Puerto Rico assembly-size referendum

Via Manuel Álvarez-Rivera:

Voters in Puerto Rico go to the polls next Sunday, August 19, 2012, to cast ballots in a constitutional amendments referendum, concerning the Legislative Assembly’s number of members and the right to bail.

The constitutional amendment on the Legislative Assembly’s number of members proposes a reduction of the number of senators from 27 to 17, and the number of representatives from 51 to 39, starting in 2016. The number of Senate districts would be increased from eight to eleven, but each Senate district would elect one senator, instead of two. In addition, each Senate district would include three House of Representatives districts (instead of five), for a total of 33 House districts; each House district would continue to elect one representative. Moreover, the number of at-large seats in each House would be reduced from eleven to six. Likewise, the minority party representation cap would be reduced from nine to six seats in the Senate, and from 17 to 13 seats in the House of Representatives.

If we go by the cube-root rule, which suggests assembly size tends to be near the cube root of the population, the current first-chamber size of 51 is already only about one third of expected. If this referendum passes, Puerto Rico will have an extremely undersized assembly.

There is some tendency for islands (especially in the Caribbean) to have undersized assemblies. And the cube root rule might not apply to assemblies of not fully sovereign entities (though its underlying theory makes no such explicit claims). In any case, this would be a really small legislature for a “Commonwealth” of around 3.7 million.

8 thoughts on “Puerto Rico assembly-size referendum

  1. First of all, thanks for the link to my blog posting and your insight on the matter.

    I should also note that had the constitutional amendment passed – in the end it was decisively rejected by voters (as was the amendment on bail) – we would have had fewer legislators than under the 1917-52 Jones Act, when Puerto Rico, with a population ranging at the time from 1.1 to 2.2 million, had a 19-seat Senate (14 from seven two-member districts, five at-large i.e. SNTV) and a 39-seat House of Representatives (35 from SMDs, four at-large). As it was, this point was never brought up during the campaign, at least to my knowledge.

    Finally, while I concur that Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives is undersized relative to its population, I must say that increasing the size of the Legislative Assembly would be a tough sell, not least because the institution is not held in particularly high esteem by many here, to put it tactfully.

    • JD, Manuel answers at least some aspects of your question at his blog post that I linked to. Of course, it would be great to discuss it back here!

  2. Manuel,

    I went back to your description of the current system, as I was not fully familiar with it.

    I had a couple of questions for further info. (I may also include them on a wiki article eventually).

    What is the process if the governor receives more than 2/3 of the votes for allocating seats in the assembly (I understand it’s not been used before)?

    Though this may be an unlikely question, what if the governor is not from the party which has won two-thirds of the house? Do the above rules equally apply?

    What system (Hare, D’Hondt, etc) is used for minority party allocations?

    In the event of an underhang (not enough at large or district candidates to fill an allocation), do the seats go unfilled or are they distributed to other parties? This might occur where a candidate from a very small party with limited nominations gets a lot of votes for governor?

  3. While I understand the assembly is somewhat undersized. What is the point in the bicameral nature given that both appear to be basically rep-by-pop houses.

    If they wished to reduce the number of politicians, why not just go with one house? I understand this is commonplace in American states, but bicameralism not tied to some regional representation seems over the top. And unlike most states in the US, there’s no difference in length of term here.

  4. Having two chambers of the legislature, both elected from (almost always gerrymandered) single member plurality districts, has the norm for the United States since the 1960s.

    There is no public policy reason for it all all, it just is. And its not a harmless cultural quirk or tradition as well, it actually does real damage to the polity.

  5. Now that tropical storm Isaac is out of the way, I’ll try to answer all your questions.

    JD, the rejected constitutional amendment would have reinforced the majoritarian character of Puerto Rico’s Legislative Assembly electoral system, by making it considerably more difficult for small parties to win at-large (SNTV) seats. At the present time, it is possible to secure one of eleven at-large mandates in either chamber with about seven percent of the vote, but if their number had been reduced to six, the corresponding figure would have increased to around 13%. Not surprisingly, this was one of the main arguments put forward by the smaller parties in their campaign against the amendment.

    Nick, Section 10.015 of our grandiosely-named Puerto Rico Electoral Code for the 21st Century, on Minority Party Representation, states that “For the purposes of the provisions of subsection (b) of Section 7 of Article III of the Constitution of Puerto Rico, when a party that has indeed polled more than two-thirds of the total number of votes cast or the office of Governor polls more than two-thirds of the total number of votes cast for the candidates for
    one or both legislative houses, if there should be two (2) or more minority parties, the number of senators or representatives for each of said minority parties shall be
    determined by dividing the number of votes cast for the candidate for the office of Governor of each minority political party by the total number of votes cast for the candidate for the office of Governor of all political parties, and multiplying the result by twenty-seven (27) in the case of the Senate of Puerto Rico, and by fifty-one (51) in the case of the House of Representatives of Puerto Rico. In this case, any fraction of less than one-half of one resulting from the operation
    expressed herein shall be discarded and not considered. The result of the operation indicated herein shall be the number of senators or representatives that shall correspond to each minority party, and, insofar as possible, this shall be the total number of senators or representatives of said minority party. There shall never be more than nine (9) senators or more than seventeen (17) representatives for all the minority parties combined. In case any fractions result from the aforementioned operation, the largest fraction shall be considered as one in order to complete said number of nine (9) senators and seventeen (17) representatives from all the minority parties, and, if in the process, said number of nine (9) or seventeen (17) were not completed, then the next largest remaining fraction shall be considered, and so on, until the maximum number of nine (9) in the case of the Senate of Puerto Rico, and seventeen (17) in the case of the House of Representatives of Puerto Rico, has been completed for all the minority parties.”

    The full English-language translation of our Electoral Code (Act No. 78 of 2011) is available here in PDF format.

    The procedure on dealing with fractions is a bit convoluted, but in practice it boils down to the largest remainder method. We’ve never had more than two qualifying minority parties in any election, so dealing with fractions has not really been an issue. However, I’m not clear as to what would happen if a party has fewer candidates than minority seats to fill, since parties here usually try to put up full legislative slates.

    Our Legislative Assembly is patterned along U.S. lines, which is why we have two houses. Back in 2005, voters overwhelmingly approved a non-binding proposal to establish an unicameral legislature, but a subsequent, binding referendum to actually amend the Constitution was never held.

    Ed, I should note that legislative reapportionments in Puerto Rico are carried out by a Constitutional Board for the Revision of Senate and House Representatives Electoral Districts, composed of the Chief Justice of the Puerto Rico Supreme Court and two members from different parties appointed by the Governor of Puerto Rico and confirmed by the Senate; the last four reapportionments (1983, 1991, 2002, 2011) have all been unanimously agreed upon. Incidentally, the current Senate apportionment runs along the lines of a minimal-change proposal I published early last year on my website.

  6. Manuel,

    You blog is very helpful, along with some of these other source documents.

    I’m kind of glad this referendum did not go through. Though, it would be nice to see bloc voting eliminated from the Senate.

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