In November 2002, electors in Wellington voted to adopt single transferable voting (STV) as the system for electing the mayor and city councillors.
After STV had been used in the 2004 and 2007 Wellington city council elections a second referendum was held. In September 2008 a narrow majority of voters again opted for STV.
Because STV is also used throughout New Zealand to elect district health board members, voters in Wellington have had quite a lot of experience with STV.
Nevertheless, some people are still confused by the single transferable voting system.
This includes voters and candidates.
Let’s look first at confusion on the part of voters.
Some years ago, Franz Ombler, a former student of mine, re-analysed the computerised voting records of several local body authorities.
Ombler found that many district health board electors voted from one to seven in alphabetic order.
Many electors had assumed that because there were seven vacancies on each health board, they therefore had seven votes.
These voters carefully decided which seven people they wanted to see on their DHB, and then voted for them in order – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 – down the ballot paper.
Under STV, however, it is essential to realise that each voter has only one vote. That is why it’s called the single transferable voting system.
The STV system gives us each just one vote apiece no matter whether we are voting for a single-member vacancy (such as the mayoralty) or in a multi- member seat (such as in, say, the Northern Ward of the Wellington city council).
Because voters have only one vote, they should put the number “1” next to the name of the candidate they most want to see elected.
But even though we have only one vote per vacancy, the beauty of the STV system is that – if necessary – our votes are transferable.
If the candidate you vote for (that is, the candidate to whom you give your first preference vote: your number “1” vote) has either too little support or too much support, then your second, third, fourth (and so on) preferences can be taken into account.
STV makes the results in multi- member seats (such as in DHBs and wards) reflect the support that each candidate – or party or faction – has.
In brief, STV leads to proportional representation in wards with more than one city councillor (which is the case throughout the city of Wellington).
This is far fairer than the old system we used to have in Wellington. They still use that system – first-past-the-post in multi-member seats – in Auckland. In Auckland’s Eden-Albert ward, for instance, the City Vision group’s three candidates won 45 per cent of the votes cast in 2004. Despite winning fewer than half the votes cast, City Vision won 100 per cent of the ward’s seats.
Under STV, it’s highly probable that the Citizens and Ratepayers Now grouping – which gained 31 per cent of the votes cast in the ward – would have won one of the ward’s three seats.
Wellington also uses the STV system to elect its mayor. It is a contest for a single vacancy, and the result cannot be proportional. When only one person can win office, by definition the winner takes all.
However, the single transferable voting system ensures that the ultimate winner – in this instance, the mayor of Wellington – has majority support. The support of 35 per cent of voters, or of 41 per cent of voters, is not enough. Successful candidates are required to have the support of more than half the voters.
The system for electing the city’s mayor is similar to the preferential voting system used to elect 150 members of the Australian House of Representatives earlier this month.
In Australia, you don’t hear unsuccessful candidates claiming they were defeated by the electoral system. A few days ago, for example, a prominent front-bench Liberal MP, Sophie Mirabella, said that the responsibility for her unexpected loss was hers; she alone was to blame.
The contrast with a former mayor of Wellington’s views could not have been more stark. Three years ago Kerry Prendergast blamed single transferable voting for her defeat. STV, she said, was unfair and undemocratic.
The facts, though, are that both Ms Prendergast and Ms Mirabella failed to garner majority support.
Under STV it’s not necessarily enough to lead on the first count (which is what both Ms Prendergast did in 2010 and Ms Mirabella did in Victoria this month).
Candidates for the mayoralty have to gain support across the spectrum. This means that they need to win second, third, and even fourth preference support from voters who don’t initially vote for them.
Candidates and voters who understand this – who realise that under STV electors have just one vote (regardless of whether they are voting in a single-member mayoral election or in a multi-member DHB or ward election), but that their vote is transferable – are more likely to be both effective and satisfied by the outcome of the election.
AT A GLANCE
How to vote using STV: Instead of ticking the candidates you want to vote for, with STV you number the candidates in order of preference. Put a “1” beside the candidate you like best, then a “2” beside your second choice, “3” by your third choice, and so on. You can vote for as many or as few candidates as you like.
What does the numbering do? By giving the number “1” to a candidate, you are saying that the candidate is your number one choice.
By ranking candidates in your preferred order – 1,2,3,4 and so on – you are also saying which other candidates you prefer if your top choice doesn’t have enough support to get in or, if your top choice doesn’t need all the votes they received to be elected.
What else do I need to know? For your vote to be counted there just needs to be a single “1”. After that the numbers you use must be in sequence and there must be only one of each number. If you make a mistake, your vote will be valid up to when you made the error – for example, if you miss out a “4” and just rank 1, 2, 3 and 5, only your first three preferences will be valid. Source: www.stv.govt.nz