A vote represents the expression of an individual preference for one or more candidate, or party, selected relative to those candidates and parties not selected. It also is one individual’s contribution to the collective choice of who will be elected. Although thresholds, whether effective or statutory, may introduce an element of complexity to expressing one’s preference while also contributing to a meaningful collective choice, generally these two aspects of vote mesh without problem in list proportional representation (PR) systems. In the class of electoral systems that focus on candidates rather than parties, however, this often is not the case.
Single member plurality (SMP) elections illustrate the problems that may result when votes are cast for individual candidates rather than for party lists. With SMP, the voter has a single vote to be given to a single candidate; at the end of the election, the candidate with the most votes wins. SMP elections have two consequences often seen as serious negatives: first, in a race with three or more candidates, a candidate may be elected with substantially less than half of the total votes; second, substantial numbers of votes are “wasted” in the sense that had these votes not been cast at all, the result would have been the same.
There are two ways to ameliorate these problems, while retaining the basic principle that each vote is cast for a single candidate. The first is to use a single nontransferable vote—single because the voter has only one vote, and nontransferable because it is given absolutely to a single candidate when cast— in multimember districts. The second means is to use a single transferable vote—again single because the voter has only one vote, but transferable in that it is effectively cast with instructions concerning for whom it is to be counted, contingent on the distribution of the votes cast by other voters.
Single Nontransferable Vote
SMP is the simplest, or degenerate, case of the single nontransferable vote (SNTV) system in that the nontransferable vote is cast in a single member district. The use of SNTV to identify an electoral system, however, generally is restricted to multimember districts, in which rather than only the one candidate with the most votes being elected, the first M candidates—where M is the number of representatives to be chosen from the particular district—ranked in order of their individual vote totals, are elected. While this increases the likelihood of minority representation (compared to SMP), and therefore is sometimes identified as a semi proportional system, it also increases the importance of strategic behavior both on the part of parties and of voters. In particular, if a party (or any other body that favors the same group of candidates) has too many candidates and thus fragments its vote—or has a candidate who is too popular and wins by a large margin through attracting votes that otherwise would have gone to other candidates of the same party—that party is likely to win fewer seats than it would if the party could manage both the number of its candidates and the distribution of votes among them.
Single Transferable Vote
The first of the negative consequences of SMP could be eliminated, and the second mitigated, if voters knew in advance how their fellow citizens would vote. In that case, voters whose first preference was destined to lose could concentrate their votes on a candidate with a better chance of winning, until the ultimate winner surpassed the 50 percent threshold. With SMP, there is some expectation that voters will attempt to anticipate the distribution of preferences and vote strategically—deserting parties that are expected to finish in third place or lower to support the less disliked of the two most popular candidates. This, however, requires that the voters can reasonably predict not only of the preferences of other voters, but also of those voters’ own strategic decisions. With two round majority systems, the voters receive a “second chance” to choose between the two candidates who finished first and second in the first round, but there is no assurance that either of those candidates will be particularly popular, only that they are the first choices of more voters than any of the other, potentially numerous, candidates.
Another method is known as the alternative vote (AV) system, also commonly called instant run-off in the United States. In this system, voters cast a vote with instructions concerning for whom it is to be counted contingent on the distribution of the votes cast by other voters. In effect, the voter says, “Count my vote for X, but if X is not going to be elected, then count it for Y, and if neither X nor Y will be elected, then count it for Z.” The voter ranks the candidates, and the vote transfers in order of the voter’s preference as succeeding candidates are eliminated. The candidates are subsequently ranked according to the number of first preference votes they receive, and then eliminated in reverse order of strength; each eliminated candidate’s votes transfer to the next available candidate until one candidate wins one vote more than 50 percent and is therefore declared elected.
With a single transferable vote (STV) more generally, the voter still has a single vote initially given to a single candidate. To be elected, a candidate needs a number of votes equal to the Droop quota, which in an M member district is the smallest integer greater than the number of valid votes divided by M plus one. This is the smallest number of votes that each of M candidates could win while assuring that no other candidate could have as many. In a single member district, the Droop quota would be 50 percent plus one, demonstrating that AV is simply the degenerate case of STV. As with AV, the voter ranks the candidates. If a candidate has more votes than the quota (e.g., if some supporters could have voted for another candidate without imperiling that candidate’s election), the surplus votes are transferred to the next available candidate; if no candidate has a surplus, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated (as with AV) and those votes are transferred. This process repeats until M candidates have reached the quota, or until only M candidates remain (e.g., in Ireland, where votes can become nontransferable by exhausting the expressed preferences).
According to its early advocates, the advantage of STV over simple plurality systems is that STV minimizes the number of wasted votes. According to its later advocates—emerging after political parties became more prominent—STV also allows roughly proportional representation among parties while retaining voter choice of individuals. If voters rank candidates strictly within a single party and then allow their ballots to become nontransferable, STV would be exactly equivalent to open-list Droop quota largest-remainder PR. (Hence in Ireland, the STV system often is identified as PR-STV, or simply as PR.)
Degrees Of Proportionality
If SNTV can be seen as a generalization from SMP (i.e., the district magnitude is allowed to vary), it can also be considered a special case of the limited vote system in which the number of votes given to each elector is restricted to exactly one. The intention is to facilitate minority representation from multimember districts relative to what would be expected with a block vote system, in which each elector has as many nontransferable votes as there are seats to be filled. Allowing accumulation of these nontransferable votes (i.e., allowing the elector to give more than one vote to a single candidate) also facilitates minority representation. Sometimes identified as semi proportional systems, as with SNTV, the degree of proportionality depends on the capacity of parties to control the behavior both of their candidates and their voters, as well as to anticipate their raw, or undirected, popularity.
- Bowler, Shaun, and Bernard Grofman, eds. Elections in Australia, Ireland, and Malta under the Single Transferable Vote: Reflections on an Embedded Institution. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
- Farrell, David M. Electoral Systems: A Comparative Introduction. Houndmills, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.
- Gallagher, Michael. “Ireland: The Discreet Charms of PR-STV.” In The Politics of Electoral Systems, edited by Michael Gallagher and Paul Mitchell, 511–532. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005
- Grofman, Bernard, Sung-Chull Lee, Edwin Winckler, and Brian Woodall, eds. Elections in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan under the Single Non-Transferable Vote. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.
- Katz, Richard S. Democracy and Elections. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
- Reed, Steven R. “Structure and Behaviour: Extending Duverger’s Law to the Japanese Case.” British Journal of Political Science 20, no. 3 (1990): 335–356.
- Thayer, Nathaniel B. How the Conservatives Rule Japan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.
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