Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Thoughts On STV 5 - Canada's Experience With STV

No, this is not a typo. Canada actually has some past experience with Single Transferable Vote. Not on the Federal level, of course, but both Manitoba and Alberta were using STV on a provincial level for over 30 years.

The very first experiment with STV on Canadian soil took place in Winnipeg in 1920. Replacing several single-member urban ridings with a city-wide multi-member constituency was nothing new back then. But instead of the "block voting", which had always been used to elect multiple members, the province chose STV as the non-list method of proportional representation.

Winnipeg's experience was apparently regarded as success not just by Manitoba, but also by Alberta. Both provinces adopted preferential voting several years later (Alberta - in 1926, Manitoba - in 1927,) using STV in urban, multi-member ridings (10 MLAs in Winnipeg, 5-7 in Edmonton, 5-6 in Calgary) and using instant runoff voting (1-member preferential voting) elsewhere. In 1949, 10-member Winnipeg riding was split into three smaller ridings (Winnipeg Centre, Winnipeg North and Winnipeg South,) electing 4 MLAs each. That was also when the riding of St. Boniface was expanded to 2 members, becoming the first rural riding to use STV.

How well did it work? At least, it wasn't any worse than the "First Past The Post". Had the voters failed to understand preferential voting or, if there had been too many spoiled ballots for any other reason, the system wouldn't have lasted through 8 provincial elections in Alberta and 9 - in Manitoba. Moreover - those multi-member STV ridings were the only place where opposition candidates could actually look forward to get elected. Anywhere else, it was usually the governing party landslide.

Was it truly proportional? Some purists may say that it wasn't and Manitoba's 2-member riding of St. Boniface would be just one of their examples. Is that fair that in the 1953 election, Liberal-Progressives elected both seats with just 41% of the vote, while CCF with 20%, PCs with 14% and Social Credit with 7% elected none? Shouldn't it have been 1 for the Liberal-Progressives and 1 for the CCF? Actually, even if a list proportional system had been used in St. Boniface - D'Hondt formula would have allocated both seats to Liberal-Progressives. The gap between them and the CCF was just too large. But here's what's great about the STV - it handles fractional seats and leftover votes according to voters' preferences, rather than redistributing seats blindly using a mathematical formula.

So if we take another look at St. Boniface, we'll see that there was also an Independent Liberal Progressive candidate with over 16% of the vote. His votes, as well as some of the second choices from the Progressive Conservatives, pushed the two Liberal Progressives over the top. At the same time - almost half of those who voted for Kay E. McKinnon didn't put another CCF candidate, David Turner, as their second choice. 511 McKinnon ballots were either "exhausted" (no 2nd choice specified) or transferred to another parties. Had the CCF voters been united, David Turner would have been elected by a ~120 vote margin.

This is an important example. Just like any other preferential voting system, STV allows voters to form coalitions, to unite behind a certain party or against some other party or candidate. Of course, lower electoral quota (12.5% to 33.3% as opposed to 50%+1 vote) often makes such ballot coalitions unnecessary. But, as we've just seen - it could still happen if that's what the voters want.

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