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Veto, Citizens' Initiated and Recall referendum.


Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Steve Baron: The Wisdom of Solomon Needed?

On top of voting for your local Member of Parliament (MP) and casting your Party vote this election, you also get to cast two other votes in the Electoral Referendum. It's not a difficult decision

and you don't need to have the wisdom of Solomon, or be a Political Scientist to make a sensible decision but it does require a bit of time and effort to understand the various options. In this article I hope to make these options more clear. It must also be kept in mind that this referendum has extremely important ramifications for New Zealand, perhaps even more important than who we elect as the government, because choosing an electoral system makes an enormous difference to the eventual make-up of future governments/parliaments.

The first decision you need to make in the referendum is whether or not you want to keep the current Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system or switch to another electoral system. The second decision you need to make is whether you want First-Past-the-Post (FPP), Preferential Voting (PV), Single Transferable Voting (STV) or Supplementary Member Voting (SM), should the majority of New Zealanders decide to switch from the current MMP system. All very technical names and enough to turn any reader off right now, but stick with me as I explain each of them in due course.

If the majority of New Zealanders do decide to keep MMP, there will be an independent review of it by the Electoral Commission. If the majority of voters do want the electoral system to change, parliament will decide if there will be another referendum at the 2014 general elections to choose between MMP and the alternative voting system that gets the most support in the second question in the 2011 Referendum.

Let's now turn to an explanation of each voting system.

MMP: Five elections have passed since New Zealand changed from the old FPP system to the current MMP system in 1996. Under MMP there are 120 MPs and 70 electorates, including the Maori electorates. The other 50 MPs are elected from political party lists. You get two votes, one for an electorate MP to represent you and the candidate that gets the most votes wins (often with less than 50% of the vote). Your other vote is for the Party of your choice. Under current MMP rules, a political party that wins at least one electorate seat or 5% of the party vote, gets a share of the seats in Parliament that is about the same as its share of the party vote. The secret to MMP is understanding that the party vote is the most important vote because if a party gets 50% of the party vote for example, it will get 50% of the seats in parliament. It would be fair to say that MMP has produced a more diverse representation than FPP ever did. We now have more women elected, along with an increase in the number of Maori and Pacific Island MPs. MMP also reduces the number of so called 'wasted votes' which happened under FPP. Under MMP, coalition governments are the norm and the government of the day has less overall power, having to negotiate with coalition partners on various policies. On the negative side, there are a number of contentious issues surrounding MMP; the threshold parties must meet to be eligible for a share of list seats in parliament, voters being unable to change the order of candidates on a party list and 'back-door' MPs getting in through closed party lists after being rejected by their electorates. Other aspects like winning one electorate seat to qualify for the party vote percentage received (if it is less than the current 5% threshold requirement—as enjoyed by the ACT Party holding the Epsom seat) are a concern along with the fact that smaller parties may wield more power than is proportionate to their nationwide vote. Although all of these issues could easily be addressed in the independent review and changes could be made to rectify them.

FPP: Prior to the 1996 general elections, FPP was the system New Zealand had traditionally used, having been adopted from Britain when New Zealand was a colony. Under FPP there would be 120 MPs including the Maori electorates and you would get one vote to choose an MP to represent your electorate. The candidate receiving the most votes (usually less than 50%) wins. The government usually has total control over policy decisions and coalition governments are rare. Small parties find it particularly difficult to gain seats in parliament. The draw-backs with FPP are 'wrong winner' outcomes as was the case in the 1978 and 1981 elections. For example, the Labour Party received more votes than the National Party, but the National Party remained the government, because they won more electorate seats. That is how the previous FPP system worked. The second major draw-back is 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 and in 1984 the New Zealand Party received 12% of the vote, but no MPs—which is not particularly fair.

PV. This option allows you to rank the candidates – 1, 2, 3, etc. – in the order you 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 is likely to 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 which makes 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 if New Zealand wants a proportional system. 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 MPs with 90 being electorate MPs and the
other 30 MPs being supplementary seats filled from party lists proportionate to the percentage of Party votes received. Voters get two votes, one for your electorate MP and the other for the party of your choice. SM is very similar to MMP but far less proportionate. Professors Levine & Roberts concluded from their 2009 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. Coalition governments are rare and there is an aspect of proportionality to the system, but effectively it is still FPP.

STV. Under this system there would still be 120 MPs. Each electorate would have more than one MP, including the Maori electorates. 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 (too complicated to mention here but mathematically formulated). 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. STV allows voters to signal strong preferences for candidates of one group/party but also support candidates from other groups/parties. 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 is also susceptible to bullet voting tactics as mentioned under PV. STV has a tendency to leave doubts in the mind of constituents as to who their MP actually is. It is also non-montonic, a technical term which means voters can penalise a candidate for ranking them 1 instead of 2, or 2 instead of 3. For example, more votes can create a loser as opposed to a winner. Twenty-two American cities tried STV between 1915 and the 1950s but there is now only one of these who still uses it although STV is still used in Ireland, the Australian and South African Senate, Malta, Tasmania and even in a number of local body elections in New Zealand. Although it may be used in these countries it has different rules in each, and can have differing results depending on various options and quota systems used. General feedback in the US States mentioned above concluded that STV reduced the quality of government and lawmakers lacked incentives to tackle controversial issues. Coalition governments and insincere voting are likely under STV.

In conclusion, while there is no “perfect” system, each of us have our own theories and thoughts as to what we expect from our electoral system and how it should operate. This is an opportunity to re-assess our electoral system and a chance to improve our democracy. As per usual, the devil is in the detail. Good luck with your decision.



Blair Anderson said...

General feedback in the US States mentioned above concluded that STV reduced the quality of government and lawmakers lacked incentives to tackle controversial issues. Coalition governments and insincere voting are likely under STV.

Absolute rubbish Steve.
If this is the case you have a very poor understanding of STV. It is a path to consensus politics, no elected member has less than 50%(+1 vote) support. The evidence and practical outcomes runs counter to your assertions.

I was a submitter to the select committee review and notably acknowledged for bringing an educators perspective to informed debate on the various options. Yours does not meet that standard.

MMP threshold needs to be dropped to give true proportionality. Why is that important? Because STV isnt going to get a look in at the end of the referendum because debate (thus far) has been, is and will likley parlous at best.

Education has to be resourced. It has not been.

Steve Baron said...

Those comments were not mine, they were those of a number of articles that came to these conclusions when these various states withdrew from the STV electoral system.

I understand fully the how STV works but STV is also different in various countries depending on different rules and quota systems used. STV is certainly a more consensus based system that FPP, SM or PV because it chooses the most popular candidate who can attain at least 50% support of voters.

I would personally prefer to see STV used in association with MMP to elect electorate MPs. This would stop electorate MPs getting elected with 20 or 30 percent of the vote as often happens.

However, there are still draw-backs to STV as I highlighted in my article.