Defending the Threshold

July 28th, 2011 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

Idiot/Savant at NRT blogs:

With ACT cutting a deal in Epsom, and Peter Dunne cutting one in Ohariu, ’s “electorate lifeboat”, which sees parties gain list seats in parliament if they gain a single electorate, has come in for a fair amount of flack. And today, Labour leader Phil Goff has reminded us all that he opposes it, and that he wishes MMP to have a strict 5% threshold, with no exception for electorates. I think this is exactly the wrong position to take. Why? Because the “electorate lifeboat” improves proportionality.

Phil Goff’s stance is pretty naked self interest. He only opposes it, so ACT will lose representation in Parliament. Goff’s view of a good electoral system is one which gets rid of Labour’s opponents.

My concern is that a future Labour Government will make unilateral partisan changes to the Electoral Act, as they did with the Electoral Finance Act. Simon Power set the model for bipartisan co-operation on electoral issues, but will Labour return his generosity? My concern again is that they will think National were suckers for giving them a say on electoral law, and that they will revert to type as we saw with the Electoral Finance Act and the retrospective legislation to retain Harry Duynhoven as an MP.

Proportionality, remember, was the entire point of MMP. We wanted parties to be represented in direct proportion to the votes cast. The 5% threshold undermines this, but the “electorate lifeboat” provides a way around it. Without it, the Parliaments of 1999, 2002, 2005, and 2008 would have been less proportional, and less representative, thanks to the exclusion of (respectively) of NZFirst, the Progressives, United Future and ACT. That would have been bad for our democracy.

Sometimes the lifeboat gives perverse results, as in 2008 when ACT gained 5 MPs while NZ First gained none despite receiving more party votes (4.07% vs 3.65%). This is obviously unfair. But you don’t remove unfairness by increasing it. The appropriate response to this situation is to give parties in NZ First’s situation representation, not deny it to both.

Even though personally I do not want NZ First in Parliament, I agree (somewhat) with Idiot/Savant. I support the threshold being lowered to 4%, as the Royal Commission recommended, even though this would have led to NZ First staying in Parliament.

I don’t support eliminating the threshold entirely, which would lead to a party on 0.4% gaining representation. I think this would lead to an Israel type situation where miniscule extremist parties have massive say in who forms the Government. Israel has learnt from their mistakes and has been increasing the threshold.

So in my opinion 5% is too high a threshold and no threshold is too “low”. I could possibly be convinced of say 3%, but in the end I think one should stick with the Royal Commission’s model as closely as possible, in the absence of strong reasons not to.

Goff’s – and Labour’s – position is not founded on democratic principles. Instead, it is driven by naked self-interest – most obviously, by a desire to remove ACT from the political equation …

Indeed.

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43 Responses to “Defending the Threshold”

  1. Pete George (23,416 comments) says:

    I think 3 or 4% is a better balance too, and wonder why the heck they didn’t go with the Royal Commission recommendation. Actually, I know why they didn’t, and it wasn’t in the interests of democracy.

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  2. AG (1,823 comments) says:

    A bit mischievous, dpf … there will be a Simon Power-style review of MMP when the electorate votes to retain it at the November referendum, run by the Electoral Commission and open to full public input. So this question will get a full thrashing through that process, and Labour is just laying down it’s marker for what it wants to see out of it.

    Not that the Harry Duynhoven/EFA process weren’t wrong – it’s just that there’s a process in place to make sure we don’t see a repeat of it (by any party). To say nothing of the fact that the Government that will deal with the review in 2013 won’t be Labour-led. Which raises an interesting question – if the Electoral Commission, reflecting public opinion, recommends that the one-seat lifeboat goes (with or without a lowering of the threshold), will that Government act on that recommendation?

    [DPF: I think it is somewhat premature to say it is a fact that the Government in 2013 won't be Labour-led.]

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  3. thomasbeagle (78 comments) says:

    I’d be happier with a lower threshold too (2 or 3% would seem good to me).

    What do you think of the “get one electorate MP, suddenly the threshold is ignored” part of the current MMP system?

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  4. rimu (51 comments) says:

    “Goff’s view of a good electoral system is one which gets rid of Labour’s opponents.”

    You can’t say stuff like that and then act all shocked when others claim that National wants to get rid of MMP to get rid of their opponents!

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  5. AG (1,823 comments) says:

    “[DPF: I think it is somewhat premature to say it is a fact that the Government in 2013 won't be Labour-led.]”

    That’s what you say. But I’ll bet you ain’t buying/holding any ipredict stocks on that outcome …

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  6. Nick R (502 comments) says:

    I’d be a lot happier without the one seat exception to the threshold. The shenanigans over Epsom and Ohariu are a really bad look, and tend to bring the entire electoral system into disrepute. If the threshold has to be lowered as a quid pro quo, I think that would still be a better outcome than what we have now.

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  7. Pete George (23,416 comments) says:

    What about making it a two seat exception? That removes the one seat equals a party anomaly.

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  8. Ross Miller (1,686 comments) says:

    You are looking at this the wrong way folks. MMP gives too much power to the minor parties. The way through this, while maintaining an element of proportionality, is to change to the SM (Supplementary Member) system where ONLY the ‘List’ members are elected in proportion to the votes cast.

    If MMP is the answer how is it that only Germany (where it was imposed by the allies post WW2) and NZL are bright enough to have figured it out?

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  9. AG (1,823 comments) says:

    “You are looking at this the wrong way folks. MMP gives too much power to the minor parties.”

    What’s your basis for saying this? Where is the empirical study that demonstrates small parties have an influence on policy/legislative content beyond that which their share of the vote/seats in Parliament entitles them to? Note it isn’t enough to point to one or more policy/legislative moves championed by a small party (Auckland Supercity/2025 Taskforce/Whanau Ora/etc) … you need to demonstrate that the cumulative number and effect of these moves reveals “too much power” is being wielded by small parties.

    Bet you can’t, and that your complaint really is that small parties have ANY power at all. Which you can say if you want … but it just means you don’t like democracy.

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  10. simonway (379 comments) says:

    You are looking at this the wrong way folks. MMP gives too much power to the minor parties.

    It gives the amount of power to the minor parties that the voters want them to have. Seems fair.

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  11. Chuck Bird (4,819 comments) says:

    “but in the end I think one should stick with the Royal Commission’s model as closely as possible, in the absence of strong reasons not to.”

    As I remember that was 4% and no need for Maori seats under MMP.

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  12. Elaycee (4,348 comments) says:

    “Goff’s – and Labour’s – position is not founded on democratic principles. Instead, it is driven by naked self-interest…”

    Wow! I am actually agreeing with Idiot/Savant? Wonders never cease…. :)

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  13. simonway (379 comments) says:

    I don’t support eliminating the threshold entirely, which would lead to a party on 0.4% gaining representation.

    Only if the House has suddenly, mysteriously gained another 130 Members. Otherwise, as long as there’s only 120, it’s more like 0.83%.

    I think this would lead to an Israel type situation where miniscule extremist parties have massive say in who forms the Government.

    Wikipedia tells me that Finland and the Netherlands have no threshold, and they’re not basket cases. Perhaps Israel’s situation has more to do with quirks of Israeli domestic politics than the lack of a threshold. Israel and Italy are the usual examples that opponents of any sort of proportional representation point to when arguing against it, but if you ignore all the positive examples, you can make any idea look bad.

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  14. RightNow (6,961 comments) says:

    As Pete suggested, making it a 2 seat exemption is another option that makes sense considering, and could be combined with a lower party vote threshold. Closing the gap between the percentage of electorate seats a party wins, and the percentage of party vote required to get any MP’s in parliament seems to me to be the logical thing to do to make it a fairer system.

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  15. AG (1,823 comments) says:

    “As I remember that was 4% and no need for Maori seats under MMP.”

    True … but the Commission also recommended parties representing Maori be exempt from the threshold (without specifying how you determine what a party representing Maori looks like).

    “Otherwise, as long as there’s only 120, it’s more like 0.83%.”

    Under the Sante-Lague formula (or however you spell it) used to apportion list seats, you could get a seat with less than .8% (if we had no thresholds).

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  16. RightNow (6,961 comments) says:

    the Sainte Lague formula is described at http://www.elections.org.nz/voting/mmp/sainte-lague.html

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  17. mikenmild (11,246 comments) says:

    A threshold is fine. If we move it to 4% though, we are surely going to get cries from a party that gets 3.8 or 3.9%. Any threshold will exclude someone. 5% seems reasonable, it at least means that you get 5 or 6 MPs in which helps to make a credible contribution. The electorate seat exemption should go – it simply distorts things and encourages these silly Epsom, Ohariu or Wigram deals.

    As for the Maori seats, it seems fair enough to retain them. Their future is in the hands of Maori – if enough Maori are happy with general seats they would change to the general electoral rolls.

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  18. Graeme Edgeler (3,279 comments) says:

    As I remember that was 4% and no need for Maori seats under MMP.

    The Royal Commission on the Electoral System recommended:

    1. A 4% threshold.
    2. A one seat exception to that threshold.
    3. The abolition of separate Maori seats.
    4. No threshold at all for parties representing Maori interests.

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  19. Nicholas O'Kane (168 comments) says:

    The simple way to stop Labour making partisan changes to the Electoral Act (which even the Clark government didn’t do) is to expand the entrenched sections of the Electoral Act to include the trashold and Sainte-Lague formula, to limit the scope for partisan changes. I would also entrench the electoral finance sections and include a clause in the entrenchment section prohibitng substantial changes to constitutional arrangements and/or the electoral act without the 75% majority or referendum.

    Second if any changes to electoral act are propoesed they shouldn’t apply to the next election, but the one after that.

    Short of entrenchment I think there are two ways to respond to partisan changes to the electoral act:
    For more minor changes massive retliation once you get into government. So National could have responded to the Electoral Finance Act by prohibiting trade unions from being affiliated to any political party or donating any money to any party, and to stop the from registering as third parties. National could have responded to the retrospective legislation legalising the pledge card by imposing a one off $800 000 deduction in the emount of money Labour can spend campaigning on the party vote in 2011. As I do not want the electoral laws to be used as a pernament partisan play thing these punishments can last for only one electoral cycle (3 years)

    For more significant changes (like removing the one seat threshold rule to eliminate Act (unless spelt out clearly in advance of the election or approved by a referendum) one option could be to consider not playing their game. If they want to rig elections don’t give them legitimacy by competing in them. Do the nuclear response, namely
    1) have all National and Act MPs resign from Parliament on mass
    2) Have all lsit candidates stand aside creatijng a massive underhang
    3) refuse to contest the by-elections, instead running a campaign for people to spoil their ballot papers, or casting them blank
    4) If Labour don’t repeal the laws by the next election refuse to contest the election and make it very clear what actions will follow (namely a campaign to bring down the government through mass strikes, civil disobedience by blocking motorways etc
    5) if the election goes ahead (encourage people to spoil ballot papers or not vote in the election) and the result stands implement proposed campaign of civil disobedience until Labour government resigns, using more and more exterme tactics (like causing power blackpouts to major cities) until they do so

    Note: I am not proposing violence or killing people, unless the Labour government does something really really extreme lick lock up political opponents in concentration camps etc, which sadly given their behaviour after

    It may sound dramatic, but if Labour is allowed to use partisdan electoral laws as a bauble of office something must ultimately be done to stop them

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  20. Graeme Edgeler (3,279 comments) says:

    “Otherwise, as long as there’s only 120, it’s more like 0.83%.”

    Under the Sante-Lague formula (or however you spell it) used to apportion list seats, you could get a seat with less than .8% (if we had no thresholds).

    Close. It’s the Sainte-Laguë method.

    If we abolished the threshold, a single party could have gotten a single seat in Parliament with:

    1996: 8003 votes (0.39%)
    1999: 8181 votes (0.40%)
    2002: 8025 votes (0.40%)
    2005: 9367 votes (0.41%)
    2008: 9160 votes (0.39%)

    The number usually works out as 0.42% of the unwasted vote.

    I suspect that, if we abolished the threshold, we’d move to a modified form of Sainte-Laguë, to make it slightly harder to get that first seat. The Royal Commission recommended this.

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  21. Graeme Edgeler (3,279 comments) says:

    As for the Maori seats, it seems fair enough to retain them. Their future is in the hands of Maori – if enough Maori are happy with general seats they would change to the general electoral rolls.

    This seems to be the position of both National and Labour at present. Neither New Zealand First nor ACT could get the numbers in parliament to abolish them, so they should force National and Labour to vote on their word: propose a bill that would abolish the Maori seats in the event that a Maori option (the post-census opportunity for eligible voters with Maori ancestry to choose between the Maori and general rolls) resulted in more than half of Maori being represented on the general roll.

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  22. Graeme Edgeler (3,279 comments) says:

    If MMP is the answer how is it that only Germany (where it was imposed by the allies post WW2) and NZL are bright enough to have figured it out?

    Because most countries with proportional representation have gone the whole hog and abolished electorates entirely.

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  23. mikenmild (11,246 comments) says:

    The tinkering with electoral finance laws is a bit removed from making partisan changes to the Electoral Act itself. I don’t think there is any prospect of a NZ government doing that. The entrenching is actually more of a moral restraint. i understand that the sections of the act that entrench some provisions are not themselves entrenched. So a simple majority of the House of Representatives could remove the entrencing claues and then change the substantive provisions.

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  24. s.russell (1,587 comments) says:

    Excellent posts, GE. Thanks.

    I read somewhere (nearly ten years ago I think) that the members of the 1986 Royal Commission themselves recgonised that the one-seat let out clause on the threshold was an error. Germany has a three seat let-out clause, and the RC simply scaled it down.

    I agree with DPF about not wanting a zero threshold: too much danger of NZ being held to ransom by fringe loonies. I could live with 4%. But a better solution might be an option on the ballot paper to give a second choice, so that if a party gets (as it might be) 4.9% but misses out, those voters get to have their votes counted for a second choice rather than their being wasted.

    Yes, Goff’s motivation is suspect, but….

    Re Harry Duynhoven, the disgrace was that National did not support the law change. His ineligibility was a technicality, and if a byelection had been held he could have stood and would have won. It would have simply been a waste of money as well as petty and vindictive.

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  25. OECD rank 22 kiwi (2,823 comments) says:

    First Past the Post will be the election method for 2017 onwards.

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  26. AG (1,823 comments) says:

    “I read somewhere (nearly ten years ago I think) that the members of the 1986 Royal Commission themselves recgonised that the one-seat let out clause on the threshold was an error.”

    Sir John Wallace, who chaired the Royal Commission, said this in 2002: “Though at the time of the Royal Commission Report, I supported the waiver of the threshold, I now incline to the view that the New Zealand voting public is so unhappy and cynical about political conduct that anything which can have an aura of clever practice is better avoided. I would, therefore, abolish the provision under which the threshold is waived for a party that wins a constituency seat.”

    OECD: “First Past the Post will be the election method for 2017 onwards.”

    Care to stake your reputation as a commentator on this blog site on that prediction?

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  27. Graeme Edgeler (3,279 comments) says:

    The tinkering with electoral finance laws is a bit removed from making partisan changes to the Electoral Act itself. I don’t think there is any prospect of a NZ government doing that.

    Partisan changes to the Electoral Act are pretty common over New Zealand history.

    We moved from drawing electorate boundaries by reference to voting age population to population because they favoured one party over the other.

    In 1975, Labour introduced parity for the Maori seats (having Maori seats drawn by reference to the number of Maori on the Maori roll, on the same basis as general seats).

    Before the next census and Maori option took effect, Muldoon won the 1975 election. The Electoral Act 1976 was passed, the sole purpose of which was to limit the number of Maori seats to four, no matter how many Maori were on the Maori roll (which had the effect of substantially disenfranchising those on the Maori roll).

    It was not until the Electoral Act 1993 was approved by voters that this anomaly was changed.

    In the early 1990s, when NZF was first starting up, the Broadcasting Act was re-written in a way to ensure that NZF couldn’t get any broadcasting funding, and couldn’t advertise at all on radio or TV.

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  28. lofty (1,305 comments) says:

    “In the early 1990s, when NZF was first starting up, the Broadcasting Act was re-written in a way to ensure that NZF couldn’t get any broadcasting funding, and couldn’t advertise at all on radio or TV.”

    And quite right too!!! ;-)

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  29. RKBee (1,344 comments) says:

    Why don’t we do what has been talked about for years… have peoples initiated referendums like they do in Switzerland… then there we be no need for at least half the MPs. along with Goff.

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  30. RightNow (6,961 comments) says:

    RKBee – that is an idea worth supporting.

    http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/2011/05/that-ism-again.html
    “Referism is a political philosophy which states that, in the relationship between the [British] people and their governments, the people should be in control. The state is the servant not the master. Control is primarily achieved by submitting annual state budgets to the people for approval, via referendums. The catchphrase is: “it’s our money and we decide”. Governments are thereby forced to refer to the people for their funding, hence the term “referism”.”

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  31. grumpyoldhori (2,416 comments) says:

    Goff has got it wrong, he should be pushing for every Labour voter in Epsom to vote for the National candidate, that is the way to get rid of ACT.

    But, it is bloody disgusting of the Nats to support a party whose MPs and others in it believed it was good form for a sod who had stolen a child’s identity to become an MP.

    It is amusing that no pakeha Nat or ACT types were calling for Garrett to cop a jail term, obviously they believe fraud carried out by a PI to be a far worse crime with the calls for him to be jailed.

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  32. tvb (4,307 comments) says:

    NZF gained representation in parliament in 1999 because wins tin won tauragnga by a handful of votes and brought several mps with him. Jthey failed to get over the 5pc threshold then. So n/f has benefitted by the existing system. Winstons failure to hold tauranga is his main problem.which is why it was strategically important for the national party to knock Winston out, which bob clarkson did admirably.

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  33. AG (1,823 comments) says:

    RKBee & RightNow,

    Good to see you endorsing Labour Party policy: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/politics/news/article.cfm?c_id=280&objectid=10733473

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  34. RKBee (1,344 comments) says:

    AG.. Like I said.. Why don’t we do what has been talked about for years… and make it binding.. Mind you they all say things like this in opposition… But isn’t it strange when political party’s get into power.. giving political power back to the people goes out the window.

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  35. mikenmild (11,246 comments) says:

    It’s difficult to see politicians endorsing things that limit their own power. The referendum on proportional representation, as I recall, only came about by Jim Bolger adding it to the menu in 1990 electioneering, rather like John Key promising to keep all Labour’s policies last time.

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  36. RightNow (6,961 comments) says:

    AG, a couple of things about Goff wanting a referendum on asset sales:
    1) A single referendum on an issue is not the same as a policy of annual referenda on the budget
    2) The results of the 1999 referendum on reducing the number of MP’s from 120 to 100 had 81.5% support, yet was ignored by Clark as ‘not a binding referendum’. I have no reason to believe anything has changed in Labour’s attitude to results that don’t say what they want them to.

    edit: point 2 can be broadened to cover all politicians, not just Labour

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  37. DavidC (179 comments) says:

    4% and no need for Maori seats under MMP.

    This would get my vote.

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  38. leftyliberal (642 comments) says:

    I can’t see a decent reason why we need the electorate get-out clause. It seems to me that it’s better to keep things simpler: Get past n% of the vote and the party gets in. Electoral seats are then not campaign grounds for trying to get a party in – they’re instead a campaign ground for the electoral seat which is what it should be: Who’s the best person for the job in my electorate?

    I’d also support n being lower than it is now, though I agree a limit is needed to ensure that we don’t get too many one man bands. May as well make it 2 party seats. This allows smaller parties to start small and build up over time.

    As for the Maori seats, basing it on the number of Maori registered for the Maori role seems reasonable, phasing them out as the proportion of Maori in each of those seats choose to transfer over to the general role. I agree this would need to be codified to both ensure it can’t be messed around with quite so easily and to ensure that there’s enough of a heads up. Setting the limit at 50% seems reasonable (more than half Maori wish to be on the general role).

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  39. leftyliberal (642 comments) says:

    @RightNow: Agreed about the sham on non-binding referenda: Just note how many have been implemented at all!

    I do note, however, that the wording of several has been appalling (though there have been improvements in this area).

    To be honest I’m not sure what the answer here is: We elect politicians to make decisions on our behalf. Many of those decisions should be made with respect to what is best for the country, not what is best for the majority. Having binding referenda introduces the problem where majority rule wins, regardless of whether it is best for the country. In many areas that might be quite inappropriate.

    Perhaps referenda that force an independent review whose key findings are in some way binding? This would be incredibly difficult to balance (what is “independent” ?)

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  40. Graeme Edgeler (3,279 comments) says:

    I can’t see a decent reason why we need the electorate get-out clause.

    The simple reason is:

    an % threshold is undemocratic. It is ludicrous that a party could get over 100,000 votes in a country as small as New Zealand and not be represented in a Parliament of 120 MPs. A one seat exception to the threshold means that a number of voters get the level of representation in Parliament that they’re entitled to on a proportional allocation.

    e.g. ACT got 85k+ votes at the last election. If National had gotten 85k more votes, National would have had five more MPs. If Labour had gotten 85,000 more votes they’d have gotten 5 more MPs. Why should those 85k+ voters be denied representation just because they voted for ACT?

    If you oppose a threshold, or oppose a high threshold (and 5% is up there on a world-wide basis), then you might support a one seat exception because it means more voters get their fair level of support: it’s not unfair that ACT is in Parliament; it’s unfair that NZF isn’t, but the solution to the unfairness between ACT and NZF isn’t to deny ACT voters their fair representation, it’s to give NZF voters their fair level of representation as well.

    And if that’s how you feel, the one seat exception is a pretty good rule.

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  41. SPC (5,531 comments) says:

    I don’t see why the one eletorate seat exemption from the threshold should continue, all parties that fail to reach the 5% threshold should be treated equally.

    One law for all parties failing to reach the 5% threshold that treats all the parties equally is one where they receive only a 50% entitlement. Meaning they would have to gain c1.6% of the vote for 1 seat, c3.2% for 2 seats and c4.8% for 3 seats.

    Don Brash should understand the intellectual merit of equal treatment so where does he stand, oh yes SM an electoral system not in ACT’s best interest – clearly the ACT party constitution has no requirement for party members or leaders to work in the best interest of their party …

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  42. Griff (7,195 comments) says:

    I do not see why we need a threshold at all so what a few loan wolfs get to slurp at the table
    but all votes should carry weight. Party’s have found out about the king maker thing and realize that its a good way to get tarnished. Hence No one will play with Winne any more

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  43. Ari (69 comments) says:

    You can always support a minimal threshold- to my mind, the natural one is at approximately 0.83% of the total vote, or the amount required to win a single list seat outright. This sets the bar relatively high as for as the minnows are concerned and gives us a system in which joke parties aren’t likely to get elected, but would still allow ACT even in its most unpopular dips to retain representation without running an electorate campaign.

    A 4% threshold, however, is definitely too high, and I don’t see the point of lowering the threshold if you’re going to keep it any higher at all than winning a list seat outright. (And even then, there’s decent arguments that it should be lowered or abolished below that level so that we can grow new political parties if we like)

    All of the parties I support to any degree already clear the threshold, and some of the ones I hate the most would benefit from this rule- but it’s far more important to me that everyone’s vote is counted than that I get the parliament that I want. When everyone, even the people I think of as extremists or corrupt or idiots, has their voice counted, then it’s much harder for extremists, terrorists, or even those with legitimate grievances to convince people that violent direct action is necessary. We get a thorough debate where many sides of national opinion are represented. We get good ideas that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I mean, I deplore New Zealand First, but we have amazing programs for our elderly in this country because of them. There’s nothing but benefit to lowering the threshold and letting the bar of entry simply be who people will vote for.

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