No, STV is not a disease…

STV is the abbreviation for the Single Transferable Vote, an electoral system of preferential voting designed to minimize wasted votes and provide proportional representation.

This is a primer for our upcoming May 12, 2009, provincial election.

A variation of STV known as BC-STV is a proposed voting system recommended for use in British Columbia by the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform.

This group was created by the government of British Columbia to investigate changes to the current provincial electoral system of plurality voting.  We currently elect one Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for each electoral district using the Single Member Plurality electoral system, also known as First-Past-the-Post system.

The candidate with the most votes (a plurality of votes) wins the seat for the electoral district. The party with the most seats forms the government.

We have learned from experience in Canada and in BC that plurality voting systems can produce conflicting results (votes received vs. seats won) not supported by a majority.

It seems a majority of British Columbians do not necessarily like this.  During a 2005 referendum the proposed BC-STV came within 2.4% of meeting the 60% threshold the British Columbia government had set for adoption. 

Because of the strong majority support shown for BC-STV on May 19, 2005, the provincial government decided to hold a second referendum in the next scheduled provincial election.  As a result the BC-STV will be put to the voters a second time on May 12, 2009.

Under the proposed BC-STV electoral system the same number of MLAs would be elected to the Legislative Assembly; each electoral district will have between two and seven MLAs, therefore electoral districts will be larger.

The STV proposes that the 83 85 (thanks Chris) seats be distributed into 20 districts. In the district where I live known as the Tri-Cities there are 4 seats: Coquitlam-Burke Mountain; Coquitlam-Maillardville; Port Coquitlam; and, Port Moody-Coquitlam.

Voters would indicate their first, second, third or more preferences from the candidates listed on their ballot in their electoral district. Each MLA would still represent approximately the same number of people.

If you need to find out more try this link:

To find out how STV works try this link:  

There are mixed views on what the outcome might be for the BC-STV and nobody knows for sure. Here are some of the questions being asked:
Will there be more or less party politics? Will there be more women and minorities being elected? Will there be more underrepresentation of rural areas?  Will more minority and coalition governments be good or bad? Will STV be too complicated? Will STV benefit BC?

What are your views?

12 thoughts on “No, STV is not a disease…”

  1. I have become a big booster of STV. I think the seeds of change were planted in the 1996 and 2001 elections and I know voters can mark a 1-2-3 on their ballot, especially when it means the results are far more fair.

    Political parties would never use first-past-the-post to pick their leaders – so why should our communities be stuck with it?

    Any time any organization wants fair results they use preferential ballots with votes transferring to people’s second choice when a candidate is in last and removed. STV is just that – and more, as it puts an end to “safe ridings” where many people’s votes are wasted.

  2. First a minor correction. There are now 85 seats in BC, not 83.

    Our current first past the post (FPTP) system regularly produces phony majorities (where a party gets a majority of the seats with a minority of the votes) and sometimes produces wildly skewed results. Depending on the election, 40% of the vote might get you 20%, 30%, 60% or even 70% of the seats. Or maybe even 40% if we’re lucky.

    In answer to your questions: STV tends to produce more collaborative politics within the regions. The reason for this is that a candidate from party A might rely on second choices from a party B candidate to get elected. So, we can expect less adversarialism from that perspective.

    Proportional systems, of which STV is one, tend to produce better representation for women and minorities. FPTP is worst in this regard.

    Coalition governments are rare in Canada because of our history with FPTP. Around the world, however, there are many stable coalition governments. This includes Ireland where they use STV. Coalition governments produce a broader consensus than single party majorities.

    Rural areas will be better represented than they are today because today, a lot of regions are represented by just one party. Under STV, a lot of regions will be represented by 2 or even 3 parties and so will have broader representation.

    STV is not complicated. It offers much more choice and voting is no more complicated than rating candidates by preference. The ballots will be ordered by party so if you only want to vote along party lines, you can vote for your favorite party and be done. If, however, you like specific candidates across parties, you can vote for the ones you like.

  3. Tony and Chris:

    Thanks for sharing your comments (and correction), and offering answers for others to contemplate.

    Any predictions on the referendum results out there?

  4. I think in no way do the First-Past-the-Post boundaries represent natural or community boundaries. They are artificial boundaries that divide people from their friends who may share similar ideas and beliefs.

    Under First-Past-the-Post, one riding may have two or three really good candidates; only one can get elected. A neighbouring riding may have two or three lousy candidates; one will get elected. Under BC-STV, perhaps two of the really good candidates can get elected in a two MLA riding. That’s better representation.

    I believe the number of rural MLAs will stay the same under BC-STV. I do think that the quality of rural MLAs will get better as they will have a better understanding of the rural communities and economy with respect to forestry, mining, agriculture, and fisheries. For example, if I am working in agriculture, I will want an MLA who understands agriculture. I can rank that person #1 or 2. Under First-Past-the-Post, I may have no candidates who understand or care about agriculture–even in a rural riding.

  5. John – thanks for providing a space for discussion on this topic.

    I have researched STV extensively over the past few weeks and the more I learn about it, the more I like it.

    People complain that it is too complicated, but people I have talked to from Ireland and Australia (where they use STV) say everyone there knows how to use it. In Ireland they twice held referendums on whether to keep STV or not (it has been used there for 90 years) and both times the people voted to keep it.

    The “No” side keeps telling people that there would be less local representation under STV and this is absolutely false. I was born and raised in Northern BC and my family live there still, so this is very important to me. For one thing, there will be the same number of elected representatives per citizen as we have right now. According to Dennis Pilon, a political science professor at the University of Victoria, in places where STV is used, local representation tends to be incredibly strong. This is because there are multiple MLAs within each riding, so they are in competition with each other to work hard for their constituents throughout their terms in office. More here:

    Everything I have seen from the “No” side is based on fear mongering, and insulting the intelligence of voters. The STV system is not perfect – no voting system is – but as far as I can tell it is pretty darn good, and certainly much better than the flawed system we have now.

    There is also an assumption that we will end up with endless minority governments. Where is the evidence? We have a FPTP system at the federal level and we’ve had 3 minority governments in a row!!! In Ireland they’ve had several MAJORITY governments under STV and they’ve had fewer elections recently that we have at the federal level!!!

    Anyways, if we do adopt it, we will be allowed to vote on whether we keep it after 3 election cycles. Let’s at least give it a try. The cost of switching election systems is surely no greater than costs associated with the wild policy swings that come from our current winner-takes-all system.

    Aaron Hill

  6. I have been closely following the debate about BC-STV, and have noticed several important misconceptions being circulated.

    1. Riding Size. None of the proposed provincial ridings under BC-STV are larger than BC’s federal ridings. A single federal MP serves this riding – the two to seven MLAs offered by STV should be able to do much more. Moreover, under STV, these MLAs would actually reflect the way the constituents had voted rather than leaving the majority of them disenfranchised. While these ridings may be larger than at present, they will enhance, not diminish representation.

    2. Complexity. While the act of voting under STV is simple, the mathematical formulas used to assign peoples votes to their second or third preferences if need be are indeed complex. However, this is the reason that we have Elections BC, an impartial institution with professionals dedicated to managing elections. We trust these professionals with a variety of complex tasks: voter registration, vigilance against fraud, and fairly drawing electoral boundaries amongst many others. Why should computing results under STV be any different?

    3. Instability. Much has been said about how under STV fringe parties will proliferate leaving BC like Italy or Israel, mired in endless collapsing coalitions. This is untrue. BC is deeply rooted in the Westminister parliamentary tradition, so comparisons to countries like Israel or Italy are flawed from the start. Comparisons Ireland (where voters have twice voted to keep STV) or Australia would be more apt. Moreover, STV is not a pure form of proportional representation and has a built in threshold to ensure parties attain significant support before they can elect an MLA. If anything, it is the current system that has brought us instability, with ideological lurches to the left and right as parties spend half their mandate undoing what the previous government did. STV may mean more minority parliaments, but it will also necessitate negotiation and cooperation, and thus give us better policy and much more long term stability.

    On May 12, we have the opportunity to hand much more power to the average voter, and to put to rest an antiquated system that leaves nearly sixty percent of British Columbians unrepresented. I’ll be voting YES to BC-STV, and I hope you’ll join me.

  7. The people of BC deserve greater power over who gets elected. The choice belongs to the citizens and not to the parties.

    Vote STV to give as many people as possible a voice.

  8. STV will be a big improvement over FPTP. The last few elections have produced truly bizarre results that haven’t reflected at all how we actually voted. Under STV, the seats will very closely match the preferences of the voters.

    STV will also mean an end to safe seats, because every district will have seats in play. Parties will be forced to campaign everywhere and pay attention to the needs of citizens in every district.

    Finally, with fair and accurate results, all regions of the province will likely be represented both in government and in opposition.

  9. There is one point that I haven’t seen made before. Given that STV is not perfect and that perhaps there may be a better system out there, if we make the change to STV I believe it will be easier to later change to that other system, since we will have set the precedent that it’s possible to change our voting system without the sky falling. Furthermore, as Aaron Hill points out above, there is a requirement that we keep it for at least three elections, which has the implication that three elections later there will be an almost-automatic re-evaluation of whether STV has served us well.

    The one reservation I have about STV is that the ballots will probably be counted by machine (look up “Diebold” if you want to know why that worries me), though the fact that it will be done by Elections BC, which so far has been impartial and nonpartisan, is of some consolation. I do think it would be *possible* to count ballots by hand, given that it has been used in Ireland since 1919 and they certainly did not have computers to do it for most of the 90 years since then.

  10. There is a big difference between using computers to count the ballots, which is done now under any system, and the truly scary machine voting the name Diebold conjures up.

    Voting under BC-STV will be done with a pencil and a paper ballot—transparent, and fully recountable.

    The Irish just did a pilot project on machine voting, decided it was a nightmare, and now have a whack of never-used voting machines available for sale real cheap!

  11. John, you ask the question: Will there be more women and minorities elected?

    You may be surprised to learn that in countries such as Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands and some legislatures in Australia who adopted the proposed Single-Transferrable-Vote system (STV), between 35% and 47% of elected officials are women. In places where the current system, First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) is used, such as Ottawa, Victoria and some jurisdictions in Australia, only around 20% of the legislature are women.

    In itself, this highlights the lack of representation not only in gender but more importantly is indicative of the lack of representation for our often wide and varied voices. It goes some way to explain why most of us feel so frustrated with our ‘elected’ government.

    On May 12, vote for BC-STV, vote for electoral reform.

  12. I have a question for anyone that may know the answer. But, first, the research I’ve done (for the last referendum) showed me that the BC-STV system has a lot of great qualities, and the proposal is being watched around the world – and admired. I don’t need to know the exact fraction of my vote that went to each candidate. All I need to know is that my vote went to the people I listed and no-one else, and that I do believe will happen.
    Question. Why were the numbers 2 and 7 picked for riding sizes? Smaller ridings (1 – 5) would counter a lot of the opposition. STV would guarantee a majority winner in a single riding (not just the highest number of first-round votes) while keeping the MLA’s commute times manageable, and a maximum size of 5 would make the election choices easier to research for the denser ridings.
    Israel and Italy have systems that are totally different, and can’t be compared in any way to BC-STV.


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