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!

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

Improving MMP: Dual-candidacy issues

This is one section in a planned series on “improving MMP”, as the New Zealand Electoral Commission sets up its process of reviewing the electoral system that New Zealanders voted to retain at the referendum in November, 2011.

Campaigners for “Keep MMP” in downtown Wellington,
the day before the vote.

The terms of reference for the mandatory review now underway include the question of whether to continue allowing dual candidacy–the right of a candidate to stand simultaneously in a district (electorate) and on a party list. In this essay, I will suggest that banning dual candidacy outright would be mistaken, but I will consider some possible provisions that would ameliorate the potential “legitimacy” problem that can arise from losing electorate candidates gaining a seat via the party list. I will caution against a “best loser” provision, which would allow candidates to win PR seats only if they have run close losing races in their electorate. Instead I will suggest an “incumbent defeat assurance”, whereby incumbent MPs who earn fewer votes that their party’s list in the district, and lose the district, would not be able to retain a seat via the list. I will also suggest an alternative form of “best loser” rule that rewards those electorate losers who outpoll their parties in their districts.


One of the most criticized aspects of MMP in New Zealand is the possibility that a candidate can lose an electorate contest, yet remain in parliament via the party list. This seems to be especially subject to criticism in the case of incumbent electorate MPs, who are perceived as having been defeated by their voters, yet reelected thanks to the closed party list.

One can argue that this is not really a problem at all. The idea of a mixed-member system is that there are two ways of winning election: being a local constituency MP, or being a party MP. It is sometimes alleged by critics that losing a district race but winning on the list is entering parliament “by the back door”. But that is not accurate, because MMP is a system that might be said to have two “front doors”, neither of which is less legitimate than the other. It is not as if the lists are secret. If voters do not like the list of candidates of a party, there are other parties to choose from. This is the advantage of proportionality–more choice of parties–and in a competitive inter-party context, parties that get a reputation for nominating bad candidates to their list are not likely to prosper. (Work by Jack Vowles has shown that, in any case, incumbent MPs who lose the district but remain MPs due to their list rank tend to last only one more term. That is, their parties do not renominate them, or do not give them a viable list rank, next time around.)

However, if one concedes that the presence of MPs who are district losers but list winners is a problem–whether of actual legislative performance and accountability, or simply bad PR (in the sense of public relations)–there are various ways to address it. Continue reading

New Zealand 2011: Party and electoral-system choice

(corrected and re-posted)

By using the polling place data posted by the New Zealand Electoral Commission ((And throwing aside all concerns about ecological fallacy!)) we can see the correlations between a party’s strength and voters’ electoral-system preferences.

The figures that follow are simple local regression (lowess) plots of the share of the vote for a given party and the share for a given electoral system in New Zealand’s general election and referendum of November, 2011. ((All percentages (really, shares) of votes in Part B of the referendum are calculated with the denominator being TOTAL votes in the referendum (i.e. informal votes are included).)) The data points themselves are suppressed because with around 6,000 polling places, the graphs would be overly cluttered. (For reasons indicated in a comment referenced below, the analysis is based on 5,375 polling places.)

Before I go any farther with this, I want to shout out a big THANK YOU to Vasi, who extracted the party-vote data from the many separate files posted at the Electoral Commission website.

Figure 1 shows the relationship between the support for each of New Zealand’s four largest parties–National, Labour, Green, and New Zealand First–and support for keeping the current MMP system. What stands out most is how linear the decline in support for MMP is as National support increases. Relative to Labour strength, support for MMP reaches a point where it levels off, but that is mainly because even where Labour receives around 50% support, the vote for MMP is already approaching 80%. Strong Green support is correlated with strong MMP support. No surprise there. There is a rather more limited relationship to votes for New Zealand First.

NZ11 figs 1&2

Figure 2 shows support for the two alternatives that were most likely to be favored by voters who wanted to change from MMP: Supplementary Member (SM, which is what I would call MMM) and First Past the Post (FP(T)P). Clearly, Labour strongholds were duly skeptical of SM, while support for both systems is associated with National’s strong polling places. There is actually a steady 30% or so support (on average) for FPTP in places where Labour wins more than about a third of the vote. I am not sure what to make of this; maybe strong Labour areas include many voters who long for the old days of Labour majorities under the former electoral system.

Figure 3 looks at the two large parties and support for the two options in Part B of the referendum that entail ranked-choice ballots: Preferential Vote (PV, which is usually known as the Alternative Vote) and the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Note that the lowess curves never rise above about 12% for either system. The one thing that stands out for me here is that there is actually some growing support for PV/AV as Labour strength increases. That makes sense, given that Labour could expect to benefit from many Green voters’ transfers. The sharp decline for PV/AV as National support increases is the mirror image of Labour’s trend–and is actually stronger, perhaps because National has so few potential allies who would give it second (or third, etc.) preferences. Still, we can’t make too much out of it, given that support for this system is so low overall. Not surprisingly, support for STV, which is nowhere high, decreases with support for either major party.

NZ11 figs 3&4

Figure 4 shows a rather interesting divergence of support for the two ranked-choice systems according to the strength of three smaller parties, Greens, New Zealand First, and United Future. Finally, we find out who wanted STV: Green voters! Well, actually, even they don’t want it very much, as places where their party vote reaches 40% or more still vote less than 20% for STV as their preferred alternative. Nonetheless, a trend for more STV support in locations with many Green voters certainly makes sense, inasmuch as STV is the only other proportional system on offer. It is a clear second best for supporters of a party like the Greens, which has generally dispersed support, but also (as the graph clearly shows) some pockets where it is locally quite strong. Local strength might enable it to combine with other parties and elect MPs in a few districts, while elsewhere its votes would transfer to Labour and help it elect an additional MP or two.

There is not much trend for the other parties, or for the Alternative Vote (PV), although places where there is a significant minority of United Future voters clearly are not places where voters see much benefit in the Alternative Vote.

Fun with Stata! And thanks again, Vasi, for your assistance!
See comment #6 for some information on the data.

Split voting results in the NZ referendum

Earlier this week, I reported the polling-place correlations of votes for various options in the New Zealand electoral-system referendum of 2011.

An analysis of the split-voting statistics, as compiled by the Electoral Commission, offers another window on the same questions addressed there. The advantage of these data is that they are based on the Commission’s examination of individual ballot papers, as votes in the two parts of the referendum were cast on a common ballot. ((The same page at the Electoral Commission carries out the split-ballot analysis in each district, although not in each polling place.))

As we already knew, most voters who voted to “Keep” MMP (Part A of the ballot) did not vote at all on Part B, where they could select among several potential replacement systems. In fact, 54.7% of “Keep” voters cast “informal” ballots (meaning blank or invalid).

What is most striking is that of those who cast a vote in Part B, a very large plurality voted for the old First Past the Post (FPTP or FPP) system. The percentage of valid Part B votes for FPTP cast by those who voted in Part A to keep MMP was 40.4%! I wonder how many of these were “insincere” votes, by voters who assumed that FPTP could never defeat MMP in the follow-up referendum that would have happened in 2014 if a majority had voted for change in Part A.

The next most popular choice for “keep” voters was STV, with 24.0%. This, of course, makes sense. Voters who prefer proportional representation ought to rank STV and MMP one after the other as their sincerely preferred choices among the systems on offer.

For third place among “keep” voters who chose any system in Part B, “Supplementary Member” actually edged out “Preferential Voting”, 18.7% to 16.9%. The choice here is an interesting one, as it indicates a preference for any sort of mixed-member system–Supplementary Member is actually a mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system–over a return to all single-seat districts with ranked-choice ballots. (Preferential Vote = Alternative Vote or Instant Runoff.) In terms of sincere voting, it is not straightforward which of these “should be” preferred by voters whose first choice is MMP.

On the one hand, MMM (SM) retains a tier of nationwide proportional seats, but these would cease to be compensatory (and, under the specific proposal, there would have been many fewer of them). On the other hand, while PV (AV) abolishes all party-list seats, it gives voters for a losing party in a district the potential of determining on preferences which of the big parties wins the seat. Both systems would likely produce majority governments frequently, but those majorities and the campaigns that produced them would have been of a different character.

As for the “change” voters, there are no surprises. Only 3.7% did not cast a valid vote in Part B. Of the remaining voters who did cast a valid vote, just under half (49.8%) voted to go back to FPTP, and 28.0% voted for MMM (SM).

In the earlier correlation analysis of polling place results, I noted the lack of correlation between the vote for Part A and the vote for STV. As we saw above, 24.0% of “Keep MMP” voted for STV, and so did 12.4% of the “Change” voters (for whom STV came in third place, ahead of PV/AV). When the informal votes are included in the denominator, the percentages drop to 10.9% and 11.9%, strikingly close. It is not possible to say for sure from the available data, but maybe STV was a Condorcet winner in the wider electorate, albeit not an especially popular one overall. That would make some sense, as it provides the compromise features of all members being elected in local districts, yet offering a considerable degree of proportionality.

In any case, MMP is now clearly confirmed as the New Zealand electoral system, and so discussion shifts to the formal review of MMP, and how the system might be “improved”.

New Zealand referendum polling-place data

The New Zealand Electoral Commission has now released its data showing votes in the 2011 electoral-system referendum at the level of the polling place. ((It is in section 7 at the Commission’s Statistics page. I am grateful to Robert Marsh, Senior Project Leader at the Electoral Commission, for sending me the link.))

I have taken a very quick look at the data, and can report some interesting correlations. Keep in mind this is aggregate data, albeit at the level of the polling place, and not individual-level data. ((There are 6,066 observations. The median number of referendum ballots cast per polling place was 129.)) All of the numbers reported here are thus simple correlations of the vote percentages for a given option on Part A of the ballot (keep or change from MMP) with percentages on Part B (the choice of an alternative system, should “change” win).

    Keep, correlated with:
    FPTP (FPP), -.543
    AV (PV), .251
    STV, -.019
    MMM (SM), -.574
    Informal, .745

(Acronyms in parentheses indicate how the systems were identified in the referendum, which is not always consistent with how they are more commonly known outside NZ, and to the terms I prefer to use.)

These correlations suggest that voters who were happy with the current MMP system were more likely to simply abstain than to select any replacement option from Part B. This is a trend that, as noted earlier, was already apparent from the national aggregate data. ((However, as Manuel Alvarez-Rivera noted in a comment to our earlier discussion, at the electorate (district) level, the correlation between “Keep MMP” and an informal vote (abstention or invalid) in Part B, was 0.97. So, when we look at the polling place, the correlation drops quite a bit.))

It is interesting that the only electoral system from Part B that has a positive correlation with a polling place’s percentage vote to keep MMP is the Alternative Vote (known in New Zealand as “Preferential Vote”). It is somewhat surprising that pro-MMP voters would not be more likely to have chosen the only other proportional system on offer, STV. Yet the vote for STV bears hardly any correlation at all with “keep MMP”.

Now, correlations between “change” (i.e. replace MMP) with Part B options:

    Change, correlated with:
    FPTP, .531
    AV (PV), -.254
    STV, .034
    MMM (SM), .594
    Informal, -.751

Not surprisingly, these are close to mirror images of the correlations with “keep MMP”, except for the STV vote (which is simply not well correlated with however a voter voted in Part A).

It is evident that voters who were discontented with MMP were unlikely to abstain from choosing an alternative, and were about as likely to go for either of the majoritarian systems on the ballot that did not entail ranked-choice ballots–that is, FPTP or MMM (SM), but not AV (PV).

As for the small percentage of voters who declined to mark a choice on the keep/change question, this is positively correlated with only one option in Part B: FPTP. It is a weak correlation, at .145, but all of the others are negative and not much different from zero. Perhaps this means that the sort of voter who would abstain in Part A was a low-information “good old days” FPTP voter. (“I don’t get this whole electoral systems thing, but I know things were better before we got rid of FPP.”)

There are more detailed analyses one could do, particularly taking into account partisan trends in electorates and polling places, ((The latter would be very time-consuming, as the Electoral Commission does not seem to have put out a single data file that contains all the polling places, but only the electorate-by-electorate data. So it would be very time consuming–albeit possible–to do this analysis.)) but this makes for a good starting point.

Small corrections, 2 Feb.

The NZ electoral system referendum

Results have now been released from the 26 November referendum on the New Zealand electoral system. The referendum consisted of two parts. In Part A, voters were asked “Should New Zealand keep the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system?” In Part B, voters were asked “If New Zealand were to change to another voting system, which voting system would you choose?”, with a menu of four choices for the change option: First Past the Post, Preferential Voting, Single Transferable Vote, and Supplementary Member.

In Part A, 57.77% voted to keep MMP. This, of course, renders Part B moot. Nonetheless, comparing across the two parts is interesting. While 2,194,774 valid votes were cast in Part A, there were only 1,509,157 in Part B. Informal votes, defined as “when the voter has not clearly indicated the option for which they wish to vote” were just 62,469 in Part A, but a whopping 748,086 in Part B.

If we can assume that essentially all of the 926,819 voters who voted to change from MMP would have indicated a preference over the four change options, then it would seem that approximately half of the “keep MMP” voters did not bother to select an alternative system.* One wonders how many of these voters simply were confident MMP would be kept, so it was not worth taking a stand on (and bothering to learn about) the alternatives, and how many did not understand that they could choose an alternative even while voting for the current system.

Rationally, any MMP supporter should prefer STV over all the others offered, given that STV is the only proportional system among the alternatives.** Yet STV obtained only 252,503 votes (16.7% of valid votes in Part B), placing third among the alternatives. If just under two thirds of the informal vote in Part B had been cast by MMP voters indicating STV as their fallback, then STV would have beaten out FPTP in Part B.

A referendum in 2014 between the two proportional systems would have been interesting, had “change” won in Part A. Instead, however, the old FPTP system dominated Part B. It was probably expectation of precisely such a result that generated such indifference over Part B, as few could imagine FPTP ever beating MMP in a second referendum were one to have been triggered.

The results in Part B, with percentages based on valid votes only, were:

    48.66% FPTP
    24.14% SM (i.e. MMM)
    16.72% STV
    12.47% PV (AV)


* 685,617 is the difference between the valid votes cast in the two parts; this is equivalent to 54% of the 1,267,955 votes for keeping MMP.

** Unless what someone really likes about MMP is the single-seat districts, yet would not want FPTP again. I suppose such a voter might rank Preferential Voting–that is, the Alternative Vote–as second best. And some could argue for “SM” (MMM) as being most similar to MMP, though it is far worse than any option other than FPTP for supporters of parties other than the big two.

No systemic failure–so why change?

Today’s New Zealand Herald has an editorial in favor of a vote to keep the current electoral system in Saturday’s referendum. The key point:

Change would be justified only if MMP had failed to produce governments that voters recognised as an expression of their collective will.

That is a good summary of the argument I have made in published work about “systemic failure” as a precondition for electoral-system change. For a proportional system to have “failed” by objective criteria, it would need to be seen to have prevented the formation of governments that were an expression of collective preferences of the majority. It can happen with proportional systems, but has not in New Zealand–at least not outside of the first MMP election in 1996. As the editorial also notes, “Fears that the minor-party tail would wag the dog have proved largely unfounded.”

As for the second question on the referendum–the choice among possible replacement systems–Scoop published a story with a graphic showing several polling results over time. No system other than the old FPTP (or FPP), which New Zealand abandoned with the two-stage referendum of 1992-93, has made any traction. ((The story also has a link to an Excel spreadsheet with the polling data.))

Referendum Part B polling

Single transferable vote (STV) looks like a clear second choice, but has never polled above 20%, while neither of the other options, “PV” (really the alternative vote/instant runoff) or “SM” (really MMM, the non-compenstory mixed-member variant), has cracked 10%. I commented before on why SM (MMM) is the solution to a problem New Zealand does not actually have, even if anti-MMP campaigners are trying to sell it as a “compromise” between MMP (which they don’t like) and FPTP (which they presume could not defeat MMP in the one-on-one referendum that would follow in three years if a majority votes Saturday for “change”).