Ed Hitchcock: A simple way to solve the problem of the MMP threshold

Ed Hitchcock: A simple way to solve the problem of the MMP threshold

One of the contentious parts of New Zealand’s MMP electoral system is the party vote threshold, currently set at 5%, which is a barrier to the emergence of new political parties. For those that don’t want the threshold lowered, Ed Hitchcock proposes an alternative.


The simple way to resolve the problems of the threshold is to give voters a second choice of party vote. If a voter’s first choice vote is rendered ineffective by the threshold, the vote goes to the voters second choice. This astoundingly simple solution allows the threshold to be retained, while the serious problems it can create are eliminated. We can have our cake and eat it!

What are we trying to fix?

The purpose of the MMP threshold is to limit the proliferation of small parties in parliament. It works by invalidating votes for parties that do not pass the threshold. The risk of wasting votes in this way creates ‘threshold anxiety’ which negatively influences voter and party behaviour. The threshold can also lead to cliff-edge situations. A few votes either way from the threshold can significantly change the makeup of parliament and government formation. Cliff edges can lead to major disputes over the validity of a small number of votes.

Now when a small party just misses the threshold, it is a crisis for everyone involved. The associated major party loses about 6 seats it would have won and probably loses its chance of forming a government. The small party’s voters feel robbed of their say. There is a severe chilling effect on support for small parties, and on cooperation between parties with similar potential voters.

So to the solution. Add an extra column to the party-voting paper, and instructions like:

Place a tick in the 1st choice column for your preferred party. If you wish, place a tick in the 2nd choice column for another party. This 2nd choice party will receive your vote if your 1st choice party does not qualify for seats in parliament.

People voting for smaller parties as their first choice would, as a strategy, mostly give their second choice to a party seen as certain to pass the threshold. Most of the votes for non-threshold parties, which are at present wasted, would go instead to parties that passed the threshold, so almost eliminating wasted votes.

The essential feature for keeping this system simple is that the threshold should be applied according to first choice votes. That way second choices may be allocated in a single step, voting place by voting place.

In essence you can vote for any party as your first choice. If that party does not pass the threshold, your second choice has the same constraints as the present system. If your second choice vote is not for a party that passes the threshold, it is wasted. Anything would be allowed, but the best strategy would be to choose what you like for first choice, then one of the established parties as second choice.

That means that application of the threshold has little effect on the balance of power. It also means that voters can support a growing party while it is small. If it misses the threshold, their votes probably go, via second choices, to a like-minded established party. When the growing party’s support passes the threshold, it gains its own seats in parliament.

For vote counting, the only extra work is to sort voting papers with first choice votes for non-threshold parties, according to their second choices. Results for first choices should take no longer than at present. It’s still MMP, but better.

The system is significantly more proportional than at present, probably 99% of votes would count rather than 90% at present.

Is this like STV? It may have one or two superficial similarities, but it is very different. STV is mostly used for electing individuals, often involves ranking large numbers of candidates, and involves complex allocation of preferences. The two-choice system proposed here is for party votes . It involves only one extra tick, and even that is optional.

This two-choice idea is not new. Several submissions to the 2012 MMP review made detailed proposals very much like this one, and numerous others suggested that voters be given a second choice of party vote. The final review briefly summarizes the idea, under an incorrect heading and without any evaluation. The solution proposed here improves on those from the review, by simplifying the method of allocating second choices.

But wait there’s more. The results tell us how many people voted for each combination of first and second choice, and so give very informative statistical information. They can for example help work out the likely effects of any change in threshold. They can show how voters see the possible alliances between parties. People choosing big parties for their first choice can give their second choice to another party, so showing support without helping that party into parliament. Or show true loyalty by choosing the same party twice.

Who would be the winners and losers from a change to this two-choice system? Big parties would gain greatly from the additional stability in the system. They could compete with each other without having to worry that support parties may take votes from them then waste them. This system would relieve much of the pressure to reduce or eliminate the threshold. Smaller parties would have a much more secure environment, because voters could support them without threshold anxiety. Voters can support smaller parties without the risk of wasted votes. There seems to be little downside.

If New Zealand adopts this system, it will be able to stand proud with one of the most proportional electoral systems in the world.

There is more detail on this proposed change at twochoicemmp.wordpress.com


Edward Hitchcock is a Christchurch electrical engineer at present resident in France, with interests in teaching English as a second language, and in the interface between technology and users.


This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.