As a guest of The Electoral Reform Coalition, I toured New Zealand in September. In talking with New Zealanders from across the political spectrum and following the heated campaign closely, I found that "Mixed Member Proportional" (MMP) could be a sensible plan for other First-Past-the-Post (FPP) democracies whose political culture is founded on winner-take-all elections in single-member districts.
Some of MMP's advantages include:
Maintaining political culture: With its district seats, MMP maintains both FPP's geographic representation and essential two-party culture. In fact, voters may get improved constituency representation, as parties have a self-interest in having legislators elected on party lists to serve constituencies won by other parties. With MMP, the people of an area that has been dominated by one party for years almost certainly will have legislators from other parties spending more time in their community.
Increasing accountability of major parties: With the second party vote, MMP provides a logical way for voters to choose a national government. Rather than be torn between voting for a representative based on constituency issues or based on national party affiliation, MMP allows voters to vote directly on these two issues, thereby increasing the accountability of the government that is elected by the second vote.
Furthermore, by giving voters more credible choices, the proportional second vote forces the major parties to acknowledge the interests of any sizable group of voters in order to maintain their support. Thus, the German Green party was able to pressure the major German parties to adopt improved ecological policies that had majority support.
Compensation for distortions: The compensatory nature of party list seat allocation has two important benefits. First, it prevents distortions in the results that could allow a minority of voters to elect an artificial majority, a common problem in FPP elections. No New Zealand government had won a majority of the popular vote since 1951. This year's government was elected with 35% of the vote, and, as in several past elections, the shift of a few hundred votes would have elected the other major party.
Second, the second vote undercuts any attempts to gerrymander the single-member district seats: a party could win more district seats than it deserves, but as a result simply will get fewer party list seats.
Fair representation: Although party lists are new to FPP nations -- New Zealand is the first English-speaking democracy from the FPP tradition to adopt a party list PR system rather than preference voting -- lists have definite advantages for fair representation. Because parties must be responsive to more parts of the electorate to win voter support, their lists have to be more representative of the population than current candidates.
Lists help elect more women, for example, and in general will include more candidates who strongly appeal to voters who seek representation based on what they think rather than where they live.
Continuity in policy: With MMP, governments usually will be formed by a coalition of parties. Such coalition governments are the norm in European democracies, which demonstrate coalition governments' usual stability. One reason for this stability is that a party will be unlikely to win a majority of seats without a majority of votes. Massive changes in policy -- like the swings in Great Britain from nationalization to de-nationalization that took place in the decades after World War II as a result of the British winner-take-all system -- are unlikely to happen unless a majority of voters in fact want such a complete change. Incremental change that has solid voter support is more likely, which provides for greater opportunities for long-range planning and greater public faith in government actions.
This year marks a worldwide trend toward MMP-type systems. The lively New Zealand debate and the subsequent choice by voters to endorse MMP indicates the sensible reasons for this trend.
Cynthia Terrell is Vice-President of The Center for Voting and Democracy. A version of this article appeared in The New Zealand Herald, the country's largest newspaper.
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