STV: a 200-year quest for fair voting

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Posted on the 27th November 2019

This December, the UK we will be voting in yet another general election using First Past the Post – a system where one party can gain an overall majority of seats with only 35% to 40% of the votes.

Further, three-quarters of people will be voting in seats where there is very little chance the MP will change. Both major parties will be piling up millions of votes in seats so safe the extra votes make no difference, while losing neighbouring seats by a handful of votes.

The ERS’ recent polling revealed that almost a quarter of voters plan on voting ‘tactically’ in the next general election, as voters are so confident that their preferred candidate has no chance that they will vote for someone else.

But what if there was a way for these surplus and wasted votes to actually have an impact?

Faced with similar problems, on 17 December 1819, the Birmingham Society for Literary and Scientific Improvement held an election under a new system devised by one of their leading members, Thomas Wright Hill (1763-1851). Their aim was

“to secure (as nearly as possible) an accurate representation of the whole body … because experience proves that, owing to imperfect methods of choosing those who are to direct the affairs of a society, the whole sway sometimes gets into the hands of a small party; and is exercised, perhaps unconsciously, in a way that renders many persons indifferent, and alienates others, until all becomes listlessness, decay, and dissolution.”

In Hill’s system, members were to vote initially for their favourite candidate, and then:

“every one who has five votes shall be declared a member of the committee; if there are more than five votes given to any one person, the surplus votes (to be selected by lot) shall be returned to the electors whose names they bear, for the purpose of their making other nominations, and this process shall be repeated till no surplus votes remain, when all the inefficient votes shall be returned to the respective electors, and the same routine shall be gone through a second time, and also a third time if necessary…”

This was the basis of the system we now know as the Single Transferable Vote or STV. Carl Andrae introduced a form of STV for elections to a new Danish federal parliament in 1855, including the crucial idea of preferential voting. Rather than handing back thousands of ballot papers, a voter could list how they would vote if their paper was handed back, in advance.

At this point though, only votes beyond the amount needed to win could go to help someone else get elected. The equally crucial idea of allowing those who voted for candidates who don’t stand a chance of being elected to transfer their votes (which was implicit in Hill’s original idea) was only rediscovered in 1865 by Thomas Hare. Allowing such transfers gives independent and minority party candidates a fair chance because voters can put them as their first choice without risking their vote being wasted.

Various other improvements in detailed rules followed over the years, culminating in the conceptually simplest but computationally difficult version of STV introduced by Brian Meek exactly 50 years ago as we entered the computer age. Meek further pointed out that with computers doing the counting voters could be allowed to include equal preferences for some candidates in their vote.

The first attempt to introduce STV for the UK Parliament was in 1872. In January 1884, a diverse group of academics, parliamentarians and members of the legal profession gathered at 7 Clarges Street, Westminster to found the Proportional Representation Society to campaign for STV, they later became the Electoral Reform Society.

There were further near misses in 1884 and 1918. The latter did result in a few UK seats – the university constituencies – being elected under STV from 1918-1950; those elected in this way included Ramsay MacDonald and John Buchan. The discussions of 1918 did, however, lead to STV being introduced for parliamentary elections in Ireland, which continues to use STV, in 3 to 5 seat constituencies. Only the Tasmanian House of Assembly has a longer continuous history of STV, from 1907.

One of the advantages of the multi-member constituencies used in STV is that they can be fitted to natural communities. The first attempt to get STV in the UK in 1872 used constituencies based on existing counties and boroughs. The recent Expert Panel report (2017) advocated STV with constituencies based on local authority areas for the Welsh Senedd.

A major advantage of such a scheme is that changes in the number of voters in each constituency can usually be accommodated by changing the number of seats, rather than its boundaries.

STV local authorities
Part of a map showing how Local Authority areas can be grouped to give 3-6 member constituencies in a UK Parliament of 650 members (for details see http://lder.org/stv)

On the 200th anniversary of the first use of Thomas Wright Hill’s scheme, there will be a meeting celebrating the bicentenary at the Royal Statistical Society on 17 December 2019, with speakers including ERS research officer Ian Simpson, Make Votes Matter’s Klina Jordan and Denis Mollison (Heriot-Watt University). If you’d like to hear more about STV, we’d love to see you there.

This article was written by the organiser of the bicentenary event, Denis Mollison.

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