MMP and Tactical Voting

Keith Rankin, 19 July 1998

On Friday (17 July 1998) Kim Hill stated (on National Radio) what she thought might be "the flaw in MMP" (the Multi Member Proportional electoral system that was adopted in New Zealand by referendum in 1993); namely "tactical voting".

She's wrong. New Zealanders have inherited an English political culture which requires tactical voting. That culture is an inevitable consequence of the "first past the post" (FPP) electoral system that we grew up with.

Under FPP, more than 50% of the electorate had no effective vote. They lived in "safe seat" electorates in which the chance of the candidate of the party that held the seat being defeated were close enough to zero. The MP was simply chosen by the Party. The running joke in Palmerston North (where I grew up) was that if National selected a "gumboot" as candidate in neighbouring Pahiatua, then the gumboot would win.

For the minority in what might be called marginal or potentially marginal electorates, many voters could not afford to vote for their favoured candidate or for the candidate of their favoured party. The only way to make one's vote effective was to vote for the candidate of the party which held that seat, or (through a process of second guessing other voters intentions; a process aided in recent years by local polls) to vote for the candidate of the party which had the greatest chance of defeating the candidate of the party which held that seat.

In most cases, that meant an obligation to vote either National or Labour. "Third party" votes - always a luxury according to National and Labour candidates - were much more common in safe seats. Just occasionally a third party would defeat the odds, but usually only through a by-election when the luxury of voting for a party other than National or Labour would do no more than "warn" the Government.

The FPP process was tactical, polarising and negative. We didn't vote FOR someone or something. We simply voted AGAINST the party we feared the most by voting for the candidate of the party who was most likely to defeat that candidate. (Indeed, until the 1980s, we didn't vote "for" anyone at all; ticks and crosses were outlawed. We voted by striking out the names of all except one of the candidates. In one of the most significant cases in our political history, National rookie Winston Peters entered Parliament in mid-1979 because the ticks and crosses cast for his rival Malcolm Douglas were ruled as invalid votes. In that year National had a large majority of MPs, despite having fewer valid votes - and ever fewer total votes - than Labour got in the November 1978 election. Douglas had been an MP for about six months.) For voters, the process was tactical to the core, and created a widespread sense of cynicism.

For the two main parties, the FPP process was easy. They just selected a candidate in each electorate, and canvassed for that candidate and that party. No tactics or strategy for the parties, just for the voters who had to vote against a party rather than for one.

MMP, in its essence, creates the very opposite situation. Voting is positive. With one vote you vote for your favourite party. With the other vote you vote for your preferred local candidate, not really caring which party that candidate is from. That's all. No tactical voting is required.

Under MMP, it is the parties rather than the voters who have to think strategically (eg about signalling preferred coalition arrangements), and tactically (eg about whether to stand candidates against popular candidates from other parties).

The problem for MMP in 1996 was that - largely as a result of media beat-ups, the musings of FPP politicians, and the tactics of the subversive Act Party (Act is ambivalent about the electoral system that it depends on for its survival; see Ruth Richardson's Act) - we became bombarded with talk about "how to vote tactically under MMP". The FPP culture will take a generation to fully shake off.

The fact that New Zealanders would vote tactically was taken for granted. We always had voted tactically. One result was that this expectation became self-fulfilling. For example, as Labour leader Helen Clark noted this week, some Labour voters were conned into voting for a party other than Labour. Labour voters who voted for the centre-populist New Zealand First Party may have caused the balance of power in Parliament to favour the centre-right rather than the centre-left.

The general rule is that MMP is a voting system that gives voters two votes and allows both votes to be cast for all voters' true preferences without them being in any sense "wasted votes" as they were under FPP.

It is true that there is more "politics" under MMP. Its just that the politics takes place in Parliament and in the parties, whereas before it was the people who had to be political, and they could only be political in the sense that "political" means "tactical" rather than a contest of ideas.

No society can have democracy without politics, with "politics" here meaning the trade-offs that are required to get one's party's idea onto a platform of governance which can bring them to fruition.


There are some minor exceptions to the rule that tactical voting is a waste of time under MMP. These exceptions relate (i) to voting for good candidates of unpopular parties in situations where proportional overhang can occur (and is most likely to happen with New Zealand First in the next election), (ii) to situations where a second-choice party that may form a coalition with your favourite party is close to the 5% party threshold, (iii) to situations where a second-choice party that seems unlikely to get 5% of the vote may get an electorate MP, and (iv) to situations where your favourite party has no realistic chance of getting either 5% of the vote or an electorate MP.

Even in these exceptional cases, which should only account for a few percent of votes cast, the tactical vote is for a second choice party or candidate. MMP remains a vote for somebody and for some party. On the other hand, voting under FPP was always inherently tactical, voting against some party or against some person.


© 1998

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