And now for something completely different (NSW edition)

NSW is having a redistribution. This happens every 5 to 7 years and is triggered by the projected enrolment of a fixed fraction of seats being too far above or below the statewide quota.

My own district of Murray-Darling, at 250,388 square kilometres only slightly smaller than Texas, has been losing population so the electorate will have to expand to the east. It already covers a third of the state and cannot expand in any other direction because it already borders all 3 neighbouring states.

Just for the record, the district includes a strange place called, poetically, the Unincorporated Far West which is not part of any municipality. The UFW is slightly larger than Maine and has a population of 698. The City of Broken Hill, a mining town that is the reason for the ‘BH’ in BHP Billiton is trying to expand into the UFW, which completely surrounds it, without much success.

The electoral district itself, and the fuss over Broken Hill’s expansion plans, raise a mildly interesting question. If you made the district part of a three-seater or a five-seater it would simply vanish. Apart from not wanting to pay property taxes for urban services they use only intermittently, the 698 people in the UFW feel they would be swamped by Broken Hill’s 20 000. How should the electoral reformer deal with remote and thinly populated areas?

It goes without saying that the Murray-Darling problem is exacerbated by Australia’s very low assembly sizes. The Taagepera number for NSW would give an assembly of 194. The actual number is 93.

23 thoughts on “And now for something completely different (NSW edition)

  1. Sorry to nitpick, but the comparison with Texas didn’t sound right to me. Turns out Texas is 250 thousand square miles, not kilometers—that’s almost three times as large. Murray-Darling is still about the size of the UK, nothing to sneeze at!


  2. Don’t mess with Texas! (Someone had to say it…)

    Alan, we should clarify that this redistribution (= redistricting) is of NSW’s State lower house. The procedure for federal seats in each State is similar (not til l saw the 93 did l twig he meant MLAs not MHRs), with similar procedures and criteria. Moreover, both can take place at any time (ie, not just soon after each census), since federally the Constitution requires MHRs to be reapporttioned whenever population numbers mean more or fewer seats for a State, while the Commonwealth Electoral Act requires one whenever intra-State enrollment numbers are too unequal.

    > “How should the electoral reformer deal with remote and thinly populated areas?”

    I’m flirting with the suggestion that really huge districts (in the “larger area than many European countries” order of magnitude, say, over one million square kilometres?) should be 2-seat districts with the numbers for a single-seat district. STV would mean that, like the Territory Senators, they normally divide evenly on party lines, but could halve the workload for non-partisan constituency service.

    As well, or instead, the law could set an explicit formula like Queensland’s “phantom voters” or Sri Lanka’s “honest gerrymander.” Eg, under one million km2, deemed population equals actual population; over 2 million, it’s actual population plus one million; in between, it’s twice actual population. I once read-ed a US State Constitution with a similar formula (one per cent of the State’s area counted as half a per cent of its inhabitants, l think, when reapportioning) but forget which State (Michigan, maybe, or Indiana – something from the “dull GOP” column…) and in any case it was presumably made a dead letter by Baker v Carr.


  3. There was a mild local trauma in Broken Hill in 1999 when the electoral district of Broken Hill had to be merged with the surrounding district.

    Every MLA from Broken Hill had come from the Labor Party except for one term in the 1920s when the Socialist Industrial Labor Party, an affiliate of the IWW, held the seat. Naturally that history ended when the Labor island of Broken Hill was swamped by a sea of Nationals voters living outside the town. The Coalition had never won a Broken Hill booth (a precinct in US terms) until the last state election when they won every booth.

    I didn’t know about the Queensland rule until now. Thanks.


  4. Tom, I think Norway has such an apportionment system. Quote from Wikipedia:

    “Each county elects a pre-calculated number of seats in the Parliament, the Storting, based on the population and geographical area of the county. Each inhabitant scores one point and each square kilometer scores 1.8 points”


  5. Thanks, Vasi, I didn’t know about the Norwegian rule. Speaking as a resident and voter enrolled in one of Australia’s most densely-populated urban centres, I have no objection myself to some mild loading for those districts that require their MP(s) to cover them by aeroplane.

    Alan, I’m amazed you didn’t know about EARC’s “Solomonic Compromise.” There is excusable ignorance, and then there is inexcusable. (-;

    Another idea I’ve toyed with, related to the topic Alan raised is the formula used to allocate seats among multi-member districts. Most nations I’ve studied, whether they use largest remainders (Hare or Droop quota) or highest averages (D’Hondt, St-Laguë, or something else again), allocate one seat at a time among (pre-fixed) districts, as if they were allocating seats among party lists after the polls close.[1]

    An alternative is to weight the divisors to favour numbers that work better with PR, or at least with STV (the precise district magnitude doesn’t matter as much if Rome or Helsinki is electing 20 or 30 deputies from a huge constituency). Eg, rather than the cutoffs for 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 seats being (say) 2.5, 3.5, 4.5, 5.5, and 6.5 times the quota (if we’re using St-Laguë), why not tweak them to (say) 2.1, 3.9, 4.1, 5.9, and 6.1? That way, a district with (say) 5.6 times the St-Laguë quota will get 5 seats instead of 6, which is much more convenient for an STV election. If its population rises, it will then break through to 7 seats sooner.

    An extreme variant of this would be to allocate odd numbers only, but on balance that would be undesirable since a very small change in population would see a district jump from 5 seats to 7 in one hit, or vice versa fall. Fixing the “band” so that there is a 4 to 1 chance of an odd district magnitude (ie, if the remainder is anywhere between 0.1 and 0.9) still means that a district with exactly 6 quotas of population, or something very close to it, will end up with 6 seats.

    [1] Curiously, many polities seem to use one formula for apportioning seats among provinces and/or districts and a different formula for apportioning seats among competing electoral lists. Eg, Belgium uses Hare quota and LR for the former but D’Hondt HA for the latter. The US, on the other hand, uses the Huntingdon Equal Proportions variant of HA for the former; whereas most actual or proposed methods of party list or analogous PR used in, or proposed for, the US, seem to use Hare Q plus LR. (eg, allocating convention delegates among presidential contenders, and proposals for proportionately dividing Electoral College votes within a State.

    Australia sort of falls in this camp, too, since the Constitution prescribes St-Laguë for allocating HR seats among States but the Electoral Acts all prescribe STV (which, of course, uses Droop quota and a variant of LR) for the contest between parties. The Constitutional formula on its face looks like “Hare quota plus all and only remainders over 0.5” but the effect of this, when used in an attempt to allocate 144 MHRs among States, ends up allocating 145 instead (plus Tasmania’s guaranteed fifth MHR), and does so exactly as St-Laguë would have if one set out from the start to allocate 145 seats.


  6. I remember reading the Hansard from when Western Australia was moving towards making Legislative Council Districts one man, one vote. Apart from being completely undemocratic and giving the Coalition an unfair ability to block any Labor lower house legislation, the rural MLCs did bring up very good points (alongside some very, very insipid ones in my opinion), such as needing to drive eight hours to meet with a legislator compared to the something like fifty legislators across both houses in metropolitan Perth. I believe they ended up making it less biased towards the rural districts in 2005, and nearly equal in the lower house.

    It also strikes me as somewhat unfair that apportionment for the US House of Reps doesn’t take geography into account at all, except for state lines. Rhode Island, which is 3182 sq km in area and has a population of 1.05 million, received two representatives. Montana, which has just 50,0000 fewer people and is over a hundred times the size of Rhode Island, got just one representative. That representative represents nearly two times as many people as the representative from Wyoming. Of course, considering that all of them have the same number of Senators that serve all 25 million of us Texans, not to mention the 37 million Californians I don’t feel too much sympathy (aside from the fact that I like the way they cast their senate ballots more than I like the way my fellow Texans do).

    MSS, how would seats be allocated under a theoretical Wyoming Rule–using some form of dHondt/Jefferson’s method to deal with fractions of Wyoming’s population, or else using largest remainders or rounding at a fixed fraction?


  7. @ Chris-8, I hope I am misunderstanding what you are saying, but are you suggesting that people living in remote areas should be deliberately overrepresented just because their local MP/Congressman needs to travel more?

    I just don’t see how trees and dust can be entitled to the same representation has actual people. I have no problem with equal senate representation, but the other house shouldn’t devalue people just because of where they live.


  8. Mark R, it could make sense in some situations. Canada has a Parliament with some of the largest single-member constituencies in the world—the biggest is the size of Mexico! Our upper house also has very little power. If it were constitutionally feasible, I would support a measure to give the Senate a very disproportionate bias towards the less-populated north, just so those living there could have reasonable access to representatives.


  9. I do have a problem with equal Senate representation far more than disproportionate House representation. Especially, I find that a supermajority in the Senate is ludicrous, and that twenty states smaller than CA put together to be virtually dictatorial.

    That being said, there are valid concerns about the difficulty of representing huge territories. It’s much harder to be accessible or to provide quality services to your constituents. Public services in rural areas often cost more, or are things taken for granted by urbanites but essential in the country, like irrigation or wildfire protection or even garbage removal. It’s not just credit for trees, it’s understanding their are legitimate differences, and that there cannot be an urban tyrrany of the majority which marginalized rural needs.

    I think a better solution would be multiple representatives with fractional votes, or MMP with smaller SMDs in rural areas, but in lieu of that I can understand moderate disproportionality in local representation for rural areas.


  10. I think I am more focused on the need for a local member than on voting power in parliament.

    The best solution for that is probably a large assembly. The seats of Mirray-Darling and Broken Hill were merged in the 1998 redistribution as a direct result of the ALP legislating to cut the assembly to 93, allegedly on small government grounds. each of the former seats is approximately half the population of the current district. If NSW had a Taagepera assembly with 193 members the quota would fall by more than half and those two seats could be separated again. Ina PR system I would probably argue for SMDs in remote areas.

    Ed and I had an exchange once over where to locate the remainder district in a projected STV US house of representatives, It goes without saying that I would put the remainder district in the remote areas.

    A large electorates rule would help that half of Murray-Darling that lies outside the City of Broken Hill. I defy anyone to produce an algorithm that can deal with a large town, by Australian standards, that is extraordinarily isolated.

    The helpful person at the Australian electoral commission once invited me to ”pop into’ the district electoral office at Albury, a round trip of 1400 kilometres. I stayed home.

    I did once have to do the 2200 kilometre round trip to Sydney to get a land transfer stamped at one office and then registered at another. Sending the original documents by mail would have taken about a week for them to Sydney, get processed and then sent back to me so I could send them back to Sydney a second time.


  11. I’m more in favour of a modest degree of representation-by-area (not, note, always the same as representation-by-States – maybe that reflects my bias as a resident of Queensland and NSW, since both are larger than Tasmania in area AND population) in the lower house, and a more substantial degree in the upper house.

    I do not favour absolute equality of States in an upper house because it runs into the problem that at some future point Delaware may fall into the sea or Tasmania be depopulated by rising ice caps. If we are framing a Constitution for centuries (and note that the US model has just passed a quarter-millennium), an ironclad guarantee is as foolish as entrenching an Act declaring that Old Sarum shall always send two members to the Commons. [1] I would prefer a rule that any State below a certain very low population threshold (say, 10,000) gets merged with an adjoining State for federal elections.

    [1] In fact the US Constitution does entrench a similar rule. As others have noted, the 23rd Amendment guarantees DC an absolute minimum of 3 Electors. This would apply even if Congress were one day to retrocede the rest of the District, excising the White House, back to Maryland and Virginia, leaving the three Electors to be hand-picked by the President, First Spouse, and First Daughter. (There hasn’t been a First Son for just over two decades.)


  12. I highly doubt a DC retrocession would happen without a Constitutional amendment removing DC’s electoral votes passing. However, it’s worth noting that Presidents almost always retain their original residence for voting purposes. President Obama voted early in 2012 in Chicago; President Bush voted in Crawford, TX on Election Day 2004. It’s quite possible a retroceded DC could have no registered voters, and therefore no electors to cast electoral college votes.


  13. Thanks, Chris @14, my point remains. Since retrocession can be done by ordinary Act of Congress while a Constitutional amendment is much harder to pass, it is possible that otherwise sensible proposals to adjust DC’s boundaries might be blocked because they are seen by some members of Congress as leaving a “rotten borough” rump (“and it’s not even a State proper!”). Attempts to remedy DC’s non-representation in House and Senate – by moving the outer suburbs back to Maryland or DC, so they can vote for Representatives and Senators for once – might be thwarted because, ironically, the Constitution guarantees DC over-representation (but only while its population is smaller than the smallest State’s) in the other body, the Electoral College.


  14. It really is extraordinary how roughly the District of Columbia is treated compared with other federal districts.


  15. The DC rotton-borough effect in the event of retrocession can be handled by specifying in the legislation that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the two senior associate Justices would be the sole legal residents of the district, and presumably would also automatically be the electors, with the understanding that they would always abstain in the Electoral College. That would also ensure that an odd number of votes would be cast in the Electoral College.


  16. The District of Columbia is already tiny by world standards and much of the federal government is already based in the surrounding states. Surely a more reasonable solution is simply to provide for congressional representation. In terms of likelihood I’m afraid I see retrocession without abolishing the three electors as about as likely as the US Republicans deciding Keynes was a great guy.


  17. Honestly I can’t see DC’s electors being abolished unless the Electoral College as a whole is abolished. Democratic state legislatures aren’t going to vote for a bill that just takes away three Democratic electors. Since the GOP have started advocating the “since we can gerrymander our way to victory in the House, let’s do it for President, too” plan, there’s been more and more talk of moving to a popularly-elected presidency. I wouldn’t be a big fan of a single-round national presidential election, but it would certainly beat the concept of a candidate who won a majority of the popular vote and beat his opponent by 3% losing because of gerrymandered house districts.

    In lieu of a second round or preferential voting, though, I don’t see the Electoral College as being a terrible way of deciding who wins between two candidates with a minority of the vote. Though I hated the Bush presidency, I don’t think the fact that Gore won a plurality of the popular vote by a fraction of a percent meant he won a mandate to govern. I would love to see at the very least an amendment declaring that a candidate who wins a majority of the national popular vote (perhaps including PR and the other territories) is automatically awarded every elector.


  18. I could almost wish the Republicans were to succeed in gerrymandering the presidency. They would discover very quickly both what it is like to illegitimise the basic institutions of the country and what it is like face an opposition party that is prepared to question the constitution. It would be almost as much fun as seeing deep blue states like California considering winner-takes-all legislation for the allocation of congressional seats within a state.


  19. Winner-take-all House elections by state is honestly not as terrible/undemocratic as it sounds, as it quite likely could make the overall composition of the House more proportional compared to the nationwide vote (except in absolutely landslide years), and considering that every Senator is elected winner-take-all statewide.

    Unfortunately, federal law has required single-member districts for House Districts since 1967, with Hawaii in the 1968 election being the last time a multi-member district has been used at the federal level ( It would be difficult to imagine the FPTP-elected House voting to allow any kind of change, from winner-take-all house districts to MMP or STV. That is, of course, excluding the possibility of a state law saying that the candidate in each district of the party that wins the most votes is deemed elected. I have no idea if such a law would pass muster as it would almost certainly be seen as against the intent of the law, if not the text itself (“Representatives shall be elected only from districts so established, no district to elect more than one Representative”).

    As an aside, I was perusing FairVote’s “State Fair Voting Plans,” which appear to be advocating STV, and could not help but note the irony of their basing those plans on combining multiple gerrymandered Congressional districts into new, larger districts.

    Of course, 37 state legislatures can call for a constitutional convention, though there’s absolutely no law regarding how such a convention would be organized and what, if any, would be its limits. At one point in the 80s or 90s, 35 states called for a convention to add a balanced budget amendment, two short of the needed number. Whether those petitions are still on the table, I don’t know, and whether said convention could legally be limited to covering a balanced budget amendment, I don’t know. It is worth noting that the Framers chose to completely ignore the Articles of Confederation (which they were supposed to be revising), particularly the part requiring unanimity among the states to change the articles.


  20. The thing is that gerrymandering the presidency is a truly terrible idea, not only for the country, but in the fairly short term for the Republican Party itself. I am not of course, arguing that the Republicans are likely to make a rational decision on the matter. I would imagine the Democrats would also suddenly discover they are much less wishy-washy on issues like the filibuster and NPV.


  21. You coudld ribe a truck through that drafting.

    In each District the Representative shall be the candidate of that party which receives the highest number of votes in the State as a whole.


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