The one-seat threshold

Last updated 12:13 23/02/2012

Last week I blogged on the options around the party vote threshold for parties to gain representation in Parliament, as this is one of the issues being considered by the Electoral Commission in its review of MMP.

A related issue is the other threshold to gain representation in Parliament - winning an electorate seat. Currently a party that wins an electorate seat not only gets that electorate, but is eligible to gain list MPs even if their party vote is under 5 per cent. Generally a party that wins an electorate seat will gain a second member of Parliament if it gets 1.2 per cent of the party vote.

The three basic options for the electorate seat threshold are to retain it, to abolish it or to increase the threshold (to, say, two electorate seats).

Before I touch on the arguments for and against the electorate seat threshold, I always like to look at how it would have affected the six MMP elections we have had to date if it had not existed.

In 1996 no party gained list MPs through the one electorate threshold. All those parties with list MPs got over 5%.

In 1999 NZ First gained four list MPs as Winston Peters won Tauranga and NZ First got 4.3 per cent. Without the electorate threshold, NZ First would have had only Peters in Parliament in 1999.

In 2002 Jim Anderton's Progressive Coalition gained a second MP in Matt Robson on 1.7 per cent party vote as Anderton won Wigram. 

In 2005 United Future gained two extra MPs on 2.7 per cent party vote and ACT gained one additional MP on 1.5% party vote as Peter Dunne won Ohariu-Belmont and Rodney Hide won Epsom.

In 2008 ACT gained four extra MPs on 3.7 per cent party vote as Rodney Hide retained Epsom.

Interestingly in 2011, no party gained list MPs through the electorate threshold. The only parties with list MPs all got over 5 per cent party vote.

As one can see, if MMP did not have the one seat electorate threshold, Parliament might have been very different in the past. NZ First would have lost all its MPs except Peters in 1999. The Progressives would have been reduced to a one-person party in 2002 and both ACT and United Future the same in 2005. 

It is even possible some of those parties would have been wiped out entirely. Would Epsom voters have voted for Rodney Hide in 2005 if there had been no incentive to have ACT gain extra MPs from voting for him?

The argument against the electorate seat threshold is that it is unfair a party with a lower party vote than another party gets more MPs than that party. This has in fact only happened once in six elections - in 2008 when NZ First got no MPs on 4.1 per cent party vote and ACT got five MPs on 3.7 per cent party vote, as they had won an electorate seat.

The other argument against the electorate seat threshold is that it encourages parties to do deals in seats, and encourages tactical voting in some electorates.

An argument against removing the electorate seat threshold is that it will make Parliament less proportional. It will make it harder for parties to be represented in Parliament, and that the better solution is to lower the party vote threshold so that it is easier for a party to gain representation in Parliament without having to win an electorate seat.

Another argument against removing the threshold is that the system worked the way it was meant to in 2008. That no voters in a seat would vote tactically to give NZ First an electorate seat was an indication that they did not think it could be a stable partner for either Labour or National (otherwise Labour voters would have voted tactically for it), while National voters in 2008 did see value in having ACT in Parliament. 

Overall I think there is a case for removing the electorate threshold, but only if the party vote threshold is lower so that it is easier for parties to make it into Parliament. However, my mind is not yet made up on this issue, as if the threshold is made too low, then stable government is much more difficult, as we have seen in Israel.

Do you think the electorate vote threshold should stay or go? Do you think it is a big issue considering that in the last general election no party gained any list MPs through the threshold?

David Farrar is a centre-right blogger affiliated to the National Party. His disclosure statement is here.

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Highlander   #1   12:34 pm Feb 23 2012

Hard luck Farrar, NZ first is in parliament this term and Mr Winston Peters and his members will continue to demand the truth out of Key, As for saying Act won Epsom, What a joke!!! one good thing that will come out of this review of MMP is that this little rort will cease

SomeGuy   #2   12:36 pm Feb 23 2012

Personally I'd keep the 5% barrier, or things could get too fractionalised, but I'd make it applicable to all parties regardless of electorate outcome, if they win an electorate but not 5%, they only have the electorate seat. It's unfair if a popular MP gets to bring other MPs through on their coat tails when a more popular party might end up with none.

Alan_Wilkinson   #3   12:41 pm Feb 23 2012

I've already given my opinions and they are unchanged: 3% threshold and abolish the electoral seat exemption. Leave the party lists alone. Abolish the Maori seats.

Ian Boa   #4   12:42 pm Feb 23 2012

Count me in the "go" camp.

The 3.7% -> 5 ACT MPS and 4.1% -> no NZ First MPs is just plain wrong. There is nothing particularly magic about whether a party's support is spread wide or geographically compact.

From the Nats point of view it was five seats for the price of one. They were all for doing it again this time except that ACT turned out to be such a bunch of muppets that all they got was Epsom and the ACT party vote was zilch.

"Wrong" is the only word I can come up with. This is gaming the system in a totally undemocratic fashion. If you took away the coat-tail effect it would still be worthwhile for the Nats to promote ACT in Epsom - if Nat supporters voted ACT for the electorate and Nat for party vote then the Nats would in effect get an extra seat. That's a bit smelly but nothing is perfect. I can live with one but I choke on five .....

Ben   #5   12:45 pm Feb 23 2012

I agree with your conclusion David. I think ultimately the best changes to MMP are going to be ones that eliminate tactical voting and cup of tea sheninigans. A lower no-seat threshhold plus a removal completely of the one-seat rule seems to me the way to go.

Ultimately my view would depend on what happens with the no-seat threshhold. A two seat rule might be more robust but also doesn't eliminate the potential for shenanigans, in fact it may even increase that potential.

I'm not sure if this has been thought of, but I also suggest a reduced voting power for overhang parties. I am a big fan of the Maori Party, but I am thinking of the general principle. It might be good to see them have all their electorate MPs returned (and potentially all entitled to vote on conscious matters), but on most bills to see them only have the number of votes that their party vote entitles them to. That might mean that a party returns 5 MPs, but only gets 3 votes.

Josh   #6   12:52 pm Feb 23 2012

"This has in fact only happened once in six elections - in 2008 when NZ First got no MPs on 4.1 per cent party vote and ACT got five MPs on 3.7 per cent party vote, as they had won an electorate seat."

I notice you aren't including every election when a 1 person party gets into parliament and any minor party not currently represented that gets a larger share of the party vote doesn't - the best recent example being the Conservatives.

As far as I'm concerned, if less than 1% of the general population votes for a party and one of their members sneaks in via the electoral list, every party with a high party vote than the party they are representing should also be given a proportional amount of seats. Either this should mean that a 1 man party shouldn't be given funding as per a party leader, and should function as an independant, or that the threshold should be lowered to the lowest amount of votes for a party that an electoral candidate was voted in for.

Neil   #7   12:53 pm Feb 23 2012

i was unaware of the current way things worked, and i find it somewhat strange. I dont like the idea of list MP's, they are not voted in by people, so why should they represent us? if it is the case that they just have to be here, then they should not piggy back in on the coat tails of a single electoral seat winning candidate:they should get in becuase their party got 5%. if their party isnt popluar enough to get 5% of the party vote then they should not be in parliament.

Dean   #8   12:53 pm Feb 23 2012

Get rid of coattailing. Lower the threshold to 3%.

Mbossa   #9   12:54 pm Feb 23 2012

Easy. Make it so Parliament is actually proportional by abolishing the 5% threshold. Then these other problems would melt away.

If we must have a threshold, it should apply to all parties, regardless of whether one of their members happened to gain a seat through the undemocratic FPP-style electorate vote. But this is just putting lipstick on a pig. Get rid of the threshold.

Gillian   #10   01:00 pm Feb 23 2012

3% for both

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