STV stinks (the electoral system, not the TV station)

Scottish Policy May 09, 2012 6 Comments

An electoral system that ‘gives’ you councillors you don’t really want via a barely-proportional system no-one understands, and one that seems to favour candidates who come first alphabetically and can easily result in councillors with little link to you or your concerns cannot be a good system. The Single Transferrable Vote should be replaced, and with haste.

Proportional representation is always better than non-proportional representation, right? I am becoming increasingly unsure. But before I explain why I must be clear that I am the first to champion the need for elections to represent as closely as possible the views of the electorate as possible. First Past The Post is a sort-of old-world travesty in which the masses are presented with minimal choice and all but the ‘mainstream’ stand next to no chance of being represented. It is a truly awful way to run a country, the reason for which is distilled into its very justification – that it produced clear, strong government. Yes, it usually does. But so does dictatorship and monarchy. And nine out of ten times, when I hear someone extolling the merits of strong government, it usually means the ability of government to do things the population doesn’t want it to do (wars, austerity budgets and all the rest). FPTP is a means of ensuring some form of establishment power is running the show forever. And above all it is just wrong that parties end up with power out of all proportion to the decisions made by the electorate.

I think we can all agree that the Alternative Vote option is not much better. In fact, I was surprised that so many people on the left were willing to support it in last year’s referendum. The more I looked at AV the more I became convinced that in fact it was worse than FPTP. At least FPTP is openly and honestly unproportionate; AV pretends to be but is in many ways worse. It is a majoritarian system, seeking to rule out any parties from outside the very centre of the mainstream one by one until a ‘least unpopular’ candidate is selected. I became increasingly unhappy with the concept the more I thought about it – if you vote for the BNP you will probably have your candidate excluded at the first count. So you get all your second preference votes counted. If those votes were enough to tip a Tory candidate over the 50 per cent threshold, the outcome is that BNP voters get two votes and everyone else gets one, all in the aid of electing a mainstream politician on the basis of the opinions of the fringe. And we know the outcome isn’t proportionate at all.

But the Single Transferable Vote system is endlessly loved, right? By whom, I ask? Apart from the slightly incomprehensible zeal of the Electoral Reform Society, who else in the world thinks it a good way to elect a parliament? If I recall there are about three countries in the world that use it and those tend towards the obscure. I always had problems with it, and most certainly with the Scottish local election system. The biggest problem in Scotland is that the system was rigged towards the big parties from the start – I think I’m correct in saying that Scotland is the only country in the world that uses three and four member wards, which are almost incapable of producing proper proportionality. Everyone else that uses STV has seven or eight member wards. But that is by no means the end of my problems with it.

I’ll just go over two more. The first is the straightforward one – barely anyone actually understands how it works. Be honest, even you politically-astute types – if standing in the polling booth and you’ve decided vote one and vote two and there is a candidate you think might be worth giving a third vote to, what are the implications of making or not making that third vote? Will it dilute the impact of the first two votes? Is the third choice candidate a popular candidate which might in fact mean your third preference vote could actually work against your second? And so on. In fact, it seems to me that the only way to be confident you’ve voted the way you really want to is in retrospect. Had I known the outcome in my own ward I’d have vote differently – it turns out that the way I used my vote actually helped to produce the very outcome I was hoping to avoid. And that’s from a politics-geek. The even crazier outcomes has been demonstrated in at least four or five cases in my immediate area. In a number of cases two candidates of the same party stood, one a strong local candidate, the other either an unknown or a weaker candidate. As far as I can tell, in every case, the candidate selected was the one that came first alphabetically. People who voted Labour or SNP as a slate worked their way down the ballot paper and went ‘1, 2, 3’. I have spoken to a dozen people who told me they were really unhappy about our result. I asked why and they told me they wanted the other candidate of their chosen party in. I asked how they voted and they all voted 1-2 on an alphabetical basis. They didn’t even realise that they were voting against the candidate they supported. So in the most basic sense, an electoral system which no-one really understands and which makes it difficult for most people to vote for their preferred candidate must surely be wrong. And a system which seems to elect candidates in an alphabetical order is truly facile. Plus I know of a couple of wards where councillors – and parties – were punished because they put forward ‘too many candidates’. Standing three rather than two candidates can mean you get none elected rather than two. Hurray for democracy.

But in a way that isn’t my biggest issue. I live in a fairly small rural ward. We had a total of six candidates for three seats. Many people I spoke to beforehand would have voted for any candidate that they thought would work hard for the local area. I even know a local leftie who said he’d happily vote Tory if he thought the Tory would really work for the local area. Except of course we don’t get to choose our councillor, we get to choose three councillors to cover a giant rural area. To my eye it looks like they are likely to carve this up in a way that means we’re going to get a councillor who has very little connection to the town (one has a long-establish patch, the other covers a farming area and it seems inconceivable to me that they should end up with any but one of the remaining councillors, leaving us with a virtually random choice). The only – and I really do mean only – proposed benefit of STV was to maintain a link between councillor and ward. Possibly it works like that in a city (people say that on the basis that they assume there is little link between a councillor and a ward in a city area anyway) but it sure as hell doesn’t out here and it doesn’t seem to right across my local authority.

Where does that leave us? Well, there is a simple system that maintains a solid link between elected representative and electorate, produces a genuinely proportionate outcome, is simple to understand and is well known to Scots. It’s the Additional Member system used to elect the Scottish Parliament. You choose your local candidate and then you choose the political make up of the overall authority. A small number of extra councillors are elected to create the balance. The arguments against this are (a) that you create two-tier politicians and (b) it puts the control in the hands of the parties. Well, on the second point, nothing could put parties in more control than an STV system so arcane that the political parties have to guess the result and then put forward the candidates on the basis of what they think they’re going to win, leaving virtually no choice for local voters (in Scotland, one out of every two candidates were elected – and that is supposed to put the power in the hands of the public?). And on the first, it has not really proved hard to manage in the many, many places around the world where it works, not least at Holyrood.

I care very much about my community – it matters deeply to me. That is why I am phenomenally disillusioned with this election. I care not what swings there were at the national level (I have a high degree of doubt that they tell us much – more on that tomorrow). I don’t care which coalition owns which local authority. I want to engage in lively and meaningful debate about what happens to my community and in my community. This election looks like it is going to give us candidates by mistake from a tiny gene pool with little power and with half of the people I’ve talked to unable to understand what happened, why the outcome seems so different from what they believe to be the intentions of local people.

STV has for some reason become the obsession of the obsessed. One lobby group (a group of technocrats) has got this idea so firmly in its teeth that people seem to think it is a good system and one people around the world adore. The opposite is the case, and it seems to me that it is damaging democracy by dismantling any sense of localism in candidate selection, has resulted in a barely contested election (again, I could vote for three councillors out of a total of six candidates?), and has left everyone I’ve talked to underwhelmed or confused. STV stinks.

Robin McAlpine

6 Responses to “STV stinks (the electoral system, not the TV station)”

  1. Doug Daniel says:

    I made similar comments in the run up to the election. I was also in a three member ward with six candidates, but I’ve heard of ones with five or even four candidates. As most FPTP seats are two-horse affairs, it means STV is essentially no better than FPTP in this respect, and in wards such as these, even worse.

    Consider this: 100% of the people in a ward give their first preference to the same party. But that party, based on the last election, have only put up one candidate. A fair system would award a party 100% of the seats for 100% of the vote, but STV gives them only 33% or 25%. 66% or 75% of the electorate are effectively getting a candidate they didn’t vote for. That lack of democracy just isn’t possible in FPTP.

    The problem with STV is it is focussed on ensuring every vote counts, rather than ensuring proportionality. As your BNP example suggests, perhaps we should acknowledge that ensuring everyone’s vote counts should be a secondary aim, not a primary one. Besides, you can only truly ensure no vote is wasted by ensuring each vote contributes towards a councillor, which doesn’t happen under STV since, when it comes down to the last two candidates fighting for the final spot, all those who voted for the loser have, effectively, wasted their vote.

    You are also correct that STV places too much power in the hands of parties. In Aberdeen, for example, the SNP group leader stood in an area of high SNP support, and by not standing a second candidate (which they could almost certainly have gotten elected), they ensured his safe passage. So in what way is this any better than the AMS system? Besides, the ranking aspect merely encourages negative voting habits, with voters granting false support to mediocre candidates in order to push their least favourite down the pecking order. This tactical voting is meant to be one of the flaws of FPTP, yet it is utterly encouraged in STV.

    I would go one further than you though. AMS is my favoured currently-utilised voting system in Scotland, but there is an even better one, which gives voters absolute power: open lists. This allows voters to determine the proportionality of the parties, and which individual members are most popular. Sweden even allows you to fill in your paper in multiple ways, from choosing your party and then ranking the candidates, right down to simply writing your choice on a blank form.

    One point I disagree with: if people are too stupid to understand that ranking someone 1 means you are giving them your preference ahead of the candidate marked as 2, then I’m not sure they even deserve to vote. However, I generally agree on the fact that STV is too complicated. I also am still not 100% sure what the best strategy is, and I found myself having to explain the system to several people before the election. The literature from the Electoral Commission certainly didn’t clarify things properly, and I wonder how many people put “1,2,3” down in three-member wards and “1,2,3,4” in four member wards, thinking they were voting for each councillor independently. Actually, I suppose this is why people might have numbered people alphabetically rather than by preference, in which case I’m maybe being a bit harsh in calling them stupid.

    And for a purely facile point, having the count the next day rather than overnight made things a bit less exciting…

  2. robin says:

    Doug – I talked to a politically-active secondary school teacher who was complaint to me about which of the two councillors from her preferred party got elected. I asked her how she voted and she said ‘my party one and two’. And I said ‘yes, but which candidate one and which candidate two?’. It was only after the outcome (it proved a surprise both didn’t get in) and after being asked this in detail that she realised her mistake. I spoke to someone outside the polling station who said he was thrown when he remembered there was no cross and just put a one in, then thought he might add a two. But he admits he hadn’t even thought of the implications until he was faced with the ballot paper and didn’t have time to think it through on the spot. You really don’t need to be daft to get your strategy wrong. In fact, it’s very easy to get a strategy wrong.

    I think perhaps we at the Reid Foundation should do a report at some point looking at the voting options again – I know only the basics about open lists and remember thinking they deserved a lot more consideration in Scotland.

    But where I absolutely agree with you is that ‘making every vote count’ is not the aim – making the outcome match the best expression possible of the will of the electorate is the point. That we most certainly have not achieved in local government.

  3. Doug Daniel says:

    I think I’ll be a bit less hard on those who don’t understand the basics of STV then – I sometimes forget that not everyone is as politically obsessed as I am!

    I’m currently in the process of analysing the results of the Aberdeen election in a manner similar to what Lallands Peat Worrier has done for Glasgow, and one thing I notice is that, after going through the rigmarole of eliminating candidates one-by-one and reallocating votes and fractions of votes, it is very rare for the eventual winners to not be the same as the three or four candidates who got the most first preferences at the very start. So we have a system of making people rank candidates that delivers the same result as if they just put a cross against their favourite one.

    Obviously there are caveats to this, but it reminds me an awful lot of Sixth Year Studies Physics, where we took a simple equation like V = IR, added a whole bunch of new elements to it that made it a massive, convoluted equation, and ended up with almost the exact same answer, just more accurate to about 5 decimal places. That put me off taking Physics at university, and I wonder how many people are put off voting because they don’t understand the system?

    Perhaps we need to remember the basic tenet of democracy, that everyone should get a vote. Voting needs to be simple enough for everyone to take part, otherwise you’re just disenfranchising people. That’s the beauty of the Swedish system – you can make your vote as simple or as complicated as you want.

  4. robin says:

    I know others are doing similar analyses. Perhaps it would be good if the Reid Foundation was to pull all these together at some point and publish a report on whether our electoral system is ‘working’. Frankly, like your physics example I always get suspicious when it takes ten times as long to work out why something happened than it took for the thing to happen in the first place. Democracy (life) should be easier than that…

  5. Willie says:

    Im afraid STV is getting the blame here for things that are nothing to do with it . Yes voters have to rank candidates and seats are allocated in rough proportion to what the voters wanted. The way that votes are translated into seats is not really of great interest to most voters

    The problems of voter choice are not borne out by our initial comparison of 3 Scottish and 3 English cities see table below. Under first past the post rural seats are and where often uncontested. While there was hundreds uncontested in England and Wales this times none (0) . In Scotland in 2003 pre STV while there was 61 uncontested seats in Scotland. Alphabetical voting may well be a problem but easily solved by randomisation of the ballot paper and I suspect next time this will happen.

    The fact that nearly 80 % of voters in Dundee have a representative they voted for as a first preference is in such a sharp contrast to Portsmouth where more people got someone they didn’t vote for than did ( 46%)

    The problems you describe are less to do with the electoral system and much more to do with having a system of regional government rather than real local government . For me STV is not a bureaucratic fix it is a huge improvement on FPTP and is about ensuring power is not concentrated in one site but shared and checked and balanced. The fight for every vote in Glasgow and the fact that we have green councillors shows me that it is a more plural and democratic way to do local elections and while that is my instincts the initial numbers seem to back that up.

    Lets argue for better democracy and more local power but just like those that claim STV is the answer to all democratic problems those that claim it as the cause are creating windmills to tilt at .

    better view of table on blog here

    A tale of 6 Cities

    City Edinburgh Glasgow Dundee Portsmouth B.ham Manchester
    Voter Choice
    Candidates/Ward 7.47 10.67 7.75 3.86 5.23 4.91
    Parties/Ward 6.41 8.38 5.63 3.79 5.20 4.75
    Voters getting who they voted for (%) 72.66 75.93 79.78 46.17 54.98 65.22
    Women’s representation (%) 25.86 30.38 24.14 14.30 42.50 34.4
    Voting system STV STV STV FPTP FPTP FPTP
    Estimated National Turnout Scotland 42% England 32%

  6. muymalestado says:

    Late to this party, sorry but … My gripe is geographic and starts after the election results are announced.

    In this ward – Highland #1, North, West and Central Sutherland we have a physical lack of democracy situation where 3 Councillors are supposed to travel the whole ward and simply waste their energies, time, expenses and concentration on policy trying to do this. Obligations are diluted, knowledge is not sharp, it becomes too easy to simply hide from an awkward area.

    The name of this ward says it all. The area is huge. We need single member wards where Councillor effort can be concentrated.

    This would mean reverting to FPTP elections. The democratic ‘gain’ seen on election night might be lost but the democratic gain over the next years more than makes up for that.

    There are other Scottish wards where similar conditions apply and a similar electoral change would be beneficial.

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