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Bleg: what do people want in an electoral system?

datePosted on 20:10, September 22nd, 2009 by Lew

I wrote most of this before DPF’s post on the threshold, including his link to Chris Bishop’s handy paper on representation and stability went up, so read that first. In fact, you’d also do very well to look over BK Drinkwater’s series comparing electoral systems: noise, wastage, proportionality, and a critique of some critiques of SM, although note that the SM numbers assume a 70-50 electorate-list split as per our MMP system at present. This is good from an apples-apples perspective, even if it’s not an option that’s actually on the table. I also wrote it before my more-recent post on the topic, for which some people have begun offering their preferred electoral modifications. Wonderful!


Much like the subtext to the s59 referendum question was ‘do you like the anti-smacking bill?’, the question above lurks behind the forthcoming debate on MMP, for which the troops are currently massing.

The likeliest contender, in my view, is the retention of MMP as we have it now, with a 5% threshold and a 70-50 split. Other less-likely contenders, again in my view, are as follows:

  • STV, as employed in some local body elections and for the Australian Senate.
  • SM, as apparently favoured by National and employed in the Republic of Korea.

Note that FPP isn’t in this list. I don’t think NZ would go back. Modified MMP also isn’t in the list; not that I think it isn’t a credible contender, just that the way the process is structured (referendum: MMP yes/no; if no, referendum on alternate systems) doesn’t seem likely to permit it. There are lots of other peripheral options, such as open list; run-off or instant run-off; or any number of other possibilities. Feel free to argue your corner.

But what sort of system do people actually want? As I see it, within a centralised democratic structure such as we have, relevant factors include the following:

  • Transparency. Results in transparent electoral systems are clear and obvious; how a particular candidate, party or government was elected is reasonably self-evident. FPP is very transparent. STV is very opaque.
  • Simplicity. Simple systems are easy for people whose political engagement stretches to ticking a box or two every three years to understand. Again; FPP is very simple, STV is not at all.
  • Proportionality. Proportional systems elect candidates from parties according to the party’s share of the vote. FPP is not proportional at all. STV is often claimed to be proportional, but it’s really fauxportional, often producing results which seem proportional but were arrived at by non-proportional means. Open list is (in principle) perfectly proportional. Thresholds in proportional systems and the number of electorates in mixed systems are also relevant to this question.
  • Representativeness. Similar but orthogonal to proportionality, a representative system contains mechanisms to guarantee certain segments of the electorate representation. This is a complex notion; geographical electorates are such a representative measure, ensuring that people from the geographical margins are represented, when a non-geographically-determined system (such as purely proportional open list) might marginalise them. Reserve seats for tangata whenua or other groups are another such form of representativeness.
  • Low wastage/regret. Conventional wisdom is that the prospect of a wasted vote depresses turnout (or changes behaviour) among voters who believe their vote might be wasted, which is a self-perpetuating cycle. This is most evident in FPP, but is also present in proportional systems to an extent, due to the effects of a threshold.
  • Decisiveness. Decisive systems produce strong, stable executive governments with few constraints on their power. FPP, except in the rare case of a hung parliament being elected, is decisive, while proportional systems which elect a number of parties and rely on coalitions are less decisive.
  • Small size. Self-explanatory. Any system can be made large or small, but this frequently has huge impacts on other factors.
  • Durability. Durable systems are not prone to future governments tinkering with, amending or replacing them. FPP was extremely durable. MMP has proven fairly durable. This is a meta-factor, in a sense; it seems like anyone valuing this factor highly should lobby for one of the less-extreme systems; a second-best choice, rather than a perfectly proportional system or a highly decisive system, since ‘pretty good’ is less likely to be overturned.

In principle, the relative importance a person assigns to of each of these factors should point to that person’s ideal electoral system. Could be programmed into a handy poll in the leadup to the referendum; in fact, I bet it already has been, I just haven’t found it.

There are other relevant electoral changes, as well. Here are a few; please add your own:

  • Size of parliament and division of seats. Yeah, I listed it above – what I’m referring to here is the electorate-list split in mixed systems; the North/South island and rural/urban splits, that sort of thing. Also the vexed question: how many MPs overall?
  • Allocation of seats. Historically, the One True Way in NZ was for seats to be allocated along population-geographic lines. Nowadays it’s a mix of population-geographic and party allegiance. But what other means of allocating seats are there? What would happen if seats were allocated according to social class? Income? Level of education? Ethnicity? Religion? The history of democracy contains precedent for all these things in one way or another.
  • Decentralisation. Federation of micro-states? Balance of central and local government power? How does one dismantle centralised democracy using democratic mechanisms?
  • Electoral term and other constitutional institutions. Our three-year term is quite short, and there are few checks on the executive ability of governments – as long as they have a parliamentary majority, there’s little they can’t (and won’t) do. Do we need a second chamber? A longer term? Should one go along with the other?
  • Referenda and non-electoral plebiscites. What should their status be? Other representative mechanisms, such as citizens’ juries?
  • The big one. What difference would becoming a republic make anyhow? A better question: if people knew that NZ would become a republic in the near future, how might their electoral preferences change?

Please, answer the question. What do you actually want in an electoral system, and why? And more than that — what do you want, and what do you think is (even remotely) plausible?

L

Update: Scott Yorke has a few choice words on the topic, as well.

23 Responses to “Bleg: what do people want in an electoral system?”

  1. SPC on September 22nd, 2009 at 21:58

    Back in 1993 I would have preferred SM (70-50) with preferential voting in the electorate seats.

    I remember writing to Blair in January 1998 suggesting they adopt 500 seats (preferential voting) with 125 SM (.8% for each seat) – similar to what Jenkins later suggested in their review.

    I still think this is a good first step from FPP – but having moved to MMP I don’t see any reason to go back.

    Our current system can be improved by adopting preferential voting in the electorates and changing the situation under the 5% threshold.

    I prefer a change to the 4.9% zero seats, 5.0% 6 seats impact on voting behaviour. This by a gradualism in seat allocation up to 5% of the vote.

    2.5% of the vote 1 seat
    3% of the vote 2 seats
    3.5% of the vote 3 seats
    4% of the vote 4 seats
    4.5% of the vote 5 seats
    5.0% of the vote 6 seats.

    Parties with an electorate MP and gaining less than 5% of the vote
    2% of the vote 2 seats
    2.75% of the vote 3 seats
    3.5% of the vote 4 seats
    4.25% of the vote 5 seats
    5.0% of the vote 6 seats

    In the future the debate will I suspect be between such an improved MMP system and STV.

  2. Graeme Edgeler on September 23rd, 2009 at 12:52

    I’m not sure FPP is self-evident.

    How did Jim Bolger get to be Prime Minister?

    You lose the majority of people not long after the words “local electorate committee”, and well before you get around to explaining that he was actually appointed by the Governor-General operating under the principle of responsible government.

    I’m also trying to imagine our TV journalists trying to explain the effect their recent poll would have on the make-up of Parliament under FPP (or SM for that matter) and they’d be hopelessly lost – particularly when they start talking about margins of error of 25% for each electorate’s poll sample of 15 voters.

  3. Ag on September 23rd, 2009 at 19:59

    I think you need to answer some questions first, Lew, and that question is: why do you think we should have a democracy rather than some other system, and if for various reasons (which may or may not conflict), which are the most important reasons?

    My reason for asking is that, even if you think democracy is the most acceptable system, various elements of a democratic system will assume differing measures of importance, depending on the reasons for your initial justification. Competing deontological and consequentialist justifications are often overlooked in discussions of democracy, and what we end up with is a laundry list of “desirable features” with no stated coherence between them.

    Bishop’s paper seems to ignore this point for the most part.

  4. SPC on September 23rd, 2009 at 21:55

    My earlier post should have read

    Back in 1993 I would have preferred SM “(80-40, each 2.5% 1 seat)” with preferential voting in the electorate seats.

    I remember writing to Blair in January 1998 suggesting they adopt 500 seats (preferential voting) with 125 SM (.8% for each seat) – similar to what Jenkins later suggested in their review.

    I still think this is a good first step from FPP – but having moved to MMP I don’t see any reason to go back.

    Our current system can be improved by adopting preferential voting in the electorates and changing the situation under the 5% threshold.

    I prefer a change to the 4.9% zero seats, 5.0% 6 seats impact on voting behaviour. This by a gradualism in seat allocation up to 5% of the vote.

    2.5% of the vote 1 seat
    3% of the vote 2 seats
    3.5% of the vote 3 seats
    4% of the vote 4 seats
    4.5% of the vote 5 seats
    5.0% of the vote 6 seats.

    Parties with an electorate MP and gaining less than 5% of the vote
    2% of the vote 2 seats
    2.75% of the vote 3 seats
    3.5% of the vote 4 seats
    4.25% of the vote 5 seats
    5.0% of the vote 6 seats

    In the future the debate will I suspect be between such an improved MMP system and STV.

    PS I note the Labour Party supports more electorate seats and thus less list seats in MMP for the 2 main parties – any more than 80 and less than 40 on the list could reduce the diversity in the make-up of parliament (more preferable but less popular would be 100 electorate MP’s and 50 list MP’s, or even two houses one with 100 electorate MP’s and one with 100 list MP’s).

  5. Keir on September 23rd, 2009 at 22:33

    PS I note the Labour Party supports more electorate seats and thus less list seats in MMP for the 2 main parties – any more than 80 and less than 40 on the list could reduce the diversity in the make-up of parliament (more preferable but less popular would be 100 electorate MP’s and 50 list MP’s, or even two houses one with 100 electorate MP’s and one with 100 list MP’s).

    No, it doesn’t. Or, at least, I don’t think it officially does & I’d like to keep it that way.

  6. SPC on September 23rd, 2009 at 23:15

    Keir

    I based what I wrote on something from the weekend either the Weekend Herald or NBR (Hooton’s column was on this topic, but is not on-line).

  7. Keir on September 23rd, 2009 at 23:52

    there have been noises made by Labour people about having a conversation about the electoral system, and one of the suggestions was that proposal, but it isn’t Labour policy at the moment, and it really shouldn’t ever be, in my opinion.

  8. Quoth the Raven on September 24th, 2009 at 00:26

    Decentralisation. Federation of micro-states? Balance of central and local government power? How does one dismantle centralised democracy using democratic mechanisms?

    Much more interesting. Something you don’t hear much from the centre-left with its zeal for massive centralised government. You may be interested in this. And what about federation without the states :-)

  9. Eddie Clark on September 24th, 2009 at 09:04

    Decentralisation. Federation of micro-states? Balance of central and local government power? How does one dismantle centralised democracy using democratic mechanisms?

    I’m always fascinated when people raise federalism and decentralisation as a way of mitigating against any one group becoming too powerful. This isn’t to say that devolution won’t have some of these effects, but as far as I can determine federalism has never actually been imposed for that purpose. I’m happy be given an example to the contrary, but from where I’m sitting it looks like states with strong federalist traditions exist as an accident of history, not for principled reasons. Canada. Australia. The US. The only way they could get the constitutent states to agree to be part of the country was to have significant concessions towards their own self-determination.

    The principled justifications came later. Germany is possibly an exception here but (a) their current system was imposed upon them after the war, in a model similar to that of the victorious americans and (b) its a country that has always had very strong regional identities anyway.

    Does anyone have any examples of a country that was divided from a strong centralised system into one where states have significant autonomy? That would disprove my point, and I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

  10. Graeme Edgeler on September 24th, 2009 at 14:00

    Does anyone have any examples of a country that was divided from a strong centralised system into one where states have significant autonomy? That would disprove my point, and I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

    The United Kingdom has moved substantially in that direction.

  11. Uroskin on September 24th, 2009 at 15:03

    My peference would be pure proportionality, lists only, vote for your preferred candidate from one list, seats allocated with 0.8% threshold (in 120 seat parliament) to highest polling canidates on that list, one vote, no electorates (Maori and pakeha).

    Based on last November’s results, parliament would have looked like this:
    National: 44.93% = 53.92 seats = 54 (-4)
    Labour: 33.99% = 40.80 seats = 41 (-2)
    Green: 6.72% = 8.06 seats = 8 (-1)
    ACT: 3.65% = 4.38 seats = 4 (-1)
    Maori Party: 2.39% = 2.87 seats = 3 (-2)
    Progressive: 0.91% = 1.09 seats = 1 (-)
    NZ First: 4.07% = 4.88 seats = 5 (+5)
    United Future: 0.87% = 1.04 seats = 1 (-)

    So a National/Act/UF/Maori Government would still be possible.

  12. Hugh on September 24th, 2009 at 15:35

    Eddie: Belgium.

  13. Bruce Hamilton on September 24th, 2009 at 15:52

    I want a system that works, and which best represents the intent of most voters.

    I’m not a fan of electorates rejecting candidates who then arrives in parliament by the side door of the list. All candidates should only have one door at each election.

    Electorates also function as mob accountability – MPs have to face the same mob of voters every 3 years. If the MP ( or their party ) have not served the community well, they will be voted out – providing some satisfaction to those voters.

    Why have expensive list MPs at all?. Why not allocate the proportionality of the parties to the electorate MPs, ( eg one national MP’s vote = 1.5, and Labour MP’s = 1.2 )?. Why maintain 1MP = 1 vote?.

    I’d also like to suggest that, because voters have learnt about strategic voting ( note the decreasing % of wasted votes since MMP ), the threshold could drop a little, and also become progressive, as suggested above.

    I would like the total number of MPs to be reduced, even if electorates are larger, because the load of serving an electorate should also be partially shouldered by list candidates – or that the list candidates should be paid much less – as they aren’t individually voted in.

    I would not favour zero threshold, or a total proportionality system, as MPs would avoid dealing with difficult electorates, and head for the easy ones.

    None of these discussions seem to focus on what an ordinary punter might like to obtian from these expensive 3 yearly Powerball lotteries. Once votes are in, promises are forgotten, knowing that 3 years will produce bulk amnesia.

    Punters are often are faced with “least bad” choices, none of which closely matches their intent, as policies target large groups ( health, welfare, education, retired etc ). The voters understand that promises can be broken without consequence. The proposed voting systems are unlikely to fix that.

  14. Eddie Clark on September 25th, 2009 at 09:07

    Hugh and Graeme – Yes, good points. But again they’re ‘splitting’ along the lines of the constituent jurisdictions that make up the country, because the regions are getting bolshy. That’s about self-determination of peoples, not as a diffusion of power thing per se. And diffusion of power is almost always the principled constitutional reason trotted out for federalism.

  15. Lew on September 25th, 2009 at 21:58

    Thank you all for your responses. I’ll think on them and try to get time to respond tomorrow.

    L

  16. Lew on September 27th, 2009 at 10:56

    Ag,

    why do you think we should have a democracy rather than some other system, and if for various reasons (which may or may not conflict), which are the most important reasons?

    An excellent question, and one which I frequently beg. I could go on and on about this, but I’ll keep it brief. My arguments in favour of democracy essentially boil down to Lincoln’s: of, by and for the people, toward making the sort of society they want. There are a few caveats, but essentially it’s very simple: self-government and self-determination by representative proxy.

    But why democracy? I accept that other systems can achieve these goals, but the point is that democracy is what we have. As an outgrowth (you might say ‘evolution’) of monarchic systems, it is elite-dominated and centralised, and it is these aspects that democracy’s critics concentrate on. But unlike those systems, democracy requires the consent of the governed to function, and this, in principle, yields three major benefits: first, it provides the electorate with the means and motivation to engage with their government; second, it provides non-violent and non-controversial mechanisms to remove corrupt or inept leaders from power; and third, these two factors provide strong checks on elite impunity and executive authority, since leaders know that the electorate can see what they’re up to and turf them out if they don’t like it, or if they’re building a society which differs from the electorate’s ideal.

    I don’t see centralisation and elite-dominance as great problems for democracy. Elite dominance is a state of common equilibrium in political systems inasmuch as the most competent, best-educated, best-connected or most wealthy in a society will generally tend to lead; in other systems they frequently do this as of right, while in democracies they must do so with consent (manufacturing that consent where necessary). Likewise, centralisation provides a broad diversity of views, which in principle is more resistant to bad ideas — the wisdom of crowds, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts.

    I should note that although I think democracy in general and ours in particular works pretty well, I’m not naïve about how the system is gamed and manipulated, and I don’t have a pollyannaish view; I think there’s a great deal of daylight between the ideals I sketch here and the reality of its implementation. But at core, I am an incrementalist and my belief is that future systems of government should be arrived at via the existing democratic means. Democracy is nearly unique among modern large-scale political systems in that it can conceivably allow this without the sort of bloodshed and disruption which accompanied the revolutions the 18th Century. This was the source of my question about how to dismantle the system using the system itself; in principle, it’s possible: how, and why, to do it?

    As an incrementalist, I believe in tuning the institutions we have rather than throwing them out with the bathwater, hence the call for input on what an ideal electoral system looks like. Mine looks a lot like the one we have now, but with emphasis on the aspects of democracy which give it its broad-based resilience.

    Transparency. Important at the governmental level, but not so much at the electoral level. As long as the electorate has trust in the institutions which determine election outcomes (and those institutions are subject to scrutiny by independent experts), then relatively opaque systems requiring arcane mathematics to produce an outcome are viable.
    Simplicity. Somewhat important, since it can determine effective political engagement. STV is especially poor in this regard: as a political scientist working in the media in central Wellington, I found myself struggling to rank candidates beyond the first few on the last Wellington City Council ballot. There were just too many, and working through all their advertising propaganda was a daunting task. I hate to think what less-engaged voters did here, and I’m pretty sure there is a fair bit of research which finds perverse outcomes such as randomly assigning numbers or voting on name recognition as a result of poor engagement.
    Proportionality. Very important, in conjunction with low wastage and regret. It is critical that systems are strongly proportional and do not result in wasted votes, because disproportionality and wastage distort voting behaviour and promote the apathy of ‘my vote doesn’t count anyway’. This disaffectedness is particularly strong among libertarians, whose rhetoric and political culture has become more and more extreme as they and their legitimate societal concerns are excluded from political systems which do not tolerate heterodox views. A MMP system without a threshold might well result in a Libertarianz candidate being elected to parliament in NZ. At present I suspect the libertarian discourse in NZ is dominated by Objectivists and other such hardliners because less-extreme libertarians realise that their talents are better used elsewhere. Although I disagree almost entirely with their policies, I think a legitimate libertarian voice in parliament would be a good thing — it would accord that segment of the electorate the representation they deserve, and drive up the quality of their discourse. The same goes for other fringe groups. That’s good for everyone. To this end I favour removing the threshold to representation, or reducing it to the share required to win one seat outright (rather than applying Sainte-Laguë strictly).
    Representativeness. Critical, since (again) without it electors lose faith that the system represents them. While I am somewhat tolerant of non-electorate systems such as Open List (on the basis that parties who want to win will pick geographically diverse lists), I believe NZ is too parochial for these to be considered legitimate. The sense that parliament is Wellington-dominant and out of touch with ‘real NZ’ is a factor which promotes apathy.
    Decisiveness. Unimportant. If public opinion is so deeply divided that the electorate is unable to agree on an effective government, then it is up to elected representatives to work out their differences or return to the electorate to clarify their mandate. There is a place for limiting the extent to which this might result in a permanent state of campaign, but broadly speaking this is a self-regulating system in other polities.
    Size. Bigger is better, up to a point. While drawing a large pool of representatives from a small pool means some will be of a low standard, larger parliaments are more granular and provide greater representation and more precise proportionality than smaller.

    More responses as I get time.

    L

  17. Lew on September 27th, 2009 at 13:24

    Graeme,

    How did Jim Bolger get to be Prime Minister?
    You lose the majority of people not long after the words “local electorate committee”, and well before you get around to explaining that he was actually appointed by the Governor-General operating under the principle of responsible government.

    What’s self-evident about FPP is that the candidate with the most votes in his or her electorate wins and becomes a member of parliament. How government is formed is a different matter, and the objection you raise is true of any electoral system being proposed.

    SPC,

    Our current system can be improved by adopting preferential voting in the electorates and changing the situation under the 5% threshold.

    I agree that this would make the system more representative of the electorate’s wishes, but I’m not sure the complexity introduced by preferential voting is necessarily worth it. The proportional ledger is generally squared by the party vote. For this reason I also agree that reducing the number of list places in favour of more electorates would be deleterious.

    Eddie,

    I’m always fascinated when people raise federalism and decentralisation as a way of mitigating against any one group becoming too powerful.

    That’s not what I’m arguing, although there is a fair argument that decentralisation favours minor demagogues, while centralised systems favour major demagogues :)

    Uroskin,

    My peference would be pure proportionality, lists only, vote for your preferred candidate from one list, seats allocated with 0.8% threshold (in 120 seat parliament) to highest polling canidates on that list, one vote, no electorates (Maori and pakeha).

    I don’t quite get this. Each party releases a list of candidates, and each voter picks one candidate (from all lists) and the top 120 candidates get in?

    For a start, this isn’t proportional, since if 25% of electors vote for one candidate, that candidate still ends up with only as much parliamentary weight as candidate #120.

    For another thing, I think we would see a dozen or two dozen very popular candidates who would get 80 or 90% of the votes between them, with a long tail of wildly unpopular candidates.

    If I’ve misunderstood, please enlighten me :)

    Bruce,

    Why have expensive list MPs at all?. Why not allocate the proportionality of the parties to the electorate MPs, ( eg one national MP’s vote = 1.5, and Labour MP’s = 1.2 )?. Why maintain 1MP = 1 vote?.

    I don’t know how you’d possibly sell this to an electorate — it flies in the face of the core symbolic matter of liberal democracy: all men being created equal, etc.

    I have some sympathy for the idea that a distinction should be made between electorate and list MPs, since electorate MPs have more direct responsibility, but at core I think this is a political issue, and the electorate can punish parties whose MPs are seen to be taking the proverbial.

    L

  18. rich on September 27th, 2009 at 15:36

    The United Kingdom has moved substantially in that direction.

    The United Kingdom consists of four distinct nations which had sovereign government at various times in the past. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all now have forms of devolution. Devolution to English regions has been attempted but after the North East rejected it in a referendum, abandoned. (The Greater London Assembly is basically a local authority with no legislative competence).

    Which isn’t to say that a decentralised form of government wouldn’t work in NZ, but it would need to be built from the ground up. The current approach of imposing a semi-democratic Lord Mayorality on Auckland appears to be a move in the opposite direction, IMHO.

  19. rich on September 27th, 2009 at 15:44

    Each party releases a list of candidates, and each voter picks one candidate (from all lists) and the top 120 candidates get in?

    I see how this could work. Firstly, a vote for a Green candidate (for instance) is taken as a vote for the Green party and MPs are allotted to the parties proportionally, so if 10% of the vote went to Green candidates, they would get 10% (12) of the MPs. The candidate votes would then be ranked, so the 10 Green candidates getting the most votes would be elected.

    It would be simple, and (unlike open primaries) require that those choosing a parties candidates do at least vote for that party.

    It does have the disadvantage that financial members of parties would be denied control of their parties direction, and also that the selection of members within parties would not be proportional.

  20. […] by British Labour MP James Purnell, which touches on a few things I’ve been thinking about recently. Purnell identifies three initial steps toward fulfilling Lincoln’s “of the people, by […]

  21. Uroskin on October 1st, 2009 at 12:35

    A vote for a candidate on a particular list would result in a party vote first. I.e. I could vote for Kevin Hague on the Green party list. The Green party vote would be 1 too. When tallying all party votes first the seats should be distributed proportionally between parties. If the Green party is awarded 8 seats then the top 8 polling candidates on the Green party list get in. Simple system, really: a vote for a candidate would equal a vote for a party so no votes are actually wasted (if your chosen canidate doesn’t get in, your vote still helped your party)

  22. […] non-negotiable.” And I’m still interested in peoples’ responses to the question: what kind of electoral system do we actually want? L Tags: electoral reform, electoral systems, Idiot/Savant, John Key, Labour, Māori seats, MMP, […]

  23. […] when browsing a few Kiwi blogs on the topic of electoral reform I stumbled upon a post by Lew at Kiwipolitico from September last year. His post contained much of the material that I was planning on covering […]

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