Electoral System Referenda

Electoral System Referenda

In 1992, New Zealand held a referendum to decide on our electoral system. The referendum included five different voting systems. The options were:

  • MMP: For my generation, no introduction necessary.
  • FPP: The incumbent at the time.
  • STV: My preferred system, for reasons I'll try to make clear.
  • SM: Like MMP, but only the nominal list members are elected proportionally. Somewhere between FPP and MMP.
  • AV: Also known as 'Instant Runoff'. Somewhat like STV, but with a focus of finding a single majority winner.

MMP won this referendum. The next referendum was held alongside the 1993 election, and asked people to decide between FPP – the current system – and MMP. Campaigning was vicious. Big business got involved — a few very rich people very much wanted to keep the status quo. In the end, MMP won out by a narrow margin (3%).

National want another set of referenda, no later than 2011. But here's the trick: they plan to hold the referenda in the reverse order. The first referendum will decide whether MMP will be retained, or if a new (at that point unnamed) electoral system will be put into place. The second referendum would decide which system to replace MMP with. Hell, here's Key's own words:

"The referendum will give people a choice between retaining MMP without any further consideration or having a further vote on MMP alongside another electoral system or systems."

That's back asswards.

MMP poster, circa 1993

I support STV because I believe the worst thing an electoral system can do is disenfranchise somebody. That's the problem with FPP, and it's still a problem, albeit much more minor, with MMP. If you vote for a party that does not pass the 5% threshold, your vote is not counted — simple as that, try again in three years. STV solves this problem, and it solves it in a way that doesn't have the whole of parliament divided up into little minority groups that are impossible to muster into coalition. Heck, the threshold could stay at 5%. The only difference is that, should your first preference be excluded from parliament, your vote would count toward your second instead.

So, given that I support STV, what am I to do in the first of National's referenda? A vote against MMP is not a vote for something better. In fact, it's a vote for something completely unknown: all National would need to do to get their choice of electoral system is ensure the options in the second referendum split the vote of any opposition. That's very easy to do, considering there's a wealth of alternative STV or instant-run-off options, and only one traditional FPP system. Hell, take a clue from the 1993 playbook: lump the options you don't want together with an unpopular increase in the number of MPs.

So, in effect, National's proposed referendum puts my vote against MMP in with all the voters who actually want to see a return of FPP. If I vote in accordance with my views, it could be detrimental to my desired outcome. National's proposal breaks the monotonicity criterion.

Why would somebody want to see a return of FPP? Well, Key is counting on the fact that you've forgotten or, more likely for people my age, have never known how bad FPP was. He's hoping you've forgotten the 1993 election, in which National received just 35% of votes, yet gained 51% of parliament. He's hoping you've forgotten both 1978 and 1981, when Labour received more votes than National, yet received fewer seats. And you've sure as hell forgotten, if you ever knew, that Social Credit once received 21% of votes and got just 2% of seats.

But Labour is the one playing dangerous games with our electoral law, right? That's what rich middle-aged white men tell me. That's not to say Labour is any more impressive than National when it comes to electoral reform history (Labour was opposed to MMP too), I just think Key is the bigger threat to our democracy.



I remember in 1993, somebody sprayed a huge MMP tick into the side of Mt Hobson. Wish I could find a picture of it.
I think rich white men don't like Labour and thus like national. Makes more sense that way
That was my point. Trolling a bit, but meh.
"I think the country may well vote MMP out but I think they will vote in another proportional system."

humm... Now, as you point out, it's not really of advantage to a major party to have a more proportional system; so is he dissimulating here? I'm not saying that arguing for fairer election systems belongs only to minor parties, but it doesn't seem like something he would want: so, is there anything between first-past-the-post and MMP?
Yep, SM - Supplementary Member. It basically separates out the list and electorate seats. So, the list seats are proportional and the electorate seats aren't. Overall, it's more proportional than FPP, and less than MMP.

"Unlike Mixed Member Proportional, where party lists are used to achieve an overall proportional result in the legislature, under SM, proportionality is confined only to the list seats. Therefore, a party that secured say 5% of the vote will have only 5% of the list seats, and not 5% of all the seats in the legislature."
I like your idea of run-off from party votes that fail to meet the 5% threshold.

Going a step further, we should really add STV-style run-offs to the MMP electoral votes as well.

It's bizarre that we replaced the dinosauric FPP system with something that works exactly the same (broken) way for electorate seats.

BTW if you'd like a piece of electoral reform right now, check out:

Party vote splitting and party vote run-offs could work very well together, since they both allow voters to indicate support for multiple parties.