Cure for ills of democracy is smarter democracy
As submitted 7 September to MMP Review, except where noted
Aotearoa is still very near to having the world’s smartest electoral system.
If, as is entirely probable, the Electoral Commission’s proposals become its recommendations, and those recommendations are implemented by Parliament, Aotearoa might not be able to boast having the world’s smartest electoral system, but at least its democracy will be slightly improved.
Things might have been much worse. Prime Minister John Key had hoped that the referendum would have seen an end to anything approaching proportional representation. The supplementary member option he advertised he was voting for is a highly disproportional system—first-past-the-post on steroids. Fortunately his steer was distrusted, and a mere 16.14% of those who participated choose the option.
As welcome as the retention and potential slight strengthening of Aotearoa’s proportional representation is, the review leaves two major deficiencies unaddressed. Although these deficiencies are of equal significance, democratising coalition make-up is addressed first, followed by preference voting.
Fully proportional systems such as mixed member proportional invariably result in coalition government. There is no valid democratic reason not to allow voters to determine what role their preferred party should play inside or outside government. The roles include participation in a grand coalition or independent opposition. Voters should not have to wait for a subsequent election to punish a party for empowering a party it had principally campaigned against, such as was the case following the first mixed member proportional election in 1996, to New Zealand First leader Winston Peters’ eternal shame. Conversely, Labour voters should have had the power to require their party to invite the Green Party to be a coalition partner—the shameful exclusion, by Prime Minister Helen Clark, of the Green Party in 2005 was subsequently severely punished, but that did not restore the representation denied during that term.
A cornerstone requirement of a just electoral system is that voters’ preferences, where possible, are given effect. That preference voting should replace first-past-the-post in electing electorate members is self-evident. That the commission has failed to even raise this most basic of reforms as a subject for future consideration reflects worryingly on its grasp of electoral fundamentals. Equally obvious is the need for preference voting in respect to the party vote, particularly given that the commission proposes an arbitrary 4% threshold. If up to 4% of voters for a number of minor parties are going to be denied their first party preference, the very least the commission should be recommending is that those voters’ subsequent preferences should be given effect.
The following are the Mahurangi Magazine’s comments on the specific Electoral Commission proposals:
The party vote threshold for the allocation of list seats should be lowered to 4%.
The Mahurangi Magazine supports the recommendation but reiterates its strong commendation and support for the graduated threshold devised by Stephen Todd, whereby a party would be eligible for one list member on reaching a threshold of say 3%, through to full proportionality of upon reaching say 5%. The graduated threshold would be more democratic than the arbitrary 4% recommended, whilst still limiting the likelihood of an Israel-like proliferation of factional parties. Crucial, regardless of the threshold, is that preference voting is introduced, in order that votes cast for unrepresented parties are not wasted.
The one-electorate-seat threshold for the allocation of list seats should be abolished.
The Mahurangi Magazine absolutely agrees.
Candidates should continue to be able to stand both in an electorate and on a party list at general elections.
The Mahurangi Magazine absolutely agrees. However, the perception of failed electorate candidates succeeding via the list as illegitimate is not entirely unreasonable. The solution is to turn the problem on its head, and ensure that list candidates obtain their presence and rank on the list, democratically. Further comment below regarding composition and ranking of party lists.
List MPs should continue to be able to contest by-elections.
The Mahurangi Magazine absolutely agrees.
Political parties should continue to have responsibility for the composition and ranking of candidates on their party lists.
Self-regulation is a dubious concept when applied to the free market, but the instruments of representative democracy are too fundamentally intrinsic to the legitimacy of the state for voters to be other than afforded full democratic control. The conceptual ballot paper submitted to the commission demonstrates that those voters who opt to can readily be provided with the means of participating in the ranking of party lists. When Aotearoa finds the courage to emulate Estonia and implement online voting, voter options such as ranking of one or more list candidates could be entirely seamlessly integrated, but the provision of supplementary lists, along the line of that mocked up for the commission should be provided in the interim.
The provision for overhang seats should be abolished for parties that do not cross the party vote threshold.
The Mahurangi Magazine disagrees and reiterates its submission that a graduated threshold and preference voting are an inherently more democratic and less arbitrary solution.
On the basis of current information it would be prudent to identify 76 electorate seats (in a 120-seat Parliament) as the point at which the risk to proportionality from insufficient list seats becomes unacceptable. New Zealand is unlikely to reach that point before 2026.
Please see next comment.
The gradual erosion of lists seats relative to electorate seats risks undermining the diversity of representation in Parliament. Parliament should review this matter.
The Mahurangi Magazine agrees but reiterates its submission that a preference voting of electorate candidates would allow a lower ratio of list seats before proportionality was compromised.
The reason the Mahurangi Magazine is vigorously exercised about the electoral system of Aotearoa is the knowledge that democracies are beginning to be tested like no previous time in the history of government by the people. While much of the blame for democracies uniformly failing to mobilise on global warming can be levelled at the big business financing of electoral campaigns, undemocratic devices such as the arbitrary threshold, coupled with the lack of preference voting also contribute. Young New Zealanders must be encouraged to engage, and older New Zealanders re-engage, by demonstrating that the state is fully committed to giving effect to every possible preference cast.
The Mahurangi Magazine concluded its submission to the review extolling the courage of the 1986 royal commission, which New Zealanders can thank for Aotearoa having one of world’s fairest electoral systems. Was the review commission to recommend to Parliament an exploration of the potential for integrating preference voting, this review would earn a place in the history of the evolution of participatory democracy. To slightly tweak Thomas Jefferson’s words:
The remedy for the ills of democracy is smarter democracy.
Ordered by urgency of deployment
- Year-7–15 voting as curtain-raiser
- Universal year-7–15 voting in schools—extended Kids Voting
- Election Day enrol-and-vote
- Concurrent elections, which will quickly recoup the costs of 1–3, and pay for 4–11
- Lifetime licence to vote
- Pre-enfranchisement voting
- Pre-enfranchisement enrolment
- Lowering the age of enfranchisement—currently some turn 21 before being allowed to vote
- Fixed, holidayised, Mondayised, and festivalised Election Day
- Online voting
- Anytime voting*
*If not strictly evidence-based, then at least, strongly evidence-suggested.