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STV: Healthy Baby, Difficult Birth

STV: Healthy Baby, Difficult Birth

By Rod Donald, MP

Hands up who knows the results of last Saturday’s senate election in Australia? The answer is “no one” because four days after Australians went to the polls only 81 per cent of their votes have been counted.

While there have been various predictions about the final makeup of their senate there is still another week and a half of counting by hand to go before the final result is known. In the meantime, several senate seats hang in the balance. The story is the same for Australia’s House of Representatives, where 10 seats remain undecided.

What’s the Australian general election got to do with New Zealand’s local body elections? Obviously, they were both held on the same day but, more importantly, ten of our councils and all of our District Health Boards were elected by the same voting systems that they use – preferential and single transferable vote (STV).

Despite the unacceptable delays in producing provisional results for our local body elections I am still confident we will have all the final results before our Australian cousins know theirs. That is because we have the most sophisticated and accurate method of calculating preferential votes in the world. That sophistication may have also contributed to the problems that are now discrediting STV in some people’s minds.

One thing that can’t be taken away from STV is that it does deliver majority mayors and more representative councils and community boards. On the other hand first past the post continues to produce minority mayors, the two worst examples this year being Manukau, where Sir Barry Curtis holds on with 27.2 per cent of the vote and Palmerston North, where Heather Tanguay scraped through with 27.5 per cent of the vote.

In contrast Kerry Prendergast has been re-elected in Wellington with over 60 per cent of first and subsequent preferences compared to the 34 per cent she won under first past the post in 2001 and the new mayor of Dunedin, Peter Chin, won majority support with STV whereas his predecessor, Sukhi Turner, could muster only 34 per cent of the vote.

I strongly support a full enquiry into what went wrong at the Datamail processing centre in Wellington and why Christchurch based had not discovered these glitches before Saturday’s election. I also want the inquiry to look into whether the three week voting period has a negative effect on turnout because it was so long and to what extent having two voting systems on one ballot paper either put people off voting or caused them to make mistakes.

I have no doubt that using two systems at the same time was confusing for some. This was born out by a much lower level of spoilt ballot papers in Marlborough and Kapiti, where all the voting was by STV. While my preference is for all councils to switch to STV at the next election, because it guarantees majority, fair representation on council and fewer wasted votes, I believe two systems could work side by side if the ballot papers are clearly and boldly marked with big headings: “FPP with a tick” or “STV – 1, 2, 3”, and there was a proper education campaign in the lead-up to voting

It makes sense for the Electoral Commission, which already does voter education for parliamentary elections, to have responsibility for informing voters about how to vote in council and health board elections as well as running comprehensive civics programmes in our schools. Taken together, these suggestions will reduce the level of spoilt ballot papers and may help to slow the gradual decline in voter turnout.

But this year’s election highlights that we have a more fundamental problem on our hands. The voter turnout only increased where there were serious mayoral contests, such as in Auckland and Manukau. Elsewhere the turnout has been at best static and at worst down by over 12 per cent, for example in Christchurch. The reasons for the poor Christchurch turnout are probably a combination of the mayoral result being a foregone conclusion and additional confusion because of the reduced size of council and restructured ward system.

Unfortunately, STV does not appear to have reversed this decline although some of the councils that have adopted the new system, such as Papakura and Dunedin, appear to have held their vote. However even the terrible turnouts in North Shore (34 per cent), Waitakere (36) and Christchurch (37) are considerably healthier than the last time polling booth voting took place in New Zealand (in 1992) when the turnout in Hutt City was a mere 26 per cent.

The Select Committee inquiry also needs to hear how the Taranaki councils and Independent Election Services (IES) in Auckland managed to get their STV results out in good time when failed to deliver. I accept that the last minute rush of ballot papers and a higher than expected error rate in voting (apparently much higher than dairy farmers who use STV) contributed to processing problems but IES were still able to announce the results of New Zealand’s largest STV election, for the Auckland District Health Board at 10pm on Saturday night. Over 127,000 votes were scanned, checked and counted within ten hours of the close of polling. That’s quite an achievement when you compared it with the two weeks it will take the Australians to complete the same exercise.

IES also announced three STV council results on Saturday night for Kaipara, Thames-Coromandel and Papakura as well as nine first past the post council results on Saturday afternoon.

Despite these achievements STV could not have had a worse beginning. There are plenty of lessons to be learnt but I would still rather spend a few more hours getting the result right than spending three years with the wrong mayor and council. As the cheese ads say: “good things take time”.

I am confident we will look back and say that STV had a difficult birth but produced very healthy babies. First past the post may be quicker but the outcomes are often under weight and unhealthy. As someone who is proud to claim shared paternity for STV in New Zealand I can empathise with all those candidates who are still pacing the corridors without knowing what the results of last Saturday’s STV elections will be. I sincerely hope they will be worth waiting for.

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