Frequently Asked Questions
We strongly encourage you to read through the other pages of this site to find out how STV works.
Many of the most Frequently Asked Questions about STV also apply to other proportional systems which are possible for Canada.
For general questions related to PR, we encourage you read the Fair Vote Canada’s FAQs, but have reproduced some of the most common questions here.
Where is STV used?
Why did politicians get rid of STV?
What is proportional representation?
Proportional representation is a principle that says that if a party gets 30% of the vote they should get roughly 30% of the seats. Proportional representation is not one system – it is a family of systems. See the chart below for the general idea.
Which countries use proportional systems?
About 90 countries, including over 80% of OECD countries such as Scotland, Sweden, New Zealand, Germany. Each country uses a proportional system designed for their needs.
Doesn’t PR cause unstable governments?
No. Among OECD countries a study over 50 years showed that the average number of elections in PR countries was 16 and winner-take-all countries it was 16.7. Most countries using PR are governed by stable, majority coalitions, although a single party can govern in a majority or minority, or with an agreement less formal than a coalition. When no party can win a 39% majority, the incentives change and parties are able to work together for the common good.
Is PR unconstitutional?
No. Any PR system for Canada is just an act of legislation. The only version of PR which is unconstitutional for Canada is a nation-wide party list system such as is used in Israel. This system is unsuitable for Canada and nobody has ever proposed it. The Law Commission of Canada recommended PR for Canada, as well as 11 other commissions/committees. See more on the constitution and PR here.
Will PR mean fringe parties (or “extremists”) get elected or hold the balance of power?
No. Most proportional systems which use a party list set a threshold needed for a party to qualify for seats, such as 5%. Any proportional model for Canada, being designed to accommodate our geography and desire to keep local representation, is probably going to set a higher bar than many PR systems in use.
Do we need a referendum to pass PR?
No. In fact, bringing in PR around the world is very rarely preceded by a referendum. Among 90 countries, Switzerland (1918) and New Zealand (1996) are the only two examples. Many changes in Canada such as the secret ballot, and giving women and Aboriginals the right to vote, were brought in without a referendum. The voting system has been changed in Canada at the municipal and provincial level 7 times.
How do countries using PR stack up against countries using winner-take-all systems on measures of democracy and good governance?
Countries using proportional systems outperform countries using majoritarian systems on measures of democracy, including higher voter turnout. They also score higher on measures of fiscal responsibility, environmental outcomes and lower income inequality. We highly recommend checking out the research pulled together by Fair Vote Canada.
How does STV work?
See the "What is STV" page, the "Counting" page and check out the ballot below.
Isn’t STV too complicated?
We don't think so. Voters in Ireland, Scotland and
Tasmania, among others, use it with no difficulty.
As Dennis Pilon notes in "The Politics of Voting:
Reforming Canada's Electoral System", the
percentage of spoiled ballots in Ireland is lower than
in Canada. See left for a realistic STV ballot.
All the political parties use runoff counting to elect their
leaders - ie, they eliminate the person with the least votes and give those ballots to each voter's next choice; then they repeat until there's only one person left. STV is similar, but elects more than one winner.
Comedian John Cleese says, “If you can count to five, it’s not too complicated.” (Check an old but funny video here). All voters really have to know is how to put a '1' beside their top choice, a '2' beside their next choice, and so on.
Elections Canada would probably put out a nice animation to show how the various candidates got eliminated, like this one from Ireland:
Where is STV used?
STV is used nationally in Ireland, for the Northern Ireland Assembly, in Scotland for local elections, in Australia to elect their Senate, in two Australian states and territories, in some cities in New Zealand for local elections, in Malta, and in many elections for organizations such as student councils and boards.
STV was used in New York City in the 1920’s and in urban Alberta in the 1950’s (in both cases it was removed for political reasons).
STV was chosen by the BC Citizens’ Assembly and received almost 58% of the vote in the first BC referendum. STV a the proportional system endorsed by the UK’s Electoral Reform Society (the UK equivalent of Fair Vote Canada).
Why can’t we just rank our candidates in single member ridings?
Ranking candidates in single member ridings is called Alternative Vote (AV). (Sometimes people refer to AV as “ranked ballot” or “preferential ballot” but this is not accurate because a ranked ballot is just a tool that can be used in a proportional system as well). Alternative Vote, as another system in the winner-take-all family, suffers from the same problems in practice as first-past-the-post: distorted results, phony majorities, and millions of wasted votes.
Won't STV reduce local representation with bigger ridings?
STV combines single member ridings into into multi-member ridings. For example, five single member ridings could become one riding with five MPs. This means the same number of MPs per voter, and every voter will have an MP just as close to his/her home as now. Each district will be represented by a team of local MPs, usually including an MP you helped elect, who shares your values.
Competition and collaboration between MPs in the same district means responsive MPs and better representation for local voters.
You may also like to check out "Rural-Urban Proportional" - which adapts STV for our most rural areas.
What about independent candidates?
STV is probably the friendliest system for independent candidates. Around the world, independent representatives are very rare - parties dominate. But Ireland (which uses STV) has, for the last 20 years, elected more independent representatives to its legislature than all other democracies combined, although Northern Ireland (which also uses STV) has only one independent MP out of 108. In 2011, about 10% of the Republic of Ireland’s representatives were independents. The reasons for this are a combination of a locally focused political culture, major shifts in their party system since 1992, and voter preferences for independents translating into representation with STV.
Can STV be used in municipal elections?
STV is suitable for municipal elections. It is used for municipal elections in Scotland and New Zealand. Unlike block voting, a winner-take-all system used in Vancouver which often results in one group winning all the seats, STV delivers proportional results, reflecting the diversity of voter preferences. You can vote by party (if there are parties), across party lines, by issue or political orientation, by gender, by ethnic group, by geographic location or whatever criteria you wish.
Why did politicians in Alberta and Manitoba get rid of STV?
It's important to to know that multi-member riding have been used in every province in Canada except Quebec. However, most of these were winner-take-all elections. The exceptions were Alberta and Manitoba, which used STV to elect provincial MLAS in Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg for 30 years.
In both cases it was progressives who fought hard for PR-STV.
In Alberta, the Social Credit government disposed of STV because in the cities where it was used, the opposition parties had won too many seats with STV. (The overall results were still not proportional for Alberta because all the rural ridings were eleced by Alternative vote - the cities were where voters for the other parties were fairly represented according to their vote share with PR-STV).
The election this happened, suddenly, after 30 years, the Social Credit government in Alberta became VERY concerned with "ballot spoilage."
In Winnipeg, if a voter using PR-STV had just one preference, and they marked an X, that counted, because the voter's preference was obvious. But in Calgary and Edmonton, the voter had to mark a number "1". If they put an X instead, their vote was "spoiled." As results, something like 4% of votes were spoiled using AV and STV in Alberta. There was no problem in Winnipeg (1.6% spoiled votes).
Instead of FIXING this simple problem, the Social Credit government used it as an excuse to abolish STV.
The media loudly objected as did the opposition, to no avail.
The next election in Edmonton - with first-past-the-post re-established- Social Credit won 49% of the popular vote but picked up all eight of the seats. In Calgary, Social Credit took just under 55% of the vote and won six of the seven seats. The switch in electoral systems contributed to the obliteration of the opposition in Alberta. The general election results were: 56% support for Social Credit, and 94% of the seats. The only place the opposition was ever able to be fairly represented was the cities when they used PR-STV.
Winnipeg was a different story. The city of Winnipeg was under-represented in the legislature, by population. In the process of fixing this representation by population problem the government conveniently got rid of PR, too. The opposition parties were also concerned with the representation by population problem, so their response to the redistribution bill that also got rid of STV was mixed, and not the kind of organized and vocal opposition to getting rid of PR that was seen in Alberta.
Where can I learn more?
Check out our resources page, or contact us.