Canadian electoral reform report

I never thought I would see politicians debating the Gallagher index, but since yesterday’s release of the report of the Canadian parliamentary Special Committee on Electoral Reform, that is indeed what is happening. The Minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef has taken criticism (justified, in my view) for the way she has mocked the idea of relying on the index to guide reform.

While the governing Liberal Party ran on a platform last year saying the 2015 election would be the country’s last under FPTP, now that the Special Committee has reported, the Liberals appear spooked. The majority of the Committee has said there should be a referendum, and has stated a preference for some model of proportionality (preferably with a Gallagher index near 5%).

While the Committee was not specifically tasked with making a detailed recommendation of a new electoral system, the Minister is seizing on an alleged “lack of consensus” while simultaneously insisting there should not be a referendum. Unfortunately, this is looking exactly like the playbook I cynically suggested on 18 November was the Liberals’ intention.

When you combine cries of “no consensus” with “no referendum”, it might be because (1) you really do not want proportional representation, and (2) you fear the voters do.

The process is not over, by any means. But the government looks like it is running for cover, rather than embracing the report of the Committee that it established to carry out a campaign promise.

Canadian electoral reform process: NDP now says there could be a referendum

Canada’s New Democrats are now willing to support a referendum on electoral-system change, “if it means consensus among parties” on the parliamentary committee, which is to report on Dec. 1.

Previously, the NDP and the Liberals and other advocates of reform have been opposed to a referendum, either because they consider the Liberals’ platform pledge (and that of the NDP and Greens) a sufficient mandate for change, or because they fear a referendum can’t be won . Or both. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have consistently said such a big change must not happen without a referendum. Presumably they think they can defeat it.

The above-linked National Post story refers to this as not “the first time the NDP appeared to have out-maneuvered the Liberals on the electoral reform file.” This remark refers to the NDP having successfully forced the Liberals to make the composition of the committee reflect the parties’ shares of the popular vote instead of their shares of seats. The Liberals have a (manufactured) majority of seats, and the norm for committees is generally proportional representation according to seats.

At the time, I thought the Liberals’ concession to their not having a majority was a clear case of “act-contingency”–not wanting to appear opposed to a potentially popular concept of reform, whatever their sincere preferences on their platform commitment once they (surprisingly) won a majority of seats.

However, in recent weeks, I have thought that the non-majority on the committee was opening up a “perfect” opportunity for the Liberals to declare, “sorry, we tried, but could not get cross-party consensus”, and let the status quo remain. The NDP move may be an effort to head off that outcome and take their chances with a referendum. They might need to get a deal with the Conservatives to make it work.

That may not be quite as far-fetched as it seems. Both parties actually could benefit from a moderate PR system. For the NDP, usually the third-largest party nationally, the appeal of PR is obvious. For the Conservatives, the benefit would be from allowing the party’s disparate wings to appeal separately, either as factions competing within small multi-seat districts* or eventually as separate parties, as they were not so long ago.

The next several weeks may determine whether electoral reform can advance, at least to a referendum, against what remain pretty formidable hurdles.

 

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* I am assuming it would have to be STV or open lists. Closed lists are probably out of the question, even as part of an MMP system. And while the NDP and Greens logically prefer MMP (more highly proportional, even with only province-level compensation), the Conservatives and Liberals would like small-magnitude PR, if keeping the status quo looks uncertain. (And if, for the Liberals, AV is out of the question.)

PR for the electoral college? No thanks

The following is a guest post by Nathan Batto

One of the proposals sometimes mooted (by disaffected Democrats) is that electoral votes should be allotted proportionally within each state according to the popular vote. Obviously, since Clinton won the popular vote, she would then win the election!

Not so fast. Let’s run the numbers. There are several different formulae to calculate proportional representation. D’Hondt is quite favorable to big parties; Ste. Laguë is quite favorable to small parties.

Ste. Laguë: Clinton 264, Trump 262, Johnson 10, Stein 1, McMullin 1.
D’Hondt: Clinton 267, Trump 267, Johnson 2, Stein 1, McMullin 1.

In both cases, no one gets a majority. The race would then be thrown into the House, where each state delegation would get one vote. Since Republicans hold majorities in 31 state delegations, Trump would almost certainly be elected president.

Of course, this assumes that no voters changed their votes, but of course small parties would almost certainly get more votes under this system. What that would do is make it very, very hard for either big party to get 270 EVs. Almost every election would be thrown into the House, where the Republicans hold a structural advantage in state delegations due to their popularity in rural America (read: small states). In other words, this reform would make it much harder for the Democrats to win the presidency.

[Nathan notes that the exact numbers could change based on updated vote totals. See comments for a point regarding possible thresholds. –MSS]

Voter choice or partisan interest? The case of ranked-choice voting in Maine

Galvanized by the first ever ranked-choice-voting (RCV) win in a U.S. state, reformers just hours ago held a conference call to build their movement. Ranked-choice voting is a set of voting rules more kind to “outsiders” than our ubiquitous plurality system. Given the unusual strength of America’s two-party system, why do outsider-friendly electoral reforms ever win?

My answer is: a replacement institutional template, losing-party self-interest, and ruling-party disunity. In a recently published paper, I show how this logic can explain the spread of “multi-winner ranked-choice voting” (i.e., proportional representation or PR) in the first part of the 20th century. Losing parties and disgruntled ruling-party factions promote voting-system change in a bid for policy-making influence. Voting reform organizations supply the replacement template.

Does my answer also explain the RCV win in Maine? Is that enough to buy my argument? If the answers are “yes,” reformers would concentrate on jurisdictions with sizable out-parties and fractious ruling parties.

Americanist political scientists would also change the way they think about election “reform.” The dominant trend for more than a century has been to see party and reform as exclusive. Fifty years ago, we would have read about conflict between “machine politics” and “good government.” Now we read about “activists” versus “compromisers,” legacies of Progressivism, and reformer “process-obsession.” What if party itself were a critical reform ingredient? As Jessica Trounstine reminds us in her excellent book, Democratic boss Thomas Pendergast was more than happy to turn the model city charter (without PR) to his own “machine” ends in Kansas City.

Let’s see if my template-loser-faction model explains what just happened in Maine.

The template

“Maine has not elected a governor to a first term with majority support since 1966,” said Jill Ward, President of the League of Women Voters of Maine. “Ranked Choice Voting restores majority rule and puts more power in the hands of voters.” – quoted from FairVote.org

Efforts to enact RCV began in 2001.

The losing party

Circumstantial evidence suggests that, from 2001 until the 2014 re-election of Gov. Paul LePage (R), the Democratic Party either:

1) controlled a policy veto point via the governorship, or

2) did not expect “independent” voters’ ballot transfers under single-winner RCV to help elect its candidates.

How is 2014 different for Democratic Party expectations? If the rhetoric of the current governor is any indication, the Maine Republican Party has become more socially conservative. Perhaps it is now so socially conservative (in Democrats’ minds) that the Democratic Party thinks “independent” voters would rank its candidates over Republicans. Maybe Democrats are thinking: “If we had RCV, we wouldn’t be the losing party.”

The disgruntled, ruling-party faction

My hunch is that this is a group of fiscal conservatives, no longer at home in either state party. That doesn’t make them a disgruntled, ruling-party faction, but it might have made them willing to consider Republicans in earlier years. Consider:

  • Proponent of record for Question 5: An Act to Establish Ranked-choice Voting. Liberal on some economic issues, but supports consumption taxes and income-tax reduction.
  • Two-time independent candidate for governor. Liberal on the environment, ambiguous on economics, but not a conventional Democrat of yore. Endorsed independent candidate Angus King (over the Democrat) to replace outgoing Sen. Olympia Snowe, a famed “moderate” Republican.
  • One-time independent candidate for governor. Quits Democratic Party to run. Wanted Maine “to be the Free Enterprise State.”

Predictions and evidence

Last month I predicted that a coalition of regular Democrats and “the independents” would put RCV over the top. Republicans threw me a curve ball by endorsing RCV the very next day, but, as the proprietor of this blog has written, such endorsements can be strategic.

If I was right, Democrats and “the independents” should have voted for RCV, but the Republicans should not have.

Below I give a rough test of these hypotheses. Here are precinct-level results of the vote in favor of RCV by the vote for each major-party presidential candidate. (Vote shares are overall, not of the two-party vote.) This is preliminary. I only have data so far for 87 percent of precincts, the state has not released official results, and I have not looked at the correlation of RCV support with partisanship in other offices. I don’t yet have a way to get at behavior by “the independents.” Finally, I have not yet run an ecological inference analysis, but I plan to remedy all this later.

As you can see, Democrats seemed to like RCV, and Republicans did not, at least as revealed by presidential voting.

The role of uncertainty

Why don’t “the independents” simply join the Democratic Party if they dislike current Republican positions as much as the Democrats? This is what’s really interesting about the adoption and use of RCV. I argue that groups in reformist alliances do not plan to cooperate on all pieces of legislation. Let’s say Maine ends up with an “independent” governor or a sizable contingent of “independents” in its state legislature. I would not be surprised if we see them working with Democrats on some legislation (e.g., “social”), then with Republicans on other bills (e.g., taxes).

Why don’t Democrats foresee this possibility? Perhaps they recognize that single-winner RCV is not the same as PR. Consequently they may reason that “independents” will not become a bargaining force. Rather, “independent” ballots will bolster the position of Democrats in government.

Then why are “independents” going along with a reform that’s good for Democrats? Perhaps they disagree with Democrats on who’s likely to benefit from strategic voting. As Gary Cox reminds us, strategic voting depends in the end on voter expectations, shaped by elite messaging about precisely which party or candidate is “hopeless” under a given electoral system. The perception that RCV has made elections kinder to outsiders is important. If there really are many sincerely “independent” voters, “independent” candidates may get a toehold in government.

And that’s when things get interesting.