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Referendum on New Zealand’s Voting System

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Today (currently Saturday, November 26 in New Zealand) is election day in New Zealand.  In addition to voting for a candidate standing in their district (“electorate“) and for the political party that they want in Parliament, voters will be participating in a referendum on whether the electoral system should be changed.

The current electoral system – called “mixed member proportional” representation, or MMP – has been in place since the mid-1990s.  At that time, it was a major shift from the “first past the post” system (FPP) that had been used in New Zealand since the 1850s.  The change resulted from two referenda held in 1992 and 1993 in which voters were first asked whether they wanted to change the system and what their preferred alternative was from a list of options.  With a large number of people voting for a change, and the majority of those voters selecting MMP, the second referendum pitted FPP against MMP.  MMP won by a margin of 54% to 46% and, due to the binding nature of this referendum, the new system was passed into law by the Parliament.

The 2011 referendum is similar to the first one that took place in 1992 – it asks voters whether they want a change and, if so, what their preferred option is out of a list of four alternatives.  This is an “indicative referendum” and so is not binding on the parliament.  If the majority of people vote to change the system, the next parliament will determine whether a binding referendum will be held that would allow people to choose between MMP and the preferred alternative.  If most people vote to keep MMP this does not necessarily mean that there won’t be any changes – there will be a review of the system to see whether and how it can be improved.

So, what is MMP and how does it work?  The New Zealand Electoral Commission has made a video that explains it, as well as others that explain how the alternatives listed in the referendum would work.  This includes the previous system, FPP.  Basically, under MMP everyone has two votes – one for a candidate and one for a political party.  If a party passes one of two thresholds (5% of the party vote or one electorate seat) it will be represented in Parliament.  There are 120 seats in Parliament: seventy are filled by representatives from each of the seventy electorates, and the remaining fifty are allocated to the political parties so that their share of seats reflects the proportion of party votes that each received.

The Royal Commission that recommended MMP in a 1986 report considered that this system would result in parliaments that are more representative of voters’ wishes.  The system was already being used in Germany, and a small number of other countries have implemented it in the last twenty years as well.  There are some recent studies on whether people in New Zealand understand the system and some statistics that show that MMP may have had an impact on the number of ethnic minorities and women in parliament.  It will be interesting to see if voters still prefer MMP or whether there is a real desire to try something different (or even go back to the old system).

MMP and the referendum were among the subjects that I covered in a “Power Lunch” presentation to Law Library staff last week.  I also talked about the existence of dedicated Maori seats in Parliament and a separate Maori electoral roll and about the various controversies and law changes related to campaign finance and advertising in recent years.  If you would like to find out more about these areas please take a look at my report on New Zealand’s electoral laws, which is available on the Law Library’s website along with other “Current Legal Topics.”  The Law Library and the Library of Congress also hold a large number of books about New Zealand’s electoral system and, of course, you can always ask us for information!

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