Some thoughts on the single transferable vote

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The single transferable vote (STV) is used widely in Australian elections, under a variety of names. Sometimes it’s called Hare-Clark, but it’s often just referred to as “proportional representation”, or PR. We know no other kind of PR in this country.

This method of voting has suffered a major setback with the Victorian parliament passing legislation to force single-member wards on most Victorian councils, after a process over two decades where independent reviews have considered the best electoral structure for each council, gradually replacing single-member wards with multi-member wards elected using STV.

I just wanted to remind people of the origins of this method of voting, and why it’s so vital to increasing political freedom and choice for the voter.

The “Hare” in Hare-Clark refers to Thomas Hare, who was a philosopher in the 19th century. While others had developed similar ideas at other times and places in the 19th century, his version of the single transferable vote is the one which evolved into the model used in Australia, Malta, Ireland and other places.

Hare first developed a concept of a single transferable vote in 1854 as a response to the system of local constituencies used to elect the House of Commons. He proposed that, instead of electing representatives for each local electorate, voters should be able to choose to come together with fellow voters from all over the country to effectively form their own constituency to vote for their preferred MP, rather than being restricted to choosing from those who runs in their own local electorate.

He proposed a quota of voters who would be sufficient to elect one MP, with the entire country voting as a single constituency.

His more pragmatic allies later proposed using this counting method at a more localised level, electing a number of MPs from one constituency (possibly covering an entire city) rather than across the whole country, but the original concept still makes sense.

When we draw electoral boundaries, we arbitrarily divide up voters and limit their choice about who they can vote for, and we limit the ability of voters to link up with like-minded voters and elect someone who represents them. When you have a 3-member, 5-member or 7-member electorate, you are going to give voters more choice and produce a more diverse and representative result than if you split them up into single-member electorates.

Of course there are valid practical reasons why we divide up voters into some geographic constituencies, rather than having the entire country vote as a single electorate. But they do limit the political freedom and choice of voters, and really need to be justified. There is no justification for drawing a district so it can only elect one person.

The Victorian parliament’s decision is very disappointing, and it will make Victorian council elections less representative and reduce the choice of Victorian voters. Limiting choice is a particular problem in local government elections, where a smaller number of voters are likely to be in a single-member ward. Even if they can’t win, you still get a lot of options about who you can vote for in a House of Representatives seat. Yet a lot of wards may only have a handful of candidates, much less than in a larger 3-member ward. So those voters will have less options about how they exercise their right to vote.

I’m going to return to this topic in a couple of days with a post about the generally excellent and politically neutral system Victoria has used to determine council electoral structures, and what has been lost by Labor (with the help of the Liberal Party) putting its thumb on the scale of local democracy.

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