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Opinion

Why I’m opposed to using STV as a voting system in Wales

18 Oct 2023 5 minute read
Voting ballot box.

Mike HedgesMS for Swansea East. 

Single transferable vote (STV) is an electoral system promoted by many in favour of a form of proportional representation.

It’s the electoral system used for Scottish council elections and election to the Irish parliament, the Dail.

It works by voters ranking candidates – instead of placing crosses next to their favourite candidates, voters are asked to rank as many candidates as they wish in order.

When electing more than one candidate by STV, the system becomes complicated but with only one candidate being elected it is the alternative vote system.

Under STV, each voter casts a single vote in an election that elects multiple winners.

Each elector marks their ballot for the most preferred candidates and then also marks back-up preferences.

A vote goes to the voter’s first preference, but if the first preference is eliminated, instead of being thrown away, the vote is transferred to a back-up preference, with the vote being assigned to the voter’s second, third, or lower choice if possible.

The greatest weakness of STV is that you have to guess how many seats you can win when nominating candidates.

The last choice a voter makes has, if all their higher preference candidates have been eliminated, the same value as another voter’s first choice.

Seats

In the Irish General election of 2020, Sinn Fein, despite receiving the most first-preference votes nationwide did not win the most seats.

Despite beating Fianna Fail by 535,995 to 484,320 they ended up with one seat less. It took 12745 votes to elect each Fianna Fail member but 14476 to elect a member of Sinn Fein.

Irish journalist John Drennan described it as the 11 seats that Sinn Fein left behind because they did not have enough candidates.

They guessed wrong on the number of seats they might win but if they had guessed wrong the other way, they would also have had less seats.

So STV is less a proportional system but more a skilled guessing game where getting it wrong can mean less seats than you should proportionally get.

Is it any surprise that in Scotland they use it for council elections but have decided not to use it for the Scottish Parliament elections.

If you visit Scottish council websites, you can see how large the council seats are in area and below is an example of a council seat in the highland’s council area.

Of the 21 wards in the Highland council area, Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh is the example par excellence of the size of council wards needed in rural areas under STV.

Not only is this the largest electoral ward in the UK, it is, by itself, larger in area than 27 of Scotland’s 32 councils.

It accounts for almost a fifth of Highland council’s entire area and has been compared in size to Trinidad and Tobago.

This huge ward can be thought of as a triangle with points at Strathpeffer, a bit beyond Ullapool, and Kyle of Lochalsh.

Vast

These are the largest settlements in the ward, but still only account for about a third of the population, with the rest scattered widely across that vast area.

If this is the size of a council ward just workout how large STV Scottish parliamentary constituencies would be in the Scottish Highlands.

Then there is the population needed for these wards to allow STV to operate effectively.

Glasgow ward 1 Lynn has a population 30,000, this is 2/3 of the population of the Aberconwy Senedd constituency.

Turning to Glasgow Govan where four candidates were elected with Labour topping the poll with 1520 votes, the SNP coming second and third with 1110 and 1096 votes each and where the green candidate edged out the second Labour candidate who had 572 first preference votes to win the fourth seat.

Whilst the SNP efficiently got the first preference for both candidates very close to each other, Labour did not and thus despite easily topping the poll ended up with only one of the four seats.

The system involves members of the same party fighting against each other or parties just accepting one seat each in three member wards.

This is true of council elections across Scotland where can we win one or two seats has to be decided, but if you go for two or three you may end up with one unless your voters vote efficiently as happened in Govan.

As was shown in the republic of Ireland STV is not proportional and winning the most votes does not get a party the most seats.

STV needs to cover large geographical areas and needs large populations. It makes it more difficult for constituents to know candidates and involves guessing the number of seats you are going to win.

This system is a poor way of electing candidates which is why I am opposed to using STV as a voting system in Wales.


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David Smith
David Smith
7 months ago

Thanks Mike, A well reasoned case opposing STV.

David
David
7 months ago
Reply to  David Smith

Mike now, give a case for the fairness of FPTP.

Mawkernewek
Mawkernewek
7 months ago
Reply to  David Smith

Was looking forward to hearing what system he prefers but then the article just ended.

Annibendod
Annibendod
7 months ago
Reply to  Mawkernewek

Exactly the point. As is so often the case with the gentleman in question, he criticises what would be an improvement on the status quo without ever suggesting an alternative improvement. In the end, all Labour offers is the status quo.

Mike Hedges
7 months ago

I answered that in September in Nation Cymru

Mawkernewek
Mawkernewek
7 months ago
Reply to  Mike Hedges

Only if you are a politics geek who already knows that the D’Hondt method implies the use of closed party lists.

Simon Davies
Simon Davies
7 months ago
Reply to  Mike Hedges

I read your September article. You do not suggest a replacement for the unfair undemocratic FPTP. You just want voters in marginal constituiencies to have the power to elect or kick out or governments. You only have to offer policies to appeal to these voters. Everyones votes and views are not equal with FPTP. Makes it easy for Labour and Tories to win elections with a minority of votes both parties right wing extremist parties. Keir Starmer and Richie Sunak English Nationalists.

Ernie The Smallholder
Ernie The Smallholder
7 months ago

No electoral system is perfect. The party list system that I understand the Labour party wants is better than the Belarus system of FPTP but only just as it puts too much power in the hands of centralised party bosses and disadvantages independent candidates removing power from electorate to place preferences. The Single Transferable Vote system (STV) supported by Plaid Cymru / the Liberal democrats / Green Party / SNP / Sinn Fein puts the power of ordering the party candidates in the hands of the electorate according to individual preference. STV also does not exclude independent candidates. There can… Read more »

Annibendod
Annibendod
7 months ago

Da iawn. A very good response.

Mr Williams
Mr Williams
7 months ago

Interesting argument. My suggestion is to use the Supplementary Vote system (like the former system used for electing PCCs).

Having much smaller constituencies electing a single member each, who must get above 50% of the vote would, in my opinion, ensure the local-level link between the member and his/her constituency, thus improving local accountability.

It would be interested to hear other people’s opinions on this. What is your opinion on that voting system, Mr Hedges?

Geraint
Geraint
7 months ago

I’m not too sure how helpful the Govan result is without knowing more about the context of the seat. It could well be the winning Labour candidate was extremely popular and the other Labour candidate was not so highly regarded or was new and not that well known. The two SNP candidates were seen to be a lot better than the second Labour candidate by the electorate and so were elected. In these council seats a candidate’s local history can be very important. I have seen results under the current FPTP system in a multi member ward there is a… Read more »

Steve Woods
Steve Woods
7 months ago

As a sitting MS, the author has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

John Brooks
John Brooks
7 months ago

Any voting system that does not operate on the basis of 1% votes gets 1% of the seats is not PR. To those who dislike closed lists reflect on the position that voters do not really want to get involved in ranking candidates. One election one X. Closed lists do not prevents I dependant candidates or those from small parties.

Near Bangor
Near Bangor
5 months ago

I must have read hundreds of articles on STV, and I have never, ever heard anyone say that ‘guessing the number of candidate to field’, was an issue.

Last edited 5 months ago by Near Bangor
Denis Mollison
5 months ago

This article presents six arguments against STV, none of which holds much water: (1) one example where a party (Sinn Fein in an Irish general election) lost out through putting up too few candidates. That’s a pretty unusual occurrence, and you can’t blame the system for the party’s miscalculation. (2) On the basis of this one example he claims that in the republic of Ireland STV is not proportional. To the contrary, data for all Irish elections since 1950 show that their STV system, together with that of the Northern Ireland Assembly, has been significantly more proportional than any of… Read more »

Tom Monto
Tom Monto
29 days ago

if a party does not nominate enough candidates under any system, the party will be shortchanged. under STV, each party knows they will take only the same share of seats as their share of votes so based on that expectation, they narrow their nomination to only what they expect plus one or two more in a typical district. if a party does much better than they expect, they can lose out. But that scientific forecast of seats won is possible only because STV is scientific. Under FPTP, every major party runs a candidate for every seat, hoping to get one… Read more »

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