Proportional Representation Society of Australia

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Proportional Representation: Its definition and the superiority of
PR using the single transferable vote (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.

Proportional representation even is ultimately approximate: The wasted near-quota in single-member STV systems is just under an enormous 50% of all votes cast, but with PR-STV, and a district magnitude as large as 9 seats, the wasted near-quota is below 10%. The size of the wasted near-quota is inversely proportional to one more than the number of positions to be filled, so that wasted near-quota rapidly diminishes as the number of seats increases. District magnitudes above 9 are not normally recommended, as they produce excessively large ballot papers, with little reduction in the wasted near-quota. The only way that the percentage of persons elected to an elected body can be guaranteed to correspond EXACTLY with the percentage of votes of those electing them is if the elected body is identical to the entire body of voters, which is obviously impractical.

There is necessarily a wasted near-quota of votes that elects nobody when the Droop quota is used, but use of the earlier, and now superseded, Hare quota simply concealed that reality. Party List systems impose an arbitrary exclusionary threshold of votes below which parties are artificially prevented from winning any seats. Numerous small parties can be in that position, and with no provision for voters to indicate other candidates or parties that they want their votes transferred to if they are initially insufficient to elect a candidate, those parties' collective percentage of votes - which can easily be larger than PR-STV's wasted near-quota - is simply wasted.

Definition of PR using the Single Transferable Vote: Proportional Representation using the Single Transferable Vote (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.

  PR-STV versus Party List PR: The two major groupings of PR world-wide are:

  • Proportional Representation using the Single Transferable Vote, which makes provision for transfer of votes that are surplus to or do not contribute to a quota, and is known outside Australia as the Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation, is the type of PR system that is 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 also 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-STV was originally 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 many national, State and municipal elections in Australia (Australia's Senate is the largest scale use of PR-STV in the world), the lower houses of Eire and Malta, the elections by State legislators for the upper house of India entrenched in Article 80(4) of the Constitution of India, and only one remaining U.S. municipality, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Every bicameral Australian parliament now has a house with a PR-STV electoral system. The other, quite inferior, grouping is:
  • Party List systems - which are party-based, and thus also include the party proportional component of hybrid systems such as New Zealand's Mixed Member Proportional system, and Japan's Supplementary Member system - have no provision for transfer of votes that are surplus to or do not contribute to a quota. They 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 a list, and not to have their vote, or various parts of its value, transferred to another candidate, either in their most preferred list, or another list. This grouping might be 'proportional' but - because voters do not fully control their representation - its claim to being a system of 'representation' is very much weaker than that of PR-STV.

    The focus of party list systems is on attaining a match between the percentages of votes cast for various political parties, and thus their endorsed candidates only, and the resulting representation of those political parties in the representative body fo
    rmed. In contrast, in PR-STV 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. Party List systems try, with very limited success, to reduce the splintering of parties that is inherent in non-transferable systems by imposing arbitrary exclusionary thresholds. Fortunately, the four attempts to establish party list PR systems in Australia each failed.

The Proportional Representation Society of Australia advocates using 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. It 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 until 2016. The PRSA seeks 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.