Lower Saxony election (and a discussion of the impact and advisability of thresholds)

Today’s election for the state assembly of Lower Saxony, Germany, was considered too close to call as polls closed. It is regarded as one of Germany’s most important bellwethers, given the state’s large size and that its election is occurring several months before a federal election.

The state’s incumbent government mirrors the federal: a coalition of the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats. The latter party has had a string of bad results in state elections, and many pre-election polls suggested it might not pass the 5% threshold in today’s election. If it did not, the Christian Democrats (CDU) would not be able to govern except in a grand coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD).

However, exit polls suggest the FDP has reached 9%:

Its gain was attributed to the CDU governor of the state, half-Scot David McAllister, who tacitly encouraged his supporters to split their ballot to make sure the FDP would clear the 5-percent hurdle needed to remain in parliament — a precondition for him remaining in office.

Pre-election polls had put the CDU at 42% or higher, but all those threshold-surpassing list votes for the FDP had to come from somewhere. As a result, the CDU is down to 36%, according to the exit polls.

As for the SPD, its former federal chancellor (PM), Gerhard Schröder was shown on DW-TV campaigning directly on the promise of an SPD-Green coalition. He said (paraphrasing from the translation on DW English): voters know the SPD and Greens served them well when we governed before, because the SPD took care of jobs, while the Greens took care of the environment”.

Thus Schröder offered an explicit indication of inter-party cooperation with the Greens, just as McAllister engaged in “tacit” electoral cooperation with the FDP. Note the contrast with the relations between two Israeli parties in the run-up to that country’s general election later this week.

The SPD is on 32% and the Greens on 13.5%. Thus the two opposing combines have almost the same combined vote totals. Both the Left and Pirates are below 5%. ((I had seen some polling that had the Left well above the threshold; maybe there was some tactical voting there, too, by soft Left voters who feared voting for the Left would only increase the odds of a grand coalition, given that SPD-Green-Left post-electoral cooperation would have been unlikely.))

The campaign signs, photographed from the DW Journal (aired in the USA by Link TV), are interesting. Note how the CDU and SPD both emphasize their leaders, while the FDP and Greens explicitly call for list votes (Zweitstimme, or “second votes”) in the state’s two-vote mixed-member proportional system.




21 thoughts on “Lower Saxony election (and a discussion of the impact and advisability of thresholds)

  1. The SPD-Green coalition have won a one-seat majority, with 69 seats (49 SPD, 20 Green) to 68 for the CDU-FDP coalition (54 CDU, 14 FDP). The FDP won 9.9% of votes, and the Left failed to reach the threshold with just 3.1% of votes (Bloomberg).


    • And to drive home the point even more about how close it was, the URL of the story to which Chris links includes the phrase “cdu-holds-lower-saxony”! The headline, however, must have been updated: “Merkel’s Party Loses Lower Saxony Even as FDP Surges”.


  2. > ” tacitly encouraged his supporters to split their ballot to make sure the FDP would clear the 5-percent hurdle needed to remain in parliament”

    I assume McAllister’s strategy was that a large party under MMP doesn’t, strictly speaking, need list votes, if and because it can reap a large bonus of single-member seats and keep them as overhangs. So list-voting CDU just drives the threshold upwards and keeps the FDP out. Nearly as convoluted a strategy as the “Hide the Key” “three cups of tea” pantomime in Epsom, NZ.

    This would indicate a case for revising the definition of “5%” – not of the total votes cast, but rather, eliminate the remaining party with the fewest votes unless it has more than one-nineteenth as many votes as the larger parties remaining. So if (say) Linke got 2%, Greens got 2% and the FDP got 4.85%, the FDP would squeak in because 4.85% is more than 5% of 96%. It seems counter-monotonic that, under MMP, by turning up and voting for one minor party, one can help deny representation to another, larger, minor party (without winning any seats for one’s own team), by driving the threshold upwards. The more minor parties that spring up, and the more people who vote for them (provided each is under the 5% hurdle), the more seats for the majors!

    I remain ever more convinced that list systems should combine high thresholds (4% and over) with an exemption for parties in a pre-electoral alliance.


  3. It’s not so much a case of overhangs, because the CDU didn’t have any as far as I know, but more of wasted votes.

    If the CDU gets 40.1 and the FDP gets 9.9, then the coalition is credited with winning 50% in terms of seat allocations, and will almost.certainly form the govt. But if the CDU gets 45.1 and the FDP gets 4.9, then the coalition is only credited with the CDU’s 45.1%. McAllister really doesn’t care about losing 4 to 5 seats to the FDP if it means he can form a government.

    Of course, because the CDU did not get 40.1%, the center left still won more seats and formed the government even though the FDP got 9.9.


  4. I think also the fact is that the threshold is there to exclude fringe parties, so the ‘eliminate minor parties until the parties all have 1/19 of the remaining votes’ proposal isn’t going to gain much ground.

    I’m pretty sure West Germany went with the 5% threshold in the 50s for two reasons: one, reduce the number of minor parties to create more stable governments, and two, kill the KPD (communists). It succeeded-from the late 50s to the early 80s there were just there parties in the Bundestag, the SPD, the FDP, and the CDU-CSU.

    The parties in the BTag, and likely most voters as well, don’t want a threshold that’s fairer for the minor parties. They want to keep the far-right, and to the extent they can at the Land level, Die Linke, out of parliament. Therefore, additional votes for minor parties increasing the threshold sounds great to them.

    Is this the most representative way to vote? Certainly not. Is it necessarily democratic or fair? Not entirely, though certainly more so than FPTP. However, in achieving it’s purpose of excluding the fringe (most voters don’t see the need to give a platform and a salary to neo Nazis just because they win 3% of the vote) and reducing the bazaar of parties (and their ensuing coalition demands) that come with a Dutch/Israeli style low threshold, I’d say the 5% fixed threshold is almost ideal.

    It’s a question of at what percentage of society does a viewpoint deserve representation, and then it’s complicated by parliamentary democracy which forms the executive by a majority of those representatives. I’m more sympathetic to low thresholds in places like Latin America which use presidential systems with proportional legislatures.

    Perhaps the fairest thresholds would be set not in percentage of valid votes, but in percentage of registered voters.


  5. I think I’ve proposed this before, but there’s no reason you couldn’t make thresholds less discontinuous, by combining them with preferential votes.

    The mechanics would be a tweaked STV, with the following differences:

    1. Because of large district magnitude, a full preferential vote for all candidates would be impractical. Instead voters would list parties in order of preference, with the intraparty order being fixed as in List-PR.

    2. To effect a threshold of T seats, a party would not be awarded its first seat until it has accumulated T quotas.


  6. Vasi, that sounds essentially like the NSW Legislative Council electoral system.

    The election is by STV, with 21 vacancies at an election. One has the option of either voting below the line, by ranking at least 15 candidates, or voting above the line, by voting for one or more party tickets. Unlike federal Senate elections, voting for a party’s ticket does not result in a vote for a preset preference ranking of every candidate; instead, it only ranks the candidates of that party, in the order they appear on the ballot paper. Voters have the option of marking multiple parties above the line, unlike federal Senate elections. So, for instance, the Labor how-to-vote cards in the last election suggested that their supporters vote 1 Labor, 2 Greens above the line. That means they essentially ranked every Labor candidate, followed by every Greens candidate, and if all of them are elected or excluded, their ballot is exhausted.

    The Australian group voting ticket essentially operates like closed-list PR, with the exception of in very large elections. The NSW Legislative Council used to use the same ticket style system that the federal Senate uses, but after the 1999 election resulted in a ballot paper the size of a tablecloth (almost 1 sq. m), and a candidate from the “Outdoor Recreation Party” got elected with 8,000 first preference votes (something like 5% of a quota), they changed the group-ticket system to the single party ticket system now in place.

    Stephane Dion, the former Leader of the Official Opposition in Canada, also is advocating a version of party-preferential voting. though in ridings which would be only 3-5 seats (1 seat by AV in the territories). In a 4-seat riding, the threshold would be 25% + 1 vote. If all remaining parties are above the threshold, seats are awarded to them by largest remainder (I believe). If there are any parties remaining below the threshold, the party with the least votes is eliminated and their supporters votes transferred to their highest remaining preference. His system is OLPR, with each voter able to cast a preference vote for one candidate of his first-preference party.

    I think the most proportional system possible would be party-preferential with a low threshold and a large district magnitude (the most proportional would obviously be a single national district). You could either exclude parties one-by-one (hopefully with block exclusions) until every party remaining was above the threshold, then distribute seats. Otherwise you could simply exclude all parties below the threshold and distribute their voters’ preferences to remaining parties. It avoids the huge numbers of voters wasting their votes by being below the thresold; for instance, even with a relatively low threshold of 3%, 19% of the valid votes in the May 2012 Greek election were cast for parties below the threshold. In this system, the only voters who do not have either a first preference or a transfer vote elect an MP are those who deliberately choose not to rank any parties that make it into parliament.

    I also think a novel way to build a stronger government while remaining representative of votes would be to use preferential ballots, but with multiple thresholds. In a 120 seat legislature, 60 seats could be awarded to those parties above 2%, with voters below the threshold transferring to their highest placed remaining party. Then a further 30 seats could be given to those parties above 5% (including transferred votes), then a further 20 seats to those parties above 10%, and then the final 10 seats to the party which wins a majority by transfers. This means that even voters who vote below the threshold are represented, and parties with a decent amount of support have representatives in parliament, just not proportionally to their first-preference votes. You also get larger parties at the top, making a stable government more likely, but unlike supplemental member, or the Italian/Greek plurality-winner top up system, the larger bloc is distributed based on all voters’ preferences, retaining a much larger degree of proportionality than other semi-proportional systems.


  7. OK; I’m going to follow Chris’ proposal for an 120-member legislature:

    – 60 seats for all parties with at least 2% of the vote*

    – 30 seats for all parties with at least 5% of the vote*

    – 20 seats for all parties with at least 10% of the vote*

    – 10 seats for the party with the most votes*

    * including transferred votes from parties that don’t make the threshold

    I think this could be a very good idea! I’d love to see this be tried somewhere.


  8. I’m going to use an example with parties from the USA.

    Let’s assume that the USA had 200 seats being distributed the following way*:

    – 100 seats for all parties with at least 5% of the vote
    – 50 seats for all parties with at least 10% of the vote
    – 30 seats for all parties with at least 20% of the vote
    – 20 seats for the party with the most votes

    * Seat allocation for each stage includes vote transfers from parties that don’t make the threshold

    REP 45%
    DEM 44%
    LBT 6%
    GRN 5%

    1st round:

    REP 45
    DEM 44
    LBT 6
    GRN 5

    2nd round:

    REP 26
    DEM 24

    3rd round:

    REP 16
    DEM 14

    4th round:

    REP 20


    REP: 107
    DEM: 82
    LBT: 6
    GRN: 5


  9. I’d contest quite strongly that excluding ‘fringe parties’ is a legitimate democratic objective. The PVV in the Netherlands has to be the essence of a fringe party. It entered the parliament, surged briefly, and then lost a large number of seats at the last election. One Nation had the same history in Australia.

    All votes should be equal and I think it is seriously hard to justify the proposition that your vote doesn’t count if you vote for the wrong party.

    Moreover a system that, as in Germany, treats the FDP as a fringe party at some elections, and encourages the non-montonic shenanigans in Lower Saxony while allowing the NDP to hold seats in two states anyway, is a mechanism that needs a bit of rethinking.

    MMP was designed in the light of Germany’s immediate past. A closer analysis should have shown that the Nazi rise to power was not a function of PR, but of an over-powerful presidency that could essentially govern without a majority in the Reichstag.

    Hungary has quite high thresholds,although not in the context of MMP, and it’s hard not to think of the present ruling party as a fringe movement. Ditto the NDP and The Left in Germany.


  10. @ Alan 10, I agree. While I understand the need to have stable governments and the need to keep extremists from having too much power, I am not a fan of thresholds. If there is a convention to exclude certain radical beliefs from government or at least from having an overt influence on government, I feel that a better approach would be the model in Spain and Scotland. In both of those parliaments, a majority is not required for appointing the government nor for retaining it. While both systems have the premier nominated directly by parliament, a majority of the membership is not required to approve the nomination. I am not sure if this is done by having the nominating vote be a first past the post vote or by minor parties abstaining from voting, but the effect is the same. As I understand things, a majority can bring down the government and force a new election, but then it would be the same thing–the largest plurality would control the government. Of course my praise for the system would be somewhat lowered if there was no way for a coalition of parties to form a government, at least at the beginning of a new term, over the one party with a majority. I think that is possible but the relatively small number of large parties in both systems keeps the number of possible governing blocks small.


  11. Mark: I’m not sure what you meant by either form of confirmation vote, but a majority is indeed needed to confirm in the countries you mentioned. Small parties either abstain or vote in favour, and sometimes vote against, depending on the situation.


  12. I don’t necessarily like thresholds, but at some point a line does need to be drawn given the limited size of a parliament. At some point, using consistent rules, society does need to say ‘no, you don’t have enough supporters for representation im parliament.’ If not, what’s to stop the Monster Raving Loony William Hill Party or the electors of Old Sarum demanding representation for their views as well?

    If the FDP has lost so much support that it cannot cross the threshold, it doesn’t deserve to be in parliament.

    I’d also say ‘fringe’ views are those that are both ideologically extreme as well as lacking popular support. Groups with large support like the PVV or Front Nationale are still extreme, but can hardly be called a fringe. I would say limiting parliament to those groups that can be an effective bloc, not just a coalition buffer with demands, is a legitimate democratic goal, and that if that means the ‘fringe’ take no seats and don’t grow, I’m honestly not bothered by that.

    I do, however, not believe the fringe voters should be disenfranchised, which is why I support STV or a party-preferential system


  13. As thresholds are barriers which do not flow from the size of a parliament it is logically inconsistent to use parliament size arguments to justify them.Equally to argue that fringe parties are those with fringe views that are smaller than a certain size is to argue that fringe parties are those parties that are fringe parties. To follow up by saying that the problem of thresholds can be cured by using systems that do not have thresholds is perhaps not the strongest argument that you marshal.


  14. district magnitude also has to be taken into account as well. Small Multimember Districts lead to a higher natural threshold.

    What about uniform 4 member districts across the board? That would lead to a natural threshold of 20% allowing for a moderate multi-party system.


  15. Even district magnitudes are fairly evil under STV although (not under list systems) and magnitude 4 sets, as you note, a much higher bar than the typical 5% threshold. We are supposed to be advocating openness and transparency, not developing new and more demanding thresholds.

    Personally, I am rather fond of the NSW legislative council with magnitude 21.


  16. I disagree that thresholds are barriers which do not flow from assembly size; rather they do not [i] necessarily [/i] flow from assembly size. The Netherlands more or less flows from assembly size (one full Hare quota or 0.67% of the vote). They could, perhaps allow a party to take one seat with only a remainder, but if 1/150 doesn’tsatisfy one as a fair threshold, no form of representative democracy will. Cyprus as well has a ‘one full quota’ minimum, though at 56 seats this means the threshold is 1.8%. I would certainly agree that the German threshold doesn’t flow from assembly size (it’s at least 30 seats).

    As far as what a ‘fringe party’ is, there’s no universally accepted definition for it. It could refer to the ideological fringe, the numerical fringe, or both. I simply don’t think that a party with more than 2-3 seats is on the ‘fringe’ of the discussion anymore. Their views are extreme, but the PVVs and Golden Dawns are in the conversation in their countries regardless of how extreme their views are.

    And I’m not advocating systems without a threshold. I’m advocating systems which allow those below the threshold to transfer their vote. The most extreme form of STV, in NSW, has a 4.5% quota (which is twice as high as it would need to be for a 42 seat assembly). By party-preferential, I mean a system like what Stephane Dion is proposing or what I described @7 above.

    While many small district magnitudes don’t operate with thresholds mathematically, they do in practice because of the limited number ofseats.


  17. An STV quota is not the same beast as a PR threshold,simply because the elector has the right to a preferential vote. My problem with PR thresholds is that the vote is simply thrown away. The Netherlands and Cyprus do have the problem that the system has wasted votes, but the high magnitudes reduce the wasted vote to a reasonable level. By contrast, the German system adds a discarded or disfranchised vote to the mix.

    You do not get told in advance if your vote will be discarded because you cannot know in advance if your party will make the threshold.

    Thresholds are non-monotonic and encourage tactical voting, as shown in the Lower Saxony election where the CDP’s chance to form a government depended not on their own performance but on that of the FDP.


  18. Ultimately, any democratic system which is not a direct democracy must have some sort of limiting mechanism or threshold built in. Whether it’s enough votes for one seat or it’s 5% or a plurality in one district, it’s impossible to have representative democracy without at least some losers (barring Cuban style ‘democracy’ where there is only one candidate per seat.

    An assembly’s purpose is not merely to be as representative as possible of the people’s vote. It’s purpose is to be a functioning piece of the government; in parliamentary systems both the executive and legislature depend on this.

    A threshold designed to limit the number of parties in parliament is a perfectly valid democratic choice. While many of them are arbitrary, they rwmain in place because they function well enough in that regard. I think the goal of as low a threshold as possible is something society (though probably not large parties) should want, and we see examples of this in places like NZ where they’re lowering the threshold. In other cases it just doesn’t work well, like Israel, where coalition formation is extremely difficult.

    While a threshold specifically designed to keep the fringe out is less valid democratically, as long as it’s not overly restrictive I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world. Germany’s system has allowed stability while giving new parties a.chance to rise about once every decade. When you have a 10% threshold which means 45% of.votes are wasted, like Turkey in 2002, then your democracy is no longer representative and it blurs the line between ‘democracy’ and ‘dictatorship with internal competition’


  19. As far as the “how to determine what the threshold should be,” starting @3, it is not uniformly based on the number of valid votes cast. I know of at least two counter-examples.

    In Argentina, the threshold is 3% of registered voters. This means that additional votes for minor parties do not drive up the threshold and thus make it more difficult for any of them to get in.

    In Mexico, by contrast, the threshold for the PR seats is 2% of the total votes cast, regardless of whether they are formal or informal. This means that spoiling one’s vote or casting a blank ballot has an impact on parliamentary representation, rather than simply serving as a show of protest. They also have compulsory voting (though I don’t know of turnouts or enforcement). Particularly in the 2006 and 2012 elections, abstention has been a quite common way of showing disgust at the perceived corruption of the three largest parties. Unfortunately, these blank votes hurt the small parties’ chances of getting into parliament and only reinforce the power of the largest parties.

    This Spanish-language website (http://johnleeward.com/Plurinominal/Plurinominal.htm) describes the Mexican PR system very clearly, for those who are interested.


  20. While all the parties in the 2006 Mexican election reached the 2% threshold, one party (Social Democratic and Peasant Alternative) cut it very close. If just 22,265 of their voters (out of a total national vote of over 41 million) had voted for other parties or spoiled their ballots, they would not have passed the threshold. Meanwhile, 1,166,403 votes (2.81% of the total) were cast for write-in candidates (who legally cannot win, I believe), or were informal–enough to pass the threshold on their own were they to form into a ‘None of the Above’ party.


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