Another world-first for Aotearoa

Meek’s method implemented

Stephen Todd, Helen Algar, David Nalder and Shane Wood Clever Bastards: The team (Stephen Todd, left) responsible for the first successful implementation of Meek’s method.
Photograph Department of Internal Affairs
Introduced by Cimino
Stephen Todd played a pivotal role in the introduction of single transferable voting to Aotearoa.

The road to local body electoral reform was long, hard and heroic, but New Zealanders and their district and regional councils—and even, staggeringly, the Royal Commission on Auckland Governance—remain largely oblivious of the achievement entailed in the implementation of this profoundly more satisfactory system of voting.

The following is a fascinating and human account of how persistance and, at several critical junctures, a preparedness to roll up his sleeves and do the job himself, Stephen Todd helped deliver a world-first.

And the story is not slightly diminished if, like the editor, readers have little choice but to skim over the mathematics behind the transferring of preferences.

STV in New Zealand

Stephen W Todd, writing for Voting Matters published by the McDougall Trust
January 2003
In May 2001, the New Zealand Parliament enacted the Local Electoral Act 2001. At section 3 of the Act, it is stated that its purpose ‘is to modernise the law governing the conduct of local elections and polls’ including, to ‘allow diversity (through local decision-making) in relation to … the particular electoral system to be used for local elections and polls’.

Section 5 of the Act defines ‘electoral system’ as ‘any of the following electoral systems that are prescribed for use at an election or poll:
As a result of this legislation, New Zealand becomes the first country in the world to adopt single transferable voting by Meek’s method for use in public elections. Indeed, although local authorities have the choice of switching to single transferable voting if they or their electors want it, the Act, at section 150, amends the New Zealand Public Health and Disability Act 2000, to make it mandatory for the seven elected members of the country’s twenty-one district health boards to be elected by single transferable voting.

It will come as no surprise to learn that the road to single transferable voting becoming a reality in New Zealand was not an easy one. In 1994, on behalf of the Electoral Reform Coalition, I prepared a draft bill for the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Labour Party), the Hon David Caygill, MP. After consulting the Electoral Reform Society in the United Kingdom, I incorporated the Northern Ireland rules in the relevant schedule of the bill. Mr Caygill took the bill to a subsequent meeting of the Labour caucus, which agreed that it should be accepted as a private member’s bill.

At that point it became the responsibility of the opposition spokesperson on Local Government, Richard Northey, MP. He placed it in the fortnightly ballot of members’ bills in October 1994, and it was drawn from that ballot the following April. Mr Northey introduced the bill (Local Elections (Single Transferable Vote Option) Bill) into the House of Representatives on 19 July 1995.

Ten of 78 submissions on the bill were heard by the Electoral Law select committee, in November 1995. On 31 July 1996, the committee established a subcommittee, comprising Richard Northey (chairperson) and Hon. David Caygill, to consider the bill. Advice was received from officials in the Department of Internal Affairs, and the subcommittee reported its findings to the committee on 21 August 1996. The bill was reported back to the parliament in early September, just as it was dissolved so that New Zealand’s first mixed member proportional (MMP) election could be held, on 12 October. The bill was held over for consideration by the new parliament.

Part of the ‘advice […] received from officials’ was to abandon the Northern Ireland rules on the ground that they did not treat all votes equally, particularly with regard to those votes given for successful candidates that were not in the actual parcel of votes that put a candidate up over the quota. Such inequality in the treatment of votes was seen as unfair.

Furthermore, knowing that computer technology was increasingly being used in local elections, the committee wanted counting rules that were more compatible with the use of such technology.

Unfortunately, the rules written to replace the Northern Ireland rules in the report copy of the bill were logically unsound. Skip the technical detail

The main problem was that the word ‘votes’, as used in the rewritten rules, did not always mean the same thing. Sometimes it referred to transferable papers and other times to the value of those papers. In undertaking the rewrite, the authors overlooked the fact that, regardless of whether hand-counting rules are carried out by hand or by computer, it is voting papers that are being transferred, sometimes at full value, sometimes at a reduced transfer value, rather than votes. A number of consequential errors arising from this and other misunderstandings, rendered the rules inoperable.

The rule pertaining to the calculation of the transfer value was a case in point. In the case of the transfer of a surplus resulting from a previous transfer of votes, the transfer value of the votes transferred [was to] be ‘the result of dividing the surplus by the total number of votes transferred in that previous transfer to the candidate from whom the surplus is transferred.’

A transfer value is calculated by dividing the surplus by the number of transferable papers, not by the sum of the value of those papers and non-transferable papers, i.e. total votes. Under normal hand-counting rules, for example, an elected candidate may obtain the quota upon receiving a batch of 280 voting papers, each having a transfer value of 0.35—a total of 98 votes. If this candidate now has a surplus of 60 votes and only 240 of the 280 papers last received are transferable, then they would be transferred at a transfer value of 0.25.

The above-mentioned rule, however, states that the transfer value shall be calculated by dividing the surplus of 60 votes by the 98 votes transferred at the previous transfer, which comes to 0.612244… If this transfer value (0.61?) were then applied to the 240 transferable papers (although there was nothing to say it should be), a total of 146.40 votes would be transferred instead of 60, and the total number of non-transferable votes would be increased unnecessarily by 24.40!

Not only was there no direction as to how many decimal places the transfer value was to be taken to, but it was very obvious that the votes would not sum to the correct totals. Something had to be done.

The Electoral Law Committee of the new Parliament called for submissions on the report copy of the bill, to be received by 30 October 1997.

During the course of my efforts to make sense of the re-written counting rules, I realised quite suddenly that what officials had been attempting to do, was to replace the Northern Ireland rules with Meek-equivalent rules, unaware that Meek’s method of counting votes had already been invented, and subsequently perfected.

Consequently, in the Electoral Reform Coalition’s submission, we recommended to the committee that the counting rules be replaced by Meek’s method. Our efforts were all to no avail, however, with the bill being lost following a tied vote (4-4) in committee in May 1998.

That month, I set to work drafting a completely new bill, this time for opposition Green Party MP, Rod Donald, in which I incorporated Meek’s method of counting votes. The explanatory note to the bill stated that Meek’s method was a significant improvement over the various hand-counting rules, and why; that it treated all votes equally; and that a Meek count had to be carried out by computer.

The draft was completed in December 1998 and sent out to interested parties for comment. Reaction from the local government sector was generally unsupportive, but two prominent political scientists with a particular interest in local government agreed that Meek’s method was an improvement over hand-counting rules.

The local government sector was resisting the single transferable voting option because local returning officers (now called electoral officers) were terrified at the thought of having to learn how to conduct a complicated hand-count of votes. They imagined dozens of people constantly shuffling thousands of pieces of paper from one pile to another over several days. In these cost-conscious times, when the public demands instant results, they simply didn't want to know about it.

Although sector representatives indicated continued resistance, this new bill happened to coincide with a push by the sector to have the local electoral legislation completely re-written and up-dated.

In June 1999, I was invited to attend a workshop on matters pertaining to the administration and conduct of local elections to give a presentation on Meek’s method. Soon after, perhaps realising that their main objection to single transferable voting (fear of hand-counts) need not be a relevant consideration, and that the issue of single transferable voting was not going to go away, sector representatives decided to include provision for an single transferable voting option in their list of proposed improvements to the legislation.

A year later, in July 2000, Rod Donald’s bill was drawn out in the fortnightly ballot of members’ bills and given its first reading. At this time, the newly-elected Labour-led government decided that seven of the 11 members of the 21 district health boards (DHBs) that it intended to set up to replace the structure put in place by the previous government, would be elected by single transferable voting.

A significant reason for this decision was to ensure that the Māori population would have the means to ensure they were represented on these boards by people they helped to elect, if that was what they wanted. The legislation stipulates that at least two of the 11 positions must be filled by Māori, so enabling Māori to elect Māori members would enable, in most cases, the four appointed positions to be filled having regard to criteria other than ethnicity.

The government, which generally relied on the Green Party for its majority, and needing the support of the Greens to ensure the Local Electoral Bill would be enacted during the first half of 2001, agreed to include provisions for local authorities to adopt single transferable voting in that bill. In turn, Rod Donald allowed his bill to lapse in select committee.

At this point, late-July 2000, a decision needed to be made as to which of the several forms of single transferable voting would be included in the Local Electoral Bill. Relevant officials in the Department of Internal Affairs consulted well-known political scientists, and with myself, and reduced the choice to four—Tasmania’s Hare-Clark rules, Northern Ireland’s ‘senatorial’ rules, the ‘original’ single transferable voting rules, as used in the Republic of Ireland, and Meek’s method.

In September 2000, a paper was submitted to the cabinet recommending that Meek’s method be accepted as the form of single transferable voting best suited for New Zealand. Meek was ‘preferred to the hand counting forms of single transferable voting because it best contributes to effective and fair representation, and public confidence and understanding of local elections.’

Two factors which contributed to this recommendation being made were that writing a computer program to implement Meek’s method would be far more straightforward than if one of the forms of hand-counting rules were adopted, and because Meek’s method reduces the number of ‘wasted’ votes to an absolute minimum, and ensures all successful candidates achieve the required quota for election.

Furthermore, officials ‘noted that in 1996, the Electoral Law Committee proposed that Richard Northey’s STV Option Bill be amended from the senatorial rules to a form that reflected the intent of the Meek rules, in order to remove the necessary arbitrariness generated by hand counting.’

As alluded to in the first paragraph above, the Local Electoral Act provides for local authorities to resolve to change to single transferable voting, or to hold a poll on the electoral system, and also for electors to demand a poll be held on the electoral system.

In August and September 2002, eight (out of a total of 86) local authorities resolved to adopt single transferable voting to elect their councils and community boards (if any) in October 2004. A further two councils (Wellington and Whangārei) resolved to hold a poll of electors, on 30 November and 5 December, respectively. Wellington voted narrowly to adopt single transferable voting; Whangārei voted by a margin of almost 2 to 1 to retain the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system.

Since then, the Opotiki District Council, which was one of the eight local authorities to resolve to change to single transferable voting, and the Masterton District Council, which resolved to stay with FPTP, have further resolved to hold a poll of electors.

At the time of writing (January 2003), there have been 10 successful poll demands, with possibly a handful more by the end of February. All polls must be held no later than 21 May 2003, the results of which are binding on the councils concerned for the next two triennial general elections of the country’s local authorities (9 October 2004 and 13 October 2007).
Stephen W Todd, writing for Voting Matters published by the McDougall Trust
January 2003
See letter: Plucked from Obscurity

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 Editor Cimino Cole