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Proportional Representation: Its Definition and the Superiority of
Single Transferable Vote PR (PR-STV) over Party List PR


Dictionary Definition: Proportional representation is a generic term, and it does not refer to a precise method of implementing the philosophy it denotes. The Macquarie Dictionary definition (... a system of electing representatives to a legislative assembly in which there are a number of members representing any one electorate. The number of successful candidates from each party is directly proportional to the percentage of the total vote won by the party. Compare first-past-the-post, preferential voting.) is useful, although it confuses the matter by contrasting proportional representation with preferential voting, despite the fact that all the PR systems in Australia are preferential voting systems, as explained below.

The Compact Oxford Dictionary definition of proportional representation is "an electoral system in which parties gain seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them". That definition refers to "parties" but, like that of the Macquarie Dictionary, not specifically to "political parties", and it is important to note that certain types of proportional representation system operate on the basis of party groupings, yet others are as free from that basis as any other electoral system can be.

Definition of Single Transferable Vote PR: Single Transferable Vote Proportional Representation (PR-STV) is an electoral system that has multi-member electorates in which the percentage of the total votes in each electorate that is required to elect each successful candidate (after any distribution of preferences of surplus votes or votes of candidates excluded during the count) is as close as practicable to the percentage that each member is of the total number of members representing that electorate. That percentage, the quota, is set such that the residue of votes after all quotas have been used to elect the prescribed number of candidates is just below a quota.

Single Transferable Vote PR versus Party List PR: The two major groupings of PR world-wide are:

  • Single Transferable Vote PR systems, which make provision for transfer of votes that are surplus to or do not contribute to a quota, and are known outside Australia as the Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation, are the type of PR systems that are based on direct election of individual candidates, even though the candidates may be incidentally classified in some mutually agreed grouping. The Victorian Government and the PRSA support their use for Victorian municipalities. A different terminology (quota-preferential PR) is sometimes used in Australia in order to avoid confusion simply because Australia is the only large polity in the world to use the Single Transferable Vote in single-member electorates. Elsewhere STV is essentially associated with multi-member electorates, which is the only way it can deliver proportional representation.

    PR by STV is still a largely British concept that has been exported to parts of the former British Empire, but it has so far been little used outside that area. Thus it is used for national elections in Australia (the Senate is the largest scale use of PR-STV in the world), and the lower houses of Eire and Malta, and only one remaining U.S. municipality, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Every bicameral Australian parliament now has a house with a PR-STV electoral system (fortunately the four attempts to establish party list PR systems in Australia failed), and
  • Party List systems, which are party-based, and thus include Mixed Member Proportional systems, have no provision for transfer of votes that are surplus to or do not contribute to a quota, and are not essentially based on the vital principle of direct election of individual candidates, even though those candidates might be incidentally classified in some mutually agreed grouping, and are systems in which voters are either not able (closed party lists), or partly or wholly able (open party lists), to cast their votes for individual candidates, but only to contribute to a possible re-arrangement of their order in the list, and not to have their vote, or part of its value, transferred to another candidate, either in their list, or another list.

    The focus of the system is on attaining a match between the percentages of votes cast for various political parties, and those of their endorsed candidates only, and the resulting representation of those political parties in the representative body fo
    rmed, whereas in quota-preferential systems the emphasis is on ensuring that the quotas of votes (and voters) in an electoral district correspond proportionally to the numbers of individual candidates (whether of a party or not) supported by those quotas. Such systems try to reduce splintering of parties by imposing arbitrary thresholds.

The Proportional Representation Society of Australia advocates the use of Single Transferable Vote PR systems, which is the broad basis of the system that Victoria's Local Government Act 1989 prescribes for elections in multi-councillor electoral districts, and opposes the use of party list systems, or even quasi party list systems, such as those now used for the City of Melbourne and for NSW local government, which employ the above-the-line and below-the-line device imposed on the Senate electoral system in 1984. We seek to have direct election of all councillors prescribed, without any Group Voting Tickets or other party-based device, as applies for all Tasmanian and South Australian local government elections.


Party list systems were originally implemented when the South Australian Legislative Council and the A.C.T. Legislative Assembly first used PR, but in both cases public opinion rejected them and their inescapable character of placing the real power of deciding the people to be elected in the hands of political parties, which alone decide who will be on the lists, and the order they will appear on them, so they were replaced by PR-STV (quota-preferential) systems.


Need for Countback and Robson Rotation: Our letter to Victoria's municipal councils of 21st August 2003 urged them to call on the State Government to introduce the important additional features of countback and Robson Rotation, which greatly enhance the Hare-Clark PR-STV systems used in Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory for the elections of their legislatures and municipal councillors, but are absent in New South Wales and South Australia.


A good background to the use of PR-STV (quota-preferential PR) is the history page on the PRSA website. The local government aspects are distinguished by being displayed in green text there.