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General Election 2020: Why your Party vote is so important

By Stephen Franks

Under our MMP system each voter has two votes - one for the electorate or constituency candidate (a person), and the other for your preferred party. The party vote decides how many of each party’s MPs will be in Parliament.


Splitting your vote (voting for the candidate of your preference even if they are not the party you want in power) can be most effective. 


The simple way to remember how our MMP system works - only your party vote really matters. A few people, in electorates where a Green, NZ First or ACT candidate has a realistic chance of winning, may be able to make a difference with the constituency or electorate vote.


That uses a strange exception to the 5% minimum party vote threshold. Generally a party that gets less than 5% of all party votes does not get list members of Parliament. But if their party has one electorate MP (if a small party candidate becomes an MP on a constituency vote (as David Seymour is in Epsom)) then list members of their party can hitchhike to Parliament even if their party’s list vote stays below the 5% threshold.


“If you really like your local MP (or don’t like them) cast your constituency vote as you prefer. It almost never affects who become government (unless, as explained above, you are in an electorate like Epsom).”


Currently that matters only in Epsom (where a vote for Seymour gets him into Parliament) ACT will add more ACT MPs if ACT’s party vote rises. 2% would give them another member for sure. If they got 4% they would have at least 5 MPs, including David Seymour. Four would come off the ACT list.


Exactly how many extra members parties get is complicated because it depends on whether Parliament increases in size (total members) under the complications of what is called an overhang. But for practical predictions that can be ignored.


If you really like your local MP (or don’t like them) cast your constituency vote as you prefer. It almost never affects who become government (unless, as explained above, you are in an electorate like Epsom). 


If you are in a constituency where the outcome is a foregone conclusion (strong Labour or strong National) your constituency vote is irrelevant for all purposes. Only the party vote matters in terms of changing the government, or reinforcing a party that aligns with your policy thinking.


Effectively our MMP system can be summarised as:

  1. All the constituency results depend on first past the post elections within each constituency. Whoever gets the most votes in each electorate is the MP. 
  2. After the constituency reps are chosen (currently well over half of Parliament) the party votes are tallied and the party balance make-up of Parliament is then determined by the party vote alone. 
  3. So to illustrate with an extreme example, if one party got all the constituencies:
  • it would get no members off its list (unless its party vote went well above the unprecedented 60%).
  • All the MPs from other parties in Parliament would be from their party lists only
  • Enough members would be chosen from each party’s list to make sure that each party had the proportion  of MPs in Parliament over-all, which its votes represented of all party votes cast (ignoring those of parties that did not get to the 5% threshold, and did not have a constituency seat to hitchhike on).
  • So, for example, if National won all electorates (which is more than half of Parliament), and a 50% party vote - Labour, the Greens and NZ First would then be given between them list MPs to make up the same number of seats in total as National. They’d all be drawn from the party lists in the order they’ve been listed.  ACT on that scenario (where Seymour loses Epsom to a National candidate) would get none unless it also got more than 5% of the party votes.


But in a realistic scenario, ACT continues to elect David Seymour in Epsom, so it will then get extra list members to ensure it has in the House MPs that correspond to its Party vote. The sole significance of the Epsom constituency vote is that electing Seymour means people can be confident they will not be wasting their party vote on ACT, if it gets less than the 5% threshold. With Epsom, ACT can expect somewhere between one and 5 members, even if they continue to poll less than 5% in the party vote. 


The big “which side governs” questions for this election will likely turn on NZ First’s survival, and who they choose to support. Without a constituency seat (what they wanted for Shane Jones in Northland), if they drop below 5% in the party vote they are history. In that case votes for NZ First will be “wasted”.


The makeup of Parliament (how many MPs each party has) will be determined as if the NZ First Party votes were not cast. If their vote stays above 5 % they will be there in Parliament whether or not they win any electorate seat. 


The significance of the minor party number of MPs, once they are sure of being in Parliament, is then entirely on their power within the ruling coalition. If they can bring down the government by withholding support, as NZ First can currently because without its MP’s votes Labour/Greens would not have enough votes and National/Act would rule. A minor party in that situation has great power.


The little compacts had done their job and aided me in the search for some deer. That is about all I can ask for.


ACT’s influence after the next election could be similar. If ACT MPs votes are necessary to get to 50% of the votes in Parliament (to pass something (assuming a National government would not be likely to get Green or Labour support ) then it has a powerful influence.


If instead National can govern without them, (for example if NZ First are still there and not in a coalition, but vote case by case with and against the government on each issue) then ACT could have little power. 


Those who fully understand the system, please excuse me for some of the over-simplification. Setting out all the conditions and qualiications becomes too confusing. And frankly I understand some of them, such as vote counting rules, only for a short time after each close study. 




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