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We must live in one of the most open and functional democracies in the world — why else would people want to ditch a system that should make councils more representative?
This is happening in Dunedin, where a group of politically engaged and civic-minded people wants the city council to dump its proportional representation system.
They say the Single Transferable Vote system is confusing and has done little to nothing to arrest the trend away from voting in local elections.
The clue to the First Past the Post Working Group’s aim is in its title. It wants the council to return to a plurality voting system some say served voters well in the past.
City voters must delve into the past to understand how well FPP voting translated their vote into seats in the council chamber. The last FPP election was in 2001, outside the lifetime of those eligible to vote for the first time at the next election. It re-elected Mayor Sukhi Turner, who provided the 4000th signature on the petition that sent STV to a referendum.
At the time, and many times since, STV has been lauded as a majoritarian system that more effectively translates votes into who actually gets elected. It is argued the single-vote ranking system ensures the winning mayor has a majority, and that it can increase diversity when diverse candidates stand for election.
It is also claimed STV can help increase voter turnout insofar as the ranking system is thought to encourage voters to believe their vote will make a difference.
The last point is among those challenged by those who want a return to FPP and, on the face of it, it is hard to say STV provided the silver bullet answer to poor voter turnout. The last time more than half of eligible voters voted in the city council elections was in 2010. Since the slump to 43.1% in 2013, the vote grew to 45.6% in 2019.
This is nothing to crow about. Something is wrong when so few of the people who pay the council’s bills bother voting for the people who keep an eye on how their money is spent.
However, the turnout is better than in Porirua and Wellington, which use STV. It is also better than every city council area, except Nelson, that uses FPP.
The national average metropolitan turnout was a truly awful 38.2% in 2019, down from 39.3% in 2016. Dunedin’s turnout grew 0.4 percentage points.
University of Otago academic Janine Hayward says turnout decline is happening worldwide and there is little difference in decline between FPP and STV elections in New Zealand.
But the Dunedin working group says the numbers should to be better in a city whose people have been traditionally better engaged in local politics than their other, big city counterparts.
Chairman Pablo Dennison reckons it is time to offer a choice ‘‘because many voters are now struggling to comprehend the system’’. But as the group’s referendum petition circulates the city, we must also ask why many voters are now, apparently, struggling to comprehend a system that has been in place for so long.
What has happened since 2010, when turnout was 53%? Has STV led to a slow creep from voting, or do consistently low metropolitan voting averages nationally suggest more, deeply rooted issues are at play? Youth voting trends, the use of postal rather than online voting, the need for more diversity, disengagement from key issues and even not knowing anything about local government have all been promoted as obstacles to improving voter turnout over successive election cycles. Tellingly, they continue to be pitched today.
Mayor Aaron Hawkins last week acknowledged it was the group’s right to seek a poll on how the council is elected, and said he did not want the cost of running a poll — estimated at $220,000 — to be used as a reason to oppose it.
He said you cannot put a price on democracy. This is true, but the petition should prompt discussion as to whether the council has put a sufficient price on ensuring the system works.
Education, more and better community dialogue and visibility, proactive advertising — who knows what the answers are, given they have not been found over the past decade. But, perhaps the $220,000 would be best spent improving the odds that people will vote, before turning the future of the entire voting system into a two-horse — first-past-the-post — race.