New Zealand's Method for Representing Minorities

Combining PR and "Dual Constituencies"        

Jack H. Nagel

        Observers have devoted considerable attention to New Zealand's 1993 decision to switch its parliamentary elections from the Anglo-American method of plurality voting in single-member districts to a German-style, mixed-member proportional system.
        However, many have neglected a subsidiary but strikingly original aspect of the New Zealand reform -- the provisions it includes to promote fair and effective representation for the country's indigenous Maori minority. This plan, which synthesizes mixed-member proportional with New Zealand's 128-year-old tradition of separate Maori electorates, can be abbreviated MMP-DC, for "mixed-member proportional with dual constituencies."

Disadvantages of Conventional Systems

        Before explaining the MMP-DC system and its attractions, it will be helpful to sketch the problems of minority representation in conventional electoral systems. Most national legislatures are elected either from single-member districts (using plurality or majority rule) or from multi-member districts (using a proportional or semi-proportional decision rule).
        In single-member district (SMD) systems, if group identity affects voting patterns, then the ability of a minority to elect legislators depends on its geographical distribution in relation to constituency boundaries. This creates the potential for the following disadvantages:
        • underrepresentation of geographically dispersed minorities;
        • overrepresentation of groups (minorities or majorities) that are distributed geographically in an optimally concentrated pattern;
        • increased salience of geographically-linked cleavages, which are often especially dangerous, because they are conducive to secession and civil war;
        • development by groups of a political stake in territorial segregation;
        • a strong group interest in the mapping of constituencies, which can lead to gerrymandering and other distortions.
        In the United States, court battles over constitutionality of odd-shaped "majority-minority" districts (devised to elect more nearly proportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics) dramatize the conflict between conventional single-member districts and equitable representation of minority groups.
        Because of these problems with SMD systems, it has become the conventional wisdom in comparative politics to recommend proportional representation (PR) as the best system for plural societies. Because PR and related "semi-proportional" systems use multi-member districts, parties -- acting from statesmanship or to gain votes -- can offer lists or slates that include candidates from various groups.
        If a group nonetheless considers itself underrepresented, its members can organize their own party and win a share of seats proportional to the vote they attract, once they surpass the threshold of representation. Despite this compelling logic, conventional PR systems have four potential drawbacks as devices for representing minority groups:
        • If groups are represented primarily by their own parties, then the process of political mobilization at the mass level will perpetuate and perhaps aggravate group differences. Unless such divisions are countered by accommodative norms and successful coalition-building at the elite level, the unity of the polity may be endangered.
        • A group that organizes its own party in order to achieve fair representation risks ineffectual or even dangerous political isolation, because other parties may give up hope of competing for its members' votes.
        • PR in itself offers no constitutional guarantee of representation to any minority; each group must take its chances in a political process that may be dominated by an indifferent or hostile majority.
        • Although it is usually deemed an advantage that PR offers hope of fair representation within a legal framework that treats all individuals equally, without reference to group identities, some groups may strongly desire explicit constitutional recognition of their distinctive status.

How MMP-DC Will Work

        MMP-DC has three crucial elements:
        • As in other mixed-member systems, each voter will cast two ballots -- one for a constituency representative elected by plurality from a single-member electorate and one for a national party list. Following the German compensatory principle, seats that parties win in electorates will be subtracted from their list allocations, so each party's overall representation in Parliament will be proportional to the vote for its list.

Adaptations of the New Zealand system might help solve the problems of other democracies, established or emerging, that face the problem of how to combine two or more different peoples into a unified polity on a basis of fairness and consent.

        • The single-member electorates will consist of two types of constituencies -- General and Maori. This dual-constituency (DC) feature can be visualized as a map with two overlays -- one dividing New Zealand into numerous General electorates, the other apportioning the same territory into a smaller number of geographically larger Maori electorates. Mps elected from both types of electorates will serve in the same chamber with equal rights and privileges.
        • In a process known as "the Maori option," New Zealanders of Maori descent will periodically choose whether they wish to vote on the General or Maori electoral roll. The number of Maori seats will fluctuate up or down depending on the number of people on the Maori roll, using the same population quota as determines the number of General seats.

Advantages of MMP-DC

        Compared with both standard systems of representation, the New Zealand invention of dual constituencies has significant advantages as a device for ensuring minority representation.
        (1.) MMP-DC allows separate representation to a minority that desires it -- whether negatively out of insecurity and distrust or positively to maintain a cherished distinctive identity; but it also provides a mechanism to end that separate system if -- through intermarriage, assimilation, or personal choice -- members of the minority acting as individuals no longer wish to affirm their difference by registering on the minority roll.
        (2.) Although MMP-DC offers members of the minority a distinctive status, it does not confine them to it. The General roll and seats are defined in universalistic rather than exclusive terms, and they are open to all. Thus, the voting system is fully inclusive and the state forces no one to accept an unwanted ethnic identity.
        (3.) MMP-DC offers guaranteed representation to the minority even if it is geographically dispersed.
        (4.) MMP-DC does not require the minority to form a separate political party in order to attain an assured minimum of descriptive representation; however, if enough members of the group believe that a separate party would be advantageous, that alternative is feasible because of the party-list element of the mixed-member system.
        (5.) Because it assigns the minority seats based on enrollment, MMP-DC provides a mechanism to ensure that the group's guaranteed representation is fairly proportional, thus preventing the dangers of tokenistic underrepresentation or privileged overrepresentation.
        (6.) MMP-DC promotes higher levels of voting participation among the minority group in three ways. First, if its members believe that the polity treats them fairly, they will be less alienated from politics. Second, because the number of minority seats depends on how many voters register on the separate roll, MMP-DC rewards efforts to enroll minority voters. Third, as a list-PR system, MMP-DC fosters higher turnout generally, because each party-list vote has a roughly equal chance to influence the allocation of seats and even minor parties have a chance to share legislative power. In contrast, in SMD systems, votes cast in safe districts and votes cast for minor parties have less impact.
        (7.) Finally, in what may be its most important feature, MMP-DC enables the minority to have a guaranteed level of descriptive representation without risking loss of substantive influence. The party list vote determines the overall allocation of seats among parties, and there is no distinction between the party-list votes of electors on the minority and general rolls. Therefore, all parties have an incentive to appeal to the minority for list votes, despite the segregation of their constituency votes. Thus under MMP-DC the minority can have separate representation without becoming politically marginalized. In contrast, in SMD systems, a minority that is concentrated in its own electorates (whether from residential segregation or gerrymandering) loses substantive influence over legislators from the majority group.         No matter how compelling they seem, these arguments remain theoretical until MMP-DC is tested in practice. In fact, the system is off to a rocky start, as Maori leaders have charged that the government devoted too little time and money to the first Maori option campaign, which resulted in fewer voters on the Maori roll than they had expected.
        Once this dispute is resolved, the development of Maori politics over the next decade will be a question of more than parochial interest. However, even if the new system for Maori representation proves an unqualified success in New Zealand, other plural societies cannot transplant it unless they meet three preconditions.
        (1.) There must be no constitutional barrier to giving some citizens a distinctive status on the basis of group identity.
        (2.) As a form of proportional representation based on party lists, MMP-DC does not apply to small councils, non-partisan elections or single-winner contests. It is most suitable for parliamentary systems with fairly large chambers, in which list votes can be pooled system-wide or in large-magnitude districts.
        (3.) If a polity has more than one significant minority, there must be some generally accepted way to decide who is entitled to separate representation. In New Zealand, that question is readily answered, because Maori are the indigenous people and other minorities are not yet numerous. Where
two or more substantial minorities have compelling claims, the concept might be extended to three or more sets of constituencies; but proliferation could not be carried too far without creating unworkable political and administrative complexity.
        The first two of these restrictions (and probably the third also) suggest that MMP-DC will not be applicable in the United States, which is perhaps regrettable, given our current dilemma over the gerrymandering of majority-minority Congressional districts. Nevertheless, adaptations of the New Zealand system might help solve the problems of other democracies, established or emerging, that face the problem of how to combine two or more different peoples into a unified polity on a basis of fairness and consent.

        Jack Nagel is the Daniel J. Brodsky Term Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. A former Fulbright lecturer in New Zealand, he has written on electoral reform and other aspects of democracy in that country.

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