Top News

Democracy Cookbook: The benefits of an alternative transferable vote electoral system

The Democracy Cookbook
The Democracy Cookbook


By Glyn George


Too many times in Canada, the U.S. and Britain, a party has taken power with an absolute majority of the seats but only a minority of the popular vote or, in some extreme instances, with even fewer votes than another party, which clearly denies the will of the voters.


Glyn George
Glyn George


This happened in Newfoundland and Labrador in the general election of 1989, when the Liberal party formed a majority government with 31 of the 52 seats, despite receiving fewer votes (47 per cent) than the PC party (47.5 per cent).

The present voting system of “first-past-the-post” must not continue: it encourages tactical (negative) voting instead of voting on positive principles and it leads to many wasted votes.

Consider this example. Some electors support party “A” and are fiercely opposed to party “B” being elected. Opinion polls show that the election in that riding is between parties “B” and “C,” with party “A” trailing badly. Under the present first-past-the-post system, votes by these electors for “A” are not only wasted on a third-place candidate but might also lead to the election of “B” with less than 40 per cent of the total vote. Switching to the second choice of “C” might provide enough votes for “C” to win and to prevent the election of “B.”

The election of an MHA should follow this simple principle: in order to be elected, a candidate must have more votes than all other candidates combined. Balanced against that are (1) the need for as direct a link as possible between elected legislators and their constituents and (2) the desire for stable government.

The present voting system of “first-past-the-post” must not continue: it encourages tactical (negative) voting instead of voting on positive principles and it leads to many wasted votes.

The multi-member single transferable vote system has worked well in the Republic of Ireland for nearly all of its history. In most general elections, one party or a coalition of two parties have been able to form a stable government. Each constituency elects up to five representatives and each party usually offers two or more candidates. Which of those candidates will be elected is controlled by the voters, not by the parties. However, the geography of this province rules single transferable vote out. Even now, some constituencies are geographically large and challenging. Under single transferable vote, constituencies would become far too large to be practicable.

The extreme of proportional representation is the closed-list system used in Israel: the entire country is one constituency, with seats allocated in proportion to votes cast for each party. But this system leads to unstable governments and destroys the link between an elected representative and the local electorate completely. The party machines control the ranking of candidates on their lists, not the voters.

The German hybrid system has many members elected directly by first-past-the-post, supplemented by additional members on a party list to bring the seats closer to proportionality with the votes gained by the parties. A modest threshold of five per cent of the votes keeps most fringe parties out. But it leads to two types of legislators: those chosen by the people and others who are not. The parties control ranking on the lists of additional members, not the voters.

The French system modifies first-past-the-post to hold a runoff ballot between the top two vote winners (except when a candidate is elected in the first round by receiving more votes than all other candidates combined). It draws out the election process unnecessarily and is too costly. It is far better to resolve the election in one alternative transferable vote ballot.

The alternative transferable vote in the existing single-member constituencies would cause the least disruption to the way elections have been conducted in this province. Alternative transferable vote retains the existing links between elected representatives and their local electorates while ensuring that all elected persons enjoy the support of an absolute majority of the votes cast.

Alternative transferable vote and single transferable vote are very simple for the voter: just rank the candidates in order of preference. In an alternative transferable vote ballot, a candidate is elected when that person has more votes than all other candidates combined. When no candidate has that majority, the candidate with the least number of first preferences is eliminated and the votes for the eliminated candidate are redistributed, according to the second preferences on those ballots, among the remaining candidates. If again, none of the candidates has more than half of all the votes, then the candidate who now has the least number of votes is eliminated and those votes are redistributed, according to the highest preferences, among the other remaining candidates. The process continues until one candidate is elected with an absolute majority of the votes.

Alternative transferable vote is much simpler to count than single transferable vote. Many years ago, I was a returning officer in a single transferable vote ballot for a small group, so I know how complicated the count can be. Recently I have conducted counts of alternative transferable vote ballots for some small organizations. The counting effort was only slightly greater than for first-past-the-post; voters were able to vote positively in just one ballot and the results were much fairer.

On its website, the Electoral Reform Society in the United Kingdom provides a good overview of these various voting systems, including their advantages and disadvantages.

In my opinion, the alternative transferable vote should be used for all elections of members of the House of Assembly, and for other single-seat elections such as mayors and ward councillors.


About the Author

Glyn George (Electrical and Computer Engineering, Memorial University of Newfoundland) teaches mathematics. His volunteer work has included eight years as an elected school board member, 16 years as a community representative on two school councils in St. John’s, and three years on the executive of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils.


Recent Stories