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.

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* 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.

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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!

Primaries for party-list candidates?

Should the candidates on party lists, and their ranks, be determined by a system of primary elections? The New Zealand Herald has an editorial on 20 February that suggests primaries for the list tier of the NZ MMP system.

Whatever the calibre of party appointees to Parliament, it seems wrong that they are not subjected to some sort of electoral test. Perhaps list seats should have to be filled by the party’s highest polling losers in electorates – or perhaps an American system of party primary elections could compile the lists.

Some American primaries are open to all voters in the state, others are restricted to voters who have registered with one of the parties. The restricted system could work for party lists under MMP. Candidates for the list could campaign for the support of voters registered with the party for a primary in each region before the election. They would be ranked for list seats in order of their total vote at the end of the primaries.

First of all, let me say that I reject the labeling of party-list candidates, however the list is determined, as party “appointees”. Those who enter parliament via the list are elected–directly elected, even–but via a different method. There is nothing inherently “more democratic” about elections via plurality or other “nominal-vote” rules, nor about open lists, nor about primary elections. ((As for the possibility of having the “list” seats filled by the party’s highest polling losers in the districts, I have already addressed that. I put “lists” in quotation marks here, because strictly speaking, there are no party lists if all of the PR tier is filled in this way.)) Regardless of such arguments, however, are primaries in closed party list systems, including the list tier of a mixed-member system, a good idea?

I am skeptical, although at this point I do not have a fully formed idea about this. I am somewhat biased against primaries in list systems because of the experience of some Israeli parties, but political problems in Israel always seem to be somewhat, shall we say, overdetermined. So maybe primaries, per se, are not the problem.

In this context, it is interesting that today’s news has an article from Israel’s Ynet, “PM speaks out against elimination of Likud primaries”.

The Ynet article is without any context, and no other stories about proposals to eliminate primaries in the Likud have come through my news feed. The story quotes PM, and Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu as saying “The Likud used to [be] very centralized, and we decided to open it up. Today we have 130,000 people, instead of 3,000, deciding who will represent the movement”.

Do only 130,000 people participate in Likud primaries? There were 729,054 voters for Likud in the last general election. So that means that a selectorate equivalent to only around 18% of the party’s general-election constituency is effectively setting the lists. Yes, I recognize that 130,000 is a lot more than 3,000, but even 3,000 is a large (and thus at least potentially representative) body for a “centralized” process. Again, there is nothing inherently more democratic about having a self-selected minority of a party’s voters choosing its lists than there is of having a large conference of party delegates do the same.

I hope readers will offer some comments in favor of, or against, primary elections in closed-list PR systems, because this is an area of electoral systems and party organization where my thoughts are far from crystallized.

Open lists and their “simplest forms”

No, this is not the much-anticipated essay on the possibility of open lists in New Zealand, but it does belong in the series on the MMP review.

Rather, this is a comment on the NZ Electoral Commission’s introduction to the issues on list types. While I find the issues pages at the MMP review website to be generally well done, the Commission does not get things quite right on the issues on open and closes lists. It says:

In contrast [to closed lists], open lists allow voters to express a preference for one or more candidates on the list and not just the party. Although the seats are still allocated among the parties based on their respective shares of the vote, voters may influence which candidates are elected to fill these seats. How much influence depends on the rules of the open list system. In its simplest form, voters have some ability to change the order of candidates set by a party on its list, but most candidates are elected in list order. More open systems allow voters to determine for themselves the rank order of candidates, and in some, voters can rank any of the candidates, regardless of party.

It seems very odd to me to refer to intermediate types of list as “the simplest form” of open list. Continue reading