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Can Single Transferable Vote make every vote count?

The Yukon Government is forming a non-partisan commission to study electoral reform in the Yukon. In response to that welcome initiative, I am writing a series of articles examining an array of existing electoral systems worldwide, as well as some unique, new systems as yet untried.

STV is not a venereal disease. Single Transferable Vote, (STV), is an electoral system used in Ireland. It is also common in municipal elections or school board elections. STV is often described as "instant Proportional Representation" because the results are proportional. It works well in situations where a number of representatives are required and where there is no a need for regional representation.

Here is how it works in Ireland. Ireland is divided into very large constituencies with multiple representatives. If a constituency qualifies for ten representatives, then each political party may run ten candidates in that constituency. If there are four parties running in that constituency, there could be as many as forty individuals for voters to choose from.

The ballot for each constituency will contain the names of all of the candidates. Voters rank their choices. There is no limit to the number of ranked choices each voter may choose.

There is a minimum quota of first choice votes that a candidate needs in order to win a seat. The quota is determined by the number of voters divided by the number of seats to be filled plus one. For example, if a riding has 100 voters and four seats, then the quota is 20 first choice votes.

If Candidate A has reached the minimum quota in the first-choice category, they have automatically won a seat. If Candidate A has exceeded the quota by ten first-choice votes, ten votes are distributed amongst the remaining candidates who have not won a seat, based on the percentage of second-choice votes they won on Candidate A’s ballots. For example, Candidate B won 50 per cent of second-choice votes on Candidate A's ballots. Fifty per cent of ten votes is five votes. Therefore, Candidate B receives five votes.

If all of the above quota votes has been distributed, and all of the seats have not been filled, then the lowest first choice candidate is disqualified. Their ballots are distributed to the remaining candidates who have not yet won a seat. This is done by percentages of second choice votes, as described above.

This goes on until all of the seats have been filled.

Could STV work in Yukon? No. This system only works where smaller constituencies can be combined without losing regional representation.

As one of their three electoral options, British Columbia is proposing an urban-rural split; STV for cities and Mixed Member Proportional, (MMP), for rural communities. But our rural population is too thin on the ground for MMP.

What if we did our own version of urban-rural split? We could feasibly use STV for Whitehorse and Alternative Voting -- ranked ballots measured using a point system -- for the smaller and rural ridings. The ten Whitehorse seats of the legislature would proportionately reflect the political will of citizens of Whitehorse. And the remaining ten seats would be filled by representatives with whom the majority of rural community members are comfortable.

There are a few problems with this. The citizens of Whitehorse might not like having their individual ridings merged into one super constituency thereby losing local representation. And with STV, candidates from the same parties would be competing with each other, which could be bad. Or merely amusing.

Here is the list of criteria for an effective and fair electoral system gleaned from exchanges with Yukoners.

  1. Make all, or most, votes to count.
  2. Maintain regional representation.
  3. Do not significantly increase the number of seats in parliament or legislature.
  4. Do not significantly increase the costs of elections.
  5. Keep extremists out.
  6. Have an electoral system that people can understand when they go to the polls.
  7. Resistance to undo influence by power groups.

Here is how using STV would work in a supersized Whitehorse constituency.

  1. The citizens of Whitehorse would be proportionately represented. It comes very close to making every vote count.
  2. Regional representation within Whitehorse would be lost.
  3. Other proportional systems, such as Mixed Member Proportional, have a possibility of having to add seats. STV does not increase the number of seats.
  4. The costs of elections would not significantly increase.
  5. With STV, candidates representing extreme views would likely be eliminated early.
  6. Ranked ballots are easy to understand. Determining election results would extremely complicated with STV.
  7. All electoral systems can be open to the kind of influence exerted by corporations, unions or religions. Influence dollars would have to be spread thin with STV.

Want to learn more about STV? Watch this animated video.

Now would be a good time for Yukoners to write their MLA and Premier to tell them how important electoral reform is for a fair and democratic electoral system.

Image: William Murphy/Flickr

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