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Friday, 1 July 2011

2011 Electoral System Referendum

The public policy issue this study will examine is the upcoming electoral system referendum, to be held in November 2011 in association with the general election. From a public policy perspective this is a rare occurrence because it is not the government, nor parliament, that will make the final decision on this issue, as is the case regarding most public policy issues. This issue will be decided by the New Zealand public, because the adoption of a new voting system, if it should happen, must be made via referendum, as is required by the Electoral Act 1993. The voting system may also be changed if seventy-five percent of parliament decides so, however it is generally accepted by representatives that voters should decide the outcome. What makes this public policy even more intriguing is that it was only in 1992 that a similar referendum was held and the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system was adopted. This study will delve into the reasons behind yet another referendum on the electoral system as well as examining the problems with the current MMP system, the stakeholders (see Appendix) involved, the voting choices on offer and will also propose a number of considerations for the New Zealanders to evaluate before making their decision. It must also be kept in mind that this referendum has extremely important ramifications for New Zealand, because choosing an electoral system makes an enormous difference to the eventual make-up of a government and parliament.

Five elections have passed since New Zealand changed from the First-Past-the-Post (FPP) electoral system to the MMP electoral system in 1996. History tells us that prior to 1996 there was a real and pressing need for the electoral system to change. The main impetus for change was the 'wrong winner' outcome of the 1978 and 1981 elections. The Labour Party received more votes than the National Party, but the National Party remained
the government, because they held more electorate seats. That is how the previous FPP system worked.

The second major issue was that of 'wasted votes'. For example—in 1978 the Social Credit Party (now Democrats for Social Credit) received 16% of the vote, but only one seat in Parliament. Later they received 21% of the vote in 1981 which gave them only two seats in Parliament. In 1984 the New Zealand Party received 12% of the vote, but no Members of Parliament (Elections New Zealand, n.d. a). Citizens quite rightly perceived this as a huge waste of votes being cast that counted for nothing, or at best, very little. Along with a growing distrust of politicians, due to many broken election promises, New Zealander's innate belief in fairness, and the disparity in voting, led to calls for a Royal Commission.

The 1986 New Zealand Royal Commission on the Electoral System made a number of recommendations including the adoption of MMP. A two part referendum was held in 1992 to decide whether or not to keep FPP or adopt another system. The result was an overwhelming 84.7% of voters calling for a change to the electoral system. Part B gave voters the option to choose from four other systems. The Supplementary Member (SM) system received 5.6% support, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) 17.4%, MMP 70.5% and Preferential Voting (PV) 6.6%. A year later in September 1993 New Zealanders were given the option to keep FPP or change to MMP (the highest polling option from the previous referendum). The results of this referendum were much closer after an intense debate between pro and anti MMP campaigners with 46.1% voting to retain FPP and 53.9% opting for MMP which was implemented for the 1996 general election (Elections New Zealand, n.d. a).

The Electoral Act 1993 also made it compulsory for parliament to establish a committee to review MMP as of April 2001. There were sixty nine submissions on the appropriate party vote threshold. One fifth of the submissions promoted the preservation of the status quo, almost half of them wanted the threshold to be lowered and about one fifth wanted the threshold to be demolished altogether. Act, Green and United parties supported a four percent thresh hold while Labour National and Alliance believed that there was no reason to lower the threshold and it should be left at 5%. The 2001 MMP review committee suggested that there should be no changes to the threshold for representation for parties and candidates should still be able to stand for both list and constituency seats. The committee mostly focused on the number of MPs but rejected the possibility of open lists (Gallagher & Mitchell, 2005, pp. 309-310).

Future reforms. So why another referendum? In August 2008 at a speech to the National Party annual conference in Wellington, Prime Minister John Key announced that New Zealanders had waited long enough for a chance to 'kick the tyres' on MMP, so National would give them that chance to do so by “holding a binding referendum on MMP by no later than 2011” (Key, 2008).

In November 2011 New Zealanders will get this chance under almost exactly the same procedure as the 1992 referendum. The first referendum will be in two parts asking two questions. The first, “Should New Zealand keep the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system? The second question will ask, “If New Zealand were to change to another voting system, which voting system would you choose? The options will be FPP, MMP, PV, SM and STV. If at least half the voters opt to keep MMP, there will be an independent review of MMP in 2012 to recommend changes that should be made to the way it works. If more than half the voters opt to change the electoral system there will be another Referendum in 2014 to choose between MMP and the alternative voting system that gets the most support in the second question.

Two academics who have criticised the need for the 2011 electoral referendum are professors Levine and Roberts (2009). Their argument appears to be that the publics perceived problem with MMP are only minor issues that could easily be addressed by parliament and do not necessitate a nationwide referendum. So why then would Prime Minister Key have called for such a referendum? The author of this report suggest that it was an astute and calculated political manoeuvre as the Prime Minister is in a no-lose situation. A change to any other system would only enhance the opportunity for one of the two main political parties to govern without the need for a coalition, and given the political ratings, this is likely to be Mr Key's National Party. On top of this scenario, by offering voters the chance to 'kick the tyres' on MMP, he portrays himself as a man of the people who is prepared to be guided by the New Zealander public.

The problems with MMP. On the whole, there does not seem to be major problems with MMP, although there have been rumblings, but far from a public outcry for change. Overall, New Zealander's seem to appreciate the representativeness that MMP offers. Since the first MMP election we have seen a far more diverse representation as expected. A record number of women were elected, along with an increase in the number of Maori and Pacific Island MPs. Levine & Roberts (2009) sum up the problems well, giving five main areas of concern; 1. The one-seat threshold. 2. The fact that the Electoral Act 1993 treats minor parties and independents differently. 3. Overhang members of parliament. 4. Closed lists. 5. 'Back-door MPs'. Of this list it would be fair to say that the main public concern seems to be with the one-seat threshold and 'back-door MPs'. As Levine and Roberts (2009) say,

"The one-seat threshold has distorted the intentions of the Electoral Act 1993 and the MMP system to such an extent that in the 2005 election only four of the eight parties elected to the House of Representatives crossed the 5 per cent hurdle, and in 2008 four of the seven parties elected to Parliament in 2008 won fewer than 4 percent (let alone 5 per cent) of the party votes cast throughout the country as a whole, while New Zealand First - which won 4.1 per cent of the overall party vote - failed to secure any seats at all in Parliament."

The term 'back-door MPs' refers to those MPs who lose an electorate yet get returned to parliament through the party list, which voters have no control over as MMP operates under a closed list scenario which is chosen solely by political parties themselves.

Electoral system decisions and options: Depending on the electoral system New Zealand decides upon in November 2011, there may be a totally different outcome at future elections, so options need to be weighed carefully and serious questions need to be asked. For example, when thinking about an electoral system Dummett (1997, p.16) says it's important to ask, “what is it that we want, and then how do we get it?”. Is it best to have an electoral system that creates a government that can govern alone, and make decisions it alone considers best for all New Zealanders without having to accomodate smaller parties? Or an electoral system that reflects the make-up of the population as a whole? Should our electoral system reflect the wishes of the median voter or do we simply want a majoritarian system?

New Zealand has become a culturally diversified nation and it would be fair to assume minority representation is welcomed, so which electoral system will best represent this? Is there even a need for a drastic change of a system that appears to be working reasonably well and really only just starting to become understood? If we changed from MMP to another option what will these systems offer New Zealand? We will now discuss these other systems.

FPP: Returning to FPP would mean voting for an electorate MP and the political party with the most MPs becomes the government, regardless of the number of votes they get New Zealand wide. This would bring a return to large numbers of wasted votes, the possibility of 'wrong winner' outcomes and an increase in disproportionality that FPP brings with it.

PV: Toplak (2009) argues there is no single definition for 'Preferential Voting' as the terms are used for a number of different election systems and groups of such systems. He says, “they can be synonymous with the single-transferable vote, the alternative vote, open-list proportional representation, or the group of all ranking methods.”. Elections New Zealand (n.d. b) describes PV on their website as follows:

"Each voter ranks the candidates – 1, 2, 3, etc – in the order they prefer them. A candidate who gets more than half of all the first preference votes (that is votes marked “1”) wins. If no candidate gets more than half the first preference votes, the candidate with the fewest number “1” votes is eliminated and their votes go to the candidates each voter ranked next. This process is repeated until one candidate has more than half the votes."

This system would lead to a disproportionality of votes very similar to FPP and makes it harder for smaller parties to gain representation, although still offering voters the ability to select the order of their preferred candidates. Coalition governments are rare under this system. PV will certainly stop the most unpopular candidate from winning (as can happen under FPP). However, PV can allow popular candidates to be eliminated too early making this aspect of the system unappealing. PV is also susceptible to insincere voting as well as bullet voting. This is a tactic where even though a voter can select more than one candidate, they only rank their first preference. If enough people do this, the system effectively reverts to FPP, which may be undesirable should New Zealand decide it wants to avoid the issues surrounding FPP mentioned in the previous paragraph. However, rules can be imposed to penalise this tactic, although this could possibly result in high numbers of spoiled ballots.

SM: Under SM there will still be 120 Members of Parliament with 90 electorates MPs. The other 30 seats will be supplementary seats filled by MPs from the political party lists proportionate to the percentage of votes received. Levine & Roberts (2009) conclude from their study that there would probably have been single-party majority governments on three occasions over the last five MMP elections and that the results of the 1996 to 2008 elections would have been three times more disproportionate than they were under MMP.

STV: There would still be 120 Members of Parliament under STV and each electorate would have more than one MP. Each voter has a single vote that is transferable. Voters rank the individual candidates in the order they prefer from all the candidates. MPs are elected by receiving a minimum number of votes as defined by the quota formula. Candidates who reach the quota from first preference votes are elected. If there are still electorate seats to fill, a two-step process follows. First, votes the elected candidates received beyond the quota are transferred to the candidates ranked next on those votes. Candidates who then reach the quota are elected. Second, if there are still electorate seats to fill, the lowest polling candidate is eliminated and their votes are transferred to the candidates ranked next on those votes. This two-step process is repeated until all the seats are filled (Elections New Zealand, n.d. b).

In Australia STV is known as the Hare-Clark proportional method. STV is also used in Ireland, the Australian and South African Senate, Malta, Tasmania and even in a number of local body elections in New Zealand. The down side to STV is that very few people understand how it works, but that could also have been said of MMP initially. STV was rejected by the Plant Committee, which reported to the British Labour Party, because of non-monotonicity (Dummett, 1997). STV is also susceptible to insincere voting.

Conclusion and considerations: It was Winston Churchill (Saidwhat, n.d.) who said,

“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Like the names of loves long lost, we often forget, and so it is with politics. Does New Zealand really want to return to the previous FPP system or does it see a better option from what is described above? Or perhaps it will stay with MMP and make incremental changes? If New Zealand does stay with MMP there are several considerations we would pose in response to problems previously highlighted regarding MMP.

The one-seat threshold could easily be removed to alleviate the disparity that was exposed at 2008 election where the Act Party with only one electorate MP were allocated five MPs even though they received less votes than New Zealand First who did not received any representation.

It would also seem reasonable to reduce the party representation threshold from 5% to 4% as initially recommended by the Royal Commission on the Electoral System (1986). This gives the potential for more parties to be represented in parliament and reduce vote wastage.

If New Zealand wished for a more preferential system rather than simple majoritarianism, other options could still be considered for electorate seats. MMP still uses the FPP system in the electorate seats which often means an MP wins the seat with way less than a majority vote. For example, if the votes are tallied up as 30%, 25%, 25% and 20% to four candidates, this means that the electorate MP with just 30% of the vote wins, a situation that hardly seems fair. Using PV or STV to decide electorate MPs may be considered far more fair.

Voters could also have the option of making a preference selection from party lists and therefore voters have the opportunity to ensure an unwanted electorate MP does not get back into parliament through the present closed party lists. As suggested by Levine and Roberts (2009), all of the above options are not major alterations to the electoral system and could easily be introduced through the legislative process.


Dummett, M. (1997). Principals of Electoral Reform. London, England: Oxford University Press.

Elections New Zealand. (n.d. a). Retrieved June 5, 2011 from

Elections New Zealand. (n.d. b). 2011 Referendum on the voting system. Retrieved June 6, 2011 from system.html

Gallagher, M. & Mitchell, P. (2005). The Politics of Electoral Systems. New York: Oxford University Press.

Key, J. (2008). National's Blueprint for Change. Retrieved June 6, 2010 from

Levine, S. & Roberts, N. (2009). MMP and the Future: Political Challenges and Proposed Reforms. New Zealand Journal of Public and International Law, Vol. 7, No. 1, June 2009: 135-156.

Royal Commission on the Electoral System. (1986). Towards a Better Democracy. Wellington: Government Printer.

Saidwhat. (n.d.). Online quotes. Retrieved June 8, 2011 from

Toplak, J. (2009). Preferential Voting: Definition and Classification. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association 67th Annual National Conference, Chicago, IL, April 2009. Retrieved June 6, 2011 from



Kevthefarmer said...

Hi Steve, great to see you back blogging again!

I absolutely agree with everything you say here, Steve, particularly with regard to the perceived win-win situation for the government, and indeed that could be extended to the political class as a whole.

Perhaps the two votes (constituency and list) should be made fully transferable, ie one could elect to use both votes on the list or for the constituency or one on each. As this would imply that both votes are of equal value, the number of seats chosen from the list should be same as the number of constituencies. However, if the number of constituency votes in any constituency fell below a certain threshold (25% of total votes cast would seem to be a legitimate level) then no member would be elected for that constituency and the number of seats for list members would be increased by one to keep the number of seats in the house at a constant level. Of course, parties would be free to put forward an "associate MP" for those constituencies in the same way that losing parties do now.

This would eliminate the issue of "back-door MPs" and would eliminate the need for the thresholds ( as rubbish a PC contrivance as ever existed anyway- the situation that arose after the last election with ACT and NZF was truly ridiculous) as the list members would have their own legitimacy through equal status. Of course the option of making a preference selection from party lists would be a great fine-tuning if it were at-all possible.

What do you think? I reckon it's a work of genius myself. Can you think of any reason why it would not work? Can you think of a name for it?

Regards, Kev.

Kevthefarmer said...

Hi Steve,
I've been thinking further about this overnight, and have a couple more thoughts to add.

Firstly, the present variant of MMP is postulated as being fairer to the electorate as it gives those who support a candidate who is a "no-hoper" at a constituency level a "second chance" to have an influence via the list candidates. Having given this some further thought, and applying the "Machiavellian test" (as I am wont to do) I realise that the above view of MMP as it exists today is merely a sales-pitch by the political class. The true purpose of present variant MMP is to make sure that, should a key (ha-ha!) member of a parties caucus fail to be elected on the constituency basis- because the lists are assembled in priority order as determined by the caucus itself, and as members elected in the constituencies are removed from the list before seats are allocated- The unfortunate loser will always reappear in parliament by virtue of their high position on the list.

This is a reinforcement of the long established process whereby "new entrants" to political parties are groomed and weeded out as they pass through the party machinery until those that actually appear as candidates in electable seats or list positions are nothing more than clones of their selectors.

We exist in a political climate where the political elite of all persuasions are persuing agendas that are based upon loyalty to special interest groups. National/ACT court global corporate business, Labour court the bureaucracy, both at a national level and transnationally (Helen Clark's U.N position would be payback for her loyalty). These party aparachiks are not going to allow a more just system of representation to damage their chances of persuing their respective agendas.

The party list system institutionalises the position of the parties in the political arena. There is no constitutional basis for this. It just grew from small beginnings until it came to dominate the organs of democracy and statecraft with no mandate other than that from those who clawed their way to the top of the political pile and then sought to entrench their position. As with all things that grow in an intergenerational way, the public just accept that "it is that way because that's the way it is".

The answer? Certainly to disestablish the party lists as unconstitutional and anti-democratic. MP's are meant to represent their constituents personally, not as themselves representatives of an organisation to which they owe an overarching (and enforced by the whip) loyalty. The electoral list should be a single schedule of personal names (of course they can declare their position of support for a given party in their manifesto) and a list vote should consist of a chosen number of individual candidates prioritised 1,2,3,4,5 etc. What do you think?

Regards, Kev.

Steve Baron said...

Well I can't agree with you totally Kev. There can be very good reasons for an extremely good MP, or even the leader of a party, to get in on the party list even though he or she may have lost their electorate seat. Some electorates can go either way and this is not necessarily a reflection on the candidate from any side. One could perhaps argue that Steven Joyce has been a good Minister of Transport but maybe there was no real option for him to be assured a seat as an electorate MP? If he had to stand in an electorate this may have meant a less qualified Minister of Transport???

Kevthefarmer said...

There is definitely a problem when a person has to act in an executive function, ie. as a minister, and at the same time act as a representative of the people. This is a dilemma of cabinet government. We see the same problem in private business with the modern trend for the chairman of a company to also be the chief executive. there is a conflict between the executive and the representative functions.