“STV? – standard traditional values, perhaps?”
“STV - feel like I should know, but I don’t.”
Tauranga local body voters wrestling with the acronym STV - the newly adopted voting system that will determine the composition and direction of the new Tauranga City Council for the next three years.
“STV - sexually transmitted virus… maybe?” Maybe not. STV - single transferrable vote. But it doesn’t matter because this 20-year-old has also declared her vote null and void.
“The election is not on my radar.”
The decision to overhaul the voting system in Tauranga city from First Past the Post to STV was made by a council majority in 2017. “I am certainly not the right person to be singing its benefits,” says Mayor Greg Brownless. He was not part of that majority.
“First because I believe such a major decision should have been made by the community through a referendum, not by council resolution with no consultation.” Secondly, because the Mayor believes STV confuses voters.
“It’s easy to make a mistake and invalidate the vote.” And thirdly because of the trust put in an algorithm to determine the result - an algorithm, or a process followed by a computer in making a calculation, like deciding an STV election result.
“It will be good to read the Weekend Sun’s explanation of STV and see if readers understand it,” says Mayor Brownless.
“Algorithm? – wouldn’t want to go there,” says councillor Rick Curack. It is difficult to explain in terms that people would understand. But in the end, the electorate does not need to understand algorithms, vote transfers and quotas – all those complexities of Single Transferrable Voting.
Chief returning officer Warwick Lampp reassures voters. “The calculation that works it all has been audited and certified by the Department of Internal Affairs.” And, says Warwick, it does what it is supposed to do.
Algorithms aside, Rick Curach sees the value of STV.
“The complexity is not evident, because the voter will simply look at the election paper and it will say to rank candidates in their order or preference. 1,2,3,4… as many or few as you want. That’s not complex.”
Obviously the more preferences the voter gives, the more rankings they make, the more candidates they will be helping. So if you rank three candidates, your vote will help all three. Conversely, if you rank just one candidate then you assist just that one candidate. Part of your vote doesn’t go to help any other candidate.
But the moral of the STV story is if you don’t like a candidate, you don’t want them to be mayor or on council, then don’t rank them at all, even at the bottom of your list. You should only rank those you want elected.
“Because the moment you give a ranking to someone you don’t want, part of your vote is probably going to help them,” says Warwick. “And you may not want that.” So boil it down to the key ranking strategy – if you want them to be there, give them a vote, rank them. If you don’t want them to be there, don’t give them a vote, don’t rank them.
Rick Curach voted for the shift to STV.
“On the basis it makes for a closer reflection of the will of the community, of which elected members it prefers to have.” But he agrees with Mayor Brownless on one point. “I recall in informal discussion afterwards, we thought it should have gone out for consultation. But once again, the complexity would have made it difficult for a lot of Joe Public to understand and provide effective feedback.”
Ireland uses STV, as does Malta. Eleven New Zealand councils use STV, all the district health boards and the Greater Wellington Regional Council.
One key advantage or strength of STV is local body politics might become less polarized, according to Dr Ollie Hellmann, senior lecturer in political studies at the University of Waikato political scientist.
“If I run for office under STV, I know I need to mobilise people’s preference votes. I can’t rely on mobilizing one particular voter group and think 500 or 600 votes is enough to win.”
He might have to cosy up to other voter groups he might not normally engage with because he might need their second or third preferences.
“So it makes the politics a bit less polarized, a bit less hostile.”
And as Rick also suggested, Dr Hellmann says it helps makes councils more representative. “With FPP, you will usually get two parties dominating the law-making organ, in this case the council. But with STV smaller parties, smaller groups, minorities, have a better chance of winning representation.”
So would the complex STV voting system encourage or deter voter turnout in a city which reached just 38 percent in 2016. “Could go either way,” says Dr Hellmann. “Whether people will necessarily understand it immediately – that’s the question. The complexity might turn people away.
“But at the same time, the fact the person’s voice is more likely to be heard under this system, might just encourage people.”
There is an anomaly in Tauranga where the city has shifted to STV, the district health board will be STV but the Bay of Plenty Regional Council will be first past the post.
“My response to all that is the voting papers are very clear as to how you should vote in each election,” says Warwick, “So just read the instructions carefully before you vote.”
You can find out more about Tauranga City Council’s first STV election at: www.sgtv.govt.nz