Here's the entry I don't want to write. It asks a simple question: are
citizens happier with MMP than they would be with FPTP?
As usual, I offer a long and complicated answer, focussing on three
situations: the world at large (courtesy of Arend Lijphardt's
well-known research), New Zealand (one of the few democracies that has
made an explicit transition from FPTP to MMP), and Wales and Scotland
(both of which use FPTP nationally, but adopted MMP when devolution
came into effect in 1999).
The Fair Vote freaks like to point to Arend Lijphardt's 1999 book
Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Patterns in Thirty-Six
Countries, which compared so-called "majoritarian"
and "consensus" democracies. I still have not been able to get my
grubby hands on a copy of Lijphardt's book, so like many others I have
been depending on
prepared by Fair Vote Canada.
The summary highlights a number of findings, all of which just happen
to favour proportional representation. Among the most interesting for
me: a study which found that citizens in consensus (more proportional)
systems rated satisfaction with democracy much higher than those in
majoritarian democracies (p. 3). Lijphart also reports that those
who voted for "losers" in consensus democracies tended to be more
satisfied with democracy than their counterparts in majoritarian
Other papers I have read support this idea that proportional systems
result in governments that are more in tune to voter wishes. A
(somewhat sketchy) paper by Bengtsson (Bengtsson 2005) looks only at
proportional and semi-proportional systems, and finds that voters
appear to rate inclusiveness (characterized by proportionality) over
accountability (characterized by single-party governments) when
ranking the efficacy of governments.
In contrast, a paper by Blais and Bodet (Blais Bodet 2003) finds that
proportional systems are no better and no worse than majoritarian
systems in electing governments that reflect voter views: in
majoritarian systems like FPTP, all parties tend to be centrist, so
they start out not that different from the median voter. In
proportional systems the parties that form government tend to come
from a wider distribution, but on average they reflect the views of
the median voter well. (Again, I find this paper sketchy because it
assumes that only the median voter matters, without taking into
account distribution of voter views.)
Overall, the cross-country literature seems to indicate that
governments in proportional systems tend to be more responsive to
their voters, and that voters feel they are happier with democracy
So far so good, but the picture gets a lot less rosy when we focus on
New Zealand's public perceptions.
New Zealand adopted MMP in two stages. In 1992 the government held a
referendum which asked voters two questions: whether they wanted to
replace FPTP, and which of four alternatives they preferred the most:
MMP, Single Transferable Vote (STV), a parallel system, or Alternative
Vote (AV). 84.5% of voters recommended replacing FPTP, and 65% chose
MMP as their favourite system. In 1993 the government held a second
referendum which pitted FPTP against MMP directly. MMP again proved
victorious, but this time only 54% of voters selected it over FPTP.
It appears that MMP continued being more popular than FPTP until the
first election under MMP, held in October 1996. This marked the first
rocky and unpopular National-New Zealand First coalition. From late
1996 to 1999, MMP lost its favoured position: support for MMP hovered
around 30%, while about 50% of those polled favoured FPTP instead.
(Karp Bowler 2001, p. 24). Although I have not been able to access
consistent polling data since then, a few snapshots indicate that
support for MMP has remained low since then.
A 2001 government inquiry into MMP examined voter attitudes into MMP
in some depth. It found that opinions towards MMP have been volatile:
when politics is going smoothly support for the voting system goes up,
and when governments get into trouble (as they did in 1997 and 1998
when the National-New Zealand First coalition was breaking apart)
people tend to despise the voting system.
Two sets of polls conducted in 2000 and February 2001 show some of
this volatility. In 2000 27% of respondents had a positive view of MMP
and 44% had a negative view; by 2001 this had eased slightly to 32%
positive and 43% negative. The committee also found that FPTP was
ranked higher than MMP in all but one survey survey from late 1996 to
2001. The exception was in December 1999, when MMP was preferred to
FPTP by a margin of 45% to 43%. In contrast, support for FPTP vs. MMP
has been as high as 59% to 29% in November 1998. (MMP Review Committee
2001, p. 77).
The latest snapshot I have found comes from the 2006 paper from
Vowles, Banducci and Karp that I cite incessently. They say that
MMP was favoured by a "small majority" after the 2002 elections, which
suggests that a majority of citizens did not support MMP before or
since. (Vowles Banducci Karp 2006, p. 282)
Case closed, right? Certainly, I was not very happy to learn these
results, and I am sure my friends on the NoMMP side will be all over
these numbers if they bother reading this blog post.
In fact, I think there may be more to this story. Even people who
support FPTP over MMP don't advocate ditching MMP entirely. In the
February 2001 set of polling, respondents were asked whether they
should leave MMP as-is, whether they should keep the basic structure
but make some changes to how MMP operates, or whether they should
change to another electoral system altogether. Here are the results
(MMP Review Committee 2001, p. 78):
|Stay with MMP as-is
|Make some changes
|Switch to another system
Some caveats: the paper did not include some numbers, and the authors
noted that some of the ways in which people would have "modified" MMP
were infeasible (such as eliminating list MPs). However, this does
demonstrate that support for FPTP (or hatred of MMP) is not as
clear-cut as it may appear.
One striking example of this comes from the National party, which
has not formed a successful government under MMP and for the most part
despises it. The National party wants to hold another referendum on
electoral reform, but they do not recommend a return to FPTP: rather,
they propose using a parallel system instead. (Vowles Banducci Karp
2006, p. 282)
Even more striking is the following statement from Brian Nicholle, who
was campaign manager for the pro-FPTP side in the 1993 referendum
Ten years on since the first MMP election on October
12, 1996, it's time that the people had the chance again to vote in a
referendum to either retain or reject MMP.
FPP is a relic of the command and control economy but the SM
(Supplementary system) which contains a measure of proportionality
combined with FPP) would be the system to go head to head with MMP in
Even the campaign manager who defended FPTP in 1993 is willing to call
that system "a relic of the command and control economy", and to
advocate a "supplementary system" (which I am pretty sure is a
parallel system, aka MMM) in its place.
Why? I think the reason is simple: New Zealand voters like some
aspects of MMP, even if they dislike the system as a whole. When
polled for the 2001 review, lots of New Zealanders felt that MMP had
been successful at getting more women into power (50% felt it had been
successful as compared to 17% who felt it was unsuccessful), getting
more Maori into power (49% successful, 18% unsuccessful), and creating
a parliament that was more representative of all New Zealanders (45%
successful, 27% unsuccessful). (MMP Review Committee 2001, p. 80)
Similarly, New Zealanders seemed to appreciate the increased choice of
the new system. 62% agreed that MMP made it easier to vote for the
best local candidate in a riding (vs. 19% disagreeing) and 54% agreed
that it gave voters more options (vs. 21% disagreeing). (ibid, p. 83)
Given this taste of increased representation and choice, it should
come as no surprise that even MMP opponents like Brian Nicholle
propose a system that keeps some elements of voter choice (albeit
diluting it considerably).
There is another intriguing aspect to the New Zealand experience: even
though support for the proportional effects of MMP remains low,
overall citizen attitudes towards their government appear to be
improving. Take a look at the following NZES data, reproduced
from (Vowles Banducci Karp 2006, p. 278). The table shows some
statements about democracy and government, and then the percentages of
people who agreed with that statement each year:
|MPs out of touch
|People like me have no say
|Politicians do not care what people think
|Government run by a few big interests
|Satisfaction with democracy
|Trust government to do what is right
|Trust in a political party (**)
|Trust in the Labour Party
(**) Trust in a political party was gauged by asking the question
"Would you describe $party as trustworthy or untrustworthy?" where
$party took the value of established political parties in turn. The
set of parties varied from survey to survey -- it looks like they
asked the question for all parties that won seats.
There is no question that this data is frustrating in many ways. All
but the 1998 and 2001 data were collected immediately following an
election, when election results (and the associated campaigning) is
fresh in people's minds.
Some of the missing data is
infuriating (why wasn't satisfaction with democracy recorded for
1993?!), but maybe most importantly this snapshot does not include
enough years worth of data. I personally crave more data from the
pre-1993 era -- 1993 in particular represents a high point of
dissatisfaction with FPTP, since the referendum pitting MMP against
FPTO was held that year. In particular, I wish available data
stretched back to the mid 1970s or earlier, since New Zealand
experienced its first of two second-place majorities in 1978.
Accepting these severe limitations, I still believe we can draw a few
conclusions from this data. Firstly, public attitudes in certain areas
are volatile, and tend to change with current events. Overall
satisfaction with democracy tends to go up and down, as do public
attitudes towards their MPs.
The responses on other questions may indicate more stable trends. I
find it interesting that three of the most clear trends have to do
with questions related to government responsiveness: the "people like
me have no say", "politicians do not care what people like me think"
and "government is run by a few big interests" questions. I would like
to assign credit for these improved attitudes to MMP, but there are
many other possible explanations: the Labour government that won the
election in 1999 remained fairly popular throughout the polling
period (and won re-election in 2005); and the economy was pretty good
throughout this period. When governments face fiscal crises and have
to cut services and jobs, I am willing to bet that citizen impressions
of government responsiveness declines dramatically.
If nothing else, we might say that citizen satisfaction with democracy
is improving despite MMP. However, I would like to believe that MMP
has contributed to these improved perceptions, even as citizens
dislike MMP by name.
The 2001 review suggests
that citizens do acknowledge that proportional representation leads to
more responsive governments, and although limited the table above does
suggest some upward trend.
Scotland and Wales
Determining how happy the Scots and Welsh have been with their
regional voting systems has been tough. Scotland and Wales are not
considered their own countries, so they are not included in
international survey data. Furthermore, Scotland and Wales did not
move from FPTP to MMP; they introduced MMP right off the bat with
their regionalized government.
However, some survey data is available, and both the Scots
and Welsh have familiarity with different kinds of voting -- both
locations suffer from several levels of government elected in
different ways. For example, Scotland uses STV for municipal
elections, MMP for Scottish Parliament, FPTP for the UK parliament,
and list PR for European Union elections.
This gives us a rough means of gauging how much the Scots and Welsh
approve of MMP as compared to FPTP: given their experience with
proportional representation, ask the people whether they would switch
other institutions over. The Arbuthnott Commission reported on this
issue using data from the 2003 "Scottish Social Attitudes" survey.
The Scots were asked whether the UK should introduce proportional
representation for the UK House of Commons, which uses FPTP now. Over
50% (it's hard to tell from the provided graph, but it looks like
about 53%) agreed that the UK house should move to some form of PR. A
little less than 30% felt neutral, and only 10% strongly disagreed.
(Arbuthnott 2006, p. 7)
None of this directly comments on Scottish views of MMP, but if Scots
were deeply unhappy with their proportional voting system you might
expect the percentage of people resisting change for the UK house to
The Richard Commission in Wales reviewed MMP for that region. In
addition to asking whether the UK parliament should be elected via PR,
it also asked the question for local government and for the National
Assembly of Wales itself. Here are the results (Richard Commission 2004, p. 42):
||National Assembly of Wales
||Local (municipal) Goverment
|Strongly Agree + Agree
|Neither Agree nor Disagree
|Strongly Disagree + Disagree
The trend is pretty clear: the Welsh appear to have a
good deal of soft support (and some strong support) for PR across the
board. To the degree that the Welsh are aware of their MMP system
(which, as I have noted before [URL], appears to be limited) it seems
they are reasonably happy with proportional representation.
My thinking is that if the Welsh and Scots were as acutely aware of
their voting system as New Zealanders appear to be, these numbers
could be drastically different. But as it stands these two countries
demonstrate that MMP needn't be a public relations disaster.
Finding good data about public attitudes towards democratic
has proven to be surprisingly difficult (and I would appreciate any
pointers you have).
The good news is
that political scientists do care about studying voter attitudes
towards politics. The bad news is that data for the countries I care
about tends to be missing and inaccessible.
Many countries participate in a standard survey, and those results are
supposed to be compiled into a dataset called the Comparative
Study of Electoral Systems (CSES). As it appears some raw data in this
set can be had free of charge (albeit with registration), a
responsible blogger would have downloaded the data, figured out how to
read the SPSS format, and run some analysis on long-term trends of
voter satisfaction in FPTP vs MMP systems. Unfortunately, in addition
to being irresponsible I am also incompetent, and I doubt I will get
around to this task by the end of the campaign. However, if somebody
else wants to carry out some of this analysis I think it could be
useful and interesting.
One rationalization I used for my laziness is that the Canadian
component of the CSES data seems to be poor. The only survey that
appears to be present is from 1997, which is pathetic given that it
looks like the Canadian group
has been collecting data after
every federal election. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find
downloadable datasets from the Canadian group online, although it
might be available on request.
The New Zealand Electoral Studies (NZES) folks
publish their data, but I did not look at it directly. Rather, I have
relied on several academic papers that summarize the data nicely.
I sincerely hope that similar data has been collected in Ontario; if
we do adopt MMP I expect there will be a rich publishing niche in
comparing pre-MMP attitudes to post-MMP ones.
For Scotland and Wales available data is even more piecemeal. There is
a set of surveys known as the "Scottish Social Attitudes" surveys
which apparently asks some questions about citizen attitudes towards
democracy. For Wales the Richard report lists four possible survey
sources: a 1997 Welsh Referendum Study, a 1999 Welsh Election Study, a
2001 Wales Life and Times Study, and a 2003 Wales Life and Times
study. I have not tracked any of these sources down. It looks like
they may be summarized in a paper by Scully and Wyn Jones (Scully Wyn
Overall, I have found the UK Electoral Commission
to be a good source of information.
(Arbuthnott 2006) Commission on Boundary Differences and Voting
Systems (chair: Sir John Arbuthnott). Putting Citizens First:
Boundaries, Voting and Representation in Scotland. Edinburgh: The
Stationery Office. ISBN 0-10-888179-2. (Gah! It looks like they took the
(Bengtsson 2005) Asa Bengtsson. "Inclusiveness or Accountability: What
brings about the most responsive system?" Prepared for the Nordic
Political Science Association (NOPSA) conference, Aug 11-13 2005,
(Blais Bodet 2005) André Blais and Marc André Bodet. "Does
Proportional Representation Foster Closer Congruence Between Citizens
and Policymakers?", Comparative Political Studies, vol 39
no 10, p. 1243-1262.
(Karp Bowler 2001) Jeffery A. Karp and Shaun Bowler. "Coalition
government and satisfaction with democracy: An analysis of New
Zealand's reaction to proportional representation. European
Journal of Political Research, no 40, p. 57-79, 2001.
(MMP Review Committee 2001) Rt. Hon Jonathan Hunt, chair. Inquiry
into the Review of MMP: Report of the MMP Review Committee, New
Zealand House of Representatives, August 2001.
(Nagel 1994) Jack H. Nagel. "What Political Scientists Can Learn from
the 1993 Electoral Reform in New Zealand", PS: Political Science
and Politics, vol 27, no 3, Sept 1994, p. 525-529.
(Nicholle 2006) Brian Nicholle. "Brian Nicholle: Put MMP to the Vote".
New Zealand Herald, October 12 2006.
(Richard Commission 2004) Report of the Richard Commission: Commission
on the Powers and Electoral Arrangements of the National Assembly for
Wales. Spring 2004. Available from
(Scully Wyn Jones 2003) Scully, R and Wyn Jones, R. Public
Opnions, the National Assembly and devolution -- briefing note on the
latest evidence. Dept of International Politics, Aberystwyth
(Vowles Banducci Karp 2006) Jack Vowles, Susan A. Banducci, Jefferey
A. Karp. "Forecasting and Evaluating the Consequences of Electoral
Change in New Zealand", Acta Politica, vol 41, 2006, pp.
267-284. Available from NZES website: nzes.org