In 2004, local authorities will have the option of using the single transferable vote system. Or, if petitioned, they may be required to hold a referendum to decide whether to adopt STV.

District health boards will be using STV on a trial basis.

So far, the public discussion on this issue has been either absent or cynical. For example, Brian Rudman and David Thornton, in Dialogue articles, focused on the least important feature of STV, the method of counting the votes, while ignoring the issues that make local body electoral reform an important issue.

After all, if we are serious about democracy, local government should be accountable and representative rather than arbitrary and subject to excessive swings.

Multi-member first-past-the-post must be one of the worst voting systems ever thought of.

It is at its worst in the stand-alone community boards. A community board is a mini-parliament of, say, six representatives. Each voter gets not one but six votes.

Just imagine a first-past-the-post general election in which voters get 120 votes.

Most voters either go for candidates with name recognition - for example, former MPs, sportspeople or broadcasters - or for tickets.

Tickets are the local equivalent of political parties.

Ticket voting can lead to a whole community board being from the one ticket; a mini-version of a parliament with only Labour or National MPs.

Three years later, another ticket wins, meaning that the whole board is dismissed and replaced en masse by another ticket.

That defeats the purpose of having community boards. They should reflect the diversity of their communities.

The present local authority voting system could be called MNV: multiple non-transferable voting. It means that a ticket which is marginally more popular than each of the other tickets may win all six seats. That ticket may only command 40 per cent of the vote.

MNV is a version of the winner-takes-all system, not unlike the American electoral college in Florida which opted 25-0 for George W. Bush.

A simple reform would be SNV: single non-transferable voting. Instead of six votes for a board of six, we would get just one vote. Counting could not be simpler.

Typically, with SNV in a six-member community board, the most popular ticket would have three persons elected. The next most popular ticket would have two elected. And a third ticket would have one person elected. There would be some anomalies, though.

For example, the most favoured candidate - possibly the only candidate with name recognition - of the most popular ticket might get almost all of the votes for that ticket, meaning a ticket that should have three people elected ends up getting just one.

Hence the advantages of a transferable vote system such as STV - voting for up to six candidates in order of preference. STV allows some of that vote to be spread to other candidates on the ticket, while still preventing the ticket from sweeping the floor.

The upshot is that a single vote system - even one with a very simple counting system - would be much better than what we have today.

With a more sophisticated counting system, the new structure would guarantee that community boards, city councils and regional councils would be representative of their constituents.

It is a mistake to test STV on district health boards. These boards are the least subject to ticket voting. They are subject to a higher degree of random voting and non-voting than community boards and councils.

No system will help when electors are faced with an array of independent candidates or tickets that they have never heard of.

STV will probably die without getting a fair trial. The consequence will be ongoing instability at the grassroots level of our democracy.

There is a second reason why STV should be allowed to have a fair trial. We still hear talk about replacing MMP for national elections. The problem for people opposed to MMP is that we have no system that has not been rejected to replace MMP with. Familiarity with another system would make a referendum on MMP meaningful.

MMP is superior to STV (and by a wide margin) for national elections. STV promotes personality rivalry within political parties. Kiwis like not only parties but also blocs of parties (for example, the centre-left bloc) to display internal unity and co-operativeness.

But MMP is not practical for community boards and the like.

The need to stabilise our local authority electoral process is imperative. The Alliance dominated in the 1992 Auckland elections. In 1995 they increased their vote, yet got wiped.

We can do it so much better. STV can bring both continuity and accountability to local government.

* Keith Rankin teaches statistics and economics at Unitec.