.

    The new maps puts the Sunshine Coast in a riding with the North Island instead of West Van. This might be good… Often we feel misrepresented as a result of being outnumbered by West Van voters.

  14. The vote-tallying procedure under STV is considerably more complex and less transparent, which leaves more room for error, fraud and lawyer-involvement.

    Also, I wonder how easy it would be for a radical party (Marxist / BNP / etc) to elect a candidate, who will proceed to spend four years embarrassing BC. We’ve already had idiots elected for the two mainstream parties, and I’m not sure that we need to make it even easier for the lunatic fringe to get in.

    1. This is exactly what I wonder as well and you’re the only other person I know who is voicing it. Particularly with minority parties that might use coalition strategies, I really worry about the “lunatic fringe”. People say noone would listen to really unreasonable points of view, but history does not bear that out.
      Thanks for posting this.

  15. Great discussion you started, Darren!

    STV has also been used in New Zealand since 2004 in municipal & lower elections (city/district councils, health boards, etc). Not sure if there’s been any analysis done since they started using it, but they wrote a policy paper explaining their implementation of STV and how it differs from first past the post (FPP).

    If you want a non-partisan explanation with good visual aids of BC STV, including examples of how BC’s votes would have been counted under STV in previous elections, visit Michael Gobbi’s site http://www.understandingstv.ca. He includes links to both Yes and No proponents so that you can get informed.

    I am voting yes to STV because it results in a government that is much closer to the ideal of proportional representation than FPP. I have never been able to vote for a candidate that aligns with my views on all of the issues; with STV I’ll be able to rank the candidates on the ballot according to how well they represent me. If I don’t care about the individuals and want to vote the party line, I can still do this by ranking all candidates from that party as my 1-2-3-n votes.

    I don’t think the vote counting formula is that complex, it just needs to be explained well (with pictures, in my case) and implemented properly (we better make sure we don’t let Diebold/Premier anywhere near STV). And I trust my fellow citizens not to vote for obvious idiots and lunatics.

    One interesting note with STV. Candidates are elected once they receive enough votes to cross a threshold (quota), and any remaining votes are then distributed to the other candidates in their riding until all spots are filled. This means that there is less chance of your vote being “wasted” because you voted for someone who has no hope of being elected. This also makes it hard if not impossible to vote tactically i.e. voting for someone you don’t like simply to keep someone you like even less out of office. For this same reason, I think if we used STV for federal elections, we’d probably be able to have media coverage of the election in real time despite the time zone differences and staggered polling station openings.

  16. Upfront: I’m very neutral about this. I think STV and the current system both have merits. I haven’t decided which way I’ll vote in the referendum.

    First off, this is not a perfect system, no shock there. There’s essentially no perfect election system. Using STV means you might pop a token Green member or two into the legislature, but the Marxist-Leninists will still be pouty about their underrepresentation. Also look for a rekindling of odd old fires like the BC Socreds (or some similar right-of-the-Liberals party) as they may now be electable in certain places.

    That said, my real objection is that STV misunderstands how most electoral systems have worked for the last century or so. Rather than being systems for positively electing representation, elections are for removing undesired incumbents.

    That sounds terribly cynical, I know, but the point is it’s very hard to tell up-front whether a candidate will be a good legislator. It is very easy (compared, at least, to unelected governments 🙂 to rid a jurisdiction of unpopular incumbents.

    As a conservative, I tend to resist novel ideas on the basis that they’d better have strong evidence they won’t cause more harm than the current system. STV seems unproven; I’d like to see it implemented on a smaller scale to start.

    It also strikes me as curious that the same sorts of progressive voices appear to be favoring BC-STV as favored a Ward electoral system for Vancouver. Wards are basically the opposite of PR systems, so what is causing the cognitive dissonance here?

    The answer, of course, is that in Vancouver people feared that active voters concentrated in one part of town were dominating the electoral process, leaving the Downtown Eastside under-represented. STV’s super-districts surely lead to a similar problem, IRV or not.

    Finally, there’s an element of strategic voting with conventional elections, but with STV you’d get some potentially complex tactical-voting considerations that can encourage “insincere” vote-rankings, which is the problem STV is supposed to solve in the first place, as far as I can tell.

    The question to ask STV proponents is “what problem with governance are you trying to solve?” The question to ask yourself is whether it’s a real problem.

  17. Just a drive-by mention that Malta has a STV system. I am completely uninformed in terms of the pros and cons of the system in Malta but thought you might be interested 🙂

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