Arvind Sivaramakrishnan

The Single Transferable Vote system reduces tactical voting, and creates a

more sophisticated link between a constituency and its representatives.

It is not often appreciated that electoral systems make a difference to general political life and not just to the composition of elected assemblies. A Round Table recently hosted by the Observer Research Foundation and the University of Madras provided an opportunity to explore some questions about electoral systems.

The disjunction between the Indian electorate’s commitment to democracy and the functioning of Indian political institutions has long caused concern. That disjunction could well be exacerbated by the simple majority or SM electoral system, which is used for all but the indirect elections from the State Assemblies to the Rajya Sabha, and has been copied from the system used for the British lower house, the House of Commons.

Under SM, there is one seat per constituency, every voter has one vote, and whichever candidate wins most votes wins the seat. In practice, SM is party-dominated, and to win an Assembly a party needs to win 50 per cent-plus one of the total Assembly seats.

A closer analysis, however, reveals problems. In India, over 100 candidates often contest a single seat, and with turnouts of about 60 per cent a candidate can win on 10 per cent of the vote. Secondly, there is no direct relation between votes cast and seats won; in the 2005 British general election, the Labour Party won a 67-seat majority, or 55 per cent of the seats, on 35 per cent of the vote. With a 61 per cent turnout, this meant that only 21 per cent of the electorate voted Labour. The main opposition party, the Conservatives, won 32 per cent of the vote but 159 seats fewer than Labour.

Finally, the SM system is very bad for significant third parties, whose support may be substantial but is geographically too dispersed to provide commensurate numbers of seats.

In the U.K. in 2005, the Liberal Democrats won 22 per cent of the votes but only 62 seats; a proportional system would have given them 143. Labour would have been the largest party, but would have been 96 short of an absolute majority. It has even happened twice since 1945 that a British party has won the election despite winning fewer votes than another.

Under SM, parties tend to choose ‘safe’ candidates, and after the 1997 election Labour were accused of racial discrimination in favour of young white women from the professional classes and against long-serving party loyalists from ethnic minorities. Most British parties also seem to evade anti-discrimination legislation by fielding ethnic-minority candidates against one another; ethnic minorities are therefore underrepresented in the Commons.

Furthermore, those who vote for a losing candidate go unrepresented. Secondly, if a constituency contains substantial vote-banks for any party, all other votes are wasted. Even the votes forming the winner’s majority, minus one, are wasted. In the U.K. in 2005, this meant 70 per cent of the turnout. These factors constitute disincentives to vote, and can lead to tactical voting, in which voters choose a second favourite when their preferred one has no chance.

Consequences for governance

In the U.K., the SM system has serious consequences for governance. The U.K. has no written Constitution, and the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty gives the ruling party command of every issue on which the House of Commons votes, including the General Committees which scrutinise draft legislation in detail. A Commons majority also gives the ruling party majorities on parliamentary Select Committees, which have the function of overseeing the executive. In effect, the main checks on the executive come from extra-parliamentary sources, such as EU law, which overrides domestic law, the European Convention on Human Rights, general economic conditions, the mass media, and the limited powers available at judicial review. The most effective parliamentary opposition comes from the ruling party’s own backbenchers on selected issues, and from the unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords, which has more time and often greater knowledge than the Commons does of the legislative and policy issues.

Above all, Assemblies elected under SM are, as Professor David Beetham says, “usually highly unrepresentative of the distribution of political opinion” among voters. In the U.K., a further problem arises because most general elections are decided by the 5 per cent or so of ‘swing’ voters who switch between elections. Campaigning and policies therefore tend to be aimed at this tiny and highly unrepresentative group.

Among the many other electoral systems, the diversity of the Indian electorate makes the Single Transferable Vote or STV system an attractive alternative. Under STV, there are multi-member constituencies; the number of members depends on the population of each constituency, so there is no need for periodic revision of constituency boundaries.

The ballot paper lists all the candidates, and parties can field more than one candidate. Voters rank candidates in order of preference and to be elected, a candidate needs a quota of votes according to a formula based on the total number of ballot papers received and the number of seats for the constituency. If not enough candidates reach the quota to fill the available seats, the count continues with second preferences. If a candidate gets more votes than the quota on first preferences, his or her second preference votes are distributed to the other candidates; these votes can be weighted. Counting stops when all the seats are filled.

STV has several advantages. First, voters have more choice than they do in any other electoral system. Secondly, far fewer votes are wasted, that is, cast for losing candidates or unnecessarily cast for the winner. Most voters can also identify a representative whom they personally helped to elect, and parties have an incentive to present a range of candidates in order to maximise their higher-preference votes. This helps women and minority candidates, who under SM are often overlooked in favour of ‘safer’ candidates. After the election, voters have a choice of representatives to approach with their concerns, rather than just one, who may be unsympathetic to a voter’s views, or may even be the cause of the problem. Voters in a constituency can also compare elected representatives.

Most importantly, the elected Assembly is far more likely to be reflective of the voters’ views; in the first-ever use of STV in the Scottish local elections in 2007, the composition of the Assemblies closely paralleled the distribution of electoral support. In addition, as parties are broad coalitions and can be split on certain key issues, the SM system offers no choice within party affiliations. In 2005, many U.K. voters faced a dilemma, as they wanted to support Labour or the Tories, but opposed those parties’ support for the Iraq invasion. STV would have helped them express their views much more clearly.

Parties also have to accept that in STV there are no safe seats. Candidates cannot be complacent and parties must campaign everywhere, not just in marginal seats. When voters can rank candidates, the most disliked candidates cannot win as STV makes it difficult for them to get second — and third-preference votes. In addition, by encouraging candidates to seek first- and lower-preference votes, STV reduces the effectiveness of negative campaigning in the sense of attacks on other parties or candidates.

STV also reduces tactical voting, and creates a more sophisticated link between a constituency and its representatives. There is a greater incentive to campaign and work locally, and the electoral results are likely to be more reflective of the range of local feeling.

A possible advantage for India is that successful candidates will generally not know whose votes have helped them, because they may have needed second- and third-preference votes in order to reach the quota. So STV could reduce the importance of vote-banks.

STV has its disadvantages but some of these, like the time it can take to count STV votes, are less important in the Indian context than they are elsewhere. Indian electorates often see large ballot papers too, and that could negate a tendency in some STV systems for voters to use only their first two or three preferences and to rank the rest arbitrarily. In practice, voters quickly learn how to use STV. Multi-party governments, too, are now a familiar feature of Indian politics but are not inevitable under STV; the Australian Senate usually ends up with two main parties as contenders for government.

A revealing disadvantage of STV is that representatives can resent having to pay close attention to their constituencies between elections. Politicians in the Irish Republic have twice tried — unsuccessfully — to scrap STV because of this.

The wider question is that of what an electoral system should achieve. At the very least, as Beetham notes, it must ensure that the Assemblies reflect the spread of voters’ preferences, that representatives are accountable and removable, and that party groupings are responsive to the electorate. Beetham also notes that an electoral system must ensure that elected representatives are answerable to the voters between elections. Even if those are minimum conditions, STV seems to meet them far better than the SM system used throughout the world’s largest democracy.