Election time in New Zealand

In 3 weeks we will hold New Zealand’s triennial parliamentary election. This will be my first election in New Zealand, one of the few countries that gives all residents (as opposed to citizens) the right to vote. In other words, excluding tourists and folks with work or study visas (pretty much), everyone gets a say. Which I have mixed feelings about, though I will nonetheless vote. When I was a kid Mom would say “if you don’t vote, shaddup. You give up your right to complain if you don’t vote.” Still rings in my ears 30 40+ years later.

New Zealand used mixed member proportional (MMP) to fill its (almost always) 120 seats in parliament. There’s only one house to elect (no upper house), which is one of the reasons elections are every 3 years rather than 4 or 5. 71 seats are elected for specific electorates (ridings in Canadian parlance): in each electorates whomever gets the most votes wins the seat. The other (almost always) 49 seats are filled by what is called the “party vote”: in addition for voting for a person in your electorates you also cast a separate vote for your preferred party. One person, 2 votes, in other words. Of the 71 electorates, 7 are Māori seats, with their own Māori roll (Māori voters choose ahead of time whether they want to be on the general or Māori roll.

For a party’s vote in the party vote to “count” they either need to get 5% or higher in the party vote or win one of the electorates seats. Your party gets 4.99% and no electorates seat, you get nothing: you get 1 electorates seat and 2% you’ll get to bring 1-2 colleagues from your list with in you into parliament. All the parties publish their lists well in advance of the election: if a list MP resigns during the current parliament, that party’s next person on their list takes the seat. Which happens fairly frequently.

These are the significant parties in New Zealand at the moment:

  1. Labour: centre left party with strong trade union roots. I am a member. Currently in opposition. Elects both electorates and list MPs.
  2. National: centre right “big tent” party, so some far right and red Tory elements. Currently in government. Elects both electorates and list MPs.
  3. Greens: more left than many other green parties in Europe, particularly on finance issues. Elects list MPs.
  4. New Zealand First: populist right wing party, significantly a cult of personality around its perennial leader, Winston Peters. Elects list MPs.
  5. ACT: libertarian party that tries to frame itself as classically liberal. Elected one electorate MP but with almost zero party vote, so no extra seats.
  6. Māori Party: race-based (in terms of policy rather than membership) party that mostly runs candidates in the 7 Māori electorates. Elected 3 electorate MPs.
  7. Internet/Mana list: combines two minor parties. Mana is a far left anti-poverty party whose leader (Hone Harawira) used to be a Māori Party MP. Internet is run by…well, let’s just say there’s some shenanigans there, though the Internet Party leader (Laila Harré) was previously the leader of another far left party, the Alliance. Currently Harawira has one constituency seat.
  8. Conservative Party: right win, somewhat populist party. No seats currently.

More. Or less

The way seats are allocated under the proportional part of the election is via the Saint-Laguë formula, which aggregates:

  • # of parties that won at least one electorate seat (general or Māori)
  • # of parties that got 5% or higher in the party vote

To calculate how many additional seats each party is entitled to. The numbers must add up so that the total number of seats for each party–including electorate seats and list seats–is proportional to their share of the party vote that “counts” under the Saint-Laguë formula. In other words, if 7% of the party votes went to parties that didn’t meet either threshold, the list seats are allocated based on the adjusted percentages. More or less.

If you want to play around with this, Elections NZ has a nifty online Saint-Laguë calculator. It’s fiddly (all your party vote percentages have to add up to 100% and your electorate seat numbers to 71), but pretty cool.

Here’s what happened in the 2011 election:

Party Electorate seats Party vote List seats Total seats
ACT 1 1% 0 1
Green 0 11% 14 14
Labour 22 27% 12 34
Mana 1 1% 0 1
Māori 3 1.4% 0 3
National 42 47% 17 59
NZ First 0 6.5% 8 8
United Future 1 .6% 0 1
Others 0 3.4% 0 0

Because the Māori Party won more electorates than their percentage of the party vote would otherwise entitle them to, the only way to make the maths work was by adding one “overhang” list seat. Hence the “more or less” aspect of these calculations.

It’s worth noting that a non-partisan commission recommendation was made 2 years ago to modify the system in two ways:

  • Lower the threshold to 4%
  • Eliminate the single seat threshold
  • Eliminate overhang seats (since the single seat threshold is what causes overhangs)

The government (National) rejected these recommendations, which is rather shocking.

My vote

We live in what is ostensibly a safe Labour seat of New Lynn: David Cunliffe’s (the leader and prime ministerial candidate’s seat, in fact). I’ll be giving both my votes to Labour.