How many losers do you need?

For a project I am currently working on, regarding district-level vote fragmentation, I am toting up the number of losing parties (with any vote share) in electoral districts in various countries.

Here are a few cases that I have completed. This first list of countries gives the number of losing parties, averaging across districts and (usually) more than one election per country.

Albania, 36.2
Australia, 2.5
Barbados, 1.4
Canada, 4.2
Czech Republic, 15.5
Israel, 11.6
New Zealand, 2.3
Spain, 14.7
UK, 4.6

The figure for New Zealand refers to several pre-MMP elections.

This is a small set of countries, and I am currently expanding it. But what really jumps out here is how many partisan choices Albanian voters have. This refers to the 2009 and 2013 pure-PR elections only. The mean district in these Albanian elections has a magnitude of 12, a mean number of winning parties of only 3… and thirty-six losing parties!

Some of the other PR cases also have a lot of losers, but none like Albania.

It is interesting to see how many losing parties are typical of the two big FPTP countries, Canada and UK, with both averaging more than four per district.

Another interesting summary statistic is what vote share the losing parties average. In Albania it is 1.05% per party. That sums to a LOT of wasted votes! Spain, too, has a high average vote share for losing parties for a PR system, at 2.8%. In the Czech Republic it is 1.2% and in Israel (with nationwide PR, rather than districted) it is only 0.4%.

Thus we should also consider the average percentage of the first losing party in a district:

Albania, 4.6
Australia, 35.8
Barbados, 39.1
Canada, 28.5
Czech Republic, 4.7
Israel, 0.94
New Zealand, 32.9
Spain, 6.4
UK, 28.6

Of course, in FPTP systems the average shares for first losers and thus for all losers are especially high, but the larger losing parties in any given district tend to win some seats elsewhere.* In the PR cases, a lot of these losers are not winning anywhere (or might win in just one to two high-magnitude districts); they are just small parties that have no chance at all. I wonder what it is about Albanian party law, or other features of the country’s politics, that contribute to so many micro-parties running.

* The third party (second loser) in the FPTP cases of Canada, UK and (formerly) New Zealand averages 14-15%. The average winner in Canada and the UK, by the way, is at almost precisely 50% (in NZ it was 52.8%).

Most of the raw data from which I calculated the above numbers come from the Constituency Level Electoral Archive, although I am augmenting it from various other sources. The list of countries shown here is the subset on which I am currently working: parliamentary democracies with “simple” electoral systems by Taagepera (2007) criteria, meaning no second round or upper tier. Thanks to Cory Belden for her research assistance; some day she will get a much better acknowledgement than one on a blog post…

6 thoughts on “How many losers do you need?

  1. Correction: the New Zealand data are 1966 only. The CLEA is missing some votes data for all other elections in the FPTP era. (I can get it elsewhere, at least for later elections.) For Canada it is 2011 only; again, CLEA lacks votes data. (This is quite a surprise.) The UK elections included in the data summaries above are 1997, 2001, 2005, and 2010.

    A work in progress…

  2. I’m not at all surprised about Spain, given that full proportionality is essentially limited to the two larger provinces of Madrid and Barcelona, while just over half the provinces elect three, four or five deputies; in most of the latter cases only the two major nationwide parties have a realistic chance of winning seats, except in regions with strong nationalist movements, such as Catalonia and the Basque Country, where there may be one or two additional parties in play.

    Now, the large number of losing parties reminds me of another Spanish electoral anecdote. The 1976 Political Reform Act (which paved the way for the transition to democratic governance after four decades of authoritarian rule) left to further legislation the details on how the Congress of Deputies and the Senate would be elected. In the meantime, the government moved to legalize political parties, and on the first day of registration a total of 100 – that’s right, one hundred – parties filed the required papers with the authorities. This turn of events alarmed the government, which was terrified of a replay of the ill-fated Second Republic of 1931-36, with its nearly two dozen parties represented in Parliament, none having as much as a quarter of the seats (and all under a non-proportional electoral system, no less). Consequently, the government rushed to enact a royal decree providing for a “rectified” PR system for the Congress of Deputies – rectified to be less proportional – and a limited vote system for the Senate, both of which have remained in place to this day.

    Incidentally, in the early years of Spain’s re-established democracy many analysts (mostly but not exclusively on the left) complained that the Congress of Deputies electoral system – which among other things over-represents the smaller, rural provinces at the expense of the larger, urban ones – had been adopted not just to contain parliamentary fragmentation, but also to tilt the scale against the left, which usually polled better in the large urban centers than in the countryside. However, all such talk came to an end after the Socialists’ sweeping victory in 1982, in which the electoral system actually worked to their advantage and delivered the party a record absolute majority in the Congress of Deputies. Not surprisingly, when the Socialist government enacted a new electoral law in 1985 to replace the old 1977 royal decree, the electoral system remained largely unchanged, the only significant “innovation” being the counting of blank ballots as valid votes – a move which eight years later contributed to the demise of the middle-of-the-road CDS party.

    Finally, concerning Spain’s perennially large number of parties running for office, I can’t help but think of a famous phrase by the distinguished Spanish author Jacinto Benavente: “Es más fácil poner de acuerdo a todo el mundo que a una docena de españoles” (“It’s easier to reach an agreement among the entire world than among a dozen Spaniards”)…

    • One clarification on my previous comment: Spain’s Political Reform Act (Ley 1/1977, de 4 de enero, para la Reforma Política, available in PDF format here) included a broad outline of the electoral systems for the Congress of Deputies and the Senate: PR for the Congress of Deputies and a majoritarian system for the Senate; in the case of Congress, the Act called for “corrective mechanisms” to prevent “inconvenient fragmentation” of the lower House, with vote percentage thresholds to be established to that end, and provinces set as electoral constituencies with a guaranteed minimum number of seats.

      That said, nothing in the Act prevented the government from coming up with a more proportional system for Congress – a goal which could have been easily achieved by 1) cutting the minimum number of seats assigned to the provinces from two to one; and 2) using a different formula for the allocation of seats among party lists (for example, largest remainder instead of largest average). Alas, it was not to be.

  3. Manuel, great quote and anecdotes! Is the implication then that the electoral system was originally–i.e. before all those party registrations came forward–going to be more proportional?

    On the regional and low-M (outside largest cities) nature of the system, did the Socialists first have to change their organization and ideology in order to take advantage of the disproportionality? That is, did the electoral system “rectify” the Socialists?

    In going through the data, I noticed the valid blank ballots, which is actually a pretty unusual feature of electoral systems. Often the largest losing “party” is blank vote. FYI, I took that out of the above calculations, skipping it and counting only actual parties.

    • Matthew, we were commenting at the same time so obviously I did not see your latest comment until after I posted mine. At any rate, one could say that the Congress’ electoral system could have been more proportional but the government panicked and decided to adopt a less-than-proportional (but still nominally proportional) electoral system.

      As for the Socialists, they indeed had to moderate their ideological stance in order to become more electable. In the early years of the transition, PSOE regarded itself as marxist (and republican for that matter). That said, PSOE leaders proved to be fairly pragmatic, and the party backed Spain’s current 1978 constitution both in Parliament and in the ensuing referendum. Nonetheless, the marxist rhetoric remained a drag, and the Socialists were particularly disappointed by the outcome of the 1979 general election, in which the party’s share of the vote (30.5%) was actually below the combined 33.9% polled two years earlier by the Socialists and Enrique Tierno Galván’s Popular Socialist Party (PSP), which had merged with PSOE in 1978.

      At any rate, the Socialists finally ditched Marxism later in 1979 (having already accepted the monarchy the year before), although it took two party congresses, the temporary resignation of party leader Felipe González and finally a compromise measure declaring Marxism to be a “theoretical, critical and non-dogmatic instrument for the analysis of social reality and its transformation,” in what has been aptly described as a half-way Bad Godesberg (i.e. the 1959 SPD congress in which the German Social Democrats abandoned their Marxist stance).

      I have no doubt that PSOE’s move away from Marxism, half-hearted as it might have appeared to be at the time, made the party a much more appealing option to millions of disillusioned UCD voters, especially from the latter party’s social democratic-oriented sectors. It was by no means the only factor behind the Socialists’ 1982 landslide victory, but it had a clear impact.

      In fact, beyond the Socialists’ sharp rise at the polls, I would say it was UCD’s catastrophic 1982 collapse what caused Spain’s electoral system to start working in favor of PSOE; although UCD’s more conservative voters switched en masse to the Popular Alliance (AP), the latter party and its then leader, former Franco minister Manuel Fraga, were perceived as far too right-wing by many erstwhile centrist voters, and AP finished second but in a much weaker position than UCD in 1979, well behind the Socialists (especially in southern Spain). Meanwhile, UCD itself had bled so many voters left, right and center that in most of the smaller provinces it no longer had any realistic chance of retaining even a single seat under the D’Hondt rule.

      One example of how the system went from favoring UCD to rewarding PSOE can be seen in Almería province in south-eastern Andalusia: in 1979 UCD had secured three out of five seats in the province (60%) with 44.3% of the vote; PSOE won the remaining two seats (40%) with a 37.1% share of the vote. However, three years later the Socialists captured four seats (80%) with 58.2% of the vote; AP won the remaining seat (20%) with 23.4% of the vote (up from a meager 4.4% in 1979), while UCD collapsed to 11.3% and was shut out. (By comparison, in the first elections to the Andalusian Parliament held just a few months earlier, UCD still managed to obtain 22% of the vote in Almería – well behind PSOE’s 48.8%, but ahead of AP’s 17.3% and enough to retain one Congress seat at the expense of the Socialists).

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