Latest summary: Why waste 5-8% of votes?

I’m writing about the MMP threshold, to suggest that lowering it is not a solution..

The problems for small parties under MMP, arise mainly from the wasted votes (typically 5-8%) that now occur, and the consequent spoiler effects for small parties.

Voters say “I do not want to waste my vote”.  Parties say to small parties on the same side of the house “Don’t take votes from us and then waste them”.  Small parties are spoilers.  People stay away.  New parties cannot get started.

So why do we waste around 5-8% or so of votes every election?  And cause all that anguish?  There seems to be no good reason.  And lowering the threshold does not remove the problem, or the dislike of the threshold.  

Instead offer voters a second choice of party vote.  If a voter’s first choice fails to pass the threshold, their vote goes to their second choice party.  Voters will be careful to make sure either first or second choice is certain enough to pass the threshold.

Problem solved.  That 5% threshold is no longer a problem. No voter needs to waste their vote. If a party misses the thresholds, its votes will mainly go instead to a bigger party on the same side of the house.  No longer are small parties spoilers.   Wasted votes should drop below 1%.

The second choice is easy to understand, easy to implement.  One extra column on the party voting paper.  For the voter, one optional extra tick.  Vote counting is just a little more involved than at present.  Results are independent for each polling place. 

This idea solves the wasted vote problem, while not requiring any change to the threshold.  

Is this the consensus solution that solves the threshold/wasted votes problem without needing to touch the threshold percentage?

German lessons

It is commonly said that the New Zealand MMP system was modelled on the German PPR (personalized proportional representation). There may be lessons for New Zealand here. The language difference makes it more difficult to fully understand the diferences.

Here I will endeavour to explain the German system using terms familiar to those who know the New Zealand system.

My sources of information were:

The youtube video is easy to follow, but light on detail. The wikipedia page seems to use complex language, so is more difficult to follow, and uses many unfamilar terms. The Spiegel page is easier to understand but with less detail. And it is not clear just how accurate is the information provided in any of these. So this post should be read on the understanding that I have limited confidence in the details.

To improve clarity, I will refer to :

  • An assembly ( for NZ: parliament, Germany: Bundestag)
  • A mandate (for NZ: a (voting) seat in parliament, or MP, Germany: a voting seat in Bundestag)
  • Mandates can be district mandates or list mandates.
  • A district (for NZ: electorate, and <electorate MP>, Germany: district, elects a <direct mandate>, UK: constituency)

NZ and Germany both offer two votes, one for a district mandate, one for a list mandate. (German: direct mandate, <second vote>). NZ has 120 mandate assembly with 72 districts (72/120 = 60%), Germany a 598 mandate Bundestag with 299 districts (299/598 = 50%). Both systems allow overhangs to arise (a party wins more direct mandates than its party votes justify). This has happened a few times in NZ, with up to 2 additional overhang mandates. Overhangs seem more common in Germany. Germany has a complex system of <levelling mandates> to rebalance the assembly.

The German system has rules to deal with the numerous overhangs that appear there. New Zealand has had few overhangs, and so few special rules to govern them. New Zealand seems exposed to the misuse of overhangs to distort the proportionality of results

Germany has a provision that, where an independent is elected to a direct mandate, that party votes from the independent s voters are disregarded. This is to avoid those voters having double value in the election.

Both countries suffer from the problem that many voters do not understand the importance of the party vote compared with the district vote.

Germany has regional party lists, and a 5% national threshold. It is not clear how list candidates are allocated to list mandates. From which (regional) list is each mandate recipient chosen? Germany has constituent states. Regional lists seem to be lists for each state, but I am not certain

I have identified perverse effects of the 5% threshold in New Zealand, and have suggested a second choice of party vote to avoid them. I have not seen any reference to similar issues in the German system.

This page was last updated 23/10/21. Beware this post may not be accurate!

In the meantime, a two-choice NZ voting paper may look like this:

A possible two-choice voting paper layout, based on 2020 Hutt South

Beware of organised overhangs

MMP aims to allocate seats in parliament in proportional to voter support for political parties. Two-choice voting can remove most of the distortions that arise from the use of party-vote thresholds. But should an indpendent win an electorate seat, or a party win more electorate seats than its party votes justify, then an <overhang> is created. This, in the NZ system, is addressed by creating extra seats. The Maori Party has won overhang seats a few times.

But this system seems to invite manipulation, by electing independents who are not really so. A party would encourage candidates in safe seats to become independent <friends of the party>. The home party would not stand a candidate against them. These <friends> would be expected to win their electorate seats, and create an overhang.

A similar idea has already been used in Epsom, where ACT has been able to win the electorate seat, while National benefitted from the party vote. In this case, I think the move helped ACT pass the one-seat threshold for being allocated seats.

This idea might be acceptable in isolated cases, but imagine if major parties has a dozen of these arrangements each. The result could be 20-seat overhangs.

One might hope that the voters would reject such moves as unfair, and punish those practising it. Or it could become an accepted political manoeuvre.

I think that the current electoral system review should ensure that the rules make such manoeuvres more difficult. But this does not seem easily achieved.

One method would be to require, instead of votes for person and party separately, a single vote for a person and their party. Thus a vote for a Blue party candidate would also be a party vote for the Blue Party. Two-choice party voting would work well with such a system, except that the first choice would be for person and first choice party, the second for a second choice party.

See here for a Stuff article that mentions this issue.

A two-choice MMP voting paper might look like this:

A two-choice MMP voting paper might look like this

Review of electoral law announced

The Government has announced a major review of New Zealand s electoral law. This review will include addressing the problem of the 5% party vote threshold. There is a better solution than just changing the threshold percentage.

The 5% threshold as now implemented distorts voter and party behaviour, because of the fear of wasted votes.

Everybody hates this risk of wasted votes. A vote for a small party risks being wasted and hence playing no part in selecting which party gets to lead the next government. This is of concern to voters, to small parties, and to large parties, as it makes difficulties for all of them. Just changing the level of the threshold does not solve the problem.

Two-choice party voting offers a solution that is very simple and effectively solves the wasted vote problem, while leaving MMP almost unchanged. The only change is that it gives every voter a second choice of party vote . That just requires one extra column on the party voting paper. And one extra tick from the voter, if the voter wants.

If the voters first choice party fails to pass the threshold, then that vote goes to the voters second choice party. The wise voter strategy is to make sure that either first or second choice vote goes to a party certain to pass the threshold. From then on the MMP system works exactly as now.

This very simple change revolutionalises MMP, in a way that should please everyone. Every voter can support a small party if they want, and also be sure of having a vote that counts in the allocation of seats in parliament. Big parties can cooperate better with support parties, because there need be no wasted votes. The threshold percentage can stay the same or be changed.

Here is what the modified voting paper might look like

More on History of MMP election results

Thank you for the comment suggesting that wasted votes might be compared the level of non-voting and informal votes.

Each of these statistics tells us something a little different.

Turnout (the inverse of non-voting) shows the level of engagement in the population. MMP elections have had turnout percentages between 74% and 88%, with the highest figure for the first such election. I’d interpret that high figure as indicating a high level of support for the new system.

The level of informal votes indicates, I understand, voters who wanted to make a protest of some kind, or who did not fill out the voting paper properly. For MMP elections that rate of informal votes ranged between 0.39% and 0.95%. The lowest figure was for the first MMP election. That suggests that voters did not have difficulty adapting the new voting paper. For later elections voters were less careful or more often wanted to make a protest.

I do not fully understand how spoiling a voting paper can be seen as a useful form of protest, but I understand that it is not uncommon.

Wasted votes for failing to meet a threshold fall into another category, one which is more directly associated with design of the voting system. These voters have gone to the trouble of voting. they had no way of knowing whether their preferred party would meet the treshold, but still their vote was disregarded. If the aim of a proportional voting system is to measure numbers of voters supporting different parties in government, then it is important that voters be able to support a party that may not pass the threshold AND have a say in the makeup of parliament.

Often, I’d suggest, people supporting minor parties are those with a strong interest in the political process, and perhaps in supporting new ideas. The threshold system without a second choice forces those people to either put aside their support for a small party OR risk taking no part in the deciding the makeup of parliament.

That is a difficult choice for someone with a strong interest in the political process.

Reducing the threshold only reduces the problem, it does not eliminate it, whereas the second choice eliminates the problem.

Here are the turnout and informal vote stats, transcribed from the election results website.

ElectionTurnout %Informal %
Turnnout and informal vote stats for MMP elections. Manually transcribed from results site.

Small aside. We are very fortunate in New Zealand to have such easy access to stats like this. Reseaching other countries, it is often very difficult to find similar information.

History of MMP results

I have created a report to show the party vote results for all nine MMP elections up to 2020, using a consistent format. The information comes from the official site where the results of each election are provided but in various different formats. It provides for each party at each MMP election the number of party votes they received, the number of electorates won. My report shows which parties passed one or other of the thresholds (electorate seat won, at least 5% of party votes), and thus how many votes were wasted because parties did not pass either threshold.

The report can be seen here mmphistoryreport.pdf I believe that I have interpreted and transferred the data correctly.

From the report one can see:

  • That the wasted votes vary between 1.3% (2005) and 7.8%(2020), with an average of 5.4%.
  • The rate of wasted votes is very variable. It was very low in 2005 when there were many minor parties in parliament, many having won just one electorate seat. It was high in 2020, small parties having benefitted from a reduced National Party vote, without crossing a threshold.
  • The 2008 election would have been extremeely close between left and right leaning parties, had the threshold been 4% instead of 5%.
  • The larger numbers of wasted votes have generally been associated with a party gaining about 4% of the party vote, and thus having its votes wasted.
  • This suggests that the two choice system could reduce wasted votes from the present 5% to less than 1%. This is useful, but the main value of the two choice system is to reduce the risk of wasted votes, which is commonly seen as a real obstacle to voting for or working with small parties.

Here’s a post from just after the 2008 election

A post from another site from November 2008.  An example of where the threshold had the effect of moving the result towards the right, by having 7% of votes wasted.  Read it here  :

The final results of the 2008 New Zealand general election were announced in the last few days.  Analysis of the results shows some interesting things:

  • The last seat was a very close run thing between Labour and National.  About 40 more votes for Labour would have given Labour one more seat and National one less.
  • The threshold had the effect of rendering useless the 4% of list votes given to NZ First.
  • Another 3% of votes had no effect on the makeup of Parliament.
  • Had the threshold been 4%, NZ First would have won 5 seats.  A Labour-led government wouls have been possible, although it would have required all parties except Nat and Act to support it.  The hypothetical results table below, calculated according to official method apart from threshold setting.

Election result had 4% threshold applied to this election
Election result had 4% threshold applied to this election

I’d like to see the rules changed to avoid votes being wasted like this.  Two ideas:

  • Exclude the top 4-6 parties from the threshold.
  • Allow voters to nominate another party to get their list vote in the event of the threshold not being  passed.