- Santa Clarans have an exciting opportunity in June, to vote whether to switch to electing the City Council using proportional representation (PR). The basic principle behind PR is simple: majority rule, with fair representation for the electoral minority (ethnic or otherwise), in direct proportion to how people vote. That is, a like-minded block of voters comprising 60 percent of the electorate should elect 60 percent of the City Council, not all of them, and a like-minded block of voters comprising 30 percent of the electorate should elect 30 percent of the City Council, not none of them.
While there are a variety of PR systems, all have two key ingredients: you must elect more than one person from a district, and you must allocate the winners in direct proportion to the vote. In the system Santa Clarans will consider, the single transferable vote (STV) form of ranked choice voting, you rank the candidates you want to vote for in the order you prefer. If your first choice isn’t elected, your vote transfers to your next choice candidate, hence you have a single transferable vote.
While STV may seem new and different, it was used widely in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. In fact, it was so good at getting political and ethnic minorities elected to city councils—African Americans were elected in Cincinnati, socialists were elected in New York City—that it offended the white power structures of those communities, who didn’t want to hear from alternative points of view. After World War II, they used red-baiting and racism to drive various repeal efforts. Today STV is still used in Cambridge, Massachusetts. STV is also used in Australia and Ireland.
The more candidates a voter ranks, the more likely it is that one of the voter’s choices will be elected. Ballots are sorted by first choices, and if any candidate has enough votes, at or above the threshold of election, they are elected.
What’s the threshold of election? Consider an election for a single seat, such as a Mayor. We don’t require that the winner receive all of the vote in order to be elected; just one more than half the vote guarantees victory. Similarly, when electing two people, we don’t require they each get half the vote, only that they each get one vote more than a third of the vote. When electing three people, the threshold is one more than a quarter of the vote, etc.
An example will help. Let’s assume 4,000 voters are electing three Council Members. That puts the threshold at 1,001 votes (one-fourth of 4,000 is 1,000, and then we add one). Let’s say that Mary is so popular that 2,002 people put her down as their first choice. She got twice as many votes as she needed to be elected.
If those 2,002 people had got into a room before the election, they would have realized that they had enough votes to elect two people. In addition to electing Mary, they could also elect Bob.
But they didn’t get into a room. Instead, they all put Mary down as their first choice, and Bob as their second. To protect their voting power, since Mary only needed half of the votes she got, she gets to keep half of those votes (1,001), and the other half (also 1,001) gets transferred to each voter’s second choice, which in this simplified example were all for Bob. Since Bob is now at the threshold, he is elected as well.
Now suppose a group of 1,001 voters like Amy and Bill instead. Six hundred of them put Amy down as first choice and Bill as second, and 401 of them put Bill as their first choice and Amy as their second. Neither Amy nor Bill is over the threshold, so we eliminate the candidate with the fewest votes (Bill, with 401 votes), and transfer all of those votes to their second choice, Amy. Those 401 votes combine with Amy’s original 600 votes to give her 1,001 votes, putting her at the threshold, and she is elected. Thus we see that STV eliminates the problem of vote-splitting.
What about the remaining 997 voters, who all voted for Charlie as first choice and Amanda second? Poor Charlie and Amanda didn’t have enough support to be elected. But over 75 percent of the voters were able to elect one of their top two choices, a much larger percentage than the 50 percent of voters (or fewer) needed to elect the winners in the current numbered seat system.
STV voting is as simple as picking and ranking your favorite flavors of ice cream. You vote exactly how you like without worrying about having to vote strategically. Your vote will never be wasted and will have more power to shape the results.
Steve Chessin is President of Californians for Electoral Reform and a nationally-recognized expert on electoral systems. He helped educate the Charter Review Committee on STV. He lives in Mountain View.