Councils currently have the opportunity to consider this important question. But a recent Kaipara District Council decision looks set to ensure this district turns its back on the prospect of a more diverse council truly representative of the various communities making up Kaipara District.
This decision by the Kaipara council is to drop the current single transferable vote (STV) voting system and revert to the first-past-the-post (FPP) system for the next elections in 2025 and 2028.
STV has been used in Kaipara since it first became available in 2004. However, like some other STV councils around the country, it is clear its advantages over FPP and the conditions for these to be achieved are still not well understood.
This situation arises from councils being left to rely on their own limited resources to assess the relative advantages and disadvantages of STV and FPP, and then to inform their communities accordingly. This is in marked contrast to when the country moved to the mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system for parliamentary elections, with its accompanying nationwide education and information programmes.
No voting system is perfect, with all having their respective advantages and disadvantages. The advantages of FPP relate solely to its relative simplicity and resulting ease of understanding and use. Its disadvantages, on the other hand, translate directly as the advantages of STV.
STV is undeniably a fairer voting system with election results reflecting the preferences of a much wider range of voters. This is achieved through the transfer of votes, either from candidates who are not successful, or from candidates who do not need all the votes they receive in order to be elected. This contrasts starkly with the ‘winner takes all’ nature of FPP.
STV also has the advantage, in single-vacancy elections like mayoralties, of ensuring the successful candidate gains a majority of the votes cast. In the case of the Kaipara mayoralty in October 2022, now Mayor Jepson had 41 per cent of the votes on the first count, but by the final count, after all transfers had been completed using STV, this had increased to 62 per cent of the vote. Clearly, this is a stronger mandate from more voters than would have been achieved under a single count FPP election.
STV can also be a proportional representation system, but this will not happen automatically. This is the area where better understanding is most required. In particular, understanding that proportional representation will not occur in single- or two-vacancy elections, and only marginally so in three-vacancy elections. These are the sizes of all the current Kaipara wards.
To demonstrate this, and for the sake of simplicity, I give the example of an at-large election in Kaipara District for nine councillors, using data from the October 2022 elections. The number of voters is 8366 and the quota to be elected for such an election under STV would be 836 (the number of votes divided by one more than the number of vacancies, ie. by 10). I also use the October elections voter turnout of 48 per cent.
It can be seen that the figure of 836 votes needed in order to be elected, could reasonably be expected to be achieved by a representative or representatives of a number of significant communities of interest in Kaipara District:
· Young electors (18 to 29 years): approximately 2500 and with 48 per cent turnout gives 1200 voters
· Rural electors: approximately 15,100 and with 48 per cent turnout gives 7250 voters
· Māori electors: approximately 4400 and with 48 per cent turnout gives 2100 voters
At the same time, election of representatives of these district-wide communities of interest need not be at the expense of local placed-based communities. The Kaiwaka-Mangawhai ward, for example, had 3186 voters in October 2022.
In an STV election in Kaipara District, using at-large arrangements being the most conducive to achieving proportional representation, voters could have the ‘best of both worlds’ by electing representatives from both communities of interest spread across the district, as well as those from local place-based communities.
Frequent mistruths about STV also need to be addressed. Surveys of voters have found they do not find the ranking of candidates significantly more difficult than ticking boxes under FPP. This is reflected in the rate of informal and blank voting documents (0.8 per cent and 2.1 per cent respectively in Kaipara District in October 2022) being not significantly different from that in FPP elections.
Elections at-large need not have a negative impact on voter turnout. For example, Dunedin City Council, an STV council with elections at-large, had 40 candidates at the October 2022 elections and achieved 50 per cent voter turnout.
In reality, the disadvantages of STV relate only to its relative complexity compared to FPP, the slightly longer time to process election results and consequently its slightly higher cost. In response, I pose the question ‘what price greater local democracy?’
Clearly what is required of councils is a thorough and even-handed analysis of the advantages and disadvantage of both STV and FPP. This needs to include a proper understanding of how STV works and the circumstances in which it works best. This responsibility lies with councils.
However, electors in Kaipara District will shortly have the opportunity to demand a poll on the council’s decision to return to FPP for the 2025 and 2028 elections. If such a demand does arise, the council will then be obliged to ensure electors are well informed about both voting systems.
Gavin Beattie is a former senior adviser to the Local Government Commission and previously worked in the local government policy team at the Department of Internal Affairs where he led the policy development for the Local Electoral Act 2001.