Note: This is a political post. It’s highly driven by my political opinions and the ongoing discussion on the preferred NZ election system. If you don’t like to read about these topics, please move on.
I was inspired to write this one up after reading a blog post of stuff by David Farrar. I don’t share his political opinion, but he’s asking a very valid question: “Why should the MMP threshold in NZ be?” (after the referendum on our voting system resulted in a majority of people wanting to keep MMP). Here are a few more thoughts on the topic – with a bit of historic explanation of why the threshold exists in the first place and what the real issue is.
New Zealand’s government is currently elected through a voting system called Mixed-member proportional representation (MMP). Essentially it’s a system where every voter has two votes – one for an electorate candidate and a second one for a party list. The party list vote determines the amount of overall seats a party has in NZ’s parliament, electorate winners will make it into parliament anyway and the remaining party seats are filled with party list candidates.
To my German friends that might sound familiar. It is indeed exactly the model that’s being used for the federal elections in Germany (“Bundestag”) and at least some of the state parliaments in Germany. Germany had a good reason for introducing MMP after World War II – the founding fathers of the Federal Republic of Germany (“West Germany”) basically wanted to avoid a scenario of the Weimar Republic’s parliament in which pretty much every man and his dog could be elected into parliament between 1920 to 1933. As we all know (we do know that, right?) – this was one of the reasons why it was so tremendeously easy for Hitler to get into power by playing the system to his advantage.
Problems with MMP
There can be so called overhang seats. The most common scenario in which they occur is that a party has won more electorate seats (which are guaranteed to make it to parliament) than their share of votes through the party vote would allow them to get. Is that a bad thing? Well, yes and no. It’s not a bad thing in the grand scheme of things because there are usually not more than a small handful of overhang seats (something along the lines of 1-3 in NZ, and 1-10 in Germany – keep in mind that Germany’s parliament is five times the size of NZ’s parliament though). They are a bad thing from the point of view of “each voter’s vote should carry the same weight”. The reason is essentially that overhang seats contribute to an already existing imbalance of how powerful/strong a vote is. There are mathematical reasons for why that would always be the case in any voting system in a representative democracy (note the emphasis on “representative” here), but that shouldn’t matter for now.
Funny enough – the overhang seats issue becomes worse the more “special scenarios” politicians build into the voting system. In NZ we have Maori seats. In Germany there’s the issue of overhang seats by states (even though it’s a federal election) or seats/exceptions created for certain ethnic groups in North-Germany or near the Belgium border. I’m not saying it’s wrong to have those exceptions, but sometimes I think that politicians should just listen to mathematicians’ advise instead of tinkering with systems and make them worse in the process.
The other MMP “issue” is the magic and often discussed threshold. When the Federal Republic of Germany was founded, the founding fathers together with the western World War II allies wanted to make sure the Weimar Republic couldn’t repeat itself – ever. For a while, the “Reichstag” in the Weimar Republic had 17 parties in parliament. Forming a stable government in such an environment – impossible. Part of the solution is the MMP threshold. To avoid having again every man and his dog in parliament (as single-person fractions or tiny splinter groups), they basically decided that a party needs to win at least 5% of the party vote to become eligible for making it into parliament. That makes sense.
Repeat after me: That makes sense. Thanks!
What’s the problem then? The electorate vote is. Remember – earlier I’ve explained that candidates who win an electorate make it into parliament anyway – it doesn’t matter if the candidate’s party has made the 5% threshold or not. And now we finally arrived at the issue that’s currently being discussed.
The current legislation in New Zealand allows a party that wins at least one electorate to bring in more than this one direct candidate: all the candidates they would otherwise have got into parliament according to their share of the party vote. This has happened a few times in the past where political parties essentially campaigned heavily to get their one promising electorate candidate through to get something like 2-5 seats in parliament even though they wouldn’t have had a chance of making the 5% threshold.
In Germany there’s a similar rule: if a party wins three electorates, they can effectively ignore that threshold and bring in list candidates according to their party vote – boosting a party quite often from three to 15 or 20 seats. Interestingly enough it was just one electorate until the mid-1950s.
I do have an issue with that. Mainly because it heavily distorts the composition of the parliament and because it can contribute to difficulties forming a stable government. Note that I’m a big fan of coalition governments. It’s a difference though between governing in a coalition of two or three parties and governing in a coalition of nine or 13 parties.
If you can understand German – here’s a brilliant scientific article on rather paradox outcomes of MMP in Germany.
Now what to do with the threshold?
In his blogpost, David lists the four options:
“There are basically four options for the threshold. They are to:
- (A) – Increase it
- (B) – Keep it at 5%
- (C) – Reduce it
- (D) – Abolish it
In general terms, the higher the threshold, the fewer parties will be in Parliament, and fewer parties will be needed to form a government. The lower the threshold, the more parties there will be in Parliament, and more parties will be need to agree to form a government. Also the higher the threshold, the more wasted votes you get.”
He’s absolutely right with that and goes further into what-if scenarios based on past elections. What he doesn’t elaborate on though are the exceptions of the threshold rule. There’s no issue as such with the threshold even though New Zealand hardly had the level of historic baggage when MMP was introduced in 1996 (as opposed to Germany post World War II).
The threshold makes sense even here, because it keeps too small splinter groups out of parliament. Is it fair? No, it’s not – because it leads to wasted votes. Would a threshold of 3% or 4% be possible? Yes – it entirely would be from my point of view. It would allow for a better representation of smaller parties but still keep the total nutcases away. Increasing the threshold or abolishing it totally – rather not.
What I do strongly propose though is to abolish the exception that allows a single electorate winner to take their party list candidates into parliament. There’s no justification for it in the first place, but if we wanted to allow that, let’s at least make it a requirement that a party has to win two electorates before becoming eligible to doing that. Again – that will keep the total nutcases away but will also make sure there are less tactical games like National/ACT in Epsom going on in the future.