Local ElectionsAugust 15, 2019

PSA: How to vote in our local government elections even if you are an idiot


Participating in some of New Zealand’s local government elections can be a challenge, thanks to their unusual voting methodologies and heavy use of ‘the postal system’. Thankfully your friends at The Spinoff are here to hold your hand every step of the way, from enrollment (do it now!) through to voting in an STV system.

This feature was made possible thanks to The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.

New Zealand’s local election campaigns have started, with hopeful mayors, councillors, local board members, and district health board members, knocking on doors, and posting on Facebook to try to get your vote.

You may already be enrolled to vote (you can tell, because you should have received a letter from Orange Guy in early July), but if you aren’t enrolled to vote, then enrolling by Friday 16 August will ensure that postal voting papers will be sent to you in the third week of September.

You can enrol after this Friday, right up until the day before voting papers have to be back – but voting will involve a little extra effort.

Every voter is voting in multiple elections – for councils, and mayors, and various boards, and not all of the elections use the same voting system, so it is important to read your voting paper to make sure how you are supposed to vote.

One of the voting systems we’ll be asked to use is called Single Transferable Vote (or STV), which is used for all health board elections, and also some council elections.

Voting in an STV election is easy – 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?

All District Health Board elections use STV, as well as a number of City Councils and District Councils. The New Plymouth District Council, Ruapehu District Council, and Tauranga City Council are using STV for their elections for the first time in 2019. While Dunedin, Kaipara, Kapiti Coast, Marlborough, Palmerston North, Porirua and Wellington will be repeating their past use.

One regional council, the Greater Wellington Regional Council, also uses STV.

If you vote in Marlborough, Porirua, or Wellington City, you will only be using STV, while voters in other council areas will be using STV for some elections, and first past the post for others.

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.

Do I have to rank everyone?

No. Your vote is still valid even if you only rank some candidates.

What are the ways my vote might become invalid 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 ticks, like in a first past the post election.

If you muck up the later numbers – like 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.

But is it a good idea to rank everyone?


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


Your lower preferences cannot ever harm the election prospects of anyone you rank higher than them.

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


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; 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 for you took look at 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. Or you can get an enrolment form from a Post Shop. Or you can call 0800 36 76 56.

Your voting papers will be sent to you in the week of 20-25 September, and have to be with your local returning officer by midday on Saturday October 12. If you’re posting them back, try to get them in the post on or before October 5, to make sure there’s enough time. If you’re getting near the date, 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.

This feature was made possible thanks to The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism click here.

Keep going!