SNTV, a simpler form of adding proportionality to our voting system

The 2018 referendum seems so far away, and yet I think the time between then and now will likely fly by. So I continue to reflect on it daily about what system should be offered, how it might be promoted, how the public may react to different options, etc.

I recently did an article on the PR system(s) we might see on the ballot next year. We may be offered several options. One way that could happen is to use the recent PEI model, which listed a number of electoral options (some proportional, some not) and asked people to rank them in order of preference. They crunched the numbers and a flavour of MMP carried the day in that case (though, so far, the provincial government in PEI is refusing to honour the vote, but that’s a different story).

So if we have options other than STV and/or MMP, what else might we see? One is SNTV, the Single Non-Transferable Ballot. I think STV is a great system, but some people complain about it being complex (including Andrew Weaver in a Vancouver Sun interview). I agree with Andrew Weaver on many topics, but I disagree with him on this one. The actual act of voting under STV is extremely simple, there’s a list of candidates and you rank them in the order you like them. The complexity comes in if you decide to dive into how the counting occurs. Does every voter need to understand this? Interested voters will find resources aplenty to learn how the counting occurs, but the rest of us don’t need to understand everything about the counting anymore than one needs to understand every facet of how a car’s engine works to drive it. Sure, some people will be keen to learn all about their car, but others will just use it and enjoy the results. STV could be like that too, something that does an awesome job despite not everyone choosing to understand all the nuts and bolts.

If we collectively decide this is something that needs to be addressed, then SNTV is one way to address it. SNTV is actually a simpler system to the “at large” system we use to elect city councillors in BC today. Like with a city council election, multiple people are to be elected in each “riding” (for council elections, the municipality is the riding). However, instead of voting for up to as many people are to be elected like you would for a city council, you’d continue to cast a single vote such as you currently do in a provincial election. SNTV merges the two systems that British Columbians are most familiar and experienced with, neither of which is proportional, and curiously the merging of the two creates a semi-proportional result. In fact, it can sometimes produce a surprisingly proportional result, as happened in the Japanese senate elections of 2010 (which used SNTV):

The top party received 38.97% of the vote and 40.45% of the seats.

The second place party received 33.38% of the vote and 31.35% of the seats.

Those are pretty proportional results for a semi-proportional system. Like with MMP or STV, SNTV is as proportional as you make it. Electing more people in a single riding makes it more proportional. In general MMP and STV are more proportional, but I see SNTV as offering about two-thirds to three-quarters of the proportionality, and it’s arguably simpler than either of them.

Things I like about SNTV are that it’s the same task for the voter as they do now, just mark an X beside a single candidate, despite it producing results that better represent the wishes of voters. Ballots are a little longer, and ridings are different. Notice I didn’t say ridings are larger, I said different. If you (for example) have an SNTV riding called “Peace River” that elects two MLAs, and incorporates both of the current ridings of Peace River North and Peace River South, the riding isn’t necessarily actually bigger as far as the parties are concerned. Parties who believe they can win both seats in the riding might run two candidates and divvy up the job of campaigning in riding between them, in a way that seemed logical to their understanding of the community and where the two candidates have roots in the riding. I’d argue this is an improvement over FPTP’s ridings, as it gives the parties and candidates more control over what areas they campaign over, and increases the odds that all of a related area is in the same riding (helping avoid issues like small chunks of a city being sheered off into a neighbourhood riding as happened in Metchosin, New Westminster, and many other places when the current FPTP boundaries were created).

Another intriguing element about this is that a party that is less likely to be successful in a riding would have the option to run less than a full slate of candidates, and consolidate their efforts behind one (or a small number) of candidates who would reach further afield within the riding for support. An independent candidate could seize on a region-wide issue and draw support from an entire riding, while the big parties break the riding down amongst their candidates, potentially giving an advantage to an independent candidate that might put themselves over the top in a manner they couldn’t in a first-past-the-post election. It creates interesting possibilities that would enhance democracy vs. what we have now.

Voters in an area such as (for example) Surrey might prefer having one big Surrey riding with a larger number of people elected, over the ever-tinier and frequently changing Surrey sub-districts that they have to learn and re-learn from every time the boundaries change under FPTP. Surrey citizens elect 8 city councillors in Surrey-wide municipal elections, and this would simply make their provincial riding similar to their city council election. That seems to me like it would create additional simplicity, not make things more complex. This makes FPTP look like the complex system, not SNTV.

And while the act of voting under FPTP is simple, the ramifications of it are not because of voter fears over wasted votes and pressure to vote strategically. While the Green party got 17% of the vote in the most recent provincial election, one poll asked people how they’d vote if they knew their vote would count no matter what, and 40% of respondents to that opinion poll said they’d vote for the BC Greens if our electoral system was different.

Down the road, once voters understand and have embraced SNTV, if we wanted full proportional representation we’d need only make the ballot ranked (letting people select a first choice, second choice, third choice, etc.) and that would improve proportionality without making the ballot a lot harder for the voter to interact with. At that point you’d have full STV, actually, as the ranked ballot (or lack thereof) is the key difference between the two.

Given a straight choice between the two I’d take STV over SNTV any day, but I’d be more than happy to compromise for SNTV if it was decided that we wanted a simpler system that nonetheless added some proportionality.

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