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  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan

The 'unknowns' that will decide this election



Many politicians have said, “The only poll that matters is election day.” What polls don’t consider could decide this election.


There are many unknown factors that – to coin a Donald Rumsfeld phrase – are known and unknown.


The polls often assume that there will be 120 MPs, meaning that the majority threshold to form a government will be 61. The 2005, 2011, and 2014 elections, however, saw 121 MPs elected. The 2008 election saw 122 MPs elected, meaning that the threshold was 62.


The anomaly is the result of voters disproportionately choosing electorate candidates from one party but giving their party vote to another party. In other words, a party won more electorate seats than their party vote would proportionately allocate, creating an ‘overhang’ of seats in Parliament.


Confused? The parties who have achieved this phenomenon are the Maori Party, Peter Dunne’s United Future, Jima Anderton's Progressives, and the Act Party.


In the 2008 election, the Maori Party won five Maori electorates but only achieved 2.39% of the party vote. Peter Dunne won an electorate but only 0.87% of the party vote.


Maori voters have split their two votes to such an extent that, in three elections (2005, 2008, 2011), the Maori Party have received disproportionately more seats in Parliament than their party vote would otherwise provide while never achieving anywhere near the 5 percent threshold.


Considering that the Maori Party leadership have pretty much ruled out working with the likes of National, Act, and New Zealand First, Christopher Luxon will more likely need Winston Peters to pass a higher majority threshold.


In addition to the margin of error and so many undecided in the polls, another factor to consider is the unknown voters. They are the voters who aren’t contactable by pollsters and are influenced by other channels.


National will be weary of what happened at the 2005 election. Leading in the polls, Don Brash thought that he had the election in the bag. He tried to ruin Winston Peters. National’s “Iwi/Kiwi” billboards also ruined any chance of working with the Maori Party.


But National voters didn’t turn out on election day as much as what was expected. A surge in South Auckland Labour votes pipped National. Helen Clark then formed a third term with parties that National alienated.


On election days in 2002 and 2005, I drove around Hastings and South Auckland. I watched convoys of buses and minivans adorned with red streamers lining the streets, people door knocking, and the vehicles transported voters to polling booths.


National and Act (and lobby groups, such as Groundswell and NZ Taxpayers Union) might have accumulated the largest donation war chest in New Zealand political history but Labour has a formidable war room and logistical capabilities.


So, when National and Act were tipped off that Labour had booked advertising space to announce their immigration policy, they announced similar policies on the same day. Labour fliers announcing an amnesty for overstayers will no doubt appear in certain letterboxes before advanced voting commences on October 2.


Another factor to consider is the ‘wasted vote’ – votes for parties who don’t achieve the 5 percent MMP threshold or win an electorate. At the last election, 9 percent of all votes – that’s 257,835 voters – weren’t represented in Parliament. The 120 seats in Parliament were disproportionately shared, resulting in Labour holding a five-seat majority despite gaining 50% of the vote.


National have tried to benefit from the wasted vote by undermining New Zealand First. It has only worked for them once, in 2008, and backfired in 2005 and 2017.


With the polls showing so many new parties polling around 1 percent, on election day many of their supporters could vote for a party that has a better chance of being in Parliament.


Another anomaly in the final weeks of a campaign is the vulnerability of smaller parties. While media often focuses on the leaders of the two major parties, if minor parties gained attention it has often been their undoing. Act’s election results have often fallen short of polling. New Zealand First have spent two terms out of Parliament.


The Greens, however, have often countered that trend due to their considerable overseas voting base. On several occasions, special votes have delivered them an extra MP weeks after election night results.


Advance voting starts on October 2 and then another fortnight until election day on October 14. As every MMP election has demonstrated, a lot can happen in that time that we can’t predict.

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