Who should rank party lists?

Last updated 12:57 14/03/2012

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.

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.

76 comments
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Sonny Blount   #1   01:02 pm Mar 14 2012

Rank the party lists by the number of votes the candidate receives in their electorate.

This would work better with more electorates in proportion to list mps.

Joanne   #2   01:15 pm Mar 14 2012

I'm a member of the Green Party and along with other members have the opportunity to contribute to ranking the list. There are a number of issues that candidates focus on so it is good to be able to highly rank those most in line with issues most important to me. As well as that is an opportunity to show confidence in current MPs who have done a good job by keeping them at the top of the list. I think it is pretty fair. I know the Green Party is smaller than National and Labour but I don't see why this system couldn't apply to them as well.

Lou   #3   01:15 pm Mar 14 2012

Get rid of "party lists" altogether. All they do is fill the chamber with talking heads who do little other than ask patsy questions to the elected members.

His Lordship   #4   01:26 pm Mar 14 2012

These issues as well as the overhang and others would be removed by adopting multi-member electorates and a single transferable vote system.

But, since that horse has bolted, we might as well live with the party list as established. After all, it is not as if parties are unable to protect their leaders through given them safe seats anyway.

Neil   #5   01:27 pm Mar 14 2012

I'd continue to let the party rank their people. But, i'd raise the threshold for % of votes to get list members into parliament,and make the candidates chose either to be on the list or to stand as a candidate in an electorate, not both.

bArt   #6   02:00 pm Mar 14 2012

Have two elections of course! First to choose the candidates, then to pit them against each other. I jest, there is a basic problem with lists you see... actually with parties themselves as well. Each and every candidate should stand on individual integrity and merit rather than ride in on the coat-tails of either a list or a party.

Sonny Blount   #7   02:01 pm Mar 14 2012

I really don't like the idea of party members voting on lists.

Seeing as party membership is not open to all and comes with a fee attached, it can't be called democratic.

I shouldn't have to pay money to the National Party to not have Tau Henare or Anne Tolley in government.

Graeme Edgeler   #8   02:27 pm Mar 14 2012

Open lists can work without massively complicating the voting process.

Underneath the party vote section is a box. Every voter may, if they want, write a number in that box, which corresponds to the number of a person on the list of that party. As well as that party having your vote, that person has your vote. List MPs can then be selected accordingly. If National gets 20 list MPs, they get the 20 list candidates with the most votes (or if that is too drastic) then every candidate who got a least 0.5% of the vote overall (or 5% of the vote for the party) goes to the top of the list, with the parties ordering applying after that, etc.

The major problem with open lists is that voters will have no idea who they are supporting by voting for a party. If you really hate number 60 on National's list, you can vote for National confident you probably won't be helping number 60 become elected. With open lists, your vote for National might mean they get 21 list MPs instead of 20. And what if the open-list counting pushes number 60 up to number 21, etc.

Parties that people might vote for because of what they represent (high number of women candidates, or certain ethnic candidates in winning posititions) may vote for a party and then find the people they thought were going to be there aren't.

While I like the idea of open lists (my "ideal" voting system is STV with a single electorate electing all the MPs), I'm not sure it would work particularly well in practice in New Zealand, and if there needs to be a change, beefing up the requirement for democracy in party list ranking may be a better way to go.

Richard   #9   02:27 pm Mar 14 2012

A party should have the right to rank it's own list BUT nobody should be allowed to double-dip being both a candidate for an electorate and on the list at one election.

One person, one vote. One politician, one go at a time.

Re. your questions David. "No" there are aspects I don't like but in the end a party must have the say 'over itself' so to speak.

Graeme Edgeler   #10   02:33 pm Mar 14 2012

@Sonny Blount #7 - it might not go as far as you want, or be as democratic as you want, but wouldn't it still be better from your perspective than the current practice?

If you think having party members decide is not democratic, what do you call having party leaders decide?


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