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BC-STV, or Choosing a Better System
A little while ago, morag_gunn asked what the deal with the electoral reform thingy was. I wrote a rather lengthy response. I don’t really care who wins this election, but I do care about the referendum question on BC-STV. Every one of you British Columbians who are ambivalent about the election should get out and vote Yes for this question for the very simple reason that next election, your vote will count no matter who you vote for! I don’t care who you vote for this time—vote Rhino Party if you really don’t think you’re well informed enough to make a decision—but I do think you should go just to weigh in on this vital question.

So, here is my reply to morag_gunn, along with my second response after she asked about why she might want to vote against BC-STV. I’m leaving it uncut even though it’s aimed at locals because I’ve seen the stats on people skipping cut text and I think this is too important. Besides, people elsewhere could probably benefit from seeing that the electoral system they have now isn’t necessarily the way it must always be.


Now that that’s out of the way, the BC-STV thing is just a new way to count votes. So, say you like three parties, one of which is big and has a chance of getting elected, and two of which are small and would be nice to vote for, but ultimately you feel your vote would be “wasted” doing so. With the current system, this leads to most people choosing to vote strategically for the big party, so that some other big party doesn’t get into office.

In an STV system, you mark the checkbox for every party candidate that you “approve” of. The way the ballots are tallied, your vote will go to your first preference if that candidate (not party—it’s a candidate-based system) needs your vote to get them further toward winning a seat (also, each riding has multiple seats, and multiple candidates for each party). If your first preference candidate has already won a seat by the time your ballot is counted, your vote goes to your second-preference candidate, and so on and so forth until all ballots are counted and everyone who’s going to get a seat has gotten it.

The point of an approval system like STV (and there are many others that have different advantages and disadvantages) is 1) that you no longer need to vote strategically in order to make sure the “wrong” party doesn’t get in, 2) there’s no such thing as “splitting the vote” anymore, 3) people can vote for the minor parties that they actually like without wasting their vote, and 4) you get to choose between multiple candidates for each party.

(3) is really important because, in a First-Past-the-Post system (which we have now), small parties have artifically low support because most of the people who would like to see them in office aren’t willing to gamble on whether enough other people think so, and end up not voting for them so that they can make their vote “count” in the “real” contest between the big parties. STV gives parties like Green and the Marijuana party a chance to actually get some seats.

(4) is a nice bonus, because in the current system you can love, say, the BC Liberals, but hate your local candidate and think they’re a complete tard. In STV, in order to have a chance to win multiple seats in one riding, the Libs would be wise to post multiple candidates. So, if your wish is that the Libs form the government, but you loathe your local candidate, in the current system you have to choose to either vote for some other candidate that you think will be a good MLA for the region and not vote for your favoured party, or you have to hold your nose and vote for the loathed candidate in order to support your party. In STV, you can skip over that loathed Lib, and vote for one or more of the other Lib candidates who you actually like. This also prevents the disenfranchising practice of a party posting candidates that they want in the government to “safe” ridings, because in STV they either gamble that their one candidate will get voted in and risk losing that seat and candidate, or post multiple candidates in order to be sure of the seat, but risk that their “pet” candidate won’t be the one the actual voters like.

So, to sum, VOTE YES! ;-)

I am biased, of course, but one tack I’ve heard on the No side is that STV doesn’t actually work as advertised. That it’s being advertised as a Proportional Vote system is arguably misleading (since it’s a possible side-effect of the system, not the direct effect), but proportionality isn’t what I think is important about STV.

Also, it’s the most flawed of the approval voting systems mathematically, since it’s among those with the greatest potentials for weird voting outcomes. (However, as far as I know, the potential of weird voting outcomes of FPTP is actually greater, but we don’t notice it because it’s “normal”.)

Also, there are logistical problems with the system. In our current system, only a handfull of numbers have to be transmitted from each polling station to the riding’s electoral office: those that represent the total tally of votes for each candidate. In STV, because of the way votes are counted, each individual ballot must be available to the riding’s electoral office in order to properly move excess first-preference votes to that individual ballot’s second-preference vote, and etc. This means that our current electoral infrastructure is going to have to be massively upgraded, and if Elections BC does a half-assed job, then there’s potential for massive screwups. However, I’ve always been pretty impressed by the together-ness of Elections BC and Elections Canada (of which the BC is a branch, I think), so I doubt that will happen. Still, upgrades are going to be really expensive. (Note that there are other approval systems, like Condorcet, that don’t have this problem. Once The People are used to multiple-vote ballots, it’s pretty simple to shift to a mathematically and logistically better voting system like that.)

So, those are some areas to look for dissenting opinions about: proportionality, odd corner-cases of STV (look for Malta as a bizarre extreme case of this), and the logistic problems/cost of the change. The Wikipedia article on Single Transferable Vote may be a good jumping-off point for the pros and cons of STV.

So get out there this Tuesday the 17th and vote. Don’t worry about not being registered—bring your driver’s license or other photo ID, or failing that some proof of address, and failing that they’ll just make you sign an statement that you won’t vote at any other polling station. Technically, you can vote at any polling station, but it’ll be closer and more convenient if you go to your assigned poll. Find out where you poll is at Elections BC’s Electoral District Finder page.

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bramcohen, the author of BitTorrent, had this to say yesterday:

Not using ranked ballots is an archaic, technologically backwards, and thoroughly undemocratic process. If one were to write a new constitution for a 'democratic' country today it would only be common sense for it to mandate that there be no first past the post (i.e. US-style) elections.

I will actually be voting No to STV tomorrow although it saddens me to have to do so.

I am doing so for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, I think we are going off a bit half cocked on this system. There are many proportion vote systems and, if I am to believe what I read in the news, almost every province is looking at one. However, BC is the only province looking at this system. I, as a voter, have not been shown any other systems that might be a possible choice for BC but am instead being asked to vote for this system, or for no change at all. I don't like being railroaded into something and this really feels like it.

Secondly, and most importantly, this system all but ensures that my current community (where I am casting my vote) will see no local representation again. The STV system as proposed calls for larger ridings to be created - amalgations of exisiting ridings. I have not seen a map of the ridings proposed (because one does not exist yet) but every other amalgamation in BC (health districts, fire districts, proposed school districts) sees Powell River lumped in with West Van and North Van. This creates a situation where the Powell River votes become insignificant compared with the votes coming out of those two regions. Even on the second and third choice, Powell River/Sunshine Coast will not have the numerical clout to elect a representative without support from regions that are incredibly economically and socially different than our own.

Many other areas (Vancouver Island, central BC) will see similar pulls.

Thirdly, this system creates ridings where several MLAs are responsible for a larger group of citizens. In theory this would allow each MLA to respond to a smaller set of citizens or allow more MLAs to respond to the total need. In reality, we all know that when you place several people in charge, no one is. It is a great opportunity for 'buck passing' within the elected structure where each MLA can pass the problem off to another with none needing to be held directly accountable.

I want electoral reform. I just want electoral reform that actually works rather than this system which is being forced down my throat.

Yeah, I understand why you'll be voting No, and I don't have much in the way of arguments against those reasons. The only one I can offer against the feeling of railroading is that once a ranked system is familiar, it's actually stupidly easy in terms of infrastructure and voter-comfort to switch to one of the other, better, ranked systems (such as Condorcet, say).

The other side of the same argument is that a No outcome will be read by the politicians as a desire to not change, not for a dislike of the proposed system. That would mean we'd be stuck with a dysfunctional system like First Past the Post for a long time.

Too, politicians, to keep their seats, will have to be much more responsive to the needs of the people who elected them because there are so many choices for voters. In that way, someone who gets elected almost exclusively by PR voters will, naturally, want to keep them happy even if their electoral district technically includes West and North Van.

Anyway, I understand your position, I just want to give people more stuff to chew on. I can respect a No vote that's informed—there are just so many people I've run into that are completely unaware of the import of the question! I certainly can't fault you there. :-)

"The other side of the same argument is that a No outcome will be read by the politicians as a desire to not change, not for a dislike of the proposed system. That would mean we'd be stuck with a dysfunctional system like First Past the Post for a long time."

Although I am voting No, this has been a concern of mine. I'm voting No for a number of reaons, one of which is the fact that although I think we're in desperate need of electoral reform, we can't switch to just any new system of elections. I wish there was an option on the ballot to indicate this that would lead to say, a second Citizen's Assembly if STV is defeated. I breifly considered voting Yes for this reason and then decided against it.

"I can respect a No vote that's informed—there are just so many people I've run into that are completely unaware of the import of the question!"

The interesting thing is, most of my friends and people I have spoken with regarding the referendum are making a completley uneducated Yes vote, not No! They figure that any new system is better than the system we have and plan on voting Yes because David Suzuki is. I've directed a few people towards the Citizen's Assembly explanation website and it has actually converted a few of my uneducated Yes friends to No's.

it has actually converted a few of my uneducated Yes friends to No's.

Even though you're hurting "my" side, I say kudos.

But I don't blame anyone for not understanding STV (or trusting someone else to assure them that it was okay). It is complicated, and the STV-yes side has not done a great job of publicizing it.

They figure that any new system is better than the system we have and plan on voting Yes because David Suzuki is.

I don't think that's a bad strategy though, assuming their opinion of Suzuki is informed (and not because he's a celebrity).

Seriously though, how bad could STV get, even if your worst fears were realized?

I almost think we should alternate betweeen FPTP and STV every election. If we have to have some absurdities, maybe we could not have the same ones every time.

The Yes side has done a much better job of publicizing their viewpoint. The No side just hasn't been out there. In a piece on STV on the Global News this morning (*spit*), they took shots of lots of Yes publications, but no No ones.

I do think that STV wouldn't be that bad. I'll be disappointed if it passes, but I'll live. And if I decide to get all adamant on its ass, I can just rank one candidate instead of multiple. I figure it would be a good way to protest the system without getting all pissy and spoiling my ballot.

If your first preference candidate has already won a seat by the time your ballot is counted, your vote goes to your second-preference candidate

Ok I don't quite get the system, and I've asked other people who have been like Huh? I don't know the answer to that!

Here is my question:

An arbitrary number of people vote with preferences like this:
1 - Al
2 - Bob
3 - Carl
And that means that Joe is in! So now here are the following ballots:
1 - Al
2 - Don
3 - Earl
We skip past Al, since he's in already. Do we go BACK to the votes that have already been counted, and get to count Bob in? Or do we ONLY look at the NEXT votes that we count, thus leaving Bob in the dust?

This has not been made clear by any newspaper articles or government propoganda that has been sent to my door. When I ask people, I usually get an "I don't know" or a "yes they go back" or a "no they don't" answer.

I think our system needs to be reformed, but this way seems to be a messy way. I still haven't decided what I'm going to do. I know it's better than the current system, but if we adopt STV then we won't be looking for a third system.

But if we stick with FPtP, we won't be getting any new system for a long time. The nice thing about STV is that the very same ballots and infrastructure can easily be converted to a more mathematically rigorous system later, and once we've had a taste of a half-decent system and the power to choose how we elect people, we'll be more ready to demand a good system.

As for how they're counted, it varies from STV system–varient to variant. Essentially, all first-choice votes are tallied, and all candidates with enough votes from that first-choice count are marked as "elected." Then, the excess votes for the winning candidates get reallocated to the second-preferences. The difference between variants is how which ballots have the "excess" votes is determined. The Wikipedia article on STV has a secton detailing the various methods, but I don't know which one BC-STV uses (but let's see if I can't find out...).

(Summarising from the article:) one method (Hare's) is that after a candidate is elected, any ballot with them as a first preference that's counted after goes to the next preference. That, of course, isn't necessarily going to give an accurate assessment of what the whole wants.

The Cincinnati method counts them the same as the Hare method, but the ballots are put in a random order, making is less likely to be an inaccurate count.

The Clarke method use in Australia assigns next-preference votes according to the ratio of next-pref votes for that candidate. So, quoting: "if a candidate has 100 surplus votes, and 25% of all their votes have the same next preference, 25 will be allocated accordingly."

The Gregory method used in Ireland is like the Clarke method, except all next-preference votes are counted, even from ballots already used toward a first preference, except that the "weight" of the next-preference votes is reduced so that they're in proportion to the number of excess votes.

And then there's the Meek method, which looks complicated because it's a counting method designed to be efficient in computer-counted systems, but it essentially does the same thing: weighs the votes according to whether the candidate is elected or not, to figure out how much to count the next-preference votes toward electing the other candidates in the ranking.

Either way, no ballot gets "double-counted", regardless of the reallocation system used.

I found this cute animation on the BC-STV site I linked in my original post. According to the way it describes the votes being reallocated, it seems as if BC-STV uses something like the Gregory or Meek method, which is awesome, because those're the most mathematically sound of them all.

Mmm, mathematically sound electoral reform...

This is what I think happens:

Consider this scenario: two parties, the Fruits and the Vegetables, in an extremely partisan riding. There are four MLAs in this riding so the threshold for election is 25%+1.

70% of the people are Fruits partisans, and 30% are Veggie-lovers. So the ballots look like this:

70% vote like this
1 Anna Apple
2 Bob Banana
3 Charlie Cherry

30% vote like this
1 Arthur Asparagus
2 Bertha Beet
3 Cleo Cucumber

According to my reading of BC-STV, this riding would get Apple, Banana, Cherry and Asparagus, which seems like a fair outcome.

Discussion of how it would work:

Apple and Asparagus are elected immediately.

In the "surplus" counting section, Apple's excess votes are transferred to Bob Banana, but at a reduced value. According to my calculations, he goes from zero to 38.5% support and is elected.

Asparagus' excess is much smaller and Beet is not elected.

In the next round, nobody has enough to be elected, so they start eliminating from the bottom up. The last candidate remaining will be Cherry.

actual answer to your question.

I didn't quite answer your question... under BC-STV, all votes are counted, all the time. The order in which we count makes no difference.

So all< the votes for Bob and Carl are counted, but at a reduced value -- they become like 1/2 of a vote for Bob, 1/4 of a vote for Carl. The actual values depend how overwhelming Al's support was.

The rule about mathematically "reducing" the value is there to make sure that all votes always matter.

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