Polling patch-up for flawed first-past-the-post
Polling gets blamed for a lot of things. For starters, for influencing folk into voting for the winning side.
Or, conversely, for influencing folk into voting for the underdog. Whereas, in an ideal world, voters would express their honestly held preference, regardless of whether they subsequently found they had voted for a ‘loser’.
In other words, voters would ignore the polls, and, for example, vote for Chlöe Swarbrick for mayor of Auckland Council, regardless of the unlikelihood of doing better that being second runner-up. As it happens, however, the second only poll conducted on the 2016 Auckland mayoral election still has Phil Goff so far in the lead that citizens can vote with their heads and hearts without fear that the future of their sea-surrounded isthmus will be risked to Vic Gosh-that’s-a-very-contentious-debate Crone.
Studies predominantly find that the bandwagon effect swamps the underdog effect, which suggests that polls, typically, influence electoral outcomes. While there are legitimate concerns about the effects of polling, particularly when the polling proves to be inaccurate, it is highly unlikely that Aotearoa will lead the charge in banning or curtailing them. What would help hugely however, is for first-past-the-post to be dumped in favour of preference voting. This would go some way to reducing the bandwagon effect, but more importantly would go a huge way towards allowing outsiders such as Chlöe Swarbrick to get traction. A significant number of voters who strongly favour Phil Goff over science-averse Vic Crone would likely give the Chloenator, as The Spinoff has termed her, their first preference, and Phil their second, safe in the knowledge that they have not advantaged the climate denier.
But the other imperative for preference voting, of course, is that nobody ever publishes polls on how councillors, much less local board members, are rating. And given that many wards and boards are multi-represented, voters frequently vote against their favoured candidate by ticking more than one choice. The Rodney ward elects only one councillor, so that more than one tick results in an invalid vote, but for the Warkworth subdivision of the Rodney Local Board, up to three ticks are allowed. But use those three ticks, and voters could well find they have voted against their most preferred candidate. Nor will voters find clues to this dirty little secret on their ballot papers—voters will be told to vote for up to three candidates, implying that voting for fewer is less than diligent.
Following the abysmal voting turnout in 2013, an inquiry was held by the government’s justice and electoral committee. To the Mahurangi Magazine’s shame, it made no submission, although with a deadline of 20 December, it is probable that regatta preparations eclipsed electoral preoccupations, as hard as that may be for long-term readers to believe. Auckland Council’s submission loftily proclaimed that there was no silver bullet, for what, for the Auckland region in particular, had been an alarmingly low turnout—35%, against a national average of 41.4%. This view was not evidence-based, as concurrent elections have consistently been shown to dramatically lift turnout, particularly for local body contests, whilst about halving the combined costs of separate elections. Astonishingly, Auckland Council actually argued for the opposite of concurrent elections, as a half-baked solution to the confusion between first-past-the-post and single-transferable-vote voting:
A preferred but, we acknowledge, more expensive option is to shift DHB and Licensing Trust options to the “gap year” between national and local elections.
A more egregious, and fiscally extravagant, example of the lack of evidence-based policy-making would be hard to conceive, given the United States studies that are available to anybody with access to the internet. Besides, the solution to the confusion between the two voting systems is obviously to abolish the flawed, unfair and archaic one: first-past-the-post. No expensive voter education would be required, because the ticks of any voter not noticing, or remembering, to rank 1 2 3, would be simply recorded as 1sor in the case of ticks that follow numbered preferences, as the appropriate consecutive number.
At least the Auckland Council submission mentioned the highly successful Kids Voting programme, that was pioneered, in Aotearoa at least, by the old Auckland City Council. But bearing out the proverb that there’s none so blind as those who will not see, the government report fails to mention Kids Voting once, whilst lamenting the lack of civics lessons. Such lessons are of scant value unless accompanied with at least mock elections, but preferably with pre-enfranchisement voting, which kills two birds with one stone:
- Enrolment while at school, in year 7
- Participation in, and moral influence on, actual elections.
Auckland Council needs councillors and local board members who understand that intermediate- and college-based enrolment and pre-enfranchised voting, and concurrent elections, is the only evidence-based route to reversing declining turnout. The government, of course, should be addressing the issue nationally, but it doesn’t even accept that the status quo, in which only a minority of eligible citizens vote, is problematic:
The total turnout at the 2013 local elections was 41.4 percent, 8 percent less than that in 2010. We noted this result. However, we received no evidence that the decline had any negative impact on the quality of local representation and governance.
[emphasis, and comma, added]
Aside from the absence of evidence not being evidence of absence, the justice and electoral committee may just as well have said:
We received no evidence that the decline had any negative impact on the quality of local representation and governance, so conclude that democracy can be phased out altogether in favour of government-appointed councils. Oh wait, that’s already our policy, whenever we can contrive the perception of a crisis and call in a cadre of commissioners.
Tessa Berger, readers can be assured, does consider that a democracy in which the mayor of New Zealand’s metropolis can be elected with the support of a mere 16% of registered votersand an even smaller percentage of eligible voters is, in any real-world definition of the term, a flawed democracy.
Tessa Berger for board.