Councils need to start considering the representation arrangements that will apply at the next local authority elections in October 2019. This involves 56 councils that have to review their arrangements as it is six years since their last rethink. Gavin Beattie, from the Local Government Commission, says this also provides other councils with the opportunity to consider the need for a further review this time around.
Councils must make two important preliminary decisions in 2017. These are closely linked to other representation arrangement decisions: the choice of electoral system ie, first past the post (FPP) or single transferable vote (STV); and the option of Māori wards or constituencies.
What is the council trying to achieve?
Councils should begin the review process by considering carefully what they want to achieve with their overall representation arrangements. For example, are they seeking greater community participation in council affairs including at election time?
While issues such as voter turnout are complex in nature and subject to many factors, councils in such cases should seriously consider the different representation options with a view to helping encourage people to stand for, and vote at, local elections.
FPP or STV?
FPP is seen by many as the tried and true electoral system at the local level and it requires no further description here. FPP was, of course, also the tried and true system for parliamentary elections until 1996 when the mixed member proportional (MMP) system was introduced.
Now this system of proportional representation, providing significantly more diverse representation for the community, has become established for central government elections.
STV is also a way of achieving proportional representation without the contentious element of the ‘unelected’ list members. To achieve proportionality, STV does require either ‘at large’ elections or multi-member wards / constituencies. However single-member wards / constituencies, including mayoral elections, still guarantee successful candidates secure a majority of valid votes cast under STV.
An argument against STV is that it is too complicated. This was rebutted by respondents to a survey conducted for the Local Government Commission in 2007. Nearly 80 percent of respondents who had heard of STV and used it for just two District Health Board elections (in 2004 and 2007) found the system “easy to understand and use”. Admittedly the counting of STV votes is more complex and hence the need for computers to undertake this task.
The level of blank and informal votes is also used as an argument against the adoption of STV. In line with the above statistics, analysis shows that this is more a matter of voters having to swap between the two electoral systems on the same voting paper than the nature of STV itself.
This is demonstrated by recent Greater Wellington Regional Council election results. After the council moved to STV for the 2013 and 2016 elections, the number of informal votes dropped significantly in the Wellington, Porirua-Tawa and Kapiti Coast constituencies being areas where the territorial authority also uses STV.
On the other hand, there were increases in the number of informal votes in the other constituencies, where the territorial authority uses FPP, in both 2013 and 2016.
I return now to the benefits of STV. As a proportional representation system held in ‘at large’ elections or where there are fewer and larger wards, it can be used to help increase participation by particular groups in terms of both voting and encouraging candidates. This recognises that groups such as young people, for example, are likely to be spread across a city or district.
STV in an ‘at large’ election can operate as a type of ‘informal ward’ system with a successful candidate needing to gain a specific ‘quota’ of votes to be elected. In the case of, say, a 10-member council, successful candidates require just one eleventh of the total votes cast to be elected (one twelfth for an 11-member council and so on).
A candidate seeking to gain support of young voters could then focus their campaign in parts of the city or district where young people are concentrated equating to approximately one eleventh of the total population.
On the other hand, young electors will be more likely to vote if they recognise such a candidate specifically targeting their votes and with a reasonable chance of success.
Separate Māori representation?
Bearing in mind statutory obligations, some councils may be considering the option of Māori wards or constituencies. This is often seen as a way of addressing poor representation of Māori around council tables. It does have the limitation, however, in only enabling those on the Māori electoral roll to vote in a Māori ward / constituency election.
According to the Electoral Commission website, this means that, as a result of the 2013 Māori electoral option, an average of only 55 percent of Māori would be entitled to vote in a particular Māori ward / constituency election.
Councils could consider the STV option as an alternative to achieve a desired objective of enhanced Māori representation. In the same way as for the example above in relation to young people, STV would allow a candidate seeking the support of Māori voters to campaign in areas where Māori are more concentrated again equating to approximately one eleventh of the total population (in the case of a 10-member council). With STV there is no restriction relating to voters being on the Māori roll.
The big picture
Clearly decisions about the electoral system and Māori representation, and also those about ‘at large’ or ward systems and the size of wards / constituencies, are all linked. Councils need to keep in mind the big picture they are striving for when making each of these decisions starting with the electoral system decision by September 12 this year.
This article was first published in the June 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.