Who invented the Single Transferable Vote?

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 6th March 2024

The Electoral Reform Society has long held up the Single Transferable Vote as the gold standard for proportional representation. It’s a way of electing our representatives that produces a proportional chamber, and hands power to voters to decide which individual candidates take up those seats.

The Origins of the Single Transferable Vote

The origins of the Single Transferable Vote can be traced back to the 19th century, a time of political upheaval and reform across much of the Western world. The flaws of casting a single vote with a cross were evident from the start. Representatives won elections on different levels of support, some with far more votes than they needed, others with low levels due to a split field. On top of this, with only a single representative, political minorities went without representation at all.

The Birmingham Society for Literacy and Scientific Improvement

In 1819, Thomas Wright Hill looked at these problems while organising the election of the committee for the Birmingham Society for Literacy and Scientific Improvement. To solve the problem of candidates winning with different levels of support, he set a quota of 5 votes as the threshold for winning. Voters had personalised ballot papers with their names on them and wrote the name of the candidate they supported on the ballot. If any candidates gained more than 5 votes the surplus were picked by lot and handed back to the voter to vote again.

Denmark’s Rigsråd

In 1856, the Danish mathematician and engineer Carl Andræ, separately devised a method of proportional representation similar to that envisaged by Hill. But he brought in the much-needed idea of putting numbers on the ballot paper rather than having to come back to change your vote. The numbers gave those counting instructions about where you want your vote to go if your preferred candidate already has enough votes to win election, or has been excluded.

This system was used to elect some of the seats in a special federal council, the Rigsråd. Andræ’s method was later adopted by the Danish parliament, the Landsting.

The Machinery of Representation

It was during this period that a British lawyer and political philosopher by the name of Thomas Hare conceived the fundamental principles that would later form the basis of the STV system. In his seminal work, The Machinery of Representation published in 1857, Hare outlined a method by which voters could rank candidates in order of preference, with seats allocated based on these preferences, with the redistribution of surplus votes and votes that would be wasted by going to non-elected candidates.

He took his system to the Proportional Representation Society (our former name) in 1884, who at their third meeting, adopted the plan.

Hare’s ideas laid the groundwork for what would become known as the Single Transferable Vote, but it was left to others to refine and implement this system in practice.

Refining the Single Transferable Vote

Since the core principles were laid down by Thomas Hare, further improvements have been made over the years. Henry Droop improved the way the number of votes needed to win was set. J B Gregory improved the way surplus votes are handled. Since then many innovators have suggested tweaks to the rules to bring in further improvements.

Thanks to their work, the Single Transferable Vote has been embraced by countries across the globe as a means of promoting fair electoral results. From Malta to New Zealand, from Scotland to Australia, STV has been used to elect representatives at all levels of government, from local councils to national parliaments. Its success lies in its ability to accommodate a wide range of political opinions and ensure that all voices are heard, making it a cornerstone of modern democratic practice.

From its humble beginnings in Birmingham to its widespread adoption in countries around the world, STV has proven itself to be a powerful tool for fair representation. Its fundamental principles of proportional representation and voter choice remain as relevant today as they were over a century ago.

Do you want to see the Single Transferable Vote used for all our elections? Join the ERS today

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