New Zealand to have referendum questions on 2020 ballot, potentially including “tweaks” to MMP

Earlier in December, the Justice Minister of New Zealand, Andrew Little (Labour) announced that there would be a binding referendum on recreational cannabis use concurrent with the 2020 general election. There may also be a question on euthanasia, and–of core interest to this blog–electoral reform.

Earlier, Little had said:

It has been floating around that if we’re going to do a bunch of referenda, why wouldn’t we put this question about whether we want to make those final tweaks to MMP, reduce that 5 per cent threshold to 4 per cent, get rid of the one-seat coat-tailing provision.

These proposals were part of the Electoral Commission’s MMP Review, but the government at the time (National-led) did not act on them.

The multiparty nature of the New Zealand political system that MMP has institutionalized is apparent in these issues being on the table. Having a referendum on cannabis use was a provision of the confidence and supply agreement that Labour signed with the Green Party after the 2017 election. In addition, Labour’s other current governing partner, New Zealand First, has indicated support for a bill on euthanasia sponsored by the leader of ACT, another of the smaller parties (a right-wing partner to opposition National).

Both provisions that the MMP Review recommended changing have had past impacts on current parties. The ACT has depended for its representation in parliament on the so-called coat-tailing provision (a term I do not like for the alternative threshold) in several elections. The New Zealand First once was left out of parliament for having a vote share between 3.5% and 5%, despite other parties (including ACT) being represented, due to winning a single district (electorate) plurality. (Obviously, 4% would not have helped NZF in 2008, as it had only 3.65%. But the point is that the current provisions produce potential anomalies; I have suggested before that the two thresholds should be brought closer to one another.)

Also of note: Little said that the cabinet had discussed, but decided against, having a citizen’s assembly to deliberate issues related to cannabis (and perhaps also euthanasia).

Open lists in MMP: An option for BC and the experience in Bavaria

One of the options for electoral reform in British Columbia is mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation. The criteria for the potential system allow for a post-referendum decision (if MMP is approved by voters) on whether the party lists should be open or closed. The guide that was sent to all BC voters shows a mock-up of a ballot that looks like New Zealand’s, with closed lists. However, the provincial premier has stated that, if MMP is adopted, lists will be open.

When it comes to lists, it is my opinion that citizens will elect all of the members of the legislature. They will select names that are representative of their communities.

I remain uncertain about the value of open lists under MMP. Is it worth the extra ballot complexity? What additional gain does one get from having preference votes determine order of election for those winning compensatory seats? The MMP Review in New Zealand after the 2011 referendum (in which voters voted to keep MMP) looked at this question extensively. It came down firmly on the side of keeping lists closed.

Nonetheless, the statement by the premier suggests he believes the system is less likely to be chosen if voters expect the lists to be closed. And, given regional districts on the compensation tier, as explicitly called for in the system proposal, the lists would not be too long and thus the ballots not too complex.

It happens that there is one MMP system in existence in which the lists are open. Such a system has been used in Bavaria for quite some time. I actually proposed such a model in a post way back in 2005, quite early in the life of this blog. At the time I had no idea that what I had “invented” was, more or less, the existing Bavarian model.

Of course, Bavaria just had an election. In the thread on that election, Wilf Day offered some valuable insights into how the open lists worked. I am “promoting” selections from Wilf’s comments here. Indented text in the remainder of this post is by Wilf.

The Bavarian lists are fully “open,” and the ballot position has no bearing on the outcome, except to the extent the voters are guided by it, especially seen in voting for the number 1 candidate.

Of the 114 list seats, 31 were elected thanks to voters moving them up the list, while 83 would have been elected with closed lists.

Did the first on the list always get elected? Almost. In the region of Lower Bavaria, the liberal FDP elected only 1 MLA, and he had been second on their regional list.

Did the open lists hurt women? I did not check most results, but the SPD zippers their lists, and I noticed in Upper Palatinate the SPD elected 2 MLAs, list numbers 1 and 3 (two women). Conversely, in Middle Franconia the SPD elected 4 MLAs: 1, 2, 3, and 5 (three men).

Little known fact: a substantial number of voters in Bavaria, being used to voting in federal elections where their second vote is just for a party, blink at the Bavarian ballot, look for the usual space to vote beside the party name, it’s not there, so they put an X beside the party name anyway. A spoiled ballot? No, they count it as a vote for the party. Not a vote for the list as ranked, it does not count for the ranking or for any candidate, but it does count in the party count. Just like Brazil, where a vote for the party is not a vote for the list ranking, except Bavaria does not publicize the option of voting for the party.

Among the more interesting new Free Voter MLAs:

Anna Stolz, lawyer, Mayor of the City of Arnstein; she had been elected Mayor in 2014 as the joint candidate of the Greens, SPD, and Free Voters; the local Greens said they were very proud of her as Mayor. The Free Voter delegates meeting made her number 5 on the state list, but the voters moved her up to second place as one of the two Free Voter MLAs from Lower Franconia.

From Upper Bavaria, the capital region, list #12 was Hans Friedl, with his own platform: “a socially ecologically liberal voice, an immigration law based on the Canadian model, no privatization of the drinking water supply, a clear rejection of the privatization of motorways”). The voters moved him up to #8, making him the last of 8 Free Voters elected in that region.

Note: the comments are excerpted, and the order of ideas is a little different from where they appear in the thread. I thank WIlf for his comments, and for his permission to make them more prominent.

Piggyback MPs, part 2

With apologies to New Zealanders’ somewhat complicated memory of Robert Muldoon, I am sticking to my “piggyback MPs” as a preferred term for members elected under MMP via an alternative threshold to the one based on party-list votes.

Here I want to address briefly the question of whether allowing an alternative threshold, by which a party qualifies for list seats through the winning of one (or more) district seats, is itself a problem in electoral-system design. I have been wanting to address this issue for some time, and some of my thoughts are anticipated by a comment left by Rob at the previous thread.

Up front, let me state that I see no problem with the principle of an alternative threshold. If mixed-member proportional systems are to have a chance of delivering on the “best of both worlds” promise, then one really should allow both worlds to coexist simultaneously. One of those worlds is one in which local concentrations of support for particular parties or candidates are able to attain representation. The other world is one in which only nationwide levels of support for particular parties are worthy of representation. Any one of us might prefer one conception of representation over the other, but MMP is explicitly designed to promote both.

Now, one might respond that one need not have the alternative threshold in oder to obtain both of these worlds. Parties could still exist to target one or a few district seats, and earn their representation that way, without being entitled to any list seats.* I concede that this is a perfectly valid argument, and it seems to be the position taken by the New Zealand Electoral Commission in its MMP Review. That is fine; they have thought much more about these issues, and the needs of New Zealand society, than I ever can do.

However, I think it is a perfectly valid “best of both worlds” provision to say that we want to give incentives to smaller parties to attract support outside their district-based strongholds, while still being able to win representation based on their regional concentration. A very small party may have supporters around the country, but be concentrated in one area. Voters outside the areas of strength have little reason to vote for the list of such a party if it won’t win seats; by the same token, voters in a single district where the party has local strength may have little reason to vote for the party if it lacks any chance to win further seats via list votes obtained elsewhere. (If one seat is expected to affect the balance of power, the second consideration vanishes, of course.)

It seems to me that the decision whether to abolish the alternative threshold should be made not on the basis of disliking particular parties that take advantage of it. (Search on “Key cup of tea” if you are unfamiliar with the debate.) Rather, it should be taken after considering what minimal size of party is considered optimal in a given country’s proportional system. (One can never squeeze out all one-seat parties, as they are at least a latent possibility in any system that has single-seat districts, including mixed-member PR, but one can eliminated the opportunity for such parties to exist to seek additional seats via the list.)

What is the optimal minimum size for parties that win more than just a given district (or two or more), but also win list seats? Continue reading

Piggyback MPs

[Update: I am adding this to the Germany block, due to a discussion that has arisen in the comments.]

Under New Zealand’s variant of Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP), there are two alternative thresholds for receiving party-list seats. Either a party must obtain over 5% of the party-list vote, or else it must win a single district (electorate) and sufficient party-list votes to elect two or more MPs in total (even if its list vote is under 5%).

The latter path towards winning proportional representation seats is referred to in New Zealand as “coat-tailing”. I suppose New Zealanders can call it whatever they want, as long as it is clear to them, given that it’s their electoral system and a problem pretty much unique to them. But I don’t like the term. I understand coat tails as support on one vote (e.g. for congress) that is enhanced by having a popular candidate for another (e.g. president). But that is not what we see in New Zealand. We are talking about an alternative threshold for representation in a single institution, not voting across institutions. Moreover, a case of high coattails normally would mean reduced ticket-splitting. By contrast, in New Zealand, what seems to trouble many commentators (including the Electoral Commission in its MMP Review) is precisely incentives to ticket-split, not by abandoning a small party on the electorate vote (which might be the “normal” type of split-ticket voting under MMP), but in favor of a small party in the electorate vote. For example: National-favoring voters in Epsom voting for the local Act candidate, who had a chance at winning the electorate (and did indeed win it), but giving their list vote to National. The objection is that these voters seem to have more weight by virtue of living in a district that is so safe for one party that a small partner party can win it. But that’s not coattails, as usually understood.

In any case, this was not meant to be just a screed over terminology (though who doesn’t love such screeds?). I wanted to note that a new party in New Zealand, the Internet Party, can win seats only through this provision, whatever we might call it. The IP (good acronym for them!) has formed an alliance with the Mana Party, whose leader, Hone Harawira, has a safe Maori electorate (Te Tai Tokerau).* If Internet Mana were to win enough list votes for two seats, but elect only the one Mana candidate, then the IP would get a candidate via the list (its leader holds the number one slot on the joint list), even without coming near 5% of the list vote. In fact, about 1.3% of the vote would be sufficient.**

Yet the IP actually is against the so-called coat-tailing!

There seems to be a flaw in the process, and it is not necessarily the provision for the alternative threshold. It is in how alliances are allowed to take advantage:

In the Internet Party’s case it could potentially create a public backlash as its alliance with Mana expires just six weeks after the election.

Yes, that would seem backlash-worthy.

As for what to call this type of entry into parliament, I offer a suggestion in the title of this post.

* In this electorate, Labour has done something clever: nominate its local candidate, Kelvin Davis, to a rather low list position. “His ranking of 18 would blunt a Mana tactic of asking people to vote for Mr Harawira because Mr Davis had a safe list spot and would be an MP anyway.

** A potential fly in the ointment is that Mana might elect two electorate MPs, in which case IP is out of luck, unless the list vote goes considerably higher. In fact, if you are a Maori voter in the one non-safe but within-reach electorate for Mana, and you do not happen to like the alliance with IP, your strategy is clear: vote for the Mana candidate, and you get to help block the IP.

Might NZ Nats cultivate a new ally?

“The electoral gods could well be shining on Conservative Party leader Colin Craig.” So says the NZ Herald, in reporting on the new constituency boundary proposals in advance of the 2014 New Zealand general election. Auckland’s North Shore region could obtain a new seat, and it could be favorable Conservative territory.

If the National Party were to nominate a “low-profile” candidate in the electorate, and wink and nod in Craig’s direction, the Conservatives might make it into the next parliament, and be a potential post-electoral ally for the Nationals.


In the campaign for the November, 2011, election, Craig and his party had signs like this up in many locations (this one was in Christchurch; there was also a huge one in downtown Wellington).  The “every vote counts” slogan and the plea for party (list) votes both depended on the assumption that Craig would win his own district race. The party ended up with barely more than half the vote share it would have needed nationwide to get any seats if Craig did not win his contest: 2.65%, where the list-vote threshold is 5%. But once a party wins an electorate, it earns its full proportional share based on the list votes, even if that is below 5%; in this case, indeed, every (list) vote counts.

Craig put up a credible showing for a minor party that lacked a de-facto deal with a major party, winning 20.9% and second place in the Rodney electorate. That his vote was that high suggests there were indeed voters in this small-c conservative electorate splitting in his favor to try to get the Conservative Party represented. His vote was 3.27 times that of his party in the electorate, whereas National’s candidate’s vote was only 0.85 that of the National list. (The candidates of the right-wing Act, a National ally, and of New Zealand First also ran well behind their party in Rodney, although their votes were paltry, while the candidates of Labour and Greens ran about even with their own parties.)  Had National put up a weak candidate, Craig might have won the electorate; in that case, the Conservative Party list-vote share could have been sufficient for three seats (Craig, plus two from the list).

Given that two of its current allies have only one seat apiece (United Future and Act), and may not make it back in, National is in need of allies if it is to hope to retain power after the next election. No wonder the National government did not want to dispense with the single-electorate alternative threshold as proposed by the Electoral Commission in the MMP Review. (The Commission also proposed reducing the list threshold to 4%.) National needs allies like this, lacking allies assured of clearing 5% of the party vote like Labour’s potential allies, Green and (probably) New Zealand First. And Craig and his Conservatives look like a better bet to win multiple seats than United Future and Act–provided Craig has a winnable electorate in 2014. Moreover, as the NZ Herald article notes, Conservatives might even reach 4% if voters expected Craig to be elected, increasing the perception around the country that, indeed, every vote for the Conservative list counts.

Final MMP Review report is out

The final report from the official review of New Zealand’s Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system is now posted [PDF].

I have not yet digested the entire report, but the highlights of the recommendations are: dual candidacy OK, closed lists OK, dump the one-seat threshold, lower list-vote threshold to 4%, consider fixed 60:40 ratio of electorate to list seats. If one-seat threshold abolished, also get rid of overhang provision.

All good, though I’m not sure about that last one. The report says, on p.8:

Abolishing the one electorate seat threshold would increase the chances of significant numbers of overhang seats being generated by parties that win electorate seats but do not cross the party vote threshold. Therefore, if the one electorate seat threshold is abolished, we also recommend the provision for overhang seats be abolished. Parties that win electorate seats would keep those seats. However, the size of Parliament would remain at 120 seats because no extra list seats would be allocated. This would have minimal impact on the proportionality of Parliament.

I suspect most of the voting for small-party candidates in single-seat districts (electorates) is motivated by the possibility that said party would win more than this one seat, if it had a party vote sufficient for two or more seats (but less than 5% of the vote). Without the district win granting it a chance at list seats, there is usually little incentive to vote for such a party. An exception would be the Maori Party, which is able to win several of these seats even while getting few list votes. And it is this (very big) exception that calls into question the Commission’s claim of a minimal effect of their recommendation on proportionality. Without adding seats to parliament to (partially) compensate other parties for the party that is overrepresented due to district wins, it would seem that there would be considerable potential for increased disproportionality.

NZ MMP Review Proposals Paper

Elections New Zealand has released the Proposals Paper that it has prepared in response to the submissions to the review of the country’s Mixed-Member Proportional electoral system.

Rather than summarize it here, I will encourage interested readers to go read it themselves, and ask them to come back here and discuss.

For earlier discussion of the referendum and review, please click the words, MMP Review, in the “planted in” line above. A couple of the prior entries include portions of a submission I sent.

My submission is cited (under the last subheading on the page on dual candidacy); I am honored!