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The 2020 NZ election saw a big swing in voting patterns, that's a good thing

Willingness to change how we vote helps keep politicians accountable

This article is more for New Zealand (NZ) readers. On NZ election day we saw a massive swing to the left with Labour picking up 49.1% of the vote compared to National’s 26.8%. A far cry from the 2017 election where Labour won 36.9% of the vote compared to National’s 44.4%.

One of the most impressive aspects of the 2020 election was the swing in how people voted. It’s fantastic to see so many swing voters as it signals an open-mindedness that is refreshing in this day and age where polarisation is common. The swing in votes from National to Labour suggests people can change their minds and won’t just vote for the same party each time. It's critical that politicians feel like they need to keep doing better to help the country and keep their jobs - a willingness to vote differently and oust underperformers supports this.

There is a suggestion that some National supporters voted Labour to avoid a Labour-Greens coalition. However, evidence of this is limited with voting being confidential, and the swing was so pronounced it doesn't matter. Labour’s success in quashing COVID-19 is surely a more important factor, as well as Jacinda Ardern’s popularity. The graph below highlights this swing in voting in 2020 between Labour and National - Labour's best result since Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting began in 1996.

The disappointing thing (for me at least, who lost terribly on election night) was that the swing in votes occurred primarily between the two major parties. Of course, the Act party picked up 8% of the vote, a large jump compared to its 2017 result of 0.5%. That's some real swing. Perhaps they picked up some votes from unsettled National supporters. However, it doesn’t change the reality that minor parties only picked up about a quarter of the vote, and even less in terms of seats in parliament.

After votes above the 5% threshold were counted minor parties only won 21 seats in parliament. 10 for Act, 10 for Greens and 1 for the Māori Party. That's only 17% of the seats in parliament. Overall it appears as if votes for minor parties are trending downward, however, it's pretty volatile and we may need more data. The graph below of the elections since 1996 when MMP began tells the tale.

Graph of election results in New Zealand

The relatively high voter turnout was also impressive. Though not as high as the 1970s and 80s, the 82.5% turnout was the highest since 2002. More people getting out and voting is a sign of a healthy democracy, and (I hope) interest in the political system. I’m sure early voting helped with the voting window running from 3 October to 17 October. It’s critical that we explore new ways to get more people to vote.

NZ democracy is encouraging when democracy appears to be compromised in the "Land of the Free"

It feels like we are watching the demise of democracy in the United States (US) before our very eyes. To rapidly sum up:

  • Terrible polarisation makes it hard to compromise and enact policy.

  • Voters are less likely to change their minds - estimates suggest less than 10% of US voters are swing voters, down from 18% between the 1950s-1990s. Though perhaps that's more because of the parties rather than the voters themselves.

  • Voter suppression appears to be a deliberate Republican strategy with Texas Governor Greg Abbott closing voting sites to deter potential non-Republican voters, under the guise of avoiding voter fraud.

  • Trump is a regrettably gifted demagogue more interest in tweeting and picking fights than being a decent President. Who would have thought the US could elect a bully four years ago?

  • Lobbyists have massive influence and more sway than the actual voters with money being a core requirement to get policy passed.

If political representation is compromised societal breakdown seems more likely. The importance of a strong democracy to a healthy, cohesive society cannot be understated.

Of course, it's not all rosy in NZ either. Voter turnout in low socio-economic groups and in Māori electorates, in particular, is low compared to the rest of NZ. Labour, despite being excellent in a crisis, doesn't appear to have a handle on solving large-scale issues like housing affordability - which would take a generation anyway. Kiwis aren't necessarily properly informed before turning up to the booth either.

Lowering the vote threshold to get into parliament would support minor party representation

Personally, I'd love to see the vote threshold to get into parliament in NZ drop from 5% to around 3-4%. That would give minor parties a better shot of getting into parliament, and give more voters a chance to have their views represented. Voting for the minor parties is often described as a 'wasted vote' because it is unlikely they will get in. Lowering the threshold could help. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if people don't vote for minor parties because they have inadequate support to get in, so people don't vote for them etc. so the cycle goes. Voting for someone you don't properly support feels like more of a waste. Don't overthink it.

The right vote threshold for minor parties is a tough balancing act. On the one hand, we need to ensure adequate representation, but on the other, it's important to keep the crazies out of parliament. Parties like The Opportunities Party (TOP) have a lot to offer but they don't get enough of a voice in the current system that sets a very high benchmark to get into parliament.

Congratulations Labour. Hope to see you at the voting booth in 2023 NZ.


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