Differences between New Zealand and US politics

With David still gone and travelling and with the US elections fresh, I am posting a comparison between the US and New Zealand political systems that answer many of the questions I get from puzzled kiwis about the marvelously complex American political system

Head of State

USA

The President is the Head of State.

New Zealand

The nominal Head of State is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the 2nd of the United Kingdom [EDIT – I have disrespected the Queen by not giving her her full title – Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of New Zealand and Her Other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith – thanks Lindsay]  who administers her official duties through Her appointed representative in NZ known as the Governor General. The Governor General’s post is an appointed position for a set term usually of five years and the appointment is made by the Prime Minister of the day. The office of GG is a largely ceremonial as is the Queen’s modern role. The Head of State in the Westminster Parliamentary system officially opens Parliament, reads the Speech from the Throne (given to him or her by the PM) and signs all Acts of Parliament into law (known as the Royal Assent).

Executive

The Executive is the Government or those individuals who collectively are called the Cabinet and who head the key government departments. The most senior leader of the Government and thus the leader of the country is the Prime Minister or the President.

New Zealand

The Cabinet in NZ comes out of the Legislature or Parliament. They are the senior members of the party that has sufficient members in the Parliament to form a government. In National Party governments, the Cabinet members are chosen by the Prime Minister whilst Labour governments their Cabinets are elected by the caucus and the portfolios are allocated by the PM. The Prime Minister is the leader of the governing party in Parliament – in National’s case elected by the caucus and in Labour’s case elected by a combining votes from the caucus (40%), the party membership (40%) and the affiliated trade unions (20%). NZ Cabinet Ministers are located in one building known as the Beehive and meet regularly as a Cabinet on Monday mornings.

USA

The Executive in the US is entirely separate from the Legislature. The President is elected by the popular vote of the people at Presidential elections via the Electoral College. The composition of the Electoral College comprises of electors from each state representing the total number Congressmen and Senators from that State. In almost all cases, the candidate for President that wins a simple plurality of votes from that State garners the Electors from that State (exceptions are Nebraska and Maine who allocate electoral votes proportionately). Once elected the President appoints his or her Cabinet but each appointment must be confirmed by the Senate. Cabinet appointees tend to be current or former senior politicians from the President’s own party or prominent people from business, academia or other areas of public service. US Cabinet members offices are in their respective Departmental head office buildings and meetings of the President’s full Cabinet are rare; the President usually preferring one on one briefings with each Cabinet member who are known by the title Secretary (the Foreign Minister equivalent is called the Secretary of State).

Legislature

USA

The US operates a bi-cameral legislature comprising of the lower house called the House of Representatives and the upper house called the Senate. Up until 1913, the size of the House of Representatives grew based on the population growth of each 10 year (decennial) US census. Since 1913 the size of the House of Representatives was capped at 435 members and has not grown in size since. However the relative strengths of each state’s congressional delegation is adjusted after each Census based on what percentage of the overall population that state comprises thus high growth states in the south and west will be allocated new Congressional districts at the expense of states mostly in the east and mid-west whose population is either stagnant or shrinking and they lose Congressional Districts. The Districts are numbered such as Illinois 5th and the representatives are called Congressmen or women. The Senate is comprised of two Senate seats per state regardless of the size of the state so 100 seats.

New Zealand

NZ has a unicameral legislature comprising of just the House of Representatives. Our Upper House (the Legislative Council) was abolished in 1951. Representatives are called Members of Parliament or MPs and comprise of those elected from districts called electorates and those chosen from party lists. The total size of Parliament is determined by the relevant section of the Electoral Act as is currently set at 120 total MPs. The mix between electorate and list MPs is determined by calculating the number of electorates after each 5 yearly census by taking the population of the South Island and dividing it by 16 to determine the new electorate quota. This quota is them applied to the North Island to determine if population growth warrants new electorates. If a census adds 2 new electorates then the number of MPs elected directly from electorates increases by 2 and the number elected from party lists declines by 2. NZ uses a proportional voting system called MMP or Mixed Member Proportional. Voters have two votes: a Party vote to determine who they want to be the government and an Electorate vote to determine who they want as their local MP. The party lists are used to top from MPs elected from electorates to ensure that a particular party’s total number of MPs reflects the percentage of the Party vote that party got. A party must garner 5% of the total Party vote to get members elected unless they managed to win a single electorate seat in which case no threshold applies. If however a party wins more electorate seats than its Party vote percentage would allocate, then those MPs will be added to the total of 120 MPs. This is called an overhang and has happened in a few elections with the Maori Party.

Judiciary

New Zealand

Judges in New Zealand are appointed by the Minister of Justice on recommendation from the Solicitor-General [EDIT – by the Governor General on the advice of the Attorney-General hat tip AG]. Generally speaking District and High Court judge appointments are for no set term and for the judge’s usual working life. NZ judges interpret laws passed by Parliament but cannot make policy. Whilst Parliament is the supreme lawmaking body of the land as it has the sole right to pass legislation, it cannot interfere with any court’s decision unless it chooses to pass legislation on the matter. Judges are never subject to a popular vote.

USA

All Judges for the 11 Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal and the US Supreme Court are appointed by the President but must be confirmed by a majority of Senators but subject to filibuster or an attempt to stall proceedings unless it can be broken by a vote of 60 opposing Senator although part way through the most recent Congress, the Democrat majority changed the Senate rules suspending the filibuster for judicial appointments. Supreme Court appointments are for an unlimited term with resignation at the discretion of the appointed judge or upon their death in office. All State, County and City level judges are appointed by the Governor of the state and are subject to the popular vote each election cycle and a judge that might have a reputation for being too soft on criminals in a conservative area may find him or herself removed from office.

Checks and balances

USA

The US Constitutions created the three arms of government as separate but equal each with the power to check the other. The President checks the Legislature via the ability to veto bills passed by Congress. The Legislature checks the Executive through being the only arm that can initiate legislation, the Senate confirmation process of the Presidential appointments and through the ability with a 2/3rds majority in both Houses to override the veto. Presidential checks on the Judiciary lie in his/her ability to change the ideological composition of the court by appointments. The Judiciary checks the power of both the Executive and the Legislature with its ability to declare legislation or executive orders unconstitutional. The Legislature checks the Judiciary through the confirmation process of judges. Other crucial roles are separated – the President is the Commander in Chief of the military but only Congress has the power to declare war. The President can negotiate international treaties and accords but they must be ratified by the Senate.

New Zealand

NZ has fewer formal checks built into the system and does not have a Constitution that separates the powers of the government in any formal sense and because the Executive comes out of the Legislature. The Legislature exerts limited checks on the power of the Executive. The biggest check is public opinion and the caucus of the governing party who can initiate a vote against the party leader (although in the case of Labour it would be subject to their wider party leader election process). The Judiciary has the power strike down legislation passed by Parliament although such instances tend to be more about interpretation of laws. Because Parliament is sovereign in its law making ability, it can pass laws to clarify matters that the Courts may have ruled on.

The Bureaucracy

New Zealand

NZ has an independent and non-political civil service. Civil servants at all levels are required to be politically neutral and serve the government of the day. Permanent heads of government departments, whilst reporting to their relevant Minister, are appointed by the State Services Commission in a process that the government of the day cannot interfere with. A change of government in New Zealand results in minimal disruption to the day to running of the bureaucracy.

USA

The US bureaucracy is much more politicized. The top three tiers of management of any Department of the Executive are all political appointees who are appointed by the President in consultation with his/her appointed Cabinet Secretary for that Department. These appointees are the eyes and ears of the Administration throughout the bureaucracy and are considered one of the major spoils of winning the White House. When there is a change of Administration, there are usually over 3,000 political appointments that have to be made throughout the Federal Government with a number of first tier management and sensitive legal positions requiring Senate confirmation. A change of Administration has a huge impact on the Federal bureaucracy with many decisions shelved until appointments can be made and key ones confirmed – a process often taking several months. It is the main reason why the new President is not sworn in until usually near the end of January following his/her election in early November.

States

New Zealand

NZ has had no second tier regional government like states or provinces since the abolition of the provinces in 1876. The next tier of government after the national government is city and regional councils.

USA

The US has 50 states that have unique status amongst nations that have states or provinces. The Constitution enumerates specific powers that the President and the Federal government have – anything outside these specific roles is the preserve of the States. The States preceded the Federal government with the whole notion of American nationhood being founded on it being a Federation of existing States (the 13 original colonies). The Constitution makes provision for the addition of new states the last two being added (Hawaii and Alaska) in 1960. Each State has its own Constitution, its own legislatures, its own Executive (headed by the Governor) and hierarchy of courts that are a microcosm of the Federal system. Each state’s laws can be very different and the Supreme Court often rules on disputes of jurisdiction between State and Federal governments. This is no more apparent than in the vastly differing electoral laws from State to State. Just a few will suffice: some states have lieutenant governors, some don’t – some have only joint tickets whilst others elect the lieutenant governor separately (and can be from an opposing party). Some states require special (by) elections for vacated Federal Congress seats (House or Senate) within specified time frame of the seat being vacated, others grant the sitting Governor the right to appoint an interim Congressman or Senator. Some states are actually called Commonwealths (Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky) and not all call their lower chamber the House or the upper chamber the Senate. Some states term limit their elected officials, others do not. Each state decides which Executive offices are elected and which are appointed.

Election dates/terms

USA

Elections in the US (apart from special or by elections) are always held on the first Tuesday in November and each elected office has a set term. The Presidential term is four years with a term limit of two terms. Each Federal Senate term is for six years with staggered terms so that a third of the Senate members are up for re-election each election cycle. Federal House of Representative terms are for two years. Governors’ terms are for four years. State upper and lower chamber terms are determined by each state but most have two year terms for both. Elections held outside Presidential elections are called mid-term elections. There are no snap elections. The President or a Governor cannot decide when to go to the people – the terms and elections dates are constitutionally mandated.

New Zealand

The normal term of a NZ Parliament is three years and a General Election must be called no later than three years after the last General Election however the Prime Minister of the day at any time can instruct the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament and issue writs for a new General Election. There are no legal restrictions to this power proscribed in the Electoral Act however in practice so-called snap elections are usually only called in unusual circumstances. Vacancies (either by death, resignation or conviction of a crime carrying a 2 year or longer sentence of an MP) are handled differently depending on whether the MP was a List or Electorate MP. A List MP vacancy is filled by the relevant party appointing the next person on their party list and that person is sworn in as an MP by the Speaker in the next sitting day of Parliament. Any Electorate MP vacancy six months before a General Election is usually left vacant until the election by convention between the governing party of the day and the Opposition. Any other Electorate MP vacancy is filled by a by-election in that seat fought on the same boundaries as the last General Election with the date of the by-election decided by the Prime Minister.

Electoral boundaries

New Zealand

Boundaries of NZ electorates are re-drawn after each 5 yearly census when the total number of new North Island electorates is determined after applying the so-called South Island quota. A tolerance is set at plus or minus five percent above/below the quota as the outer limit of the population of each new electorate. Any electorate above or below the quota will have to have its boundary redrawn. A body called the Representation Commission redraws the boundaries to incorporate the additional electorate(s) required by population growth arising from the census determination and the same time keeping all new electorates inside the tolerance band. The Representation Commission comprises senior civil servants convened by the Surveyor-General, the Government Statistician, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Chairperson of Local Government Commission and each major political party can appoint a non-voting observer. The Commission takes into account communities of interest when redrawing boundaries. Interim boundaries are released for consultation and submission and parties can suggest minor changes around community of interest grounds that don’t breach the population tolerance.

USA

All district boundaries for the US House and State upper and lower houses are drawn by the States. Almost all states this is done by the partisan legislatures on a simple majority vote while a handful have semi-autonomous bodies somewhat akin to our Representation Commission. As each party in power at the State level seeks to gain the best electoral advantage for their party, it results in a few bizarre shaped electorates that have had boundaries drawn around communities that vote more for the party in power re-drawing the boundaries – so called gerrymandering. The party in control of state legislatures during the ten yearly post-census re-districting process can have a propound impact in some states on their chances of winning House seats.

Campaign financing

USA

Campaign financing in the US is strictly regulated by the Federal Elections Commission or FEC and all donations made by individuals or corporations to candidates must be publicly disclosed. There is a $2,600 individual donation limit per election (primary and general elections are considered separate elections) per candidate and a $32,000 limit on what individuals/corporations can donate to a party per year. There are no limits as to the amounts people or organizations can donate to PACs (Political Action Committees). While PACs are limited to donating $10,000 to individual candidates per election importantly there are no limits on other expenditures such as generic attack ads that don’t promote a particular party or candidate. Candidates for President once nominated by their respective parties can opt for Federal funds for their party’s convention costs ($18 million) and after their party’s convention, for General Election funds capped at $91 million. Candidates can choose to opt out as Obama did in 2008 and 2012 and Romney did in 2012.

New Zealand

Individuals or entities donations to parties over $15,000 must be disclosed by the party and an aggregate of donations over a 12 month period totaling $30,000 must also be disclosed. Individuals or entities can make undisclosed donations to a limit of $50,000 to the Electoral Commission and advise the Commission as to which party it is to go to. The donation limit for individuals donating to a candidate is $1,500 and candidates are restricted to expenditure of $25,700 for a General Election. There is a spending cap of $50,000 on groups or individuals arguing for a positon in Citizens Initiated Referenda. Third party groups seeking to be involved in electioneering with advertising/prompting parties or candidates spending more than $12,500 in advertising must register as a Promoter with the Electoral Commission and show the Promoter’s name and address in advertising material. There is a cap of $308,000 of expenditure by registered Promoters during what is called the regulated period (begins 90 days before the election),

Primaries

New Zealand

The only primary elections held in New Zealand are those held by the Labour Party since its 2012 Constitutional change allowing party members and unions to join with the caucus in deciding a new leader. There is no restriction on the number of candidates that can stand in an electorate seat meaning few candidates except in safe seats win over 50% of the vote.

USA

Primaries in the US are designed for General Election match ups to be a two horse race ensuring the winner gets a plurality of votes. Because the two major parties are such large board ‘churches’ encompassing conservative and liberal wings, there is intense competition within a party to win the right to be the candidate in the general election. Candidates for office compete against each other for the right to be the party’s nominee and this applies not just for President but for all levels of government from Congress down to county and city races. For races where one party has historically dominated, it is common for the opposing party to only ever have one candidate thus not requiring a primary. At the Presidential level, each state’s primary election process is used to allocate delegates for candidates at the party’s national nominating convention. Some states’ parties award these on a winner takes all basis (the Republican preference) while others allocate delegates proportionately (the Democrat preference – it was how Obama beat Clinton). There are three main ways this is done and each state decides which method is used:

Primary-a secret ballot is conducted on a date chosen by the state party (and approved by the national party) amongst approved participants. Primary voting takes place at the same polling places as general elections and is overseen by neutral county election officials. The winner is by simple plurality. Primaries can be open (any registered voter can participate), partially closed (only registered party members and independents can participate) or closed (only registered party members can vote).

Caucus-this method is only used in Presidential primaries and is only open to people registered to vote for the party holding the caucus. Caucuses are held in an evening from 630pm onwards usually at school halls in designated locations across the state. Each candidate has an advocate at each hall and promotes his/her candidate. After a few short speeches, the candidate representatives take a corner and caucus goers gather to the corner of their preferred candidate. Wooing of voters can go on for hours. The votes for each candidate are tallied and aggregated at the state level.

Jungle primary-no separate pre-general election primary is held and all candidates for all parties stand in the General Election and the two highest voting candidates (regardless of party) face off a few weeks after the general election in what is called a run-off election.

Ballot initiatives/Referenda

USA

Referenda are a frequent part of US elections. These are only held at the state, county and city level and not the federal level. Most are citizens initiated (usually requiring only 5% of registered voters certified by election officials in the jurisdiction) and others are tax or bond related as required by State law to raise sales and other taxes and to authorize the issuing of debt bonds for municipalities, state owned utilities and school districts to raise money for specified projects. Some states the results of referenda are binding on the state legislature who must then pass a law reflecting the sentiment of the passed ballot initiative and it must be signed into law by the Governor. BCIR as they are called enable the general populace of a state to ensure that popular laws vetoed by the governor of a party opposite to that controlling the state legislature can still get such measures passed into law. It is not uncommon to have upwards of 20 ballot initiatives for EACH general election.

New Zealand

NZ has CIR which is triggered when 10% of registered voters, certified by the Clerk of the House, vote to have a particular issue put on the ballot. The government of the day decides the timing of the referendum with most scheduled at the same time as a general election. As a matter of course, the results of a referendum are not binding on the government and indeed NZ governments have a tradition of ignoring the results of CIR. Other referenda are government initiated and revolve around an issue that a political party promised to put to the people. These can be indicative (as in the case of the proportional representation referendum of 1992) designed to see the people’s best choice of a range of options or binding (in the case of the MMP vs FPP referendum of 1993 that saw NZ change to MMP) where two options only are put to the vote with the government of the day committing to pass the results of the referendum into law.

Recalls

New Zealand

There is no recall provision in NZ.

USA

Various states offer voters at the state, county and city level (either Governor or lower/upper chamber) and concerning local judges the ability to challenge the result of the last election by forcing a special election seeking to oust a particular politician or judge. Recall elections arise over controversial issues that have so inflamed local voters that they are able to get sufficient voters in that jurisdiction to petition to hold a fresh election for that race only. A recall election needs to have a challenger for voters to choose from between them and the incumbent. Recall petitions can be filed by a challenger within the incumbent’s own party or opposing party. If the challenger wins the recall election then they replace the incumbent.

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