It may seem curious that no matter how dissatisfied Hamiltonians are with the behaviour of their city’s Councillors, they rarely vote any of them out of office, especially given that for the last twenty years we have had a propensity for voting out the incumbent Mayor.
It is not surprising if you understand the way the will of the majority is distorted by the archaic ‘block’ First-Past-the-Post electoral system used to elect the Hamilton City Council and most other local bodies in New Zealand.
Especially when this effect is amplified by Hamilton’s low voter turn-out, a symptom of widespread alienation from local politics that is itself partially caused by the electoral system’s inability to deliver a representative cross-section of the city into the council chamber (among many other factors, and an entire other story).
The majority of the city, even a majority of the thirty per cent of eligible voters who did vote in the HCC’s 2016 election, are not stylistically conservative white men over 50, and yet such people usually form a majority on Council.
Older, whiter and/or male people generally find it easier than most to stand and get elected, for a variety of reasons – wealth, connections, profile, effective support system, cultural norms around perceptions of competence and normality – with the electoral system being a particular factor in their favour, especially when it comes to staying on Council once on it.
We often hear the view expressed that the Council should be voted out en masse, but based on the results of recent HCC elections, it is safe to say that if a Hamilton voter ticks six non-incumbents, the chance of getting any of their picks elected is not great, and the chances of four of them, let alone all six, getting a seat is virtually nil. Why is this?
Hamilton is split into two wards that each return six Councillors, East and West, so voters get six votes in the form of ticks that they can allocate one-at-a-time to the list of candidates, who usually total two to three dozen.
So potentially, the largest minority can get to choose all six elected Councillors, as in a particular 20 or 30 percent of voters, say, can give their six votes to the same six candidates. The other 70 to 80 percent of voters meanwhile spread their six votes out across the other dozen-plus candidates in a variety of combinations, meaning none of those candidates would get enough votes to outnumber any of the six choices of that minority block, with the result that the majority of voters would get no representation on Council at all.
Now that is the extreme, worse-case scenario, which is unlikely to entirely play out, but what happens now is just degrees of variation back from this most-tilted outcome.
As in, the largest minority of voters get most of the candidates they vote for successfully elected and forming a majority. In an HCC ward, only a fraction of these voters would have chosen all six of the successful, the rest would be getting four or five of their choices elected, such that either way, this minority sees their policy preferences and worldview form a majority around their ward’s half of the Council table.
Meanwhile, the majority of voters get either only one or two of their picks or none at all, collectively landing up under-represented in their city’s governance.
This situation massively favours the incumbents, as demonstrated by the fact that nearly all the successful candidates in recent years have got in by filling vacancies, and that Councillors have usually retired rather than being voted out.
This is down to a combination of the incumbents’ latent name recognition, a portion of the populace who will just always support the status quo, AND the way the mathematical chances shake down.
If you were to randomly select six names from a list of say 20 candidates in an HCC ward, you would get a numerous and even distribution of name combinations. But real people are making conscious choices, so in any such real-world vote, particular sets of candidate names are more likely to be chosen than others.
Of those more popular name combinations, the six incumbents are the combination of names most likely to be chosen together, as in the largest single group of voters, who may not be more than ten or fifteen per cent, just choose to tick the incumbents’ six boxes.
But then when you add on the blocks of votes that are just variations from that point – differing sets of five or four or three names – you land up with a solid large minority combining to return the incumbents. This cascade effect means that anyone who votes entirely for any set of non-incumbents is the least likely to see any of their choices elected.
One way that has been attempted to counter this is to put up a branded competing ‘ticket’ of candidates to try and attract a counter block vote, a sort of mini local political party – as the ‘Rates Control Team’ attempted in 2010, led by then Mayoral candidate and incumbent Councillor Roger Hennebry.
The ticket did not succeed in its mission of unseating the rest of the Council en masse, but the result in the East Ward, where there were no vacancies as all six incumbents were standing for re-election, confirmed this thesis.
The first five places went to incumbents, the sixth to the Silver Fern on the RCT ticket, Margaret Forsyth (who then immediately dropped her affiliation), seventh and eighth to a former Councillor attempting to return, Garry Mallet, (eventually re-elected three years later) and the knocked-out lowest-polling incumbent Glenda Saunders, (a rare exception that arguably proves the rule), then the rest of the RCT ticket.
Disclosure: In 2010 I was the next highest-polling candidate, the highest polling non-incumbent, non-ticket, non-returner. In 2013 I led a small-scale STV campaign for the Council’s un-resourced and hastily called referendum. So yes, I have first-hand experience and interest in all of this.
This is why Hamiltonians oft-stated dissatisfaction with their Council has not resulted in a wholesale clean-out, at least in the three decades I’ve been following it. They clearly want change in who represents and leads them, as evidenced by the fact the Mayor IS often voted out – since 1998 Julie Hardaker is the only incumbent Mayor re-elected and even she didn’t try her luck for a third term.
If you are only engaged with the upcoming 2019 Hamilton City Council election because there are one or two non-incumbent candidates that have got your attention, or with whom you agree and/or identify, there is one blunt tactic available to you when faced with these long odds described above.
Don’t use all six of your Council votes, only vote for the one or two you actually support. Because under the current six-vote FPP system, if you use the rest of your votes, you could be helping the recipients beat your more-favoured choices. This will however only slightly increase the chances for getting an individual outsider candidate elected, it doesn’t address the basic systemic problem.
Simply put, the local decision-making body that taxes us (yes tenants pay rates through their rent) and whose authority we recognise as legitimate, and to whom we submit, needs to reflect and genuinely represent the diversity of the whole population over whom it rules.
As in proportional representation, that is representation proportional to the votes received, where the ideal ‘perfect’ result would be six Councillors each elected by and representing at least one-sixth (or 16.6%) of the ward’s voters.
Diversity on Council is not only a virtue for its own sake. Anyone with experience in governance will tell you that the most effective boards, that make the best, most informed decisions, are those that are made up of a range of experiences and backgrounds – actual meritocratic selection for multiple positions fails if it only returns a set of clones.
So, an electoral system seeking to create such proportional representation from multi-member constituencies like Council wards must involve everybody’s first choice competing with each other on a level playing field, rather than the six choices of the largest minority getting a head start, as happens now.
In practical terms, this means the Single Transferable Vote – or STV – system. It is called ‘Single’ because instead of giving voters six votes each in the form of six ticks, it gives them one vote that they express as a numerical ranking – 1, 2, 3 etc – of the candidates.
This preferential vote then provides proportional results by being combined with a vote quota target, set by dividing the total individual votes received by the number of positions available – so for instance if 10,000 votes were cast to fill five positions, this basic initial quota that candidates would need to reach would be 2,000 full-vote equivalents. Then the voter’s choices after their first – the second, third, fourth and so on – have progressively less weighting in reaching that number.
The easiest way to imagine how it works is like this. If electing six Councillors, currently under FPP your six votes are like six counters of equal size and weight. After all the votes are cast, the successful candidates are the ones with the six largest piles of counters and thus, the result described above, where the largest minority dominate the outcome.
Whereas under STV, ranking the candidates is like getting counters of descending size, as in your first choice is a ‘full-size’ counter, and your second choice is represented by a counter half the size and weight of the first, and so on.
You could just rank six names for the six HCC ward positions, or rank all the candidates standing there, it doesn’t matter, this analogy holds, the twelfth or fifteenth-choice counters would just be very small.
Then, the aim is instead to fill equal-sized pots (AKA reach the quota of votes required) with these counters (AKA votes), starting with the largest first-choice counters.
Once all these first-choice full-size counters are allocated to pots, the pot with the least counters is removed from play and the second-choice counters from the voters whose first choice is now out are then distributed to the relevant other pots.
This process repeats until there are only six full pots left, electing six candidates to Council with at least some support from nearly every voter. Proportionality is achieved because each of the six successful candidates has support from as close to one-sixth of the voters as possible.
This is of course a simplification, there are further mechanisms for the counters/votes that are surplus once the pot/quota is full, and the size of the pots can be adjusted as the least-full ones are taken out of play. And there are various different forms of STV that each address these peripheral processes differently – New Zealand local bodies are required to use the ‘Meek system’.
The Department of Internal Affairs – STV Information Index
Wikipedia – Single transferable vote
to find out more about how STV works
A criticism of STV is that its mathematical workings are difficult for all voters to understand, an implication being that it can’t therefore be trusted. However, people allow their lives to be run by the maths used by banks and social media companies, which are not at all transparent, and many good drivers don’t understand how the internal combustion engine works, so this is not a strong argument. People will become politically adept at using their STV vote without needing to understand the background maths.
Everything said so far addresses the uses of STV to achieve proportional representation across Council and its wards. It is also the best way to achieve a majority vote for single seat roles such as Mayor.
In those races, it is the preferential ranking that is important, proportionality can’t apply to a single position, and the vote quota for success is by definition ‘50 percent plus one’. In this regard, a Mayoralty election run using STV is virtually the same as the preferential vote system used for single-member electorates in Australia, which is preferential but doesn’t aim to return a proportional parliament.
Consider then the last Hamilton Mayoralty election in 2016 – Andrew King was elected with 26.5 per cent of the properly cast votes, and as it happens, only beating Paula Southgate by six votes, so the top two candidates only got about 53 per cent of the vote between them.
Had it been a STV election, the second and further choices of the voters would have then come into play, until one of the candidates, actually reached ‘50 percent plus one’. The winner would probably have still been one of those two, but it would have been a far more legitimate and fair result, regardless of which one it was.
So why hasn’t Hamilton just changed yet? After all, STV is now the system used for Council elections in Wellington, Porirua, Dunedin and Palmerston North.
The provision for choosing STV was introduced by the Local Electoral Act introduced in the 1990s by the country’s most successful electoral reformer, the late Rod Donald, who had earlier led the push to switch our general elections to proportional representation via MMP.
Unfortunately, Rod’s legislation made the well-meaning error of devolving the decision on whether to switch to STV to Councils themselves (it was simply universally introduced for District Health Boards, which are arguably too specialist and obscure to be sorted by popular polls, regardless of the electoral system, but that’s another matter).
I say error because it is demonstrably in the interests of current Councillors and their voters to retain the current system, why would they vote to diminish their own power and influence? A situation in which two-thirds of the qualifying population are not engaging requires an outside intervention to fix. The absence of voters on such a scale is a call for reform that the state should be obliged to respond to.
Councils are required by said law to review their representation processes once every three years, wherein they can potentially review the number of wards and Councillors, the provision of community boards, Maaori representation and… the electoral system. They can then opt to make these changes themselves, with or without public consultation, OR put the decision out to a referendum.
Laudably, in 2006 Hamilton’s Councillors did use their legal authority to decide to simply switch the electoral system to STV. But they did it with little or no public consultation and no public education, and the Waikato Times responded with a distinctly political campaign against the unilateral nature of the move.
This resulted in the Council taking fright and switching the decision to a mid-term referendum, twined with the genuinely contentious high-profile vote on water fluoridation. The same happened when the same two issues came up again for direct referenda held alongside the 2013 Council election. Unsurprisingly, as the secondary issue in a low-turnout poll, the status quo prevailed and STV was not introduced on either occasion.
Both these STV referendums happened in an information vacuum – in neither case did the HCC run the public education campaign needed to allow the voters to make an informed choice. Familiarising Hamiltonians with the issues in a non-partisan manner is perfectly achievable and not without precedence – Council’s waste review consultation on a formed decision in 2016 was supported by an advertising campaign driven by a dedicated communications staffer equipped with a $100,000 budget.
Palmerston North City Council managed to change to STV before the last local elections via a properly resourced consultation process and no referendum, and curiously the sky did not fall in. And there’s always the option, that Wellington City Council took, to make the introduction of STV, even via referendum, conditional on a review vote after a couple of elections, so people are then voting based on actual experience of both options.
Given that central government has ultimate control over local government in this country it would be very simply for it to be introduced universally across the land. It is crazy that the Beehive can decide to do a reform like creating the Auckland Super City but can’t ensure the local voting franchise actually does what it is supposed to do – provide a range of representative voices to participate in decision-making.
Given that central government has ultimate control over local government in this country it would be very simply for it to be introduced universally across the land. It is crazy that the Beehive can decide to do a reform like creating the Super City but can’t ensure the local voting franchise actually does what it is supposed to do – ensure a range of representative voices involved in decision-making.
So, what’s to be done?
- Make a switch to STV one of your policy bottom lines when you vote.
- As in, check out candidates’ answers to the STV question in the Politics in the Tron candidate survey, or ask them to tell you whether or not they support electoral reform for proportional representation.
- Then only vote for those who support it, and tell your friends to do the same.
- Tell your friends who are not intending to vote that voting for a change to STV is a vote for making the system serve them better.
- If a candidate says they would only support a change via a referendum, ask if they will vote to properly resource a public education campaign presenting the facts of the electoral system options.
Council is required to review the electoral system during the coming term. With the requisite political will at the Council table, the 2022 HCC election could be held under STV, or there can at least be a referendum then, for implementation in 2025.