New Zealand Herald — news dialogue Oct 13 2004 4:55AM

Keith Rankin: System ensures voters get the people they want


In the wake of the local-body elections, it is so disappointing that while there has been so much instant criticism of single transferable voting (STV) there has been virtually no comment about its accuracy.

Further, there has been virtually no published criticism of the patent inaccuracy of many of the first-past-the-post (FPP) results.

Almost all the criticism has been about the speed of the count. Yet the results for the country's biggest STV election (the Auckland District Health Board) were published on the internet on election night.

Auckland's elections officer, Dale Ofsoske, must be congratulated for his efficient conduct of Auckland's FPP and STV election counts., which conducted most of the vote-counting and is now taking most of the flak, must be excused if it thought accuracy and fairness were more important than speed.

A voting system, when it is assessed, must give top priority to the accuracy through which voters' wishes are translated into representation. Election accuracy is a purely scientific question, and any inquiry into local-authority electoral systems must recognise the need for scientific accuracy is the number one consideration.

This is not the place to argue the scientific merits of STV voting. It has been done many times before, and can become tedious for those who find mathematics boring or difficult.

I will, however, note three examples of the failings of FPP in last weekend's Auckland elections.

Most blatant of all are the community board results. Five of the nine boards registered a clean sweep for one particular ticket. Two more registered only one "opposition" member.

Diverse representation at the grassroots level is essential if these boards are to play any constructive role in community governance.

Otherwise they serve simply as a publicly funded mouthpiece for a single faction within the community it is supposed to serve, and might just as well be abolished.

For the city council, the well-performed Greg McKeown, who polled many more votes than any other Citizens & Ratepayers Now candidate, missed out in his Eden-Albert ward because of the winner-takes-all effect of local body FPP.

This time the winner taking all was City Vision. In 2007, C&R Now will probably scoop this ward. That is the nature of FPP voting - exaggerated swings from election to election. A more accurate result for this ward would be City Vision 2, C&R Now 1.

Then, in analysing local body FPP, we must look at the Manukau mayoral election. Sir Barry Curtis received a much more comprehensive drubbing in the popular vote than did John Banks in Auckland. Yet he survives, while Mr Banks was humiliated by his allegedly landslide defeat.

Sir Barry survives because of the different distribution of his opponents' votes. He is a beneficiary of the fatal (to Len Brown) curse of the split vote.

In elections, the first consideration must be the accuracy through which the intent of the voters is converted to representation. The transparency of the published result is the second consideration. The third consideration is user-friendliness. The speed of the count is a distant fourth consideration.

Any new voting system always seems a bit exotic and confusing at first. If we had been used to voting 1-2-3, and were now asked to vote with six ticks, we would find that rather strange to get used to.

A user-friendly system must be simple for voters. For simplicity, STV could be remarketed as the "1-2-3" or "trifecta" system.

In the early 1980s I was a computer programmer at the TAB when the trifecta bet was introduced. Punters had no difficulty understanding how to make a trifecta bet; they would just choose their three preferred horses, in order of preference. It's that simple.

STV would work perfectly if everyone voted for just three candidates, in order of preference. The vote count would be quick (although not as quick as FPP). The voting process would be user-friendly. Most importantly, the results would accurately represent communities' diverse interests.

* Keith Rankin teaches economics and statistics at Unitec.

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