The headline for this article is a double entendre, which I’m pointing out just in case anyone was thinking about getting offended. It’s Tick-The-Box time coming up again shortly in New Zealand, and where some folks may still not be completely au fait with the vagaries of the MMP voting system – whilst others, being more nerdy in a political sense, are better up with the play – it’s a less well-known given that the various recipients of the public’s electoral support are, themselves, quite often a whole lot less bright than many would prefer the aforementioned public to believe.
And it is a fact that more than twenty years on from its inception, MMP is still not well understood by a significant proportion of the New Zealand populace, who nevertheless get to live with its consequences.
Here then is a brief explanation of how the voting system works, and what you can do with it in order to maximise your preferred choice’s chances of success.
In New Zealand you have two votes. One is for your local representative, and the other is for your preferred Party of Government. You have had two votes since 1996. Prior to that time, the country used the Simple Plurality voting system, more commonly known as First Past The Post. Under this delightfully archaic and not remotely democratic methodology, the candidate who receives the single largest number of votes gets to be the winner, regardless of the fact that their support may very well amount to quite a small minority of votes cast. An extreme example would be a contest with 10 candidates, where one lucky contender scoops up 20% of the vote, and the other nine receive 8.88% each. Mr 20% gets to become the elected representative, with all the trappings, in spite of the fact that 80% of voters didn’t want him at all, while the other get nothing.
And because Governments were formed on the basis of seats in the House, rather than popular votes received overall, minority Governments became the norm in NZ for many decades – often on the back of overall support for the winning Party coming in at less than 40%.
Dissatisfaction with the basic and inherent unfairness of this system led to the adoption of Mixed Member Proportional voting, after Labour gained more actual votes than National, but fewer seats, not once but twice, in 1978 and again in 1981. 1981 also saw the Social Credit Party picking up 21% of the vote but just 2% of the seats in Parliament.
Under MMP, a Party receiving 10% of the overall vote is entitled to 10% of the seats in the House. However under MMP the contest for your local representative, your electorate MP, is still a FPP affair. Most local MPs do now gain office as a result of an actual majority in their seat, but a good few still don’t; Peter Dunne is a good recent example, holding the seat of Ohariu with just 38% of the vote, and holding up two Governments on the back of that, despite 62% of his own constituents wanting somebody else as their representative (just not the SAME somebody else).
MMP isn’t pretty, and could be improved, but it’s still a whole lot better than FPP ever was, and it does constitute actual democracy, where FPP never did. Folks may not like the composition of the coalitions that MMP inevitably throws up, but they are unarguably the result of majority rule at work. Three Parties who, coddled together, comprise an actual majority of voter support, DO represent the wishes of the nation as a whole, whether anyone likes that or not.
The upshot of this is that the results of electorate seat contests are now largely irrelevant, in terms of the formation of Governments. The Party Vote, and the List MPs it delivers, are what decide who gets to be the government, and in what numbers, determined by who gets what percentage of the vote, over and above the minimum 5% threshold.
As long as a Party’s party vote adds up to 5% or more of the total valid vote, that Party will receive seats in Parliament. 5% affords a Party six MPs; 4.99% gets them none.
There is an exception within this, and that of course is the coat-tailing rule, under which a Party that wins one or more electorate seats, but still doesn’t crack the threshold, DOES get to have their percentage of the Party Vote counted when List seats are being allocated. The arrangement between National and ACT in the Epsom seat, is now established as example of this rule being exploited in practice. With an electorate seat virtually guaranteed, ACT – or anyone else utilizing the same loophole – only needs just over 1% of the total Party Vote in order to bring in a second MP.
The threshold is what tips up most contenders as far as new Parties entering Parliament is concerned. 5% has thus far proven to be an insurmountable hurdle; but that said, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the New Conservatives break through this time around, and ACT making the cut under their own steam as well.
Voters need to bear the threshold in mind when contemplating how to act strategically in the upcoming election. If a Party doesn’t make the grade, the Party Votes they DO receive, are effectively redistributed amongst the Parties that DO get over the line. It works like this: say we’re voting on what to have for breakfast. The Weetbix Party and the Cornflakes Party can pretty much count on about 35–45% of the vote each, depending on the prevailing mood of the nation.
The Muesli Party and the Porridge Party each have a core support base at or around the 5% mark, and election night nerves aside, will probably be back at the table in the morning. The Bacon and Eggs Party has an arrangement with the Weetbix Party, guaranteeing them a seat; but the Granola Party, the Smashed-Avo-On-Toast Party, and the Two-Aspirin-And-A-Coffee Party don’t have a hope of breaking 0.5%, let alone 5%, and thus a vote for them is worse than wasted.
It’s worse than wasted because votes in their direction become invalid, thus shrinking the overall pool of valid votes, which are the only ones that can be counted. Now for ease of mathematics, if Weetbix get 45%, and Cornflakes get 35%, and Muesli and Porridge collect 5% each, but Granola, Avocado, and Drugs only manage 3.33% apiece, then fully 10% of the Party Vote doesn’t count. HOWEVER it also means that Weetbix, Cornflakes, Muesli, and Porridge, are now sitting round a smaller table, and hence each of their shares gets proportionately larger. In Weetbix’s case, their 45% suddenly becomes 50%, because the table itself is now only 90% of the size it was originally. That’s enough for them to govern on their own (although of course Bacon and Eggs will be there as well).
This means that if you’re kind of generally a Cornflakes supporter, but you have a particular bent towards a few Granola policies, and you vote for Granola even though you KNOW they’re not going to get within cooee of the finish line; well, you haven’t done your side any favours – in fact you’ve shot yourself in the foot, because your vote for Granola has effectively helped your sworn enemy, Weetbix, become the Government.
So voting for small Parties is very much a Catch-22 situation. They won’t get over the line unless people vote for them, but people won’t vote for them unless it looks like they’re going to get over the line. Propaganda, bias, and outright lies on the part of the mainstream media, and their horribly rigged opinion polls, really don’t help matters in this regard.
“Oh, but so-and-so is going to win the seat of such-and-such,” the faithful will enthuse.
Um, no, he or she won’t. The seats are the preserve of Weetbix and Cornflakes, now and forever. Minnows and Independents get precisely nowhere, and not even close to nowhere, at that. 80% of the population will continue to vote for either Weetbix or Cornflakes, as they have done for five or six generations, because that’s their unspoken (and largely unthought) duty; and the Members selected via this process will continue to vote in Parliament the way their respective Whips tell them to, in order to preserve their ongoing careers.
The only time an independent or a new Party wins an electorate seat is when a long-established and well-respected incumbent quits his or her Party and stands on their own merits, AND does so at a time when there are points to be made.
Believing that by some act of divine intervention, J Bloggs of the Smashed Avocado Party will take the seat of Conservativeville from the Weetbix Party, who have held it with a 20,000 vote majority for 130 years, is like believing that Elvis will fly home from the moon in his double-decker bus to save us all with free unicorn rides. It ain’t going to happen.
The bottom line here is that you can afford to waste your electorate protest vote on an also-ran, a minnow Party, or an Independent, because doing so won’t affect the outcome of anything.
But you can’t afford to waste your Party Vote in the same way, because it’s the one that decides who is going to be the Government.
At this stage of the game, if a smaller party looks like it can count on 4% or better, then they’re probably worth a shot. But if they’re still hovering around 1%, or 2%, or not yet troubling the scoreboard keepers, the reality is that that’s where they’re going to be on election night.
So if you’re thinking about voting for them so they can get to Parliament and become a coalition partner for whichever colour of the Red & Blue Establishment Party is your favourite, bear in mind the mathematics of MMP. Your vote for an unsuccessful also-ran, may very well be of most benefit to the Party you least want to see becoming the Government.
“The Bacon and Eggs Party has an arrangement with the Weetbix Party, guaranteeing them a seat; but the Granola Party, the Smashed-Avo-On-Toast Party, and the Two-Aspirin-And-A-Coffee Party don’t have a hope of breaking 0.5%, let alone 5%, and thus a vote for them is worse than wasted.”
“MMP isn’t pretty, and could be improved, but it’s still a whole lot better than FPP ever was, and it does constitute actual democracy, where FPP never did. Folks may not like the composition of the coalitions that MMP inevitably throws up, but they are unarguably the result of majority rule at work.”