The scramble is on for an STV omelette

You don’t need to know how electricity works to turn on the lights in your house.

That’s how Social Crediters, now all but defunct, locked up in Jim Anderton’s Progressive Coalition, used decades ago to deflect scepticism about their wondrous A-plus-B theorem to solve the world’s financial ills.

It’s a good line for the hustings. How many of you know how your computer works?

My car engine I understand. But solid state electronics ascended into the miraculous when transistors multiplied thousandsfold and shrank to a size I could not imagine.

It’s such a good line that political marketer Rod Donald is using it, with a twist. STV, Donald breezes, is as easy as 1-2-3. You number your voting choices in order of preference and the computer does the hideously complicated counting in a trice.

Just like your bank and just like the IRD. Have faith.

Some of you will need to. Rod Donald got STV (single transferable vote) written into law last year as an option for local elections. All you need to know to operate it, he says, is how to mark 1 for your first choice, 2 for your second and so on down to your least preferred candidate.

Australians seem able to do that in their federal Senate and some state and territory elections. So are the Irish and the Maltese.

The Australians and the Irish got richer than us this last decade. And the Germans, from whom we copied MMP (mixed member proportional) voting, have slid down the economic ladder. Not that there is a causal link, you understand, any more than between MMP and Germany’s 1945-1985 “economic miracle”.

So far eight local councils, including Porirua, have decided to use STV at their next elections in October 2004. Three others, including Wellington, have decided to poll their citizens on whether to have STV. In 16 others petitions for polls are being got up. Donald is out there campaigning.

STV should not mixed up with STD, just as SM (the supplementary member system some thought they were getting when they voted for MMP) is not about whips.

But to conservatives STV is as abhorrent as STD — and they’re catching it anyway. Those who bother to vote for Annette King’s dysfunctional area health boards in 2004 will vote by STV.

But why are the politicians bothering you with all this? Why is Christine Fletcher, one-term junior minister and one-term mayor, fluffing up this omelette? Can’t she leave the eggs intact in their carton until you have fully got the hang of MMP? Not to mention the hapless National party, which Donald correctly notes “failed MMP 101” in July by going for the electorate vote.

The reason for the bother is that “thinking people” who think about voting systems think the 1986 royal commission went for the wrong one.

STV is a one-vote preferential system. Electorates have a number of representatives — five is common. Voters rank candidates in order of preference and the votes of low-preference candidates are progressively transferred to higher-preference candidates until the required number of candidates have 50 per cent.

In Australia voters can simplify the process by ticking a box which assigns preferences in the order their preferred party wants.

STV has many differences from MMP. It has one vote instead of MMP’s confusing two. No single person is responsible for an electorate or ward. It is less proportional if electorates are kept relatively small (say five representatives), though not if they are large, such as a whole city or a whole Australian state contingent in the Senate. Voters can choose among candidates of their preferred party and replace no-hopers and the unloved without damaging their party’s chances.

There is another important factor. Minorities have a good show of getting representation without the prop of special seats. Parliament recently legislated, amid considerable controversy, to permit local and regional councils to designate special seats for Maori similar to the special parliamentary seats.

But is STV better than FPP (first-past-the-post) which rules councils now? Business mostly says no. Conservatives of both left and right say no, though some Labourites think they would get more seats.

And do you get better governance with a different voting system? Parliament will give you a clue.