25 Feb 2019

Setting the electoral threshold

From The House , 5:37 pm on 25 February 2019

Ever scratched your head, dumbfounded as to how a political party that garnered a mere 13,075 votes in a national election won a seat in Parliament, yet one that pocketed 63,261 went home empty handed? Surely, surely, that was a mistake.

Nope. It was the system working as planned.

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This porridge picture will make sense as you read on. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

With speculation about the viability of a new ‘blue-green’ party jamming up pundit’s heads and newspaper columns, it might be helpful to decipher exactly what it takes to secure a seat in the House of Representatives anyway.

Since MMP’s (Mixed-Member Proportional) inception in New Zealand in 1996, there has been a threshold that every party must can in order to occupy one of the 120 seats in Parliament – obtaining at least 5% of the popular vote.

Why five?

Victoria University Emeritus Professor of Political Science Nigel Roberts

Victoria University Emeritus Professor of Political Science Nigel Roberts Photo: Victoria University of Wellington, NZ

“I’d say it was the Goldilocks argument - what was a threshold that was not too high, not too low, but about the right temperature?” said Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Victoria University Nigel S. Roberts.

The 1986 Royal Commission recommended some kind of threshold a decade before MMP came into place.

“Basically, they said, we want to encourage small parties to be able to get into Parliament, but you don’t want too much fractionalization.”

Parliament decided that 5% was just right. A nice balance between proportionality and stable and effective governance, which, according to Mr Roberts was partly based on history.

“That decision was made in light of the fact that no party since 1943 had ever got more than 4% and less than 5% of the vote… nobody thought too much about it” he said.

All election systems have thresholds, legal or otherwise, but some other countries show that a lower limit does not necessarily mean better representation.

“Israel is a nice comparable model because it too has a Parliament of 120,” Mr Roberts explains. “they’ve found that with a 1% threshold or 2% threshold there are simply too many parties in Parliament. It’s very difficult to form a government. They’ve had all sorts of problems with stability.”

The Electoral Commission proposals paper recommended the party vote threshold be lowered to 4 percent.

The Electoral Commission proposals paper recommended the party vote threshold be lowered to 4 percent. Photo: Electoral Commission

There is no magic number. Although the Electoral Commission conducted a review of MMP in 2012, and, much like the Royal Commission in 1986, it thought a 4% limit was ideal.

Crossing that line is still hard, though.

“In some ways, people think ‘Wow, oh boy, that’s an easy threshold’. Well, it hasn’t proved that way at all, and not surprisingly.”

A Blue-Green party would need an eco-friendly machine of a campaign to get across the line. Why? The 2017 election produced the smallest election of minor parties to Parliament since the transition to MMP, and no newly established parties ever been elected in that period. All either splintered from the big guns or they were in existence before 1996.

The observant will be furrowing their brow, muttering that 13,075 votes only equates to 0.5%, not 5%. True. Can parties enter Parliament with ten times fewer votes than necessary, then? Yes, due to one interesting exception: the One Electorate threshold.

If a party wins an electorate (as the Act party did in Epsom with 0.5% party vote in 2017, for instance) they are awarded that electorate seat in the House.  

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Live coverage of the 2017 general election from RNZ shows party vote percentage of some parties. Photo: RNZ

This seems odd but the argument goes that if a party is popular enough to win an electorate, those constituents deserve some representation at a national level.

“The Royal Commission argued that, well, if a party can get one seat there’s evidence of a particular local popularity,” Mr Roberts clarifies.

The 2012 Electoral Commission report was not too fond of the roundabout, recommending it be abolished entirely.  

“I don’t think it was realized exactly how easy it would be for that one seat threshold to be passed,” he says.

Nonetheless, a Blue-Green party would still need to spoon up one electorate or eat 5% of the vote in 2020.

But, if the political temperature is just right, they could be tucking in for three years.