Arguments against STV (and why they’re wrong)

Argument #1 used against STV:  It’s “too complicated”

Some sources using this argument:

Mayor criticizes STV – says it’s ‘complicated
STV system would be complicated and expensive
STV con: It just doesn’t fit in BC
STV concept too complicated to vote for

Why the argument fails:

bc-stv-logoBritish Columbians should actually be offended at this argument and should be e-mailing the head of the “No STV” campaign to voice their offence.

This argument has as its major premise that STV is too complicated for the public to understand and, by extension, function properly.  This argument suggests that British Columbians are dumber than the Irish, the Maltese, Australians and British voters in European Union elections since all of these countries have proven smart enough to use STV successfully and effectively in their elections.  The only thing more boggling than the complete untenability of this argument is that somebody in the “NO STV” campaign actually thought it would be a good idea to insult the intelligence of British Columbians in such an obvious fashion.

Moreover, if we accept the argument that an electoral system has to be simple for it to work, then the electoral system in the United States would never have lasted as long as it has.

A brief backgrounder:

Americans vote in primary elections for a nominee for each party’s candidate for all major offices.  In some states, open primaries are used and in other states, closed primaries are used.  Also, in some other states a caucus is used instead of a primary and in Texas both caucuses and a primary are used.  Also, two other exceptions to this rule are that the state of Nebraska has no formal political parties in the state legislature and the state of Louisiana has no separate primary elections, but instead has multiple members of each party run simultaneously during the general election and then uses run-off elections to determine the ultimate winner.  Also, some states use run-off elections on an individual basis if the candidate does not secure at least 50% of the vote, while other states (such as Minnesota) do not.

For presidential elections, Americans don’t directly vote for their president.  Instead the president is chosen by an “electoral college” of voters who are technically free to vote as they see fit, but in practise more or less vote along party lines.  U.S. states are awarded electoral college seats based on the number of representatives plus number of Senators each state is awarded in the Congress (except for DC which has no senators and no full congressmen but is still awarded 3 electoral college seats).  The exception afforded to DC for the electoral college, however, does not apply to other non-state U.S. territories such as the U.S. Virgin Islands or Guam (although they do vote in primary elections).  However, some U.S. states award their electoral college seats in lump-sum to the winner of the State and others award U.S. electoral college seats based on the district-by-district performance of each candidate.

Simple, eh?

Using the logic of the “No STV” crowd, the American electoral system should have collapsed by 1798 under the weight of its own complexity.  But instead, the U.S. system has proven remarkably stable with only relatively minor adjustments made over the years (such as the election of senators and changing the fashion with which the Vice-President was elected).

The last reason why the “too complicated” argument of the “No STV” side fails is that STV actually isn’t complicated at all.  On the contrary, it’s actually relatively simple.  As this video demonstrates, it can be explained in layman’s terms in about 90 seconds.

25 Responses to “Arguments against STV (and why they’re wrong)”


  1. 1 Tide Waters 3 May, 2009 at 11:14 am

    While I agree that the “it’s too complicated” argument is a red herring, I wouldn’t be so willing to state “the U.S. system has proven remarkably stable,” if I were you. It may be stable, but it isn’t fair or representative of the majority of USians’ values. That is no surprise of course, given the election for President uses FPTP. Fair Vote USA has been lobbying hard to replace it.

    BTW, this letter to the editor epitomizes not only the absurdity of the complexity argument but the desperation of those advocating for the status quo. It wasn’t until I was more than halfway through the letter that I realized the writer was serious and wasn’t intending it to be read as parody.

  2. 2 Skinny Dipper 3 May, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    I am stressing the week that we need to emphasize why First-Past-the-Post benefits unelected party hochos who work in the premier’s office.

  3. 3 paulitics 3 May, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Tide Waters: I obviously agree that it the U.S. electoral system is neither fair or representative. If I believed that it were fair and/or representative, then I wouldn’t be supporting STV.

    However, I do believe it is an accurate description to say that the U.S. electoral system has undergone relatively few and even then only relatively minor changes during its over 200 year history. I mean, even during the U.S. Civil War, the Confederate States of American used basically the same electoral system as the United states. Even massive civil war didn’t cause a change in their electoral system.

  4. 4 john 4 May, 2009 at 9:30 am

    It’s such a croc that in a democracy someone would oppose something that is based on fairness and equality.

    Probably someone who opposes this is likely the same person that stands to gain if it is not adopted.

  5. 5 Rob 4 May, 2009 at 11:55 am

    While I conceed that the argument with respect to the system being too complex is weak, it is still valid in that STV incorporates two formulas.

    Please note that I am voting for an MLA that is unlikely to get in under the current system.

    Other objections to BC STV include
    -an increase in Minority Governments. We don’t want inefficient minority governments. The fact that Harper made it work is not valid because Parliament was porogued, we’ve had multiple elections, in a short time span, and we may have another soon: that is not efficient.
    -too much power given to small parties that the large parties will cater to. This adds a risk of corruption due to as parties try to form government.
    -the perception of fairness is skewed. Is proportionality actually fair even though you know that the person you vote for is unlikely to get a seat? Couting a vote more than once is not fair. You should only get to choose one person. Democracy is everyone getting an equal choice.

    The Problem discussed in the Citizen’s Assembly is Partisan politics. STV is a bastardized form of Partisan politics, and is not the answer.

    The Solution is to do away with the party system entirely, and make everyone independent. This is a more radical position, but does not involve us to redefine “FAIRNESS”.

    I have attached my blog for a more detailed explanation of my perspective.

  6. 6 paulitics 4 May, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    Rob, I am intending for this to become a regular series so I hope to be able to address several of these (common) arguments against STV.

  7. 7 Ken Furber 5 May, 2009 at 9:48 am

    The only part of STV I see as being complicated — if I understand it correctly — is when it comes time to count votes. Currently someone either has enough votes or doesn’t. But under STV all or a percentage of a vote for a certain candidate could go to the next in line. Just think how long it will take to tally votes. I don’t think this system is too complicated for voters. I think it’s just too complicated period. Either you vote for the winner or you don’t. There are more simplified and straight-forward systems out there that would tend to help democratize our current system better than STV. Or perhaps I misunderstood the explanation of STV. Could be. I grew up in BC and have lived several years in Saskatchewan. Neither of which have the most critical thinking citizens, in my opinion.

  8. 8 John Wright 27 June, 2009 at 1:02 am

    So, what’s your e-mail? What’s your phone number? What’s your address??

    What, you aren’t a coward are you???? Show us where you are…you have to have more than that “Paul Bernardo” lookalike picture, don’t you???

    C’mon, fess up…

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