Electoral reform in Chile?

Proposals to change the electoral system in Chile are again on the table, writes Mariano Montes (in Spanish). With the first post-dictatorship presidency from the center-right (who is currently very popular), the previous veto by the right may be overcome. The center-left Concertacion has never liked the current electoral system, which was originally designed to over under-represent them at the expense of the right.

The proposals would be to increase the size of each chamber, and simultaneously permit presidential reelection. These moves would require a constitutional amendment. With larger chambers, the district magnitudes would be increased, resulting in a more proportional system.

The current system actually is a proportional formula, continuing the pre-dictatorship system of open-list PR with D’Hondt allocation. What has made it mostly unrepresentative of political forces other than those grouped into the two big pre-electoral coalitions is that all districts currently have a magnitude of two. Rather awkwardly and imprecisely, this system has come to be known as the “binomial” system.

I am always somewhat amused by criticisms of the system that refer to its making possible districts in which one winning candidate has fewer votes than another who loses. Of course, this is precisely the sense in which it is not a “nominal” (or nomial?) system. Were it a nominal system, by definition, the two candidates with the most votes would be the winners in each district. Nominal systems are those in which votes are cast for candidates by name, rather than being first pooled by party or coalition affiliation. Nominal systems are top-M systems (where M is the district magnitude).

Chile’s system, by contrast, is a list system. That means the first criterion is the votes cast collectively for the candidates on each list. Then the open nature of the lists kicks in, where candidate vote totals matter. Rather than being a top-M system, at this stage it is a top-s system, where s is the number of seats each list has won. Obviously, when M=2, s can take only the values of 0, 1, or 2.

Given that it is D’Hondt, the list with the most votes will win two seats only if it doubles the vote total of the runner-up list. This is how all D’Hondt systems work, and D’Hondt is the most common of proportional allocation methods for list systems (open or closed). The difference is that most list-proportional systems that use D’Hondt have M>2 for most of their districts, and so the process continues beyond determining whether the largest list has more or less than twice the votes of the next list. But in any open-list system, it is always possible (in fact, typical) that some candidates who win seats are not in the top M. They merely must be in the top s of their own party’s or electoral coalition’s list.

It would make a lot of sense if Chile would revert to the pre-dictatorship system of larger districts, and thus greater proportionality. The current system over-represents the two largest list, but over-represents the one that is second in votes to a greater degree than the one with the most votes (because the second one often has many fewer votes in a district, but not only half as many). It also makes sense to expand the size of the chambers; Chile’s Chamber of Deputies is very under-sized, relative to its population (see the graph at a planting from more than five years ago on reapportionment in the USA).

Maybe Chile will finally have a more proportional electoral system. But, please, let’s not call the resulting system with its higher magnitudes a multinomial system!

Thanks to Greg Weeks for the tip.

6 thoughts on “Electoral reform in Chile?

  1. I had wondered whether the current political situation would force consideration of electoral reform. A centre-right president that needed support from at least some of the Concertacion could very well entail instability in the system of political alliances. This in turn might make all sides find security in a more proportional system, especially since the Right now has shown that it too can win an election. Perhaps the rigid alliances would even break up as a result.

    This would be a little reminiscent of the Swedish electoral reform of 1952, the purpose of which was to approximate the previous distribution of seats, but under new political alignments. So instead of D’Hondt with (non-socialist) apparentements, no apparentements, and Sainte-Laguë with 1.4 as a first divisor was invented.

    Of course, in Chile, the gentlest electoral reform of all would be to elect one member per district instead of two, the remaining seats being calculated nationally, and proportionally, between alliances, then parties. These national seats could then be distributed downwards by an appropriate method so that each district could continue to be represented by two members. Each alliance could also continue to nominate two candidates per district that would be counted as one for the purposes of electing the first seat (and even for the second seat, if several unelected candidates were from the same party). This would ensure that the number of candidates would not be cut down, both for the sake of filling seats, and maintaining choices for voters. Perhaps more than two district candidates should be allowed, though this would almost exclusively accommodate a continuation of the Concertacion.

    (In the last sentence of your first paragraph you mean under-represent)

  2. I know that this is an old post. Has Chile reformed it’s Binomial Electoral system? Considering that all the talk is on the Australian election, and talk of STV. As a thought experiment, what would happen if Chile change from 2 member open party list system and change it to a 2 member STV? Would the results be more proportionate?

    Considering that Australia’s two territories use STV in 2 member districts, Northern Territory and ACT, what would the election result had been if an open party list system been in place?

  3. No, Chile has not reformed its electoral system.

    As far as I can tell, if the ACT and NT had used open lists a la Chile, every single election would still have resulted in a Labor and Liberal/Country Liberal candidate elected.

  4. The most interesting thing that’s happened in Chile is that the center-left Concertación has joined with the Communists formally for the first time ever to form the Nueva Mayoría (the PPD and PRSD have allied with the Communists in municipal elections before, but never in national elections, and the only cooperation between the PCCh, PDC, and PS since the return of democracy has been coalition by ‘omission’ where occasionally the Communists or Concertación have not nominated candidates in certain districts so as not to split the left of center vote).

    Notably, this coalition means that Camila Vallejo, one of the main leaders of the 2011 student protests, is one of the NM/Concertación’s nominees in La Florida, and is almost certainly going to be a Deputy. Giorgio Jackson, the other main leader, is running as an independent in Santiago Central, and the NM has not nominated candidates against him, so he too is almost certainly going to be elected.

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