The STY voting system we use for local elections throws up a lot of questions. JOHN BISHOP
outlines just some of the things to ponder before local-body voting begins next month.
Voting papers for Wellington’s local government elections go out in mid-September, with at least eight candidates seeking the mayoralty; each proclaims that they have the unique set of skills, vision, and experience needed to lead the city.
Under the STV voting system used here, voters rank the candidates, giving their most preferred
candidate number one, their next preferred number two and so on down the list. (Voters are not required to use all their preferences, and many don’t.) When the votes are counted, if no candidate has a majority of the votes cast then the lowest-polling candidate is removed and the second preferences of that candidate’s voters are added to the totals for the other candidates. This process is repeated until one candidate has a majority of the votes cast. Each stage is called an iteration.
Since STV was introduced no candidate for mayor has won on the first iteration. In 2010 Celia Wade-Brown won on the sixth iteration, and on the fifth in 2013.
All the candidates surveyed by Capital (not including Helene Ritchie who announced her candidacy after the survey was completed) emphasise that they are trying to get as many first-preference votes as possible.
But as no one is likely to win on the first count, getting second and third (and even fourth and fifth preferences) becomes essential to winning. It’s a vital question in this race, where there is a very open field with two serving mayors and five councillors standing. Right now it’s likely that Nick Leggett and Justin Lester are ahead of the rest, their campaigns having been visible for longer than that of Jo Coughlan, whose momentum is however rising.
Incumbent mayor Celia Wade-Brown has done little other than her normal mayoral duties to raise her profile. Nicola Young is probably behind the others, and the positions of the recently announced Helene Ritchie and Andy Foster are unclear.
The final candidate (so far) is Keith Johnson, who has not responded to inquiries.
Nick Leggett says he is running “a strong campaign across the city that is broadly appealing to
people, groups and suburbs”.
Nicola Young says she is “asking for voters to make me their first preference. If they have committed to another candidate, I am asking for their second preference.”
Justin Lester says his strategy is “to be the best candidate with the best policies and track record of getting things done.”
Candidates are reluctant and wary about telling voters how to vote; Nick Leggett expresses the commonly held view: “It’s not for me to direct their preferences, nor do I believe Kiwi culture would welcome this.”
Nicola Young adds, “Candidates cannot instruct their supporters about how to distribute their preferences.”
Others are less diffident. Andy Foster says, “I will be talking to some candidates about this.”
And Jo Coughlan is open to having the conversation. She thinks Celia’s running again “makes it
tough for Justin Lester to win”. “I hope that those who have supported Justin and want to change the mayor are prepared to vote strategically and give me their second preference.”
Celia Wade-Brown says promoting her ideas rather than attacking other candidates means “other candidates’ supporters don’t rule me out. Due to my work with different cultural groups in the City … I believe I would be likely to pick up many ethnic communities’ first or second preferences.”
Jo Coughlan says, “I am open to a discussion with Nick, Nicola and Justin about their second and third preference votes, and my second and third preferences.”
Overseas political parties commonly make deals in preferential voting systems for policies, political posts and funding for projects. It’s open and explicit; voters in Germany and Australia, for example, accept it as part of the culture.
Those voters also accept being guided by “their” political party about how to vote. Not so in New Zealand, where there is some strategic voting at a national level, (Epsom, Ohariu, and Wellington Central) but not in local government.
Also there is little to trade at council level, and not much is exclusively within the gift of the mayor. Council chairs, portfolios, committee memberships and directorships on outside bodies all have to be approved by the whole council.
Asked about making deals, the candidates recognise the importance of getting voters to give them second and third preferences, but most are diffident about doing more than asking for support.
Justin Lester says he will be asking for second preferences if he can’t win a voter’s first preference.
Andy Foster adds, “If asked I will say who in my view is next best placed … to take our city forward.”
In Wellington mayoralty races maximising first preference votes is vital but not sufficient for victory.
In 2004, the first election held under the preferential voting system, Kerry Prendergast was easily the most popular candidate on the first count with 22,069 votes compared to 7,703 for her nearest rival, Rob Goulden.
But it still took five iterations for her to get a majority, and she won only when Goulden was eliminated and she picked up 30 per cent of his vote to defeat Councillor Brian Pepperell.
In 2007 there were 11 candidates for mayor and Prendergast won only on the ninth iteration, despite starting
with a massive lead on the first count – 17,990 votes over her nearest rival Ray Apihene-Mercer on 6,954. Finally, she got to 21,866 votes to beat Brian Pepperell on 10,125 votes. Her initial lead was decisive, but large numbers of voters had not used all their preferences.
In 2010, Prendergast had a clear lead over Celia Wade-Brown after the first count. But Wade-Brown picked up more preferences than Prendergast from the three liberal left candidates who were successively eliminated.
Wade-Brown then got 2,420 of Brian Pepperrell’s preferences compared with 878 for Prendergast. The last candidate to be eliminated was Jack Yan. Voters who put Yan as number one chose Wade-Brown second by more than two to one over Prendergast – 3,459 votes to 1,806 votes, enough to put Wade-Brown into the mayoral chair by just 176 votes.
In 2013 it happened again. Jack Yan was again the last candidate to be eliminated, with Yan’s preferences going 3,899 to Wade-Brown and 3,237 to Morrison. 28 per cent of his voters – 2,279 – expressed no preference, a figure more than twice Wade-Brown’s majority over John Morrison.
So preferences matter and they matter a lot. But explicit deals among the candidates are less likely.
Who likes whom in the mayoral race
Candidates were asked who would they prefer to have as mayor – other than themselves – and also who they would least like to have as mayor.
All but one candidate responded in general political language and did not explicitly identify any other candidate.
Andy Foster said, “It comes down to who is authentic, motivated by ambition for the city rather than themselves … a genuine joined-up vision for the long term and a work ethic needed for a 2417 role.”
Nick Leggett said he liked all the candidates but “at this stage there isn’t a strong ‘second’. That doesn’t mean one won’t emerge in the next few weeks.”
Justin Lester said he’d like to see someone with similar views to his, “positive about Wellington with vision, leadership and business skills, an ability to work with people and a track record of achievement.”
Jo Coughlan said, “The candidates who encourage their supporters to give me their second preferences will be those most acceptable to me.”
Nicola Young said she was the only candidate who “has pledged to freeze rates, stamp out council waste and focus on core business.” All the other contenders had promised vanity projects costing millions, “so I cannot support them.”
The only candidate who was prepared to name names was Mayor Celia Wade Brown, who chose Justin Lester as her preferred alternative and Nicola Young as her least preferred candidate.
Maximising your vote under stv
So how do you get the most impact from your vote under STV? One view is to use all your preferences putting your least preferred candidate last. Seems reasonable; candidates ranked in order of preference.
Most people will have a preferred candidate and perhaps an acceptable second choice. Numbers three, four and five, are increasingly difficult. They may be people whom you really don’t want to support so giving them any support at all seems to run counter to your beliefs.
On the other hand, voting for just one or two people will reduce your influence on the outcome if those two drop out of the contest early on. Some voters also want to vote against someone they really dislike. No quarrel with that, but the strategy is different. The best way to defeat someone you dislike is to vote for the person most likely to beat them, which isn’t necessarily your own preferred candidate.
In the end there is no “right” or “wrong” way to vote under STV. Much depends on what you are seeking to achieve, and how soon “your” candidate drops out. The candidates all back STV as superior to first past the post, but many people have reservations and some think more voter education is required .