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Chris Fox's Politics Section


My Views: Single Transferable Vote

In my last article, I addressed the question of what layers of government we should have. I will now turn to the question of how representatives should be elected to those layers.

In my opinion, an electoral system should fulfil two criteria. The first is that the composition of an elected chamber should reflect public opinion (This need not apply to elections to a second chamber, whose main function is to review legislation passed by the first). Representative democracy should mean just that. If a legislature is to act on behalf of the people, its decisions should reflect those that would be taken in a direct democracy.

The second criterion is that people should be able to vote for individuals as opposed to political parties. Although it is expected that members of a party have similar views, differences do exist. There are in any case those who want to stand for election as independents, not on behalf of a party; while this is still possible under a system where parties are given seats in proportion to the number of votes cast, an independent candidate can only take one seat, regardless of the number of votes he receives. Finally, some voters may support candidates as individuals rather than because of the parties they represent; this point, incidentally, also provides a case against an open party list system, where votes are cast first for a party then for one of its candidates.

I do not list a one-party majority in the legislature as an objective. A one-party majority may speed up decision making, but that is because when the majority party decides its position, that is effectively the end of the debate. A stronger argument is needed to convince two or more parties than to convince one. In any case, the only way to guarantee a one-party majority is with a one-party system. In areas where no party takes an absolute majority, parties must learn to work together; there is therefore no reason why they cannot do the same elsewhere.

The aforementioned criteria may appear to conflict. If votes are cast for parties, it is easy to convert a number of votes into a proportionate number of seats. But how can this be done in the case of individual candidates, who, as has already been stated, can only take one seat each?

The solution is this: any candidate receiving at least the number of votes required for election (the quota) is elected and his surplus votes given to like-minded candidates. But who is to decide who is like-minded? The voters, of course: they own the votes, so they decide how those votes are used. The candidates can be ranked in order of preference, "1" denoting the favourite, and surplus votes can be redistributed according to second and possibly further preferences.

Because only the surplus votes are redistributed, in which case the quota stays with the elected candidate, to obtain two or more seats a party needs its candidates' combined vote to be two or more times the quota.

Because votes are cast for individuals, candidates of the same party do not have to be ranked together. Voters can give their top preference votes to candidates of their own sex, race or religion, to name just three factors.

To ascertain the quota, start by dividing the number of votes cast by one more than the number of seats. Any candidate who receives more than this number of votes will be elected: if he were behind a number of candidates equalling the number of seats, then because they would together be one more than the number of seats, their combined vote would exceed the total number of votes cast, which is impossible. The quota for election is therefore derived by dividing the number of votes by one more than the number of seats, then adding 1.

If all the spare votes of elected candidates have been redistributed, and there are still vacant seats, the lowest placed candidate is eliminated and his votes redistributed according to second preferences. The votes of eliminated candidates should only be redistributed if the elected candidates have no spare votes to redistribute; otherwise, if the elected candidates together had enough votes to take an extra seat, they would block that seat, and other candidates would be eliminated with none of them having enough votes to take the seat.

It follows from the above that tactical voting, where votes are cast for one candidate in order to prevent another from being elected, is unnecessary. Voters can rank their favourites at the top, knowing that if those candidates are eliminated their votes would go to those who would have received them had tactical voting been used, while disliked candidates can be put at the bottom. This system also renders tactical voting pointless: any candidate who reaches the quota, either on the first count or after a redistribution of votes, will be elected anyway.

The system just described is called the Single Transferable Vote, and is the system I favour for use in elections. If proportional representation - where the composition of a legislature reflects public opinion - is the aim, multi-member constituencies should be used. One person cannot represent everyone in a constituency; a few people, having different views, would have a better chance. STV in single-member constituencies is called the Alternative Vote, although that is the only difference between STV and AV. The Alternative Vote has been criticised for producing a less representative result than the Single Member System, but the number of wasted (unused) votes declines with increasing constituency size. However, larger constituencies produce longer lists of candidates to rank and weaken the claim of representatives to represent a local area. I would recommend 3- or 4-member constituencies, preferably the former.


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