Andrew Little’s shock announcement that Labour’s Māori electorate MPs would not stand on the party list is the latest in a line of bold electoral decisions stretching back to his signing of a memorandum of understanding with the Green Party in May 2016, but are the two parties’ electoral machinations more to do with manipulating the size of Parliament than its composition?

In 1812, the Governor of Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry initiated a spurious campaign to redraw the state’s senate election districts to favour his own Democratic-Republican party. Noticing that the redrawn districts resembled a salamander, the Boston Gazette published a cartoon lampooning the redrawn electoral map as a giant lizard under the caption “The Gerry-mander”. What the Gazette’s gag lacked in humour it has made up for in posterity — by the end of the year, the term gerrymander was being used throughout the United States to describe political interference in the supposedly impartial business of setting the rules for an election.

The sad practice of political redistricting continues to be rampant in the US, where every 10 years the two major parties each attempt to use the process to score electoral advantage. Regular redistricting, originally designed to ensure that each district continued to receive fair and proportional representation as demographics changed, has been slowly corrupted into a process designed, in the words of Atlantic journalist Robert Draper, to create “wombs for [our party] and tombs for the other guys”.

While the US is the only major democracy to permit such a brazen political intrusion on the setting of its electoral rules, other countries, including our own, test the electorate’s patience by deploying ethically dubious politics that test the limits of the system. In our case this involves major and minor parties colluding to stitch up electorate contests (with the help of the Good People of Epsom) and, in other cases, colluding to knock out an unfriendly MP from their electorate.

The brouhaha that erupted last month over the Greens’ announcement they would not stand in Ōhāriu in the interest of knocking out Peter Dunne revealed a key strand of Labour/Green electoral anxiety. Party co-leader James Shaw said the Greens were falling in behind Labour to take aim at Dunne because he was “overhang”, a statement widely and justifiably lampooned as politicking under the guise of “MMP purism”.

The announcement by Little that Labour’s Māori electorate MPs would remove themselves from the party list and stand exclusively as electorate MPs reveals that the focus on Dunne was misplaced. Their anxiety about overhangs, however, was right on the money. The Labour/Green bloc are taking seriously the threat of a slew of unfriendly overhang seats being won up and down the country.

An overhang seat occurs when a party wins more electorate seats than its share of the party vote would entitle it to. After an election, when the final votes are counted and parties that fail to cross the 5 percent threshold eliminated, each party’s share of Parliament’s 120 seats are allocated according to their total share of the party vote using the Sainte-Laguë formula. In addition to this, most parties will also win several electorates. The number of electorate seats won is nearly always smaller than a party’s share of the party vote so candidates from the list are welcomed to Parliament to bring a party’s total number of seats in line with its proportional share.

It is possible for the system to work in reverse: a party could win more electorate seats than its share of the party vote would otherwise entitle it to. These seats cannot be subtracted from the party’s allocation, so Parliament accommodates them by adding the equivalent number to the chamber, increasing the total size of the Parliament for that term. It’s not exactly rare, having occurred in four out of the seven MMP elections — in 2008, Parliament even had two overhangs thanks to the Māori Party cleaning up in electorates but doing less well in the party vote.

Until recently, any discussion around overhang seats was moot: If Dunne lost Ōhāriu and the size of Parliament retuned to 120 MPs from 121, it would hardly bring Labour any closer to Government, but recent shifts in the electoral landscape narrowing the gap between National and the Labour/Green bloc have meant that the size of Parliament could make all the difference when it comes to forming a government.

This is why Little’s announcement about the Māori seats is so significant. Having one overhang seat in a Parliament is hardly going to cause a tectonic shift in the balance of power, but how about two or more? This looks ever more likely in the wake of the rapprochement between Hone Harawira and the Māori Party, which clears the way for the Māori Party to challenge Labour effectively unopposed in six of the seven Māori seats.

Considering the low polling of Māori in the party vote (it held two overhang seats in 2008 even when it scored a record-high party vote of 2.39 percent, recent polling has the Mana-Māori combined vote at 2.4 percent though some polls have it much lower), it is likely that any gains would come as overhangs. The chance for the Māori Party’s seats to be recorded as overhangs is even greater if they shed some of their party vote back to Mana following that party’s divorce from the unloved Internet Party.

Little’s signal to Māori voters is clear: giving both the electorate and party vote to Labour is the only chance they will get to return the party’s well-liked Māori MPs to Parliament. It’s a high-stakes gamble, but the surge of support for Māori Party MPs in the wake of the Mana Party deal makes it a necessity.

In a tightly fought election, where Labour and the Greens’ combined vote brings them within striking distance of Government, this shifting of the goalposts could make all the difference. An election isn’t just about making sure your party crosses the line, it’s also about making sure the other lot can’t cross it. A clean sweep of the Māori seats could shift the finish line for Labour-Green beyond the horizon of possibility.

It’s not quite gaming the system on the scale of Elbridge Gerry. The precise number of party votes required for each list seat changes each year and depends on factors like how many parties fail to meet the 5 percent threshold, but winning or losing (and thereby eliminating) an overhang seat is likely to play a big role in whether the Labour and the Greens can together challenge National and its supporters. The response to this has already resulted in diminishing choices in Ōhāriu and Te Tai Taonga — delivering precisely the opposite of what MMP once promised. So it’s not quite gerrymandering, but its nevertheless evidence of a widespread partisan effort to push the rules that govern our elections to their absolute limits, sadly ignoring their original intent: to deliver candidates and a Government that represented our pluralistic society. 

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