Should New Zealand do away with by-elections?

In New Zealand’s MMP system, there are by-elections if there is a vacancy between general elections in a single-seat district. This is not a mandatory feature of MMP systems; Germany, for example, has no by-elections. A vacancy in a district is filled off the list of the party of the vacating member.

Nigel Roberts, a leading New Zealand expert on elections and electoral systems, writes in the Dominion Post that New Zealand should end the practice of by-elections. In making the case, he refers to a by-election in the constituency of Mt Albert, which is a safe Labour seat. The Labour Party’s candidate in the by-election, Jacinda Ardern, already is an MP, via the party list. Thus the effect of her winning (which she did) is simply to shift the type of mandate she has*, and have her replaced as a list MP by the next available candidate on the Labour list from the preceding election.

Roberts suggests adding a regional component to the lists in order to ensure that the replacement is from the same region as the district in which the vacancy has occurred.

A potential problem with the proposal is the fact that sometimes a by-election really does shift who controls a district and sometimes can even change the nationwide balance between parties (as happened in a recent case in Northland district). Roberts takes the position that this is better avoided, so as not to change potentially the majority for the government. “Party votes cast in general elections should make or break governments – not electorate votes cast in by-elections,” he says.

I am curious to know what readers think of the proposal.

* As well as, sadly, deprive us of my favorite case of a list MP “shadowing” the district-elected MP.

31 thoughts on “Should New Zealand do away with by-elections?

  1. The reason that usually is given for the 2nd vote in MMP is that you may prefer a local candidate who is not the one running for your preferred party. Even if, as I believe, most votes for local candidates are to “back a potential winner” (Policy or Pork, rather than Personality), voters like to have a say in who represents their electorate. Parachuting in a party candidate from a regional or national list rules runs counter to that desire.

    Traditionally, by-elections give voters a chance to send a message to the political parties between general elections. This is worthwhile feedback, even if on occasion it might threaten a party’s control of parliament.

  2. If I understand the logic of MMP, the system is supposed to be a party list proportional representation system where the party representation in the legislature matches their overall share of the vote, but localities are still allowed to send local representatives to the legislature. This particular circle is squared by just having the parties appoint additional representatives to bridge any gap between whatever members they can get elected from local electorates and their strength in the national electorate.

    If this is the logic, then the representatives elected locally are representatives of their localities, and if their is a vacancy, the locality should choose a replacement. I’m amazed Germany doesn’t do this.

    The logic of the system also implies that if a party has its strength reduced due to a by-election loss, it should get a new overhang legislator. Though the by election loss itself may indicate that the party’s support in the national electorate is just not what it was at the last election.

    Really if you do away with the by elections, just admit that what you really want is party list PR and get rid of the single member district component altogether.

    The New Zealand situation brings up a separate question about whether a candidate for a district seat should be allowed to enter parliament as a list member, or someone on a party list should be allowed to campaign for a district seat, within the same parliament. My inclination is no, it imports too much of a “jobs for the boys” dynamic in the system, and the pols should be required to wait for the next national election to get into that particular legislative chamber by a different route (this still would allow candidates defeated in a district to run in a by election for a district seat, or unelected list candidates to fill list vacancies)

    • While it is tempting to regard the district MPs in an MMP system as (to borrow – yet again – from Churchill) as roses with cut stems, the districts do have the potential to make results under MMP different from results under a straightforward nationwide (or, in Scotland, region-wide) closed list system with 5% threshold, in three ways:

      1. Parties under the 5% threshold can still win seats if they win a district. (Not applicable in Scotland, I believe, which has no threshold but has regions averaging 16-17 seats overall, with an average of 9-10 of those being district seats, so the de facto d’Hondt threshold is about 5-6% anyway).

      2. Having two separate votes effectively gives minor party supporters a second preference if they split their votes among parties. If you vote for a small right-wing Christian party’s list but give your local vote to the main conservative party’s candidate – or of you vote for the Greens’ list but give your district vote to the Labour/ Social Democratic candidate – your vote will still help elect an MP even if that list wins no seats.

      3. Popular local candidates (or, perhaps, those preselected for districts where their party is popular) can alter the order of the otherwise closed list. (Not applicable to the same extent in Bavaria).

      Interesting contrast between New Zealand (seats allocated nationwide among both parties and candidates) to both Germany (seats allocated nationwide among parties but regionally among candidates) and Scotland (seats allocated regionally among both parties and candidates).

      The New Zealand by-elections situation has interesting similarities and differences with the Australian situation, when a parliamentarian elected on a (de facto) party list resigns that seat to contest a single-member local district seat. In that case, however, since they are swapping across chambers, they are legally required to resign their Senate seat before nominating for a House of Representatives division.

      • I am not quite sure I understand the distinction between Germany and Scotland when you say “[for Germany] (seats allocated nationwide among parties but regionally among candidates) and Scotland (seats allocated regionally among both parties and candidates).” Can you explain further?

      • 1. New Zealand: single list of candidates per party across entire country.
        2. Germany: separate lists per party in each Land but their vote totals are aggregated across the entire country.
        3. Scotland: separate lists per party in each region, votes not aggregated across regions (ie, if a party polls 5% of the votes in every single region and constituency it will win zero seats rather than six.

      • .. So in Germany, the votes for the separate (eg) SPD party lists in all the States are added up for a nationwide allocation of seats. If, say, the SPD polls 35% of the total German vote overall, it wins 231 out of 660 seats. If 10% of the SPD’s vote was polled in the Land of Neuerheinischezeitung-Sud, then 23 of those 231 MPs must come from the SPD list in that State. If the SPD has already won, say, 10 district seats in that State, then the other 13 candidates elected are those highest on that State list, skipping over any who may have already won district seats.

      • Correcting myself further: strike “then 23 of those 231 MPs must come from the SPD list in that State”, replace with “then 23 of those 231 MPs must be SPD candidates from that State”, ie if 10 have already won district seats then only 13 will come from the list.
        I’ve probably explained that enough now…

  3. MMP in New Zealand allows another take on “jobs for the boys”. In 1996, after the first MMP election, women made up only 15% of MPs from the electorates but nearly 50% of the list MPs. By 2014 the two numbers were essentially the same at 31% each; 78% of list MPs were defeated SMC candidates. Allowing dual candidacy appears to minimize “class distinction” between SMC and list MPs.

    The dual candidacy option (permitted vs forbidden) in closed-list MMP also could affect career continuity for politicians and influence the power of party central offices vis a vis local party associations and vis a vis the voters.

    A third option, as in Baden-Wurttemberg, makes dual candidacy mandatory (the “list” coming from best losers in SMC contests) and offers yet another mix of advantages and disadvantages.

  4. What about Mixed Member Majoritarian jurisdictions like Mexico and Japan? Does they have by elections for it’s Single Member Districts? Do all countries and other jurisdictions that use Single Member Districts have by elections? Some U.S states uses special elections, appointment, and the party that last hold the seat selects the representative. There shouldn’t be any rules on filling vacancies for single member district, but appointment by executive seems suspicious. By elections are expensive and costly, not having them saves money.

    A single member district can have provision of having three successors after him, treating it as a single member List-PR system, doesn’t Switzerland have one of those for one Canton, and Finland for Aland? Also don’t some countries that use party list systems have substitute MPs if the main MP is absent or recently join the government and is a cabinet minister like the Netherlands.

    You should create a by election post now, interesting how vacancies are filled.

    Read here at

    • In the Swiss M=1 districts, a party nominates only one candidate, as best I can recall. I think that is the case in the Spanish M=1 districts as well. I do not know how a vacancy is filled in these cases. In Finland’s Aland Islands M=1 district, it is still an open list, like all other Finnish districts. A list can contain up to four names, so there is a straightforward substitute available (generally) if there is a midterm vacancy. A similar rule exists in the M=1 district of Peru (which is also an open-list system).

      • My recollection from Christopher Hughes’ “The Constitution of Switzerland” is a sentence along the lines of “By-elections [for the National Council] are not held, except in the smallest Cantons: otherwise the next candidate on that party’s list fills the vacancy”. “Smallest Cantons” would imply N=1. Lakeman said the single-deputy Cantons elect them “using the British method”, ie FPTP rather than either runoffs or “lemas”.

  5. The question of whether to use by-elections or next on the list to fill vacancies under MMP perhaps rests on how the system is conceptualized.

    1. As two-tier PR, in which the basic-tier districts are as small as they can logically be, M=1.

    2. As FPTP with “top up” compensation seats from a list.

    Under conceptualization #1, it is a bit like Denmark, where parties have the option to organize their lists as if they were nominating in single-seat districts, but they still have a district-wide list (and district M>1) from which replacements can be drawn. There is no logical need for a by election if you have this conceptualization; what you have is a two-tier (closed) list PR system in which some basic-tier seats happen to be elected in single-seat districts.

    Under conceptualization #2, of course the district preferences for local representation need to be respected, and you need by elections. The list exists for a different purpose and is not part of the process of providing local candidates (even if in practice dual candidacy is common).

    Obviously, Germany operates under conceptualization #1 and New Zealand under conceptualization #2, and the explanation may be no more than what the legacy of the pre-MMP democratic electoral system was. That leads me to a question of whether this little hypothesis could be generalized: do Bolivia and Venezuela (both previously closed list, M>1, systems) follow conceptualization #1 and does Scotland follow conceptualization #2?

    (Venezuela shifted from MMP to MMM a few elections ago. I assume whatever rule they use for filling vacancies did not change, but I would not know. I can’t recall ever hearing about a by election there, but given that they have a recall provision under the current constitution, they actually may have by elections.)

    • Not immediately relevant, but still worth mentioning, is that in some countries using a PR formula vacancies are nonetheless filled with (ordinarily) majoritarian by-elections, e.g. Ireland, Turkey, and local elections in Scotland.

      • Yes, JD, I suppose with STV there is some logic to that (though the alternative of re-applying the counts from the original preference votes also exists, and is, I think, used in Tasmania).

        I did not know about that practice in Turkey, which is a closed-list system. So that is rather unusual. As an aside, of course, Turkey also allows SNTV-style election of independents in the general election, so the practice on vacancies is at least consistent with the existence of such an option.

      • If I recall correctly, when the AKP won the 2002 election, Erdogan was still in prison or otherwise still barred from being elected. Soon afterwards the ban was removed, and some AKP MP resigned, allowing Erdogan to contest the by-election and then be appointed PM.

      • Malta, the Tasmanian lower house, the WA upper house, and the ACT. Ireland has, I think, for Euro-elections, each candidate submit a ranked list of replacements so no by-elections. The federal, NSW, SA and Victorian upper houses have party appointment, either de facto or with the genteel window dressing of “the parliament chooses someone but they must be a member of the original candidate’s party, where available, when appointed and for the next 14 days” which equates to the same thing. I think the NSW Legislative Council originally had “the last-eliminated candidate from the same team as the vacating MP” when it changed to direct STV-PR election in 1978, but that seems to have changed to copy the Senate model since, most likely at the 1991 referendum that changed three classes of 15 MLCs to two classes of 21 MLCs.

    • A contact reminds me that in Bolivia, every legislator is elected with a replacement (suplente), even those in the single-seat districts. Bolivia was formerly all closed-list PR, so this case also fits the pattern: MMP with conceptualization #1, in this case meaning a replacement is effectively elected at the same time as the initial election in the district.

    • Well, you’re certainly right that Scotland, Wales and (in theory) the London Assembly use by-elections in constituency seats to fill vacancies, and the Venezuelan Electoral Council doesn’t have any records of by-elections (though there is also the right of recall; I don’t know how that is done for party-list seats, or for any others for that matter).

  6. As well as, sadly, deprive us of my favorite case of a list MP “shadowing” the district-elected MP.
    Not strictly shadowing, but the Electorate Office of Peeni Henare, MP for Tamaki Makaurau (Maori) is across the road from that of Sam Lotu-Iiga, MP for Maungakiekie (General) in Onehunga.

  7. From time to time a member of Parliament has resigned from his party then resigned his seat to earn a new mandate from his electorate. Sadly, that expense is a necessary expense of the system of parliamentary government.

    • Sometimes it can be seen as a matter of political honour, if the legislator concerned has changed parties mid-term. Phil Gramm resigned and triggered a special election in his US House district when he switched from Democrat to GOP, and one or another of the right-wing British Labour MPs who later joined the Social Democrats (Dick Taverne, maybe) did the same, being immediately re-elected under the new party label.
      When Cheryl Kernot left the Australian Democrats in 1997 to join the Labor Party, she resigned her Senate seat. There were a few letters to the editor calling for her to “face the voters in a by-election” until cooler heads pointed out – there being no comboxes in those primitive times – that Australian Senators cannot trigger a by-election by resigning. Eventually Kernot stood (and was elected) as Labor candidate for a House division about a year later.

      • To that list you could add, in fact, a couple of New Zealand cases (perhaps demonstrating that some politicians do take their electorates seriously); Hone Harawira, who left the Maori Party in 2011, resigned, and won a by-election as the candidate of his own ‘Mana Party’. Tariana Turia resigned her seat after leaving the Labour Party to form the Maori Party in 2004.

        Perhaps it’s worth noting that in both of these cases, the parties that were formed were entirely dependent upon constituencies for their places in Parliament.

  8. Regarding my point above about how one conceptualizes this electoral system and the the relationship to legacies of prior systems in the same jurisdiction, perhaps the system’s other names are telling. The German system is often referred to as “personalized proportional representation”, thereby suggesting it is just a variant of PR where some are elected on personal mandates. The Scottish, Welsh, and London systems are known as “additional member”, signifying that members (from lists) have been added on to your familiar FPTP.

    Perhaps the invention of the new name in New Zealand was an attempt to split the difference between these conceptualizations. I don’t know how, or if, this helps answer the question I posed in the subject.

    I guess if it were up to me, I’d probably have by-elections for vacancies in the single-seat districts, but not permit sitting list MPs to contest them. Like all suggested reforms, this probably has a downside that I am overlooking.

    • Call MMP a hybrid SMD married to Lists, the Lists wear the pants, and is the most important significant other in this marriage other wise an MMM system is an emotionally distant couple on the verge of divorce, who forgot to communicate. I don’t know how to render Mexico’s MMM system or Hungary’s old halfway between MMP/MMM system.

    • Is this a good time to prove Shugart’s Law and mention that Tasmania and the ACT fill vacancies in they STV assemblies by a countback of the ballots cast for the vacated member at the last election?

  9. I think a big issues in this debate in the method in which we elect the district MP. FPTP is used in all (if I’m not mistaken) elections selecting the MP from a district. This would dissuade multiple candidates from the same party from running in the district election because of the fear of vote splitting. However, it seems a by election could be avoided while supporting the concepts of either #1 or #2 if an alternative method like score voting or approval voting were used.

    In the general election voters would most like score candidates of their preferred party fairly similarly. Let us presume voters are using score voting on a scale of 0 to 5. Their favor candidate would be given 5 votes and acceptable candidates of the same party would be given 4 votes each (most likely). Therefore, it is likely that the second place candidate in the race would also come from the same party as the winning party. So, in case of resignation or death the replacement would have a legitimate mandate.

    Example 1: Libby Rahl of the labor party leads in the polls. Her protege Otto Werker shares many of her values and platform positions. The district has a slight Labor lean and there is a lot of shared support between Libby Rahl and Otto Werker. Libby Rahl wins the vote and Otto Werker comes in a close second. Tory candidate Conner Servative comes in third.

    There could be instances where the district would change parties under this scheme. Assume two candidates from the same party run but one is caught in a scandal. In which case it is possible for a second place candidate to be from a different party. Although party control did flip in the district it was clear that the voter still preferred a candidate of a different party to the candidate of the winning party.

    Example 2: Libby Rahl of the Labor party is leading in the polls again for the next election. The other Labor candidate, Philip Phlop, is caught in a scandal. Libby Rahl wins again but the scandal hurts Philip Phlop and he comes in a distant fourth. Leading Tory candidate Conner Servative comes in second and would take the seat if Libby Rahl resigns.

  10. If I read this article correctly… by-elections for local councils in NZ are run by “STV” (which I assume means AV when, as there would usually be, one single casual vacancy) even though by-elections for the national Parliament are still FPTP?

    ”… Both Northland’s by-elections are based on the single transferable voting method…”

    – “Still time to vote in Far North and Kaipara by-elections”, NZ Herald (15 February 2018)

    Not that my home State can talk… Queensland’s Labor government reverted to full mandatory-preferential for State elections last year, but hasn’t yet got around to changing local elections (mayors and single-seat wards) back from optional-preferential. The hemorrhaging of exhausted votes is not so much of an urgent danger to democracy when it doesn’t threaten Labor’s control of the government.

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