Thursday, September 21, 2017

The World's Dumbest Electoral System

New Zealand has the world's dumbest electoral system. Saying such a thing in this country provokes the same reaction as when you say, "the world is not suffering catastrophic global warming", but sometimes one must speak truth to power. There is a reason why only one country in the world had the system before New Zealand adopted it and that country (Germany) has special historical reasons for having a system that ensures no single political party can ever govern alone.

Under our Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, you get two votes - the first determines who becomes your local electorate member of parliament, the second is for the party you prefer. The complication comes from the fact that it is the party vote alone that determines the make-up of parliament, which means the electorate vote counts for nothing in terms of legislative power. In effect, winning electorate seats costs a party list seats. A party can get into parliament if they get at least 5% of the party vote even if they have no electorate seats, or if a party gets at least one electorate seats, it's party vote counts as well even if it gets less than 5% support. Confused? Well, you are not alone - by some estimates, 80% of New Zealand voters do not understand how the system works.

The complexity of the system produces some weird effects. Consider the following two scenarios. 

In the first scenario, a centre-left government comprising Labour, New Zealand First and Greens is the most likely outcome because even though National has far more seats than Labour, the latter will be able to form a coalition with fellow opposition parties the Greens and New Zealand First (note that for the sake of simplicity I have ignored smaller parties and the impact of the race-based Maori electorates, which further complicate the picture).

The second scenario is almost exactly the same as the first except that the Greens get 0.1% fewer votes. This means they would be wiped out because they did not reach the magic 5% threshold to get party list seats in parliament (assuming, as is likely the case, they do not win any electorate seats). National would have an overall majority of seats and be able to form a government. So, 0.1% of the votes can completely change the outcome and make the difference between significant representation in parliament for a minor party or none at all. 

The libertarian ACT Party, which is polling at 0.3% in the latest poll, will likely have at least one seat in the next parliament because they will win the Epsom electorate, whereas the Green Party, which is hovering around 5%, may get none. As a libertarian, that is an outcome I would like to see but it is hardly fair.

The system could be easily fixed by separating the effects of the two types of vote. The party vote should determine only the proportion of the party list seats rather than the overall make-up of parliament. In other words, winning an electorate seat wouldn't cost you a party list seat. I believe this is exactly how most New Zealanders imagine MMP works, so it would be aligning the system with expectations. Under this proposal, the 5% threshold could be abolished - or at least lowered to level needed to get one party list seat - and this would eliminate the bizarre effects outlined in the second scenario above.

It is time for a change in our electoral system.

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