More arguments against STV (and why they’re also flawed)

Argument #2 used against STV: STV simply ‘externalizes’ the process of reaching a compromise rather than internalizing it with each voter.

bc-stv-logoLast week, we discussed one of the most common arguments used against STV and why it was both flawed and at least a little bit offensive.

This week, we will discuss a slightly less common argument used against STV, but one which still nevertheless has some purchase in academia.  This argument is important to debunk because when it is conveyed by a professor speaking with a tone of authority (which is how I first came across this argument) it is on the surface extremely persuasive and not the least of which is because it falsely appears to be a progressive critique of Proportional Representation (PR) systems.

The argument normally goes like this:

Even under STV (or other PR systems), you don’t actually choose who makes the government.  Yes, the legislature may more accurately reflect the votes of the populace, but after the election the leaders get together and negotiate and compromise amongst themselves as to which of the several parties will get to form government.PR

Let’s imagine an election under an STV system where the distribution of votes accurately mirrored the distribution of seats and it turned out as follows:

Far right party: 10% of seats
Centre right party: 30%
Centre left party: 14%
Far left party: 46%

In this case, the argument posits (correctly) that the voters themselves don’t get to decide how the parties will fit together and join together to form a functioning government because it is the party leaders who get to negotiate among themselves how the legislature will be shaped and who will form government.  In the above example, a clear majority of people voted for generally progressive or centre-left policies, but the possibility exists that the centre-right party may form a coalition with the centre-left party and the far right party to form a broadly conservative coalition despite the preference of 60% of the population for a broadly centre-left/progressive set of government policies.

Conversely, this same argument suggests that in the First Past the Post system used throughout Canada, you may not have as much choice in which party to vote for and the legislature may not reflect the actual desires of the populace, but you at least get to make the compromise in your own head and decide who gets to ultimately form government.  You do so because, these FPTP proponents argue, the electorate is forced to internalize the compromising process of who gets to govern thus taking that power out of the hands of the party elites.

On the surface of it, this argument seems sound and convincing.  Indeed, it hits all the populist hot-button pressure points — such as irreverence toward authority — which are a hallmark of both my personal political pedigree as well as that of many others not as far to the left and even many on the right of the political spectrum.

But to illustrate the folly of this argument, consider what I think is a roughly parallel analogy.  The ‘virtuous internalized compromise’ argument (or “VIC” as we will call it for short) seems to me to be akin to a home-building scenario.  Let us say that I wish to build a deck in my backyard.  I decide to go down to my local hardware store to purchase pressure-treated wood planks, several nails and a hammer with which to accomplish the project.

PRNow, the VIC argument’s comparable analogy suggests that it is not in my interest to ask the clerk for these needed items.  The analogy would be that, according to the VIC argument, after I place my request, the clerk could possibly use the hammer to affix several nails to the end of the boards and then proceed to beat me with the board/nail assembly that he has created irrespective of my original request for boards, nails, a hammer, and no assault on my person.

The VIC argument suggests that it is either better or at least equally good for me to instead go to the “First Past the Post hardware store” which has a more limited selection of materials and obtain some extremely wide wooden poles and screws with which to build my deck.  By buying the extremely wide wooden pols and screws, I save myself from the *possibility* of receiving something that I wouldn’t want at the PR hardwareFPTPstore (i.e., assault) — presumably because the clerk at the SMP store cannot easily lift the heavy wooden poles — and all it costs me is that I make the “internal compromise” of receiving something that I am certain not to want and that I am certain will not help me.

My converse argument — to continue the analogy — would be that it is worth braving the *risk* that the PR store clerk *could* take your request and assemble it in such a way that he can use it greatly to my disadvantage (after all, hospital visits are taxing on the health).  If you get what you want, then you come out ahead.  Conversely, if the clerk attempts to assault you with one of your boards and nails, my suggestion would be to use social networking to assemble as many friends and colleagues as possible and return the same treatment to the PR store clerk in kind.

So here, in short, is the crux of where the VIC argument fails:

The risk of not getting what you want simply means that you need to push back until you do get what you want.  The risk of not getting what you want does not mean that you should forgo the possibility of getting exactly what you want in exchange for something that you don’t want but which carries with it assurance that you don’t get the exact opposite of what you want.

Therefore, this is simply not a good argument against STV.

4 Responses to “More arguments against STV (and why they’re also flawed)”


  1. 1 Michael 14 May, 2009 at 11:16 am

    Blah ! BC voters rejected STV. I am not a huge fan of STV (would prefer mixed member proprortional), but it is a lot better than first past the post (which, as has been pointed out, none of the parties use to elect their leader), an I would definitely have supported it had I lived in BC.

    The big question, though, is why the vote in favour shrank from nearly 58 % to 40 % between the first and second referenda. I can think of two possible reasons that are somewhat rational.
    1) The whole issue surrounding the possible formation of a coalition last December, and the attendant misinformation campaign that had a lot of traction in the west of the country, scared people away.
    2) Last time, the electoral districts and details were not available to voters at the time of the referendum. Voters could have looked seriously at the proposal and decided they did not like it.

    This is a huge setback for electoral reform in Canada, and I suspect it means we will now not see any useful reform in my lifetime.

  2. 2 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…


  1. 1 BC Voters, Say Yes to STV! « More Notes From Underground Trackback on 9 May, 2009 at 5:00 pm
  2. 2 imperial advance Trackback on 27 February, 2015 at 6:16 pm

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