1 November 2007

Improving our local democracy

> KiwiBlog: Improving Local Body Election Turnout One of the things I have been reflecting on is how we might be able to improve public consciousness of, and participation in, local democracy. Some people have made some suggestions and I thought I should outline some of my thoughts. 1. Local body amalgamations I'm not convinced that our present local authorities reflect our present communities of interest, eg, I suspect that some folk on the North Shore identify more with Auckland City than they do with their home city. And, the fragmentation leads a lot of unnecessary duplication and reinvention of the wheel, particularly on the administrative – rather than political – side. I suspect too that bigger local authorities would attract a different calibre of politicians and officers. I've previously suggested a model which proposes amalgamation of some territorial authorities and regional councils, while still preserving local level representation through statutorily mandated community boards: > LAWS179: "Structure of Local Government" It's also possible that the local authorities and DHBs could be merged until this model. If the sub-national entity model is retained, there's a good case for removing the duplication once again. And the purposes of each are not inconsistent: "promot[ing] the social, economic, environmental, and cultural well-being of communities" and "improvement, promotion, and protection of [New Zealander's] health". Under my proposed model, citizens would have then vote for the following: - Mayor; - Local authority councillors in their "ward" / community board area (eg, say, 2 each for southern Wgtn, central Wgth, northern Wgtn, Porirua, Lower Hutt, Upper Hutt, and Kapiti); - Community board members (eg, say, 6 or 8 members for the community board / ward, with the 2 councillors automatically sitting on the community board). That's it – nice and simple! 2. Prescribed "trifecta" STV electoral system The plurality of electoral systems concerns me. In my area the delineation of both was poor (why couldn't they put them on dramatically different paper, ie pink and green, rather than "off-white" and "off-cream"…?!?) and there seems to be confusion arising from different methods being adopted. The benefits of STV in this area are reasonably well-known so I won't go into them – apart from hypothesizing that Banks would not have been elected in Auckland if they had had STV (it avoids the problem of two strong alternative candidates splitting the vote). As an aside, I think the claims made that the purported problem of STV taking longer to count – made I think by Mayor Prendergast – are spurious. Of course, STV does not allow early progress reports because it requires that all votes be counted before the computation is made. If that means that results aren't known until 10pm on polling day, then so be it. That's hardly a serious delay. And, even if it was a couple of days, so what – the system is fairer than FPP. I would make STV compulsory for all local authorities. The only variation I would suggest is trifecta voting, that is, you only rank up to 3 candidates. There's no need to rank anymore. I think people have been put off by the thought of ranking a long list of people. There's probably some marginal loss of precision, but I suspect that people's preferences are strongest in relation to their first few rankings. 3. Voting method I fully support a move to internet voting, although I think that a combination of voting methods is needed to ensure that non-internet savvy folk are not disenfranchised. That is, internet voting along with booth voting. Recent experience with the census demonstrates that the system is attractive to the public and sufficiently robust to be reliable. It's interesting to see that the Local Electoral Act 2001 presently allows for different voting methods, including internet voting:
s 5 Interpretation voting method means any of the following methods of voting that are prescribed for use at an election or poll: (a) the method of voting commonly known as booth voting: (b) the method of voting commonly known as postal voting: (c) any form of electronic voting: (d) any method of voting involving a combination of more than 1 of the methods of voting referred to in paragraphs (a) to (c): (e) any other method of voting (however described)
s36 Voting method for elections and polls (1) Every election or poll conducted for a local authority must be conducted using 1 or more methods of voting adopted by resolution of the local authority— (a) for the purposes of a particular election or poll; or (b) for the purposes of more than 1 election or more than 1 poll, or both, that are to be conducted at the same time. (2) If an election or poll is to be conducted and there is no applicable resolution under subsection (1), that election or poll must be conducted by postal voting. …

However, although the Act allows electronic voting, the Minister has presently only prescribed posting and booth voting in the Local Electoral Regulations 2001:

reg 9 Authorised voting methods The voting methods that may be used at an election or poll are— (a) postal voting; or (b) booth voting; or (c) a combination of booth voting and postal voting.

The upshot is that electronic voting does not require any law change by Parliament but would need the Department of Internal Affairs to do some work about the mechanics of the system and the Minister to amend the regulations accordingly. 4. Shorter election period I'm concerned that local elections lack the necessary crescendo to inspire the interest of the public. This arises, in part, from the reliance on posting voting which has a 22 day voting period. I think there's some value in substantially reducing the period, by adopting a combination of internet and booth voting. My suggestion is for 2 or 3 day voting period, say, 9am Thursday to 5pm Saturday. As an aside, this would also avoid the egregious actions of Christchurch City making significant decision on the eve of the close of the voting period. See: > LAWS179: "Christchurch City, Council offices, and (un)constitutionality" Some thoughts there. As usual, comment and feedback welcomed.


Graeme Edgeler said...

A couple of thoughts:

1. I'd say you could have progress counts under STV - it might not be as useful as with other non-transferable voting systems, but I can't see a reason why they couldn't tell us how many first preferences each candidate got as they go.

2. "Trifecta" voting seems like a really poor idea - as long as people know that they don't have to rank the whole list, then letting those who do do isn't a problem.

If anything I'd suggest that a lot of people's strongest preference is the one they put last, not the one they put first (a full ranking allows an "Anyone But Banks" vote which trifecta wouldn't allow). It also requires people who want their vote to count to know a lot more about the election - they not only have to chose whom they prefer, but have to factor in their likelihood of winning - the chance of a split vote allowing someone not supported by the majority to be elected would substantially increase.

Antony said...

I agree that STV is a far better system than first-past-the-post, especially in relatively non-partisan situations such as local authority politics.

Regarding John Banks, it should be pointed out that STV applied when there is only one position to be filled isn't really STV at all, it's preferential voting (ie, as used in the Federal House of Representatives in Australia and most lower houses in Australia with the exception of Tasmania). STV only applies in a multi-member electorate. Preferential voting tends to result in the election of person who is least disliked, rather than the person who is most liked.

Instead of allowing authorities to choose which system they want to use, STV should just be applied across the board. The only proviso I would make is that some discretion should be allowed for rural authorities to have wards that only elect one person (ie, PV rather than STV) to keep ward size to a minimum in sparsely populated areas.

Antony said...

A further thought on amalgamations. I remember when the last round of amalgamations occurred in 1989. Despite the disapperance of many tin pot local authorities, turn out did not improve, at least in the big cities. We in the cities often forget that turnout in rural areas is often much better. While I agree that is a need for further amalgamations, I question whether it will necessarily improve turnout.

Regarding Auckland, despite the perceived problems, can you imagine what it would have been like if 1989 hadn't occurred and we still had organisations like Newmarket Borough, with a resident population of a ocuple of thousand (very smug) people, who loaded most council costs on to the businesses that didn't have a vote?

The biggest problem is not the size of the authorities, but what they're responsible for. As Vicki Buck once said to me, council are largely about roads (check out how much they spend on roads) and roads are boring. She was being somewhat facetious when she said it, but you get my drift. Many functions could be delivered locally or regionally (education, health, fire services and, dare I say it, traffic control if it hadn't been merged with the police).

Dean Knight said...

I think the labels for the systems are a bit by-the-by.

STV can, and in fact is, used in single representative elections. Presently, the Wellington Mayor is elected under that system. That said, it then operates in the same way as the instant-runoff form of preferential voting.

Antony said...

Thanks for your reply Dean. I disagree, however, on your comments about PV vs STV. Preferential voting (rank ordering in single member constituencies) has characteristics similar to first-past-the-post (although it is an improvement on FPP). Single Transferable Vote (rank ordering in multi-member constituencies) is a form of proportional representation that ensures far better representation. My background is political science so I see them as quite distinct. Suggesting they are the same to a political scientist is like telling a lawyer that regulations and statutes are the same thing.

Dean Knight said...


I think that we're talked past each other a bit. My point is slightly different. I appreciate there is a difference betweeen forms of preferential voting in multi-member seats and single-member seats. I was

Clearly, "STV" is capable of being used in single-member seats:

"Local Electoral Act 2001
s5B General description of Single Transferable Voting electoral system
For local electoral purposes, the Single Transferable Voting electoral system,—
(b) in the case of an election for a mayoral or single member vacancy, has the following features:—
(i) voters express a first preference for 1 candidate and may express second and further preferences for other candidates:
(ii) an absolute majority of votes for election is calculated from the number of votes and positions to be filled:
(iii) the first preferences are counted and, if a candidate's first preference votes equal or exceed the absolute majority of votes, that candidate is elected:
(iv) if no candidate is elected under subparagraph (iii), the candidate with the fewest votes is excluded and that candidate's votes are redistributed according to voters' further preferences:
(v) if no candidate is elected under subparagraph (iv), the steps described in subparagraph (iv) are repeated until a candidate is elected:"

I was suggesting that, in terms of its voting / computation mechanics, it's the same as the form of preferential voting you refer to.

Whether this type of voting in single-member seats is desireable due to it's outcomes is another story.

Course Outline

Lord Justice Lawton in Maxwell v Department of Trade and Industry [1974] 2 All ER 122 said:

"From time to time ... lawyers and judges have tried to define what constitutes fairness. Like defining an elephant, it is not easy to do, although fairness in practice has the elephantine quality of being easy to recognise. As a result of these efforts a word in common usage has acquired the trappings of legalism: 'acting fairly' has become 'acting in accordance with the rules of natural justice', and on occasion has been dressed up with Latin tags. This phrase in my opinion serves no useful purpose and in recent years it has encouraged lawyers to try to put those who hold inquiries into legal straitjackets.... For the purposes of my judgment I intend to ask myself this simple question: did the [decision-maker] act fairly towards the plaintiff?"

This course examines the elephantine concept of fairness in the law, along with other contemporary legal issues.

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