Complexity in New Zealand Election Heightens Interest

AUCKLAND. NEW ZEALAND – Today is Election Day here.

By “here,” I mean New Zealand, and by “today,” I mean tomorrow. New Zealand’s tomorrow happens three hours earlier than Oregon’s today. Since they are 21 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time, I should know who wins tomorrow’s Civil War football game by lunchtime today, but they swear everyone to secrecy when going through Customs.

As elections go, this is a big one for the Kiwi. Not only are they voting for a new parliamentary government, there’s also a referendum on what sort of voting system New Zealanders’ prefer. The complexity of the choices ahead have given wags and pundits plenty to talk about for the entire campaign, which has dragged on for several weeks now.

Election placards are everywhere, but unlike American lawn signs, they are intuitively mounted at eye level. (Anyone busy looking at their shoelaces might cast a vote you wouldn’t care to have. Maybe there’s a lesson there to be learned.)

The Parliament system makes no assumption about how campaigns and governance will be linked. Rather, it assumes (or hopes) that no one party will gain absolute power, requiring unending speculations about what they might give up to gain said absolute power, and who might wring those concessions from them.

This allows for unending permutations and improvisations, beginning with 22 parties on the ballot asking for your vote. Those with enough money to buy TV ads but not enough popularity to become a governing force — and there are quite a few — introduce themselves as “governing partners” you can rely upon. How refreshing to hear that governing requires partnerships. Anyone on their first marriage would do well to learn the lesson.

If the set wasn’t already set in (literal) stone, electoral systems like theirs here might qualify as one of the Wonders of the World. The ballot handed to each New Zealander this Saturday is a ballot and a referendum, each separated into two parts.

The ballot asks for a favorite candidate, and then a favored political party. The Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system gives weight to both choices, but no American is likely to want to understand the complexity.

The referendum asks voters to weigh in on the voting system itself. Do they prefer the current MMP system, or would they prefer an alternative. If they’d rather ditch MMP, which of four alternatives do they prefer: FPP, PV, STV, or SM? The initialisms make the complexity only slightly more palatable.

New Zealand has used a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system since 1996, but Germany has been using it for half a century. Each voter casts two votes: one for a candidate and another for a party. Today’s ballot has 22 parties listed. Candidates are chosen in a simple, “winner-take-all” vote. They call it “First Past the Post” (FPP).

Winning candidates fill the first 70 of Parliament’s 120 seats. The rest are assigned from the published party lists, according to the proportion of votes each party receives nationwide. If a party places more candidates than their party’s nationwide vote proportion warrants, they simply add more seats to Parliament with what they call an “overhang.”

Parties rarely receive an absolute majority of Parliament seats, so coalitions of parties can almost always be expected, adding intrigue for weeks before the election, and hard news for days afterward. Although there are only two questions before voters today, the daily newspaper’s Voter Guide earlier this week ran 28 pages, without advertising.

Choosing your preferred candidate and party is the easy part. Then comes the referendum, which also has two parts. The first is Yes or No: “Shall we keep the MMP voting system?” The second part asks, if MMP is rejected by the majority of voters, which of four alternatives would you choose? FPP, PV, STV, or SM?

First Past the Post (FPP) makes every seat in Parliament winner-take-all. Those who believe power is best consolidated prefer this option, because inter-party coalitions would seldom be required to govern. Since New Zealand votes every three years, this option promises more stability, although it’s the system voters rejected in favor of MMP in 1993, and there has been no discernible difference in stability between the two systems.

Preferential Voting (PV) also bypasses the party list system. Parliament members would be chosen directly by constituents, but voters would rank their preference of candidates. The candidate garnering the least votes would be eliminated and their voters’ second choice s would be added to the totals. The process would continue until a candidate gathered a majority of votes.

Single Transferable Vote (STV) divides the country into larger electorates, with each being represented by at least three and as many as seven Parliament seats. (Think of a combination of our own House and Senate, with a dash of the Electoral College.) Voters use a Preference Voting ballot, but voters must receive, and I quote, “a fixed quota of votes which is determined by a mathematical formula.” (emphasis added) A candidate receiving more than 50 percent of the vote transfers his or her surplus votes, using the Preference Voting procedure

Supplementary Member (SM) is similar to the current system, except that the party vote is discrete from the candidate vote. MMP fills the proportional membership first with elected candidates, and then the party list if necessary. SM would fill 90 seats with candidates, and the remaining 30 would mirror the nationwide proportions of the parties.

Political debates in New Zealand typically include a studio audience, but instead of whooping for death of comatose invalids or booing gay soldiers, they are given dials so they can silently register their approval or disapproval of what they are hearing in real time. New Zealanders call this the “worm” and you can watch it on the bottom of the screen. Political pollsters in America use this device religiously, but I’ve never seen it broadcast to the public.

I watched the last of four debates between the two major candidates for Prime Minister this week, and it was both familiar and fantastic. One side was claiming budget cuts for the wealthy produce economic growth, while the other was claiming that $13.00 ($9.70 USD) national minimum wage should be lifted to $15.00 ($11.20 USD). Meanwhile, both sides claimed credit for the “Lord of the Rings” movie series success.

Then consider how the ballot and the referendum interact. Prime Minister John Key is popular with about three quarters of voters, but his National Party, polling at 48 percent, could enact more of its policies if MMP was replaced by FPP or (probably) PV, but neither of those are the most popular alternative with MMP’s dissenters. Should the dominant party risk a change? Or should they rely on an independent review of the MMP system, which will present proposed changes to Parliament only if MMP is endorsed by voters?

So a “Yes” isn’t quite a yes and “No” is followed by “What Then?” Understanding each choice requires high school math skills you were sure you’d never need. “Donkey votes” are an ongoing concern — people voting mindlessly, not knowing what they’re doing.

Will the complexity of choices cause apathy among voters? Prognosticators fear that only three quarters of eligible voters may bother to vote. New Zealand’s turnout typically hovers at 90 percent. But don’t blame the complexity. Instead, blame, in one writer’s words, “designer politics,” which he describes as “scrappy, insubstantial, trivial, and unnecessarily conflictual.”

New Zealand may be ahead of us on the calendar, but we’re way ahead of them in “designer politics.”


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard.