Small national parties in Canada in the 2021 election and the connection of district voting to national outcomes

One of the notable trends in polling leading up to the Canadian election of 20 September is the increasing vote share of the Peoples Party of Canada (PPC). At the same time, polls have captured a steady decline of the Green Party as the campaign reaches its end. These two small parties’ trends in national support appear to be happening in all regions of the country, albeit to different degrees (see the graphs at the previous link). That is, while these parties have different levels of support regionally, their trends are not principally regional. Rather, all regions seem to be moving together. This will be a key theme of this post–that politics is fundamentally national, notwithstanding real difference in regional strengths1 and the use of an electoral system in which all seat winning is very local (in each of 338 single-seat districts or “ridings”).

The PPC is a “populist” party of the right. It seems that the Conservatives’ attempt to position themselves closer to the median voter during this campaign has provoked some backlash on the party’s right flank, with increasing numbers of these voters telling pollsters they will vote PPC.

At The Writ, Éric Grenier offers a look into what the polls say about the type of voter turning to the PPC, and whether they might cost the Conservatives seats. The PPC vote share ranges widely across pollsters but in the CBC Poll Tracker (also maintained by Grenier) it currently averages 6.7%. This would be quite a strikingly high figure for a party that is not favored to win even one seat and probably very unlikely to win more than one.2 The Poll Tracker shows a stronger surge in the Prairies region than elsewhere (3.6% on 14 Aug. just before the election was called to 10.9% when I checked on 19 Sept.) and Alberta (4.6% to 9.0% now), but it is being picked up in polling in all regions (for example, from 2.2% to 4.4% in Quebec and 2.9% to 6.1% in Atlantic Canada).

What I wish I knew: Is a voter more likely to vote PPC if he or she perceives that the party is likely to win at least one seat? This question is central to the “all politics is national” model developed in Shugart & Taagepera (2017) Votes from Seats, in chapter 10. We do not mean “all” to be taken literally. Of course, regional and local political factors matter. We mean that one can model the average district’s effective number of parties based on the national electoral system. More to the point, we argue that the way to think of how party systems form under FPTP (or any simple districted system) is not to think in terms of local “coordination” that then somehow gets projected up to a national party system, but rather that the national electoral system shapes the national party system, which then sets the baseline competition in the district contests.

If the PPC or Greens are perceived as likely to have a voice in parliament–and perhaps especially if the parliament is unlikely to have a majority party– voters who like what a small party proposes may be more inclined to support it, even though few voters live in a district where it has any chance of winning locally. Below I will show two graphs, each based on a mathematical model, showing a relationship of local votes to national seats. The first is based on the total available seats–the assembly size–while the second will be based on the seat outcome, specifically the nationwide effective number of seat-winning parties. The formula derived in the book for the connection to assembly size states the following for FPTP systems (every district with magnitude, M=1, and plurality rule):

NV=1.59S1/12,

where NV is the mean district-level effective number of vote-earning parties and S is the assembly size. Please see the book for derivation and justification. It may seem utterly nuts, but yes, the mean district’s votes distribution in FPTP systems can be predicted when we know only how many districts there are (i.e., the total number of seats). In the book (Fig. 10.2 on p. 156) we show that this sparse model accurately tracks the trend in the data across a wide range of FPTP countries, particularly if they are parliamentary. Here is what that figure looks like:

Of course, individual election averages (shown by diamonds) vary around the trend (the line, representing the above equation), and individual districts (the smear of heavily “jittered” gray dots) have a wide variation within any given election. But there is indeed a pattern whereby larger assemblies tend to be associated more fragmented district voting than is the case when assembly size is smaller. At S=338, Canada has a relatively large assembly (which happens to be almost precisely the size it “should be,” per the cube root law of assembly size).

The model for NV under FPTP is premised on the notion that voters are less attuned to the likely outcome in their own district than they are to the national scene. There is thus a systematic relationship between the national electoral system and the average district’s votes distribution.

Moreover, by combining the known relationship between the national electoral system and the national party system, we can see there should be a direct connection of the district vote distribution to the national distribution of seats. The Seat Product Model (SPM) states that:

NS=(MS)1/6,

where NS is the nationwide effective number of seat-winning parties. For FPTP, this reduces to NS=S1/6, because M=1. In terms of a FPTP system, this basically just means that because there are more districts overall, there is room for more parties, because local variation in strengths is, all else equal, likelier to allow a small party to have a local plurality in one of 400 seats than in one of 100. So, more seats available in the assembly (and thus more districts), more parties winning seats. The model, shown above, connecting district-level votes (NV) to the assembly size (S) then suggests that the more such seat-winning opportunities the assembly affords for small parties, the more local voters are likely to give their vote for such parties, pushing NV up. The process probably works something like this: Voters are aware that some small parties might win one or more seats somewhere, providing these parties a voice in parliament, and hence are likelier to support small parties to some degree regardless of their local viability. It is national viability that counts. “All politics is national.” The posited connection would be more convincing if it could be made with election-specific seat outcomes rather than with the total number of available seats. We can do that! Given the SPM for the national seat distribution (summarized in NS) based on assembly size, and the model for district-level votes distribution (NV), also based on assembly size, we can connect NV to NS algebraically:

NV=1.59NS1/2.

(Note that this comes about because if NS=S1/6, then S=NS6, giving us NV=1.59(NS6)1/12, in which we multiply the exponents in the final term of the equation to get the exponent, 1/2, which is also the square root. A full discussion and test of this formula may be found in my forthcoming chapter with Cory Struthers in an volume in honor of Richard Johnston being edited by Amanda Bittner, Scott Matthews, and Stuart Soroka. Johnston’s tour de force, The Canadian Party System likewise emphasizes that voters think more in terms of national politic than their local contest.)

Here is how this graph looks:

This again shows elections with diamonds and individual districts in small gray dots. The diagonal line is the preceding equation. It most definitely fits well. Note that it even fits India if we base the nationwide party system on the alliances (shown by squares), as we should, given that they and not the many parties are the nationwide actors, whereas each alliance is represented by a given component party in each district. (The graph also shows India if we use individual parties in the calculation of NS, which is useful because it makes clear just how well India, in the era of competing alliances, follows the S model–the one in the first graph. It obviously would not fit the NS model if we did not use the alliances, but again, it is the alliances that it should track with if the model is correct in its grounding district-level vote outcomes in the national balance of seats among the national political forces–parties elsewhere, including Canada, but alliances in India.)4

By implication, this connection of district-level NV to national NS may arise because voters have some estimate of how the national parliament is going to look when they decide whether or not to support a party other than one of the two leading national parties. For instance, a voter wavering between the NDP and the Liberals might be more likely to support the NDP if she estimates that there will be no majority, thereby allowing a smaller party like the NDP to be more influential than if one of the big parties has a majority on its own.

A vote for a much smaller party, like the PPC, might be simply expressive–“sending a message” to the Conservatives that they are not sufficiently right wing or populist. For a purely expressive voter, the national seat outcome may be irrelevant. Such a voter simply wants to register a protest. There still might be a connection to expected national votes: If such a voter thinks the PPC can get 7% he might be likelier to vote for it than if it’s only 3%.3 If, however, the connection runs through thinking about the national parliament, and whether one’s party will have voice there, it should help the party win votes around the country if its potential voters perceive that it will win one or more seats–in other words, that it is viable somewhere. I hope there is some polling data that I can find some day that allows us to get at this question, as it would connect the aggregate outcome demonstrated here with individual-level voter behavior. As the Canadian 2021 campaign has developed, it would be an especially good test of the model’s underlying individual-voter premise, given the surge of a small national party that is probably not likely to have a voice in the House of Commons. (But maybe its voters believe it will! They might even turn out to be correct.)

I do not, however, currently know if any polling or voter surveys exist to get at these questions. Such a survey ideally would ask the respondent how many seats they believe the various parties will get in the election. This would allow a rough construction of voter-expected effective number of seat-winning parties even though no voter actually has to know what that concept means or how to calculate it for the premise of the model to work. Minimally, as noted, it would at least be useful to know if voters choosing a small party think that party will indeed get one or more seats.

I have so far focused on the PPC in the Canadian 2021 election, as a possible example of a wider phenomena connecting local voting to the (expected) national seat outcome. A similar logic on the left side of politics should apply for the Green Party. Does its perceived viability for seats in parliament affect the tendency of voters to vote for it outside the specific districts where it is locally viable? The very big wrinkle this time around for the Greens, however, is that the party is struggling mightily, with an ongoing conflict between its leader and much of the rest of the party. It is currently projected to win no more than two seats, and perhaps none. It might be expected to retain the former leader’s seat in British Columbia, but even that may be in jeopardy with the national party in such disarray.

It is even questionable whether the Green Party still meets the criteria of a “national” party this time around; I do not (yet) have a really precise working definition of how many districts the party must be present in to qualify as “national.” The Green Party has not fielded a candidate in about a quarter of the ridings nationwide. Grenier has reviewed the 86 Green-less constituencies and whether their absence could affect outcomes among the contesting parties. Obviously the connection between expected seat winning nationally and obtaining votes in contests around the country is broken in any district in which there is no candidate running for the party. No candidate, no possibility of the local voters augmenting the party’s aggregate vote total. In any case, the party has dropped in national polls from 5.4% on 14 August to 3.2% now.

Further emphasizing now the Greens may not be a “national” party in this election is the campaign behavior of the leader. The CBC recently noted that the leader, Annamie Paul, is not exactly campaigning like the leader of a national party:

Asked why she hasn’t campaigned in more ridings, Paul acknowledged Friday that some candidates may want her to steer clear. She has campaigned outside of her home riding of Toronto Centre twice so far — once in a neighbouring riding and then Monday, in P.E.I.

Candidates distancing themselves from the leader is not normally a good sign for a party, particularly in a parliamentary system. “All politics is national,” after all. As explained in Votes from Seats (ch. 10), the impact of national politics on local voting is likely enhanced by parties bringing resources into districts to “show the flag” even where they are not likely to win a seat. (The PPC leader is certainly doing this.) If your leader remains mostly ensconced in her own district, the party is not deploying what is normally one of its best resources–the leader making the case for her party.

Nonetheless, it still might matter for the party’s ability to get votes, even in ridings it surely will not win, whether its potential voters believe it is viable for seat-winning somewhere. The good news for the party–and there is little of that–is that the province where it currently holds two seats, BC, is one of those where its polling has declined least: 7.0% on 14 August to 6.3% now. So, politics is still at least a bit more regional for the Greens than for other “national” parties, perhaps.

In conclusion, the district-level extension of the Seat Product Model states that in FPTP systems, district-level effective number of vote-earning parties can be predicted from the national electoral system–specifically, the assembly size. By further extension (in the aforementioned chapter I am working on with Struthers for the volume honoring Johnston), it should also be tied to the nationwide effective number of seat-winning parties, and to voter perceptions in the campaign as to how parties are doing at the national level. The result would be that voters are more likely to vote for even a small party under FPTP to the extent that they expect it to have a voice in parliament, and to the extent that the parliament may not have a majority party. The Canadian 2021 election, with a surging small party (the PPC) and another one declining (the Greens) offers an excellent case study of the phenomenon that is behind these models.

___________

Notes:

1. Obviously, things are different for an explicitly regional party (one that does not present candidates outside its region) like the Bloc Quebecois, which I will leave aside for this current discussion.

2. Perhaps it has some chance of winning the leader’s riding of Beauce (in Quebec), but as Grenier notes in a post the day before the election:

There’s nothing about Bernier’s Beauce riding that makes it particularly open to a party that has been courting the anti-vaxxer, anti-vaccine mandates and anti-lockdowns crowd. It’s hard to know where in the country that crowd would be big enough to elect a PPC MP.

He does also note that one poll, by EKOS, has put the party second in Alberta, albeit with only 20% of the vote. Maybe they could get a local surge somewhere and pick up a seat there.

3. Indeed, it might seem that we could make a similar algebraic connection. The Seat Product Model expects national effective number of vote-earning parties to be NV=[(MS)1/4 +1]2/3. This is confirmed in Votes from Seats. However, this can’t easily be expressed in terms of just S (even for FPTP, where the term for M drops out) and therefore is complicated to connect to the NV formula. In any case, the theoretical argument works better from seats–that voters key on the expected outcome of the election, which is a distribution of seats in parliament and whether one or another party has a majority or not. These outcomes are summarized in the effective number of seat-winning parties.

4. This graph is a version of the one that will be shown in the previouysly mentioned Shugart & Struthers chapter.

Reforming the California recall-replacement process

What a relief. It turned out like the fundamentals of this state said it should all along. But the risk was high. Maybe those polls that showed the recall ahead or close were just rogues. But a process that lets a motivated minority potentially replace an effective but unexciting incumbent with someone elected by a small percentage of the vote is deeply undemocratic. 

It needs to be reformed before an extremist minority puts us through such an attempted power grab again, and maybe pulls it off. So this planting is all about brainstorming for some possible improvements to the process.

As I have noted before, I oppose recalls in principle, at least against the elected chief executive. I explained why in the first in my series on this recall. But for this discussion, I will assume we are stuck with a recall provision, and only focus on how it could be improved. I also am limiting myself to recalls of elected governors (or by extension, presidents), and not to all the other offices that are, or might be, subject to recall.

Minimal changes

The California process of initiating a recall is probably the most favorable to an incumbent’s opponents. Without undermining the principle of allowing the people to recall a governor, there are numerous ways the hurdle could be made higher. FiveThirtyEight has already done a helpful rundown of how California’s provisions compare to those of other US states.

Possible reforms, drawn from experiences of other states, include raising the petition signature requirement (currently just 12% of the number of voters who participated in the previous gubernatorial election) and shortening the time during which petitions can circulate (currently 160 days).

While reforms of this sort are probably a good idea, they are very minimal. There are more fundamental problems with the process, once qualified. These problems do not go away unless the qualification becomes so onerous that effectively a recall election is never triggered. And while some tightening of the criteria may now be likely, it is unlikely the conditions will be greatly restricted.

Somewhat more significant changes for recall

Somewhat more significant options including requiring a claim of malfeasance, rather than we just do not like you, as a basis for petitioning for a recall, or requiring a supermajority to vote in favor of the recall. I do not think the first of these ideas is easily enforceable. (What are the criteria, and who decides if they have been met and so an election is triggered?)

The supermajority idea is attractive. Obviously, a supermajority privileges the status quo, and that is why I normally do not approve of such rules other than perhaps for constitutional changes. Yet in a system based on fixed terms, privileging the status quo is not such a bad idea–the officeholder serves his or her original term unless a strict condition for termination has been met. Nonetheless, I would be concerned about the continued legitimacy and effectiveness of a governor whom a majority of voters–but less than three fifths or two thirds or whatever–had voted to oust.

One could also set a rule that says the recall has not succeeded unless it obtains a majority that is also a greater number of voters than originally voted for the governor in the last election. This is de-facto a supermajority requirement, but it sets the threshold according to the existing electoral base of the incumbent instead of at a fixed level. I retains the same problems I noted with a specific supermajority threshold, but I do rather like the idea nonetheless. See Frozen Garlic for a good statement of the general principle “that recalling an elected official should be significantly harder than electing that same official”; the post has some specific suggestions for implementing that principle. That blog is about elections in Taiwan, where there are recalls and there is a turnout requirement for it to be valid (but it is low, at 25%).

Reforms to the replacement election

Here is where the most important changes could be made. Currently, all state officeholders in California are elected by majority in a “top two” runoff election–unless they are replacing a recalled officeholder. Per Section 5(a) of the California Constitution, “The candidates who are the top two vote-getters at a voter-nominated primary election for a congressional or state elective office shall, regardless of party preference, compete in the ensuing general election.” However, Section 15(c), regarding recalls, says “If the majority vote on the question is to recall, the officer is removed and, if there is a candidate, the candidate who receives a plurality is the successor. The officer may not be a candidate…”

An obvious solution is to clean up this contradiction. Why should a replacement be eligible to be elected by only a plurality when the officeholder being replaced was elected by a majority? This violates the previously articulated principle by making it easier to replace than to initially elect. Among the strange things about recall-replacement elections in this state is that there is no primary. Of course, readers of this site know that we do not have primaries at all anymore (other than for presidential nominating delegates). What Section 5(a) calls a “primary” is actually not a primary; it is just the first round of a two-round majority election in which party affiliation is not a criterion regarding who advances to the runoff (as quoted previously, “regardless of party preference”). In any case, how we label this process is not the point–important though it is!. The point is that there is a prior qualifying round for general elections, but not for the special election that chooses a replacement. This should be corrected.

Any correction should also resolve the current undemocratic “trainwreck” criterion that a replacement can win fewer votes than the recalled officer had not merely when previously elected but also in the same election. If a majority is required to elect the replacement, this problem is mostly solved. But how to do it? Here are a few possibilities.

(1) Replicate the current general-election process, that is, have a preliminary round (“primary”) and then a top-two runoff, in the event a majority has voted to recall the incumbent.

A key problem with this is it could result in having three special election dates to complete the process: the recall, then if a majority votes for it, a qualifying election, and then if no candidate wins a majority, a runoff. Such a proposal is not likely to fly.

(2) An alternative would be to hold the qualifying round concurrent with the recall question. If the recall passes by majority, but no single replacement candidate wins a majority, then there is a top-two runoff a few weeks later. This would turn a potentially three-round process into a maximum of two, and might still allow it to be over in one round.

If this option were chosen, I would explicitly permit the recalled officer to run in the qualifying round on the same day. If he or she is one of the top two, then the recalled official proceeds to the runoff against a single challenger. If a majority votes to retain the previously recalled governor, so be it. A majority has decided it did not see a single replacement who was better than the incumbent after all. (This sub-option that I suggest is not necessary for the general principle of two rounds to be adopted.)

(3) Yet another possibility is to dispense with the recall question altogether. A successfully qualified recall petition simply triggers a special election in which the incumbent may stand alongside whatever replacement candidates have qualified. The incumbent survives unless a single replacement candidate earns a majority of votes cast. It is all over in one round, and on one question. It would have the advantage of forcing coordination among the opponents, because they need a majority and get only one chance at it.

A potential flaw is the incumbent could survive without even a plurality if coordination fails and there are many candidates, which raises those legitimacy questions again. But the goal is to make it hard to replace, not hard to continue. A twist would be to say there is a runoff if and only if the incumbent finishes second or worse to a challenger who has fallen short of a majority. (Such a runoff probably should include the incumbent even if he or she finished lower than second, but I don’t feel strongly about that particular sub-option.)

By now, some readers will be impatient that I have not mentioned the ranked-choice option. Okay, here you go.

(4) Using ranked-choice voting (RCV) is a simple solution that could be done in one round of voting either with, or without, two questions. The smallest change would be to have two separate questions like we currently do, but the replacement is by ranked-choice voting (alternative vote). A better–I think–option would be the single question: rank as many of the following candidates, including the incumbent, as you wish.

I do not favor these RCV options because we have seen we can have dozens of candidates enter. Asking voters to rank a huge field, where at least the major out-party may have several candidates, is asking a lot of the voters. Moreover, with many candidates, many voters will not rank them all, and the chances are high that the winner will still have only a plurality. This is a general problem with RCV in an effectively non-partisan context (i.e. when multiple parties have not each pre-selected a single candidate). I do not favor this, although I recognize it as an improvement over the status quo. Almost anything would be.

Abolish the replacement election

We have a Lieutenant Governor. The main point of such an office is to replace the incumbent Governor if the latter is unable to discharge his or her duties. If a recall passes, have the Lt.Gov. take over and there is no need to have a special replacement election. This makes a great deal of sense, and I’d be happy with it. Voters might not be, and so its chance of being enacted as a constitutional reform in California is likely not high.

Think big

As I explained earlier (see first linked post), one of my objections to gubernatorial (or presidential) recall is that it targets one officeholder. If we are talking impeachment for malfeasance, that’s fine. But in reality, a recall is a just another political process–even more than impeachment, which is also political. If the objection of the potential majority in favor of recall is discontent with policy, the problem is clearly not only with one person. So recall them all! Have a recall process that simply initiates an early election for the entire legislature as well as the governor. Sort of like an early dissolution in a parliamentary system. Go back to the people and get new policymakers, or if the voters prefer, reelect them all.

I do not actually favor this. But I mention to make a point–recalls are about attempting to reset the terms of delegation from voters to their agents in government. So it sensibly should not be used to target a single individual (again, unless there is some process specifically targeting only a corrupt individual officeholder).

So there you have it. These are the ideas I have come up. What are yours? What do you think of these? We desperately need to change this process before a minority power grab succeeds in the future, but how?

How the German overhang and compensation system works

Heinz Brandenburg on Twitter walks readers through a very useful explainer on how the current Germany version of MMP deals with overhangs through a multi-layered compensation mechanism, and why it could mean the new Bundestag will top out at more than 800 seats!

It is best to read it in its native Twitter, but following is the text of most of it (courtesy of the ThreadReader app) . The starting point, not quoted here, is a poll of current party standing in the state of Bavaria.

[the remainder of this text is not mine, but Brandenburg’s; numbers correspond to tweets in the thread]

____________________________________________________________________________

Last time around, the CSU won 38.8% of the vote but all of the constituencies in Bavaria (they even swept all of Munich). That results in so-called overhang and compensatory seats.
How are these calculated?

1/ Well, there are 93 regular seats allocated to Bavaria, 46 of which are constituencies. CSU winning them all meant 46 seats, but they only had 38.8% of the list vote or about 42% of the vote once you discount votes for parties that did not get into the Bundestag.

2/ 42% of the vote would mean their proportional share of seats was 39, not 46. So they got 7 Ueberhangmandate (overhang seats), i.e. 7 more seats than their proportional share.

3/ Since 2013, these seats have to be compensated for. So other parties get additional seats, to the extent that the 46 seats the CSU won amount to 42% of the total number of seats in Bavaria.
So Bavaria actually had 108 seats in the Bundestag, not 93. 

4/ But that is not the end of it. Bavaria’s 93 seats are proportional to its population size. If the state’s seat share increases to 108, then the 15 other states also need a larger share. And it wasn’t only Bavaria. 

5/ Baden-Wuerttemberg got 96 instead of 76 because of the CDU winning all constituencies, Brandenburg 25 instead of 20 because CDU won all but one constituency, Hamburg 16 instead of 12 because SPD won all but one constituency, and so on.

6/ What happens then is that to keep the 16 states’ share of seats in the Bundestag proportional, not only overhang seats within states need to be compensated, but overhang and compensatory seats within states have to be compensated across states.

7/ So North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the biggest German state, did not produce any overhang seats, because SPD and CDU are more evenly balanced there. But it got 14 compensatory seats, to make up for additional seats given to other states. 

8/ It is not a perfect compensation across states. Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg have 15 and 20 seats, respectively, more than their normal share in the 2017 Bundestag. NRW only 14, despite being the larger state.

9/ Berlin, Niedersachsen and NRW were the only states where no overhang seats were dished out in 2017, largely a reflection of dominance of the CDU in a fragmenting party landscape. 

10/ CDU won all seats in five states, almost all seats in over a dozen states, despite having their worst election result in history, with 33%.

Could be very different this time around, with them down to 20% and the SPD at 25%. More states could get away without overhang seats.

11/ But one single state can make a big difference, and if the result in Bavaria is anywhere close to the recent polls (CSU 28%) it could be a dramatic effect.

12/ Even at 28%, the CSU would like win almost all constituencies. These are the four most marginal seats. Muenchen-Nord and Nuernberg-Nord are most likely to fall to the SPD. But the others are not certain.

So the CSU could still end up with 42-44 seats, on just 28% of the vote, or 31% if we remove votes for parties that do not get into the Bundestag.

14/ By my calculations, that would mean Bavaria’s seat share increases to 129 seats from their current 108 (and their nominal allocation of 93).

Once other states are compensated, that would get us to possibly 840 seats. 

15/ A few changes have been made, which I have taken into account – the first three overhang seats will not be compensated, which would keep Bavaria’s share at 129 rather than 135 under 2017 rules.

16/ And overhangs can also be compensated against a party’s list seats in other states. But I don’t think that applies to the CSU. They won’t take CDU seats away in other states to compensate for CSU over-representations.

17/ So one such lop-sided result, under increasing fragmentation – where suddenly 28% of the vote share allow a party to win almost all constituencies – can have incredible effects on the size of the Bundestag.

18/ The nominal size of the Bundestag is 598. This one result in Bavaria could increase the size of parliament by 40%.

Thailand electoral system change–again

The parliament of Thailand has again adopted electoral system changes. However, the WaPo is confused (and confusing) about what has been done. On the one hand, it says it is a “system of mixed-member proportional representation” (MMP).

On the other hand, it also says the new system is “a throwback to the system implemented under a 1997 constitution that sought to disadvantage smaller parties.”

Only one of those statements can be true.

The 1997 system was definitely mixed-member majoritarian (MMM), sometimes called a “parallel” system, and was indeed highly disadvantageous to small parties, by design. So much so, that its effective magnitude is probably best considered somewhat less than one. That is, despite a component of seats that are themselves allocated proportionally, its effect on the party system would be more like that of a multi-seat plurality system than like FPTP, let alone MMP.

It may be that the current system is indeed already MMP, based on what was enacted in 2016. So I am not saying that the statement about the new system being a “throwback” must be the true one, rather than the one about it being MMP.

The only clear statement in the WaPo article about a change from the status quo is that it will “give voters two separate ballots instead of the single one used in the 2019 election.” This is not a variable that divides MMP from MMM, but rather one that can take either value (one vote or two) within either type.

Thailand has changed its electoral system so many times that I can’t keep track. But it would not seem too much to ask of journalists reporting on electoral system changes to have a basic grasp of the topic so as to avoid making contradictory statements like the ones quoted above.

Are soft NDP voters switching to save Liberals?

In my earlier preview of September elections, I noted that the surge in polls for the Conservatives in the Canadian election might lead to the NDP losing votes. It is possible this is happening now.

In recent days, the Liberals have returned to a narrow lead in votes and strengthened their existing seat lead, according to the CBC poll tracker. At the same time, there is a notable dip in NDP votes and seats.

We need to be careful about inferring individual change from aggregate trends. But the most likely cause of what the poll tracker and its seat estimator are picking up is softer NDP voters worried about a Conservative plurality.

Note that this would be strategic voting, but not based on district-level expected outcomes (“coordination”), rather on national-level expectations. “All politics is national”, as Taagepera and I put it in the title of our chapter (10) on predicting district patterns from the Seat Product Model in Votes from Seats.

Here are screen shots from the poll tracker on the morning of 12 Sept.

Votes:

Estimated seats:

The challenge for voters who prefer the NDP over Liberals but are motivated more by stopping the Conservatives is that some of them may be in districts where the Conservatives wouldn’t have won anyway. But some of these voters may help the Liberals win a majority of seats—the poll tracker shows this outcome back within its 95% confidence interval. Yet the sort of voter I am describing wound surely prefer a Liberal minority with a strong NDP third-party caucus.

Getting just the right amount of strategic voting is hard when seats are determined one-by-one, but voters key mostly in national expectations. Yet this is exactly the best available information, which voters tend to employ in choosing voting strategy, according not only to the Seat Product Model, but also Richard Johnston’s The Canadian Party System.

It appears the Liberals have regained their stalled momentum and thus Justin Trudeau just might get what he was seeking after all. On the other hand, a short-term trend need not continue, and at the moment the most likely result still seems to be a Liberal plurality of seats.

So all can have wins for their voters

Yes, this is how coalitions work. Sometimes politicians give you quotes that are just golden, in how they show real-world recognition of the political-science understanding of political processes.

We are in continuous dialogue with everyone — the left-wingers from Meretz and Labor, and the right-wingers from New Hope — so that all can have wins to show their voters.

The quotation is from Idit Silman, the Coalition Chair for the current Israeli government. “So that all can have wins for their voters” is just what I was getting at in explaining why I think the government will be able to pass its budget and accompanying package of policy reforms. Each party has an interest in the government surviving, and for that, each party must have some policy outputs it can credit-claim for. Ensuring this can happen is precisely the job of the chair of the coalition.

The TOI article in which the quote appears also details the misogyny she is putting up with from the opposition. The Netanyahu sycophants in Likud, and its “religious” party allies really show their true values, and how bereft they are of ideas for governance.

Elections in September, 2021–campaigns matter

It won’t be quite like September, 2005, back when the virtual orchard was just a sapling, but somewhat like that September sixteen years ago featured several interesting elections, this month also looks great for election watchers.

In September, 2005, we had elections in three major examples of mixed-member systems: Japan, New Zealand, and Germany. (As I look back, I see I wrote several times about Afghanistan’s election that month; I am guessing there will no longer be a need for new Afghanistan elections plantings. I also see lost of posts about a hurricane disaster in New Orleans. Some things do recur, though fortunately in this case not on as horrific a scale, though bad enough.)

In September, 2021, we have the California recall. I don’t have anything at the moment to say about that beyond what I’ve already said. We have Germany, again, with its general election on 26 Sept. And we have Canada, on 20 Sept. There are also various other elections this month, but these are the two I will focus on here.

The German election for this September has been known about for a long time, as it is occurring on schedule (unlike the one in 2005). The Canadian one, on the other hand, is a snap election as one would not have been due till 2023. Both of these elections are going to become case studies in how campaigns really can matter.

For months it has seemed certain that in Germany, the ruling Christian Democratic/Christian Social “Union” bloc (CDU/CSU) would again come out on top, with the Greens in second place and a likely new coalition partner. Then a funny thing happened: the Social Democratic Party (SPD), for years seemingly finished as a major party, started to surge and seemingly now has pulled ahead of the CDU/CSU. The range of coalition possibilities is suddenly rather large, with some novel possibilities in the cards.

The election is also notable compared to past German elections in that the incumbent Chancellor (prime minister), Angela Merkel (CDU) is not a candidate to remain head of government. In fact, it seems likely that the campaign has caused voters to reckon with the with the less than inspiring leadership of the party’s chosen successor to Merkel (Armin Laschet), to feel less than sure they are ready to make the Greens potentially the largest or even second largest party, and to have turned to the SPD and its new leader, Olaf Scholz as the potential safe pair of hands to lead the government. These three parties seem certain to be the big three, but with the largest still below 25% in polls, it will probably take three parties to forge a majority coalition (taking the Union as one for purposes of government-formation, even though it is actually two parties). Unless all three govern together, or the current no-so-grand coalition clears a majority fo seats and continues in power, only with the SPD on top, it is going to take some combination involving the Free Democrats (FDP) to have a majority coalition. The post-election bargaining will be interesting (FDP with either Greens or SPD is not “natural”), and thus the election will really matter for which combines are possible and how much bargaining power each party has.

In Canada, the Liberal Party of incumbent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looked safe to be not only the largest party, but also to win a majority of parliamentary seats. In fact, given that the election timing was the government’s choice, that is precisely why it is happening–to convert a minority Liberal government into a majority Liberal government. Then Trudeau called the election and a funny thing happened: his party started sinking in the polls and the Conservatives appear to have caught up. In votes, that is.

As in 2019, the Conservatives could lead in votes and still come second in seats. The Conservatives probably need to win the votes by more than a couple percentage points to have a reasonably good chance at a plurality of seats, due to their inefficient vote distribution across the country. A majority Conservative government probably requires that party to keep adding support at a rapid pace, and that may be happening. Yet if that continues, some voters would probably dessert the New Democratic Party (NDP), currently running at around 20%, in favor of the Liberals. Given the FPTP electoral system, of course, such NDP desertion for the Liberals would not be guaranteed to help the latter at the aggregate seat-winning level, although it probably would do so. (Canada’s Green Party, meanwhile, is in a shambles, largely because its black, female, Jewish leader was not sufficiently anti-Israel for others in the party.) One thing seems safe to say at this point: A Liberal majority has become rather unlikely.

That’s the funny thing about campaigns. Sometimes they actually matter.

The MLB playoff system, first (?) rant of 2021

I’ve complained many times about the MLB playoff system. In fact, when I was looking back on September, 2005 (while drafting the entry on this month’s elections) I happened upon my plea for MLB to develop an anti-mediocrity provision, on account of the Padres leading their division in late August, and thus looking assured of a postseason berth, despite being under .500. The Padres did end that season over .500, barely, at 82-80. This was the seventh best record in the National League that year, yet they ended up coasting in to the playoff with a five game lead in their division, while the Phillies (88-74), and Marlins and Mets (both 83-79) sat out. (The Astros were the single Wild Card included in the postseason at the time, at 89-73, being in the same division with the Cards who went 100-62). Every team in the NL East was at .500 or better.

Here we are in 2021, with another absurdity of the playoff format on display as we enter the final weeks of the season. There is no sub-.500 team threatening to make the playoff, fortunately. However, there is a problem potentially even worse: The team with the second best record in the NL could end up playing only one playoff game despite a THIRTEEN AND A HALF GAME lead over the team it would face in the single Wild Card Game. Meanwhile, a team with the fifth best record (currently the Braves, leading the NL East) goes straight to a Division Series.

As I write this, an important regular-season showdown series is about to begin, between the old rivals, the Dodgers and Giants. This will be exciting! The two are currently tied for best record, at 85-49. If there is one good thing we can say about the current playoff format, it is that it certainly matters which of these teams wins the division, and hence goes straight to a Division Series, while the other faces a single-elimination game against the second Wild Card.

Therein lies precisely the problem. It would be a travesty if the team with the second best record happened to lose that one game and be out. You just should not set up a baseball postseason so that one game, rather than a series, can end the post-season of one of your top two teams. Yet at the moment, the second Wild Card slot is held by a team (the Reds) that is 13.5 games behind the Dodgers/Giants. The Padres, who not too many weeks ago seemed a shoo-in for this slot, are another half game back, in a fight not only with the Reds but also with the Phillies (2.5 out in the WC as well as just 2 out in the NL East) and Cards.

It seems that even with two wild cards, there is still a need for an anti-mediocrity provision. I’d say the fundamental problem–now as it was in 2005–is with the privilege in the postseason seeding given to division winners. I understand the value MLB places on having regional representation (kind of like I understand that in electoral systems!), but there needs to be more privilege to the overall national result (again, as in my electoral-system preferences!). I have had a proposal over the years, although it was for four teams per league advancing, not the current five. Surely institutional designers could come up with a better system than one that pits a team that might be just behind–or even tied for–the best record against a mediocre team in a single-game playoff, while still giving an appropriate benefit for being the best regular-season team.

How close the Boysenberry came to being lost–and a little Knotts-stalgia

I am always interested in fruit-variety stories. Many famous varieties of fruit were discovered quite by chance, or were deemed lost and then recovered. It seems the boysenberry has an interesting origin story. While I knew it was Knott’s Berry Farm, in Buena Park, California, near where I grew up, that had popularized this variety of berry, until reading a history of Knott’s, I did not know this part of the story:

Amid the Great Depression, Walter [Knott] was making a name for himself with his berries, and in 1932 a man named George M. Darrow heard about a superior berry that was said to be created by a “Mr. Boysen.” Darrow figured Walter would know this Mr. Boysen due to their mutual interest in berries, however Walter admitted he did not, but suggested they look up Boysen in the phonebook. This led them to Rudolph Boysen in Anaheim. Boysen admitted to experimenting with berries, but left them behind on his previous property. Together the three men found Boysen’s long-forgotten berry plant in a ditch covered in weeds and without berries. Boysen said the plant was a cross between a red raspberry, blackberry, and loganberry. After securing permission from the new owners, Walter took cuttings back to Buena Park to plant and cultivate. One year later Walter had a welcome surprise — massive berries! In 1934, Walter had enough cuttings and berries to introduce the new boysenberry as a commercial product…

While I am on the nostalgia trip about Knott’s and the theme park that grew up around the original berry farm and its fried chicken restaurant, I want to quote this passage from the history, as well:

The Knott family struggled through the Great Depression, but in 1934 Cordelia [Knott, wife of Walter] had an idea that would change everything. On a June evening, Cordelia made eight fried chicken dinners for her Tea Room guests. Served alongside salad with rhubarb, biscuits, vegetables, mashed potatoes with gravy, and berry pie on the family’s wedding china, the dinner cost 65 cents. Walter recalled the moment was “the turning point in our economic life.” It was really the turning point that would transform a farm into a theme park.

Word spread of this delicious fried chicken and soon people were flocking to the little farm and Tea Room in Buena Park. The small dining room originally sat 20, and in 1935 they expanded it to 40, only to have to expand it again the following year to accommodate 70. Cordelia’s little Tea Room had become a full-fledged restaurant and when they expanded to seat 350 they figured people would no longer have to wait, but they did!

Indeed, I was there many times with my mother, and we almost always had to wait. This would have been in the 1970s. In addition to that memory, I also can recall back to before there was a fence and required admission fee, before 1968. My mom and aunt would go out do whatever the sisters liked to do, and leave me with Uncle Bob. He often took me to Knott’s and we would just walk around–maybe taking in a few rides or other attractions (for which individual tickets were sold) and certainly riding the train–and mostly just sitting on a bench and watching the goings on. Uncle Bob was always one to strike up conversations with strangers about… whatever.

Fun times. I do not think I have been to Knott’s since the 1980s. But I understand the berry pies and chicken dinners are still going strong.

Is the current Israeli coalition “consensus” or “majoritarian”?

The title above must seem like a trick question. The current Israeli coalition government consists of eight parties–or perhaps more accurately, seven parties that have cabinet ministers plus a formally committed support party. It bridges left and right, and includes a party of the Arab minority (the support party, without which the parties around the cabinet table lack a majority). So that would seem to fit the definition of a “consensus” government pretty well, per definitions like that of Lijphart.

On the other hand, it has just about the narrowest majority possible (61 seats, or on a good day 62, out of 120). The concept of consensus democracy, per Lijphart, is that governance encompass as wide a range of representatives of social and political groups as possible. This new Israeli government is thus both “broad” and “narrow” at the same time!

We might expect a government that has such a diverse mix of parties and a narrow parliamentary basis to be very cautious. Any bold move could cause it to break apart; in fact, in its first big legislative test it failed to pass anything and allowed a policy reversion point surely not preferred by any member party to stand. It has had other policy failures as well. Yet, as it develops the most important measure it will deal with in its first year, the state budget, it is so far looking surprisingly bold. The headline of an article by Haviv Rettig Gur from 28 July makes the point succinctly: “New budget bill shows coalition launching sweeping reforms despite fragility.” Another from 8 August states the government “aims to transform Israel.”

The measures being incorporated into the budget include reforms to the state’s relationship with it Arab citizens, competition in the kosher-supervision process, a reduction in trade protection, liberalization of the agricultural sector, easing rules concerning electric vehicles, making the banking system more competitive, and a “regulatory revolution.” As Gur explains in the 28 July article, these measures are in the so-called Arrangements Bill, a required companion to the spending bill that delineates structural and policy reforms needed to make the numbers in the more narrowly defined budget bill work.

The idea of sweeping reforms and transformative policy seems more in keeping with majoritarian models of government, which typically are on the classic Westminster model. In such a system, a bare parliamentary majority–albeit one normally not based on a popular vote majority– is able to push through its perceived “mandate” for policy change against an opposition that can complain but not block. Of course, this model assumes–by common definition–a single party controlling the parliamentary majority. How can a fragile multiparty coalition, which does not even include the largest single party, be bold like this?

The answer is certainly not because there is not resistance. Interest groups that benefit from the status quo have ramped up a campaign against reforms, and surely some of the reforms will be phased in, watered down, or dropped before the budget finally passes. Indeed, Gur notes:

These reforms share one characteristic: All have been advocated for many years, but could not advance due to resistance from industry groups, government agencies or various political factions. Haredi parties stood in the way of taxing sugary drinks and plasticware, while farmers’ and manufacturers’ lobbies resisted the agriculture and import reforms.

He further suggests that the unwillingness to advance reforms under previous Likud-led governments was grounded in a basic feature of those governments: they were built around a single relatively dominant party with a dominant leader.

The past 12 years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule were marked by tight control over the cabinet and the coalition. New initiatives and controversial reforms were reined in; fewer initiatives meant fewer destabilizing fights. Stability was paramount, so nothing that could cause dissension within the coalition was allowed to advance. No one even contemplated reforms to the state religious bureaucracies as long as Haredi parties were in the coalition. Wherever possible, domestic policy was farmed out to relevant interest groups.

I agree with this interpretation, and it is indeed probably what we would expect from coalitions comprised of one “large” party that is actually so small as to have held, on several occasions, only around half of the needed 61 seats, plus a smattering of small and often sectoral parties. But shouldn’t a government with no big party at all, like the current one, be even more fragile and stymied by the need to avoid defections?

Maybe not. As Gur says, “It’s a government keenly aware that any of its member factions could topple it at any moment. It is in that sense a more egalitarian cabinet than any in Israel’s history.” I think this is accurate, but I’d go a step farther. It is a government that consists of several parties that have not been in a governing majority for many years (like Meretz, or ever, like Ra’am), or were formed explicitly to get Netanyahu out of power (New Hope), or who currently exercise senior ministerial positions such as they they previously were able to hold only in a subordinate position to Netanyahu (thinking here of Yisrael Beiteinu, recent past incarnations of Labor, as well as the government’s two core power-sharing/alternating partners, Yesh Atid and Yamina). Benny Gantz’s Blue & White probably straddles a couple of those categories–formed initially to get Netanyahu out of power, and then accepting a decidedly subordinate role to him in the previous “alternating” government.

That is, this government came together around a new cleavage–opposition to the previous Prime Minister, not a specific policy or ideological cleavage. Each party in the government has reasons to prefer making this work to the alternative, which might very well be a new Netanyahu-led coalition that some of these parties would have to join for it to have a majority. No one in the new majority wants that–at least for now. And most of these governing parties might lose seats if there were a new election before the government they were in could show any progress on which to run.

The situation just described is strikingly like a majoritarian pattern of government. For at least the current moment, these parties need a record of joint achievement to run on (albeit still as separate parties) in the next election. They are thus collectively accountable in a way that more resembles a single-party majority than it resembles many past Israeli governments of one relatively large party buttressed by a bunch of small ones.

The Israeli government change earlier this year shows that accountability–the usual selling point of two-party dominant majoritarian systems–can be achieved even under conditions of party-system fragmentation. The government was made possible only because a new party, Gideon Saar’s New Hope, offered an alternative option for voters on the right that Yamina (the party of new PM Naftali Bennet) was able to go along with, and in fact end up (co-)leading. Only via those mechanisms was it possible to produce alternation in government. And now because the parties all need to work together to deliver for their own distinct interest-group and ideological constituencies it needs to push a bold reform agenda on which to be accountable at the next election. I think the point holds even if we assume that these parties will never seek a renewed collective mandate at election time, to be reelected as a government. I assume they will not do that, unless perhaps if Netanyahu is still leading Likud at the next election and none of these parties prefer working with him again. But in the meantime, they are kind of stuck with one another, and need to show results.

This moment in Israeli politics is thus quite majoritarian, despite all the parties that must forge a consensus to keep their government together. I am using the term, majoritarian, in a way that is more consistent with how some recent literature has used it, which is somewhat different from Lijphart’s sense. For Lijphart, part of the definition of majoritarianism is “single-party, bare majority” governments. However, more recent works suggest that we can conceptualize majoritarianism as parties that collectively reflect a majority of voters and can pass policy with a bare majority of parliament sufficing. Some significant works I am thinking of that have made key contributions to this conception of majoritarianism include McGann, Latner and McGann, Ganghof, and Li. This conception is in contrast to the core notion of the consensus pattern of democracy, which implies super-majorities, either due to institutional requirements (like strong bicameralism or an entrenched constitution that must be amended to carry out significant policy change) or due to oversized coalitions (those that contain more parties than needed to comprise a majority). Basically, what has happened here should become the new textbook definition of how PR-parliamentarism should work: creating the opportunity for one majority to be replaced by another majority, when a new salient cleavage emerges, but for the new majority to consist of multiple parties given that proportional representation normally does not allow for the majority to consist of a single party.

So, yes, the current Israeli government is quite majoritarian, despite the need for a consensus across a diverse range of parties in order to govern. If it pulls off the reforms in its proposed budget, it will have performed quite like a classic case of alternation in power in a Westminster-type system, only with its set of policies actually grounded in the votes of a majority of the electorate and not merely a majority in parliament. The path to such policy success will not be smooth. For instance, a group of 11 members of Knesset, from Blue & White and Labor, are threatening to block the arrangements bill over opposition to the agricultural liberalization. Expect more of this as the process plays out. It does not necessarily undermine my conclusion on the majoritarian nature of this coalition. Even single-party majority governments often have to negotiate with blocks of their own members who object to government policy changes. The difference is that in a multiparty government, these disagreements are more likely to be public, precisely because each party generally needs to claim credit as a separate party at the next election. However, if my core claim about this government is correct–that they have a collective need to hang together to produce anything to run on, given they lack good exit options for now–then they should still pull off a significant part of their transformative policy agenda (see the bill on military draft of Haredim for one other case to watch). And that is a key aspect of the majoritarian pattern of parliamentary governance, whether conceived of single-party, bare-majority cabinet (per Lijphart’s ideal type and the Westminster model) or as bare-majority coalition of parties representing a mix of policy positions in juxtaposition to an alternative majority (per McGann, Latner, Li, and Ganghof).

Quoted in 538 article about House size

Very pleased with this article by Geoffrey Skelley at FiveThirtyEight: “How The House Got Stuck at 435 Seats.” The author interviewed me for the piece, and references my work and that of coauthors, including Rein Taagepera, the discoverer of the cube root law of assembly size.

There is also a good visualization tool for how each state would be over- or under-represented with various House sizes.

There is a California National Party candidate in the gubernatorial replacement election

I remember back at the time of the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election, one of my laments was that, with so many candidates on the replacement portion of the ballot, not one of them was a secessionist/sovereigntist. Well, this time, no such lament!

I recently learned that there is a sovereigntist candidate this time. His name is Michael Loebs, who in his day job is a lecturer in political science at San Francisco State University. He is running with the California National Party, which has styled itself on the model of the Scottish National Party. (Because the state restricts what party names can appear on the ballot even though party affiliations are self-declared by candidates, he appears as “no party”.)

I am not posting this to have a conversation about whether California should have an active movement for (peaceful) separation, although I have felt such leanings myself for about as long as I have been politically aware. Nor do I use this space to endorse candidates. I am simply happy that, if we have to have this trainwreck of a recall/replacement election, at least we finally have a sovereigntist candidate in the mix.

Of course, I will vote NO on the recall regardless of my vote on the replacement question. In fact, you can call NO on the recall an endorsement!

California’s recall & replacement rules are a trainwreck waiting to happen, but are they unconstitutional?

As the voting is underway in the California gubernatorial recall election against Gavin Newsom, polls are showing it quite close. While the no-recall side leads, and objectively Newsom should be expected to prevail in such a strong Democratic Party-aligned state, it is far from a sure thing. In my earlier planting on this topic, I said that, “rather than learn the lessons of its irrelevance in this state, the California Republican Party has learned a different lesson. While it may not win state power the normal way, it can harness grievance, the possible low turnout of a special election, and a celebrity to pick off a Democratic governor now and then.”

As the campaign–such as it is–has developed since my writing those words in late April, it is clear that it is indeed all about grievance and hardly about governance. It is also still at risk of being a low turnout affair, which is where the threat to Newsom’s tenure rests. Will enough Democrats mail back their ballots marked NO, when all the enthusiasm is on the side of the terminally aggrieved?

What there is not in this contest is a celebrity on the replacement side of the ballot. Unless Larry Elder counts. He is leading the polls as the replacement candidate. (I had never heard of him till a month or so ago, and anecdotally, I sense that most folks who don’t listen to right-wing talk radio likewise did not know who he was. On the other hand, I certainly knew who Arnold Schwarzenegger was long before he ran for governor. So, no, Larry Elder does not count as a celebrity, at least not in a qualitatively meaningful sense.)

And therein lies the problem from a small-d democratic perspective: the rules of how California runs this type of election have always been a trainwreck waiting to happen, and such a train wreck of democracy just might happen this time. While the recall question on the ballot is a YES/NO option and thus will be decided by a majority of votes cast, the replacement option on the ballot has 46 candidates, and the winner will be the one with a plurality of votes, if the YES wins the first question. Elder leads polling by a wide margin, but with not even 25% of the vote. If we take his current polling level as a share of the decided vote, it is still only around 40%. Moreover, with no Democrat (or rather none with any hint of visibility) running on the replacement side, there are likely to be quite a few voters who vote NO but then do not select a replacement candidate. In other words, if Newsom loses a close contest, his replacement could be elected by significantly fewer votes than Newsom himself earned on the NO side. California now requires a majority for election of all other offices in the state in general elections (under the “top-two” rule), but a replacement special election is still decided by plurality (and with no party primaries).

This outcome–a sub-majority election of a candidate with less voter support than the recalled incumbent, and which can’t be discounted as fantasy–would be a massive miscarriage of democracy, whatever one’s opinion of Newsom (or Elder). But could be it also be unconstitutional? That is the claim made in the New York Times by Erwin Chemerinsky and Aaron S. Edlin. They build their case on US Supreme Court jurisprudence on one person, one vote. Two cases from 1964 (Wesberry v. Sanders and Reynolds v. Sims) concerned state legislative and congressional districts, ruling against malapportionment in these districting plans on the grounds that it denied voters equal influence on outcomes.

The claim of Chemerinsky and Edlin is that this logic can be extended to a gubernatorial recall and replacement, under the rules California uses: “If Mr. Newsom is favored by a plurality of the voters, but someone else is elected, then his voters are denied equal protection. Their votes have less influence in determining the outcome of the election.”

While I agree with the principle, I am dubious it rises to a constitutional issue, even if we did not have a SCOTUS that was dominated by Republicans.

Please read their argument and tell me if I am wrong to be skeptical of the constitutional claim (independent of the likelihood of the Court actually offering redress if this is the outcome of the election).

Tunisia power grab: And a challenge to claims that premier-presidentialism avoids ‘perils’

Add Tunisia to the list of countries with events that likely qualify as an autogolpe. The elected president, Kais Saied, has undertaken a power grab in which he “froze” parliament, dismissed the prime minister, and announced he would rule by decree.

Tunisia’s system of government, since the emergence of democracy following the fall of the dictatorship in 2011, is premier-presidential. This is the subtype of semi-presidential regime that is generally thought to have good institutional safeguards against presidential over-reach. The elected presidency of Tunisia has constitutionally limited power. It is worth quoting some of the constitution’s provisions that pertain to presidential authority. For instance, Article 70:

In the event of the dissolution of the Assembly, the President of the Republic may, with the agreement of the Head of Government, issue decree-laws which shall be submitted for ratification to the Assembly of the Representatives of the People during its next ordinary session.

The Assembly of the Representatives of the People may, with the agreement of three-fifths of its members, authorize by law for a limited period not exceeding two months, and for a specific purpose, the Head of Government to issue decree-laws of a legislative character, to be submitted for ratification to the Assembly immediately after the end of the period of authorization.

The electoral system might not be amended by decree-laws.

Note that the Head of Government (prime minister) must agree to decrees that occur during dissolution, which in any case must be submitted to the assembly. However, in the current case, the president has already dismissed the PM and dissolved (“suspended”) the assembly. The second paragraph allows for delegated degree powers, but not to the president, and only by a super-majority.

What about dissolution power? Article 77 includes within its list of presidential powers:

Dissolving the Assembly of the Representatives of the People in accordance with provisions of the Constitution. The Assembly shall not be dissolved during the six months following granting confidence to the government, or the six months following legislative elections, or during the last six months of the presidential or parliamentary terms.

The dismissed PM had been appointed in February, 2020, so more than six months ago. Thus perhaps a dissolution could be permissible. However, does the president have authority to dismiss the PM? Articles 97 and 98 govern the process of government termination, and do not give the presidency any unilateral dismissal authority. The government depends on the exclusive confidence of the assembly majority. This is why I class it as a premier-presidential system. Moreover, per Article 89, the president has almost no discretion in who will be appointed prime minister. The process is quite “parliamentary” in that the leader of the largest party must be tasked first, and if that leader fails, then the “person judged most capable to form a government.” If after four months there is no government approved by the assembly majority, then there may be a dissolution and call for early elections. In other words, the president has no unilateral parliamentary dissolution power just as he has no government dismissal authority.

What about emergency power? Article 80 allows for a state of emergency “In the event of imminent danger threatening the nation’s institutions or the security or independence of the country, and hampering the normal functioning of the state… after consultation with the Head of Government and the Speaker of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People and informing the President of the Constitutional Court.” The article goes on to restrict the president’s powers under a state of emergency, including that “The Assembly of the Representatives of the People shall be deemed to be in a state of continuous session throughout such a period.” Obviously, this article has not been followed.

The president claimed he was acting within the constitution. I am not a constitutional lawyer nor any sort of authority on Tunisia. But as I read the constitution, he is lying about respecting institutional order, and has carried out a coup against the government and legislature.

In many of my own writings I have been quite favorable to premier-presidential constitution designs, on the grounds that they provide clear restrictions on the powers of the president, and give presidential aspirants strong incentives to build parties or links to parties in order to sustain an allied government in office. Tunisia now is an example that strains this argument. This president is an independent, elected with 72.7% in the second round on 13 October, 2019, after having secured only 18.4% in the first round on 15 September (his nearest opponent had 15.6% and the third candidate 12.9%–both runners-up were party-backed).

The last assembly election was on 6 October, 2019. Aside: Is this only case ever in which an assembly election has been between rounds of a presidential election? In the assembly election, the largest party was the Islamist party, Ennahda, on only 19.6%. (Their candidate finished third in the presidential first round.) Ennahda won 52 of the 217 seats (24.0%). The second largest party, Heart of Tunisia, won 14.6% and 38 seats; this was the party of the other presidential runoff contender. No other party broke 7% of the vote. The effective number of seat-winning parties is presumably in excess of 8.0.*

Thus we have here a case of extremely high party-system fragmentation, combined with a president lacking party ties. This is the classic Linzian “perils of presidentialism” combination. However, premier-presidential systems are supposed to overcome these perils (although Linz himself had his doubts). One case does not disprove a thesis, and maybe Tunisian democracy would have broken down even if there were no directly elected presidency. Nonetheless, the precise means of breakdown–an autogolpe carried out by an outsider nonparty president–should give us pause about the claim that premier-presidentialism is an antidote to the perils of presidentialism.

____

* I can’t say precisely because the source I am using–Wikipedia–groups 12 seats under “independent lists” which obviously should not be treated as a single party; if it were a single party, the effective N would be 7.85.

Israeli coalition’s first big legislative test

The new Israeli governing coalition had a major stress test in the early morning hours of 6 July. It came through looking really strong! it failed utterly!

On the one hand, the bill in question went down to defeat, 59-59. The bill was to extend and modify an existing law that expires at midnight. So that’s pretty embarrassing, especially when a critical lost vote was a member of the prime minister’s party, Amichai Chikli of Yamina. Chikli had also voted against the government itself in the investiture vote a few weeks ago, when the government was approved, 60-59. In the vote on this bill, instead of one Ra’am MK abstaining, as in the investiture, two did. On the other hand, the compromise that got the 59 votes shows the parties within the coalition are able to strike deals on contentious issues that divide them on some core principles.

Before I go any further, an important disclaimer: I am NOT interested in debate on the substance of the law in question, other than as it pertains to the specific compromises the governing partners made, or might yet make.

The bill would extend (for six months) an existing law that mostly bars family residency status in the case of Israeli citizens who marry a Palestinian. (Administrative exceptions can be made, and have been.) In addition, the bill would have established a ministerial committee to look for a longer-term solution (in other words, a classic case of can-kicking). It also would have led to the immediate regularization of the status of some 1,600 current families (the precise number that would have been affected has been a matter of some dispute). The existing law was originally passed in 2003 and has been extended annually ever since. In other words, Likud and its Haredi allies have regularly approved of the extension, but suddenly finding themselves in the unfamiliar position of opposition, they decided not to offer any votes, despite their substantive support for the law that is about to expire. Thus the coalition was forced to do what coalitions do–seek compromise among its own members.

The Yamina dissenter, Chikli, made a statement following the vote, and it is worth quoting the Times of Israel extensively in reference to his statement:

After the vote, Chikli said his decision to block the extension was due to the compromise deal: “Tonight we received proof of the problematic nature of a government that doesn’t have a distinct Zionist majority — one that starts the night with a law extension for a year and ends it with an extension for half a year, that starts with 1,500 permits and ends with over 3,000.

Israel needs a functioning Zionist government, not a mishmash that depends on Ra’am and Meretz votes,” Chikli said.

He later added that had the original extension motion gone up for a vote — “without capitulating to Meretz and Ra’am” — he would have supported it.

On the one hand, his point is principled. He does not like the compromise, and he is consistent in having opposed the government’s very formation and now opposing its policy. On the other hand, he still is a member of a governing party, and he had said at the time that he would still support the government in the Knesset despite his vote against its formation. 

This morning there are reports of calls from within Yamina to formally punish Chikli for his dissent. If they declare him a deserter, they can prevent his running for reelection with any existing party. However, that is a real dilemma for the party and Prime Minister Bennet. Burning bridges with him (he’d be entitled to remain in the Knesset) would make the coalition even more dependent on Ra’am, as only with three votes from that party could the coalition muster 60 votes to outvote its 59 opponents. So this is quite a test not only of the coalition, but of Yamina as a party that can maintain discipline.

Why do I say this could be a success for the coalition? Because it showed it is capable of threading the needle and arriving at a compromise. Initially, Meretz had said it was completely opposed to an extension of the law. In response, Interior Minister Ayalet Shaked of Yamina had threatened to strike a deal with Likud on a Basic Law on immigration, which surely would result in a “permanent” policy that Meretz would dislike even more. (It is not clear if Likud was sincere in willing to do this.) So then the Arab member of the Meretz delegation, Isawwi Frej, proposed a compromise six-month extension and a committee to consider individual cases on humanitarian grounds. This served as the basis of the deal that went before the Knesset, and all Meretz members voted in favor.

As Ra’am was bargaining over a proposal that could offer relief to some of its own constituents, one of its MKs denounced the law as “racist and anti-democratic” and said he would never vote for it or abstain. This was Wahid Taha, who ended up not being one of the abstainers. He voted for it, saying that the government agreed “to reconsider all requests” for citizenship of Palestinians who are married to Israelis.

In the end, the whole process of striking a deal proved that the members of the government want their coalition to work. They made a difficult compromise. On the other hand, they showed they may not even be able to count on 60 votes, even when they strike such a delicate compromise.

Supposedly, the bill is going to come back before the Knesset again tonight. It is not clear (to me) if there is some further concession or other persuasion that would get one of the Ra’am abstainers to vote for, or if Chikli would succumb to the threat of discipline.