Yes, all is well

It has been a long time since a post, so I thought I should confirm that I am indeed still here. And all is well.

I blame the inactivity on the fact that APSA is coming up. Plus a trip to see the total eclipse!

Regarding the eclipse, I don’t have photos of the totality itself–that really takes skills I don’t have–but I may post some of the period just before and after, which is itself interesting. The whole experience was amazing in one of those “no words” kind of ways. We were able to view the total eclipse from Prineville, Oregon. And we also were able to avoid crowds! (Some heavy traffic on the way back, but not too bad, and none getting into the area.)

I hope to be back with things to say in September. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of August!

If there’s anything current going on in the Fruits & Votes field, feel free to use this as an open thread.

31 thoughts on “Yes, all is well

  1. You’re excused, MSS. Things have been extremely quiet on the electoral law front here in Australia over the past week. Nothing at all in the news about candidates, ballots, voting, elections, etc across this wide brown land… Unless Henry, Chris or Alan have spotted some obscure news story on page 17, perhaps…?


    • As Tom alludes to, a great deal has happened in Australian electoral law, the most remarkable being several new MPs, including deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts, and Senator Nick Xenophon, being referred to the High Court over dual citizenship claims. Joyce’s claim is the most potentially damaging for the government: as a member of the House of Representatives, his seat will go to a by-election (at least, unlike in Britain, the seat is not merely recounted): a difficult event for a government with a majority of two. Mr Joyce has a margin of 17% in his New England seat, so the government is unlikely to lose it, and they would have a fairly good argument that Parliament should be prorogued pending the by-election result: nonetheless, were the High Court to rule that Mr Joyce’s citizenship by descent was grounds for removal, the resolution of the Deputy Prime Minister’s own troubles would not be the end for the government.

      The Government has also scheduled a postal-only plebiscite/survey (Parliament refused to legislate for such a vote, and so the government has made a rather clumsy attempt to hold one using executive powers) on same-sex marriage. On another note-is there any country which so strongly insists on the terminological distinction between ‘plebiscite’ (a non-binding vote) and ‘referendum’ (binding vote)? I have always heard the same-sex marriage vote referred to as a ‘plebiscite’, and yet when Britain held a non-binding vote on leaving the EU, it was always called (including by Australian commentators) a ‘referendum’.


      • Maybe because the UK doesn’t have any legally-binding “referenda” at all, whereas Australia does…
        Something like the way the “Secretary” is the highest-ranking official in a US government department, because it doesn’t have a “Minister” in any even higher position.
        Or something. (“That’s not a referendum… THIS is a referendum!”)
        The Australian Labor Party also uses “plebiscite” to refer to the rank and file branch members’ voting in a preselection ballot. In some States the local members’ ballots are decisive; in Queensland, they are (or were recently) only decisive if the winner polled 60% – which gave an incentive for sitting MPs to keep their branch membership small, known and manageable. Lindsay Tanner proposed changing the threshold to 600 votes, to encourage recruitment. Anyway. if no one cracks 60% in the “plebiscite”, then the ALP’s State Electoral College votes as well – it has, I think, 41 members and the branch votes are converted into a total out of 60 votes.


      • “plebiscite” in France means a referendum with no real alternative issued by the rulers of the day to give themselves legitimacy (Napoleon I and III).


      • But that won’t do either, Tom, because while it’s true that the EU referendums haven’t been legally binding, the 2011 AV vote was: had AV won, the government had a legal obligation to introduce it. I don’t know about the other regional referendums, but I don’t think it would be correct to say that UK referendums are different from Australian ones because one is consistently not legally binding.


      • I’d distinguish “legally operative” (ie, self-executing, binding on the executive branch unless and until modified by a future Act of the Legislature) from “legally binding” (ie, entrenched, binding on the Legislature itself absent reversal by a later referendum).
        I do realise that my formulation here uses “binding” in both senses but my instinct is that references to “binding referendum” lean closer to the latter meaning. Probably because in practice popular votes on issues are usually either (a) purely indicative/ consultative with no immediate legal effects at all (eg, citizen-initiated referenda in New Zealand), or (b) direct some executive official to do some essentially symbolic action (eg, Quebec’s various “sovereignty” referenda, or how various US States during the Reagan era voted to direct the State’s Secretary of State to write a sternly-worded letter to the federal Secretary of State in support of a nuclear freeze), or (c) in theory legally binding but in practice not enforceable against the legislature via judicial review (Switzerland) – or else (d) they become immediately binding upon all branches of government, even the legislature itself (Australia, California).
        A referendum result that operates in law as a statute but is not entrenched is actually quite rare.


    • The house of representatives was reapportioned by the electoral commissioner yesterday. The ACT and Victoria gain one. SA loses 1. The effective quota (state population/number of MHRS) ranges from 103 810 in Tasmania to 171 697 in SA.


  2. What about the upcoming German election? It looks like this election will have the most parties since the post War period, is this a return to Weimar? 6 parties or 7 if you consider the CDU and CSU to be separate parties could be represented in the Bundestag. So this election could be more proportionate than the last due to the FDP and the AFD not clearing the 5% barrier?


    • Grofman and Feierherd proposed two solutions: bring in proportional representation or bring in boundary commissions. The first solution will become viable after the issue of air traffic control for pigs has been settled (at least that’s my impression viewing from outside the US). More feasible is increased use of commissions, but this too needs a substantial change from the current political climate.

      The Gill v. Whitford decision, based on demonstration of intent to gerrymander and existence of an “efficiency gap”, may be hard to export. In future cases the defendants could avoid hiring an academic consultant and give less transparent names to spreadsheets, making it harder to prove intent. The efficiency gap is calculated relative to average results obtained in many states for many elections; a defense could point to special conditions here and now (“Wisconsin Exceptionalism”) that justify deviation from the average. These include the impact of the Voting Rights Act, political geography, respecting county lines and communities of interest — comparing the merits of different district plans becomes messy.


      • “The first solution [PR] will become viable after the issue of air traffic control for pigs has been settled”. This has to be one of the best lines ever written at this blog.

        I would like to think it is overly pessimistic, but I can’t really claim that it is.


      • The efficiency gap does not involve averaging results.

        The efficiency gap is a measure of “wasted votes” that fall into two categories: those votes cast for a losing candidate in a district (lost votes), and votes cast for the winning candidate above what is necessary to win (surplus votes). In an existing set of districts, the calculation is based on the actual vote in each district, with adjustments for uncontested races (Stephanopoulos and McGhee 2015). Larger imbalances in the number of wasted votes signify a degree of partisan unfairness against the political party with more wasted votes.

        Click to access Exhibit+2.pdf

        One forensic advantage of the efficiency gap is that it does not require judicial officers to engage in complicated mathematics.


  3. Regarding “plebiscite” vs. “referendum”, a similar distinction exists in Canada. However, federal votes of either type are quite rare. I have always understood “plebiscite” the way Bancki referred to above, and was surprised when I first saw the term in the Australian context of a (non-binding) policy vote.


  4. Alan is correct. I had confounded the factor 2 that appears in the simplified formula for efficiency gap with the empirical observations that suggested a winner’s bonus of 2% increase in share of seats for every 1% in vote share. The factor of 2 in the expression for efficiency gap is an exact consequence of the definition of a wasted vote (in the limit where all districts have the same number of voters).

    The reference, Mayer’s reference plan in the Wisconsin case Whittaker v. Gill, highlights the challenge in comparing districting plans in a state where half the assembly districts are contested by only one of the two main parties.


  5. So the marriage equality postal survey is before the high court today, and one of the judges is of the opinion that it’s not a vote because it’s not compulsory. This is staggering. I guess local councils aren’t democratically chosen in several states. Generally this process has served to demonstrate how little respect voluntary voting has in Australia.

    Anyway, it looks like we have a system something like this:
    ………………… compulsory …… voluntary
    binding …….. referendum …… “not a vote”
    informative .. plebiscite ………. survey

    Referendums are compulsory on the people and binding on the parliament. Plebiscites are compulsory for the people and non-binding on the parliament.


    • I haven’t seen the transcript yet, but it is very common for justices to put questions to counsel. A question is not an opinion and I would not read much into it at this stage. There have been a long series of these appropriation cases and the executive has almost always lost. The arguments being put by the government are more or less identical with the arguments in Williams (No. 2) and for that matter Williams (No. 1) The government was unsuccessful in both cases.


      • Well, it wasn’t phrased as a question, although perhaps it was still merely intended to draw out someone else’s thoughts more clearly. It’s hard to tell. Here is the quote from the media: “This process is voluntary … so it’s certainly not like a vote in Australia. If someone doesn’t want to participate or give a view one way or another they can just throw the thing in the bin.” (Justice Patrick Keane). I don’t know where to find an original transcript. Even if it’s just an exploration, it’s still find it an unexpected line to go down.

        I can’t say I can predict how it will go. The coverage that I’ve read has made me much less sure it’s going down, but I have no confidence it will survive. I guess we wait till 2.15 today.


      • I haven’t seen the judgment yet so I cannot comment on the reasoning. However as a matter of institutional design it’s a horrible model.

        The executive can consult the electorate, using an agency they designate, where the only ground rules are apparently contained in a direction by the Finance Minister. All previous plebiscites were authorised by the parliament, with a section stating the referendum law was to apply,. This plebiscite has no campaign finance rules, no court of disputed returns, no requirement for a quorum or majority, and the bill to be presented to the parliament is not even available to people trying to make an informed decision. There is not even a requirement that statements be authorised.

        As a rough analogy, imagine that the current US administration announced they would hold a national vote on same sex marriage under rules entirely defined by executive order, that would be conducted by the Bureau of the Census, or perhaps the President’s Voter Integrity Commission…

        I will probably end up voting but my strong inclination is to abstain.


      • Yes, it’s very yucky. Still. At least it’s a path forward this term. I’m much less convinced that it will go through than most, because we had a free vote during the last Labor government’s years, and this is all we’re going to get once this plebisurvey passes. (And enough doubt has been cast on the plebisurvey’s legitimacy, that I think if some MP wants to vote against, they’ll be able to justify it to themself.)

        The other thing is, enough feathers have been ruffled that I’m reasonably hopeful that the next parliament will legislate to prevent this kind of thing happening again. It’s yuck. But at least people know that.


      • At least it’s non-binding. In France (and many of the countries that copied its constitution), if something passes in a referendum called by the president, even if without the constitutionally-required approval of parliament or the PM, it’s binding, because “the people are sovereign” etc.

        In my book, this is simply more evidence that that is a terrible way to appoint judges. Maybe that’s a little unfair, but I don’t feel I need to be fair to institutional design that bad.


  6. Folks might enjoy the engagement that the NZ Electoral Commission is doing (Election Day is 23rd Sept, but advance voting is already available)


  7. I made an interesting discovery about our favourite Southeast Asian democracy:

    In response to Soeharto’s statement ‘I am going to step down tomorrow’, Habibie could have answered either A: ‘So, I’m going to be the next president?’ or B: ‘I had better step down with you, Pak [Sir]’. He picked A. Had the German-trained aerospace engineer answered B, then he would have paved the way for a military takeover with Wiranto in charge, but with Soeharto no doubt continuing to pull the strings. Post-Soeharto Indonesia would have taken a greatly different historical path. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on where one stands, Habibie was not well-versed in Javanese tradition, where courtesans are expected to know, or at least guess, the correct response to a king’s questions from his body language.*

    McDonald, Hamish. Demokrasi: Indonesia in the 21st Century (Kindle Locations 1168-1173). Schwartz Publishing Pty. Ltd. Kindle Edition.


    Fifteen years later, Indonesians were watching Egypt’s failed transition to democracy and thinking: That could have been us . . .

    Suharto refused to ever see or speak with Habibie again.


    • I see now why Suharto left Indonesia’s vice-presidency permanently vacant after Mohamed Hatta left the office.
      I assume Donald and Mickey are reading that book with very great attention.


  8. Khomeini, Khamenei, Ronald Reagan, Donald Regan, Wran, Rann, Crossman, Crossland. Earl Warren and Warren Earl Berger. What synchronicity causes political names to cluster so.


    • We can interrogate jd on why older members of the Indonesian elite used spellings like ‘Soekarno’ and ‘Soeharto’.


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