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Weee! Easy As STV!

Only a deranged math nerd could like the new vote scheme those Citizens Assembly keeners picked for us.

By Tom Barrett 5 Nov 2004 |
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Back before he became prime minister, Paul Martin used to talk a lot about the democratic deficit. Never once, however, did he mention British Columbia’s democratic surplus. But apparently we have one.

See, everybody knows about our big fat budget surplus. But now, it turns out, B.C. is also awash in surplus ballots. Or it will be, if we go along with the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform and switch to a new form of voting known as the Single Transferrable Vote (STV).

Last month, the Citizens’ Assembly recommended that B.C. replace its current voting system, which nobody likes, with a new system, which nobody understands.

But that’s okay – the Single Transferrable Vote (SUV) system is really quite simple. You don’t need a doctorate in mathematics to understand it. This common-sense system can be easily understood by anyone with an undergraduate degree in a related field, such as statistics.

Here’s how it works:

When you go to the polls under the Single Transferrable Vote (SARS) system, you will be presented with a ballot that will contain approximately 137 names, due to the fact that your riding will be represented by as many as seven MLAs. All you have to do is mark off your favourite candidates in order.

For example, if your first choice is John Smith, you write a “1” next to where it says “John Smith.” If your second choice is Mary Jones, you write a “2” next to where it says “Mary Jones.” If your third choice is Jagdish Wong, you put a “3” next to where it says “Unlikely Token Ethnic Name.”

As the unofficial motto of the Citizens’ Assembly says, “It’s as easy as one, two, three!”

(The second choice for unofficial motto of the Citizens’ Assembly was: “One if by land/ Two if by sea/ It’s easy to vote/ When you vote STV!” Also rejected was: “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Stop me if this gets boring.”)

Anyway, once all the votes are cast, figuring out who won is as easy as (Votes cast divided by [number of seats plus one]) +1.

How can votes be ‘surplus’?

This is where the surplus votes come in. And it’s worth spending some time learning how this formula works because having a transparent electoral system that is understood by all is a cornerstone of our democracy. Like Caesar’s wife, the electoral system must not only be fair, it must be seen to be believed. Or something like that.

Over the years, some B.C. governments have been accused of trying to alter the electoral system to gain an advantage – remember Gracie’s Finger? This understandably created cynicism and suspicion about the democratic process.

Under the Single Transferrable Vote (STD) system, B.C. will have a simple, quick and transparent method of deciding elections.

Under the current system, known as the Single Member Plurality (CPC-ML) system, all the votes in a riding are tallied and the candidate with the most votes becomes the MLA. The party that elects the most MLAs forms the government. Clearly, this over-complex system (OCS) can lead to all sorts of problems.

The Single Transferrable Vote (SKU-B-DU) system eliminates such problems. Let’s say, for simplicity’s sake, that there are 100 votes cast in a riding we’ll call Vancouver-Little Mountain-the Finger. (Of course, there will be many more votes cast in real ridings– one potential seven-member riding, for example, could stretch from Point Grey to Spuzzum, which would mean that up to 1.75 million votes could be cast there.)

When the hypothetical votes in our hypothetical riding are counted, Smith has 45 votes, Jones has 20 votes, Wong has 10 votes, Singh has 10 votes, Schwartz has 10 votes, and Vander Zalm has five votes.

Because there are three seats in this riding, the number of votes a candidate needs to win is 26. That’s because 100 divided by (3+1) equals 25, and 25 plus one equals 26. Smith has been elected, because she has more than 26 votes.

How do we decide who won the other two seats? Simple. Under the Single Transferrable Vote (SNAFU) system, Jones has 19 “surplus votes.” Other systems allow candidates to keep these “surplus votes” to themselves, selfishly hoarding them while other candidates go short of the number required for victory.

The Single Transferrable Vote (SPQR) system, however, makes the winning candidate give these surplus ballots back so their second choices can be counted. Sometimes even their third, fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh choices.

Once the surplus ballots are clawed back, their second choices are counted and added to the totals of the appropriate candidates. This could put one or more of the remaining candidates over the 26-vote threshold; if so, he or she is declared elected.

But what if the second choices don’t put anyone over the threshold? Then the candidate on the bottom is dropped and his or her second-choice votes go to the other candidates. And if that’s not enough, they keep dropping people and recounting until somebody wins. Eventually, by sheer process of elimination, you end up with however many MLAs are required.

Simple, isn’t it?

It’s all academic

But, you may be asking, what about those “surplus votes?” If Smith gets 45 votes, how do they decide which 19 of her ballots should be recounted?

This is where the system becomes the teensiest bit complex. As a fact sheet published by the Citizens’ Assembly states, there are several methods for designating which ballots are surplus and “these can become very technical.” Luckily, “the effects of differences between the various schemes are small,” so the choice of methods really is academic – unless, of course, we have one of those rare “close elections.”

The fact sheet mentions two possible methods, the Irish Random Selection (Guinness) system, and the Australian Gregory Transfer Method (Foster’s) system, both of which involve some scientific combination of dice, dartboards and coin flipping to determine whose votes count for what. Chicken entrails are used only in the last resort, as tie breakers.

These, however, are minor technical details and not worth bothering about. What really matters is that, when you go to the polls under the new system, you will know your choice will count. One of your choices, anyway.

Look at it this way: if your ballot is lucky enough to be declared surplus, it means that your first choice has won, making you a winner, too. And now your second choice is going to get a boost, as well. It’s like voting twice! What could be more fair than that?

Like the slogan says:

“STV: It’s as easy as å=a2x2(W+p)-1!”

Veteran political reporter Tom Barrett is a regular contributor to The Tyee.

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