As voters consider their options for the forthcoming election, it is a good time to reflect on the democratic process.
New Zealand is a representative democracy – voters elect politicians to legislate on their behalf. In this we are the same as just about every other modern democratic state. Direct democracy, under which every legislative proposal is decided by the voters, is generally considered too unwieldy for large nation states.
Direct democracy was used in ancient Athens, but in the modern world only Switzerland leans heavily towards it, especially for local matters. All other modern democracies use a representative system. Even representative democracies contain an element of direct democracy, though, in the form of referendums. Recent examples in New Zealand include the End of Life Choice Bill, which succeeded, and the Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill, which failed.
The world’s representative democracies employ an array of electoral systems to choose their legislators. Since 1996, New Zealand has used Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) representation. We share MMP with just a handful of other countries – Germany, South Korea, Bolivia, Ethiopia, and Lesotho.
In favour of MMP is that parties are represented in parliament in proportion to the support they attract from voters. In that respect, it is arguably more democratic than many other systems. It does have some drawbacks, though.
One argument against MMP is its complexity. It is not clear that most voters know what they are doing when they cast each of their two votes – one for a local member and the other for a party. A New Zealand Initiative report in 2020 showed that fewer than half of voters knew the rules governing how a party can get members into parliament.
While the proportional aspect of MMP is strongly democratic, it has other features that are less so. Party lists give a lot of power to party officials to select and order candidates. Arguably the same is true of electorate candidates, but at least they must directly face the voters.
Another decidedly undemocratic aspect of MMP is that voters cannot know in advance what deals party leaders will cut after each election. Winston Peters, especially, has made an art form of wielding more power than the voters have handed him. His New Zealand First Party has played a king or queenmaker role in several elections, despite securing only small proportions of the vote.
When New Zealanders voted to adopt MMP, they did so partly out of frustration with the previous First-Past-the-Post (FPP) system. FPP is still used for the United Kingdom’s House of Commons and in 40 other democracies, many of them ex-British colonies.
FPP and MMP have converse virtues and drawbacks. FPP is certainly a lot simpler. Each voter casts just one vote, for a local representative. Whoever gets the most votes in each electorate goes to parliament. That doesn’t mean, though, that they always have more than half the votes, just that they have more than the other candidates. So very often a majority of an electorate’s voters will be represented by a politician they didn’t vote for.
A pragmatic advantage of FPP is that it tends to deliver stable, single-party governments. Unlike MMP, there is rarely any need for coalitions. The flipside is that minor parties really struggle to get any representation at all. Under New Zealand’s FPP system, only two minor parties managed it in between World War II and the switch to MMP. The Social Credit party held two seats from 1981 until 1987, and from 1990 until 1993, New Labour’s Jim Anderton held the same seat he had previously held for Labour.
Under FPP a party with the most votes can nonetheless fail to win government. There are two ways in which this can happen. One is that there can be the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries. An example was in Queensland under the infamous Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. His Country Party held power on a minority of the vote for many years under a heavy gerrymander.
The gerrymandering problem can be solved with an independent electoral commission making sure the populations of each electorate are approximately the same. Even without a gerrymander, though, if one party wins decisively in many of its electorates, and its rival wins less decisively in many of its electorates, the latter can win government despite having a lower proportion of the overall vote. This was the case in New Zealand’s 1981 election, in which Robert Muldoon’s National government won a third term, capturing 51 seats with 39.4 percent of the vote, compared with Bill Rowling’s opposition, which won just 40 seats with 40.4 percent of the vote.
The Australians elect members to their House of Representatives using a system of proportional representation somewhat different from MMP. Under their Single Transferable Voting (STV) system, voters rank order candidates for their electorate in order of preference. When the votes are counted, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and their votes are distributed to other candidates according to the second preferences of the voters who voted for them. That process is repeated until just one candidate remains.
STV solves some of the problems with FPP. In particular, the preferential system is arguably more democratic within each electorate. It can take a long time to resolve elections in close contests, though. Furthermore, it’s not clear how well voters understand STV.
In the modern world, free elections have come to be thought of as the soul of democracy. But far from being its soul, elections are actually just a means of implementing democracy. The soul of democracy is not free elections, it is a free contest of ideas.
Without safeguarding that contest, the details of the electoral system make little difference. That is why, no matter which voting system we have, we must relentlessly defend the right of all citizens to voice their opinions.