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February 18, 2009

Is the STV Vote Count Fair?

Canadians are used to seeing election results within minutes of the polls closing. If the single transferable vote (BC-STV) is adopted on May 12th, forget ever seeing quick results again. Proponents of STV claim that computer programs can be written to count the vote, but Ireland's experiment in three electoral areas with electronic voting was a disaster. Proponents of STV need to admit that the complicated system requires a manual count that takes weeks.

Proponents of BC-STV claim that it is easy to understand the count and that it is an insult to British Columbians to suggest otherwise. They offer a simplistic example of candidates Apple, Banana, Cherry and others running in a five candidate race with three positions to be elected. Even in that example it takes four rounds of counting to determine the winners. Real counts are much more complex and they reveal much more about how STV does or does not work.

Ireland has 43 electoral areas, 18 with 3 TDs (what they call their elected members), 13 with 4 TDs and 12 with 5 TDs. In its 2007 election there was an average of 11 candidates running in each electoral area. Counts typically took 7 rounds, with votes being split fractionally and transferred. It is interesting to look at how candidates ranked on the first count in Ireland's 2007 election and compare that with the final results; in other words, what difference did STV make compared to how the finish would have been under plurality rules (FPTP)? Out of 166 TDS, only 14 were elected who would not have been elected had the count been on FPTP plurality rules. When those 14 seats are analyzed by party, the Greens picked up three seats they wouldn't have won under plurality rules, half their total seat count. Fianna Fail lost 7 and won 3 through the multiple round counting; in no case did a member of a party lose to a member of the same party. Ironically in the end, Fianna Fail hung onto power thanks to forming a coalition with the Greens. That coalition government is now in crisis with only 14% in the public opinion polls. Ireland's government could fall before B.C.'s May 12th vote. Is that the kind of stability we want in B.C.?

Consider the count in Dublin Central where there were 4 TDs to be elected, 13 candidates and 8 rounds of counting. With 34,639 valid votes, the quota (number required to be declared elected) was 6,928 (20%). Three candidates who led on count 1 when the first preferences were tallied where eventually declared elected, one on count 1, one on count 6 and one on count 8. The fourth candidate, a retiring senator, was eventually elected but he received only 939 votes on count 1. He gained a few votes on each round of counting and elimination until he reached 6,348 votes at the end of the 8th round. Even though the quota was 6,928, he was declared elected with just 6,348 because there were no more votes left to transfer; he was the last person standing.

It is typical in STV vote counts for one person to be elected with fewer votes than the quota because all ballots are exhausted. It is also typical for most of those elected to lead from the first count, but there are sufficient cases like the former senator who came from behind to make the count very complicated, and not necessarily what everyone would consider fair. In the case of the former senator, now an elected TD, there were five candidates who eventually lost but who had more votes than he did on the first round. Four of those contenders had two or three times more first count support than the eventual winner.

In its meeting of November 27, 2004 members of B.C.'s Citizens' Assembly said that they consider our current voting system to be fair (MP3 format, 14Mb). After working through the details of an actual vote count under STV, many British Columbians might conclude that STV doesn't satisfy their concept of what is fair.

Look at the vote count for Dublin Central or any other Irish electoral area by clicking on ElectionsIreland.org. If those counts look hard to understand or unfair, you might want to vote against BC-STV.

 
 

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