STV and above-the-line voting for elected ‘Lords’?

The following is a guest-post by Alan Renwick, Professor at the University of Reading in the UK. It originally appeared at the Reading Politics blog.

I asked Alan if I could reproduce this essay here at F&V, figuring it would be of interest to this community.

All of what follows is by Alan. I will also copy over a comment that I originally posted at Reading Politics.

Electing the House of Lords: Should there be above-the-line voting?
Alan Renwick

The parliamentary select committee that has been examining the government’s proposals for reform of the House of Lords will be publishing its report in a couple of weeks’ time. Rumour has it that they want an electoral system different from the one proposed by the government. Nick Clegg and colleagues argue that the Single Transferable Vote (STV) form of proportional representation should be used. But the committee has been interested in finding a system that will give voters a choice between voting for individual candidates and for a single party ticket (see the transcript of their oral evidence session last December, when the quizzed Iain McLean and me on this subject). According to the Guardian, the committee is going to recommend the form of STV used in many Australian elections, where voters can vote ‘above the line’ for a party or ‘below the line’ for individual candidates.

The Electoral Reform Society is crying foul over this. Calling the proposals a ‘dog’s breakfast’, they say that STV with above-the-line voting will return power to the parties, rather than allowing voters to determine who gets elected.

What should dispassionate observers make of this? I think three questions need to be considered. First, how much power would the inclusion of a party voting option give to parties and to voters? Second, how much power should parties and voters have in determining which candidates are elected? Third, are there any other considerations that we should take into account before deciding whether we think that possibility of above-the-line voting should be welcomed? Most of this rather lengthy (sorry) post will focus on the first of these questions; I’ll say a little about the other two at the end.

Thinking about the logic of STV

The key issue when thinking about the effects that above-the-line voting will actually have concerns the order in which a party’s candidates are elected. How likely it is that voters’ preferences could upset the party’s preferred ordering, such that one candidate gets elected ahead of another candidate who was ranked higher by the party? Those of you with a penchant for playing around with STV counting scenarios will be able to work out that, if no votes are exhausted, the minimum number of personal votes that a candidate needs to gather in order to rise up the party’s ordering is just over half of one quota. Say, for example, we are in a district in which five seats are to be filled. The quota in his district – the number of votes that a candidate must surpass in order to be guaranteed election – is one sixth of the vote, or 16.67 per cent. So a candidate needs at least just over half of this – just over 8.33 per cent – to have any chance of being elected ahead of someone else higher on the party’s ticket.

Let me give you an example to see why this is. Let’s stick with a district from which five members will be elected and say that a total of 1,000 valid votes are cast. Furthermore, let’s focus in on one party, which receives 334 of these votes. Of these votes, 250 are cast above the line for the party ticket. The party has three candidates. The first two of these win no personal votes, while the third wins 84.

The first step is to calculate the quota. In a five-member district, the quota is calculated by dividing the total number of votes by six, giving 166.7. A candidate must exceed this – gain 167 votes – in order to be guaranteed election.

Now we begin to count the votes. The 250 votes cast for the party ticket are initially allocated to the first candidate on the ticket (Candidate A). Candidate A had no personal votes, so her vote total is 250 (250 + 0). She has passed the quota and is therefore immediately elected. Using standard STV counting procedures, her surplus of votes (the number of votes she had above the quota, i.e., 83) is then transferred according to the second preferences of the voters who cast these votes. Given that all of these votes were ticket votes, the second preference is in all cases the second preference of the party – that is, the second candidate on the list, Candidate B. So 83 votes transfer to Candidate B. Candidate B, like Candidate A, had no personal votes, so his total is now 83, just short of Candidate C, who still has 84 votes. There are, of course, other parties with other candidates, and various elections and eliminations will happen among these. Assume, however, that there are no vote transfers to the party we are focusing on, so the vote totals for Candidates B and C remain unaffected. At some point, Candidate B will be the remaining candidate with the lowest vote share and will therefore be eliminated. His votes will transfer to Candidate C (following the party ordering). Candidate C therefore gains 83 votes in addition to her 84 personal votes, giving a total of 167 votes. This just meets the quota, so Candidate C is elected.

Renwick table 1
Click for a larger image

Candidate C has therefore been elected ahead of Candidate B, even though B was higher on the party’s preferred ranking. This was possible because C won a number of personal votes equal to just over half the quota. But you can see from the example why this is the minimum share of the vote making such a result possible (still assuming no exhausted ballot papers). Had C won only 83 personal votes, she would not have secured the quota and would not have been elected. Had there been any more ticket votes, the surplus transferred to B would have been larger and C would have been eliminated before B (in the event of a tie between the two of them, presumably some random mechanism would have determined which was eliminated). Had either A or B secured any personal votes, the same thing would have happened: in such situations, C would have needed more than the minimum number of personal votes to secure election. Thus, in any realistic scenario, in which A and B would have won some personal votes, half a quota of votes would not have been enough to win C the seat. Half a quota is a minimum, but normally more will be required.

Two qualifications to this are required. First, Candidate C could have picked up some of her personal votes as second or lower preferences: it’s not the case that she needs to capture all of these votes as first preferences. So long as C receives the vote before anyone ranked above her on the party list, and no candidate below her on the list secures more votes than she does, she can benefit from that vote. Nevertheless, a candidate needs to receive at least just over half a quota of preference votes of some kind early enough in the counting process not to be eliminated.

Second, as I have noted a couple of times, I’ve been assuming that there are no exhausted ballot papers: that all voters express a full ordering of candidates (either implicitly through their above-the-line vote or explicitly by ranking all the candidates below the line). But this is not realistic. All of the preferential voting systems that have been used or proposed in the UK (the supplementary vote system used in mayoral elections in England; the STV systems used in local elections in Scotland and in all non-Westminster elections in Northern Ireland; the STV system proposed by the government for the reformed second chamber; and the AV system put forward in last year’s referendum) have allowed voters to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish. This means that some ballot papers are exhausted – all the candidates for which preferences have been expressed have been eliminated – before the end of the count. In this scenario, some candidates are elected even though they do not meet the quota (just as, under AV, as discussed extensively last year, some candidates are in fact elected with less than 50 per cent of the vote). This reduces the minimum number of personal votes that a candidate needs in order to leapfrog those above them on the party list.

Adding all of these pieces together, how many votes does a candidate need to be elected out of list order? Alas, there is no straightforward answer: it depends on how the votes are spread. A few candidates might sometimes secure election out of list order having gathered less than half a quota in personal votes (whether as first or lower preferences). But in most cases, candidates will rise up the list only by collecting more than half a quota of such votes – and often they will need much more than that.

Evidence from Australia and around the world

If abstract logic won’t give as all the answers, we can look for real-world evidence. STV systems with above-the-line voting are currently used only in Australia. The first such system was introduced for the Australian Senate elections 1984 and has been retained ever since. Similar systems have now been adopted for upper house elections in South Australia, New South Wales, Western Australia, and Victoria. In most of these cases, voters can either vote for one party above the line or rank the candidates below the line. New South Wales now has a variant under which voters can either rank parties above the line or rank candidates below the line.

As the Electoral Reform Society points out, the proportion of voters in fact voting above the line in Australia is very high: as the following table shows, it was higher than 95 per cent in the most recent election in each of these jurisdictions. With such high ticket voting rates, it is virtually impossible for a candidate to be elected out of rank order. In fact, not one candidate has been elected out of rank order since above-the-line voting was introduced (I’m grateful to Antony Green, Australia’s leading elections expert, for confirming this by email). This means that Australian has, in effect, something very close to a closed-list proportional system.

Renwick table 2

At the same time, the Electoral Reform Society is wrong to imply that we should expect the same pattern to apply here. In most of these Australian cases, if a voter chooses to vote below the line, she or he must rank every candidate – of whom there may be several dozen – in order to cast a valid vote. In the extreme case of New South Wales in 1999, there were 264 candidates. This makes voting for individual candidates much more onerous than voting for a party ticket, so it is hardly surprising that the vast majority of voters choose the latter option.

In the UK, by contrast, a vote would be valid even if only one candidate preference were expressed, so the effort required to vote below the line would be no higher than that required to vote above the line. We can therefore expect more personal votes to be cast than in Australia.

But just how many more? The Australian evidence here isn’t very useful. The most permissive Australian case is Victoria, where a valid below-the-line vote in state Upper House elections requires only five preferences. The table above suggests that this makes no difference to the number of personal votes cast. But we shouldn’t infer too much from this. First, Victoria introduced this system only in 2006. Voters had become accustomed by then to voting above the line in Senate elections, and it is hardly surprising that they extended their habit to the new venue. Second, providing five preferences is still a lot more onerous than casting one party vote.

In terms of voter experience, the closest analogues to what the select committee is said to be proposing for UK second chamber elections are not the Australian systems, but rather list proportional systems in which voters have the option, if they wish, to express one preference (or perhaps more) among individual candidates. These systems model much more closely the sort of choice that will be available to voters in the UK.

If we look at such systems, we find that the proportion of voters who actually exercise their right to express a preference varies hugely. Uwe Kitzinger found that in Austria in the 1950s fewer than 1 per cent did so. Today, as Lauri Karvonen (in this book) shows, around 20 per cent of Austrian voters do so, while around two thirds do so in Belgium and 90 per cent in Brazil. These cases paint a very different picture from the Australian evidence.

This wide variation makes it very difficult to predict what would happen in the UK. Given that British voters don’t much like parties, have very little experience of voting for party tickets, and seem particularly to value independent-mindedness in the second chamber, it seems reasonable to expect that many would exercise a right to vote for individual candidates. It certainly seems likely that more than half a quota of voters (ranging, in the 5–7-member districts proposed for the reformed second chamber, from 6.25 per cent to 8.33 per cent) will do so.

But, as we have seen, whether these votes make a difference depends on how they are distributed. In fact, the Australian experience is that most of those voters who choose to vote below the line give their first preference to the candidate who is already at the top of the party’s ranking: 71.5 per cent of such voters did so in New South Wales at the last state election. That is hopefully a sign that parties and their supporters often agree on who the best candidates are, but it does nevertheless make it even harder for anyone to move up the list.

The list PR systems with flexible lists give us less in the way of useful information here than they did above: they use different mechanisms for translating votes into seats from those used under STV. But all of the cases that I’m aware of suggest that the party’s ordering generally wins: even in Belgium, for example, where most voters now express candidate preferences, the great majority of the candidates who are elected would have been elected with completely closed lists.

In sum, then, we can say that, while allowing an above-the-line option makes total party domination possible, that is unlikely in the UK given the other rules proposed and the habits of voters. Nevertheless, above-the-line voting would almost certainly increase significantly the power of parties to determine which of their candidates are elected.

What, then, of the second and third questions that I began with. What should be the balance of power between parties and voters? And are there any other considerations that we should bear in mind before coming to a view?

Where should power lie?

It might seem obvious that power ought to lie with voters. In a parliamentary system, however, parties are very important. Voters are interested in the composition not just of parliament, but also of the government. But they can vote not for a government, but only for an individual candidate. If governments are to be accountable to voters, therefore, voters need to know whether the candidates in their constituency will generally support or generally oppose any particular government. And that can be achieved if the candidates are loyal to particular parties. Clearly, a balance needs to be struck here: too much loyalty means parliament fails to do anything useful; too little loyalty means voters lose control and government comes to operate through the delivery of pork. But an element of party discipline is important.

A straightforward STV system – without above-the-line voting – might get the balance wrong here. That has certainly been a concern of late in Ireland, where politicians have been criticized for paying too much attention to the baubles they can bring home to their constituencies and too little attention to such national issues as the regulation of the banks. The debate here certainly isn’t closed, but there are questions to be asked.

Nevertheless, we are talking here about elections to the UK’s proposed reformed second chamber. This is not the chamber from which the government is formed. Rather, it is a revising chamber with limited powers in which independent-mindedness is an advantage. As I have shown elsewhere, party discipline is actually already high there; there is no reason to think it should be higher and much reason to think it could usefully be lower. As a result, the usual argument against STV doesn’t apply. And, that being the case, it’s not clear what the value of a more party-based system would be.

Other considerations?

Given the questions asked during its oral evidence sessions, we can expect the select committee to argue that allowing above-the-line voting will simply give voters what they want: if voters want to engage in the complicated business of ranking candidates, they will be able to do so; but they will also have the option, should they wish, of casting one simple vote for a party ticket.

There is certainly merit in the view that some voters would value this opportunity. But other factors need to be set alongside this. Allowing above-the-line voting would make the ballot paper more complicated. Given that the government plans to hold second chamber elections at the same time as elections to the House of Commons, which will continue to use the very different system of First Past the Post, there is a danger of making things more confusing than they need be. Explaining to voters how STV works will already be challenging enough (though voters don’t need to know all the intricacies to be able to vote intelligently). Adding an extra element requiring further explanation should only be done with clear justification.

So what do I think?

I argued in the Political Studies Association’s briefing paper on House of Lords reform that STV was clearly the best system for electing a reformed second chamber. I wasn’t trying in that paper to push a particular perspective, but this particular point seemed quite uncontroversial. A proportional system is needed to make it hard for any one party to secure a majority – a goal that virtually everyone agrees on. And if independence is valued – both the relative independence of party representatives from the party whip and the presence of independents who take no party whip – then STV is superior to any list-based form of PR.

This remains my view. Above-the-line voting would be unlikely to bring the party domination seen in Australia, but it would nevertheless enhance the power of parties in a way that is not clearly justified. It might give some voters an option that they would value, but it would also increase the dangers of confusion.

I make no claims for STV across the board: for first chamber elections in parliamentary systems, it carries significant dangers. For the proposed elected second chamber in the UK, however, it fits the criteria that most people want very well.

29 thoughts on “STV and above-the-line voting for elected ‘Lords’?

  1. Excellent essay, Alan!

    I have one extension and one quibble.

    The extension is that your overview convinces me that STV with above-the-line option and no requirement for those giving preferences to give more than one (or a few) is likely the best way to balance party and candidate voting. As you rightly note, most “flexible” list systems actually default to the party order most of the time. (I offer this point generally, not specific to the British second chamber, where your case for STV with only candidate-preference voting is persuasive.)

    The quibble is that I have no idea why you mention Brazil in this context. In Brazil there is no party-given order to the list. Only preference votes affect the order. Votes cast solely for the list affect the inter-party balance of seats only. So it is not surprising that 90% or more of Brazilian voters cast a candidate preference. What’s surprising is that 20% of Austrians do so when a party order usually prevails anyway.

  2. Response by Alan (copied over from Reading Politics):

    Many thanks, Matt! I like your extension, but I’ll need to think about the comparison of flexible list PR and STV with ATL voting a bit further. I’m about to get on a train, which could be a good venue for cogitation….

    On Brazil, I’m very much not a Latin America expert, so I bow to you have I have this wrong. But I was looking for systems of any type in which voters have the choice of voting for a candidate or simply for a party ticket, whether final list order is determined wholly or only partly by the candidate votes. My understanding is that Brazil is such a system. What you say about Brazil illustrates the point that whether voters use the opportunity to cast a candidate vote is likely to depend on how much difference these votes make to the outcome of the election.

  3. Further comment by David Farrell (also from the Reading Politics blog):

    Dear both
    I’m very persuaded by Rein T’s mantra of keeping things simple and I think the potential dog’s breakfast that is being proposed for the HoL shows why. The point of above the line voting in Australia is that it delivers full preferences as required under their electoral law. The parties agree ticket deals with all the other parties to deliver this. A second contextual points is, as we know, the view that full expression of preferences is the most effective way to maximise the use of your vote in STV, so as to ensure that you make things as hard as possible for the party you dont support.
    Ok. So if the HoL was to mix above the line voting while not requiring full expression of preferences what we’d be left with two extremes in voting behaviour- a large number of voters expressing a handful of preferences and another number of voters ( many of these, I suspect, supporting the main parties) voting above the line and thereby xpressing full preferences. I’m not sure if that is a fair outcome.

    If the parties really want to have some party structuring while allowing independents, why not have a Maltese ballot paper, grouping candidates by party, with parties drawing lots to determine which order. They could set it up so that registered parties appear first above non-party candidates. And they could set a high threshold for ballot access to keep out Nutters.

  4. Can I mention the NSW form of ATL voting? In the NSW legislative council you can express preferences above the line, preferences are optional, there are no inter-party tickets, and an ATL vote that is 1 Green 2 Labor first flows down the Green ticket and then down the Labor ticket.

  5. I intensely dislike the Australian version of ATL voting because:

    (1) With (on average, say) 60 Senate candidates, it takes 60 times as long to vote below the line as to adopt a party ticket (and that’s not counting for keeping track of numbers to avoid gaps or repeats)

    (2) All else being equal, voters who are prepared to number individual candidates, or to second-preference a different party to the one their own party favours, are more likely to be politically engaged and aware. I support compulsory voting (as in, attendance at the polls) and do not support centrally-imposed, top-down “intelligence tests” for voters such as literacy tests or plural voting. However, I do maintain that if a voter voluntarily indicates that she only knows and cares about one particular party, then only her preferences for that party’s (say) five or six candidates should be counted, and anything past that treated as a voluntary abstention (consistent with the logic of optional preferential AV-STV) – rather than as a blank power of attorney to be filled in as TBA by the party executive.

    (3) The party insiders who draw up the tickets are not noticeably more wise or intelligent than the “maverick” voters who number below the line. Spectacular own goals – like the Victorian ALP helping the DLP and Family First (small conservative parties) win seats in 2004 and 2006, having preferenced them as “filler” to help keep out the Greens – annoyed many Labor voters.

    (4) Having 80-90% of a party’s second (inter-party) preferences determined centrally makes this decision winner-take-all – contrary to the logic of PR. Left to their own devices, perhaps (say) 60-70% of Labor supporters would preference the Greens. The proportion might rise and fall over elections, providing valuable information from the grass roots upwards. Whereas if the Greens get either all, or none (or, in those jurisdictions that allow split tickets, exactly 50% or 33.3%) of Labor’s preferences because a few smart 28-year-olds at central office so decided, weeks before the election campaign, then the official returns (“Green defeats Liberal for final seat thanks to Labor preferences”) tell us nothing worthwhile. The same ballots, cast with the exact same numbers marked on them, could have yielded completely different results based on what tickets the parties lodged, without any voters changing their preferences.

    (5) Tickets also make the intra-party contest a very tightly closed list. I could tolerate party-ranking with optional preferences and no ticket-voting because then the highest-placed candidates might be, say, 60% or 70% likely to win whatever seats their party gains. But ticket-voting makes this a 99% certainty and removes the threat of defeat at the ballot-box for those individual MPs. Opinions will, of course, vary as to the merits of particular candidates but Senators like Noel Crichton-Browne, Mal Colston and Belinda Neale are now widely agreed – even (or especially) by the parties who put them there – to have been unsuitable individuals. Yet they were all handed first or second place on their party’s ticket and given a free ride into Parliament.

    (6) One particular galling flow-on from #5 is that “proportional representation” has now come to mean “Senate-style closed-list ticket-voting” in the minds of many Australians. When Queensland debated introducing STV-PR for local councils, two years ago, “my” (and I use the term loosely) local councillor published an op-ed arguing that PR was ipso facto bad for local govt because PR inevitably meant ticket-voting My letter in reply pointing to Ireland, Malta, Tasmania, the ACT, NZ and Scots local councils, etc, was never published. Actual PR-STV supporters, with a few very rare exceptions (eg, Graeme Ihlein) detest ticket-voting and have never supported it. It was devised by the same politicians who dislike PR-STV for the Senate and who yearn to replace it with high thresholds or single-seat divisions if they could.

    (7) Ticket-voting was originally sold as a (poor) solution to a real problem – the high rate of spoiled ballots in Senate elections, peaking at 10% in NSW 1974. Of course optional preferences would have solved the problem also, but that was kept off the agenda by the big parties. I am mystified why proposals to introduce optional-preferential STV elsewhere (NZ in 1987, Ireland 2011, and now UK Lords 2012) want to add on ticket-voting since the problem it is supposed to address only occurs with compulsory-preferential voting in multi-seat electorates.

    (8) Far from solving the problem of “bedsheet ballots”, ALT voting has exacerbated it. Since 1984, no lone candidate has ever won a seat from the “ungrouped” column, pushed (by statute) to the furthest right-hand side of the ballot-paper, and denied a square abive-the-line. However, if a minor-party or independent candidate can find a running-mate and a second deposit, togethr they get their own separate column (which might draw the leftmost position if they are lucky) and their own square above the line, ie much greater visibility, and a chance for the Chamarettes, Woodses and Fieldings to win a seat with only 2-3% of the first-preference votes. Moreover, they also then get “power of attorney” over their supporters’ later preferences which gives them bargaining power with the major players. There is no risk of preferences leaking if there are too many candidates on their side. Instead, there is a major incentive for each independent or minor party to run two candidates instead of one – and to run candidates at all, so they can control preferences by filling out a form. No wonder the bedsheet ballots keep growing larger.

    (9) In theory, voters have a chance to inspect the tickets the parties register. Ideally this should be in the form of a ranked list of all candidates in one column, like a party list. This would be easily grasped by voters. Unfortunately, the way it’s actually done is by showing a facsimile of the actual ballot paper filled out in accordance with the ticket lodged by each party. Some polling places do not have these easily available – it is not considered a legally invalidatory requirement. In any event, I would submit that if a voter does not place a number next to a particular candidate’s name, the onus should be against, not for, counting that as positive assent to that candidate.

  6. I have to admit to not reading carefully this article. I read half the article and then skimmed over the rest.

    If the elected House of Lords in the U.K. turns out, whether by design or accident, to be a copy of the Australian Senate, this will do the country a disservice. The political traditions of the country are different enough to require different upper houses. But then, the previous government turned the U.K upper house into a copy of the Canadian Senate and they survived that, so I am probably underestimating the resiliency of these institutions.

    More than most countries, the U.K. has held onto the conceit that its members of parliament have been independent agents representing the people or the property, um, institutions in their local constituencies, as opposed to being cogs in party machines. For a long time, in elections to the House of Commons, there of course being no elections to the House of Lords, there were no parties listed on the ballot paper. Arguably, the introduction of proportional representation will make the tradition of the (formally) independent MP less necessary, but I suspect the country would be better served by preserving the existing independence of MPs in both houses.

    The House of Lords in particular has a strong tradition of “cross bench” lords and also technical lords who are there because of service as judges or bishops. Instead of the Australian system, I think more in keeping with this tradition would be a system where all the elected members of the Upper House ran in a STV system where no candidates were listed, so that each individual member could point to a group of individual voters as the reason why they got there. It would also strengthen the upper house as a revising/ correcting body to the lower house.

  7. Incidentally, apologies to the other five commentators. My comment about “skimming over” referred to the original post, which struck me as very Australian-centric. I actually like the Australian system but I don’t see why the British should be copying its weaker features. While I wrong my comment, it looks like a another five comments appeared, not that different in substance with my comment.

  8. Does anybody have an idea of the proposed district magnitude of this ATL-STV system? I wonder if large magnitude ATL-STV might not actually be a perfect way to move the Lords from a 2.5-party system to a real multi-party assembly. Why?

    1. As with List-PR (but not low-M STV), there can be a low effective thresholds. This means multiple parties could realistically enter the Lords.

    2. As with STV (but not List-PR), votes are never completely discarded due to thresholds. This means that even if no small parties win seats, your vote for such a small party is not wasted.

    3. It’s simple enough to remain easily understood by voters accustomed to FPTP. Specifically, there are no huge “bedsheet ballots”, despite the large magnitude.

  9. This line from Alan’s article struck me:

    “A proportional system is needed to make it hard for any one party to secure a majority – a goal that virtually everyone agrees on.”

    I’m curious as to why this would be a consensus goal. Why seek to minimize the probability of unified government? Obviously this isn’t as bad as trying to ensure that the Opposition has a HoL majority (which is likely impossible), but what’s the point of obliging the government to find extra votes for its legislation? I think the HoL should either be left alone or abolished outright. Turning it into a weak and indecisive elected chamber seems the worst possible “solution” to a problem I’m not sure is even real.

  10. Mike @9, I’d say that’s because of the unspoken assumption that the largest single party will usually have substantially less than 50% of the popular votes, and will have more like 40-45% (or, for late-era Labour under Tony Blair, only 35%) of the votes in its own right. Debate will therefore centre over whether the electoral system should or should not manufacture an artificial majority for such a party. Those who say it shouldn’t are not usually saying that the electoral system should be set up so as to make sure a party with more than 50% can’t win a majority of seats – although it is possible to think up such a system: the Australian Senate normally ensures this by accident (PR-STV with a small, even district magnitude, ie 6) while the Chilean Chamber of Deputies ensures this by design (PR-List with 2 seats per district).

    But a plurality party with more than half the popular votes is rare enough that it’s not usually on the radar in discussions of electoral systems.

    (The US is an exception but there the parties to the debate tend to assume that, if SMDs or the Electoral College were abolished, GOP and Democrats would very quickly face third-and fourth-party challengers that would drag them both below 50%).

  11. Tom @10.

    Thanks. I get all that. And I get that many people believe that disproportionality is unfair. But I am more concerned with the tradeoff between representation and efficiency. I see no reason for the UK to be bicameral, frankly. So to my mind, the stronger you make the upper house, the more incongruence becomes a hindrance to governance. The status quo is clearly incongruent (with an appointed HoL) but the HoL is so weak that it hardly matters, and its role as a mostly apolitical “house of review” is maintained. Make it elected, and it becomes purely political. Make it incongruent by using a more proportional electoral rule (which idea has been rejected for the Commons) and the newly politicized HoL is more likely to disagree with the government. Give it stronger powers, and that disagreement matters more. And for what? What is the justification for stronger bicameralism in the UK? They’re not talking about making it a federal chamber, or one that more proportionally represents ethnic diversity. So I don’t see the upside.

  12. I’ve seen other version of Mike’s argument. But I also think having one chamber that represents geographical areas, using single member districts, and one chamber that represents political tendencies, using nationwide proportional representation, makes alot of sense. The only country that seems to have something like this happens to be Australia (though again this should not mean that the British just blindly imitate the Australian Senate).

    One problem with parliamentary systems where the government’s majority rests on single member districts is that an activist party can gain a majority of seats on a plurality of votes, due to a divided opposition, and use it to ram through a program the public doesn’t want. Arguably this happened in the U.K. in the 1980s, as well as Canada in 1988, possibly also in the U.K. after 2005. A second chamber chosen by PR would give the parties that the majority of the electorate actually prefer to check these sorts of governments. At the same time you have the lower chamber elected from single member districts, obviating the need for contorting the system to get some local representation which is the problem with single chamber proportional systems.

    During the late 1990s debates on House of Lords reform, my preference was to create two tiers of peers, those with votes in the chamber and those without votes in the chamber. After each election, the party leaders would have appointed a selection of voting peers, from among the total population of peers, proportionate to their party’s popular vote (and peers could be newly created for this purpose). The composition of the group of voting peers would obviously change with this election. This would not have affected the existing system of creating non-voting peers, which could still be used for the usual purposes of putting judges and bishops in the upper chamber, distributing honors, appointing experts to the cabinet without having them stand for election to the Commons, etc. And the voting peers would not strictly speaking be “elected”, with whatever legitimacy problems that would have created.

    Another approach would be to have members of the upper chamber elected as individual candidates, using something like STV without “above the line” voting, but keeping the number small and the threshold needed high. This would mean an elected upper chamber, but on a much different basis from lower chamber politicians which would represent small areas and smaller groups of voters. The members of the upper chamber would be genuine political “barons”.

  13. Tom,

    I have to take issue with your point 3. Many Labor supporters were annoyed at the DLP and Family First victories, but they were supporters who weren’t thinking clearly.

    Parties make agreements based on how they see their own best interests. Labor’s task is to win government, not determine who gets the balance of power in the Senate or Legisaltive Council and it will do the deals that it thinks will help it win government. From a pragmatic point of view, Labor is better off having a choice of partners for specific proposals in the Senate and the Legislative Council rather than being dependent on one.

    The ALP and the DLP did a deal on preferences, each thinking to gain from it, the ALP in Northern and Western Metro and the DLP in Western Victoria. The ALP got DLP preferences, not just the other way around. Thus, if both Labor parties combined, they had 20 votes in the Victorian Legislative Council and could defeat any Opposition move, but 21 votes are needed to carry anything, so the ALP would have preferred 2 DLP MLCs and 2 rather than 3 Greens

    The same applied to the ALP/DLP/Family First deal in 2004, which the ALP expected to re-elect Jacinta Collins on FF and DLP preferences. The ALP would have been right if its vote had not fallen so badly. Those who do not like preference deals have the option of voting below the line. If they choose not to inform themselves or exercise that option, so be it.

    This is all obvious but some cannot see it because they look at the DLP and FF through an ideological prism that cannot see them as legitimate political parties like the others.

    The ALP gained DLP preferences too. Given the voting record in the Legislative Council, which when I checked in 2007 had the Greens never voting with the ALP, the decision to give preferences to the DLP to avoid total dependence on the Greens was perfectly sensible. Indeed, the Greens had voted with the DLP more than they had with the ALP. (I believe there were more recent votes in which the Greens voted with Labor.)

    Neither the DLP nor FF are extremist parties as any perusal of their voting records will show. Steve Fielding, the FF senator, voted with the ALP to get rid of WorkChoices. It is a mistake to see FF as the equivalent of the US religious right. There has never been anything reactionary about the DLP, which was simply part of the moderate social democratic and anti-communist wing of the ALP, which was expelled because Doctor Evatt thought it would give him power, leading to an unelectable left-leaning ALP in the wilderness for a generation. Peter Kavanagh, the DLP MLC, supported gay civil unions.

    The Greens are not Labor’s friends or allies. They are rivals, who want to destroy the Labor Party.

  14. Chris @13, I defer to your inside knowledge on the strategic (as distinct, here, from tactical) voting imperatives down in Victoria. All I can say is that, observing the Kavanagh and Fielding victories from afar (Qld/ northern NSW) at the time, the buzz among most (although not all) Labor supporters was that “of course” they would rather have elected a Green than these ghastly theocrats in bad suits. I am not saying Labor was bad from some objective viewpoint for helping elect FF and DLP candidates – just that it surprised and annoyed what seemed to be the large majority of Labor supporters “on the ground”.

    The same observation would apply to whichever incarnation of the *real* “far Right” helped Labor elect another Senator in NSW in 1990 (Citizens Electoral Council, maybe, or perhaps it had mutated to Confederate Action Party or something else again) by directing preferences away from Chris Puplick, an uber-“wet”/ “small-L” Liberal who was in a vulnerable position on the Coalition ticket.

    It may well, as you’ve explained, make perfect sense for the party’s parliamentary tacticians to make a preference deal with a party whom the branch members view in black and white terms as an enemy. Arguably this is a point in favour of ATL ticket-voting, akin to Arend Lijphart’s point that List-PR was better than STV for consociational democracy (and closed lists best of all) because the political insiders could negotiate compromises and power-sharing without worrying about the deal being kicked over by a populist revolt from below at the ballot-box.

    Having said that, one could take a different view and say that a better solution is for political leaders to cut down on the adversarial rhetoric they throw about in public. It’s all very well to throw some red meat to the true believers. (Eg: “Fabian socialists!” “the Tories!” and, in the case of many ALP figures concerning the DLP, “Groupers!” and “Santamaria’s Francoist infiltrators!”). But if you know full well that – in a hung Lower House, or in most Upper Houses, or when drawing up preference tickets and How-to-vote cards – you’ll have to be making pragmatic deals with those same forces of darkness, then it’s irresponsible to be denouncing rival parties in apocalyptic terms.

  15. I think any upper house is still effectively useless unless it has real veto powers. Not necessarily the power to block supply, but even if the HoL is elected, its veto can still be overriden by the Commons using the Parliament Acts.

  16. I should also add that, assuming (say) 10% or 20% or 30% of ALP supporters would prefer to preference the DLP or FF, ticket-voting has the potential to shut out their views if party central decides in future that the registered ticket will favour the Greens instead.

    Yes, parties can and do often register split tickets, but the electoral law arbitrarily decrees that an equal percentage goes to each variant of the ticket. If the exact proportion of Joe de Bruyn types in Labor ranks happens to be, say, 27.61% of the party’s total, then 0% will be too low, 100% too high (if the ALP registers only a single ticket), and even if it registers two tickets, 50% is still too high to represent them accurately.

    We should probably stop using “FF” as an abbreviation for Family First to avoid confusing Irish political observers.

    The examples of Chris Puplick and Jacinta Collins, by the way, show the interesting tactic of minor parties selectively preferencing some but not all of the candidates on a major party’s ticket. This will never unseat the top two Labor or Coalition Spitzkandidatten, of course, but might mean #3 on the list loses to a rival party’s candidate. Didn’t Bill Hartley’s Industrial Labor Party try this in 1987? (I recall an amusing ditty published in The Bulletin that went “If you haven’t got a Halfpenny, a Button will do…”)

  17. Tom,

    I agree that parties should cut out the overblown rhetoric. The Liberal lady who lived on the corner near the Montmorency polling booth used to bring coffee for all the how-to-voter handerer-outerers. My experience working on booths (beginning in 1969) is that rank and file party members are generally friendly to each other. After all, we have a shared purpose, namely, participation in the political process.

    No system is perfect. I don’t really mind ATL voting, though I always vote below the line myself. My take on it is everyone a choice – to trust their party or to make their own decision. If you have decided to trust your party, you live with the results – and don’t moan afterward because you didn’t pay attention to the press beforehand and are surprised that the ATL ticket is not the one you think it should have been, especially if you think the party that has openly set out to replace your party is your party’s are natural ally.

    There were Labor people down here who were also aghast at the result, but then they tend not to have any sort of objective view. Some are lost in the 1950s; others should be in the Greens.

    There are limits. I sent several letters to the editor criticising the new DLP for making preference deals with the Citizens Electoral Council – none published – because that is beyond the pale. I would never do a deal with the Nazi Party, the Communist Party, the Socialist Equity Party or any party that was an enemy of democracy because I would not want to risk their winning a seat. But the DLP, Family First and the Greens are all legitimate, democratic parties.

  18. Many thanks for all your comments. Just a couple of thoughts:

    Vasi @8: The proposed district magnitudes are between 5 and 7. The thinking is that any smaller would prevent proportionality while anything larger would become unwieldy for voters.

    Mike @9 and 11: The main argument for bicameralism in the UK is that without it power would be highly concentrated: the leaders of a party with a majority in the House of Commons would be able for the most part to do whatever they wanted, without constraint. If the second chamber can impose a bit of a break and make life difficult for a government that ignores wider opinion, it can encourage slightly more careful governance.

  19. Alan @18: I think the Irish 3-5 seats magnitude has proven itself to be proportional enough. I think anything more than 5 could already become unwieldy for voters and perhaps to big, keeping in mind the voters per seat ratio, which is in the hundreds of thousands.

  20. “But I also think having one chamber that represents geographical areas, using single member districts, and one chamber that represents political tendencies, using nationwide proportional representation, makes alot of sense.”

    But why then have the government formed on the basis of a majority (positive or negative) in the geographical-area-based chamber, and not the political-tendencies one? I’d say the opposite makes more sense, and that perhaps Germany to some extent is an example of this.

    “which could still be used for the usual purposes of putting judges and bishops in the upper chamber”

    I’d rather have an independent and nonpolitical judicial branch. And as if a state church isn’t bad enough in itself, giving the clerics political power over the state is too theocratic for my taste. In fact, from my foreign-based point of view the main purpose of reforming the House of Lords must be to get rid of such archaic, undemocratic and aristocratic parts of Parliament, including the hereditary lords of course.

  21. Norwegian @20: the setup of one chamber being elected by SMCs and one by PR is about more than just variation between the houses (which is also important). In Australia, with the lower house elected with AV, the gov’t generally has a majority there, but it needs to deal with other parties to get bills through the PR-elected Senate. If the gov’t is formed in a PR-chamber, while the upper house is elected from SMCs, all compromise will happen in the lower house, while discussion in the upper house will be fairly limited, simply allowing the upper hand to the majority.

    Also keep in mind that the judiciary has already been separated from the House of Lords with the creation of the UK Supreme Court, and part of the current Lords reform proposals include cutting the number of Lords Spiritual (Bishops) by more than half.

  22. Tasmania follows Norwegian Guy’s model. The House of Assembly is 4 MHA’s elected by STV in each of 5 districts. The Legislative Council is elected from single-memebr districts by MPV. 2 or 3 districts elect their MLC each year. Oddly enough there is a legislative council election today.It is (not necessarily kindly) referred to as a shires’ house.

    Traditionally there were intense policy disputes between the two houses but that has faded in recent times.

  23. “5 MHAs”?

    Switzerland also follows the Tasmanian model of PR for the lower house and a plurality or majority system for the upper.

  24. Yes, 5 MHAs. It was originally 7 but the Liberals and Labor came up with a subtle plan to exclude the Greens by cutting the size of the House of Assembly and therefore increasing the quota. The present government is a Labor-Green Coalition.

  25. To answer Norwegian guy’s questions:

    1. You usually want to be the chamber where people are elected from geographical districts to be the larger chamber. That is because then you can have lots of small geographical districts, and the smaller the district, the more effective the representation.

    2. For mainly historical reasons, in parliamentary systems the chamber that voted confidence and supply in the government was always the larger, or “lower” chamber (there is a faint echo of this even in the U.S. in the requirement that all money bills originate in the House of Representatives).

    Now if started from scratch, maybe you would want a small “lower” chamber selected by proportional representation which would provide confidence and supply, and a larger “upper” revision chamber selected from geographical districts. But usually constitution makers are not starting from scratch.

    Also, there are workarounds, such as STV (proportional representation, but from smaller than usual multimember districts at some cost to proportionality), and the additional member system (single member geographical districts, but supplemented in the same chamber by essentially appointed members allocated so that party strength is proportional to their nationwide vote). Also I’m ignoring the issues with the federal system.

    Personally, I’m not that concerned that the partisan composition of a legislative chamber match up exactly with the partisan composition of the electorate, as long as 1) all parties with some support, even small ones, gain representation and 2) the non-proportionality of the electoral system doesn’t enable a legislative majority to push through policies that are actually unpopular with the wider electorate. For the purposes of 2) and even some extent 1) its really enough that the revising chamber be selected proportionally.

  26. As an Australian citizen, the worst and most maligned part of our ticket voting system is the perverse intra-party outcomes that it produces. Ticket voting involves not just ordering candidates within the party, but also involves choosing how preferences are passed from one party to another. This creates a system whereby behind the scenes preference deals determine which minor parties win crucial balance-of-power senate seats. The best example of this was in 2004 when Family First reached a quota of around 14% with less than 2% of the vote in the Victorian senate election. They won this seat despite the fact that the Greens had received four times as many votes. Preferences are fine, but only when they reflect the genuine will of voters rather than shady political horse trading.

    I think that there is a place in the electoral system debate for some kind of approval voting system. I think an open list system could work rather effectively if voters were given the option to approve any number of people on the list, moving them up the list.

  27. I honestly think that STV is a great idea but, if you want to make STV voting easy, it could be done with another idea.

    A ballot would have 2 columns: one for party and one for candidates. Now, in order for a ballot to be valid, a voter would have to rank a number of candidates equal to the number of seats in its districts (so, in a 3-member district, a voter would have to cast a first choice, second choice and third choice) and rank a number of parties equal to the number of seats in the district.

    STV could be easily implemented by the following method: give voters a ballot from each of the parties, with the ranking of the candidates, allowing the voter to pick one ticket and seal it in an envelope and put it into the ballot box.

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