Single-transferable vote and electoral reform
- The problems with LPR
- STV is the path forward
- Taking back control from the political class
- Political specialization and diversity
- Coalition governments
- There are leftists in the countryside and conservatives in the city
- Deciding the number of winners per constituency and by-elections
The problems with LPR:
List proportional representation (LPR) is often heralded by the politically minded as the best alternative to the failings of the first-past-the-post/plurality voting system. It delivers results that are directly proportional to the vote, thereby strengthening democracy, it is said. But if democracy means power being held widely by the people, then LPR does the exact opposite of strengthening democracy. In LPR, citizens vote for parties rather than individuals. This makes it impossible for independent-minded individuals to be elected as it’s impossible to run without being affiliated with a party where expulsion means an end to their political career. In LPR, whoever controls the party has nearly unlimited leverage over the members under them and can therefore unilaterally direct the course of governance. Higherups of exclusive organizations like political parties having this much power over elected officials can hardly be called democratic. LPR is only proportional for political parties and not citizens. The only people who stand to benefit from it are the political elite. The reason this “solution” dominates the narrative. In countries where governments are made up of local representatives, government power can be widely dispersed and voters can have dedicated representatives to bring their concerns to and who can advocate for their interests.
STV is the path forward:
None of the above is designed to argue that plurality should be maintained. Plurality often produces representatives who are not supported by a majority of citizens, which is unacceptable. The domination of MPs by a party aristocracy is also quite present in countries that use plurality such as the UK and especially in Canada where I’m from. In both countries, parties offer legitimacy, money for campaigning, and opportunity for advancement within the party hierarchy in exchange for obedience and like sunflowers to the sun, aspiring politicians turn their faces up towards their source of sustenance. The alternative to these two systems is single-transferable vote (STV), which is currently used to elect the senate of Australia, the devolved assembly of Northern Ireland, and the Oireachtas of the Republic of Ireland. Voting is done in the same way it is done on a ranked ballot in instant run-off voting with voters ranking the candidates from best to worst.
The difference between the two is that ranked ballot produces one winner per constituency while STV produces multiple, thereby yielding more proportional outcomes. It does this by setting a quota of votes that each candidate needs to win. If the constituency is supposed to produce two winners, the quota is 1/3 of the vote +1. If it’s three winners, it’s 1/4 +1 and so on. If one candidate receives more than the quota, their excess votes are redistributed to whoever their voters have ranked the next highest on their ballot. In this way, STV is the perfect compromise between proportional representation and local representation.
Taking back control from the political class
STV eliminates the fear of vote splitting and gives smaller political blocs and independents a real shot at winning seats, as they often do in large numbers in the Republic of Ireland. Additionally, it also allows members of the same party to run against each other in the same district without fear of compromising their party’s chances of election. Primaries are made entirely obsolete by this development. Normally, in order to avoid splitting the vote, each party nominates one candidate to stand for election in each riding and these candidates are almost always selected by local card-carrying party members. Under STV, there is no need for this whittling down of candidates. Any nominee can stand for election and every citizen can have their say as to who is fit to represent them rather than it being decided behind closed doors by paying party members. All of this gives more leverage to individual candidates as operating outside the bounds of the party comes with far fewer risks. The party administration will be able to get away with much less authoritarianism and stifling of independent thought, such as the use of the whip system, before candidates get fed up and leave. Having less leverage over lower-ranking members will also mean that the party has less to offer party loyalists as advancing through the party hierarchy will not grant them as much power.
Political specialization and diversity:
Another benefit of STV, and proportional systems generally, is that it allows greater political specialization and representation of minorities. Increasing the proportionality of the voting system is more likely to make the composition of government more representative of the demographic makeup of the country rather than overrepresenting the majority as is currently the case. Additionally, candidates in single-member districts need to appeal to a broad segment of the population to get elected as they need a majority of the votes. In STV, candidates do not need a majority so do not need to run on a broad range of issues to attract enough like-minded voters to win. Candidates that have deep expertise on one issue, such as environmentalism or healthcare, would be incredibly useful. Having a single-member district represented by a single-issue politician isn’t very practical, but having districts represented by multiple people would alleviate this issue. STV would enable all of this and help to upend the monoculture of lawyers that currently occupy parliament.
Contrary to the propaganda of autocrats, the idea that coalition governments lead to chaos is a blatant lie. A system that subverts democracy to produce majority governments will produce huge whiplash in policy as power constantly flips between being fully in the hands of one group to being fully in the hands of another. When power changes hands, the policies of the last government will be scrapped by the new one and replaced, making a stable national direction impossible. Coalitions retain parties from the previous government who will fight to keep those policies in place. Additionally, parties in coalitions actually have to debate their ideas and attempt to convince each other to get their policies through rather than ram through whatever they want. This system where policies are subject to real scrutiny and debate inevitably increases the quality of government.
There are leftists in the countryside and conservatives in the cities:
Different political groups nearly always make up large minorities in regions that are stereotyped as being homogenous blocks. Urban areas are left-wing and rural are right-wing. There are millions of these ideological minorities across Canada and the UK but they receive no representation whatsoever. Canadian conservative voters in a district won by the liberals have no recourse if they disagree with the views of their MP. Having multiple winners ensures that citizens have a choice when they reach out to their MPs.
Deciding the number of seats per constituency and by-elections:
Increasing the number of seats increases the proportionality of the results, but there are diminishing returns to this and it progressively abstracts the relationship between representatives and citizens. It is likely that two winners per constituency would not be enough to take advantage of the proportional aspects of STV and would likely result in constituencies being too rigid and resistant to change in electoral outcomes. Some examples are Australia’s Northern Territory and Capital Territory; each of which is represented by a two-member constituency that has seen the same two parties elected in every senate election for decades. Going beyond five is liable to make constituencies too large and the relationship between representative and citizen too abstract so keeping constituencies within the three-five range is the most reasonable option.
Regarding by-elections, it is more common for countries using STV to use a method other than direct election to fill empty seats, such as appointment. This is clearly an anti-democratic solution and can not be tolerated. If a seat needs to be filled, a by-election must be held across the constituency using the instant run-off system to fill it.
If Ireland is anything to go by, STV just works. It presents very clear benefits over the other main electoral systems of LPR and plurality. Obviously, electoral reform is not an all-encompassing panacea, but improving our countries will always be an uphill battle if democracy is being distorted like it is under plurality, or when it is the exclusive domain of an elite political aristocracy like it is under LPR. This is why it is imperative that our electoral system is as representative and in touch with the populace as possible. We should not be under any delusions as to whether achieving this will somehow not be an uphill battle as well. The political class has an interest in maintaining their own power and STV would certainly undermine it. We can not expect them to deliver it to us on a silver platter. Ballot initiatives like the ones held in the US or the referendums held in Switzerland would increase our chances as would pushing for the reform on a local level to increase the visibility of the system. Regardless, achieving this will require unity and determination so forming a unified front around STV should be our prerogative going forward.