We like things complicated in New Zealand. I think that’s why we opted for MMP, or Mixed Member Proportional Representation, though it’s possibly not as complicated as the STV system here in Australia, which I have yet to get my head around. We also think that if something is good, then more is better, which is why we have a system where we all get two votes each, one electorate vote, and one party vote.
Here is a primer on the Kiwi variety of MMP.
There are some complicated formulas in MMP, and some boffins understand them. The rest of us just muddle along, work it out on our fingers, and get it about right, without employing the complexities of the
Duckworth-Lewis Sainte-Laguë formula, even if it is a rain-affected election.
There are 120 seats in the New Zealand parliament. 69 of those seats are standard, garden variety electorate seats, elected on the first past the post principle (FPP). Those 69 seats are made up of 62 general seats, and 7 Maori seats. The history and the standing of the Maori seats is a complexity for another day; for today’s lesson, you need to treat them as just like any other electorate seat.
On election day, we all troop off to the polling booth, and cast an electorate vote for the person we would most like to represent our electorate, and the person who gets the most votes on an FPP basis is duly elected. That accounts for 69 seats in the parliament. Of those seats, some will be Labour, some will be National, some may be minor parties.
The remaining 51 seats are list seats, so named because the candidates nominated by each party are listed in order of who will get in first, second, third and so on. The party lists are determined by the party, through various methods, and published in advance of the election. Most electorate candidates go on the party list as well, but if they win their electorate, then they drop off the list for the purpose of allocating seats.
Everyone gets to cast a party vote for the party they would most like to see in government. Each party gets a percentage share of the party votes, and that percentage determines that party’s share of votes in the House. So, let’s assume that the Fried Green Tomatoes Party took 40% of the party votes. They would be entitled to 48 seats in the parliament. Let’s further assume that Fried Green Tomato Party candidates took 32 electorate seats. They would then be entitled to 16 list seats on top of their electorate seats, so that they would get their full quota of seats in the House. So in general, in terms of determining which party gets to form the government, the party vote is more important.
Easy, so far. Now comes the complicated bit.
Each party has to satisfy one or other of two thresholds in order to get their share of the party vote. Either you have to get 5% of the party vote, or you have to win an electorate. The idea is to show that you have a core constituency of sufficient size to guarantee that you are not a fringe nutter party that wants to do something like repealing women’s suffrage. If you just had to get enough votes to get one list MP in the House, you would need only 0.83% of the overall party vote, or between about 20,000 votes. (There’s about 3.1m people eligible to be on the electoral role, and about 2.9m people enrolled [electoral role stats], and turnout in recent elections has been drifting down to around 80% [turnout stats]. But you can enrol right up until the day before the election, so it’s not always easy to predict exactly how big the electoral roll will be. NB: in NZ, enrolment is compulsory, but not voting.)
So minor parties are desperate to either cross the 5% threshold, or get an electorate MP. It’s exceedingly hard for new minor parties to take electorates; the incumbency effect almost always works, as does the big-party candidate factor.
If a party doesn’t pass one or other threshold, then their party votes are discarded, and simply not taken into account at all. If however, they pass the 5% threshold, then they get their share of seats, including as many list seats as needed to get their percentage in the house right. If a party takes an electorate seat, then they get their electorate MP, and share of list seats, even if they haven’t breached the 5% threshold. So a minor party with one electorate seat, and say 4% of the party vote, would get another 4 list MPs, to bring their total seats up to 5, or 4% of 120.
That can make your electorate vote very important in determining whether or not a party gets into parliament at all, depending on which electorate you are in. For example, the Act party has two seats in the just dissolved parliament, because Rodney Hide won the Epsom seat. If he had not won that seat, Act would have been out of the House altogether. Because he won the seat, and Act won 1.5% of the party vote, he got himself and 1 list MP into Parliament. That means that voters in Epsom get to cast quite a significant electorate vote, because their votes will almost certainly determine whether or not Act gets back into Parliament at all this year.
Kapai? (Got that? Okay?)
But what say a party gets 4 electorate seats, and just 2% of the party vote? In theory they are entitled to only 2 seats in the house, but they have won 4, and there are no negative-list MPs. The party just gets to keep those two “extra” seats – you can’t disenfranchise the voters of the electorates. 120 seats are still allocated in total, and the last however many list seats allocated are referred to as “overhang” seats. This is a live example: in the last election, the Maori party won 4 electorate seats, but just 2.1% of the party vote. Through the vagaries of formulas and rounding, and the inconvenient indivisibility of individual people, we ended up with 1 “extra” MP in parliament, or a 121 seat house.
In the coming election, it seems that the Maori party might take more electorate seats which means that we might end up with overhang seats again. Equally, any overhang could be caused by two very, very small parties, United Future and the Progressives, which are really parties based on one person who holds an electorate seat, with a huge personal following in the electorate. If neither of those parties gets much of a party vote, then the cult-followings of their leaders could produce an overhang.
All this means that people can, and seemingly do, get very tactical about their voting. For example, in the Maori electorates last time around, many voters gave their electorate vote to the Maori Party candidate, but their party vote to Labour. Likewise, people in Epsom seem to have voted for Rodney Hide (Act) as their electorate MP, but given their party vote to National (electorate results here).
Now for the fun bit – there’s a quiz! There’s just one question that you can’t answer based on what I have written above, about EasyVote cards. These cards have your name and address on them, and they make it easier for the polling officers to locate your name on the roll and mark it off, so they speed up the voting process.
There’s just nine questions, and so far, only 12% of people have gotten 9 out of 9, and the average is 5.5. Can the fine minds who frequent Larvatus Prodeo improve those results? (You can of course, always blame my explanation of the MMP system for any inadequacies in your results, but that would be unkind.)