Thinking about overhangs

The concept of the second choice of party vote should work regardless of overhang rules. But if the coat-tails rule is abolished, there is an increased risk of overhangs. The method chosen to handle overhangs can disrupt the proportionality of the result.

In general, overhangs arise when a party or independent candidate win electorate seats, but the St Lague system allocates them fewer seats.

There are several main ways this can happen:

  • A dominant party overhang occurs when a large and dominant party wins more seats than its party votes justify. This happens frequently in other countries, but is very unlikely in New Zealand. Conceptually this type of overhang could occur where a party is very dominant only within a small region, but such situations have not yet occurred in New Zealand.
  • A vote-splitting overhang occurs when voters vote for a candidate for one party and give their party vote to another party. This has occurred in NZ when voters have voted for Maori party electorate candidates and given their party vote to the Labour Party. This practice could theoretically be practised widely, so gaming the system and greatly distorting proportionality,
  • A threshold-driven overhang occurs only in the absence of the present coat-tails rule. It occurs when a party wins an electorate seat, but not enough votes to pass the 5% threshold.

In reality there are overlaps between these types of overhangs, so that rules are needed that work in a wide variety of circumstances.

The threshold driven overhang occurs only if the present coat-tails rule is abolished. In New Zealand there have been several situations where MPs have resigned from major parties and created their own party. This type of situation demonstrates an inconsistency between handling of elecorate and party votes. Independents can be lone voices in parliament, while parties are allowed only if they can get to six seats (5% of 120).

At present when an overhang occurs the party or candidate is allocated a seat over and above the normal 120 seats in parliament, and the proportionality of parliament is disturbed.

Another method of handling overhangs is to take the overhang seats from the seats otherwise allocated to list votes, so avoiding extra seats in parliament. Proportionality is disturbed, but often not greatly in NZ, as the overhang seats are taken from parties approximately in turn, and in proportion to their party votes.

This method is used in a similar electoral system in Scotland. There the overhangs are mostly of the dominant party type. As a result the overhang seats are effectively taken from other parties to give to the dominant party, so substantially disturbing proportionality.

The use of a second choice of party vote does not alter the overhang problems outlined above. Dominant party overhangs are unlikely in NZ and not serious, so can be safely disregarded.

A better treatment is needed of overhangs resulting from independents without supporting party votes. It is complicated by the ideal of representation i proportional to party votes whereas an independent has not party votes.

And the solution needs to work around the inconsistency between allowing single seats for independents, but refusing representation for parties with less than 5% of the national party vote.

Here is a sugestion that could largely eliminate the overhang problem. But I need to look more closely to be sure.:

  1. in electorate contests, there will be one winner. typically in NZ with 12-20k votes.
  2. All voters who gave their electorate vote to this winner , will have their party vote redirected to that winner s party. For an independent, the party is just the candidate them selves. The winner will receive one seat from their party s allocation, irrespective of the quotient.

This method should ensures that an electorate winner receives approximately the normal quota of party votes for their seat, and uses them to gain a seat.

In this way every seat requires a quota of party votes. And there is only a limited total quantity in the election.

This system makes vote counting more complex, because it is necessary to keep a total for every combination of party vote and candidate vote.

So there are things to check here. Does this work in every likely circumstance? How would you organise vote counting?

Based on a small sample, when there are about 40 000 votes, with two major candidates, the winner gains at least about 19 000 votes. With three major candidates, the winner often received about 13 000 votes. A typicalNZ general election has 72 electorates each with 40 000 votes on average. That means 40 000 electorate votes and 40 000 party votes. This corresponds to 2.88 million votes. If a candidate wins on 13 000, there will normally be two others at about 12 000 each , and about 3 000 among other parties.

More information to come

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?

A second choice: like Supplementary vote for PR?

Supplementary vote is a voting system for selecting one person. Each voter may make a first and second choice (no more!). The top two candidates, on first choice votes, are retained. Where a voter voted for a candidate other than the top two, their second choice vote is applied, if it is for one of the top two candidates. This system is used for Mayoral races in the UK. SV is viewed as encouraging a more positive style of campaigning as candidates desire the second preferences of third parties.

Two-choice party voting has some similarities, except that it is used to measure voter support for parties under MMP. Parties passing a set threshold, on first choice votes, continue to the next stage, where they receive the second choice votes from voters whose first choice party did not pass the threshold.

Both of these systems are based on the idea that first and second choices are often clear in the voters minds. Using lower level preferences is less useful and makes complex many aspects of voting and vote counting.

These systems are simple, but get most of the benefits offfering preferences, while avoiding the complexity of multi-level preferences. Two-choice party voting means every voter can both vote for whichever party they wish, and have a say in the allocation of seats in parliament.

A two choice party voting paper might look like this (note itś simplicity!)

Keep MMP but help more votes count

There is a very simple way of solving the MMP threshold problem, and it does not require that the threshold percentage be changed or eliminated.

People dislike the threshold (at whatrever level) because it causes wasted votes And the threat of wasted votes is a big problem, and bigger than it looks. People vote less often for small parties. People don t get involved in small parties because votes for a minor party are votes taken from that party s natural coalition partners.

The 5% threshold is a big problem. Small parties have difficulty getting started. The threat of wasted votes disocurages everyone, including voters, potential small party supporters, people considering forming new parties, the bigger parties who might cooperate with potential support parties.

The threshold means that anybody voting for a minor party has a very real chance that their vote will play no part in deciding which major party will form the next government. What a way to punish new or small parties!

Making the thresholds smaller is not much of a solution. The problem is still there, smaller, but still discouraging. There seems to be a view that a proliferation of small parties in parliament is to be avoided, so abolition is not widely favoured.

Recent articles on Stuff have commented that almost no new parties have gained seats in parliament in 25 years of MMP. A large part of the reason for that is perhaps the way the threshold punishes small parties and anyone associated with them.

There is a simple solution which completely eliminates the problem of wasted votes, which retains the threshold, which helps more people have their vote count, which improves the proportionality of the system, all the while leaving the workings of MMP almost completely unchanged.

Sounds too good to be true, no? All that is needed is to give voters a second choice of party vote. If the first choice party does not make the threshold, the vote goes to the voters second choice, normally for a party the voter thinks is certain to pass the threshold.

Easy to understand. Easy to implement. Easy to vote count and report results fast. Every voter can avoid their vote being wasted. The system is more proportional. Many people supported similar ideas in the 2012 review. Does not advantage left or right. And it is still the MMP that we know and love. But without the bad part.

Below: what the modified voting paper might look like.

More details at http://onthethreshold.nz

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

Consensus for the next step

In order to alleviate the problems with the New Zealand MMP Threshold, a consensus way forward is needed. Two-choice party voting offers that potential consensus. It addresses some of the most important criticisms of the threshold, and makes the voting system much more proportional. And it leaves the threshold percentage unchanged, because there is no consensus on whether or how to change it.

There is a new page on the site, entitled ‘Consensus at last’.

No more wasted votes under MMP

New Zealand has numerous political issues that do not have obvious or easy solutions – housing and covid come to mind.

But there is one problem that can be easily and simply fixed in a way that should please just about everyone.  That problem is the MMP threshold and the wasted votes that result.  

Many people want to support a minor party, AND want to influence which major part or parties will get to form a government.  At present they cannot do both.  A vote for a minor party can easily have no effect at all.

The solution comes from realising that the problem  is not so much about the existence or level of the threshold.    The problem is that if you vote for a party that gets neither 5% or an electorate seat,  your vote is wasted.  Nobody likes wasting their vote,  and so the threshold distorts voter behaviour.

The solution comes from applying the same method that we use in many other situations where we want every person to make a choice, and to still get something if their preferred choice is not available.  Yes, you’re onto it.  The solution is to give each voter a second choice.  “Choose the party you prefer, but declare a second choice in case your preferred option is not available”.

Applying this idea to an MMP election is much easier than you might at first think.   First modify the voting paper by adding a second column to the party voting section.    Explain to voters that they can give their first choice to any party.  If they think that this party might not pass one or other of the thresholds, they can make a second choice in the other column.  And if they want to be sure that their vote is not wasted, they make sure that one of their choices is for a party certain to pass a threshold.

At present, perhaps only the two major parties are really safe bets to pass the threshold.  But other parties are becoming established.  But each voter is free to choose who to vote for.

The voting paper can be very fault tolerant.  As long as one or other column has just one tick, the intention is clear.  The other column will normally show the other choice, but can be blank or with multiple ticks or whatever.

Vote counting is just a little more complex.  Usually it becomes clear early on which parties have passed the threshold.   Each polling place can prepare its own result table.  Results tables by electorate, region, etc are easily created by grouping the results as required.

From this point on the allocation of seats in parliament proceeds exactly as now.

What would be the result  of this modest change to MMP elections?  All the anxiety about vote-wasting is gone.  Every voter can both choose their preferred party, and be sure that whatever happens they can have a vote that counts.  The result is that much more proportional.

There is no problem if either threshold is abolished or changed. If all the thresholds were to be abolished there’d be no need for the second choice.

You can read about this idea at www.twochoicemmp.wordpress.com.

Another recent article describing this idea can be found at

If only other political problems were as easy to solve as this one.

This solution removes the serious wasted-votes problem that distorts voter behaviour and is often complained about, while retaining the 5% threshold that the major parties seem to place importance on. I am hopeful that it might be a practical, minor and importantly widely acceptable solution.

Below how the

Even more essential

A New Zealand MMP election does two things:

  1. It decides which parties will be eligible to be allocated seats in parliament.
  2. It allocates those seats in parliament in proportion to (eligible) voter support.
    BUT
    Only people who voted for a winning party in step 1 may take part in step 2.

I think that every voter should have a say at step 2.

Two choice party voting does that, without the need to change the threshold percentage or any other aspect of the MMP system.

The 2020 Hutt South voting paper with a second choice column added

What is the essential issue here?

The essential issue: The big problem with the MMP threshold is the wasted votes that result. Giving voters a second choice of party vote can virtually eliminate wasted votes, and does not require any change to the threshold.

Yes, the 5% threshold is a very high one.  But it is made much more difficult to overcome by the wasted votes that go with the present threshold.

The risk of wasted votes distorts the behaviour of voters, of small parties, and of larger parties.   Because wasted votes can change the overall result of an election.

The second choice of party vote eliminates the issue of wasted votes, by making it much easier for voters to avoid wasting their votes.  A voter may vote for a small party, but if this party misses the threshold, the voter’s second choice can count.

The present parliamentary inquiry into the 2020 election should consider how to eliminate this serious problem of wasted votes.  Two-choice party voting would do it simply and easily.

The size of the threshold, and whether the electorate seat threshold should be retained, are separate issues.

Inquiry into 2020 election

I have just learnt from facebook that the Justice select committee of parliament is holding an inquiry into the 2020 election. This is apparently something routine after each election. Unfortunately the closing date for submissions was 6 April 2021, so I missed it by a week or so.

From what I have read, the problem of wasted votes creates a barrier to participation in the electoral process. In the 2020 election, about 8% of party votes were disregarded because the voter voted for a party that did not pass either of the thresholds, being 5% or an electorate seat.

Young voters are likely to be interested in new ideas and new parties. But we have a system that disenfranchies anybody who votes for a party that does not pass one or other threshold. This disenfranchisement of minor party voters, perhaps mostly young voters, has a discouraging effect on voter participation.

MMP aims to be a proportional system. But bizarrely we have chosen to disenfranchise a small but significant proportion of voters by discarding their votes. This is a severe deficiency in our supposedly proportional electoral system.

And the problem is not one of the size of the threshold. Reducing the threshold would indeed reduce the problem, and eliminating the threshold would eliminate the problem.

But the problem can be better eliminated by giving voters a second choice of party vote. This solution means that every voter can have a say in the makeup of parliament, as well as expressing support for a minor party.

The two-choice system for party voting effectively decouples the size of the threshold from the issue of wasted votes. We can retain MMP with the threshold at whatever level we want, and still have a highly proportional electoral system.