“Coat-tailing” MPs. What’s the Problem?



We have a great MMP electoral system. It delivers proportional representation. And it gives voters a personal vote for their electorate MP as well as a party vote to choose who will govern.

But it has a problem: the five percent threshold on the Party Vote. This means, in principle, that 10 to 20 percent of votes could be wasted, if voters incline to stray from the two larger parties. The good news is that there is a solution to this problem: the electorate-seat rule (inappropriately called the “coat-tail” provision) that allows parties to avoid disqualification if a representative of that party is elected through the personal (electorate) vote.

For the electorate-seat rule to work effectively (indeed brilliantly), the main political parties, the media, and the voters need to understand the principles of effective voting. By and large, I think most voters do understand, though often they do not know that they understand.

We should not end up making decisions that we will later come to regret, simply because we are persuaded by pejorative language used by journalists skimming lightly over issues that they may not be predisposed to think through. When these kinds of issue come up, we use such language to dismiss what we think we don’t like, and we don’t even engage with the issue of whether the alternative might be better or worse.

What do voters want?

Voters want parties that will work together for the collective benefit of all New Zealanders. Thus making accommodations (“doing deals” to the cynical) to facilitate both your business (the business of governing) and your business partners should be seen as virtues rather than as wicked manipulations of the system. Acting to ensure that votes for parties you wish to govern with are not wasted is not only good for them; it’s a way of showing that you are committed to success.

Voters want to vote for their favourite party. No problem. MMP facilitates that; it’s what the party vote is for.

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It’s getting our heads around the electoral vote that’s trickier. Here we vote for a person, not a party. In almost all cases voters know who has a chance of becoming their electorate MP. And they know that, realistically, only two candidates in each electoral contest have any chance. Thus a vote for any other candidate is an intentionally wasted vote.

In Epsom this year, all voters, whatever their party affiliations, should vote for either David Seymour or Paul Goldsmith if they want their vote to contribute to the electorate contest. Because of the wider political circumstances, people wanting a National-led government should vote for Seymour. And all people in Epsom wanting a Labour-led government will want Act party votes to be wasted, so they should vote for Goldsmith.

Likewise, in all other electorates where the leaders of the parties in (or wanting to be in) the present governing coalition (using the term ‘coalition’ in its loose New Zealand sense) are standing. Wherever Te Ururoa Flavell, Peter Dunne, or Colin Craig are standing, supporters of the present government should support those candidates. And opponents of the present government should vote for the only other candidate who can win.

The matter of accommodation is no more than the leaders of National or Labour gently reminding their voters to (i) vote for National or Labour, and (ii) vote for the candidate in your electorate whose success will do the most to achieve a National-led or Labour-led government. (We must always remind ourselves – and especially remind the media – that the electorate vote is a vote between candidates [eg between Seymour and Goldsmith] and not a vote between parties. No National Party supporter in Epsom is being asked to vote for Act. However, it is in the interests of such a supporter to vote for Seymour over Goldsmith in the electorate (ie non-party) vote.

What about 2017?

While it’s looking unlikely at the moment, let’s assume we get a Labour-led government this September. This would most likely mean a coalition with Green, NZ First, Internet Mana and possibly Maori. It would also mean that Green, NZ First and Internet Mana would all inevitably lose support between 2014 and 2017. (Poor Nick Clegg in the UK. His party has become so unpopular for simply doing what they had to do; form a government with the only bigger party with enough votes.)

Should David Cunliffe act to ensure that Green, NZ First and Internet Mana votes are not wasted? Of course he should, and for two reasons. First, the wasting (or not) of those votes could easily determine whether Mr Cunliffe gets a second term as Prime Minister. Second, by dropping big hints that Labour voters should vote Norman, Peters and Harawira in the electorates that these leaders stand in should be seen as itself part of a process of coalition-building, as well as simply doing the right thing by those who have stood with him, and taken plenty of knocks in the process.

Now, let’s imagine that the electorate-seat non-disqualification rule is abolished by a Cunliffe-led government. Would Cunliffe be expected to stand idly by as those three parties looked to fall below the 5% or 4% threshold in the party vote? Could Cunliffe afford to lose those votes? Of course not.

What would happen is that parties like Labour would have to find other ways of ensuring that their partner parties’ votes count. The most obvious way would be to drop hints that people towards the left of Labour should consider giving Internet Mana their party vote. Labour’s present ‘vote Labour’ message would then be severely compromised.

Basically, if you change the rules to increase the proportion of party votes that are wasted, then the need to do “deals” with a nod and a wink is increased, not decreased.

1-2-3 Voting

If we did, perchance, abolish the electorate-rule seat, then there is an alternative rule that could eliminate the problems that people say they don’t like about “coat-tailing”. This alternative also eliminates the problem of wasted votes that the 5% threshold on party vote creates.

Essentially, it would be to introduce preferential party voting.

First, we should note that people find different voting systems – eg in local body elections – confusing. A process of 1-2-3 voting could be applied to any voting system: MMP, STV, FPP, SM or whatever.

1-2-3 voting is to simply choose three candidates or parties in order of preference. In the Epsom electorate poll, a Green voter might choose Genter (1), Wood (2), Goldsmith (3). That would ensure that, after the elimination of Genter and Wood, the vote would count for Goldsmith over Seymour.

We still use FPP (‘first past the post’ voting) in electorates (such as Epsom), and in most mayoral contests. And we use a kind of multiple FPP system in most council elections. FPP works as a kind of DIY (do-it-yourself) preferential system. Voters knowing that Genter and Wood will not be elected simply skip to the chase, and vote for Goldsmith. It’s an inefficient form of preferential voting, though.

In some local elections we use STV. That means we already number candidates in order of preference. Here 1-2-3 voting is a minor simplification, and still gets the correct result. Further restricting to 3 choices eliminates those snide comments about STV, about having to number every single candidate.

It is in MMP that the 1-2-3 system could work a treat. MMP is really all about the party vote. The electorate vote is an FPP side-dish.

What say we could choose three parties, in order of preference? Then we could freely give a 1 to NZ First (if that really is our choice!) without worrying about our vote being wasted if NZ First didn’t get 5% of the 1-votes. We could give our number 2 vote to Internet Mana. And our number 3 vote to Labour. Thus, in the event of NZ First or Internet Mana falling foul of the 5% threshold, our vote would still count for a Labour-led government.


The campaign against the electorate-seat rule is a campaign of cynicism rather than of substance. Those opposing what they for rhetorical reasons choose to call “coat-tailing” have not addressed the issue of how parties would show loyalty towards their partner parties. The present electorate seat rule substantially offsets the problems created by the party-vote threshold. 1-2-3 voting (with the party-vote threshold still in place) would achieve the same ends as the electorate-seat rule, and in a more efficient way, without the need for party leaders to give the occasional nod or wink.


  1. Firstly, let’s deal with the wasted votes. These are a real problem and Keith’s 1-2-3 idea for the party vote addresses that very neatly – he says that should apply to the electorate vote as well and I completely agree. It’s simple, intuitive and the end result is very likely to fulfill the voters’ intentions.

    However, on the issue of the electorate-seat rule (carefully eschewing the cynical rhetorical term “coat-tailing”) I disagree completely.

    The campaign against the electorate-seat rule is a campaign of cynicism rather than of substance. Those opposing what they for rhetorical reasons choose to call “coat-tailing” have not addressed the issue of how parties would show loyalty towards their partner parties.

    This is novel: the voting system should accommodate the support of inter-party loyalty. How about the partner parties just don’t slag each other off on the hustings and we don’t add artifice into the voting system?

    Here’s the substance of why the electorate-rule is a bad idea.

    But firstly let’s deal with this bit of sophistry.
    It’s getting our heads around the electoral vote that’s trickier. Here we vote for a person, not a party. In almost all cases voters know who has a chance of becoming their electorate MP.

    1. “In almost all cases voters know who has a chance of becoming their electorate MP.” I’d like to see the research that backs this up. In my experience voters are woefully ignorant – that might surprise a political economist who lives and breathes this stuff but Joe and Jane Public can probably tell you more about the status of Kardashian breast augmentation than the intricacies of vote splitting. (I don’t have the research to back that up either but I have been looking into it.)
    2. “We vote for a person not a party.” I seriously need to see the research behind that. In my electorate I won’t be voting for my preferred person, I’ll be voting for the party that best supports my overall intention. I find that candidate’s profession repugnant but he’ll get my vote for the party he represents.
    3. Let’s assume you’re right that the electorate vote is “for a person not a party”. Then quite clearly the electorate vote part of the ballot paper should only include the candidates names and not their parties.
    4. Do you seriously want us to believe that John Key wanted Epsom to vote for Banks because he was the best bloke for the electorate or he wanted them to vote for the Act party in the hope of bringing in another seat?

    In summary, I don’t buy “Here we vote for a person, not a party.”

    The electorate-seat rule must go for the following reasons.
    1. It’s inequitable. Voters in some electorates (e.g. Epsom, Te Tai Tokerau) effectively get the opportunity to have two party votes, their electorate vote has the capacity to trigger the party threshold. It doesn’t square with the principle of “one person, one vote” which is the at the core of our democracy.
    2. It can be completely counter-intuitive. In Epsom, Labour voters should vote National but if you live on the other side of Mt Eden Rd you should do the opposite.
    The Electorate Commission was very proud of its public “two ticks” education campaign when their follow-up survey showed that 80% of the electorate grasped that the party vote was more important. So what percentage gets tactical voting – vote splitting? What percentage would vote for the opposite party to their own in the electorate vote? I’d really like to see the research on this – until then, I have no confidence that the voter returns actually reflect the voters’ intentions.

    In conclusion, the electorate-seat rule is substantially flawed; it’s inequitable and counter-intuitive. The retention of it perpetuates a cynical gerrymander. The 1-2-3 voting proposal for party votes neatly addresses the wasted votes issue and would provide a fairer system for electorate seat voting also.

  2. Thanks Keith .

    That article sure makes a lot of sense let hope something good comes out of the next election.

  3. I still absolutely believe that the whole coat-tailing thing should go. If I were, say, a National voter (fat chance) and living in say, East Coast Bays and dear leader decided to pull Murray McCully so that Colon Chemtrails could get a free run, I would be highly pissed off, if I was kind of being forced to vote for him as there is no longer a National candidate to vote for and more especially, one that I had voted for a number of elections. Frankly, I think that would be the only way he could defeat a sitting well known MP. And it is the only way to get a few more seats that will be on the side of the party that has bowed out, given that the likes of Mr Chemtrails is highly unlikely to record 5% throughout the whole country
    That is why I believe coat-tailing must go and the threshold be lowered a bit.
    A number of people during the MMP review also wanted to remove the ability for electoral candidates to not be able to appear on the list, that one I would say is one of the best things about MMP. It means that parties can stand good candidates in “safe” seats and we can have a proper ding dong battle for them, such as in Auckland Central. That is much more honest.
    Nothing, not even the advent of the new left will convince me otherwise, as it means that in some electorates, people do not get a fair choice of who they can vote for.

    • Raegun, I don’t see any justification in your reasoning, because I don’t agree with your so called ‘proper ding dong battle’ … ‘being more honest’.
      Why do you think that someone like me in Chch central is experiencing a better form of democracy than your hypothetical East Coast Bays scenario?
      Is my electoral seat less honest because I have to vote for a Labour candidate just to keep Wagner out? I don’t like Labour – their policies offer me nothing more than a bleak, dark future.
      But in the end who gives a shit? I vote on the shitty choices that are offered to me by our political environment. Only MANA’s housing policies (and maybe the Greens to a degree) can help my electorate, but we have to vote for the local Labour candidate thanks to our political environment (not system).
      If Key drops McCully and lets Craig have a free run then it is up to Labour to combat this with their strategy. If Labour can’t persuade voters to vote against a National/Chemtrail coalition then how can Labour blame the MMP system?
      If I lost an election to Colin Craig then I would quit politics…mind you, if I was any of the deadwood in Labour, I would have quit politics 20 years ago

      • You can still vote for whoever you like in your electorate, if he or she has limited appeal then clearly he or she will not win a seat, however, in case it is news to you, it is the party vote that is the most important one.
        You may have also missed that I said I would like to see the party vote threshold be lowered a bit and that would compensate for losing the whole coat tailing rort.
        As it stands whether you or I like it or not, there are basically 2 major parties, with a few influential minor ones and a few fringe ones.
        If you back fringe parties then you really do have to accept that until such times as their policies become more liked by more people that they will have representation proportional to their popularity. That is called democracy and it may be due a major shake up, but like shampoo it won’t happen overnight, unless you want to take up arms.
        Sorry you don’t like it but I think the whole John Banks/Peter Dunne thing sucks, and the time that ACT had several MPs when the country as a whole barely voted for them while NZ First who had, in reality, a heap more votes had none, put me off coat tailing altogether and forever

        • “You can still vote for whoever you like in your electorate, if he or she has limited appeal then clearly he or she will not win a seat, however, in case it is news to you, it is the party vote that is the most important one.”

          Saying that the party vote is the most important implies that it is necessary to maintain proportionality in the makeup of parliament. To accomplish this two things are necessary:
          Retain coat-tailing
          Eliminate any overhang

          The first is obvious enough, but the second would have to involve, where an overhang exists, taking sufficient electorate away from the parties concerned to bring the number of seats that they won into line with their entitlements as per the party vote. For example, in 2011 the Maori party, with 1.4% of the vote would have held onto only two seats instead of five; and Peter Dunne may have been forced out of parliament altogether if the 0.6% of the vote, obtained by United Future, had turned out to be insufficient, under the St Lague rules, to maintain a hold on one seat. This arrangement would not be as undemocratic as it seems however. Would it have mattered if Charles Chauvel rather than Peter Dunne had become the MP for Ohariu rather even though the former scored fewer votes than the latter. Chauvel was entering parliament anyway as a list MP, and even had that not been the case his entry as an electorate MP would simply have meant that Labour’s entitlement to list seats would have been reduced by one.

        • “You can still vote for whoever you like in your electorate”

          Yeah, but no more so than your hypothetical electorate which has been altered. Chch central has either Labour or National to vote for, both of which will not solve our housing problems.

          “I said I would like to see the party vote threshold be lowered a bit and that would compensate for losing the whole coat tailing rort”

          Yeah, I saw that. I’m keen to get rid of coat-tailing if we are dropping the threshold to 2%…but you didn’t say that. Just calling for a lower threshold will result in it being lowered to 4%. Good luck getting smaller parties in over 4%…do you know how many parties have got between 4-5% since MMP was introduced?

  4. is not the obvious/simple solution to end coat-tailing..

    ..and to halve the needed votes to 2.5%..?

    ..if key had agreed to lower the limit..

    ..it would have helped his bereft coalition options..

    ..and would have meant the internet/mana parties wd have had no need to work together..

    ..hasn’t that bitten key on the arse..?

  5. I have to admit I have not read all the article because to me it was unreadable. I am asked to believe that doing deals is OK because the result justifies the means and that somehow this is a ‘moral’ stance. Further that to vote for the party you want is stupid if it leads to wasted votes.
    In my opinion no vote is wasted if it truly reflects your preference. A vote is certainly wasted if you are persuaded to vote for a party you dont like.
    In my case my present wish is to vote Democrats for Social Credit because only they will stop the private banks from printing our money supply as debt, which is destroying our country. If the Internet/Mana Party adopted that policy, and it is still possible that they might, then I would vote for them because they will have seats in Parliament whereas, barring miracles, the Democrats wont.
    I am not interested in voting for any other party because without that monetary reform other important reforms cant be financed. As far as I am concerned all other votes are wasted because they cant produce a useful outcome. If others want to waste their votes, that’s their problem, not mine.
    Voting is not a horse race. You dont get a prize for winning. All you will get is more of National or Labour. Some prize! Politicians cant understand why voters are sick of modern politics. The mentality of this article is exactly why.

  6. You make some good arguments and your logic is clear.
    I believe that the “coat-tail” provision (for want of a better word) was put into MMP for the right reason, and that was to allow smaller parties a chance of fairer representation (remember how Social Credit polled well over 10% in some elections and failed to win a single seat). However, the politicos on all sides have figured out how to manipulate this provision by doing secret and not-so-secret deals to put up patsy candidates and allow their partners an easy win (remember how anti-MMP campaigners used to describe them as “smoky backroom deals”, they actually had a valid point didn’t they?).
    The real thing about the coat-tail provision is like any other electoral provision, if it produces an MP you like then you have no problem with it, if it produces an MP or MPs that you hate then you loathe it. In other words, it is difficult to analyse it without some political prejudice creeping in somewhere so agreement is extremely unlikely.
    Should it be abolished? Personally, I would like to see it go because it no longer does what it was originally meant to do, but only if the threshold is reduced at the same time, my suggestion is to reduce it to 4% which I think the Electoral Commission also recommended.
    I don’t think anything will change on this provision unless enough people demand it through a citizens initiated referendum and I don’t think this is likely in the short-term.
    However your points are well made and it is certainly true that cynicism is a major problem when discussing this matter. Perhaps that is a deliberate tactic by the two main political parties who still do not really like MMP and are happy to make it so unpalatable that the people demand a return to the “good old days” of FPP.

  7. Do voters realise they can Party Vote and ABSTAIN from the Electorate Vote if they are pissed off with cuppatea deals in Epsom, Ohariu, East Coast Bays?

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