How to win an STV election for Howard County Council, part 2

4 minute read

Thus far this weekend I’ve suggested revamping the way we elect the Howard County Council as the price for extending the time council members can serve, proposed the single transferable vote system as an alternative, outlined its advantages, and explained how it would change the two main parties’ strategies. I’ll conclude this weekend by discussing how STV would affect the chances of candidates who represent a relatively small minority of voters.

As we saw in the last post, if a bloc of voters exceeds the size of the STV quota (one-sixth of the voters plus one for a five-member council, or 17,001 voters in our example) then they can elect a candidate of their choosing simply by voting for that candidate as their first choice. But what if the bloc of voters is smaller than a quota, and its chosen candidate can’t attract that many first-preference votes? The alternative strategy is simple: If you can’t be the first choice of lots of voters, try to become everybody’s second choice.

Let’s look at an example involving ideological diversity, and in particular the bloc of voters that Pew Research refers to as the “Post-Moderns” in its political typology. Post-Moderns are overall the youngest of the Pew typology groups, are “well-educated and financially comfortable,” “very socially liberal,” “supportive of many aspects of government” but not willing to see it go further into debt to support social programs, and not generally hostile to business or Wall Street.

Post-Moderns comprise only 14% of the electorate and don’t fit neatly into either of the two main parties’ coalitions. In political terms a Post-Modern candidate would likely be either a business-friendly and relatively fiscally conservative Democrat or a socially-liberal Republican who doesn’t display knee-jerk opposition to government or taxes. Either type is rare on the ground nowadays, and would have difficulty surviving a party primary. It’s possible such a candidate would have to come from outside the two main parties, and in the current system would have almost no chance of being elected.

How would such a candidate (call him “Tom C.”) fare in an STV election for Howard County Council? If we assume that Post-Moderns comprise the same proportion of the Howard County electorate as they do nationally, there would be about 14% of voters who might consider voting for Tom C. as their first choice; let’s suppose about 11% actually do so. This would give Tom C. 11,220 first-preference votes (102,000 times 0.11), a respectable showing but well short of the quota of 17,001.

However let’s suppose Tom C. is generally well-known and well-liked in Howard County—serves on boards, supports local charities, is friends with people in both parties, that sort of thing. He can explicitly ask other voters to support him as their second or their choice, even if they’re not willing to name him their first choice.

Suppose he is successful, and is indicated as a second choice by two-thirds of those who give their first-preference votes to three other candidates. Suppose further that all three of those candidates are elected on the first count, each receiving at least 3,000 first-preference votes more than needed to meet the quota of 17,001. Their excess votes would then transfer to other candidates not making the quota.

Since two-thirds of the voters in question named Tom C. as their second choice, he would get 2,000 votes from each of the three winning candidates (two-thirds of 3,000), or 6,000 votes in total. Those 6,000 votes in combination with his own 11,220 first-preference votes would then give him a new total of 17,220, enough to make the quota and become the Howard County Council’s newest member.

Tom C. is thus a “transfer-friendly” candidate, i.e., someone who can be successful in being named as an alternative choice and thus attract transfer votes from more popular candidates. In other countries that use the STV system there are transfer-friendly parties, i.e., minority parties that are not big enough to take control of government but are able to attract enough second-or third-preference votes to enter into coalitions and otherwise exert influence.

This ability of smaller parties and less-popular candidates to be successful is greater the larger the number of candidates being elected. For example, if the Howard County Council were to be expanded from five to seven members (as some have proposed) then under an STV system a candidate could be elected with as little as one-eighth or 12.5% of the total first-preference vote, or even fewer first-preference votes if they could attract transfers. (In our example the quota would be 12,751 instead of 17,001.)

This seems to go against my earlier stated desire to ensure that the council is not selected by a small minority of voters. But remember, I was talking about a small minority being able to determine the majority of the council members; here we’re concerned only with the election of a single council member—though it’s true that in some cases such a single member could be a key swing vote determining the outcome of matters that come before the council.

This is a classic trade-off in politics: is it better to have a diverse group of representatives who have to form coalitions to get anything done (and may sometimes fail to do so) or to have a situation in which a solid and unified majority is free to carry out its plans without significant opposition, but is not necessarily reflective of the true preferences of voters? On balance I think the former is a healthier arrangement. If you agree then you should consider joining with me in looking at the possibility of an STV system for electing the Howard County Council.