Explaining the Single Transferable Vote System (hopefully I get it right this time)

OK ok ok! You can all stop shouting at me now after my recent incorrect commentary on how STV works. I’ve gone away and talked with someone who has put me straight. The gentleman in question, Steve, worked with government, including the DIA, to get NZSTV (Meek’s Method) accepted by Cabinet back in 2000.

Here’s the summary before I explain it in a bit more detail.

1 – Ignore what I have written on the subject in my last couple of articles, it’s wrong. Yes, I do get it wrong sometimes.

2 – You should continue to express preferences only for as long as you are able to place successive candidates in rank-order, contrary to my saying you should only vote for those candidates that you want to see in Council.

3 – You cannot effectively tactically vote, as might be implied by point 2, as I am advised that, by attempting to do so, you pretty much risk poking yourself in the eye.

4 – Further education and comments are welcomed.

I’m going to directly quote Steve, who has spent some time in the last twenty-four hours educating me on the error of my ways and setting me on the straight and narrow, for which I am most grateful.

NZ STV (Meek’s method)

1. Each voter votes by listing some or all of the candidates in order of preference.

2. Each voter is treated as having one vote, which is assigned initially to that voter’s first-preference candidate.

3. A quota is calculated, as the minimum number of votes needed by a candidate to secure election. The quota will be reduced during the count, if the circumstances so dictate.

4. If a candidate receives more than a quota of votes, then that candidate is elected, and any surplus votes (over the quota) are transferred to other candidates in accordance with the later preferences of all the relevant voters, as expressed on their ballot papers.

5. If, at any stage of the count, no surplus remains to be transferred, but the number of candidates elected so far falls short of the number of seats to be filled, then the candidate who currently has fewest votes is excluded. Votes assigned to that candidate are then transferred to other candidates in accordance with the later preferences of the relevant voters.

Got it? Here’s an example;

It must be understood that each voter has one vote only, that is given for the voter’s first-preference candidate. Second and later preferences are contingency choices only. In the upcoming mayoral election, let’s say the last three candidates are Lester, Calvert and Foster. Foster is excluded from the count, but many of his supporters don’t want either Lester or Calvert, so they have not expressed a preference between the two. That means their votes become non-transferable and drop out of the count, which means the outcome of the election is decided by those voters who did express a preference between them.

Now, many of those Foster supporters might have preferred Calvert to Lester, but, by not saying so on their voting documents, they contributed to Lester being re-elected. Had they indicated a preference for Calvert over Lester (say, Calvert 3, Lester 5), and their votes were sufficient in number to get Calvert over the line, then yes, they have indeed helped elect someone they didn’t want, but that person (Calvert) is still preferable to Lester (in their eyes). While they couldn’t have what they really wanted, they succeeded in securing for themselves a “least-worst” outcome.

That is why it is important for people to know that they should express preferences for as long as they are able to place successive candidates in order. (Andrew Bartlett explains this very well in the comments to your ‘How to vote’ article at Wellington Scoop.)

Tactical Voting

Another beautiful thing about STV is that there is no point in trying to vote tactically, or strategically, or whatever. STV eliminates the need for such considerations. That is because later preferences are never looked at until the fate of earlier preferences, as being either elected, or excluded from the count, has been determined. In other words, STV gives voters the freedom to vote their true preferences, without fear of inadvertently helping lesser-favoured candidates, or of wasting their votes.

In fact, if voters try to vote tactically, they are likely to come unstuck. If I want A to win, how can it be possible that I am helping him or her by giving my first-preference to someone else, say, B? All I am doing is helping B defeat my preferred candidate, A. If B is eventually excluded from the count, and my vote then transfers to A, A might already have been excluded! I would have helped bring about the situation whereby I had “done myself in the eye.” 

As I said, above, voters should express preferences for as long as they are able to place successive candidates in order. If they submit a “short” list, i.e., one with a truncated list of preferences, they are running the risk of their vote, or part of their vote, dropping out of the count, and, consequently, not helping to fully influence the final outcome of the election. It’s a personal choice. There is no right or wrong way to vote in STV elections. If a voter places ‘1’ beside Hill’s name, and leaves it at that, he or she is saying, “I want Conor to win. If he is excluded during the count, then I am happy for other voters to decide the outcome of this election.” And that is perfectly valid. 

If voters want to make sure that their vote does not help, say, Lester, they can rank-order all the candidates 1 to 9, placing the ‘9’ beside Lester’s name, or, by rank-ordering the other eight candidates, 1 to 8, and leaving a blank space beside Lester’s name. Either way, it’s the same thing.*

If you rank only the candidates you want to see on council, again, you are running the risk of not securing for yourself a “least-worst” outcome, should your preferences run off the end before all seats have been filled. 
So, yes, leaving a blank space beside the names of more than one candidate can indeed make a difference, but whether to rank-order one, some, or all the candidates, is entirely a matter for each voter to consider.   

Happy voting everyone and if you want more information then access https://dunedinstadium.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/in-defence-of-stv-2/, and read the several articles at the foot of the piece entitled, “In defence of STV”.

* It’s the same thing, because the count stops when the winner has, or the winners have, been found. If I have ranked C 4 and E 9, who are the last two remaining candidates in the contest, my vote is sitting with C. Whether C wins, or E wins, the count is then completed, and my vote stays with C. It cannot be transferred to E, because E has already won, or lost, as the case may be.