Sunday, September 15, 2013

Key choice for voters

Dr Patrick Barrett, senior lecturer in political science at University of Waikato,  analyses the choice between First Past the Post and Single Transferable Voting:

The appearance of Single Transferable Vote (STV) signs around Hamilton has given me cause to revisit the textbooks on electoral systems.  I needed more information, without which casting a vote would be similar to my experience in previous council elections when, I confess, I have voted with little knowledge about what candidates have stood for and their likely impact if elected.

The First Past the Post system (FPP) system is familiar.  It gives us a separate vote for each seat to be filled in our electorate or ward.  Those with the largest numbers of votes make it on to the council.  But how does STV work?

The name of the system of voting, Single Transferable Vote, tells us a number of things.  We get a single vote and that vote is transferable.  Under STV, we get to rank all of the candidates in our order of preference - 1,2,3, and so on.  If the person we rank as the most preferred candidate gains sufficient votes and does not need our vote, our next preference is counted.  Similarly, if our preferred candidate has so few votes as to have no chance of being elected, then our  vote is transferred to our next preference. Under STV, the voter, according to the STV Taskforce, is effectively saying something like:

"The candidate I most wish to see represent me on the council is Joe Bloggs.   If Joe wins so many votes that he doesn't need my vote to be elected, then my vote is to be transferred to Bill Smith to help him get sufficient votes to be elected.  But if Joe has so few votes that he can't possibly be elected, my vote is to be transferred to Bill."

STV is known as a more sophisticated system, better suited to the type of multi-member wards we have in city council elections.  Its sophistication, though, is both its virtue and its shortcoming.  Supporters accept it is more complex than FPP, but argue that you do not need to know the detail of how votes are counted and preferences allocated to gain the benefits from it. It's a bit like not needing to know how the microprocessors in computers work to get the benefit of using them.

Arguments in favour of STV emphasise its fairness and its potential to effectively represent the preference of voters.  There are fewer wasted votes and those elected are more likely to have the support of a majority of voters.  We would be more able to identify someone on the council we have helped to elect.

Arguments against STV emphasise its complexity in requiring voters to rank candidates, count votes and allocate preferences.

Arguments in favour of FPP emphasise its simplicity and familiarity. It is well understood and there is a degree of public confidence in it.  It has an uncomplicated method of counting votes and results are known speedily.

But FPP is more likely to lead to councils that do not have the support of the majority in the community. Those elected might have a relatively small proportion of the vote and it is more likely that representation is denied to quite a substantial number of voters.

In the end, our evaluation of the merits of FPP and STV comes down to the value we place on things like fairness, the potential of the system to represent the distinctive personality of our community, and our view on the capacity of the system to allow us to elect candidates that best represent our interests.

A number of excellent information sources are available, such as which has a link to a great animated display explaining vote counting under STV.