There may be a conventional wisdom among people who study comparative electoral systems that the Alternative Vote (also known as Instant Runoff or Majority Preferential) tends to suppress the effective number of parties, compared to plurality (First Past the Post, or FPTP). Or maybe it is just me, but I will admit to having such a notion. After all, Australia is a pretty strict two-party system, isn’t it?
The correct way to approach the question of whether AV means a higher or lower effective number of parties (N) than FPTP is to ask: What we should expect N to be, given the country’s seat product?
As explained by Taagepera (2007) and further elaborated and tested by Li and Shugart (2016), the seat product is a country’s mean district magnitude (M), times its assembly size (S). The Seat Product Model says that the effective number of seat-winning parties (Ns) tends to be the sixth root of this product: Ns=(MS)1/6.
The model is logical, not a mere product of empirical regression work, although regression tests confirm it almost precisely (Li and Shugart, 2016).
When all districts elect just one member, thus M=1, the Seat Product is just the assembly size, S. Hence we take the sixth root of S to get an expectation for Ns. What if we do this for Australia’s House of Representatives? We get an expectation of 2.31.
The actual Ns for Australia’s elections since 1984, the year S was increased from 125 to 148 (subsequently it has increased to 150, a minor change) is… 2.53. However, I believe that figure (I am using Gallagher’s Election Indices) treats the Coalition parties as one in elections before 2010.
In the two most recent elections, Ns has been 2.92 and 3.23. The notes to Gallagher’s Election Indices indicate that for these elections the Liberal Party, the Nationals, and the Liberal National Party of Queensland are treated as separate parties. In my opinion they should be so treated, although I suppose one could have a debate about that.
The actual mean is thus above the expectation for a hypothetical FPTP of the same size assembly. If we use the figure of 2.53, it is obviously not much higher than 2.31 (the ratio is 1.10). However, if we consider the value, at least in recent elections, to be around 3.0, it is about 1.30 times the expectation value.
Contrast this with the UK, where elections of the same period (1987-2010) have a mean Ns=2.30. This is just what we expect for FPTP, right? Not much over 2.0. Not so fast! The UK has a huge assembly, and with S=650 (aprpox., as it varies over the period), we should expect Ns=2.94. The UK actually has one of the more under-fragmented assemblies, according to the Seat Product Model, with this recent-period average being only 78% of expectation.
So how about Canada, where AV is one of the potential reforms being considered? Over a similar period (1984-2011) we get Ns=2.63. With S around 300 during this time, we should get Ns=2.59. So Canada pretty much nails the expectation of the model.
So, should we expect Ns to go down if Canada were to adopt AV, as (what I characterized as) the conventional wisdom would have it? Or should we expect it to go up?
I would not be inclined to say ‘down’. I will just leave it at that for now.