Choosing a voting system for NZ councils


I have been fascinated recently with voting systems for local government, and how they change – in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

New Zealand also has an element of choice in their local government electoral system. Each council gets to choose from one of two methods of electing the council, and there is also an option for the voters to make the choice in a local referendum.

New Zealand’s local councils have been recently making their choice for the next local council elections in 2025. I’ve managed to work out which way most councils have jumped, and in this post I also explore how these choices have shifted since the option was first available in 2007.

There are two levels of local government in New Zealand: territorial authorities and regional councils. There are 67 territorial authorities. Five of these are unitary authorities which also perform the role of a regional council, plus the Chatham Islands council which is slightly different but is also the only local government on the islands.

In the area covered by the other 61 territorial authorities there are also eleven regional councils. All of these bodies face the voters at the same time, once every three years.

Prior to 2004, all council elections were conducted using first past the post (FPP). In most cases, wards elect more than one councillor, so FPP in a multi-member ward is effectively the bloc vote. I’ll explore that further down in this post.

In the lead-up to the 2004 election, councils were given the choice of switching to Single Transferable Vote (STV) instead. While they did innovate some details of the counting process, in general it’s similar to the system now used in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.

In addition to STV being offered to councils as an option, it was implemented for every district health board around the country – the DHBs were partly elected alongside local councils every three years until their abolition in 2022, so it meant that all local government voters had some experience of STV.

Each council gets a choice every three years as to whether they wish to maintain their existing system or switch. They can change in either direction, but if they decide to make a change that decision will bind them for two terms to give the new system a chance.

There is also an option to put the issue to the voters of that council area to decide the system, either by the council deciding to hold one, or by 5% of electors signing a petition calling for one. If a council receives such a petition by 11 December 2023, then a poll would be held prior to the 2025 election and the result would then cover the 2025 election. I believe a poll result is also binding for two terms.

A poll was held in 2022 in the Lower Hutt council area in the Wellington region in 2022, with 69.5% of valid votes opting to stick with FPP. Polls are not that common.

It might be a bit of a surprise that New Zealand, which has had a proportional electoral system for its national parliament for over 25 years, still uses first past the post for a majority of council elections.

STV is quite a different system to the MMP system used at a national level, but it’s one of the only proportional systems that doesn’t require party structures, and it works better at low magnitude levels (although it is still less proportional than with higher magnitudes). List systems usually don’t allow for surplus votes to be transferred to other candidates, which is not a big deal at high magnitudes but matters when you’re electing 3, 4, 5 members, and certainly makes a big difference when electing one (when it’s the difference between classic first past the post and preferential voting).

The bloc vote is a poor system to use, particularly where there are factions or alliances, since the same voters elect multiple members while others miss out entirely.

Councils which decide to stick with first past the post often argue that STV is too complex, and express concerns about turnout levels. I didn’t see much evidence either way that STV or FPP do better in terms of turnout – I suspect there are other issues leading to low turnout. And complexity can be resolved with practice as voters get used to the system – which I think explains why the two regional councils which have adopted STV are the one where the major city council has adopted the system first.

It has now been about two decades since STV first became available as a choice for councils. In 2004, ten local councils use STV, while the other 64 at the time stuck with FPP. None of the regional councils chose STV.

Matamata-Piako and Papakura returned to FPP in 2007, as did Thames-Coromandel and Chatham Islands in 2010. Along with the amalgamation of all of Auckland’s council into one super-council in 2010, this left STV only in use in six out of 67 local councils and no regional council.

2010 was the low point – since then it has been more common for councils to adopt STV than to return to FPP.

Palmerston North adopted STV in 2013.

In 2016, Greater Wellington Regional Council became the first regional council to adopt a system that had already been used for the City of Wellington since 2004.

New Plymouth, Ruapehu and Tauranga adopted STV in 2019, and in 2022 were joined by Far North, Gisborne, Hamilton and Nelson. This left fourteen local councils plus one regional council using STV.

The decisions in 2023 have been a mixed bag for STV. The small Kaipara council dumped STV after using it for two decades. This is the first council to abandon STV since the initial wave of reversions to FPP concluded prior to the 2010 election.

On the other hand, Otago Regional Council switched to STV, being the second regional council to do so (along with three unitary authorities).

This has meant that the proportion of the country who lives in a council using STV at the territorial level has gone down slightly, but has reached a new high at the regional level.

Now I should note that I wasn’t able to definitively determine what every council is doing. For the chart above, I assumed the last few councils are sticking with their 2022 system. I’m assuming that FPP is continuing in Chatham Islands, Matamata-Piako, Ōtorohanga, Tararua, Timaru and Waitomo local councils, and West Coast regional council. I’m also assuming STV will continue to be used for New Plymouth and Tauranga.

I’ve produced a map which shows which system each council will be using in 2025, and whether that’s a change from 2022.

There are some trends that can be seen in the map. STV has quite a strong presence in the Wellington region. Three local councils use the system, along with the regional council.

Dunedin in the south has also used STV since 2004, and is the biggest council in the Otago region, which will now be using STV from 2025.

STV also has a presence in a number of regional cities: Hamilton, Tauranga, New Plymouth and Palmerston North.

It’s quite common when looking at local government electoral systems to see an element of choice given to local councils by the central authority: deciding the types of wards, who they hire to conduct the elections or other factors. It’s clearly a bigger ask for a central government to force through a statewide change (which could be a good or bad thing depending on the change).

The NZ government has conducted a Future of Local Government review throughout the last parliamentary term, with the final report submitted in June 2023. Amongst other reforms, the review recommended a switch to using STV for every council election. But that seems unlikely to pass with the current government appearing to be on track to lose power next month.

Still, the campaign for proportional elections in councils in New Zealand is not about to stop, and it’s an interesting case study in how reform happens, or doesn’t happen.

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