Electoral quirks

Dr Matthew Birchall
Insights Newsletter
20 October, 2023

We made it – or at least, we thought we had.


After a tiring and often dispiriting election campaign, New Zealand has voted for a new centre-right government.


However, New Zealand’s electoral system means that Christopher Luxon’s ascent to the 9th Floor will be far from straight-forward.


This complexity is a by-product of a system designed to ensure accessibility to voting. For example, you don’t need to present photo ID at polling stations.


The drawback is a prolonged verification process, particularly evident in the case of ‘special votes’. These special votes will determine whether National can form a two-party coalition with Act or if they will need the support of New Zealand First.


If we take recent history as a guide, the negotiations are likely to drag on for some time, potentially until the end of November. By then, National is likely to pick up an additional seat in a by-election for Port Waikato, following the death of Act candidate Neil Christensen during the campaign.


A colleague has suggested that this lag may stimulate creative policy discussions. There is considerable merit in allowing coalition partners to test novel ideas and forge strong working relationships. It happens all the time in Belgium and the Netherlands, for example.


Yet, there is one critical rider. The parties jockeying for position in Amsterdam and Brussels do not have to wait for extended periods after the election for special votes to come in. Instead, they are able to immediately commence the policy work that will drive the next government.


By contrast, New Zealand allows special votes to be returned for ten days after an election.


The Germans do it better. There, voters wishing to vote outside their electorate or before election day can do so by post. They have many weeks to do so. But these postal ballots must then arrive by election day so they can be counted alongside in-person votes. By midnight, the final results are typically announced.


This method ensures that anyone who wants to vote can vote while also speeding up the process of declaring the final result.


More significant still are electoral quirks that can change the election outcome.


The ‘overhang’ seats are the most obvious potential culprit. If a party wins more electorate seats than the number to which its party vote would otherwise entitle it, the overall parliamentary makeup becomes less proportional. That is likely to happen this year because of Te Pāti Māori’s success in the Māori seats. To ensure proportionality, the Electoral Commission should investigate reforms to eliminate these overhang seats.


MMP is an inherently complex electoral system. If we are to persist with it, we should do all we can to make it as efficient as possible.

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