STV spared the horrors of how

by | 16 Sep 2007 | STV | 0 comments

Sir Rowland Hill

Penny Postage Revolutionary: Not only did Sir Rowland Hill invent the penny post system, he was responsible for the first public election using single transferable voting, his father, Thomas Wright Hill’s, 1819 invention. image Wikipedia

Updated 16 July 2011

Five friends meet up to see a movie.

Screening is a romance, a horror, a comedy and an arthouse film. The friends hold a verbal ballot, agreeing to go with the highest-polling choice.

Horror of horrors, the horror gets two votes, the rest one each. Two of the friends are fiendishly pleased, but the other three are forced to endure their least favourite genre. Or not.

In the real world, the friends readily arrive at a choice that suits them all—in this hypothetical, lets say the arthouse film. Humans are well-wired to handle the complexities of such negotiations; we do it without consciously thinking about the myriad permutations. This is exactly what preferential voting achieves.

In this local government election scenario, there are three positions to fill and the voter is inclined towards three candidates:

  • Dr Climate Action—Strongly
  • Ms More Amenities—Yes, but not so strongly
  • Mr Less Government—Yes, but again, not so strongly

Accordingly, on the ballot paper the voter might rank them:

  1. ACTION Climate

In the event, a Mr Rate Freeze breezes home. Next to be elected is More Amenities, followed by Climate Action. But in a first-past-the-post election, the voter may tick a box only:

  • ACTION Climate

The result might be very different; More Amenities and Less Government might nudge out Climate Action. And at that point, the voter might severely regret the big ticks given to those two—rather than voting strategically, for Climate Action only.

Preferential voting unerringly gets to the heart of a voters’ preferences. Votes cast for an insufficiently popular choice are not wasted, but are transferred to the voter’s next preference—every vote cast counts* in determining the outcome. It is as though voters have super-polarising glasses enabling them to cast their vote with unerring accuracy. However, read an official explanation of preferential voting (specifically, single transferable voting) and the voter will likely run screaming back to the crude simplicity of first-past-the-post. But it is no more necessary to understand the mechanics of the process than it is to understand the mechanics of a car’s automatic transmission, in order to drive it expertly.

Mercifully, it is unnecessary to know the horrors of how it works.


*Provided the voter ranks at least one choice that is ultimately successful.

Footnote Preferential voting is perfect for local government elections. But for central government elections, a proportional mechanism is required to ensure that parties are represented in proportion to the votes they receive. Aotearoa’s mixed member proportional system is superb in this regard, but lacks the preferential element. With a quite trivial tune-up, voters could rank local candidates and parties, rather than be allowed to tick only one of each. The pleasing outcome: The number of list members could be reduced from 52 to 29, without sacrificing strict proportionality.

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