The Single Transferable Vote means every vote counts in New South Wales’ local elections

Guest Author, the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

Posted on the 7th February 2022

This is a guest post from James Skibinski, who is involved in New South Wales politics on a grassroots level. He tweets @SkibinskiJames.

In the closing days of 2021, I braved the scorch of the blistering Australian summer sun, walking through the streets of a leafy Sydney suburb and dropping flyers into letterboxes for the Sutherland Shire Council local elections. It was an experience entirely different to English local government elections – rather than using the broken First Past the Post system, here in New South Wales (NSW) we elect our councillors through proportional representation and specifically the Single Transferable Vote (STV).

My experience

I have campaigned in an STV election before, two to be exact. The federal and NSW state parliaments both use STV to elect their upper house representatives. These elections are not usually the star of the show, as they are overshadowed by the more important lower house elections which use the Alternative Vote (AV) system and decide the government. This local election was the first time for me that STV was the primary focus.

The multi-winner nature of local elections made this by far the friendliest campaign I experienced.

When I showed up to support my party at the early voting centre, I was pleased to see rival candidates relaxing under a marquee, chatting away as they sheltered from the sun and waited for voters to arrive. This doesn’t often happen in state and federal elections. Under STV, it is almost impossible for a group to sweep every spot in a ward, meaning a candidate’s rivals at the polls will often become their colleagues in the chamber. Proportional representation also means it is uncommon for a single party to win all the seats, so good relationships between parties is vital.

For voters, STV means everyone stands a good chance of having their vote represented. Rather than electing a single councillor for each area, local elections under STV see multiple candidates elected in each ward, meaning voters can rest assured they will have at least one representative to represent their views. In my experience, this made voters more receptive to other viewpoints and more willing to vote for candidates they normally wouldn’t – even if only as a second preference. Under STV, in fact, voters can rank their candidates in order of preference and thus express a more nuanced opinion that is offered in a straight up winner-takes-all contest.

The combination of multi-member wards and preferential ranking under STV meant that there were no “no-go zones” for parties and that, as every vote truly counted, candidates were forced to reach out far beyond their strongholds.

More open elections

“How many votes can I afford to lose?” is a question that is not always obvious with STV. Haris Strangas, of the centre-right Liberal Party, just found out a popular independent was running against him when he asked me that question. “You can lose 3% of the vote and still get in or you could lose more if [the independent] doesn’t reach 25%”.

Sutherland Shire Council WardsSutherland Shire’s C ward has three seats and normally a major party can only expect to elect one of three candidates in a ward. But this Liberal stronghold reliable elects two Liberal councillors.

But STV elections are competitive and local independents can often gain a seat on a council. When well-known independent Tony Robbins announced his candidacy, it threw the contest for the final seat wide open.

On election night, the votes trickled in. It was obvious the Liberals and Labor each elected their lead candidate.

STV counting is often quick. Tasmania and the ACT get their results within a couple of days but due to the covid pandemic extending postal vote deadlines, we had to wait two weeks before preference counting.

After 9 counts, neither Haris nor Tony reached a quota. Being closest to a quota, Haris clinched victory.

No seat is safe

The local elections delivered some surprising results. Local community-based groups such as ‘Our Local Community’ and the ‘Georges River Residents and Ratepayers Party’ surged, simultaneously disrupting the balance of power and proving STV lowers the barriers to entry for smaller parties and independents.

It wasn’t just minor parties who delivered some shockers. The centre-left Labor Party was able to flip affluent Lane Cove Council from the Liberal Party’s North Shore stronghold and the centre-right Liberal Party wrested control of Penrith City Council, deep in Labor’s Western Sydney heartlands – once again showing how STV opens up electoral competition and, given safe seats are virtually eliminated, ensures voters’ voices are heard.

As is often the case these local elections proved very good for independents too. Independent Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore was re-elected for a fifth time and the independent Lord Mayor of Wollongong was also re-elected. In systems where independents are given a fair chance, people take them more seriously, knowing that their vote will not be wasted, as it is under First Past the Post or just be directed to a major party, as it is under AV.

STV for the UK?

I am glad Australia took the plunge with STV and uses it in all three levels of government. It has made Australian politics better wherever it is used – elections are more competitive and open to a variety of voices.

This is the system the UK should use when it seeks electoral reform. STV delivers proportional results that also empower voters to use their preferences knowing that their views will be represented in the final result. Compared to other proportional systems, it does this without the need for top-up or overhang seats. The system doesn’t need additional MPs whose only purpose is to ensure proportionality, it avoids complex gerrymandering and results in much friendlier, even cooperative elections.

With any luck, campaigners in the UK can have the same experience I had.

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