British Columbia’s rather unique Citizen’s Assembly on Voting Reform has recommended an overhaul of the province’s voting system.  And this Tyee article mocks its recommendation for selecting provincial legislators through a system known as the Single Transferable Vote, or STV.  The mockery is easy—but misguided.

The basic idea of STV (and its close cousin, Instant Runoff Voting) is that voters can rank candidates in preference order.  Thus the Citzen’s Assembly slogan, "It’s as easy as 1-2-3."

The most obvious benefit of a transferable vote system is that you can vote your conscience without harming your interests.  As a concrete example, in 2000 a small percentage of U.S. presidential voters preferred Nader to Gore, and Gore to Bush.  But under the U.S. voting system, in which you can only vote for one candidate, that secondary preference was simply ignored—so those who chose ideals over tactics wound up living with their third choice.

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  • The 2000 presidential election wasn’t an isolated instance in which the winner-takes-all election system created a dubious result.  President Clinton never got a majority of the presidential ballots cast, and might not have been elected if Perot weren’t in the race.  Washington’s junior senator, Maria Cantwell, narrowly defeated Slade Gorton in 2000; but conservative voters who opted for minor-party candidates might have swung the election to Gorton, if their full preferences had been tallied.

    Now, obviously, no voting system is perfect.  This isn’t just my opinion; it’s actually a mathematical theorem (and one of the most arresting ones for twentieth century political scientists). 

    But the winner-takes-all system is particularly flawed.  It’s easy to gerrymander; it requires voters to cast their votes strategically, and sometimes in opposition to their true preferences; and, perhaps most importantly, it creates the potential for "spoiler" candidates, which marginalizes minor parties and narrows the political debate.  If I were devising a democratic electoral system from scratch, winner-takes-all would be just about my last choice.

    The Tyee article mocks STV voting for its complexity.  I think there’s a point there—the Citizen’s Assembly recommended combining legislative ridings (BC’s voting districts), so voters may have far too many candidates to sort through; and there is a bit of complexity in how losing votes are partitioned to winning candidates.

    But, please!  In the U.S., we’ve lived for two centuries with the electoral college—as complicated and jury-rigged a voting system as any, and one that lets a candidate win the presidency even if they win a minority of the votes.  I’d take the "complexity" of single transferable voting any day.