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.
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.
The 5 per cent MMP threshold is regarded by many as the biggest problem in the New Zealand electoral system. This problem remains perhaps because no solution has been found that satisfies two important interest groups. One interest group wants the threshold reduced, because it leads to wasted votes and creates an excessive obstacle to new political parties. But another wants to retain the threshold, because they fear a proliferation of small parties in parliament if the threshold were to be reduced.
There is a solution, one that arises from understanding some nuances of the apparently competing interests. The interest group that wants the threshold reduced appears to be driven mainly by the desire to reduce the wasted votes that arise from a simple threshold. The group that wants to retain the threshold is primarily concerned about avoiding a proliferation of small parties.
Seems to me there’s a deal to be made here. Big parties get to keep the threshold percentage. Small parties get to see an end to most vote wasting.
What is exciting is that there is an easy way to achieve this. Easy to understand, commonly used in the real world, easy to implement, ticks all the boxes.
Yes, the solution is to give each voter a second choice of party vote. If the voter’s first choice party fails to pass the threshold, the vote goes to the second choice party. So most voters would make sure one of their choices was for a party pretty certain to pass the threshold.
This proposal just requires a second party vote column on the party voting paper, and minor changes to vote counting. Once we have totals for each threshold passing party, the existing seat allocation tool works exactly as now.
Just consider the pluses here.
Pressure to reduce the threshold percentage is lowered, making the big, powerful parties more comfortable.
A higher proportion of voters have a say in government formation. We could go from around 92% to easily 99%.
Nobody has to choose between voting for a minor party and abandoning the minor party for a major one so as to have a say in overall government formation.
Minor parties probably get some more votes, because voters do not need to vote strategically, so the threshold seems less distant.
Nobody needs to take into account the risk of wasted votes in any aspect of participation in an election. That makes planning, and cooperation between like minded parties, much easier.
Results would give a better indication of the real support for each party.
The difference between a party just missing and just making the threshold cannot change the coalition-leading party.
It is in many ways better than just reducing the threshold percentage slightly, because it puts a stop to all the perverse effects of wasted votes
So here we have a win-win solution to the long-standing MMP threshold problem. And all at the small price of adding a column to the voting paper and inviting voters to place one more tick if they wish.
This idea may be useful in other MMP systems with thresholds. Offering a second choice can be simply implemented and can help improve proportionality and encourage voters to express their real views.
Here is a mockup of a voting paper modified to provide for a second choice of party vote.
This is what the results table might look like, with the same format for everything between polling place and the whole country.
New Zealand seems to have been barking up the wrong tree for much of the last 25 years looking for a solution to the MMP threshold problem. No good solution has been identified, and MMP review recommendations remain unimplemented.
But there is a very simple, easy to understand solution that keeps the threshold but eliminates the problems.
Give voters a second choice of party vote. If a voter’s first choice party does not pass either threshold, their vote goes to their second choice party. Voters are advised to make one of their choices for a party that is certain to pass one of the thresholds. Nothing else changes.
This solution is easy to understand, easy to implement, and does away with the problems.
Many, perhaps most, voters know which major party they want to see lead the next government. Many also want to support a small party, but cannot know whether that small party will pass a threshold for gaining seats in parliament. If they do not vote for the small party, nobody ever knows they supported it. If they do vote for a small party that misses the threshold, they have no say in government formation. Many voters struggle with this choice every election.
The second-choice system allows voters to clearly state the party they want to see represent them in parliament, but also have a say in government formation if their preferred party does not pass a threshold
The second choice of party vote requires a second column on the party vote part of the voting paper. Once it is clear which parties will pass a threshold, each polling place can prepare its own results table. Results for any grouping of polling places, electorate, region, island, national, specials, overseas, etc are easily obtained by simply adding up the results from the polling places involved.
Ideas like this were suggested by numerous submitters to the 2012 MMP review, and a few described a system in detail. The proposal here is a little different in that it simplifies the allocation of second choices. The message is to choose who you like, for the first choice. If you think this party might not pass the threshold, make a second choice for a party that will pass.
The second choice has the same limitations as the present vote. The vote only counts if it is for a threshold passing party.
This change takes away all the problems with the existing threshold. People can express support for a small party, and play a part in deciding the next government.
Nobody needs to worry that votes for small parties may be wasted. Even if a small party does not pass a threshold, its true level of support is publicly known, and its supporters still have a say in government formation.
This change considerably clears the air for everybody with an interest in the election. Big parties get to keep the threshold they believe is important. No votes need to be wasted. Small parties are still excluded from being allocated seats in parliament, but their votes are recorded and their voters still have a say through their second choice. The big problem of a party just missing the threshold and so changing the lead party in government is gone. The system presents a much lower barrier to entry to small parties, while still preventing a proliferation of small parties in parliament.
The example results table shows a hypothetical situation where two small parties just miss the 5% threshold. With the two-choice system, voters for those small parties have their second choices counted instead.
The problem with the threshold is not so much its size, but the fact that votes, if cast for parties that do not pass one or other treshold, are wasted.
The wasting of votes in this way is widely hated, for well-known reasons.
Reducing but not eliminating the threshold reduces but does not eliminaate this vote wasting effect.
Reducing or eliminating the threshold prejudices the avowed purpose of the threshold – to discourage the proliferation of small parties in parliament.
The solution is one easily understood and widely used in many situations where we want people to make choices, and we want to ensure that almost nobody misses out. That solution is to offer each voter a second choice of party vote.
No need for a complex preferential voting system. Just a second choice eliminates the problems. Voters can vote first choice for their preferrred party, and second choice for a party which they think is certain to pass the threshold. If their first choice does not pass one or other threshold, their vote goes to their second choice.
This is easy to understand, easy to implement, and solves the problem.
When people vote in an MMP election, what is their message?
Some might say:
I would like to see (say) the Maori Party in parliament, but I certainly want a left-leaning government. OR
I would like to see (say) the TOP Party in parliament, but I certainly want a right-leaning government.
I think that many people in NZ see elections in this way. But they cannot vote accordingly.
Unfortunately with the present MMP system, you can only say one of:
I’d like to see (say) the Maori Party in parliament, but I’m worried they may not pass the threshold and then my vote would be wasted, so I will vote Labour because I want a left- leaning government.
I’d like to see (say) the TOP Party in parliament, but I’m worried they may not pass the threshold and then my vote would be wasted, so I will vote National because I want a right-leaning government.
I’d like to see (say) the TOP Party in parliament, but if they miss the threshold, I have no further interest in the result of the election.
I’d like to see (say) the Maori Party in parliament, but if they miss the threshold, I have no further interest in the result of the election.
I think many people choose one of the first two. Getting a government that leans their way is more important than supporting their preferred party.
There are relatively few that have no further interest in the result if their preferred party does not reach the threshold.
I think that many people are not happy with this. They would prefer to be able to express both their support for a preferred party, AND to have a say in which way the elected government leans.
The two-choice party vote system allows voters to express what are common views:
I want to support a smaller party. But if that party does not pass the threshold, I do not want my vote wasted. I want my vote instead to go this other party.
And what is perhaps surprising: this is very easy to do. An extra column on the party voting paper is all that needs to be visible to the voter. The voter can place a tick in that column, if they want to. Vote counting is fractionally more complicated.
But now we have available the options that (I say) most people want.
Imagine receiving a wedding invitation, that says:
We would like to seat you at a table with good company. So please say which table you would like to sit at for the Wedding Breakfast
We will have a few larger tables, including one for his family and family friends, one for her family and family friends.
There may be some smaller tables, for special groups. Possibly a table for her work friends, one for his work friends, one for people from their gym, and one for their cycling friends. But we will only have each of those smaller tables if there are enough people wanting to sit there.
If you choose one of the smaller tables, but there are not enough people to fill it, we won’t have a table for that group at all and we will cancel your invite.
Whoa you say, that is not very friendly.
It would be more friendly and normal to say:
If you choose one of the smaller tables, but there are not enough people to fill it, we will place you at one of the larger tables. Please say which you would prefer, with his family or her family.
That demonstrates the difference between the present and proposed MMP systems. If you can’t give someone what they would prefer, do not reject them entirely, as at present. it is better to offer them a second choice.
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.
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.
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 electionresults.org.nz 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.