[EM] STV district magnitude

James Green-Armytage jarmyta at antioch-college.edu
Wed Jul 16 14:11:02 PDT 2003

Adam Tarr wrote:
>- A large list of candidates makes it hard for the voter to study them
>thereby forcing the voter into a more party-based decision 
>process.  Similarly, larger numbers of winners make it harder for the
>to keep abreast of them all, and weaken the accountability of 
>representatives to their constituents (a similar argument to your local 
>connection one).
>That  said, I don't think even the most whiz-bang user interface could
>enable the 
>typical California voter to make informed choices about what 53
>to send to congress.

I (James) reply:
	I don't think that any voter would have to study *all* of the candidates
running for an STV election. The only candidates they really have to know
about are the ones they like. That is, they should rank at least enough
candidates such that at least one of them is likely to end up with a seat,
and maybe a few beyond that so that any surplus gets used up, or at least
dwindles down to a negligible fraction.
	As far as sending 53 candidates to Congress, I doubt that any one voter
could ever help to get all 53 winning candidates elected. More likely is
that they will give a substantial portion of their vote to one or two
candidates, and then maybe a small remainder to a couple more, if that.
	All in all, I imagine that voters probably wouldn't need to rank much
more than 10 candidates or so, even in a 53 seat election with a 500
candidate field. Perhaps it would be nice for them to rank a few more, but
it shouldn't have all that much impact. 

Adam Tarr also wrote:
>- Some would argue that a viewpoint should have to achieve some critical 
>mass (say, 10% of the voters) before it should gain representation.  This 
>reduces proportionality, but it helps prevent splintering and

I (James) reply:
	I've heard the argument a number of times that less proportional election
methods (such as plurality, and weakened forms of PR) lead to greater
government stability. However, I don't think that I agree with it at all,
except perhaps as a temporary measure for developing countries that have
yet to develop a sound bureaucratic structure that can handle changes of
leadership without falling apart.
	Anyway, the debate over proportionality is often framed in terms of
stability versus representativeness. Single-member districts and threshold
requirements are supposed to increase stability, at the expense of
	Our beloved American government is a perfect example of a highly stable
two-party system. The shifting tides of voter sentiment do very little to
rock the boat of Democratic-Republican rule. Therefore, it is also easily
arguable that the will of the people has a substantially muted impact on
government policy.
	This state of affairs might sound nearly ideal for people who think that
strong democracy is a bad idea, and who do not trust the public to make
any good decisions, but my opinion is that democracy is the only viable
course that human civilization can take. That is, I think that all of the
other options (such as dictatorship and elitism) are worse. 
	The American government is extremely stable because the threshold for
political participation is staggeringly high. For the same reason,
accountability is pitifully low, since each major party only has one
serious competitor.
	In general, don't you think that raising the threshold for entry serves
to decrease competition, and thus decrease accountability?
	I feel that a political system can be most interesting and most effective
when it incorporates as many perspectives as possible, with respect to
their degree of support within the legislature.
	From that perspective, a 10% threshold for party list countries is
monstrous, because voters will be afraid of wasting their vote on small
parties, and so only a couple parties will be able to stay in business. 
	A 10% quota is not such a big deal from that point of view using STV, of
course, because votes can be transferred. (You can get a 10% quota in a 9
seat district using the Droop quota, or a 10 seat district using the Hare
quota. Although not all candidates elected necessarily receive a full
quota, the effective threshold is roughly 10%.)
	Still, I will say that I favor higher district magnitudes, if possible,
because it increases proportionality and increases diversity.

	Having said that, I'm curious what exactly you mean by "splintering and
	First of all, radicalization. That doesn't quite make sense to me. Do you
mean parties becoming more extremist? I agree that a higher district
magnitude allows for politicians with more extreme political views, that
is views further from the mainstream. But such people would only carry a
small number of seats, and would hardly be running the show. Personally, I
think that's healthy for a political discussion. I certainly wouldn't mind
one or two extreme leftists sitting in Congress, and, assuming equal
support, it would only be fair to have a couple extreme conservatives in
there as well. 

	Second, by splintering, do you mean dissent within parties, leading to
the splitting-up of the party into two or more separate parties?
	Because that doesn't really sound like a problem to me. I've already
mentioned that I do not place a very high value on political parties as
arbiters of ideology and policy. 
	In an ideal state, I can see them as open-ended grouping of individuals,
a sort of shorthand for various political values that gives the voters
somewhere to start in terms of assessing candidates. But I wouldn't want
them to be so cohesive as to make the discussion less openminded and more
partisan, or to have people vote along party lines rather than according
to their conscience. 
	Anyway, it seems to me that more proportional systems do not increase
dissent within parties, but rather allow dissent to be expressed if it
already exists. For example, in a list system where there is a big
ideological split in the middle of a party, but a high effective
threshold, members of that party will probably stay bunched together,
because they will get more seats as one big party than two little parties.
If it is safe to split apart without losing seats, they will be more
likely to do so. 
	The advantage of this to the voters is that they can now more clearly
express which ideological position they support by voting for one half or
the other, rather than casting a vote for the larger, more ideologically
vague combined party.
	STV, of course, does a lot to increase this sort of fluidity. And larger
district magnitudes using STV should do it all the more.

	The debate against PR from the point of view of instability seems to have
more currency in parliamentary style governments than the sort we have in
America. Actually, I hope that someone who understands parliamentary
systems better than me can explain this.
	As far as I can tell, if no one party has a clear majority in parliament,
there is a need to form a coalition, where a collection of parties
together form a majority. This majority coalition then becomes "the
government", and everyone else becomes "the opposition".
	The "government" proceeds to appoint an executive, and basically seems to
pass most of the laws on their own, while the "opposition" are left to
criticize, and perhaps to twiddle their thumbs until the next election.
	Critics of strong PR seem to say that coalition governments are less
stabile than governments formed by one party with a clear majority.
	That is, as I understand it, if parties in a coalition fall out of love
with each other so that the coalition no longer holds the majority, in
some countries they need to form a new government from scratch in the
sense of appointing a new executive, and maybe even holding new elections
in extreme cases.
	Italy is the classical example of this . They use a Mixed Member
Proportional system, and have been averaging about one new government per
	Maybe that's a problem, I don't know, but my point is, why blame PR? Why
not blame the parliamentary system?
	PR creates a dynamic, diverse legislature, which in my opinion is a great
thing. Why this need to take that diversity and glom it together into
"government" and "opposition"? Isn't the point of diversity so that
different groups will agree and disagree on different issues as they come
	I can understand if there is a need for the legislature to appoint an
executive, that they could do so on the basis of some kind of inter-party
coalition. But who says that the majority coalition has to agree with each
other on anything else besides appointing the executive? 
	Also, if you aren't pleased with the executive changing in between
elections, why not just make a rule that you have to stick with the
executive you appoint until the next election? Either that or sit back and
enjoy it; why blame PR?

	Anyway, Adam, my guess is that we probably don't disagree all that much
on this issue. I am probably seizing on a couple key words that I have
heard used before, and taking this chance to respond to the various
criticisms of strong PR that I hear in the press.
	First of all, we're both talking about STV. Second, for example, if you
think that New York City could be one congressional district, then we're
hardly talking about really small district magnitudes. I agree that
California would make an unwieldy district, and I would probably rather
split it up into around four districts so that there is some degree of
regional connection.
	As far as the regionality-proportionality tradeoff, one thing that some
countries do is to have a legislature with some PR seats that are elected
in multi-member districts, and then some more PR seats that are elected
nationwide. I could see that working for the U.S. Congress (maybe the
existing 435 plus a national list of around 50?), but something tells me
that it won't exactly be a burning issue in the next election; more of a
long-term, dreamy idea.

-- James Green-Armytage

More information about the Election-Methods mailing list