STV - history and STV+
History of STV in Canada and North America
There is a long history of the Single Transferable Vote in Canada over the past century. In fact, STV is the only form of proportional representation that has ever been used here and in our neighbour to the south. At the time it was introduced, it was often referred to simply as "proportional representation" (PR), as most of the other PR systems now used elsewhere in the world hadn't been invented yet.
STV was first used to elect city councillors in Calgary
in 1916 and continued to use it until 1974 [Boyer]. In
1917, the BC legislature allowed cities to adopt STV
and several cities there tried the system in the late 1910s
and through the 1920s, including Vancouver, South
Vancouver, Victoria, Nelson, Port Coquitlam, Mission
City, New Westminster and West Vancouver. Lethbridge,
Edmonton, Regina, Moose Jaw, Saskatoon, North
Battleford, Winnipeg, Transcona, St. James and St. Vital
also all used STV at some time, with the Manitoba cities
continuing to use it until 1971. Ottawa city council tried
to introduce STV in 1916, but were blocked from doing
so by the Ontario legislature [Berger, pp 89-91].
At the provincial level, STV was used to elect legislators
in Winnipeg from 1920-55 and in Edmonton and Calgary
from the 1920s until the 1950s [Berger, Boyer]. STV+ is
simply this same Albertan and Manitoban voting system
with the addition of regional seats to let the rural areas
also benefit from diverse political representation.
In the USA, STV was used in upwards of twenty cities
starting as early as about 1915, including such notable
cities as New York, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Sacramento
and Boulder, with Cambridge and Minneapolis continuing
to use it today [Berger].
For the most part, STV was abandoned in most of these places (typically over strong objections of the opposition) because it was very effective in ensuring that minority voices won political representation. These battles were particularly nasty in the USA because they were used to oust African-Americans and socialists.
More recently, STV has been recommended three times for use in Canada: (1) in 1978, the Manitoba Law Reform Commission's Working Group recommended adopting STV in the cities and the Alternative Vote in rural areas for provincial elections, (2) in 2004, the BC Citizens' Assembly chose STV for BC provincial elections, and (3) in 2006, then-Prime Minister Harper tabled Senate reform legislation that proposed to use STV to elect senators. BC voters approved the Citizens' Assembly's recommendation with 58% voting in favour in the 2005 referendum, but the government chose not to recognize a vote in favour unless it reached 60% (ironic for a government that won a majority on less than 46% of the vote), so the change was not made.
STV+ for Canada
Most Canadians live in urban or semi-urban areas. Some of Canada's most rural and northern ridings present challenges to implement STV because combining them would create a riding that is geographically very large (for example, Skeena Bulkley Valley). One option is to leave these ridings as single member ridings, but add a few regional top-up seats to ensure those voters also have a choice of MPs and the system is proportional. We call this "STV+".
Given Canada's significant practical experience with STV, it is reasonable to ask what an STV+ system would look like if we adopted it at the federal level. STV+ would have two tiers - a set of single- and multi-member ridings, and a few regional top-up seats.
1. First Tier - 'Regular' STV
In its most basic form, STV+ would group together MPs from what are currently neighbouring ridings and elect a team of MPs to collectively represent the voters in the combined riding. The number of MPs in a riding could vary from as few as two, to as many as ten or more (e.g., Winnipeg elected ten MPs to the provincial legislature from a single citywide district for the first 25 years STV was used there). It would be up to an Electoral Boundaries Commission (EBC) to make the final decision in each region about how many seats are put into a particular district, taking into account the input they would receive during their normal public consultation process - for guidance, the BC Citizens' Assembly recommended that the most rural parts of the province should have the smallest districts, and the most urban areas should have the largest.
Here, we show examples of how STV districts might look in two different parts of the country - Vancouver Island and downtown Toronto.
Vancouver Island currently elects 7 MPs, as shown in Figure 1,
and represents three distinct regions - a sparsely populated
north, a string of smaller cities and towns mainly along the east
coast mid-island, and the metro Victoria region in the south.
In the most recent federal election (2015), the NDP won about
33% of the vote, while the other three major parties
LP, CP and GP) each won 21-24% of the vote, yet the NDP
won 6 of the 7 seats, with the Green Party taking the seventh
If we had conducted this election under STV, an EBC might
have opted to have two electoral districts - one for the northern
portion of Vancouver Island and one for the southern portion.
The population dot map (Figure 2) shows how the population of
the Island is distributed, so the EBC might have specified a
three seat district in the northern part (covering the primary
population centres of Nanaimo through Campbell River, and
extending out to include the more remote communities of Tofino
and Port Hardy) and a four seat district in the southern part
(covering the Greater Victoria region up to Duncan and
including the Gulf Islands).
If we had used this model in 2015, our simulations suggest that, had voters voted the same way under STV as they had in the 2015 election, the three northern seats would have gone to one candidate from each of the NDP, the LP and the CP, while the four southern seats would have gone to one candidate from each of these three parties, plus one candidate from the Green Party (see Figure 3 below for a comparison of STV and FPTP results). This outcome would much more fairly represent the actual votes cast.
Central Toronto has 12 federal seats in Parliament and is one of the most heavily urbanized regions in the country. In the 2015 election, the Liberal Party won 50% of the vote there, while the NDP won 25% and the Conservatives won 20%, yet the Liberal Party took all 12 seats.
If we had conducted this election under STV, an EBC might consider grouping all 12 ridings into a single electoral district, but this would be a larger district than Canada has ever used. They might consider various combinations: two districts of six seats, one of eight and one of four, or perhaps three four-seat districts. Using this latter option as an example, one district might cover south-central Toronto, one the western portion of the city, and the third the eastern portion.
If we had used this model in the 2015 election, and if voters had voted the same way under STV as they had in the 2015 election, then we estimate that the Liberals would have won two seats in each of these districts and the NDP and Conservatives one each. In Central Toronto as a whole, then, the Liberals would have won six seats, and the NDP and the Conservatives three each (see Figure 4 below). Again, this result would fairly reflect the way Toronto voters voted.
2. The Regional Seats
While it is in principle possible to increase the size of STV districts to as large as 10 or 15 candidates, these regions become larger than almost all cities in Canada (there is approximately 1 MP per 100,000 population, so a ten-seat district would cover one million people).
We could, however, borrow an idea from the other main proportional voting system frequently proposed for use in Canada - the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system.
The MMP approach is to compensate for imbalances by adding regional MPs - also called "compensatory" or "top-up" MPs. With MMP, a typical suggestion would be to set aside approximately 40% of a region's MPs to serve at the regional level, so perhaps 6 top-up MPs in a region of 15.
With STV+, we don't need to set aside so many MPs because the basic STV voting system is so much more proportional than our current system. Instead, we could substantially eliminate the small remaining imbalances with STV simply by setting aside about one regional seat from every group of about 7 or 8 current seats (or maybe 2 seats in a region of about 15 seats).
STV+ can also allow for more proportional results while keeping district sizes smaller.
Had we used STV+ in the last election, the Liberal Party would likely have ended up with about 42% of the seats (compared with their 40% vote share), the Conservatives with 32% of the seats on 32% of the vote, the NDP with 19% of the seats with 20% of the vote, the Bloc with 5% of the seats on 5% of the vote, and the Green Party with 2% of the seats (7 MPs) on 3% of the vote, so overall this result would have much more closely reflected how voters voted.
In addition, if we used STV+ and it were deemed important to preserve a few single-member ridings in some particularly remote rural regions (e.g., in the northern parts of the western provinces, Ontario and Quebec, or in Labrador), then the votes of voters who did not support the local winner in these single-seat ridings would still contribute to the overall outcome in their province. See the image at the top of the page for a comparison of results of the 2015 federal election using First-past-the-post STV, and STV+.
Canada has a long, if somewhat forgotten, history of using STV. If we were to reintroduce it in Canada (at the federal level this time), then, even with moderate district sizes of three to five seats, we could expect to see dramatically reduced discrepancies between the vote and seat shares for all major parties in all regions of the country.
We could make it even more proportional by making a simple modification to STV, which we call STV+, that would enable the overall results to be even more reflective of voters' desires, would enable voters in the most remote regions to continue to have single member ridings yet affect the province-wide outcome and would enable geographically-spread supporters of a smaller party to combine their support across a larger region to elect their preferred candidate.
Direct Democracy in Canada: The History and Future of Referendums (1992), J. Patrick Boyer
A City of Neighbourhoods: Report of the 2004 Vancouver Electoral Reform Commission (2004), Justice Thomas Berger
Note that there is some disagreement in these references as to the precise dates of usage of STV. The most significant disagreement is that Berger says Calgary used STV until 1961, while Boyer claims 1974. Nonetheless, the overall story is similar.
Credit: Credit for this page belongs to Antony Hodgson, President of Fair Voting BC.