Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler


Voting in an STV election

Campaigning in this year’s local body elections is well under way. Voting papers will be mailed to you in mid-September (if you enrol by Friday 12 August these will be sent to you automatically; you can still enrol after that – right up until the day before voting papers have to be back – but voting will involve a little extra effort).

I’ve published a version of this post in advance of each of the last two local body elections, so you may have read something like it before. Because there’s usually a lot of misinformation about how the STV voting system works (like this article on Stuff, by someone who ought to know better), I thought I’d try to get in early this time.

If you’ve any other questions about how voting will work (or about how block-vote works, which is the system used in most of our local body elections), feel free to ask in the comments.


So you’re voting in an STV election, and you want know how to best use your vote? Well … here goes.

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 (Dunedin, Palmerston North, Porirua, and Wellington) and District Councils (Kaipara, Kapiti Coast and Marlborough). The system used in the other elections is called first-past-the-post or block vote. If you live in the Wellington Area all of your elections will be STV (since the 2010 elections, the Greater Wellington Regional Council has adopted it, the only Regional Council to do so), but everyone else will have both systems operating in different elections that they can vote in. Of course, you don’t have to vote in all of them if you don’t want to, but you can.

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.

In the 2002 French Presidential election, there was a vote-off between the top two candidates, the right wing incumbent Jacques Chirac, and far right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen. Many left-wing voters did something they never thought they would do, and voted for Chirac. They weren’t using STV, but the principle is identical. In Australian Senate Elections, and some state elections – which do use STV – the Labor Party has advised its supporters to rank the right-wing Liberal Party above Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. Voting this way does not hurt the Labor Party, but it makes it as unlikely as possible that One Nation gets anyone in.

Like the French voters who “voted for the crook, not the fascist”, 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 really don’t want elected, I should rank everyone else above them?


And this can’t cause any damage?

Well, you could be wrong :-)

It’s always possible that the one the person you think you want to make sure isn’t elected isn’t actually the worst candidate. Maybe that candidate you haven’t heard of is to the right of Ayn Rand or the left of Hugo Chavez, and if you knew that then he’d have been your absolute last choice. If you’re casting your vote for someone you know very little about, there’s always a chance that if you had known more about them, you’d have thought differently.

An informed vote is always a good idea.

Even for the District Health Board?

Okay, you got me. Health Board elections are stupid.

Seriously though, how does the counting work?

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

First, all the number 1’s 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 1’s 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 person with 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 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 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.

Don’t forget to vote!

If you haven’t been sent an enrolment pack by Orange Guy in the last few weeks, then you’re probably not enroled 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 16-21 September, and have to be with your local returning officer by midday on Saturday October 8. 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.


Geoffrey Palmer has decided to write a constitution

Last year, the Law Foundation made a $10,000 research grant to former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer to write about a New Zealand Constitution. But, after more than one recent government investigation ended in only recommendations to keep discussion alive, he’s going a step further: with Andrew Butler, a partner at law firm Russell McVeagh, he’s working on a draft constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand.

At a public talk at Victoria University Law School last week, Sir Geoffrey outlined his progress. The draft is still unfinished, but the intention is to publish a book (written to be read by the general public, not lawyers or policy wonks) containing the first draft of a constitution, with commentary.

It’s a rather ambitious task.  They intend to then set up a website where people can make comment, before expressing their final view on what should be in The Constitution of Aotearoa New Zealand next year.

After Sir Geoffrey’s talk was announced, and I’d RSVPed, I thought about how one would go about writing a New Zealand Constitution in the current environment (ie without some constitutional crisis or political change necessitating it). My thought was to have a bunch of legal experts draft a no-change constitution: a constitution all written in one place, but with no differences from the current law not otherwise inherent in the fact it’s a written constitution. And then, when they’re all agreed that it makes no changes, every else gets to argue about what we should add to it, or change in it, so that we get what we want, while being less likely to stuff things up.

Well, Sir Geoffrey is a little more ambitious. He’s made changes to our constitutional structure in the past, and would apparently like to do it again.

He didn’t announce many specifics, but the proposal is for a supreme law constitution. His current view is that the Courts should be able to strike down legislation that is inconsistent with the constitution, but that Parliament could vote to override a court decision striking down a law with a 75% supermajority (which is the same level he suggests for amendments to the constitution, consistent with the bits of the Electoral Act already entrenched).

It’s apparently very much a work in progress, and the speech was light on specifics. However, we may be able to glean some insight into where his proposal will lead from the description given with Law Foundation grant:

It is intended to write it from the position of New Zealand as a republic, will provide a higher law constitution with increased power to the courts and a number of other more minor reforms, but at its core it aims to preserve the essence of our Westminster style democracy, strengthen the rule of law, protect property rights and guard against our democratic freedoms being whittled away gradually. It is innovative in providing constitutional protection for institutions that maintain transparency and integrity in government.

The bit about New Zealand being a republic was unmentioned in the speech, and I followed up whether that was still the intention. I’m told I’ll have to wait for an answer to that one; my guess, based on nothing in particular, is that it may be there as an option, but might not be intergral - given the option, I reckon Palmer would favour a written Constitution, even without abandoning the Monarchy. I suspect a right to property will be there, and based on the speech, I think the intention to enshrine democracy is likely to extend beyond voting in national elections, to include a right to local democracy as well, perhaps brought on in part by the Government’s actions in Canterbury.

Later this year isn’t that long to wait, but Sir Geoffrey did read out an outline of what was currently (or at least, recently, as he noted it was already out of date).

  • Preamble
  • The State
  • The Head of State
  • The Government
  • Parliament and the Legislature
  • The Judiciary
  • Law-Making
  • Finance and Taxation
  • International Relations
  • Defence and Security
  • The Treaty of Waitangi
  • The Bill of Rights
  • Other State Institutions
  • Integrity and Transparency
  • Adoption and Amendment
  • Emergencies and suspension of parts of the Constitution
  • Transitional provisions

Though there have been several attempts to get a conversation started, and this one, firmly intending to have an actual draft constitution, may be more likely than most to have some continuing effect. It’s always useful to have something sitting around, if we suddenly find we need it it a hurry (it seems to have worked for the Rogernomes). Sir Geoffrey isn’t expecting change soon. He suggests the adoption of a Constitution might not happen for 20 years, which, if we are to have one, seems like a reasonable time scale, given there isn’t a pressing need, and he realises he’s going to have to convince ordinary New Zealanders, not politicians. 


An update of changes to suicide-reporting law (updated)

Parliament looks set to have its last substantive debate on the Coroners Amendment Bill this evening, with the committee stage on the Coroners Amendment Bill listed as the fourth item in the order paper (although, depending on how things go with the other items up for debate, the debate might not finish today).

I’ve written on the bill before, particularly about its rules around public discussion of self-inflicted deaths. The bill relaxes it in some areas, but tightens it in others. I had asked the select committee to reconsider the extent to which our laws criminalised public discussion of self-inflicted deaths at all, but they went the other way: further limiting the details that can be published (while still retaining the liberalising bit from the government’s bill – the right to describe a death as a “suspected suicide”).

The select committee also extended the restrictions on reporting suicides to overseas deaths, and historical deaths, which was somewhat of a surprise.

With the bill through select committee, I largely abandoned hope of it being the means of enacting a sensible law around public reporting of suicide, but I at least hoped the Government would see sense and reverse the decision of the Select Committee to extend the prohibition of publication of details of self-inflicted deaths to overseas and historical deaths.

Unfortunately, they only got part way there. On the day the issue will be voted on, the government released its final amendments. Discussion of the details of overseas suicides will no longer be illegal, but historical suicides within New Zealand will now be covered by the offence.

No reason has been given for the change.

Update: Parliament did not reach the bill this evening. When it will next be up for debate is up to the government. I will try to follow closely.


Fact-checking Parliament: more prisoners can vote than they think

Parliament’s Justice and Electoral Committee has released its report on the 2014 general election. There are number of useful observations about the process, and recommendations about possible law changes. Nothing particularly major – work on online voting is not a priority – but hopefully a few changes to make our elections a little bit better will result.

People bring up all sorts of things in submissions on the Inquiry into the General Election: someone will usually ask for photo ID to be required to vote; to which the Committee helpfully responds “We observe that fraud and personation countermeasures are in place: dual votes are extracted through the scrutiny process and not included in the official count, and cases of personation are referred to the police. The number of dual votes is very low, between 0.002 and 0.004 percent of registered voters.”

The Committee wants the ban on partisan twitter use on election day to stay, and looked at the problems with the Broadcasting Act, and recommends further consideration. Perhaps most noteworthy is that the Māori Party (and the Electoral Commission) appear to have won over the Government members, as the Committee unanimously recommended a change to the Māori roll process (allowing people eligible for the Māori Roll to switch roll type once per election cycle, rather than only during the Māori Electoral Option).

And the Committee was also asked by submitters to reconsider the extended ban on prisoner voting. Although “reconsider” might be wrong word: the bill extending the ban on prisoners voting went to the Law and Order Committee, not the Justice and Electoral Committee. This may be part of the reason it passed so incompetently: the expert government advisers on the legislation were not the Ministry of Justice, but the Department of Corrections, who might be experts in running prisons, but they aren't experts in electoral law.

On the prison voting ban, the Justice and Electoral Committee recommended by majority to retain the current ban, noting:

“Prisoners on remand are the only prisoners eligible to enrol and vote.”

Thing is, this isn’t true. Though mostly small, a number of other categories of prisoners are in fact eligible to vote, including a small group of sentenced prisoners, as I discovered here.

My extensive, but probably not exhaustive, list of prisoners who aren’t automatically disqualified from enrolling and voting in New Zealand follows. There are probably some technical issues: although people falling within most of following categories are prisoners, there are technical arguments about whether particular forms of detention are “imprisonment”. People required to go into a booze bus for an evidential breath test are detained, but they are not prisoners (they can vote). And the Government would probably argue people subject to public protection orders ordered to be detained on prison grounds are not prisoners, but are residents. Well, if you’re detained in a building inside the wire at a prison, I’m calling you a prisoner. My list also doesn’t include all people detained. There are all sorts of powers of arrest usually exercised for the purpose of getting someone to court. People under arrest are detained, but they are not prisoners. And forcibly detained in secure care mental health facilities are not prisoners either (some can vote, some cannot).

Assuming a person is otherwise eligible to enrol, the following categories of prisoners are not banned from voting in New Zealand elections:

  • Remand prisoners (people refused bail pending trial; or after conviction but before sentence).
  • Sentenced prisoners serving a life sentence or sentence of preventive detention imposed before 16 December 2010, who were paroled as at that date, but who have subsequently been recalled to prison to continue serving that sentence.
  • Sentenced prisoners on temporary release on the day of the election (if they enrol in time!).
  • Service prisoners subject to a sentence of imprisonment (those convicted at Courts Martial or otherwise under the Armed Forces Discipline Act, unless directed to serve their sentence is a civilian prison).
  • Service prisoners subject to a sentence of detention (even if serving the sentence in a civilian prison)
  • Someone imprisoned for contempt of court (but not contempt in the face of the court, unless they are…).
  • Someone imprisoned for contempt in the face of the District Court if the Court is exercising civil jurisdiction, but not criminal jurisdiction unless in respect of a charge laid before 1 July 2013.
  • Those serving a term of imprisonment for non-payment of fines, but not those serving a sentence of imprisonment in substitution of a community sentence.
  • People subject to a public protection order detained in a residence on the grounds of a prison.
  • People subject to a prison detention order or an interim prison detention order.
  • People subject to an interim detention order ordered to be detained in a prison, or on prison grounds.
  • A person paroled to reside on prison grounds, or subject to an extended supervision order with a condition to reside on prison grounds
  • People detained in prison on an extradition warrant (who are probably technically remand prisoners) or a surrender warrant, including surrender warrants in respect of International War Crimes Tribunals.
  • An Australian citizen who has resided continuously in New Zealand for one year at some point, who is suspected of constituting a threat or risk to security, detained in prison pending the making of a deportation order.
  • Someone imprisoned upon proof of probable cause they were intending to leave New Zealand to the material disadvantage of a person pursuing an action on the High Court for the recovery of a debt exceeding $100.
  • People imprisoned overseas.
  • And even, I think, people who have escaped from prison and are unlawfully at large.

And probably some others I might realise I should have included after reflection. Feel free to suggest possibilities!


Future Leaders for Democracy; or lowering the voting age

One of my favourite episodes of the West Wing is the sixth season episode “A Good Day”. There are four somewhat interweaving plots, and all are good. The episode is best known for the legislative manoeuvre of a bunch of congressmen pretending they weren’t going to be able to vote (a scheme copied a few years later by the Conservatives in Britain to defeat a hate speech law); and the plot involving the possible invasion of Canada is hilarious, but I think my favourite thread is the White House visit of the Future Leaders for Democracy, a youth lobby group pushing for a constitutional amendment prohibiting age discrimination in voting rights.

I was reminded of this episode after reading this week’s Sunday Star Times’ debate between Jacinda Ardern and David Seymour, on whether 16 and 17 years-olds should have been permitted to vote in the flag referendum.

This isn’t a new idea, especially when it comes to votes with longer than usual effect. The voting age in the United Kingdom is 18, but the Scottish Parliament allowed 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in the recent Scottish Independence Referendum, with people arguing, well, they’ll be the ones to live with the consequences.

Now, I kind of disagree with both Ardern and Seymour.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m sold on extending voting rights. Like the precocious kids on The West Wing, I’d probably just abolish the voting age completely, although I recognise that won’t happen any time soon. And any law that will move it in that direction will have my support.

There have been suggestions in the past. Green MP Sue Bradford once announced a bill around civic and the voting age, and others have said it would be a good idea at times.

Now, I wouldn’t link it to increased civics education – voting is either a right or it isn’t. And civics education is either a good idea, or it isn’t. And plenty of adults cast votes for reasons we might think are self-serving, or even stupid.

The debate has come a couple of times over the last few years, but one thing has always been missing: kids. The only people I have ever seen argue for the voting age to be lowered are people over the age of 18.

Kids are involved in politics in all sorts of ways. They sign up to Greenpeace, they join political parties (you get voting right in the Labour Party at 15, and there appears to be no minimum age in the Green Party at all). A nine-year-old petitioned Parliament for the testing of people driving on foreign drivers licences in New Zealand, after his father was killed when a foreign student drove on the wrong side of the road.

New Zealand women weren’t among the first to be given the right to vote, they were among the first to insist on being given it. There were protests. And letters to the editor. Groups were formed. And campaign committees. There were several almighty petitions. Some men were involved, but women ran the thing. For years. It took far too long, but when women in New Zealand got the vote, it was because women in New Zealand wanted the vote and set about getting it. It was the same in the UK and the United States. I imagine it was the same in other countries whose women’s suffrage movements I know less about.

But where are 16 and 17 year-olds on the voting age? Because I haven’t seen any. Where are New Zealand’s Future Leaders For Democracy? Where are the petitions, the letters to the editor, or the stories in local newspapers about the questions kids ask the Prime Minister when he visits a school? Where are the YouTube videos, the memes, the whatever-kids-do-these-days I know nothing about? Where even is the page you can like on Facebook? Because here’s one that hasn’t posted since 2012, with 47 likes.

And most of all, where are the kids who want to vote? I’m all for lowering the voting age, but I’ve seen little indication that it’s something all that many of them want. But if they want to fight for it, I’m happy to help, and they shouldn’t have to wait until the next special occasion. If 16 year-olds or 15 years-olds want to vote, we should be acting on it now, not as some last minute addition to a referendum on a flag, or a republic.