In the last UK general election, about three percent of Brits voted for the Scottish National Party. Over seven percent, more than twice as many, voted for the Liberal Democrats. The result? The SNP was awarded 36 seats in the Westminster Parliament, almost three times more than the Lib Dems, who got only 12.
This puzzling situation highlights one of the many problems with the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system. It creates parliaments that don’t reflect the distribution of views among the population. It leads to supposedly representative chambers that aren’t really representative at all.
The Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system is designed partly to avoid situations like this and to create parliaments that are representative. And, as we’ve seen with the results of the recent New Zealand election, it largely succeeds. Labour, for example, got about 37 percent of the national vote and about 38 percent of the seats in Parliament.
Success? Not everyone is so sure. Since election night, the complaints about our electoral system have been rolling in.
A common one concerns a certain Winston Peters. Peters, it’s claimed, shouldn’t be able to hold Parliament to ransom, demanding concessions from left and right. But the complaint misses a key point about democratic politics, which rewards those who court the average voter.
Peters has repeatedly found himself in the kingmaker role not just because he’s a canny fellow, but because, unlike the Greens or ACT, he’s willing to work with both major parties – and gets just enough votes to make them want to work with him.
But there’s another complaint about MMP that has more substance to it. This is that the system isn’t doing what it’s designed to do – it still isn’t producing parliaments that reflect the views of New Zealanders.
To take one example, The Opportunities Party (TOP) got 2.4 percent of the national vote, almost five times more than ACT, which got 0.5 percent. And yet David Seymour is in Parliament and Gareth Morgan isn’t.
Of course, MMP is not a pure example of proportional representation (PR). If it were, we wouldn’t still have electoral seats. But the point of the list MPs is supposedly to ensure our parliaments are ultimately representative.
The biggest single reason the system still isn’t representative is that, without an electoral seat, parties must win five percent of the overall party vote before they can claim any list seats, which this year led to almost one in 20 of votes cast being effectively thrown away.
How so? Well, 4.6 percent of us voted for parties that gained less than five percent of the vote. The vast majority of these votes were cast for parties that would have made it into Parliament if the artificial five percent threshold didn’t exist. A few parties, like The Internet Party, wouldn’t have made it even without the threshold, since they failed to get 0.8 percent of the vote, the percentage a party would need to gain a seat otherwise. (The figure is 0.8 percent because that is one 120th of the national vote, and there are 120 seats in Parliament, not counting rare overhang seats.)
There are various defences of the five percent threshold, but none are convincing. Some say abolishing it would let extremist or fundamentally unserious parties into Parliament. But the system’s meant to be neutral on who counts as an extremist or unserious. And, anyway, it should be New Zealanders who decide what level of moderation or seriousness they want in their government.
Others complain it puts governments at the mercy of a tiny group of voters. But it only does so if a party has won a few seats, or teamed up with other small parties. In which case we’d be talking about a slightly less tiny group of voters. And why make it impossible for small groups of voters to have a small effect on things?
A common objection is countries that have abolished or lowered the threshold have lots of small parties that produce unstable coalition governments. So they do. But as Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart showed, stable governments don’t reliably produce better results, either economically or in terms of welfare. In fact, democracies with more representative parliaments selected by PR tend to do better on a range of measures than countries with ‘strong’ single-party governments produced by FPTP.
Even after abolishing the five percent threshold, though, there’d still be one thing stopping MMP from producing perfectly proportional parliaments. And that’s the non-PR part of the system: the electorates.
ACT’s presence in Parliament exemplifies the problem with electorate seats. TOP has much more support than ACT, but it’s spread around the country. ACT has concentrated support in Epsom. That shouldn’t matter, but under the current system it does.
We could, of course, simply abolish the electorates. Maybe New Zealand needed MMP as a transitional phase between FPTP and PR; but now we’ve become used to a partly PR system it’s time to make the change to full PR.
There’s an argument, though, that electorates allow local areas to be represented at the centre. Fair enough. But does this have to happen in the same institution that is primarily meant to reflect the breakdown of political opinion across the country?
If we want local areas to be represented in a central institution, why not do so in a separate chamber? New Zealand hasn’t had an upper house since 1951, but it could again. We could even keep the same electorates we have now to elect it. Representatives from local areas could then scrutinise legislation produced in the lower house.
But is there a way to keep electorates and make sure they don’t make Parliament less than perfectly representative? I can think of two ways — one simple, the other more complicated.
The simple fix would be to mandate that a party couldn’t take up an electorate seat unless it also won enough of the party vote to get into Parliament anyway – 0.8 percent. The electorate seat would then go to the second-place finisher. (In Epsom in this last election, that would have been National’s Paul Goldsmith.)
The only snag here is it would make entering Parliament as an independent electorate MP almost impossible. (Or, at least, for independents who couldn’t get 0.8 percent of the country to cast their party vote for the A.N. Independent Party.)
If we said this rule doesn’t apply to independents, we’d quickly get ‘pseudo-independents’ – candidates covertly associated with a certain party running as independents to get into Parliament without having to reach the 0.8 percent threshold, only to vote in lockstep with that party once they were in.
Hence the attraction of a more complicated solution.
This would involve redrawing the electoral map. The current map has been developed over decades through a complex process that pays attention to population, geography and traditional conceptions of community and place. But redrawing it could be done.
At the moment, the average electorate contains about 60,000 people, or about 1.4 percent of New Zealand’s population (which is now upward of 4.5. million). All we would have to do is slightly reduce the number of electorates, so each electorate contains about 1.6 percent of the population. Then to win an absolute majority (50 percent plus one) of votes in an electorate, a candidate would have to win 0.8 percent of the national electorate vote.
Of course, not everyone in an electorate actually votes. In this election, votes cast in electorate seats varied from about a third to two thirds of the population of the electorate. If we assume only about half the population of an electorate will vote, our new electorates would have to be bigger, accounting for about 3.2 percent of the population. In reality, enrolment and turnout will vary over time. But they should do so between parameters that won’t throw off the system too much.
There’s also the problem of different turnouts in different electorates. If voters are thronging the polling booths all across the country except, say, in Wellington Central, Grant Robertson might be able to capture that seat with only 10,000 votes, which would then be less than 0.8 percent of the national electorate vote. But that kind of situation is not particularly likely.
It’s probably impossible to ensure candidates have to win an exact percentage of the national electorate vote (at least in the absence of compulsory voting, which closes the gap between the eligible population and the votes cast). The solution I’m proposing here would, though, make sure electorate candidates would have to win about the same percentage of votes as candidates on party lists in order to take up a seat.
At the moment, you don’t need an absolute majority to win an electorate, just a simple majority. In other words, the person with the largest number of votes wins, even if that falls short of 50 percent. (David Seymour took Epsom with 43 percent.)
This means that, even with perfectly sized electorates, you’d never be able to ensure the winner has 0.8 percent of the national electorate vote.
However, we don’t have to decide electorates using FPTP. We could use the two-round system (the one that’s used to elect the President of France, among other things). If someone won more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, they would take the seat. If not, all but the top two candidates would be eliminated, and then a second round held. With only two options, the second round would be sure to produce a winner with more than 50 percent of the vote.
If that would take too long, we could also use the ‘alternative vote’ system. In that, voters can express a first, second and third choice (and so on). If nobody gets 50 percent in round one, the least popular candidate is eliminated and the people who voted for them have their second-choice votes counted. This is repeated until somebody gets 50 percent of the vote.
In our new electorates, that would mean 0.8 percent of the national vote. The national electorate vote, that is. A party might still get into Parliament with less than 0.8 percent of the party vote, by winning one electorate seat. But at least this way a party would need 0.8 percent of the country to vote for it either through their electorate or their party vote. (ACT, by the way, didn’t get 0.8 percent of either type of vote in this election.)
This all seems like a lot of trouble to go to in order to fix a small flaw in a largely proportional system. But if we really care about democracy, we should take care to make sure all New Zealanders have an equal chance of having their views expressed in Parliament. And all we’d need is one more push to make this a reality.