Archive for the ‘New Zealand’ Category

I return, not with a wholly original take, but rather with an important rebuttal of one Martyn Bradbury.

A little context: This is a man who, once upon a time, was someone I looked up to. (Back when radio was still a thing and he ran a youth talkback show) Politically our opinions have diverged a lot while we both retain the same core philosophy. We both agree that large political institutions aren’t working for regular people and we both like inspiring radicals who want to end those problems, like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. I remain a Green, wheras I’m not sure Martyn has ever really decided if he believes in any particular political party, as I recall him supporting just about every Party to the left of United Future at one point or another, and it tends to be based on whichever one is opposing the current target of his indignation.

But in addition to his occasional forays into conspiracy theory and poorly founded political opinion, Martyn has now signed up for the “unite or die” philosophy on voting in trying to get people to change the government. While it is good to have him off the TOP cheerleading bandwagon now that he’s checked up on them and realised they intend to sit on the cross-benches rather than actually try to change the government, as usual he’s going about trying to convince people in entirely the wrong way. Those of you who have read other posts know my firm conviction that your vote is yours to decide what to do with, (even if I don’t like that decision, or even if you decide not to vote) and that neither parties nor pundits should be trying to bully anyone into giving it away to someone they’re not comfortable voting for, rather their duty is to earn your vote.

For a supporter of Sanders and Corbyn, Bradbury hasn’t got that left-wing movements tend to change governments by inspiring people. Left-wing voters want to fall in love with an idea, it’s right-wing voters, steeped in authoritarian values, who are more responsive to fear as a motivating force, which is why they’ve united around National and successfully turned out in large numbers whenever it’s looked like Labour is going to beat them enough with their tired, uninspring policies to get back into government. It of course doesn’t help that Labour has had a serious case of too many chiefs, but that’s a discussion not directly relevant to this post.

Bradbury is calling for people to “get over” their distaste with Labour’s tone on immigration, (and yes, it’s the tone, not the policy itself, that is the problem: voters are still looking at them like they’re trying to ape NZ First, because quite honestly, that seems to be the intention) and vote for a party that will change the government anyway, and dismissing all the critics as twitter liberals1. That’s a terrible pitch.

Firstly, if you want a party that’s left-wing but doesn’t hate immigrants, you have one choice that we’re sure will make it into Parliament, and that’s the Greens. They have an unabashedly pro-immigrant policy, but they also make a concession to the reality that the infrastructure necessary to support the amount of immigrants that want to go to Auckland will need some time to build up after National’s neglect, and so immigration settings will probably need to be a bit more selective2, while still having a policy that supports the rights of the new kiwis that are already here and the ones we plan to let in. You can also cross your fingers and party vote Mana, but personally I wouldn’t recommend the risk that until you’re sure Hone is coming back.

Yes, the Greens haven’t been out there tooting a liberal left-wing radical trumpet. This is a deliberate campaigning strategy they have been maintaining for several terms now, despite being just as liberal and just as left-wing as when Sue Bradford thought she could win the co-leader race. (and yes, many Greens would still welcome her back if she wanted to come) The fact is that running a moderate campaign that focuses on popular liberal and environmental messages has worked for the Greens, so they’re playing nice with Labour while focusing on the areas that have worked for them in the past, and trying to differentiate themselves from New Zealand First and Labour without burning any bridges. It’s a tough balance to juggle and I don’t envy James or Metiria their jobs in maintaining it. The fact is, however, that this is still a party with a policy package that is pretty damn left wing. They unapologetically support any liberal cause you could like, and they want to raise benefits, move towards a UBI system, legalise cannabis, and you know, basically hit every populist issue that’s out there. It’s hard to get further to the left than I am, and I whole-heartedly endorse their policies for this election, and believe that their candidates are committed to them and would do everything they can to advocate those policies in government. (or if necessary, from opposition)

If you’re okay with the immigration rhetoric and subtly dogwhistling to the less racially sensitive parts of NZ and are cool with voting for Labour, great. But don’t try and bully people into being okay by telling them they don’t have options. They do. I’ve heard from enough people uncomfortable with Labour’s positioning that even if they all didn’t like the Greens, they could probably get Mana in off the list if they all co-ordinated, campaigned, and voted for them.

And to those in Labour who aren’t comfortable with the rhetoric but also don’t want to leave because they are doggedly loyal, or because they actually like a centrist brand of politics, or because Labour has historically been good to their Māori or Pasifika community: The criticism isn’t aimed at you, and I wish you all the best in convincing the party not to engage in racist rhetoric in the future. But until that change in rhetoric eventuates, I’m not going to recommend anyone vote for your party, even if they’re not comfortable with their other options, because you can’t earn my respect this way.

New Zealand is a nation forged by an alliance between Māori and immigrants, and only a party that knows better than to betray that constitutional principle of our country has earned any co-operation from me or people like me. And that principle that immigrants willing to come here, work hard, and honour the people of the land should all be welcome is a core part of who we are. We can say we need some time to be able to provide immigrants we welcome in with an acceptable standard of living, (and it’s okay for us to use our own definition of acceptable there, rather than “whatever will still get people immigrating here,” because we as voters are the judges of what the kiwi standard of life should be) but closing the borders entirely, or pandering to people’s racial anxieties, strikes me as a fundamentally stupid idea.

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Lots of people in politics are fans of using the political compass system to describe politics, where we distinguish politics along two dimensions when talking about political ideologies instead of conflating both social and economic policy together in different ways for each nation when we pick the two words we use to describe political parties. This is especially helpful in systems like New Zealand, where we have 7 viable political parties at the moment. (assuming you define “viability” as “getting at least one MP elected”)

Some recent discussions have made me aware that not only are some people a little less familiar with the labels that discussing politics this way requires, but that we’re also missing a few relevant terms.

traditional poltical compass

Traditional political terms have largely focused on left-right or liberal-conservative divides

Usually this splits political dimensions into the economic/class aspect and the social/cultural aspect of politics. On this blog, I general refer to the left-right economic dimension of politics, and the liberal-conservative social dimension. It’s also sometimes called a “libertarian-authoritarian” social dimension, but both of these terms imply a lot more radical and specific political ideologies than liberal and conservative do, so I’m usually a fan of those names.

The original political compass site only gives us the most basic five: centrism, leftism, right-wing politics, “libertarianism,” (which in other sites is often substituted for “liberalism”) and “authoritarianism.” (likewise for “conservatism”) For a useful discussion, you really need at least nine labels for the various political positions, and if you want to get really technical, you probably want somewhere between 25 and 30 to try to translate the idea of a graph into colloquial language, even online.

It also doesn’t capture some complicated political variables that also operate on something of a spectrum, like degrees of nationalism, or of environmentalism, or monarchism-vs-republicanism, (or more generally, sovereignty versus independence, or federalism vs local democracy) etc…

Of course, every once in a while, you run into someone using a more specific political dictionary or reference that is technically correct elsewhere in the world, but places these political terms in a more regional context, when most of the political internet settles on using variations of left, right, liberal, and conservative. (sometimes substituting “tory” or “progressive” into the equation) For instance, in the US, liberalism still generally implies moderate right-wind leanings and a gradual approach to social reform. This isn’t anything inherent about the idealogy, it’s just how the democrats that call themselves liberals in the US have conducted themselves in congress. Confusingly, this old definition comes very close to neoliberalism, which is just the modern version of classical liberalism, which is not the same as generic US liberalism, which is generally in the Democratic party, and is also different to the Australian Liberal Party, which is actually to their right. To all of them I say: stop confusing people. When people use “liberal” as an adjective anywhere outside the US or Australia, it’s generally to refer to a freedom-oriented approach to social issues.

With all that confusion, we find ourselves maybe needing some extra terms, because actually we routinely do discuss all 25 spots on our 5×5 table of two-dimensional politics, and less loaded generic terms, as traditional names for complicated areas on that political graph can get you maybe 19 of the 25 really relevant areas, when really we need a full 26 terms to describe what we’re talking about, and they don’t follow any sensible system. (We need 26 because we need two terms for the middle so we can distinguish between the social and economic centre when talking generically, four names for the orthogonal extremes, (ie. right, left, liberal, conservative) four names for the diagonal extremes that mix the previous four together, eight moderate versions of the the eight previous extremes (ala “centre-left”) and another eight names for those with opinions on both dimensions but who value one dimension over the other, such as leftist liberals who value the economic politics more than social ones) The other confusing thing about using the traditional terms is that “liberal” shows up all over them with different meanings. Oh, and we can’t use the term “social” for conservatives, because they hate that word too.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

generic political compass

Here we have a systematic approach to generic political labels. I have used the word “clutural” to describe people with more socially-oriented politics for international portability. I’ve stuck with “moderate” for the four extra diagonal centrist positions, because mixing “left” or “right” with “centre” in a larger term sounds stupid. The hidden 26th term is that “moderate” refers to social centrism, and “centrist” to economic centrism, re-using the distinction between British terminology for economic dimensions and American terminology for social dimensions that people already engage in. Most sucessful centrists are really only centrist in one of the two ideologies in order to fill a political gap elsewhere, so arguably there are also “conservative centrists,” “left moderates,” “liberal centrists,” etc… that can replace terms like “centre-left” if you prefer.

And yeah, the “circle” around the outside full of liberal-leftists and right-liberalists are a little confusing, I admit, but it could catch on as a way to describe the “north by northeast”-type directions on our political compass. I also considered terms like “right-conservatist,” for the lower half of the graph, but at that point it began to sound silly, as “liberalist” at least sounds like it should be a word, so I left out the quicker alternative names on the bottom half of the chart. (for the short names in the x-by-xy spots, whichever part is first is the one the emphasis is on, so if liberal is first, it’s cultural, and if left or right is first, it’s economic) Feel free to talk about conservative leftists and conservative rightists though instead of cultural left- or right-conservatives, those actually sound like words.

Under these generic terms, you actually have political-compassy ways of describing some more complicated political idealogies. Neoliberals are Right-liberalists. Tories are Right-conservatives. Greens are Left-Liberals. Neoconservatives are Conservative-leftists. Libertarians are (normally) right-liberals, or maybe sometimes they’re Liberal-rightists, and Left-liberatarians are Liberal-leftists, which is what the old Whigs of their day roughly were.

In the New Zealand  political parties context, here are my estimations:

  • Labour are centre-left. (or, if you prefer, a coalition of leftists, liberal-leftists, left-liberalists, and economic left-conservatives that generally average out to somewhere between “centre-left” and “moderate left-liberal”)
  • National are a coalition of right-wingers. (including right-liberalists, and both types of right-conservatives)
  • ACT is a single right-liberalist who nobody takes seriously.
  • United Future is centre-right.
  • The Māori Party is the hardest to place but are probably wander between being moderate left-liberals when working with Labour to being moderate right-liberals when working with National. Somewhat like New Zealand First, they have a nationalist bent to their politics, but it is a specifically Māori one rather than a xenophobic one.
  • New Zealand first are centrist conservatives on most issues, but they can wander into left-wing and liberal politics from time to time too, as their defining political attribute is nationalism rather than economic or social politics.
  • And as everyone expects, both the Greens and Mana are both left-liberals, with the Greens having an environmentalist dimension to their politics, and Mana having a Māori nationalist one.
  • The alliance were probably left-liberalists when they were around, and ironically, the Progressive Party’s brief stint in the Clark era had them probably showing up as economic left-conservatives.

Hopefully people find these ideological distinctions helpful in discussing politics. I hope they also stop people reaching for those archaic variants on the word “liberal,” as politicians everywhere have tried to corner the rhetorical market on derivative words of “freedom.”

So, TVNZ has feverishly reported both that there is a highly unusual emergency meeting being called of the Queen’s staff, and that a representative has told them that “they can safely assume the Queen and Prince Phillip are not dead.” I won’t mock them for reporting that the queen isn’t dead, because it would be irresponsible reporting not to have sought assurance that she wasn’t when reporting about an emergency meeting with an undisclosed purpose.

I am somewhat amused at the generation gap that the New Zealand media still think the Queen is marginally relevant to life in the south pacific. If she dies, we replace her with another figurehead that literally doesn’t do anything important except sign off on the documents when we need to replace a Governor General. It will be sad if she dies, of course, because she is a human being even if I have no real emotional connection to her myself, and it will be newsworthy, because she is a foreign head of state.

But in de facto terms, she is not our head of state, all those functions have been delegated to the Governor General, and they don’t get picked up even during royal visits. In child custody terms, we’ve been all-but-adopted by the Governor General. She is a mere legal fiction to New Zealand, so the appropriate time to cover this sort of story is really when something has actually happened. If she is getting sick or deciding to abdicate powers in favour of her descendents, the only real effect this will have on us under the current arrangement is that we will be obliged to observe some official mourning customs and possibly change the title from “Queen” to “King” on a lot of our official government stuff, and we don’t need to breathlessly preempt that story online simply because of TVNZ has a large audience of baby boomer monarchists. Most of them probably don’t check your website, TVNZ, save it for the 6pm news.

If the meeting is not about a turn in the Queen’s health or a plan to step aside, then it is still timely for New Zealand to consider if we still want to be a monarchy after the Queen dies. A lot of the reason for public support for monarchy is that people like Queen Elizabeth II specifically, rather than the institution of monarchy in general, and there’s a good argument that we should have a plan for what we want to do on her death, even if it’s simply “enact mourning arrangements in the media and with flags, and switch up our letterheads, signs, and coins.”

And if public opinion or the resolve of our leaders is shifting towards republicanism like polls suggested around the time of the flag referendum, (I say shifting towards, not that it has a majority yet) then we need to start the conversation now about what our constitutional arrangements should look like if we really want the transition to a new monarch to be the point at which we become a republic, because rushing into that process half-blind is not a good idea.

So, Labour’s list is out. You can see bios for the most electable candidates at Labour’s website, although it hasn’t yet been updated for list-only candidates*. (update: you can find Labour’s article on their list here)

If you haven’t been following the news, you will note that in addition to the expected absense of Annette King after she decided to step aside next election in favour of Jacinda Ardern for deputy and Paul Eagle in her electorate, Sue Moroney is now gone too. This is a big loss for Labour, as she has been a champion for working women, making excellent strides with paid parental leave in Parliament, and it looks like they’ve naively looked at the party vote in her electorate and decided she’s a drag as a candidate, when I think it’s likely she just suffered from a tide towards national in the election, and deserved an electable list position. I expect if she hadn’t resigned, this means the highest she would have ranked would be the early 30s, and to be honest, that’s a very unfair ranking when compared to some of the performances of MPs who were ranked significantly higher, such as Stuart Nash, Clare Curran, Ruth Dyson, or Jenny Salesa. Appeal to the electorate can’t be the only consideration when ranking list MPs, there also has to be some concession to how effective they were at pushing key legislation and their performance in the house. Moroney should have ranked very highly on those two issues among sitting Labour MPs, and certainly among those who aren’t currently on the front bench, and probably deserved a ranking nearby Ruth Dyson and Jenny Salesa.

I’m honestly not as interested in the story about what caused the delay in releasing the list, and whether Little was trying to bump Willie Jackson up the ranks, as in all practical terms, he’s in a fairly electable position. If Labour polls below 30%, Jackson certainly hasn’t earned his spot in Parliament back, and being possibly the lowest-ranked list MP for Labour in 2017 will give everyone who wants him in the party a huge incentive to campaign hard for the Party Vote to make sure his position is secure. I think that’s win-win, and even if he’s disappointed, I think he’s done pretty well out of the list selection, to be honest, with some more talented newer political blood ranking lower than him. (Willie Jackson might be new to the Labour Party, but he was also the deputy leader of the Alliance back during the Clark era, so he’s old blood in the same sense as Laila Harré is. And we’ll all note that she, while far more qualified to be an MP than Jackson, has not had anyone advocating to get her an electable position in the Labour Party)

I’ve gone through and assigned each candidate to their electorate where I could find public comfirmation of their selection, and recorded which electorates Labour won in 2014, then threw in Ōhāriu for good measure, as there’s a real chance Labour could win there, and I have assumed for the primary scenario that Kelvin Davis will win again in Te Tai Tokerau. Neither of those are really guaranteed, but they are likely enough that Labour should be banking on them happening when it selects its list. (arguably, it should also be considering its candidates for Hamilton East and Hamilton West in terms of gender balance too, as most governments win at least 1 of the Hamilton seats, if not both of them) I’ve then calculated the effective list position for the remaining candidates, and compared it with the current average of recent Labour polling performances, which would net them 36 seats.

In that first scenario, where the two competitive races against minor parties go Labour’s way, they would end up with 20 male MPs, and 16 female MPs. Each of those two races would return a female list MP instead if Labour lost, assuming the minor party Labour lost to didn’t take a seat off them, which is a reasonably safe assumption given the polling of both United Future and Mana, so if Labour loses both Te Tai Tokerau and Ōhāriu and maintains its current polling into the election, its caucus will be gender-balanced for the first time ever.

According to its own regulations, Labour should be selecting its list so that women are expected to win at least 50% of its seats. This so-called “man ban” has not eventuated, as Labour will be assuming they’ll win both those key electorates, which means they need to make up four women in the party vote from current polling. The earliest they could do this would be to win exactly another 15 seats, (ie. 51 total, enough that they could govern with just the Greens in their coalition) which would require roughly a 41.5% Party Vote for Labour, assuming all of the votes were gained off National. That’s a 12% bump from current polling, something which would basically require Bill English to completely gaffe up the campaign, like claiming the Labour Party aren’t mainstream enough, or undermining our nuclear free-status, or simply being as racist as he was last time he was National Leader. Labour shouldn’t have to rely on National screwing up their campaign to elect enough women to get a reasonably balanced caucus, especially as women are a key constituency for Labour, especially as they are a fair amount of the unionised workforce nowadays.

The Herald seems to have run the same calculation I have to determine list eligibility, as they note that a party vote returning 40 Labour seats, which with current polling is about 33%, (which is about 1% higher than the error bars on their current polling, so a difficult result to get even if Labour is under-polling this election) would be required to elect Mallard as a list MP. This almost has me hoping that we don’t move too far from current polling and end up with a NZ First-Green-Labour government, as I suspect this election would be Mallard’s last if he doesn’t make it in, and Labour desperately needs to shed some of the dead wood that’s still somehow making it into the top 40 list positions.

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For those who know me personally, they usually find this particular opinion of mine surprising. I am a fan of online practically-everything-else. Online games, online food ordering, online shopping in general, online tax, online civil service in general, online insurance, email contacts online, online OIA databases, you name it, I think it’s a reality of modern business and a good thing too.

But I think online voting is a terrible idea, at least at the moment, and possibly inherently, and given that previous paragraph, you should take that opinion all the more seriously, because I would love it if we could square the circle and find a practical way to vote online. I just don’t think it will work.

Why? Well, I’m gonna have to delve into more election nerdery to explain. To start with, there are three critical things to running a good election, that will seem to be contradictory but won’t be once we define them narrowly. They are:

  • Security/Integrity
  • Transparency/Verifiability
  • Secrecy

What do I mean by those three words, and how aren’t transparency and secrecy contradictory requirements? Well because they’re secrecy and transparency of different aspects of an election, namely a secret ballot but a transparent process.

Transparency means you need to be able to tell from the means you use to vote that it will be counted as intended (assuming you actually followed the voting instructions, anyway) if delivered to an honest actor. This is why paper is such a great medium for voting- you mark your ballot, either with a pen or punch machine, and put it into a sealed box so it can’t be spoiled until someone with the key to count it comes along, and it can be secured adequately through purely physical means, and quite easily so. The only people you have to trust are honest are the counters, and they cross-verify, so they’d need to all be part of a conspiracy, or all make a mistake, for them to miscount your vote. Likewise, election officials also need to be able to tell who has voted, not just for statistical research, but also for security purposes. Paper ballots are the best way we currently have to do both of those things at once, especially as you can seperate the metadata part of the ballot from the rest in the counting process so that the people who need to see voter identities to prevent fraud can’t physically go and match that metadata to how a person voted. There is no good way to do that with digital voting. This is sometimes called transparency because for a voter to really be able to understand that any machines involved aren’t fraudulently affecting their votes, they need to actually be able to see and understand how the machine operates, thus the best voting machines are literally translucent so you can watch them doing their thing.

Secrecy, or having a “secret ballot,” refers to a very different part of the process, namely, it means that nobody can prove how you voted, or violate your privacy. The people counting the ballots don’t get to see the database of who voted on which number ballot, and the people who do get to see the metadata about how voters connect to ballots don’t get to see the actual ballots, or if they do, the metadata parts are seperated from the actual vote. The poll workers don’t get to inspect your ballot, but they do get to see that you’re not interfering with other voters, usually through some sort of privacy booth or privacy shield. There are some very narrow situations where it may be arguably better to allow certain voters to cast a non-secret ballot, (for instance, voters who can’t reliably mark a form but trust a friend, family member or carer to assist them) but by-and-large the secret ballot is a critical part of elections.

I’m pretty convinced that it’s fundamentally impossible to marry those two objectives with internet voting, and most approaches also cause issues with integrity. What do I mean by integrity? Well, basically, we should be able to assume that if anyone casts a fraudulent vote through any means, we should be able to easily find out and disregard that vote before a final result is declared, and therefore we should never have to “overturn” the results of an election because we later detect fraud after the fact. In short, the election needs to be secured against vote-tampering, and the public needs to see that it has been secured and have confidence in the measures taken. Some of this security relies on a lack of collusion between other parts of government and the part running the election, but once you have a truly independent election authority, it’s pretty hard to do any sort of mass fraud, so it’s largely down to preventing critical gaming of the election system, or catching people dumb enough to interfere in ways that may not make a significant difference, such as voter impersonation.

There are non-online election methods that don’t rigorously meet these three criteria too, but to my knowledge, most national-level elections in a developed country do, with the exception of the USA, which fails terribly on integrity, mainly due to partisan corruption of their electoral institutions, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

New Zealand has a vote-by-mail system for local elections and sometimes for citizens-initiated referenda. Vote by mail is not secure, and it’s not secret, and it has some other less-critical problems with it, too, but it’s probably the most practical way to hold local elections if we don’t want to synchronize them with national ones.

How is voting by mail insecure? Simple. People can commit the crime of stealing each others’ ballot papers. If they’re smart, they will do so for people who are away at the time of the vote or who are registered but won’t notice the ballot is missing. There is no actual way to tell that the person who filled out and mailed back the ballot is the person who was supposed to vote with it, so voter impersonation, while not a problem in in-person voting, is an unknown unknown in vote-by-mail. I would trust such a system for institutional elections that nobody outside the institution knows about and where there’s no guarantee anyone aware of the election will know anyone else’s address, but that’s about it.

How is voting by mail not secret? Because there’s no observers, partial or impartial, to ensure that nobody looks at your ballot or coerces you into voting a certain way. This means that people are vulnerable to coercion as to how they cast their votes, as for example, an abusive/controlling parent or spouse can verify whether they’ve voted the “correct” way before they mail in their ballot. Technically, any system where you have the ability to match up a person to a ballot is vulnerable to this sort of coercion, even if that proof of how you voted can only be showed after the election has finished- you can still be threatened with future violence, or have your vote bought with rewards or cash, so long as you have some method to 100% demonstrate how you voted. We’ll come back to internet voting after another example of a bad election method.

I mentioned we’d also talk about the insecurity of US voting. The USA relies on voting machines manufactured by partisan businesses to conduct voting in several states. These voting machines run proprietary software, and in many cases voters can’t verify the paper trail themselves before the vote is finalised, or sometimes even at all. They are thus highly vulnerable both to individual voters bypassing their security and hacking them, (there are videos online of how to do it, in fact, for certain models) and of manufacturer tampering to fix the vote for a certain party, which there is some statistical suspicion might have occurred in the last handful of elections. (it was maybe even critical to Trump’s win of certain northeastern states) Anything that tells you on a screen you’ve voted a certain way can be lying to you if you can’t physically see a way to verify otherwise. It can be programmed to switch a selection of votes from the party the manufacturer doesn’t prefer to the one it does.

Basically the only way to secure a machine against provider fraud is to have its software be open source, (and even then, you need to be able to read code to personally verify that your vote is going the right place, and you need to be sure that the open-source code is actually what’s running on the election machines) however doing so means that if there are any technical vulnerabilities, they are incredibly easy to find. That’s okay if you secure the physical machines and they are disconnected from any and all networks, and if any hardware that could be used for vote tampering by officials or by voters is put in plain view rather than part of the booth or behind the shield that voters will use for privacy. The US largely doesn’t take those preventative measures, because the rules are set by whichever political party is currently in charge of the state, (as the constitution highly limits federal election law for some strange reason) and there is thus huge incentive to game the system, as the official responsible for the integrity of voting in the state has no requirement to be non-partisan. (in fact, the Secretaries of State (not to be confused with the federal one, who is the equivalent of a Minister of Foreign Affairs in a New Zealand context, these are like having 50 local CEs of the electoral commission each making different rules) are often overt partisans)

Traditional internet voting based on a single secure database system or network has all the problems of both vote-by-mail and of US voting machines, with the possibility of online hackers who can compromise the system without even bothering to go phishing for passwords added into the mix. (You also have to remember that the possibility for interference opens up to the rest of the world once you put the system online, so you’re making yourself vulnerable to foreign agents who could never set foot on your soil, too) I’m willing to go on record as saying I think it’s logically impossible to secure such a voting apparatus to a level that’s necessary for national elections, especially as the added problem of hacking makes it much more difficult to verify within an acceptable timeframe whether all the relevant information is authentic. (because instead of being to trust all the meta-information you’ve received about what barcode belongs to what vote, it’s possible that such information has been faked. So you can’t rely on the receipts from the system about how many people voted online until it’s been cleared of digital interference, which is a process pretty vulnerable to false negatives)

Some people are proposing blockchain voting systems. Blockchain is the distributed verification technology behind BitCoin and many similar cryptocurrencies, which is basically a protocol for distributed databases. Such systems could be acceptable for non-critical elections, like organisational ones, or maaaaybe local body voting and referenda. The difficult thing is, the ones that I’ve seen that in principle could be secure are fundamentally incompatible with a secret ballot.

Why? Because they rely on distributed ballot databases and a layer of public key/private key cryptography. Effectively, anyone can sign up to the blockchain and they get a copy of the database. Then whenever a change needs to be made, it’s submitted to a certain number of known holders of the database and tagged with the public key that requested the change, and all of those members of the blockchain ensure that they communicate that change to all other members of the blockchain they’re connected to, until it trickles through the distributed network. This means that any attempt to compromise the database has to simultaneously hit the entire blockchain to work, or anyone that they’ve missed will detect an error. That’s very good for security.

And to vote, someone would need to compromise your private key, which you personally control, so on that front you’re actually a little more secure than vote-by-mail, maybe. I’ll come back to this in a second.

However, it also means that some form of public identifier has to be attached to every vote. While that information is theoretically anonymous, in practice it can be tracked back to an individual. Blockchains rely on tracking where information comes from in order to maintain security, and public keys can be traced back to specific IPs and timestamps, which means they can be traced to specific users, which means you no longer have a secret ballot.

Likewise, the ability to use the private key also allows you to demonstrate to anyone watching you vote online who you voted for at the time of the election at a bare minimum, if not afterwards too, and you are also able to deliberately compromise your private key and let someone else vote for you, again opening up voter coercion. Any system where there isn’t a way to verifiably observe people voting in a way that is seperated from observing what they vote for is fundamentally insecure. You could arguably do so through webcams, but there’s absolutely no guarantee that the video data wouldn’t be fake without secure hardware, which defeats the economies-of-scale to online voting.

You could use such a system in contexts where a secret ballot isn’t necessary, such as local direct democracy, or organisational elections. But it’s fundamentally vulnerable to identities being compromised, because it relies on keeping those identities semi-public to secure the vote.

This is without even getting into the non-critical problems with online voting, such as the fact that when there’s not a specific Election Day, people will often forget the deadline and not vote in time. This is a big problem with voting-by-mail, too, which makes online voting actually a problem for turnout rather than a solution when it’s used as the primary voting method rather than in supplement to in-person voting.

Blockchain methods might be suitable for a sort of public-ballot electronic direct democracy on local issues where voter coercion, fraud, or voter harassment aren’t as likely to be problems, but that too has its issues, such as the “self-selecting oligarchy” problem with inclusive, high-volume democracy: that is, it’s so work-intensive to vote on every local issue that only very enthusiastic people tend to show up for it with any regularity, thus those with the time and/or interest tend to form an oligarchy among those who are actually eligible, as they usually hold the majority of votes on any given issue. You can also have the opposite problem of tyrrany of the ambivalent, where people who are only tangentally effected by on issue flood in and force a decision that key stakeholders hate. These are general democratic challenges of course, but electing representatives helps smooth them out a bit, wheras direct democracy is a little more difficult.

So, in conclusion: No to online voting for now, and probably no forever, as I’m pretty sure it’s logically impossible for online voting to hit all three critical points at once, and I am actually a fan of representative democracy. It provides a level of guarantee of human rights, it helps smooth out how democracy functions between the boring issues and the ones of great public interest, and quite frankly, it’s easier to keep democracy slightly at arms lengths from the average voter, so we can keep their powder dry in terms of democratic participation for when it’s really needed, rather than subjecting them to constant voter fatigue.

Well, it’s a little too early to tell yet, but there’s an interesting development in this month’s Colmar Brunton poll, that if the next poll bears it out, could be a bit of an own-goal for Labour. Please excuse (or skip, at your leisure) the following horse-race analysis, I know we get a bit much of that style of discussing the election in general, but this is an angle I haven’t seen much from coverage. (as usual, I’m more cautious than average on drawing conclusions from single polls, but this one is such a sharp uptick that I’d be surprised if it didn’t mean anything)

This is the first poll after Labour’s Māori caucus announced they’re not going to give themselves a Party List parachute.

Māori are very accustomed to being able to split their list and electorate votes in many electorates, from that time that NZ First swept the Māori electorates, to the birth of the Māori Party, to the endorsement of Hone’s split into the Mana Party, it’s basically a tradition now that many, if not most, Māori electorates will have a likely option for vote-splitting. It was looking like Labour was strategically thinking about trying to lock the Māori Party out of parliament using a high-risk strategy that called the bluff of vote-splitters, because their public protestations that they’ll work out a deal with whoever’s in government doesn’t tell people what they’ll actually do if they’re the party that gets to decide between National and a Labour-Green coalition. (you can see her stick to the line that she’ll work with either type of government at the end of this interview, which you should listen to anyway as she has a fair point about unconscious bias in policing) That refusal has lead to Labour’s point of view that they need to be treated as a potential National Party support party and fought against hard, which makes a certain amount of sense, especially when Labour sell themselves as hard electorate-based campaigners who respect local politics.

But it looks like, maybe, if the next poll or two bears it out, that Labour’s strategists underestimated how much people want to vote-split, as the Māori party got a big boost in their Party Vote standing after the announcement, almost to the threshold in fact, with the Māori electorates wanting a local Labour MP deciding that maybe they’ll think about giving their Party Vote to the Māori Party given that way they’ll actually get some more Māori voices in Parliament from their list vote. Yet another example that we do understand tactical voting under MMP reasonably well as a country, if not perfectly. If this poll were to reflect the election result, the Māori Party would in fact be in that position to decide which type of government they wanted, at least assuming New Zealand First rules out working with National after the election. (that assumption is the only scenario that the Māori Party would ever get to decide)

So, if this bump is real, and they can grab a quarter again as much support by the election, the Māori Party might become a genuine fifth party in New Zealand politics, and have secured a future above the threshold that no longer relies entirely on the Māori seats, assuming they can keep it. They’ll probably want to get their hands on an electorate again too in this election, just in case, but Labour have now handed them an argument for the Party Vote of voters on the Māori roll: “give Labour your electorate vote if you have to, but there aren’t enough of our people on their list, so vote for us with your Party Vote and you get two for one.”

Interestingly, this growth in the centre didn’t really hurt Labour too much, (less than a percent, and this is the first time since 2016 started that Labour is over 30% in two consecutive polls, so they’re definitely climbing) if it did come from their vote, they’ve made up most of the change in reductions to National, the Conservatives, and TOP.

It also complicates figuring out who’s government if Labour and the Greens can close the gap with the government by growing another 2-3% or so, as a Māori Party that’s threatening to cross the threshold might be able to act as a real alternative in coalition talks to New Zealand First, which would potentially create the space for the first all-progressive coalition since the Alliance imploded, or it might be a requirement that there be a four-way arrangement between Labour, the Greens, New Zealand First, and the Māori Party in order to change the government. This would lead to a very different dynamic in the elections and the politics than might be expected.

It also appears that regular pre-election polling has now arrived given that we’ve gotten three whole polls in March, so this will be really good in terms of telling what’s going on politically and whether policies and rhetoric are having an effect or not. We’ll likely be getting at least two polls a month every month from here on given that Colmar Brunton also published a One News poll in February, too. While I think assuming current polling is going to lead to a certain type of election result is the bad type of horse-race analysis, analysing polls can be useful if you keep track of what political events happen between polls where interesting changes in trend happened. We’ll see if this turns out to be one of them, I’m inclined to think it will be, but again, two or three polls establish a trend.

As usual, I refuse to entertain preferred Prime Minister as a metric, so I won’t be discussing developments in that polling, as it’s so unscientific as to be wholly divorced from predictive power, it’s mainly just there as red meat for journalists. (a job that could be achieved while still providing a useful political metric either by doing approval rating on the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, or simply by closing up the question so that people can only answer with actual Party Leaders, as nobody has ever made it to PM without being a Leader too)

So, I’m noticing, again, that people aren’t very up on the combination of maths and political speculation that you’ll need to understand who’s likely to form the next government.

Firstly, let’s be clear, there are only three parties parties in Parliament right now who have either clearly commited to who they’ll support or for whom it’s obvious despite the fact nobody’s bothered to ask them. Of course David Seymour/ACT will support National. The Greens have been very clear they have committed to support Labour to change the Government. And Peter Dunne/United Future, while they have worked with Clark’s Labour Party, will of course support National ahead of them given half a chance.

Naturally, Labour and National will lead their respective blocs, so if you’d like to count that, there are five parties who you can safely vote for knowing what sort of government they’d support.

There are a couple of things that are unclear. Mana will of course be more likely to support a Labour government if voted back in to Parliament, however will likely be on the outside of any arrangement if Labour is actually governing, so the uncertainty there is in whether people are willing to forgive Hone for his willingness to work with Kim Dotcom. Given that the Māori Party have stood aside and essentially endorsed him, however, he’s not discountable. I wouldn’t be surprised at either a Mana or Labour win in Te Tai Tokerau.

I won’t speculate on the odds of Dunne losing Ōhāriu at this stage, other than to say both Labour and Peter Dunne need to be taking that electorate deadly seriously, especially as I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a significant chunk of it who are fans of neither of the two likely candidates. They will need to reach out to supporters outside of their usual base to win, which is presumably behind Peter Dunne’s hilarious inability to find fonts that support macrons.

This brings us to the two wildcards. Firstly, the Māori Party, who have said they will make a reasonable attempt to work with whoever’s in government, but haven’t talked at all about what happens if they decide the next government. While they’ve most recently been in a non-coalition support arrangement with the National Party, there’s no real certainty that they would support them over Labour. In fact, the List party they best align with on the issues is the Green Party, so if we’re going purely on policy, they might well support Labour. With Tariana Turia’s retirement from the party, the historical disagreements with Labour could be a lot less of an obstacle to doing a deal. In my models, I’ve assumed they will be open to working with governments of both stripes, but I consider them a reverse UF- in that I slightly suspect they will prefer a Labour government if it’s their choice, although I don’t have any hard evidence to back that speculation.

And then there is New Zealand First, who like the Māori Party, haven’t publicly chosen sides yet, and don’t even have the excuse that they still intend to work with both parties, as they’re currently sitting on the opposition benches, collaborating quite nicely with Labour and the Greens. They look like they’re set up to change the government, but they have pulled a switch on their supporters this way before back in the first MMP government. Have they learned their lessons from that? Nobody knows.

Lastly, there’s a little election system maths to consider. The number of overhang seats will be important in this Parliament, as National will need to win a similar percentage of the Party Vote to last election to stay in power, which was already a bit of an ask with John Key at the helm instead of Bill English. They’ll also want a bit of padding, as no government has ever won a by-election under MMP, so if any of their MPs resign, they’ll likely lose a seat.

If all the minor parties win seats, that’s likely to be three overhang seats in Parliament, meaning the “magic number” becomes 62/122-123, not 61/120-121. There’s also a credible chance of an independent upset in Ilam, which would have the weird effect of not changing the number of seats in Parliament at all, but rather robbing whoever would normally have won the 120th list seat of their extra MP. That’s likely to be either National or the Greens, depending on how close the Greens end up getting on their last MP allocation, or on an outside chance it may be Labour. (it’s highly unlikely to be the Māori Party, as small parties generally get allocated their seats way before the end of the process) For those not aware, essentially there’s a divisor formula that goes through and outputs a number for each party with Party Votes, and every one that’s over the threshold or has an electorate gets thrown into the formula. Whoever’s number is the highest gets the first seat, and then their divisor is recalculated on a less friendly basis, and the next-highest number gets a seat, for 120 iterations. Independent MPs are the only disruption to this process- small parties simply get their electorates as overhangs if they don’t qualify for a list seat on the basis of their Party Vote. While Raf Manji is likely to vaguely support National, he does represent a wildcard in terms of who loses a seat to him, and it’s actually as likely to hit Labour or the Greens in the face as it is to cause disruption to a National government.

What are the important takeaways?

  1. It’s very likely that whoever governs after the election will need 62 seats, as I don’t consider it a serious likelihood that both Dunne and Harawira will lose their electorate votes.
  2. If National wants to govern, they need those 62 seats without the Māori Party or New Zealand First, if at all possible. It’s entirely realistic that the National Party could win 59 seats for themselves but lose the government because they only have two seats worth of solid friends, and both the less predictable parties decide to swing Labour’s direction. Likewise, Labour will want a situation where they can narrow the margin enough that they have a choice between New Zealand First and, say, the Māori and Mana MPs, so that he’s not forced into too much of a pro-nationalist agenda, but such a situation looks rather unlikely at the moment without National seriously dropping the ball, or Little scoring some serious body blows on English that he just hasn’t gotten a chance to do yet.
  3. It’s highly likely that New Zealand First will decide who gets to govern based on current polling, if it holds accurate, and if events don’t shift too fast for our sporadic polling to measure accurately. The chance of National governing without them is pretty slim, although it’s now within the realm of reasonable probability. I expect the recent trend back to National to have arrested with the announcement of Jacinda Ardern as deputy, but we’ll see if that eventuates. I also expected that the dip on English becoming PM would become a trend, and that hasn’t eventuated yet, possibly due to poor capitalisation on his weaknesses on behalf of Andrew Little, but again, this is where Jacinda will actually serve very well as deputy: she’s far more persausive with the emotive argument that the Government is failing people than King was, even though Annette King was a highly effective MP and debater, she doesn’t have Ardern’s charisma.
    1. Relevant to Ardern, it’s rather hilarious that the media is now openly speculating on whether it causes a problem for Labour if she overtakes Little in popularity. The answer is no. That’s a great problem for Labour to have, and it’s likely she would want to do further work before even considering the No. 1 spot in her party, so expect for that to happen at some stage and for Jacinda to endorse Little as leader even when she’s more popular than him. Being the most popular isn’t always a qualification to be leader, and that is why people have to put themselves forward as candidates first. If it’s ever a serious issue, Labour will vote on whether she gets to take over, like you would expect, although of course, they’ll tilt the odds in favour of their caucus’ vote for some bizzarre reason.
  4. If you’re giving your party vote or electorate vote to the Māori Party, you might want more information about what their plan is if they’re in a position to decide if Bill English stays Prime Minister or not. They’ve already said they can work with Labour, but would they prefer to? Nobody knows at this point, and the largely vacuous excuses for political journalists we have atm haven’t got the nuance yet that they need to ask a very specific question about this and see if the answer will change or not. (There are real political journalists out there who absolutely would understand this nuance, but they’re never given the job of interviewing or moderating party leaders for this sort of question in a format that significant numbers of NZers watch)
  5. Pushing for Raf Manji to win Ilam is only particularly relevant if National wins back the government again, and his vote becomes relevant for key legislation. (not that in principle I object to Gerry Brownlee being sent a message, or Christchurch having a bit more power in Parliament, those are good things, it’s just unlikely to move the electoral calculus in favour of changing the Government) It’s actually far more relevant to National whether O’Connor stands a chance of unseating Peter Dunne and whether Hone wins Te Tai Tokerau, as unlike the MP he is unlikely to support the National Party.
  6. As before, Preferred Prime Minister is a huge irrelevancy in polling and deserves to be replaced with favourable/unfavourable polling for the PM and the Leader of the Opposition, as the open-ended nature of the question prevents it from being useful as a gauge of whether the leader is an actual drag on either of the biggest two parties, and the lack of data as to whether it has any impact at all on the Party Vote means that experimenting with different metrics is a great idea, in case anyone who actually polls is listening.