While 58% of Wanganui voters posted in their vote in the recent elections, around New Zealand, turnout was lower than ever before. The question I now want to ask voters is… how many of you who voted, actually wasted your vote? If your Council election do not use a system such as STV (Single Transferable Vote), then there were probably many of you.
Take my hometown of Wanganui for example, 10,677 voted for top polling candidate, Hamish McDouall. This was substantially more than the 5,794 who elected Sue Westwood. So therefore it took 4,883 more votes to elect Hamish than it took to elect Sue. That’s 4,883 wasted votes! If you voted for Hamish and knew he was going to win so easily, do you think you might have given your vote to someone else? Perhaps to someone who just missed out on being elected? Or maybe you voted for the lowest polling candidate who only received 983 votes? That’s 983 wasted votes. If you knew that candidate was going to do so poorly, would you have given your vote to another candidate who had more of a chance of winning? Quite possibly, and this highlights the underlying problem with First-Past-The-Post (FPP) elections which many Councils use to elect representatives.
If Wanganui used the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system for example, then once Hamish McDouall had reached the quota required to be elected, any surplus votes would have been transferred to your second preferred candidate. Using such a system would also ensure that the least liked candidate did not get elected—an abnormality which can happen under FPP. For example, if the votes are tallied up as 30%, 25%, 25% and 20% to four candidates, this means that the candidate with just 30% of the vote wins. This seems unfair when 70% of voters did not prefer this candidate. The good thing about STV is that the final result is always more representative of the average voter.
The downside to STV is that the system is complicated and difficult for the average person to understand. It even needs special software to calculate the result which can take a little longer than FPP to know the outcome. But it is still simple enough to vote. You merely number the candidates from 1-12 instead of placing 12 ticks. The computer then does the rest.
There has also been plenty of talk since the election about internet voting. Some suggest that this option would increase turnout at elections. To date, studies have shown this to be inconclusive. However, in a modern society like New Zealand it is hard to understand why this option has not been made available before now—simply to make it more convenient for voters. Who knows, it may very well encourage young people to vote given they are generally more adept and confident with technology and studies have shown that the earlier in life people start to vote—the more likelier they are to continue to vote.
Internet voting would also reduce election costs in the long term and make it far easier and cheaper to conduct referendums. Of course having referendums that can be ignored by politicians also adds to the disgust many New Zealanders have for politics and politicians. So, perhaps this is an area where our so-called ‘democratic system’ needs to be more closely scrutinised by the powers that be.
One final thought to help improve our faith in politics. Wouldn’t it be just grand if Councils couldn’t borrow any more money without the approval of voters in a referendum and also that rates could not rise by more than the rate of inflation? This way Councils would be forced to live within its means and cut its cloth to fit. That would certainly give us all more confidence to cast a vote, knowing that Councillors could not do us too much damage without our say so.
Congratulations to those brave enough to stand for election and for those who were elected. But please remember, just because we elected you doesn’t mean we think you are any smarter than the rest of us—you were only average Joe or Jane Citizen the day before you were elected—so don’t forget to ask us what we want, given you are representing each and every one of us. If you don’t, we can always find someone to replace you next election!
[Steve Baron is a political commentator. He holds a B.A. (Hons) in Political Science and a B.A. in Economics. He is a published author; a regular columnist in various publications throughout New Zealand and the Founder of Better Democracy New Zealand]