A ‘losers’ list’ for MMP?

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
22 April, 2022

At the general election in 2023, New Zealand will mark 30 years and ten elections since it adopted the Mixed-Member Proportional Representation (MMP) electoral system.

A criticism of MMP is that the party list system allows party hierarchies essentially to appoint their apparatchiks to parliament. To win a list seat, a favoured candidate need not even face an electorate, let alone do well with voters.

There is a reform that we could make to MMP that may improve democratic accountability while maintaining the proportional representation it confers. At the outset, I will say that this idea is a provocation to discussion rather than a thoroughly researched proposal.

Instead of allowing parties to construct their own lists before an election, we could wait until the votes are counted. Then, the list for each party could be made up of candidates who didn’t win a seat, in order of the proportion of the vote they gained. For example, a candidate winning 45% of the electorate vote would be ranked higher than a candidate winning 40%.

Unsuccessful candidates would be rewarded for coming close with a high ranking on the list. Of course, just as is the case with winning candidates, there’s not a straightforward relationship between the performance of candidates and the proportion of the vote they receive. Some seats lean strongly towards one party or another, whereas others are up for grabs.

Voters would vote only for local candidates. The party vote would no longer be needed. All candidates would have to face the voters of an electorate. Philosophically, this seems to sit well with our representative approach to democracy. While it’s reasonable to say that party candidates also represent voters, it’s not clear exactly which voters they represent. The party vote is just that – a vote for a party, not for a specific candidate.

This brings us to another potential advantage of this idea: Some electorates would effectively have two (or more) MPs, each representing a different party, which would create a competitive incentive for them to do a good job for their constituents.

Some New Zealanders would prefer a return to First Past the Post, and others, the adoption of the single transferrable vote system, such as that used for the Australian House of Representatives. But if we’re going to stick with MMP, perhaps it would be worth discussing the merits or otherwise of the ‘losers’ list’.

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