California primaries: Myth of the ‘independents’

By JD Mussel

Paul Mitchell of Capitol Weekly’s CA120 column tells the rather farcical story of the more than 100,000 Californian voters who thought they were registering to vote as independents and ended up voting in the American Independent Party’s presidential primary.

The American Independent Party is the far-right outfit originally established by Alabama segregationist George Wallace for his 1968 presidential run (which was aimed at sending the election to the House of Representatives). They ended up choosing Trump as their nominee this year, though he didn’t even appear on the ballot for the primary. I didn’t know California allowed electoral fusion before I noticed this dual nomination on the sample ballot I got in the mail last week[1].

[1] Yes, I have moved! I have now joined MSS at the University of California, Davis where I started my graduate studies last month.

Jordan’s new electoral system – the more things change…

By JD Mussel and Henry Schlechta

Jordan held a parliamentary election last month, for the first time under a proportional party-list system. This reform, in line with many previous proposals, replaces the earlier Single Non-Transferable Vote or (mechanically FPTP) pseudo-SNTV (it’s not clear which one was actually used last time around) which at the last election in 2013 was accompanied by a small national list-PR tier.

Reform of the previous single-vote system was a long-running demand of opposition parties, a number of which have taken part in these elections after having repeatedly boycotted them in the past. However, what they may not have noticed (yet) is that the new electoral system may turn out to be remarkably similar to the old SNTV.

A total of 130 non-reserved seats were filled proportionally from open lists of candidates in 23 districts, out of which 9 seats are from 3 parallel Bedouin districts (similar to NZ’s Maori districts) electing 3 seats each. The districts range from 3 to 10 seats, with a median of 4. Spread out among all the districts is a quota for 15 women and (among the non-Bedouin districts) there are quotas for Christians (9 seats) and Circassians/Chechens (3 seats). With more seats allocated to the cities, there seems to be less malapportionment than under the previous system, but it is not clear how much less.

The lists are open, with seats going to candidates with most votes within each list. This was presented as a kind of return to the ostensibly similar multiple non-transferable vote (MNTV) which had existed before the introduction of SNTV: voters have as many votes as there are seats to be filled, and can cast them for a list as a whole or for any number of individual candidates on the list. Candidacies must be as part of lists with at least 3 candidates up to the number of seats available.

Largest-remainder PR and ‘SNTVization’

Now, technically, the system is proportional. However, the apportionment formula is largest remainders, using the Hare quota. The potential problem is that the combination of these features and the open-list aspect may present incentives that roughly approximate SNTV. Larger quotas (the Hare quota is the largest of the commonly used ones) are advantageous to smaller parties: the fewer seats are allocated by quotas, the more seats allocated by remainders. The smaller number of votes required to win a seat by remainder means that smaller parties are able to win these seats. On the other hand, for a large party to win multiple seats, they must fill multiple quotas.

The possibility of getting seats from remainders can encourage large parties to turn themselves into multiple small parties, through running multiple lists and dividing their votes between these lists[1]. Hong Kong represents the best example of this tendency. While on paper it is a party-list PR system with largest-remainder and the Hare quota, the 2012 and 2016 elections saw no ‘list’ win more than one seat. Instead, larger parties like the Democratic Alliance ran multiple lists, and divided their votes between them. If no seats are allocated by quotas, the M-lists with the highest vote are allocated one seat. The effect of this is to create a system approximate to SNTV.

District magnitude does not appear to be an especially important factor in this process, with 5-member districts in Hong Kong and the 100-member nationwide district for the Colombian Senate (up until 2002) both being on paper party-list but effectively acting as SNTV.

Of course, there are other relevant institutional considerations. The new law’s requirement for at least three candidates per list could theoretically limit this tactic, though it could probably still be possible for a list to consist of one politician with public profile and two other ‘decoy’ candidates. It is not clear if there are any legal restrictions on one political party registering multiple lists; however, in the context of an electoral politics where parties are still weak and fragmented (and which was until now dominated by independent politicians), it is unlikely to be difficult to register effectively duplicate lists under similar labels.

Political impact

The results of the election show a continuation of the party fragmentation that existed before; barely any parties won more than one seat in each district. However, fragmentation was occasionally an outcome of the electoral system, as there are a couple of cases where lists that won a single seat received more than double the votes of other winning lists. This would have given them two seats if they had presented two separate lists, at least if they had managed to keep the vote distributed evenly between them. Of course, electoral systems take time in order to affect behaviour; however, it won’t be long before politicians will notice this outcome, and the strategic response would seem to be obvious. Therefore, more than likely, the new party-list system will continue as an obstacle to the development of larger and more cohesive party organizations, despite the fact that it was presented as a reform designed to bolster party-politics.

Hence, it looks like the reform may have been a clever stratagem by the government: it can be presented as an ‘abolition’ of SNTV and ‘return’ to MNTV, yet it will likely retain the incentives caused by SNTV. Or it could have been accidental. Whether or not this was intentional, it would certainly seem advantageous to the King: in public opinion, it enhances the regime’s legitimacy (the best evidence of this being how it brought an end to the Islamist boycott); nonetheless, in reality it will likely continue the previous incentives for fragmentation which weaken the parties (most importantly, the Islamists) and, crucially, the House of Representatives, which needs to remain fragmented for the King to maintain substantial power in what is constitutionally supposed to be a parliamentary system[2].


[1] The ideal number of candidates elected from each of these lists is one, since a party can win only one seat by remainder.

[2] There are of course other factors relevant in determining whether or not a given ‘constitutional monarchy’ is more monarchy or more parliamentary democracy (as demonstrated by the recent constitutional amendments giving the King more power over appointments) but hopefully it can be agreed that the crucial factor is whether or not governments are responsible to an elected house of parliament, by which I mean that a prime minister and cabinet can be removed by that house. Jordan’s constitution, at least since 2011, makes the government responsible to the House of Representatives.

Colombia’s peace referendum

Colombians are voting today on whether to ratify the peace accord with the FARC rebels. I have not had time to read the agreements, and I am sure they are not light reading. For those who read Spanish, the Peace Commission website has the text. (Thanks to Steven Taylor, at Outside the Beltway, for the link; his post has an image of the ballot for today’s vote.)

The Economist summarized the provisions, which include some guaranteed seats for the FARC and some special electoral districts. However, I need to read the actual agreements to (try to) make sense of these provisions for representation.

While there are many post-conflict elections, I can’t think of any other referenda on the actual accords themselves. Please let me know in the comments if there have been previous examples.

Last day

It is the last day of baseball season, and also the last day of the Jewish year, 5776.

Actually, it might not be the last day of baseball season–depending on what happens today. I am writing this just before all the “final” day’s games are about to begin. We could still have a tiebreaker game tomorrow in either league, and those count as regular season games. We could even have a game from the original 162-game regular season tomorrow–the Indians and Tigers will make up a rainout if either the Tigers remain in contention for a Wild Card slot or the Indians need the game to decide seeding in the Division Series. And, while the Mariners’ loss yesterday ended the dream of a four-way tie for the AL’s two Wild Card berths, a three-way tie is still possible. That scenario would mean the regular season make-up game tomorrow, followed by tiebreaker games Tuesday and Wednesday to eliminate one of the three. We’ve never had a three-way tie for a postseason berth. The Tigers (and their rivals) have to cooperate both today and tomorrow to get us there. Why not cling to the 2016 regular season just a little longer?

As for 5776, there is no question it is the last day, ready or not. We will get to mark the new year, Rosh HaShannah 5777, with first fruits from our land. The bowl shown here contains the first two pomegranates and jujubes of the season, picked today. The ‘Bartlett’ pear is also the first, though these need to ripen of the tree; I picked it several days ago, and it is just now about ready to enjoy.

29 Elul 5776 fruits//

The bowl also contains small bunches of each of the red grapes of our property. I believe they are, from left to right, Syrah, Barbera, and Zinfandel. They were planted by the previous owner, so I am going by the map of the vineyard, which is not the easiest to read. The grapes are not “first” fruits, as we have been harvesting them for several weeks and are near the end now.

The pomegranates are, at top, an Ambrosia. It has split, as pomegranates often do, and may not actually be ripe yet. The other is an unknown variety–we have three, planted by the previous owner, and for only Ambrosia did a tag survive–and should be ripe. Here are some more Ambrosia on the tree, which set heavily this year, while the second photo below shows the other one, with a few of its lighter set.

Ambrosia 2//

Pom 2Oct2016//

The jujubes (‘Jew Jew Be’) are the first ever to ripen here, on a tree planted two years ago. They are of the ‘GA866’ variety. Not the snappiest name, but a great-tasting variety that I also grew when we lived in the San Diego area. The tree has grown well; look closely at this photo and you might see the one remaining fruit. Yes, its first crop was just three fruits. One must start somewhere.

Jujube 2Oct2016// 

Shanah Tovah. May we have a sweet and fruitful 5777! And an exciting end of the (extended) regular season and postseason!

Republicans will likely keep their House majority – even if Clinton wins by a landslide – and it’s because of gerrymandering.

By Michael Latner

While the presidential race has tightened, the possibility of Donald Trump being defeated by a wide margin has some Republicans worried about their odds of retaining control of Congress. However, only a handful of Republican-controlled districts are vulnerable. Speaker Paul Ryan’s job security and continuing GOP control of the House is almost assured, even if Democrats win a majority of the national Congressional vote. How is it that the chamber supposedly responsive to “The People Alone” can be so insulated from popular sentiment? It is well known that the Republican Party has a competitive advantage in the House because they win more seats by narrow margins, and thus have more efficiently distributed voters. What is poorly understood is how the current level of observed bias favoring the GOP was the result of political choices made by those drawing district boundaries.

This is a controversial claim, one that is commonly challenged. However, in Gerrymandering in America: The House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, and the Future of Popular Sovereignty, a new book co-authored by Anthony J. McGann, Charles Anthony Smith, Alex Keena and myself, we test several alternative explanations of partisan bias and show that, contrary to much professional wisdom, the bias that insulates the GOP House Majority is not a “natural” result of demographic sorting or the creation of “majority-minority” districts in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is the result of unrestrained partisan gerrymandering that occurred after the 2010 Census, and in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Vieth v Jubelirer, which removed legal disincentives for parties to maximize partisan advantage in the redistricting process.

Partisan bias tripled after congressional redistricting

We measure partisan bias using the symmetry standard, which asks: What if the two parties both received the same share of the vote under a given statewide districting plan? Would they get the same share of seats? If not, which party would have an advantage?

We calculate seats/votes functions on the assumption of uniform partisan swing – if a party gains 5% nationally, it gains 5% in every district, give or take an allowance for local factors (simulated through random effects that reduce our estimates of bias). Linear regressions provide an estimate of what level of support the Democrats expect to win in each district if they win 50% of the national vote, given the national level of support for the party in actual elections, and we generate a thousand simulated elections with hypothetical vote swings and different random local effects for each district, to create our seats/votes functions.

Figure 1: Seats/Votes function for Congress 2002-2010

Figure 2: Seats/Votes function for Congress 2012

Figures 1 and 2 show the seats/votes functions under the 2002-2010 Congressional districts, and the 2012 post-redistricting districts, respectively. We observe a 3.4% asymmetry in favor of Republicans under the older districts. This is still statistically significant, but it is only about a third of the 9.39% asymmetry we observe in 2012. Graphically, the seats/votes function in Figure 1 comes far closer to the 50%votes/50%seats point. The bias at 50% of the vote is less than 2% under the older state districting plans, compared to 5% in 2012. That is, if the two parties win an equal number of votes, the Republicans will win 55% of House seats. Furthermore, the Democrats would have to win about 55% of the vote to have a 50/50 chance of winning control of the House in 2016. Thus it is not impossible that the Democrats will regain control of the House, but it would take a performance similar to or better than 2008, when multiple factors were favorably aligned for the Democrats.

Increased bias did not result from “The Big Sort” 

Perhaps the most popular explanation for increased partisan bias comes from the “Big Sort” hypothesis, which holds that liberals and conservatives have migrated to areas dominated by people with similar views. Specifically, because Democrats tend to be highly concentrated in urban areas, it is argued, Democratic candidates tend to win urban districts by large margins and “waste” their votes, leaving the Republicans to win more districts by lower margins.

The question we need to consider is whether the concentration of Democratic voters has changed relative to that of Republican voters since the previous districts were in place. In particular, if it is the case that urban concentration causes partisan bias, then we would expect to find relative Democratic concentration increasing in those states where partisan bias increases. In order to address this question, we measure the concentration of Democratic voters relative to that of Republicans with the Pearson moment coefficient of skewness, using county-level data from the 2004 and 2012 presidential elections. As shown in Table 1, in most states the level of skewness toward the Democrats actually decreased in 2012.


In twenty-seven out of the thirty-eight states with at least three districts, the relative concentration of Democratic voters compared to Republican voters declines. Moreover, in those states where partisan bias increased between the 2000 and 2010 districting rounds, those with an increase in skewness are outnumbered by those where there was no increase in skewness, by more than two to one. We also find that there was reduced skewness in most of the states where there was statistically significant partisan bias in 2012.

Of course, we should not conclude that geographical concentration does not make it easier to produce partisan bias. North Carolina was able to produce a highly biased plan without the benefit of a skewed distribution of counties, but to achieve this, the state Generally Assembly had to draw some extremely oddly shaped districts. While the urban concentration of Democratic voters makes producing districting plans biased toward the Republicans slightly easier, it makes producing pro-Democratic gerrymanders very hard. In Illinois, the Democratic-controlled state legislature drew some extremely non-compact districts but still only managed to produce a plan that was approximately unbiased between the parties.

Increasing racial diversity does not require partisan bias

Another “natural” explanation for partisan bias, one that is especially popular among Southern GOP legislators, is that that it is impossible to draw districts that are unbiased while at the same time providing minority representation in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The need to draw more majority-minority districts, it is argued, disadvantages the Democrats because it forces the inefficient concentration of overwhelmingly Democratic minority voters.

There are four states with four or more majority-minority districts – California, Texas, Florida, and New York – and they account for more than 60% of the total number of majority-minority districts. Of these, Texas and Florida have statistically significant partisan bias, but California, Illinois, and New York do not, so the need to draw majority-minority districts does not make it impossible to draw unbiased districting plans. Yet many of the states that saw partisan bias increase do have majority-minority districts – or rather a single majority-minority district in most cases. It is possible that packing more minority voters into existing majority-minority districts creates partisan bias.

To test this possibility, we subtract the average percentage of African-Americans and Latinos in districts where those races made up a majority of the population in the 110th Congressional districts from the 113th Congress averages. Figures 3 and 4 display the results for these states. For majority-Latino districts, we find no evidence that states with increased Latino density have more biased redistricting plans.

Figure 3: Majority-Latino District Density Change and Symmetry Change

Figure 4: Majority-Black District Density Change and Symmetry Change

By contrast, states with increased majority-Black densities have clearly adopted more biased districting plans. Among the states with substantial reductions in partisan symmetry, only Louisiana (−1.9 %), Ohio (−1.0 %), and Pennsylvania (−0.9 %) had lower average percentages of African Americans in their majority-minority districts after redistricting. The three states with the largest increases in majority-Black district density, Tennessee (5.2 %), North Carolina (2.4 %), and Virginia (2.2 %), include some of the most biased plans in the country. This is not in any way required by the Voting Rights Act – indeed, it reduces the influence of African-American voters by using their votes inefficiently. However, it is consistent with a policy of state legislatures seeking partisan advantage by packing African-American voters, who overwhelmingly vote for the Democratic Party, into districts where the Democratic margin will be far higher than necessary.

Demography is not destiny

The bias we observe is not the inevitable effect of factors such as the urban concentration of Democratic voters or the need to draw majority-minority districts. It is for the most part possible to draw unbiased districting plans in spite of these constraints. Thus if state districting authorities draw districts that give a strong advantage to one party, this is a choice they have made – it was not forced on them by geography. The high level of partisan bias protecting GOP House control can only be explained in political terms. As we show in our book, Pro-Republican bias increased almost exclusively in states where the GOP controlled the districting process.

One of the immediate consequences of unrestrained partisan gerrymandering is that, short of a landslide Democratic victory resembling 2008, the Republicans are very likely to retain control of the House. But one of the more profound consequences is that redistricting has upended one of the bedrock constitutional principles, popular sovereignty. Without an intervention by the courts, political parties are free to manipulate House elections to their advantage without consequence.


Partisan dynamics of support for AV

Maine voters will decide in November whether to use the alternative vote (AV) for all single-winner elections. (I’m not sure about the congressional-district Electoral College votes.) Why does AV have traction, and if it wins, how long can we expect it to last? I assume we need to examine the incentives of party factions. I assume these factions are fighting over a law-making veto point, which is identical to the office itself in a single-winner context. (You can see how I use these assumptions in a working paper on STV, which is the PR cousin of AV.)

Democrats (two factions: regular and insurgent) are the main AV supporters right now. Why? The current Republican governor won with 48 percent of votes in a three-way race. The independent candidate was probably an insurgent Democrat. The 8 percent of voters who supported him probably would have voted for the regular Democrat in his absence. Regular Democrats like AV right now because it would move insurgent Democratic ballots into their column.

Why didn’t regular Democrats like AV before now? As Marsha Mercer notes for Pew:

State legislators in Maine first introduced ranked-choice voting legislation in 2001, when the governor was an independent. They did again when the governor was a Democrat, and once more during the term of current Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

When the bills went nowhere, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting-Maine collected 73,000 signatures for the citizen ballot initiative.

Regular Democrats didn’t like AV in 2010 because the insurgent Democrat led the regular Democrat, implying regular Democratic votes would have transferred to an insurgent Democrat, thereby creating an insurgent Democratic governor.

Why didn’t regular Democrats like AV in 2006? One answer is that they had the governor they wanted, so the “transaction costs” of a referendum campaign outweighed the benefits. But that’s a lazy explanation. Another answer is that AV would have helped elect a right-of-center — ugh, I hate that word — candidate. The lead insurgent Democrat was Barbara Merrill. She has a history of supporting corporations. So a rerun of the 2006 election under AV would have created a Republican governor.

Why didn’t regular Democrats like AV in 2002, just after the first introduction of AV legislation? Again, they had the Democrat they wanted, but that’s the lazy route. A glance at the vote totals shows the Green Party held the balance. “Ahh, the Green Party people would have ranked the Democrat second,” you say. That is not certain. The Green Party of the early 2000s had a reputation for “centrism” (that word again), meaning their votes may well have transferred to a Republican in an AV rerun of 2002. (I’ll let the Green Party explain its preferences.)

So regular Democrats like AV right now because they expect it to help them, not the insurgents. The minute AV elects an insurgent Democrat, regular Democrats will collude with Republicans to repeal AV.

Other lessons:

  1. Greens are not a genuine party of the left, at least not entirely. Many once came from the pain caucus.
  2. You like AV and want to keep it? Don’t run an insurgent Democrat who beats the regular Democrat in first-choice votes. (If you do, the regular will lose, their votes will transfer to the insurgent, Maine will have an insurgent Democratic governor, and the regular Democrats will be angry.)
  3. Are you an insurgent Democrat? Take over the Democratic Party (becoming a regular). That way you can win with AV if the former regulars run their own candidate, win with or without AV if they do not, and scream them down if they run their own candidate

“Votes that count” in different electoral systems

Throughout the discussion on electoral-system reform in Canada, I have seen various social-media posts that purport to compare the percentage of votes that “count” in Canada vs. in existing PR systems. Typically, these posts will cite a figure of 50% of votes counting in Canada and 95% or more in PR countries.

The numbers seemed fishy to me. I do not doubt that votes are substantially more likely to “count” towards election of a representative under PR than under FPTP or other majoritarian systems. But the 95% figure seemed too high.

As I happen to have a dataset of district-level electoral results in many countries at my disposal, it was not too hard to subject the claim to a test. The harder part is knowing how to operationalize “count”. I chose two methods, based on my understanding of the complaint that reform advocates have against FPTP. The problem, it will be seen, as I suspect both methods are being used by these advocates, but different methods for different systems.

The first method is the one that I believe they are applying to Canada, which is: “did my vote contribute to the election of someone in my district?” Guess what–when your district elects one, for many voters the answer is “no”. (And this may be sufficient reason to want to ditch the system!) The second method is one that I suspect the authors of these posts apply when looking at PR systems: “Did the party I voted for win representation?” That is, I suspect a district-level standard is being applied to FPTP, but a national-level one to PR countries. My calculations seem to bear that out.

If we use the first method–district-level count of votes for parties (or candidates) that did not win in the district, we almost nail the 50% figure for the most recent Canadian election for which I have data. In 2011, I get 50.4% of votes across the country “counting” in the sense that they were cast for the winner in the voter’s district.

Across the 25 FPTP elections for which I have complete data, the average figure is 55.8%. The lowest figures are around 47% in several UK and Indian elections, with the highest being 62% or more in the US and Barbados. (What do these latter two countries have in common? Very few votes going to parties other than the top two.)

I then apply that same standard to PR systems. A pause is needed here. Canada is very highly unlikely to adopt nationwide PR, either with a single national district (which I think we can say is politically and constitutionally impossible) or with districts but also nationwide compensation (as in Germany or Denmark, among others). Thus I consider the relevant metric to be those PR systems that employ districts, plural, and no nationwide compensation.

Using the same standard–votes “count” when cast for a party that wins a seat in the district–the mean for (districted) PR systems is 87.2%. That figure is a lot higher than 50%, I will grant. It is also a good deal lower than 95%.

If we look at nationwide (single-district) PR, guess what? 96.5%! A few specific elections come in at 99%, such as the Netherlands, 2002, and Israel, 1951. (Most Israeli and Dutch elections are over 97%, but Netherlands, 1952, was at a paltry 94.7%.) That’s great! However, most PR advocates, unless they are real purists (and not at all realists) do not advocate the adoption of the Dutch or Israeli type of PR.

What about the second standard? Under this one, your vote “counts” if it was cast for a party that won representation somewhere (at least one seat), even if it did not win in your district. As I noted above, I suspect this is the standard being applied, at least implicitly, to the PR countries in the social-media posts I have seen.

By this standard, districted PR systems’ average percentage of votes that count rises to 93.7%. We are almost to 95%! For nationwide PR, it obviously does not change (there’s only one district). What about for FPTP? 97.1%. Canada, 2011, comes in at 99.1%.

I do not actually know if a Canadian voter feels “represented” if she voted NDP but the NDP candidate in her district lost. I suspect many do feel so represented, or else the NDP would not get more than trivial vote shares in districts where it has no chance of winning. Yet it does. Greens can also get votes near or above their nationwide percentage even in many districts that are totally hopeless for them. Perhaps they feel represented by Elizabeth May (the one Green MP) even if they reside in a different district or province. Not as well represented as if their own MP was Green, presumably, but my point is that voters probably tend to think of national party systems when voting, even in districted systems. Yes, even in systems in which districts have one seat apiece.

There may be many reasons to prefer PR over FPTP. I can think of quite a few myself. But the idea of a vote “counting” towards representation may not be one of the more meaningful criteria to use. Or, if it is used, it might be OK not to exaggerate. The difference between 50% (Canada, 2011) and 87% (mean for districted PR) is impressive enough, using the first (district-based) criterion. We don’t need to pretend that twice as many votes “count” under PR as under FPTP. 1.74 times as many is still a lot more!