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Local Elections 2022September 12, 2022

As easy as 1, 2, 3: How to vote using STV

person gesturing to a cartoon 'local elections 2022' sign
It’s democracy, baby!

More councils than ever are using the single transferable vote system in the local elections this year. But how does using numbers to vote actually work? Graeme Edgeler explains all.

New Zealand’s local election campaigns have started, with hopeful mayors, councillors, and local board members knocking on doors, posting on Facebook and turning up to meet the candidate events to try to get your vote.

You will hopefully have received a letter telling you you’re enrolled, and from September 16 voting papers will be posted out. If you didn’t get an enrolment update pack sent to you in July, and you haven’t enrolled since, you won’t be posted voting papers. But it’s not too late to enrol, you’ll just need to check with your local council about casting a special vote.

Every voter is voting in multiple elections – for councils, and mayors, and perhaps local boards or community boards or trusts.

Not all of the elections use the same voting system, so it is important to read your voting paper to check how you are supposed to vote in each election. Some elections will be with ticks (sometimes one – for example when voting for a mayor – and sometimes more than one, if you’re voting in a council ward which elects multiple councillors).

One of the voting systems some of us will be using is called Single Transferable Vote (or STV), where voters use numbers to vote.

Voting in an STV election is as easy as 1, 2, 3. You just number the candidates in order from your favourite to least favourite – but there is sometimes some confusion, so I’m going to try to clear that up.

What is STV?

STV is Single Transferable Vote. It is a voting system where everyone gets one vote, but that vote, or part of that vote, can transfer from one candidate to another candidate. It can be used to elect one candidate – like a mayor – or to elect multiple candidates in a single ward. It is generally considered a proportional voting system.

What elections use STV?

This year, 15 councils will be using STV, including four – Far North District Council, Gisborne District Council, Hamilton City Council and Nelson City Council – that are using it for the first time. Those repeating their use from last time are Kaipara District Council, Tauranga City Council, Ruapehu District Council, New Plymouth District Council, Palmerston North City Council, Kapiti Coast District Council, Porirua City Council, Wellington City Council, Greater Wellington Regional Council, Marlborough District Council and Dunedin City Council.

How do you vote in an STV election?

You rank the candidates with numbers. Put a 1 next to the candidate you most want to win, a 2 next to your next favourite, then a 3 for the next person and so on.

So I can rank all the candidates? Do I have to?

You can rank all the candidates if you want, but that can be a lot of work if there are a lot of candidates. It’s a good idea to rank a few candidates, but if only want to rank one or two faves, that’s OK too – your vote will still be counted.

Who to vote for? can help. (Illustration: Ezra Whittaker-Powley)

What are the ways my vote might not count in an STV election?

If you don’t rank anyone at all with a “1”. Or if you rank more than one person with a “1”. Or if you vote using multiple ticks, like in a first past the post election.

If you muck up the later numbers – like accidentally ranking two candidates with “3”s – your vote won’t be able to transfer to help them or anyone lower, but your earlier rankings will still count.

And, of course, your vote also won’t count if you don’t vote!

Not sure who you want to vote for? Check out, your complete guide to the policies and positions of the candidates for the 2022 local elections.

I know who my favourite candidate is, but I want to make sure my vote has the biggest possible impact, what should I do?

Rank your favourite candidate with a “1”. Then rank as many of the other candidates who you think are OK. If your favoured candidate doesn’t win, ranking other candidates will mean you have some input over the other result. Giving people lower rankings can help them win. There might be a lot a candidates running in a mayoral election for example, but perhaps only three or four with a strong chance of winning. If you want to make sure your vote in that race affects the outcome, after ranking your first choice candidate(s), rank everyone else, or at least try to rank at one or two of the well known candidates.

But if I give someone I don’t like a ranking, couldn’t this hurt the chances of candidate I like more?


Under the STV voting system we use in New Zealand, giving rankings to extra candidates can never hurt the chances of anyone you rank higher.

I have a favourite candidate, but I really don’t have much preference between the other candidates, should I just rank one or two candidates?

If you want. You get to decide what’s important to you when deciding how to vote. There is no requirement to try to vote tactically to help some candidate you might even not want elected. If there’s a candidate you like rank them first, if the other candidates are all meh you don’t have to choose between them. Of course, if there are some who are OK, some meh, and some who are actively bad, you can rank them in that order.

If there are a bunch of people whom you think are just as bad each other, or you know nothing about, your vote will still count if you don’t rank everyone. If the election comes down to race between people you haven’t ranked, you won’t help determine the result, but if you don’t mind which of them is elected, this shouldn’t bother you too much.

But if I do rank everyone, could some of my vote could still go to someone I’m not a fan of?

Yes. But only if all the people you ranked higher than them have already been elected, or cannot possibly win.

By ranking a candidate lowly, you’re not helping them beat people you like more than them, you’re only helping them against people you dislike more.

Ranking all the candidates helps ensure that what you might consider “the greater of two evils” won’t be elected.

But what if I really don’t want to rank everyone?

You don’t have to.

But if there’s someone I really don’t want elected, I should rank everyone else above them?

Yes. Ranking someone last, and ranking every other candidate above them, is the best way to ensure a candidate you are really opposed to isn’t elected.

And this can’t cause any damage?

It cannot harm the prospects of anyone you rank higher.

Seriously though, how does the counting work?

I won’t go into it in great detail, but…

First, the number 1s on every ballot are counted.

If it’s a one-person race – like an election for mayor – then someone has to get more than half of the votes to win. If no-one does, then the candidate with the lowest number of 1s is declared to have lost. All the second rankings of people who voted for that candidate are then added to the votes for the other candidates. The votes of anyone who voted for the candidate being excluded that didn’t have a valid second ranking are set aside.

If anyone now has a majority of the remaining votes, they’re elected. If not, the candidate who now has the lowest number of votes is declared to have lost, and the second rankings of the people who voted them number 1 are added to the votes of the other people. If anyone voted the first loser as number 1, and this candidate as number 2, then their third preference is added instead. If anyone who voted number 1 for this candidate, had their second choice as the candidate who was kicked out in the first round, then their third preference is used.

This keeps going on, until someone has more than half of the remaining votes.

But what about in STV elections where you’re electing more than one person?

Multi-member seats operate on the same basic principle, but with a couple of extra twists. Instead of needing more than half the votes, candidates need to beat a quota, which is set so that only the right number of candidates can be elected. In a one-person race, this is more than half, because it is impossible for two or more people to both get more than half of the votes. If your ward is electing two people, the quota is set at just over a third of the votes (because it’s impossible for three candidates to each get more than third of the votes); if it’s five people, then it’s just over one-sixth of the votes.

The main extra twist is that the vote counting continues after some  candidates have already won. If your ward is electing three people, the votes keep transferring until three people are elected. There’s also an extra step. Before the lowest-ranked person is declared to have lost, and the second preferences of the voters who voted for them are distributed, the excess votes of anyone who has already gotten past the quota and been declared a winner are distributed.

For example, if the quota was calculated as being 100 votes, and on the first round, one of the candidates got 125 votes, then those excess 25 votes are distributed according to second preferences. To make it fair, the second preferences of all that candidate’s voters are used (not just the last 25!); this would mean that an extra 0.2 votes would be added to the second choice of each of the voters that had chosen the winning candidate as their first preference. Only once this is done, is the first loser declared not to have been elected, and are their second preferences distributed. The fractions of votes can get pretty complicated (you might have 0.75 votes going to your first candidate, and 0.20 votes going to your second choice, and 0.05 votes going to your fifth choice), so all the ballots are uploaded to a computer which goes through the calculation.

Is that all?

It’s way more than you need to know to cast an informed vote, but if you do want more detail, there’s a handy government website which explains STV here.

Don’t forget to vote!

If you didn’t get an enrolment pack from Orange Guy in July, then you’re probably not enrolled to vote. You should enrol to vote. You can do this online.

Places like public libraries and other council facilities sometimes have enrolment forms as. Or you can call 0800 36 76 56 and the Electoral Commission will post you a form to fill in You won’t automatically be posted voting papers though, so if you aren’t enrolled yet, check with your council about where you can cast a special vote.

Your voting papers will be sent to you in between 16-21 September, and have to be with your local returning officer by midday on Saturday 8 October. If you’re posting them back, try to get them in the post on or before 3 October, to make sure there’s enough time. If you’re getting closer to the 8th, it might be safer to drop them off in person at the council, or somewhere like a public library. Your council website – and voting papers – should have all the information you need to do this.

Keep going!