In New Zealand, a voting systems face-off is going on as local jurisdictions consider switching from the traditional single-winner plurality system (referred to there as first-past-the-post) to the single transferable vote form of ranked choice voting (RCV). Although most developed countries today use some form of proportional voting, the single-winner plurality method remains common in English-speaking countries, including in the United States. In contrast, RCV lets voters rank candidates in order of preference. The candidate(s) who reaches the election threshold, or the number of votes needed to get elected, wins. RCV is currently used in several U.S. cities and, recently, was successfully adopted in the state of Maine.
New Zealand in 2001 passed the Local Electoral Act, giving jurisdictions the option to replace single winner plurality with RCV. Ten councils made the switch to RCV in the 2004 elections that followed. Among them was the city of Wellington, which since 2004 has consistently used RCV to elect community board members, councilors and even mayor. It remains popular with voters who, in a 2008 referendum, decided to keep RCV over the single winner plurality system.
For its 2019 elections, Wellington will be one of 11 jurisdictions—five district councils, five city councils, and one regional council—using RCV, three of which will be doing so for the first time. Additionally, all district health board members will be elected with RCV.
Survey responses in a 2008 review of New Zealand’s Local Electoral Act of 2001 suggest that voters handle RCV well. Seventy-nine percent of respondents who used RCV to vote in district health board elections described it as “easy to understand and use,” and 84 percent either agreed or strongly agreed that “it was easy to fill in the form and rank the candidates.” Without prompting, voters also indicated that RCV “gives you more flexibility in voting” and that a major advantage was that it is “more representative” and “more democratic.”
New Zealand has clear and universal guidelines for how to implement RCV, making the voting system easy to adopt. The government also provides resources to the general public that detail the differences between the RCV and single winner plurality methods to help voters make informed decisions.
In the U.S., some states, such as Utah, have passed laws giving local jurisdictions options and guidelines for different election systems. More and more citizens in both New Zealand and the United States are backing RCV, providing momentum for the proportional representation movement across the globe.
Photo illustration by Mikhaila Markham