The strategic voters’ nightmare that is US Democrats’ “proportional” system

With a “front runner” who so far is not mustering more than a quarter of the vote in polling aggregates (e.g., both Fivethirtyeight and Economist), and four other candidates in the 10%–20% range (here with some variation between different aggregators), it is a good thing the Democratic Party uses proportional representation to choose its nominating-convention delegates. Right?

Well, not this “proportional” system. I will now leave aside those zany rules of the Iowa caucus or the marginally more rational rules of the Nevada caucus, and focus on the closest thing we will get to a national primary: “Super Tuesday”. Specifically, I will focus on California for the the obvious reason that it is the biggest. And happens to be where I live and vote. Other states have broadly similar systems, but for smaller numbers of delegates.

This is one awful example of “proportional representation” (PR). Why? First, because it is not really PR due to the high threshold. Second, because it is ridiculously complex. Third (and flowing from the first two), because it is nearly impossible to know how one should make effective use of one’s vote.

My premise is to assume a voter wants to vote against Sanders. (Any resemblance to any particular actual voter may be coincidental. Or not.) With so many candidates still in the mix, one could at least feel good that it in a big state with a lot of delegates, the proportional allocation will mean your vote is not wasted. It could help select some delegates for whichever non-Sanders candidate the voter selects.

But that is not the case at all.

First, there is the threshold. It is set at 15%, which is extremely high. It is all the worse when, as noted already, so many trailing candidates are at risk of falling below 15%. It is not out of the question that all of California’s delegates could go to Sanders even if he has just 32% of the vote, as in a recent PPIC poll. That poll has Biden in second with only 14%. A delegate sweep is not the most likely outcome (8% are undecided, and many might be weakly supportive of their current choice and thinking strategically, like our hypothetical voter), but it is possible. One hundred percent of the delegates on a third of the vote certainly would not be a  “proportional” outcome!

Then there is the districting. Obviously, we know from studies of electoral systems for actual proportional representation systems that having many districts, and low-moderate district magnitude (number of seats–here, delegates–per district) reduces proportionality. On the other hand, if a candidate is just below 15% statewide, the districting might help that candidate, to the extent that there is regional variation in support. Failing to clear the statewide threshold does not preclude getting delegates in a district, as long as the candidate is above 15% in any given district, and that the magnitude of that district is large enough for the candidate to get a delegate with whatever his or her vote share is in the district.

The statewide delegates amount to around 35% of all the delegates awarded in California: 144 of the 415 total. In electoral system terms, the allocation is in parallel, not compensatory like many two-tier proportional systems. That is, a candidate who clears 15% gets a “proportional” share of the statewide delegates and adds on to this whatever number of delegates he or she has won in districts.

A statewide district of M=144 seems huge, right? Well, this being the Democratic Party, they have to make it further complicated. There are two statewide districts, in parallel with each other as well as with the many sub-state districts. The magnitudes are still large, at 54 and 90. (The former are the PLEO, or pledged leaders and elected officials.)

The districts for delegate selection are the state’s districts for the US House. They vary in magnitude for delegate purposes according to recent Democratic voting history in the district. California has 53 districts, and they vary in magnitude from 4 to 7. There are only two districts (numbers 12 and 13) that elect 7. The mean magnitude is 5.1. See the California Democratic Party Delegate Selection Plan (pp. 14-15 of the linked PDF) for the number per district.

(The Plan has no description of the specific allocation formula that I could find, but maybe I missed it; see also GreenPapers.)

So what should our totally hypothetical anti-Sanders voter do? Ideally, figure out which of the other (acceptable) candidates is above 15% in his or her district. Better yet, figure out which one might be marginal for a delegate. That would be a strategic vote based on local support and the district’s magnitude. But it is not as if such information is widely available. One can guess off district demographics, or noisy signals like local offices for the campaigns or yard signs, etc.

The PPIC poll has a regional breakdown within California. But the “regions” are blunt categories–Los Angeles, Other Southern California, SF Bay Area, and Other. There is some considerable variation, even with the caveat that we have 53 districts but four regions. Sanders leads in Los Angeles with 36% and the next up is Biden, at 16%. In Other Southern California they are on 41% and 15%, with Buttigieg also on 15% (the latter supposedly has just 9% in LA). SF Bay Area also has Sanders leading with only 31% and the next closest is Warren at 18% and then Bloomberg at 14%. If, like me, you are in “Other” it is really a mess! We have Warren 18%, Biden 17%, Sanders 16%, Buttigieg 14% (also 11% unknown, higher than other regions). Of course, a lot of these are in the margin of error of the threshold, and each other, and further district-level variation within each region is likely.

So maybe the best is just to figure out which ones are likely to be close to, or “securely” above 15% statewide. Forget the district, and focus on those two large magnitudes at the state level, in which small vote shifts for above-threshold candidates actually could change the delegate totals.

The previous numbers are based on only poll, of course. There is too little polling of this state. The FiveThirtyEight estimate for California is a little different: 27% Sanders, 16% Bloomberg, 14% Biden, 11% Warren, 10% Buttigieg. (The total for all listed candidates gets us to 89%, so 11% undecided.) Given the paucity of polling, these estimates are based not only on polls, but also on national trends adjusted for state demographics. And, as noted earlier, it risks no one but Sanders being over the threshold, even if that is not in the end a likely scenario, in part because allocating or removing undecideds likely puts at least a couple of other candidates over 15%. Plus, as mentioned, there will be some degree of regional variation that can make a sub-15% candidate statewide be well above that level in a district. But also, remember: many districts have a magnitude so low that even 15% locally would not be enough for a district delegate!

Or there’s voting sincerely. What a concept. Since I don’t like any of these candidates, that would mean staying home. But I don’t want to do that!

The zany Iowa allocation

Really, this is unjustifiable. I used to believe the Democratic Party actually used “proportional representation” for its presidential nominating delegate allocation. But this is not even close.

“Realigned vote” is the shares after participants in candidate-supporting groups that were below 15% in any given precinct shift to their second choice. This is the only good part of the whole process. The “realignment advantage” is just an indicator of how much a candidate gains (or loses) at that stage: the realigned vote share divided by the initial vote share.

How you get from there to the final delegate allocation is clearly some sort of black magic. It goes by way of this weird phantom called “state delegate equivalents”.

And somehow out comes an allocation in which a candidate who started off in second place, even after realignment, not only comes in first in delegates but somehow is over-represented to about the same degree as the first place party in your average FPTP election. (Delegate advantage is the delegate share divided by the realigned vote share.)

This is not proportional representation. Whatever it is, it is no way to run a presidential nominating process.

And I have not even mention the great app failure, or the possibility that some precinct-level allocations were just calculated wrong. (See spreadsheet of errors.)

Sources for data: NYT, WaPo, IDP.

See also a breakdown of available delegates by county and precinct. (The IDP link above has it even more detailed.)

Ireland 2020

Ireland holds its general election on 8 February. I wish I could offer a good preview. But no time. However, given how much many of us enjoy elections under single transferable vote, it seems like the community might want to gather and do some fruitful plantings. So here’s the place for it.

One thing of note I am aware of is polling showing Sinn Féin doing well, possibly enough to break into the top two. In first preferences, that is. Given STV, of course, an important consideration will be if it picks up transfers (or where, if anywhere, its supporters go in districts where they have votes that don’t elect one of their own).

Apparently this is the first time Ireland has voted on a Saturday. Naturally, I am not a fan of that idea. (The link is to Charles Richardson’s blog, The World is Not Enough, which I just discovered thanks to a comment on another thread here by Tom.)

Some thoughts on Peru’s midterm election

After the Constitutional Tribunal ruled them legal, Peru held extraordinary legislative elections on 26 January. President Vizcarra dissolved Congress on the grounds that Congress had voted no-confidence in his cabinet (although not directly) twice. This was the first use of this provision since Peru’s 1992 constitution was promulgated, and as such it was the first time when legislative and presidential elections were not held concurrently.

However, the election did not merely lack a presidential contest. Almost uniquely, President Vizcarra, despite having been elected as part of former President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s party (previously Peruanos por el Kambio, now Contigo), chose not to endorse any party for the elections, merely advising voters to inform themselves. This reluctance was seemingly not due to any concern that Vizcarra’s endorsement would be a weakness for any party: at the time of the election, his approval rating stood at 58%.

Peru’s unicameral Congress is elected using open party-list proportional representation in 26 regions, with a 5% threshold applied at the nationwide level. The average district magnitude of 5 makes this a relatively moderate form of proportional representation, which explains why Keiko Fujimori’s Fuerza Popular was able to win a comfortable majority of 56% of the seats in Congress at the 2016 election despite only winning 36% of the vote.

The results of this election, however, were extraordinarily fragmented. The largest party, Accion Popular, got only 10% of the vote, and nine parties made it above the 5% threshold to enter Congress. More than a quarter of votes went to parties below the threshold, and in four provinces the leading party will receive no representation in Congress.

I will leave it to Peruvian experts, which I most certainly am not, to discuss what this result means for Vizcarra’s ability to pass his agenda. However, the results are interesting for other reasons.

Since the promulgation of the 1992 Constitution, Peru’s party system has remained quite stable (at least in terms of numbers, the identity of the parties has changed quite a lot). It has also remained quite close to the number of parties that the Seat Product Model (Shugart and Taagepera, 2017) would predict.

These elections are thus extremely unusual, and are perhaps indicative of the high importance of presidential elections and presidential endorsements in imposing structure on legislative elections in presidential countries. A fact particularly suggestive of this is the disastrous result for the two leading parties in 2016, both of which were affiliated to presidential candidates. Keiko Fujimori’s Fuerza Popular fell from 36% of the vote and 78 seats to 7% and 15 seats, while Peruvanos por el Kambio/Contigo fell from 16% and 18 seats to 1% and no seats.

Thuringia: Leader of smallest party in state parliament elected premier, with AfD support

This is a strange development, and one to keep a concerned eye on. The German state of Thuringia, which held an election October, 2019, will now have a premier from the Free Democrats (FDP), who barely cleared the 5% threshold in the election. The FDP candidate for state premier, Thomas Kemmerich, was elected by one vote over the incumbent, Bodo Ramelow, of the Left Party. With the help of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), an extreme right party, Kemmerich defeated Ramelow in a third round of voting, 45-44.

The two largest parties in the state parliament since the 2019 election are the two most extreme parties in the German party system–The Left with 29 seats, and the AfD with 22. The Christian Democrats (CDU) came third with 21, then 8 for the Social Democrats (8), and 5 each for Greens and FDP (who really did just scrape over with 5.0%). The outgoing government was Linke-SPD-Green. But they fell to 42 seats out of the 90, compared to 46 in 2014. The 2014 outcome was also a little unusual–a three-party coalition excluding the largest party (CDU, which had 34, with Left second on 28). But not as unusual as whatever government Kemmerich will put together now.

I don’t know how common a government led by the sixth largest party in parliament is, but I am guessing pretty uncommon. (Answer in comments!) Kemmerich says he will not bring the AfD into a coalition, but he now owes his position to them. What does this mean for the cordon sanitaire the establishment parties (and the Left, which really can’t be called “establishment”) have been maintaining against the far right?

UPDATE: The premier-elect has resigned, and early elections will be proposed. A decision on early elections requires a vote in the state parliament. In fact, it requires a two-thirds majority, and at this point the state’s CDU leadership has been opposed to returning to the electorate.

Why so much “high policy” in the LDP?

I am close(-ish) to finishing up a book on Party Personnel, coauthored with Matthew Bergman, Cory Struthers, Ellis Krauss, and Robert Pekkanen. The short version of what the book is about: How does the electoral system (and electoral reform) shape how parties deploy their “personnel” (i.e. elected legislators) to legislative committees to allow them to engage in activities that support the party organizational goal of seat-maximization?

(Quick note: While the book is coauthored, I should make clear that this post is just my musing about a puzzle, and not a piece of the book. Nor do my coauthors bear any responsibility for what I am writing here, or conclusions I attempt to draw.)

The outcome variable of interest in the Party Personnel project is the “type” of committee assignment a legislator receives–high policy, public goods, or distributive. This typology first appeared in Pekkanen, Nyblade, and Krauss (2006). In most of the countries covered in the book, a party typically has 50%-60% of its legislators sitting on high policy in any given term of parliament (not necessarily all at once, as members may be rotated). But, in Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party often has 75% or more on high policy, and in some years over 90%!

What explains the unusually high rate of high policy committee assignments in the LDP? I do not think we currently have a good explanation. We have floated some in internal discussions (mostly internal to my own brain), but as I will show in this post, they are not adequate. Before we get into trying to answer the question posed in bold at the start of this paragraph, let’s establish which committees are classified as high policy. These are committees charged with involvement in policies that are about the management of the economy and other matters of state–this is the sense in which they are “high”. Examples are finance, economy, budget, justice, defense, and foreign affairs.

Japan underwent a major electoral reform prior to the 1996 election. The old system was single non-transferable vote (SNTV). The post-reform system is mixed-member majoritarian (MMM). If we look only at averages by electoral-system era, it looks like a case of electoral reform resulting in a large increase in the percentage of LDP members of the House of Representatives obtaining high policy (HP) committee assignments:

SNTV era: 73% of legislators on HP.

MMM era: 86% of legislators on HP.

The difference in means when comparing eras is statistically significant. So, it is the electoral reform, right? (Never mind that even 73% pre-reform would be high, compared to other cases.) Is there a reason why MMM would lead a party to want to emphasize the experience of its caucus in HP more than would be the case under SNTV? Amy Catalinac‘s book, Electoral Reform and National Security in Japan (2016), suggests a reason why the answer might be yes. She analyzes individual candidates’ campaign manifestoes and finds that they are more likely to mention defense under MMM than they were under SNTV. The reason she gives is that members’ having a reputation for high policy areas like defense and foreign affairs was not useful under SNTV, when they were overwhelmingly concerned with “pork” for which they could get individual credit. By contrast, under MMM, each member is the sole standard-bearer in a single-seat district (and is often also running on a closed party list), and thus the pork incentive is greatly diminished. As national security is a key component of high policy, a similar effect might also account for the higher rate of HP committee assignments after electoral reform. That is, HP committees are assigned to LDP legislators at a greater rate under MMM because the party as a whole has a stronger interest in appearing credible on high-policy issues, including national security. This is one plausible explanation of the changes in era averages. For reasons I will turn to later, I am not satisfied with this attempt to explain the patterns in committee assignment.

An initial idea I had was that perhaps the high rate of HP, post-reform, is a legacy of a high rate under SNTV, and will be seen to have declined under MMM. In other words, this is a totally competing explanation to the one that could be derived from a logic similar to that of Catalinac. I would expect more delegation to the cabinet under MMM, in the sense of its being more Westminster-like than under SNTV. (This is a point that Catalinac explicitly argues, in justifying her disagreement with some Japan specialists who, upon the electoral reform, thought pork would remain just as important, only district-focused rather than more narrowly focused as under SNTV.) The problem with expecting a shift towards more HP committee membership under a supposedly more Westminster-like system, or just generally a more policy-centric system, is that it does not comport well with our comparative evidence.

We know that in two Westminster systems covered in the book, Britain and pre-reform New Zealand, the rate of HP committee membership is not especially high (30% in UK Conservatives, 33.5% in Labour; NZ National 54%, Labour 68%). All of these percentages are lower–most are much lower–than the MMM-era mean for the LDP. Nor is it high in Germany (near 60% in both major parties) or post-reform NZ (46% National, 57% Labour), our two MMP cases. These are all systems in which we expect party policy reputation to matter more than individual reputation. So, if Japan moves from SNTV, with its strong focus on the individual, to MMM, with greater focus on the party as a “team” seeking to take on (or hold on to) governing, why would HP be high under MMM?

With this as a puzzle, it seemed likely it might have been just a legacy of pre-reform SNTV. Perhaps, under SNTV, there actually is a logic to getting nearly everyone on HP because your electoral system makes everyone need to have a unique personal reputation. While this does, as noted, run up against the problem that the HP percentage is higher post-reform, it is worth entertaining why its being high under SNTV might not itself be inconsistent with the incentives of the system.

Why might HP for almost everyone be a strategy compliant with SNTV? Maybe the former SNTV system led the party to want most of its members to gain experience in high-policy areas because each member needs to be “his own party”. (Under SNTV, especially, LDP legislators have been overwhelmingly male.) This possible explanation seems at first to be in tension with common expectations that members under SNTV have to differentiate themselves, such as by credit-claiming for pork. Because votes are not pooled (or transferred) among co-partisans, the party needs a way to divide the vote efficiently in order to maximize seats. The literature on vote-division emphasizes how members need to be distinct from one another, so why have almost everyone on high policy?

Actually, this piece of the larger puzzle turns out not to be such a puzzle at all, even though it initially struck me as odd. Even if all legislators (2 or 3) from a given district are on HP, they can still differentiate by being on different HP committees (one on budget, one on defense, for example). Thus having many members on HP and having them develop their own personal reputations are not in any way contradictory. However, differentiating on sub-categories within HP may still not be as beneficial to claiming credit for things uniquely attributable to a specific politician as are pork-related benefits. A common expectation in the vote-division literature (including a key point of Catalinac’s thesis) is that pork is more useful for vote-division than high policy.

Even if we accept that HP is likely suboptimal for vote-division purposes, having everyone on HP does not preclude legislators also being on more specifically district-focused committees in the areas of public goods (e.g., health or education) or distributive (e.g., construction, agriculture, or transport). In fact, the LDP also has an unusually high rate (relative to other parties among the book’s cases) of category overlap. The average member is on about 1.6 of our three categories, unlike in most other countries where the figure is in the range of 1.2 to 1.4. In other words, by our categories, it is members in other countries that are the specialized ones. In the LDP, they are not; they are actually closer to being generalists, at least in this sense.

Having assignments in multiple categories allows each legislator to build a personal portfolio, almost like a micro-party, in which they are involved in some HP task and also frequently a task in either public goods or distributive during the same term. This kind of portfolio could be very useful for building the personal electoral coalition each individual needs to ensure election under an electoral system that pits members of the same party against each other in multi-seat districts, with no party-level vote-pooling. In other words, SNTV.

If the building of a personal portfolio, including but not limited to HP, due to SNTV incentives were the explanation, we should see a decline after the change to MMM. In the graph below, we will see that we do! So that is good. However, we still face the problem that it should not be higher on average during the era of MMM (so far) than it was during the era of SNTV. Yet that is precisely what we saw in the era averages shown above. Now, let’s disaggregate this thing called an electoral-system era. The graph shows the percentage on HP in each election from 1980 through 2009. The vertical line demarcates the eras, marking the first election under MMM.

The decline under MMM is certainly consistent with the notion that HP is less important to the individual legislator over time, given an electoral system that has eliminated intraparty competition in multi-seat districts. Additionally, the 1990 and 1993 elections show exceptionally high levels of personal portfolios including HP at the end of the SNTV era. Yet look how low the rate is before 1990. Thus, while we might be able to say that adaptation to MMM is leading to an expected decline in HP service after 1996 (albeit perhaps too slowly by 2009), we obviously should not conclude that it started so high because of SNTV! It was low under SNTV… until it was high. It then peaked in the first MMM election, before beginning a decline.

So what changed to lead the LDP suddenly to want nearly everyone to have high policy in their portfolio in 1990 and 1993? This–finally–is the question I am crowd-sourcing. The context of the 1990 election is one in which the LDP had just lost its majority in the second chamber (the House of Councillors). There was also a divisive debate at the time on enacting a national consumption tax, around the same time that real estate and stock market valuations were unsustainably high (leading to a subsequent period of economic stagnation). Also in 1993, due to splits over various issues including electoral reform, the LDP actually failed to win a parliamentary majority and found itself temporarily in opposition. How these would explain a surge in HP is not clear to me. So I am not proposing an explanation, but that is the context and perhaps points towards an explanation.

The pattern is similar if we look at category overlap. Again, this simply measures how many categories–out of high policy, public goods, and distributive–a member sits on. So, ignoring anyone who is on no committees in these categories (and I am ignoring such rare birds here), it can range from 1 to 3. The next graph shows this averaged across LDP legislators by election year. Again, the vertical line marks 1996, the first election under MMM. As we see, it is only 1990, 1993, and 1996 when the average number of committee categories per legislator approaches or exceeds 2.0. While lower in the other seven election, it is still above 1.5 in all elections except the three earliest SNTV elections in the sample (1980 through 1986) and then again in 2003 and 2009 of the MMM era. In the five just mentioned, it is between 1.3 and 1.4.

The pattern is again consistent with the LDP deciding for some reason before the 1990 committee allocations that it needed each member to have both high policy and at least one committee assignment from another category. After 1996, this category overlap becomes markedly less common (but still is higher than in most other parties we cover in the book).

A final graph breaks the HP category down and shows three of the main committees within it.

It is clear that the pattern of surging HP membership in 1990 is largely about the budget committee. More than half the party’s legislators sat on this committee in the legislatures elected in 1990, 1993, and 1996. The other two included here (economy and defense) show smaller bumps as well, just not rising as high. This again would be potentially consistent with my proposed explanation that “everyone needs a diverse portfolio under SNTV”, provided we can add a condition as to why this need is only actually realized at the end of the SNTV period and not the entire era. So, the electoral system explanation needs to be augmented by some political factor, like fracturing of the party and greater pressure from the opposition.

It is further worth noting that of all “high policy” committees, it is budget and economy that would have the greatest “pork” potential. While I would not want to reclassify committees dealing with such clearly aggregate national matters to the distributive category–they are clearly “high” topics–they do allow for opportunities to claim credit. Did the LDP simply need this even more in the 1990s than in the 1980s? The patterns certainly suggest they need it less under MMM, at least after the first MMM election of 1996. The patterns also show that defense committee assignments very quickly went back down in the 2000s after their peak with the first MMM election. So, while they may continue to talk about national security in the individual campaign manifestoes (per Catalinac), few LDP members by 2009 are sitting on committees where they can actually be involved in such policy discussions.

This has been a long post. Thank you to anyone who made it this far! I hope someone has some suggestions for why these patterns are seen in the data. The book does not look at time factors in committee assignments, except for pre-reform and post-reform eras where there has been a change of electoral system (Japan and New Zealand, among our cases). However, any attempt to explain the anomalously high averages in high policy assignment and committee-category overlap in Japan has to grapple with the fact that there is a within-era variance in the LDP that is quite stark. It is not just a story about two different electoral systems, nor is it something immutable about the LDP.

Australian fires

I have a lot of readers and regular commenters in Australia. I actually don’t know where most of them live. I just wanted to take a moment to say that I hope you are all safe. Being a Californian, I know that, even if you do not live in direct harm’s way, the smoke and the accompanying weather can make life difficult during these emergencies. Be safe, and be well.