More Voting Reform – Single Transferable Vote (STV)

Anyone who has been reading my posts  on voting reform (if anyone has been reading them apart from possibly Grace) they will probably have noticed that I am trying to work out what I think  about it.

I am convinced that our current first past the post system is not good for democracy in the long, or even the short-term. I am not quite so sure what to put in its place, hence the series of posts.

“I am convinced that our current first past the post system is not good for democracy in the long, or even the short-term.”

This time I am going to look at the voting system known as the Single Transferable Vote (referred to from now on as STV to save typing). This is the system that has caught my imagination the most.

I’ll explain how I think it works, then look at the advantages and disadvantages of the system.

The STV is based on the idea of proportional representation and preferential voting. Initially your vote is cast for the your preferred candidate and then after candidates are either elected or eliminated, transferred to other candidates in line with the your stated preferences. The system minimises ‘wasted’ votes. You are also voting for individual candidates rather than party lists.

How it works

STV works by using multi-member constituencies. As with all alternative vote electoral methods, you rank the candidates in order of preference, 1 to however many candidates you care to vote for. You do not have to cast a preference for a candidate that you abhor. So you just number your preferences 1 to 11 and leave the twelfth candidate out. In the event of your preferred candidates being eliminated or elected your vote will not be transferred to them.

Candidates are generally elected using the following formula:

So in a constituency that elects 6 members, if there were, say 150,000 valid votes cast, each elected candidate would need to get 21,430 votes to be elected.

After you have cast your vote the system works like this:

All the First preference votes are counted, one candidate has 30,000 votes and is elected, but none of the others have enough first preference votes to get over the electoral thresh old. Candidate one has 8,570 surplus votes, so they are distributed among the remaining candidates according to the second preferences of the voters.

The votes are counted again and still no candidate reaches the magic figure, so the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and his or her second preference votes are redistributed among the other candidates. This process goes on until all the vacant seats are filled.

Ireland uses this system for its elections and if you want to see how this works in practice look at the results for the Dun Laoghaire Constituency in Ireland’s 2007 Elections.

The Electoral Reform Society has an example of a model STV Election here


STV gives us as voters much more choice than any other system. We determine who is going to be elected. Under the current system part officials, especially in ‘safe’ seats, essentially decide who our MP will be long before we get a chance to vote. Under STV MP’s responsibilities will be more to the people who elected them than to their parties.

  • Fewer votes are ‘wasted’, either by being cast for a candidate with little or no chance of being elected, being cast as surplus votes for a winning candidate.  What this means is that most, if not all, voters will be able to identify representative that they helped to elect. This link in turn helps to increase the representatives accountability.
  • Post election STV gives voters a choice of representatives to approach with their concerns, rather than just the one, who may be indifferent or actively opposed to the concerns of the voter. Indeed in some cases the representative may be the cause of the concerns.
  • Competition, we are constantly told, is a good thing, and generally this is the case. Competition to provide a good service to constituents is no different.
  • Because there are no safe seats under STV,  candidates cannot be complacent and parties must campaign everywhere, and not just in marginal seats. This also means that candidates with in a party must find their own voice. It is extremely unlikely that if a party puts up a full slate of candidates (i.e. six candidates for a six member constituency) they will all be elected. So candidates with in a party will have to be able to sell themselves to the electorate as well as their party manifesto.
  • Because we rank candidates, the most disliked and/or extreme candidates cannot win, because they are no good at picking up second, third and lower-preference votes.
  • There is no longer any need for tactical voting. Vote for the candidates you want, not against the candidates that you don’t want.
    All my life for some reason or other I have managed to find myself living in Conservative/Liberal Democrat marginals. All my life this greenish, left leaning voter has been voting Lib Dem, in the hopes of keeping the Tories out. Under STV I will no longer have to do this.
  • Because there will be a more sophisticated link between a constituency and its representatives,  there will be an increased incentive to campaign and work on a more personal and local level, but also, the constituencies are likely to be more sensible reflections of where community feeling lies.


To be honest I don’t think there are many. Most of the ‘disadvantages’  cites by supporters of ‘first past the post’ such as loss of connection between the representative and the constituents are red herrings. True STV is much more likely to give rise to coalition government, but current examples aside, is this necessarily a bad thing. However there are some potential problems.

  • If a representative dies in office, or resigns how do you replace them?
  • Counting of the votes will take longer than under the current system (or AV) so the results will not be declared on the night of the election.
  • In some parts of the country, notably the Scottish Highlands STV will result in massive constituencies.
  • Some voters find doing anything other than putting an ‘X’ in a box to complicated for them, therefore there will be an increase in spoiled votes.

To my mind none of these disadvantages come anywhere near to outweighing the advantages of  STV.


Give my choice STV is the electoral system I would choose. Unfortunately it is not the choice that we are being offered. The choice is between the current system (first past the post) and the Alternative Vote.


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