Research report released - MMP, e-voting, electoral finance

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Public attitudes to e-voting are covered in the release of the Electoral Commission's 2007 quantitative research project final report. Understanding of MMP and attitudes to electoral campaigning and finance propositions have previously been released as extracts. The research was conducted by UMR Research, and the extracts and findings below are theirs. The report and supplementary tables are downloadable.

Introduction

As part of its ongoing research programme, the Electoral Commission contracted UMR Research to conduct quantitative research looking at public understanding of MMP and engagement with the electoral process.

The research covered three areas:

  • Understanding of MMP and engagement;
  • Attitudes to Online Voting and preferred options for its use;
  • Reactions to options for election funding.

Several of the MMP questions were based on questions asked previously for the Electoral Commission by other research companies, and trendline information is provided where available. The most recent results from this are from TNS’s post-election telephone survey of 1004 New Zealanders aged 18 and over, conducted from 18th to 30th September 2005. We have also provided trendline information for one question that was included in a previous UMR study (publicly released), conducted for the Select Committee on the Electoral System in 2000.


Modules of questions covering these three areas were asked in the UMR Research nation-wide omnibus survey. This is a telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of 750 New Zealanders 18 years of age and over conducted every two weeks from UMR Research’s national interview facility in Auckland. The research covered four waves of the omnibus survey.

  • 8th to 13th June 2007;
  • 21st to 26th June 2007;
  • 5th to 9th July 2007;
  • 19th to 23rd July 2007.

The questions were asked over four omnibus surveys in order to maximise the total number of respondents and allow for analysis of smaller sub-samples.

The Understanding of MMP questions were asked in all four surveys, making for a total sample size of n=3000.

The Online Voting questions were asked in the first two surveys, and consequently have a sample size of n=1500.

The Election Funding questions were asked in the third and fourth waves, and also have a sample size of n=1500.

The margin of error for a 50% figure at the ‘95% confidence level’ based on a sample of n=3000 is ± 1.8%.

Overview

Although most New Zealanders claim to have a good understanding of MMP, actual understanding of key elements of the system such as the primacy of the party vote and the threshold is only moderate. Similarly, many people do not feel that they have a good understanding of what list MPs do.

There is reasonably solid interest in online voting, although others rule it out entirely. On the strength of these numbers, online voting does seem to have some potential for boosting turnout or at least maintaining it at current levels, as one of the groups most interested in online voting (under 30s) is also associated with lower turnout. At the same time, it seems unlikely that online voting will do much to encourage those on low incomes to participate.

New Zealanders are inclined to agree both with statements in favour of restrictions on election advertising and with statements in favour of an open approach. Although they are generally more likely to agree with statements related to an open approach, the fact that they often agree with sometimes contradictory statements illustrates the subtleties of New Zealanders’ opinions on this issue and their willingness to consider both sides of the debate.

The substantial sample sizes afforded by asking the questions over either four (for the understanding of MMP questions) or two (for the online voting and election funding modules) omnibus surveys allows greater certainty when analysing demographic trends. The three main demographic differentiators in this research are:

  • Age: Younger people (typically under 30s) generally show less interest in politics than their older counterparts, although they have a reasonable understanding of how the system works. While most claim to be interested in politics, in terms of the relatively low turnout amongst young people the primary driver appears to be lack of interest rather than lack of understanding or perceived efficacy.
  • Ethnicity: For Pacific people, on the other hand, the key driver does appear to be lack of understanding. Pacific people are much more likely to say that they find MMP very difficult to understand, but are as likely to say that they are interested in politics. Given how much lower turnout amongst Māori is than turnout amongst non-Māori, it is perhaps surprising to see that Māori are almost as likely as Europeans to say that they find MMP easy to understand and as likely to say that they are interested in politics.
  • Personal Income: In line with previously collected data about turnout, personal income is related to understanding and interest. Those on higher personal incomes are more likely to say that they are interested in politics and that they find MMP easy to understand. They are also relatively likely to choose the correct options on questions about the primacy of the party vote and the MMP threshold. While they are less likely to say that individual voters make a difference, one could argue that this actually reflects their greater understanding of the system (e.g. because greater understanding might include appreciating the improbability of one vote influencing the election outcome).

There were also some differences between the genders, with women often showing more faith in the political system (e.g. being more likely to say that voting makes a difference and less likely to say that list MPs are unaccountable) but men more likely to know about the mechanics of MMP (e.g. how the threshold works).

Understanding of MMP

A majority of New Zealanders consider MMP easy to understand, and around two thirds know that the party vote is the more important in terms of determining the number of seats each party receives in parliament. At the same time, only around a quarter correctly identify the threshold for seat allocation as being either winning 5% of the party vote or winning one electorate seat. Respondents were asked to choose between four options, the others being the party vote only, an electorate seat only, and winning both 5% of the party vote and one electorate seat.

The key demographics in terms of understanding of MMP were ethnicity and personal income. Pacific people are particularly likely to say that MMP is very difficult to understand, although they are only somewhat more likely to give incorrect answers to the two questions testing actual knowledge of key elements of MMP.

At the same time, the proportion of people saying that politics is hard to understand has increased since this question was last asked in the 2005 pre-election study. Meanwhile, less than four in ten New Zealanders claim that they have a good understanding of what MPs do.

Interest in politics is reasonably high, with almost three quarters of New Zealanders claim to be interested. Older people and those on higher incomes are particularly likely to say that they are interested in politics. At the same time, a majority of under 30 year olds and of those on lower incomes still declare that they are interested. Despite their lower declared understanding of politics, Pacific People are just as likely as other ethnic groups to say that they are interested in politics. Most New Zealanders believe that voting can make a difference to what happens in New Zealand, including most of those who say that they are not interested in politics. Women are more likely than men to say that voting can make a difference. The belief that voting can make a difference is inversely related to household income, with people on low incomes being relatively likely to strongly agree with this statement.

Seven in ten people claim that they take different things into account when deciding who to give their party and electorate votes to, with Māori and Pacific people being amongst the more likely demographic groups to claim to do this. It is unclear from these questions alone exactly what different things people are taking into account. We know for example that in Māori seats such as Tamaki Makaurau and Waiariki in 2005 many more electors cast their votes for a Māori party candidate than for the Māori party itself, which strongly suggests voters were taking different things into account, and there is strong evidence of similar tactical voting in Epsom (12 times as many people voted for Rodney Hide as voted for ACT).

We know that around a quarter of voters in 2005 actually split their votes. The fact that seven in ten people say that they take different things into account therefore suggests that while people do take different things into account, they ultimately arrive at the same decision for both.

Half of all New Zealanders agree with the contention that list MPs are not as accountable to voters as electorate MPs, although the proportion choosing this has fallen since the last time this question was asked. Respondents are equally divided in terms of whether or not list MPs do as much work as electorate MPs, although almost half are either neutral or unsure about this, meaning that opinion is soft overall.

The numbers clearly suggest that non-voting is more to do with lack of interest in politics and disconnection from the political system, rather than being to do with dissatisfaction with it. Nonvoters show less interest in politics and are less likely to know how the MMP threshold works. At the same time, they are less likely than voters to complain that list MPs are not accountable, and are almost as likely to say that voting can make a difference.

Online voting

A substantial majority (around 8 in 10) of New Zealand voters express confidence in the way New Zealand elections are run and the way votes are counted. Groups particularly likely to express confidence include over 60 year olds, men and Asians.

A third of New Zealand voters say that they would definitely prefer to vote online rather than at a polling place, although a quarter completely rule it out. Asians, under 30 year olds and those on incomes over $70,000 are particularly positive about online voting. Voters are similarly polarised on other statements relating to online voting, such as ‘I would be comfortable voting online’, ‘I would be confident I could vote online without anyone seeing who I was voting for’ and ‘I would be confident that I could vote online without anyone else unduly influencing my vote’, although reasonable numbers expressed strong enthusiasm. The critical age divide does seem to be 60 years, with those aged 60 or older consistently less supportive of online voting than those aged 18-59.

The most popular option for security systems for online voting is a screen where voters are asked to confirm who they are voting for before the vote is made final.

For all of these questions, there is strong evidence of a digital divide, indicated in this case by the extent to which respondents use internet banking or online purchases. Almost half the New Zealanders who used internet for these reasons once a week or more said for example that they would almost certainly vote online, compared with a fifth of those who used it less than once a month.

Election funding

New Zealanders are clearly open to both sides of the debate about how election campaigns should be funded, although they are generally more likely to support ‘open’ rather than ‘restricted’ policies. It should be noted that this is a complex issue and for all these statements, there was limited opportunity to explain the reasons for or against election funding options. As a result, respondents’ reactions were very much instantaneous and their opinions may have been different had they had the opportunity to discuss or consider the pros and cons in great detail as would be the case in a qualitative setting. An example of the contradictory nature of a number of the responses is the fact that two thirds believe that any individual or group should be able to run an election-related campaign so long as they are clearly identified, but half also agree that funding for election-related advertising should only come from parties, candidates and the people running the campaign.

Similarly, 6 in 10 New Zealanders say that donations over $10,000 should be publicly identifiable,but almost half believe that if they were to donate more than $10,000 to a political party it should be nobody’s business but their’s and the party’s.

Three quarters think that there should be restrictions on how much parties should be able to spend on TV and radio advertising, and the same proportion believes political parties should be free to advertise wherever they like as long as they do not exceed campaign limits.

Opinion is generally against public funding of political parties, with a reasonably narrow majority of New Zealanders saying that parties should have to raise all their own funds.