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

Is there a flaw in the NZ MMP electoral system?

It seems that there is a problem with many implementations of MMP and similar electoral systems.  The problem stems from the use of thresholds to avoid a proliferation of small parties in the representative assembly.

Having a threshold seems innocuous enough, assuming one accepts the premise that it is desirable/important/useful/acceptable to limit the representation of very small parties in parliament.  

It seems that most thresholds are implemented in a very simplistic way.  If a party does not pass the threshold, it is completely excluded from the assembly.   Its votes are discarded.  It has no right to have any paid representatives present, to receive any secretarial or office space support, to speak, or to vote.  

After discarding the votes of under-threshold parties, seats are  allocated generally in proportion to the remaining, qualifying, votes. 

Because of this mode of  operation, the existence of the threshold creates perverse incentives for almost all players.   A vote that was cast for a below-threshold party is a vote taken away from its allied parties and then discarded.   Small emerging parties should be well aware that until they pass the threshold, they are working against their allied parties, and against the chances those allied parties have of forming a coalition government after an election.  Major parties are not immune from these perverse effects.    Major parties need to take into account that apparent support parties, ones of the same side of the left/right divide but below-threshold, are in fact working against the major party’s chances of forming a governing coalition after the election.  So an apparent support party is not something to encourage.  And it is all made more confusing because nobody can be sure in advance which parties will cross the threshold.

So, not only is the threshold something quite high to overcome, but on the way there all parties are disturbed by the perverse effects of a simple threshold.

So the threshold is about much more than the percentage.    It also creates conflicting motivations and loyalties for voters and parties.  Voters are torn between voting for a small party and hence against its allied big party OR  voting for the allied big party and not for their preferred party.    Small parties and their supporters want to encourage voters to support their small party, knowing that they are probably taking votes from the allied big party and wasting them.  Big parties  fear the negative effects of smaller parties that notionally support them.

That explanation was probably confusing.  If so it reflects the confusing and conflicted environment that affects everybody who has connections with small parties in an MMP environment.

But wait there’s more. The MMP party vote does two things.  The first thing is to decide which parties are eligible for seats in parliament.  The second thing is to measure the relative support of each, and to allocate seats in parliament accordingly.  But the voters who voted for under-threshold parties have no say in this allocation.  If we are aiming to measure relative support, it seems unfortunate to leave out up to 8% of voters.

New Zealand’s MMP system uses closed party lists, so the voting paper is very simple.  On this voting paper, adding a second column is easy, to allow each voter a second choice of party vote.  If a voter’s first choice party falls below the threshold, the vote can go to a second choice.  In this way every voter can both nominate a preferred party, and vote for one of the eligible parties.

This second choice eliminates the conflict around small parties and as well allows the party voting to be much more proportional.  And the bonus, for those who think the threshold is important, is that these improvements  can be made without any change to the threshold percentage.

An advantage of this change is that it should help everybody, so perhaps a consensus is achievable without much delay.

There is of course nothing to prevent the threshold being reduced, but that is another question.
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