Accountability

Does the voting system make it easy for voters to identify their MP, as well as the party or parties in government, and to hold them to account (to "throw the rascals out")?

Voters' ability to hold decision-makers to account is considered one of the bedrocks of representative democracy. The type of voting system affects accountability.

For example, different systems tend to produce different types of governments: some consist of a single party where it alone is responsible for decision-making; others may have two or more parties sharing responsibility.

The lines of accountability are also different depending on whether voters can vote for a local electorate MP, a party, or both.

According to the editors of The International IDEA Handbook of Electoral System Design, "An accountable political system is one where both the government and the elected members of parliament are responsible to their constituents to the highest degree possible."

This means voters should be able "to influence the shape of the government, either by altering the coalition of parties in power or by throwing out of office a single party which has failed to deliver." To do this effectively, it must be clear to voters which party or parties are part of the government and responsible for various decisions.

Similarly, individual MPs should be held to account. According to International IDEA's editors, "Accountability at the individual level is the ability of the electorate to effectively check on those who, once elected, betray the promises they make during the campaign or demonstrate incompetence or idleness in office and 'throw the rascals out'."

Local Electorate MPs should ultimately be accountable to the area they represent while List MPs should be accountable through the party vote.

It is important to note that the Accountability' criterion involves a trade-off. Different voting systems have a different mix of strengths in terms of accountability.

On the one hand, some systems are effective at dismissing both governments and individual MPs. But in these systems a vote for a candidate and a party is one and the same thing, meaning voters are not able to distinguish between holding an individual MP and a government to account.

On the other hand, systems with two votes – one for the individual MP and one for the party – allow electors to split their votes. But even with two votes it may be difficult to hold individual MPs to account especially if lists are 'closed' (where voters cannot rearrange the party list they choose) and if defeated Electorate MPs can return to Parliament through their party's list.

Similarly it may be harder to remove the government if it can replace a loss of votes by adding another coalition partner.

Each of the voting systems tends to perform on the question of accountability, in the following ways:

  • MMP

    It is relatively clear who is accountable at the local level in the 70 electorates because there is only one MP in each electorate, but under current MMP rules, defeated Electorate MPs can have a lifeline back into Parliament on their party's list.

    There are 50 List MPs. Current MMP rules do not allow voters to change the order of candidates on party lists. As a result, voters cannot hold individual List MPs to account.

    With their party vote, electors choose whether or not to vote for an entire party list, and in this way voters hold parties to account. However, ongoing negotiations between parties in multi-party governments may make it more difficult for voters to identify which parties are responsible for specific government policies.

    It's less easy to "throw the rascals out", but far from impossible; and because it's unlikely that a single party will have a majority of the seats, it's easier for Parliament to hold governments to account.

     

  • FPP

    It is relatively clear who is accountable at the local level in the 120 electorates because there is only one MP in each electorate.

    There is no separate party vote. In the electorates a vote for a candidate and a vote for a party is one and the same thing. Voters are not able to distinguish between holding an individual MP and a party to account. There are no List MPs to hold to account.

    Single-party majority governments are common under FPP. They make it easier for voters to identify which party is responsible for government policies, but more difficult for Parliament to hold governments to account.
    Even a small change in the vote may be enough to defeat a sitting MP and the government (thus making it easier to "throw the rascals out").

     

  • PV

    It is relatively clear who is accountable at the local level in the 120 electorates because there is only one MP in each electorate.

    There is no separate party vote. In the electorates a vote for a candidate and a vote for a party is one and the same thing. Voters are not able to distinguish between holding an individual MP and a party to account.

    There are no List MPs to hold to account.

    Single-party majority governments are more likely under PV. They make it easier for voters to identify which party is responsible for government policies, but more difficult for Parliament to hold governments to account.

    Even a small change in the vote may be enough to defeat a sitting MP and the government (thus making it easier to "throw the rascals out").

     

  • STV

    On the one hand, it is less clear who is accountable at the local level in multi-member electorates because there is more than one MP in each electorate. On the other hand, voters are able to vote for individual candidates. They can express preferences for each of the candidates across all parties including multiple candidates from the same party.

    Ongoing negotiations between parties in multi-party governments may make it more difficult for voters to identify which parties are responsible for specific government policies.

    It's less easy to "throw the rascals out", but far from impossible; and because it's unlikely that a single party will have a majority of the seats, it's easier for Parliament to hold governments to account.

     

  • SM

    It is relatively clear who is accountable at the local level in the 90 electorates because there is only one MP in each electorate. It has not yet been decided whether defeated Electorate MPs would have a lifeline back into Parliament on their party's lists.

    There are 30 List MPs. It has not yet been decided whether voters would be able to change the order of candidates on party lists. As a result, it is not yet known whether voters would be able to hold individual List MPs to account.

    There is a separate party vote which does give voters some ability to hold parties to account, but this accountability is limited because the party vote does not determine the composition of the whole of Parliament (but only a quarter of the seats in it).

    Single-party majority governments are likely under SM. They make it easier for voters to identify which party is responsible for government policies, but more difficult for Parliament to hold governments to account.

    As Parliament predominantly consists of Electorate MPs, a comparatively small change in the electorate vote may be enough to defeat a government (thus making it relatively easier to "throw the rascals out").

     

 

Last updated: 29 January 2013