Local Government Magazine
Local Democracy

The FPP or STV question rolls around again

This year most councils and communities again face the question of whether to use FPP or STV for the next triennial elections in 2025. Gavin Beattie, a former Local Government Commission senior adviser, addresses key issues they need to consider.

The option of using either first-past-the-post (FPP) or single transferable vote (STV) for council elections has been in place for the past seven triennial elections, i.e. since 2004. 

Despite the lapse of time, it is fair to say that a relatively small number of councils (15 at the time of the October 2022 elections) have seen the potential benefits of STV. 

It is also true that, while a handful of early adopters soon returned to FPP, all remaining councils, once having adopted STV, have stuck with it. This includes six councils (Kaipara, Kapiti Coast, Porirua, Wellington, Marlborough and Dunedin) who have used STV since 2004. 

What do these statistics tell us about the relative merits of the two voting systems and the level of understanding of these merits?

It should first be noted there is no perfect voting system. If there was, everyone would use it and councils and their communities would not be faced with the choice of which system to use. 

The respective advantages and disadvantages of FPP and STV can be summarised succinctly. 

FPP is familiar to voters using it, and it is relatively simple to use – you place ticks in the boxes of candidates up to the number of positions available, and the candidates with the most votes win. 

STV elections, on the other hand, by voters ranking the candidates, result in a better reflection of the preferences of more voters by ensuring fewer votes are ‘wasted’, and can provide proportional representation for the significant communities of interest in the area.

In essence, the disadvantages of both systems are the reverse of the advantages of the other system.

Given the familiarity and more widespread use of FPP, I focus in this article on advantages and disadvantages of STV.

A key feature of STV which needs to be understood, is the ‘quota’ of votes required to be elected. 

The quota is calculated by dividing the number of valid votes by one more than the number of positions, i.e. by two in the case of the mayoralty, by three in the case of a two-member ward and so on. (A small fraction is also added to the quota to avoid the possibility of a tie between two candidates.)

Once a candidate reaches the quota, votes for that candidate are successively transferred to voters’ next preferred candidate. This continues until sufficient candidates reach the quota, either by the transfer of surplus votes, or the transfer of votes from the least popular candidates.

The beauty of STV is that the surplus and other transferred votes help elect a wider range of candidates than occurs under FPP. With FPP, votes are often ‘wasted’ on popular candidates who do not need all the votes they receive, or on candidates who have little chance of success.

Because votes are transferred between candidates under STV, there is no incentive for voters to vote other than for their true preferred candidates. This means voters do not need to consider how other voters will vote, and then vote strategically in order to have a say in the election of particular candidates, or maybe attempt to ensure other candidates are not elected.

The outcome of more voters’ true preferences being reflected in an STV election, can in turn then result in representation which is roughly proportional to the significant communities of interest in the city/district/region concerned.

I say ‘can’ result, because there are certain requirements for this to be achieved. 

One of these requirements is still the need for a comprehensive, countrywide STV education and information campaign.

If the recommendation of the Future for Local Government review panel, in its draft report, that STV be used by all councils, is adopted, such a campaign should be more likely. 

Councils also need to play their part. 

If councils truly wish to increase participation at election time, they need to have a good understanding of the most conducive representation arrangements. This relates particularly to the size of wards or constituencies, including the option of at-large arrangements, coupled with STV.

In determining optimum representation arrangements, councils need to know the communities of interest making up the area, and the balance between those that are locally or geographically defined, and those that are spread across the whole area.

It may well be the case, for example, that the younger population is spread across the whole area and arrangements, such as at-large or larger wards, will achieve better representation for this frequently under-represented and under-engaged group.

The same applies in respect of Maori and is particularly important where low numbers registered on the Maori electoral roll make establishment of a Maori ward or constituency impractical.

Other communities that can benefit from a similar approach may be particular ethnic groups, the disabled and also rural electors who often feel disadvantaged by the number of urban electors.

I turn now to perceived disadvantages of STV. 

Some may think the relative complexity of STV compared to FPP, will be demonstrated in election statistics. This however is not the case.

In relation to voter turnout, factors contributing to ongoing disappointing turnout in council elections are clearly deeper and more pervasive than the use of STV. This is demonstrated by turnout in STV councils at the 2022 elections, being both higher and lower than the average turnout for all NZ councils. 

One example rebutting any perception of complexity of STV having a negative impact on voter turnout, is Ruapehu District. Here voter turnout increased to 51% in both 2019 and 2022 under STV, compared to 48 percent in 2016 under FPP.

Another example demonstrating factors at play other than the use of STV, is Dunedin. For a number of years now, the elections in Dunedin have been at-large resulting in a relatively large number of candidates. In 2022 there were 40 candidates for the 14 positions on this STV council, and still a relatively high voter turnout of 50 percent.

In conclusion, councils first need to be clear about the outcomes they wish to achieve at the next triennial elections in 2025. 

If they really are seeking to increase current participation rates, and particularly of those groups currently under-engaged and under-represented, a good place to start is consideration of the voting system most likely to achieve this. LG

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