Who should rank party lists?

00:02, Mar 14 2012

Another of the major issues about MMP being reviewed by the Electoral Commission is how party lists are ranked. Under our current law, the party lists are "closed", which means once submitted by the political party, they cannot be changed by voters.

What this means is that list MPs are indirectly elected to Parliament. You can't vote for or against a particular List MP. You can only vote for a party, and the party has determined the order of its list.

This means that if there is a very unpopular candidate highly ranked on the list of a party you support, you can't stop them becoming an MP except by not voting at all for the party. Very few people are prepared to change their party vote just because of one candidate they don't like.

It is a reality that with the major parties, the top ranked candidates are effectively guaranteed to become MPs.

Hence, some people think that party lists should be "open", which means voters can re-rank the candidates at the polling booth. This would allow them to promote a lower ranked candidate who has more popular support, and demote a higher ranked candidate they don't like. It would remove from political parties the ability to unilaterally protect MPs by giving them high rankings.

But while attractive in principle, open lists in practice would be very difficult. There were 471 list candidates at the 2011 election. I can't see many voters wanting to rank even a fraction of that many candidates. The vast majority of voters would probably just tick the option to accept the party's rankings.

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Open lists work better when you have small regional lists, and hence list candidates. To have open lists work effectively in New Zealand, you would need to change MMP to a regional system where, say, Auckland gets 40 MPs, Wellington and Christchurch 15 each and maybe the rest of the North Island 35 MPs and the rest of the South Island 15. This would mean that voters would have only a few dozen candidates to rank. 

An alternative to open lists would be to ensure that party lists are drawn up in a more democratic way. Party lists tend to be heavily dominated by the party leadership and top hierarchy, especially in the larger parties. One could amend the law so that party lists must be ranked by a ballot of all party members. Some parties such as the Greens and ACT already have membership ballots, albeit not entirely binding.

Overseas, party members are often given more of a say in issues like this. David Cameron eas elected Conservative Party Leader in the UK by a vote of all members. All political parties in Canada have membership ballots to elect a leader, and non-MPs are even allowed to run. The US also has its primaries. 

I am unsure if the average voter wants to spend scores of minutes at a polling booth ranking party lists. However, I think many party members would like more of a say in ranking their party's list, and it would be good for party membership also. A guarantee that every member gets an equal vote on the party list would be a good way for parties to sign up and recruit members.

Are you happy with the way party lists operate at the moment? If not, what changes would you support? Are open lists the way to go? Should the lists be national or regional? Should there be a requirement for all party members to get a vote on their party's list?

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