‘Oh, I’m not really interested in politics,’ you say. But is that really true? Answer us a few questions. Do you intend to go to university? Do you have a part-time job? Do you buy snacks or drinks? Oh, you do? In the lead up to the 2014 General Election, Don’t Be An Egg! columnist JASON KIM explains how that whole voting thing really works.
Essentially, every aspect of your life is guided by a political decision made by someone in Wellington. That includes everything from the prices we pay at the shops, to the career choices available to us once we graduate from high school, to the amount of tax we pay out of our weekly wages.
In the last General Election, New Zealand as a whole had one of the higher voter turnout figures in the world. However, declining youth turnout has been a growing concern lately, with around 19% of eligible youths not even bothering to enrol – let alone vote – in the last election. Let’s try and reverse that trend.
So… How Does it Work Again?
Prior to a major electoral reform in the mid-1990s, New Zealand employed one of the most simple electoral systems in the world (which we inherited from the UK, who still use it today). First Past the Post (FPP) it was called. Essentially, parties ran candidates in the various electorates across the country. Add up however many electorates a party won, and whoever had the most electorates formed the government.
Back in those days, politics really was a two horse race between National and Labour. Although some minor parties came and went, it was difficult for them to persuade voters that their vote wouldn’t be wasted. This was because, under FPP, if your candidate doesn’t win the electorate outright, your vote doesn’t count at all.
People ended up resenting the system. The high likelihood of a wasted vote really restricted the choices that voters had. As a result,
the Electoral Commission studied the various electoral systems used in other countries, and we put it to a vote in a referendum.
New Zealanders overwhelmingly voted against FPP, and soon we implemented the system that we have now: Mixed Member Proportional (MMP).
Hmm… Party Vote or Electorate Vote?
The basic idea is really simple. You have a fixed number of seats in Parliament (usually around 120). These seats are divided in percentage terms according to that party’s share of the party vote.
So, say National wins 45%, Labour wins 30% and the Greens win 10%. The seats will roughly be divided up as 54 for the Nats, 36 for Labour, and 12 for the Greens. This reduces the number of wasted votes a minor party would get.
For example under FPP, the Greens might have won about 10% of the vote nationwide. But if none of their candidates won an electoral seat, then all 10% of those votes would be wasted. Under MMP, all 10% counts and the Greens are represented according to the total proportion of New Zealanders voting for them.
Once the votes are in and the number of seats that parties are entitled to become settled, the seats are filled according to party lists. Before the election, every party will release a list of candidates, ranked in order of priority. So if a party wins 30% of the vote and 36 seats, then the first 36 candidates listed will be entitled to a seat.
There are a few rules of course. A party must get at least 5% of the vote in order to make it into Parliament (unless they win an electorate seat, but we’ll get to that later). So there is still a small element of a wasted vote – for example, people who voted for the Conservative Party last year, who only won 2.6% of the vote.
The reason we have this rule is so that Parliament isn’t split up into lots and lots of small parties who may all have rather extreme and opposing views. This would, in theory, lead to more unstable governments, as no one would be able to agree on anything!
While the general distribution of votes in Parliament is now divided according to the party vote, we still have electorates as well. So that’s why you have two votes under MMP; one party vote and one electorate vote.
However, the electorate vote will almost always be irrelevant to which party forms the government. There are 70 electorates in this election; 63 general and 7 Māori electorates). Basically, the electorate MP (Member of Parliament) is the guy or gal who is tasked with representing your local area’s views and issues.
But even after sorting out who has won which electorate, only 70 of the 120 seats in Parliament will have been filled. The remainder of seats will be filled according to the party vote, so who actually wins the electorate vote isn’t decisive in who forms a majority. A party can, in theory, win as many as 50 of the 70 electorates (71%) but still not form a government, unless they have 50% of the total nationwide party vote.
A Coat-Tail, You Say?
I mentioned earlier that sometimes a party doesn’t need 5% to make it into Parliament. This is because of the so-called ‘coat-tail rule’ which will be referred to on the news repeatedly over the next few months.
Basically, the big parties will sometimes send a ‘wink-wink’ message to voters in a certain electorate, saying that it’s OK to select the candidate from a minor party instead of their own. This is what has been going on in Epsom for a number of years now between National and ACT, and which Labour will (or should, if they have any tactical nous at all) be hoping to do in Te Tai Tokerau with the Internet-Mana Party.
So here’s how it works. While a party needs 5% of the total vote to be in Parliament under normal circumstances, if they end up winning an electorate seat they can take in however much their party vote adds up to, even if it falls below 5%.
That’s why National are so keen for ACT to win an electorate and get their party vote back up to somewhere between 2-4%. By winning Epsom, ACT will not only win one electorate seat, but also two or three more seats via the coat-tail rule. They wouldn’t otherwise have been entitled to these extra seats if they didn’t get the go-ahead from National.
And Coalitions Are…?
So why are Labour and National so keen to like, straight-up give away certain seats? The answer is that under MMP, it’s basically impossible for one party to govern alone.
In the years that we’ve had MMP, not once has a party earned more than 50% of the total party vote (although according to the current polls, National might make history this election with as much as 50-55% of the total vote).
What this means is that the major parties need support partners, and together they form what is called a coalition. Say National wins 45% of the total party vote. They have won the most votes out of anyone in New Zealand. But they need to make sure they have a majority of the 120-seat Parliament support them as well.
If Labour is on something like 30% of the total party vote, but can cobble together the remaining 20% from a combination of the Greens, New Zealand First, and Internet-Mana, then it’s game-on as to who can be the next government.
So National wants to make sure that it can fill in the remaining 5% or so that they will need to govern with some combination of United Future, ACT and the Māori Party.
Unfortunately for them, all three of those parties are essentially on life support right now. United Future is a one-man-band led by Peter Dunne. ACT has failed to even register on many polls throughout the year (although they’ll be hoping new leadership will give them the boost they need). The Māori Party might be wiped out altogether by a combination of Labour and Mana candidates in the seven Māori seats.
Fortunately for National, they have probably one our most popular Prime Ministers ever. The polls have been so consistent over the past few months that they may have the level of support across New Zealand to form the first ever one-party government in MMP history.
Ok I’ll Vote Then. So, Who’s Who?
This is not an exhaustive list. For a list of all registered parties, go to www.elections.org.nz
[learn_more caption=”And Now, a Disclaimer”] The writer of this article has made some assumptions about the likely success or otherwise of certain political parties in the September election, that you may or may not agree with. That’s OK. Are you old enough to vote? Then get out there on election day and make your own point, with your own vote![/learn_more]
The 2014 New Zealand General Election takes place on September 20. For more general info, go to www.elections.org.nz.