Fifty Shades of Republic | Part 2: presidential (gubernatorial) veto powers

This post is part of Fifty Shades of Republic, a series reviewing US political institutions at the state level

One of the most significant aspects of any presidential system is the extent of a president’s legislative power. Despite being known as the main example of a “separation of powers system”, few presidential systems really separate the classic “powers” (judicial, executive, and legislative) – instead, as Neustadt (1960) puts it in Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents, presidentialism typically creates a separation of offices which share powers.

The US constitution features a package veto subject to a two-thirds override. ‘Package’ means that when presented with a bill or resolution passed by Congress, the President can only agree to the proposal in full or veto it in full; by contrast, many presidents around the world, and governors of many US states, possess some version of an ‘amendatory’, ‘partial’, or ‘final offer’ veto. These give presidents more active power to intervene directly in the lawmaking process. In the case of a partial veto where the president can enact parts of an assembly bill directly into law (cutting through compromises agreed to in the legislature) are even arguably akin to decree powers in their scope for active lawmaking by the executive. By comparison, package vetoes are often described as a ‘reactive’ power.

In practice, however, the difference is not necessarily so clear-cut. As Moe & Howell (1999) argue, American presidents are able to engage in a great deal of unilateral policymaking (de facto lawmaking), and their ability to do so stems in large part from their supposedly ‘reactive’ veto power. Any actions (or rule-making) a president undertakes may be opposed by Congress, but any bill or resolution Congress passes to oppose presidential actions can be vetoed by the president. Given the two-thirds threshold, overrides are unlikely to be successful absent broad bipartisan support; the only remaining recourse is the courts[1]. Executive orders are often portrayed as much more constrained than the decree powers available to other presidents (which are sometimes also formally limited to what existing legislation allows, e.g. Russia), but we should always keep in mind that such a distinction is only as good as its enforcement.

Presidential veto powers in the states

All US governors (who, as directly-elected chief executives which a fixed term, are presidents) currently possess a legislative veto. North Carolina used to be an exception, as its governor had no formal say over legislation until its constitution was amended to provide for one in 1996. All states have a package veto, which is subject to a varying override threshold[2]:

  • 37 states require a two-thirds vote to override (in 27 it’s 2/3 of the total membership, in 10 2/3 of those voting);
  • 7 states require three-fifths (of the total membership in 6, of those voting in the remaining state);
  • 6 states require an absolute majority vote (always a majority of the total membership).

Where the state legislature is bicameral, override votes require the threshold to be reached in each house separately, with the exception of Alaska, where override votes are held in a joint sitting of both houses.

Many state constitutions offer the legislature some possibility of referring bills to a referendum. In at least one state (Oregon) it is fairly clear this means the legislature can bypass a governor’s veto by submitting a proposal to referendum (the standard override procedure in Iceland and de facto in Weimar Germany). However, most constitutions I have looked through are not clear on this point, as their language on ‘referendum and initiative’, present in about half the states’ constitutions, is usually ambiguous and contradictory (often in the same ways, as many states copied each other’s provisions in the early 20th century). If anyone knows more, please let me know in the comments!

Map of gubernatorial veto powers (click for full-size image)

Partial and ‘final offer’ veto power

The vast majority of states (44) grant their governors a ‘line-item veto’ – the power to enact some appropriations proposed in a bill while disallowing others (indicated on a map with a dollar sign). In 12 of those the governor can also reduce appropriations without deleting them entirely (indicated with a minus before the dollar sign). In all states, the override threshold is the same for line-item vetoes as for regular package vetoes – with the exception of Illinois, where an absolute majority is sufficient compared with the usual three-fifths.

As far as I am able to tell, no governor has the power to partially enact any other type of bill. Some states’ constitutions also clearly limit the power of deletion to items which appropriate money. In some states where the provisions are more ambiguous they have sometimes been interpreted more broadly. Infamously (and apparently uniquely), Wisconsin governors for many years successfully exploited the ambiguities in their state’s constitution to stretch their veto authority. Governors would edit bills by deleting sentences, words, digits and even letters to enact completely new legislation, with sometimes very different effects from those intended by legislature. This was mainly done to appropriations, but often also in other policy areas, since any bill with at least one appropriation item counted as an “appropriation bill”. Successive Wisconsin Supreme Courts affirmed governors’ interpretations of the rules, and the state’s partial veto was trimmed only gradually through two constitutional amendments in 1990 and 2008, and last year by a Supreme Court ruling seeming to reverse course on its previous judgements on the topic[3].

6 states add another feature to their gubernatorial veto, commonly called an “amendatory veto” in US sources (hence it is indicated on the map with an A), although it is best understood as the ability for a president to present the legislature with ‘final offer’. It means that the president can return to the bill to the assembly with some proposed amendments – the assembly can then choose to accept the bill as amended (by regular majority/majorities), in which case the amended bill becomes law, or insist on its original version of the bill, which requires whatever the usual majority or supermajority for (package) veto override is. This ‘final offer’ feature is very common across Latin America (e.g. Colombia, Mexico, Peru).

Effectively, any assembly can accept a president’s conditions for approval, even when only the package veto is allowed. The amendatory or ‘final offer’ feature formalises this possibility, but effectively also simplifies the procedure to do so, which might otherwise require restarting consideration of the bill and having to pass all three readings again before being presented to the governor. Besides anything else, therefore, this feature makes the veto procedure more forgiving of any errors in communication between president and assembly.

Veto power regarding resolutions and ‘legislative vetoes’

As I suggested above, a president’s power relative to the assembly depends in large part on the ability to veto not just bills, but also resolutions (which may not count as a “bill” or proposed legislation), specifically ones meant to counter executive action. It may also mean that whenever the legislature delegates authority to the executive branch or the bureaucracy by statute, the majority party’s ability to review executive or administrative decisions will be be limited by the president’s ability to veto such review[4].

As with the referendum, this was difficult to figure out precisely from constitutional texts. However, this much is clear: many (perhaps most) state constitutions, like the federal constitution, explicitly state that resolutions can be vetoed. Some states (e.g. Louisiana, North Carolina, Montana), on the other hand, clearly place legislative resolutions outside the reach of a gubernatorial veto. Idaho was one state constitution where I was able to find more detail about legislative delegation: the legislature can reject administrative rules, an action not subject to the governor’s veto.

Now, I almost certainly missed more examples and relevant provisions, and moreover I suspect the reality on the ground may be at least as affected by statutes and judicial interpretation as by constitutional provisions. Again, if anyone knows more I would love to hear about it in the comments!

The ‘weak governor belt’

This post is already fairly long, so I will conclude with just one observation: there is a sizable share of the states where the governor is comparatively weak, since they cannot join with a minority in the legislature to block a bill. In most of these states (indicated on the map in yellow), the governor may use the line item veto to undo a compromise she disagrees with on appropriations, but in other areas, the governor’s veto will mostly serve as a test of the legislative coalition which passed the bill. If the coalition was fragile, or if its initial success owed too much to abstentions, the override may fail, but there is no need to appease a minority for an override to succeed. In principle, legislative deadlock cannot result from divided government between president and assembly, only from things internal to the assembly or its parties.

Interestingly, these ‘weak governor states’ happen to all border each other; moreover, most of the states with a 3/5-override veto border these states as well. I haven’t really looked into the history of this geographic pattern, so I don’t know if it was the result of some manner of institutional diffusion – maybe some of our readers know more.

At any rate, what is clear is that there is meaningful variation on this point within the United States (variation which often seems to go unnoticed – multiple articles I’ve seen about a veto override in Kentucky or Arkansas failed to mention that the override takes just a majority in these states). Looking to these states’ experience with executive overreach and other consequences of the usual veto power should provide fruitful for research, and would be easier for reformers to emulate than any foreign example.


[1] Courts which are appointed by the president. Democratic and Republican presidents may disagree on many things, but they all favour increasing presidential power, which influences their choice of judges.

[2] At least two states have an override threshold of three-quarters in a few selected areas: in Alaska this applies to money bills; in Arizona this applies to some specific cases (e.g. amendments to enacted popular initiatives, emergency bills, raising taxes) where the minimum requirement is already a two-thirds majority.

[3] Although the ruling’s ambiguity (caused by the multiple separate opinions offered) and its potentially partisan motivation (it has been a fairly conservative court, and the incumbent governor is a Democrat) suggest it may not be the last word on the matter.

[4] Though this ultimately depends on what kind of review the constitution allows the legislature to write into statute (or the judiciary’s interpretation of the constitution on this point – which in the case of the US federal government has certainly been very narrow).

Fifty Shades of Republic | Part 1: State legislative terms of office

The US House of Representatives stands out internationally as the having the shortest term of any national legislative chamber, being the only chamber with all seats up for re-election every two years. With that electoral cycle, it also holds elections more often than almost any elected chamber (a few other chambers hold elections every two years, but with staggered elections for a longer overall term).

[Note: For context, you might want to read the brief introductory post to this series.]

The vast majority of states follow the federal level in electing their lower house for a two-year term. Many states, especially in the original 13 and in the Northeast, used to have annual election, but those all switched to two-year terms at various points during the 19th century. Of the six states lower houses with four-year terms, two (North Dakota and Nebraska’s unicameral) elect half the seats every two years.

By contrast, the federal Senate’s 6-year term is emulated by no state upper house[1]. Most states Senates have a four-year term, which is usually staggered, with half the seats up every two years. Seven states alternate to accommodate the redistricting cycle, with every decade seeing two four-year terms and one two-year term[2]. However, almost a quarter of states (twelve) have biannual terms for both houses.

What does this mean for any reforms? Well, maybe the main thing is simply that there is a lot of work to do! Biannual terms are almost universal, and I suspect they help lower turnout and accountability to voters (though I’m sure interest groups love them) in addition to lowering the government’s effectiveness and time horizons. Another observation is that the staggered elections that exist in about two-thirds of the states could make PR harder to implement in those houses than in other places, at least without disrupting the existing electoral cycle. When staggering puts half the districts up for election, those districts are not necessarily geographically connected, which is a practical necessity if single-seat districts are to be merged to form multi-seat districts which can support PR; if staggered elections mean half the seats in each district are up each time, this means the districts are already larger and harder to make the argument for making even larger. But maybe it’s not a bad idea to combine the move to PR with an abolition of staggering (as well as of bicameralism, as I will no doubt explore in a future post) – my hunch is that most voters probably find it confusing; politicians are probably more likely to feel attached to it, but then again politicians probably have much bigger issues with PR than this one…

What do you think? Do you have any thoughts about legislative term lengths in the states and what it might mean for reform? Or do you have any suggestions for future posts in this series? Please let me know in the comments!


[1] Although I was able to find a partial exception in Maryland’s Senate, which had five-year terms from 1776 until 1838, and then had 6-year terms with 1/3 elected every two until the term was shortened to 4 years in 1851.

[2] The fact that the other states don’t do this can often effectively mean district boundary changes leave a few voters without direct representation in the upper house for up to two years at a time!

Introducing: 50 Shades of Republic – a review of political institutions in US states

The topic of US state constitutions comes up on this blog from time to time. Naturally, they form an obvious comparison to the federal government. They share many similarities with the federal constitution, but also differ from it, and from each other in various ways. On the other hand, state institutions are also easily dismissed, as their design, in practice, varies relatively little from each other and is often mired in antiquated constitutional models. Moreover, given the extremely nationalised of American politics today, it’s not surprising reformers’ focus is more often than not on the federal level. Perhaps partly for these reasons, state institutions often appear not so well known, both by us comparativists and reform proponents, as well as on the part of journalists[1], whom we occasionally ridicule for their apparent ignorance and parochialism when they report about politics outside the US.

Here are two reasons why it is actually important to be more familiar state-level political institutions, specifically for reform-minded Americans. Firstly, institutional reform at any level (but especially at the highest level) in the US is only likely to gain traction once it is shown to work in the United States. So electoral and other reform at the state level should not be a secondary priority – instead, it will probably be crucial to get PR and other reforms on the agenda at the federal level. Secondly, and related to the first reason, some states have institutions that will make reform easier to pass – and these states should be the ones reform advocates should probably focus on. Moreover, some states already implement some political institutions worth emulating, yet these get scant attention either as proposals for reform in other states or in discussions for federal constitutional reform.

These are some of the reasons motivating my new series of posts on this blog: Fifty Shades of Republic – a review of political institutions in the states of the USA. Every few weeks, I will present a different dimension of state political institutions with a map which shows the distribution of different institutional variations across the states. Feel free to copy and distribute these maps – the more the better.

All seriousness aside, I think this will be a fun exercise, and I hope it will prompt some interesting discussions! Let me know in the comments what you think, and especially if there are any specific institutions you would like me to post on.

My first post in the series should be up momentarily…


[1] I’m thinking, for example, of an article I saw recently about a Kentucky bill which had been vetoed by the Governor and whose fate now rested with legislators. Its author wrote at length about various political factors affecting the legislature’s consideration of whether to pass the bill, and the various constituencies and factions involved, but nowhere was there any mention of the fact that in Kentucky, overriding the Governor’s veto takes merely an absolute majority of each house, compared with usual supermajority requirement.

Czechia: Constitutional Court rules lower house electoral system not proportional enough

The Czech Constitutional Court has ruled that the country’s current electoral system does not adequately fulfil the constitution’s requirement of being in accordance with “the principles of proportional representation” (article 18 of the Czech constitution). The 200 members of the Chamber of Deputies are currently elected under Flexible List-PR in 14 districts ranging in magnitude from 5 to 26, with a nationwide threshold of 5% for parties and 10% for alliance lists. The Constitutional Court struck down the districting scheme on the grounds that it disadvantages small parties, as well as the 10% threshold for lists of more than one party.

As an election is scheduled for October, Parliament will have to agree fairly quickly on a new districting scheme to replace the one the Court has struck down. Unusually, since the Senate usually only has a suspensive veto the Chamber of Deputies can override immediately by absolute majority, article 40 of the constitution requires the electoral law to be approved by consent of both houses.

What is somewhat ironic is that the case was brought to the Supreme Court by a group of 21 members of the Senate, a house which is not required to be elected by PR and is instead elected by runoff in single-seat districts (with elections to the Senate being fairly low salience and *very* low turnout, it has seen some success by minor parties despite the system’s lack of proportionality).

A reaction to “no separation of powers without divided government”

Vox published quite an incisive article today by Lee Drutman. The title almost speaks for itself, though I would have put ‘checks and balances’ where he put ‘separation of powers’, since the point is that the latter has proven insufficient for the former to be meaningful or effective. Though the issues involved should be very familiar to most of our readers, it is worth a read, and is not long. The article’s diagnosis is very accurate, and the solutions it points to are spot on (refreshingly, confidence votes are mentioned in addition to proportional representation). Its analysis of the founders’ constitutional design intentions is, however, flawed.

First of all, the founders probably did not think the Constitution would prevent parties from forming. The authors of the Federalist Papers certainly didn’t think so. In Federalist no. 10, Madison argues that parties arise from “the nature of man”, and quite clearly states that as long as we maintain liberty, faction is inevitable: “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects. There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests… The inference to which we are brought is, that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS.”

To Madison, therefore, the purpose of constitutional design is not to prevent faction or extinguish it, but to “control its effects”. In Federalist no. 10 he proposes to achieve this end through the large republic, whose size and combination of so many people with so many different interests would make it hard for a majority to materialize. In Federalist no. 51, he repeats this argument, saying “the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.” But to this he adds another mechanism: “each department should have a will of its own; and consequently should be so constituted that the members of each should have as little agency as possible in the appointment of the members of the others.” This is the separation of powers, giving the different branches institutional independence and their own separate interests.

As Drutman rightly says, experience has shown, especially lately, that this system of incentives has proven insufficient (especially to checking the executive) when the presidency and both houses of Congress are controlled by the same party. It is hard to argue the framers did not attempt to guard against just that, especially in making the House and Senate so different from each other. The passage which Drutman himself quotes from Schattschneider is probably correct, and as Drutman himself writes, “[dividing] up power across so many competing institutions that it would be impossible for partisan majorities to form” meaning majorities of the same party in both houses along with the presidency – unified government. I don’t think the framers were so optimistic as to think their design made unified government impossible, only that it made it significantly less likely – not an unreasonable expectation. But unified government was not an unknown danger, but one of the main dangers they set out to avoid. And, as I said before, they clearly did not think their institutions would actually prevent parties, only prevent them from forming majorities.

Which brings me back to the Federalists’ first argument – that in a large republic interests would be too numerous and diverse to allow one party to form a legislative majority. This has clearly proven wrong – but the reason for this, crucially, is the electoral system. With single-seat districts, a party can win an assembly majority even in a democracy as large and diverse as India, the result of the mechanical effect of the system on seat shares. Under proportional representation, however, even very small countries rarely witness single-party legislative majorities. Whether or not increased numbers and diversity in the population also brings with it a lower chance of this occurring, in accordance with Madison’s logic, is unclear. What seems certain, however, is that under proportional representation, Congress and the system as a whole would function much more in line with the framers’ original predictions.

Lesotho (MMP) & Malta (STV) hold early elections on the same day

Lesotho and Malta will hold early elections this Saturday, June 3rd. Both have parliamentary systems and each one uses a different (and interesting!) type of proportional representation – each having a certain following among readers of this blog.

Lesotho uses a one-vote variant of MMP, with 80 single-seat districts in the nominal tier and 40 in the list tier. There is no threshold, and no seats are added in case of overhang, so a party can win a majority by taking more than 60 districts.

Malta uses STV, with a twist: if I understand correctly, in case one party receives an absolute majority of first-preference votes, seats are added to ensure that party has a majority, and that the majority is in proportion to its majority of the vote.

The elections were also called in different ways. Lesotho’s parliament (election not required before February 2020) was dissolved after the government lost a confidence vote in March – the prime minister could have handed over power to the coalition that ousted him, but chose instead to ask the king for an early election. Malta’s early election (originally not due until March 2018) was called by the prime minister.

Turkey: referendum post-mortem

As most are undoubtedly aware by now, the package of constitutional amendments proposed by Turkey’s government passed narrowly in the referendum two weeks ago.

I feel like my first post on the subject did not adequately cover the already deeply authoritarian background in which the referendum took place. Freedom of speech and the press have never been fully established in Turkey, and their suppression has worsened over the last decade. Moreover, since AKP rose to power in 2002, the public sector has been subjected to repeated purges, and not just since last year’s failed coup. The referendum campaign itself was strongly affected by this, and the legitimacy of the outcome should certainly be questioned. Claire Berlinski writes[1]:

“The poll took place under a state of emergency. A third of the judiciary has been fired; some are still in jail. Three members of the Supreme Election Board are in prison, too. It’s possible that they’re mostly Gülenist coup-plotters as charged, and possible that jail is exactly where they ought to be, but this doesn’t obviate the point: Nothing like an independent judiciary buttressed this referendum. In some cases, authorities prevented “no” campaigners from holding rallies and events; those opposing the motion were tear-gassed (of course), and prohibited from carrying signs or assembling, or even beaten or shot at. The “yes” campaign received vastly more publicity; its supporters were given hundreds of hours on television stations. Opponents, almost none…

Hundreds of election observers were barred from doing their jobs, and at the last minute, the election board changed the standards required to prove accusations of ballot-box stuffing. Many instances of voter fraud appear to have been captured clearly on camera. [my link]”

It is clear that many of these democratic deficits have existed for years now. Not just in terms of democratic rights or process, but also the constitutional checks and balances. As Berlinski argues, the referendum “merely legally formalized the longstanding de facto state of affairs”. Dissolution power, extensive decree powers, emergency powers – all existed already. The only difference was that they were mostly vested in the government. Under semi-presidentialism, president’s Erdogan’s position was already secure[2], but his power depended largely on being able to control the government.

In theory, under the semi-presidential system, AKP MPs (including the Prime Minister) could use their position to check the president’s power by scrutinizing the government and holding it to account. In practice, of course, they have little reason to do so. Therefore, the only situation in which the president (and the government) might be subject to meaningful check would be if the government ever lacked a majority in the Grand National Assembly – in extremis, this could have resulted in cohabitation, depriving Erdogan of control over the executive entirely.

My current theory is that AKP’s loss of its assembly majority in 2015a is what motivated Erdogan to seek a fully presidential system – completely eliminating the assembly’s confidence power over the government and vesting all executive power (plus decree powers) in the president and his agents. Now Erdogan will be secure in his position as president, as before, but his control over the executive will be secure too.

Therefore, despite this change to presidentialism (and earlier, semi-presidentialism), this democratic breakdown comes in the ‘parliamentarism’ column. Was it something inherent in parliamentarism that made, or allowed it to happen? Probably not. All else being equal, things could have easily followed much the same path.

What probably did make a difference, I think, is the electoral system – specifically the 10% threshold, which has a strong tendency to manufacture majorities[3]. At the 2002 election, the AKP came to power with a single-party majority gained off a mere 34.3% of the vote. Admittedly, at every election since (except 2015a), the AKP received more than 46% of the vote, vote shares which would have granted it majorities even in most proportional systems. But I wonder whether, under a truly proportional system for the assembly[4]:

  1. Fewer voters would have voted strategically for AKP (at the 2007, 2011, and 2015b elections), instead voting for other parties which would have been viable as a result of the lower threshold; and/or
  2. Lacking a majority from 2002 through 2007 would have prevented AKP from accruing an incumbency advantage (of any kind – democratic or not) at the 2007 election (assuming it would still have managed to form the government).

If either were true (and both seem likely to me), it is considerably more difficult to see how the party would have managed to undermine democracy and usurp power in the way it has. Without a majority, the other parties would have been able to check AKP’s consolidation of power, it would have been much more difficult for the party to change the constitution to introduce direct presidential elections (2007) or undermine the independence of the judiciary (2010), and it would have been difficult for it to force through its own choice of president in 2007. Even if the above propositions were not true, proportional representation and a multi-party legislature[5] would undoubtedly have delayed the erosion.


[1] I strongly recommend Berlinski’s account of the decline of Turkey’s democracy since 2002 (and the atrocious western response), Guilty Men: How Democracies Die.

[2] Meaning, he cannot be removed by majority vote in the assembly or by his party.

[3] Though I do not think this feature is inherently undemocratic, majoritarianism is problematic (especially in young democracies). If it is included in a system, it should always be balanced out by countervailing checks such as strong bicameralism and a well-entrenched constitution.

[4] At a minimum, this would mean a threshold reduction from the current 10% to 5%, ceteris paribus.

[5] Or a powerful upper house elected by proportional representation, especially with non-concurrent and/or staggered elections.

Turkey referendum: Latin Americanization on the road to autocracy

Turkey will go to the polls on April 16th, to vote on a set of constitutional amendments which would change the country’s system of government to presidentialism. Though it seems that in Turkey, the current system is generally referred to as ‘parliamentary’, Turkey has actually been semi-presidential (specifically, premier-presidential) since the country’s first direct presidential election was held in 2014.

The amendments passed the three-fifths legislative majority necessary to put them to referendum with support from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Introducing presidentialism has long been president Erdogan’s express wish. The idea has apparently been around in Turkish politics for a while before it was adopted by the Erdogan and his party, AKP. Full presidentialism seems to have been ‘plan A’, so introducing semi-presidentialism (passed in 2007, entering operation in 2014) was perhaps only ever meant as a way-station toward this goal.

The main details of the amendments are as follows:

  1. Establishing presidentialism:

As stated above the president is already elected directly, specifically using a two-round system. The president is to become both head of state and head of government, with the power to appoint and fire ministers and the vice president. There is no requirement for the Grand National Assembly to confirm appointments. Executive office is incompatible with assembly membership. Interpolation of ministers is to be removed from the constitution, leaving MPs with written questions.

  1. Legislative powers:

The president is to have veto power over legislation, subject to absolute majority override in the assembly. He is to have the power to issue decrees in “matters concerning the executive power” and regulations “to provide for the enforcement of the laws, provided they are not contrary to them”. These cannot affect fundamental rights, except under a state of emergency; an emergency can be declared by the president without confirmation by the assembly, but the latter must be notified immediately and can shorten or end it at any time. These decree powers are essentially the same as those currently held by the cabinet. The president would also dominate the budgetary process: the complete budget is to be proposed by the president and put to a straight up-or-down vote in the assembly without possibility of amendment, with failure to adopt a budget within a timeframe leading to continuation of previous arrangements.

  1. Term lengths and dissolution power:

The assembly’s term in extended to five years (from the current four) and legislative and presidential elections are to be held concurrently. If the presidency becomes vacant, fresh presidential elections must be held. If parliamentary elections are due within less than a year, then they too are held on the same day as early presidential elections; if the parliament has over a year left before its term expires, the newly elected president serves until the end of the parliamentary term, after which presidential and parliamentary election cycles are held concurrently again.

The president is to be limited to being elected twice, but there are some exceptions, the first of which is that a mid-term vacancy-filling election doesn’t count towards the total. The current presidential power to dissolve the assembly is retained, in addition to a new clause which enables the assembly to dissolve itself, by three-fifths majority vote – in either case, fresh elections are held for both president and assembly, who serve new five-year terms. Early concurrent elections triggered by the assembly can always be contested by the president.

  1. Impeachment

The president or any member of the executive is indicted by two-thirds majority in the assembly (upon which many powers, including dissolution, are suspended), which takes the decision on removal to the Supreme Court. A president which has thus been removed is ineligible for re-election.

  1. Judiciary

The acts of the president, previously protected, are now to be subject to judicial review. The structure of the judiciary will not change much – with the role of the president in appointments remaining quite strong. Of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors, the president is to appoint 6 and the assembly is to appoint 7 (4 of whom must be judges from the highest courts) – for renewable four-year terms. The Council appoints most (two-thirds to three-quarters) of the judges of each of the highest courts, with the rest being appointed by the president directly.

According to the BBC, Erdogan claims that the new system will ‘resemble those in France and the US’. There is clearly little truth to this. First of all, France is semi-presidential, specifically the premier-presidential variant. This means that the prime minister, while appointed by the president, can formally only be removed by the assembly – in other words, what Turkey has now. These amendments would outright abolish the prime ministership and parliamentary responsibility, granting the president (already in a position to play a dominant role in the country’s government) absolute control over the executive branch.

Does that mean that the new system will essentially be the same as the US? Not really. Presidential or not, the proposed system includes numerous features bearing little resemblance the American model of checks and balances. The amendments would invest the Turkish president with extensive constitutional decree powers, allow him to all but dictate the budget, but on the other hand leave him with a substantially weaker veto than the US. The absence of assembly confirmation vote for ministers, not to mention presidential dissolution power, are also alien to the US constitution. Overall, the proposed institutional framework is to bear far greater resemblance to past and present constitutions of Latin America, where assembly confirmation is non-existent, emergency and decree powers are common, while some of the other institutions in question have featured occasionally, e.g. presidential dissolution power (Ecuador, formerly Chile and Argentina) and weaker veto (Brazil, formerly Venezuela).

In any case, the proposed amendments represent an immense consolidation of power in the hands of president Erdogan. It would probably allow him to serve beyond the supposed limit of two five-year terms. Judicial appointments involve a somewhat greater degree of presidential influence over a judiciary that has already lost a great deal of independence in recent years. Judicial review, needless to say, will not amount to much. Furthermore, the requirement for judicial ratification may leave impeachment ultimately toothless even in the unlikely event that the requisite majority were achieved in the assembly. Meanwhile, the weak veto and the assembly’s own (weaker) power to call early elections is unlikely to provide much balance in practice. Though dissolution would entail new elections for both president and assembly, a president armed with the power to dissolve the assembly still seems more likely to have the upper hand in the exceptional situation his party ever lacks a majority there – exceptional because of the country’s majoritarian system, and because the president’s very power of calling early elections enables him to do so opportunistically, as Erdogan did in 2015[1].

The Venice Commission’s report characterises the proposed changes as “a dangerous step backwards” for democracy in Turkey. It certainly feels hard to disagree.


[1] One might add (as the Venice Commission does) the fact that elections will be concurrent, which is certainly true, though, as we have recently seen, it’s certainly possible (though still uncommon) for countries to elect a president in the second round that was not of the legislative majority elected concurrently with the first round (e.g. Argentina, Peru), while more generally, two-round systems cause vote fragmentation in the first round. If elections in Turkey remain competitive, it may be that the two round system will, in the long run, cause fragmentation which will spread to the assembly. Perhaps more likely is that once in a while, the concurrent elections could result in divided government as in the first scenario I mention here. A situation like that might provoke Linzian scenarios, but is probably most likely to simply result in early elections at some point, whose outcome would most likely be a reversion to the regular unified control.

Olives


By JD Mussel

img_20161102_173530The olive is one of the Biblical Seven Species (shiv’at haminim – שבעת המינים) of the Land of Israel. Growing up in the Lower Galilee, picking olives from our backyard tree was a yearly affair I enjoyed helping my parents out with from a young age. Although, once, we took some of our olives to an olive press in a nearby Arab village, my father would usually cure them in salt water with garlic, lemons, bay leaves and chili peppers. We’d pretty much have a year-round supply of olives at the dinner table, of which I was an avid consumer by the time we left Israel when I was 12.img_20161105_170610

Like Israel, most of California has a Mediterranean climate, and it so happens that UC Davis has many olive trees around campus. Having seen these soon after arriving in September I soon noticed that they still went unpicked in October. I called up the university grounds department, and was told I could take as many as I wanted. Naturally, I leaped at the opportunity…img_20161112_010736

 

 

And so, last month, after twelve weeks of waiting, they were ready.

 

img_20170205_142157I am very grateful to my parents for the inspiration and, of course, for the recipe.

 

Spain: not a federation, but not strictly unitary – video

VanDeGraph of youtube recently put up an excellent video explaining Spain’s autonomous regions.

He does a very good job of explaining the crucial distinctions between between federal and unitary states[1], and why Spain, despite its very high degree of decentralization, is not (strictly speaking) federal – and, by implication, why some countries which do not actually call themselves federal probably are (e.g. South Africa).


[1] I do, however, disagree with VanDeGraph’s distinction between federations and confederations as hinging on the right to secede, or that federalism necessarily excludes this right.

Romania returns to Party-List PR and to cohabitation

By Henry Schlechta and JD Mussel

Romania held elections to its bicameral legislature on December 11. The elections resulted in the Social Democratic Party winning almost half the seats in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, while the largest opposition National Liberal Party appears to have received only about 20%.

The election saw a return to Party-list PR after having used a type of District-Ordered List system at the last two elections (2008 and 2012). The previous system worked as follows: candidates competed in single-seat districts; if a candidate received 50% of the votes, they were elected. The rest of the seats were first allocated to parties so that the overall result was proportional (with the possibility of overhang), and then was decided which candidate was elected in each district through a complex formula (truly!) which allocated seats roughly in order of candidates’ share of the vote, but ensuring each district had (at least) one of its candidates elected. As the number of seats per party was decided proportionally, this often resulted in the situation that a district was represented by its second, third, or even fourth-most voted candidate. Lastly, a few seats were allocated to minority parties, for whom the 5% threshold applied to other parties is waived under the constitution.

The new system effectively returns to that used before 2008, with party-list PR in multi-seat districts (the electoral system was, and is, identical for both chambers with the exception of district magnitude; Chamber average M=7 (‘M’ for district magnitude), Senate average M=3). The old system seemed to have become unpopular given its creation of a large number of overhang seats in 2012[1]. As a result of the landslide victory of the Social Liberal Union pre-electoral coalition, which required a great deal of extra compensatory seats to be given ensure proportionality. Parliament had tried to change the electoral system to single-seat plurality (First-Past-the-Post) in before the election in 2012, but this was overturned by the Constitutional Court on the grounds that this was incompatible with the constitutional 5% threshold provision and its waiving for ethnic minority parties in the Chamber.

This year’s election result is particularly interesting because of Romania’s semi-presidential constitution. The President, Klaus Iohannis, was elected in 2014 as the National Liberal candidate. He first served alongside a Social Democratic prime minister, Victor Ponta, whose cabinet  was a coalition which did not include the National Liberal Party, but after Ponta resigned in November 2015, and subsequently Iohannis appointed a technocratic non-partisan cabinet. The cabinet is required to step down following the election, so no no-confidence vote is required against the incumbent cabinet.

Romania’s system is premier-presidential, and president Iohannis will have the initiative in appointing the prime minister. However, since the Social Democrats form a majority with their preferred coalition partners, the result will almost certainly be a return to cohabitation for a country which has already had it for much of the past decade (2007-2008, 2012-2015), including immediately before the appointment of the current non-partisan cabinet.

Nonetheless, president Iohannis has shown he is willing to use his position, ruling out the nomination of anyone with a criminal record for the office, in keeping with a law a Social Democratic president might have been willing to flout in order to appoint the Social Democrats’ leader Liviu Dragnea, who got a suspended prison sentence this year for trying to rig a referendum in 2012, making him ineligible under a 2001 law.

In response, the Social Democrats have nominated an alternative candidate for prime minister, Sevil Shhaideh, a Muslim woman from the country’s Tatar minority; this means Romania will have both president (Iohannis is a Transylvanian German protestant) and prime minister from ethnic and religious minorities.

Interestingly, the authority to approve and dismiss Romania’s Prime Minister is vested in both houses sitting together as one. Romania has (somewhat unusually) bicameralism with two powerful and elected houses. Even more unusually, rather than the normal practice of requiring one or both houses to approve all legislation, each house has certain reserved competencies, on which it may pass legislation without the approval of the other (the latter having only a suspensory veto of no more than two months’ delay). Probably due to the two chambers concurrent terms and virtually identical electoral system (and therefore composition), this does not seem to have caused any major problems.

Similar procedures (including both houses in no-confidence votes) existed at some point in Peru (before Fujimori’s self-coup), where ministers were removable by either house of the legislature. Argentina has a ‘Chief of Cabinet’ responsible to both houses voting separately, though remaining ministers are not, and Colombia’s ministers are individually responsible to votes of either house, though there is no Prime Minister.


[1]176 senators and 412 deputies were elected, 22% and 19% of which was due to overhang, respectively.  According to the cube-root law 412 would be appropriate for a country of 70 million, whereas Romania’s population is about 20 million. The current numbers seem have returned to 136 Senators and 329 deputies or thereabouts.

California primaries: Myth of the ‘independents’

By JD Mussel

Paul Mitchell of Capitol Weekly’s CA120 column tells the rather farcical story of the more than 100,000 Californian voters who thought they were registering to vote as independents and ended up voting in the American Independent Party’s presidential primary.

The American Independent Party is the far-right outfit originally established by Alabama segregationist George Wallace for his 1968 presidential run (which was aimed at sending the election to the House of Representatives). They ended up choosing Trump as their nominee this year, though he didn’t even appear on the ballot for the primary. I didn’t know California allowed electoral fusion before I noticed this dual nomination on the sample ballot I got in the mail last week[1].

[1] Yes, I have moved! I have now joined MSS at the University of California, Davis where I started my graduate studies last month.

Jordan’s new electoral system – the more things change…

By JD Mussel and Henry Schlechta

Jordan held a parliamentary election last month, for the first time under a proportional party-list system. This reform, in line with many previous proposals, replaces the earlier Single Non-Transferable Vote or (mechanically FPTP) pseudo-SNTV (it’s not clear which one was actually used last time around) which at the last election in 2013 was accompanied by a small national list-PR tier.

Reform of the previous single-vote system was a long-running demand of opposition parties, a number of which have taken part in these elections after having repeatedly boycotted them in the past. However, what they may not have noticed (yet) is that the new electoral system may turn out to be remarkably similar to the old SNTV.

A total of 130 non-reserved seats were filled proportionally from open lists of candidates in 23 districts, out of which 9 seats are from 3 parallel Bedouin districts (similar to NZ’s Maori districts) electing 3 seats each. The districts range from 3 to 10 seats, with a median of 4. Spread out among all the districts is a quota for 15 women and (among the non-Bedouin districts) there are quotas for Christians (9 seats) and Circassians/Chechens (3 seats). With more seats allocated to the cities, there seems to be less malapportionment than under the previous system, but it is not clear how much less.

The lists are open, with seats going to candidates with most votes within each list. This was presented as a kind of return to the ostensibly similar multiple non-transferable vote (MNTV) which had existed before the introduction of SNTV: voters have as many votes as there are seats to be filled, and can cast them for a list as a whole or for any number of individual candidates on the list. Candidacies must be as part of lists with at least 3 candidates up to the number of seats available.

Largest-remainder PR and ‘SNTVization’

Now, technically, the system is proportional. However, the apportionment formula is largest remainders, using the Hare quota. The potential problem is that the combination of these features and the open-list aspect may present incentives that roughly approximate SNTV. Larger quotas (the Hare quota is the largest of the commonly used ones) are advantageous to smaller parties: the fewer seats are allocated by quotas, the more seats allocated by remainders. The smaller number of votes required to win a seat by remainder means that smaller parties are able to win these seats. On the other hand, for a large party to win multiple seats, they must fill multiple quotas.

The possibility of getting seats from remainders can encourage large parties to turn themselves into multiple small parties, through running multiple lists and dividing their votes between these lists[1]. Hong Kong represents the best example of this tendency. While on paper it is a party-list PR system with largest-remainder and the Hare quota, the 2012 and 2016 elections saw no ‘list’ win more than one seat. Instead, larger parties like the Democratic Alliance ran multiple lists, and divided their votes between them. If no seats are allocated by quotas, the M-lists with the highest vote are allocated one seat. The effect of this is to create a system approximate to SNTV.

District magnitude does not appear to be an especially important factor in this process, with 5-member districts in Hong Kong and the 100-member nationwide district for the Colombian Senate (up until 2002) both being on paper party-list but effectively acting as SNTV.

Of course, there are other relevant institutional considerations. The new law’s requirement for at least three candidates per list could theoretically limit this tactic, though it could probably still be possible for a list to consist of one politician with public profile and two other ‘decoy’ candidates. It is not clear if there are any legal restrictions on one political party registering multiple lists; however, in the context of an electoral politics where parties are still weak and fragmented (and which was until now dominated by independent politicians), it is unlikely to be difficult to register effectively duplicate lists under similar labels.

Political impact

The results of the election show a continuation of the party fragmentation that existed before; barely any parties won more than one seat in each district. However, fragmentation was occasionally an outcome of the electoral system, as there are a couple of cases where lists that won a single seat received more than double the votes of other winning lists. This would have given them two seats if they had presented two separate lists, at least if they had managed to keep the vote distributed evenly between them. Of course, electoral systems take time in order to affect behaviour; however, it won’t be long before politicians will notice this outcome, and the strategic response would seem to be obvious. Therefore, more than likely, the new party-list system will continue as an obstacle to the development of larger and more cohesive party organizations, despite the fact that it was presented as a reform designed to bolster party-politics.

Hence, it looks like the reform may have been a clever stratagem by the government: it can be presented as an ‘abolition’ of SNTV and ‘return’ to MNTV, yet it will likely retain the incentives caused by SNTV. Or it could have been accidental. Whether or not this was intentional, it would certainly seem advantageous to the King: in public opinion, it enhances the regime’s legitimacy (the best evidence of this being how it brought an end to the Islamist boycott); nonetheless, in reality it will likely continue the previous incentives for fragmentation which weaken the parties (most importantly, the Islamists) and, crucially, the House of Representatives, which needs to remain fragmented for the King to maintain substantial power in what is constitutionally supposed to be a parliamentary system[2].

 


[1] The ideal number of candidates elected from each of these lists is one, since a party can win only one seat by remainder.

[2] There are of course other factors relevant in determining whether or not a given ‘constitutional monarchy’ is more monarchy or more parliamentary democracy (as demonstrated by the recent constitutional amendments giving the King more power over appointments) but hopefully it can be agreed that the crucial factor is whether or not governments are responsible to an elected house of parliament, by which I mean that a prime minister and cabinet can be removed by that house. Jordan’s constitution, at least since 2011, makes the government responsible to the House of Representatives.

JD’s Switzerland trip (with photos!)

In February I spent a weekend in Switzerland with a friend. We toured Basel and Bern, visiting the Federal Assembly and the legislatures of two cantons, and also witnessed campaigning for a number referendums (and more!) that would be held the next week.

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On electronic displays this poster showed up as a gif, with the trucks rushing through

On the federal level (and in similar terms in most Cantons and municipalities), Switzerland has two types of citizen-initiated referendum:

  • Votes on ‘popular initiatives’, which amend the constitution. These require the gathering of 100,000 signatures in no more than 18 months. To be approved in the referendum, they require both an overall majority of those voting and a majority of Cantonal votes.
  • ‘Optional’ or ‘facultative’ referendums, which concern recently-enacted federal laws (I like to call these veto-referendums). These require the gathering of 50,000 signatures (or 8 Cantons – though I don’t think this happens in practice) in no more than 100 days from the publication of the act in question. For the act to be vetoed it merely requires to be rejected by a majority of those voting.

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    A striking multilingual poster near the Basel docks

When we visited there were four federal referendums about to be held, of which three were popular initiatives and one was an optional referendum. As it happened, all four votes would follow the government’s official recommendation: rejection of all the initiatives and approval of the federal law.

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Central Bern, a protest against the popular initiative for the deportation of criminal migrants

The campaigns were very visible and there were posters were everywhere, both in public places alongside regular commercial advertising and on apartment balconies and small shops’ doors. We also saw many different leaflets, including some published by political parties. Far more visible than in the UK, which I also visited during the recent referendum – in London, the only sign I saw of the campaign were some flyerers at a tube station at rush hour on the day of the referendum.

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Cantonal referendum posters in Basel. Note the middle one, sponsored by the Liberal Democratic Party

(As a side note, Switzerland has virtually no regulation of campaign finance, either on the federal or cantonal level. I wonder if that had anything to do with it.)

A number of Cantonal referendums were held on the same day as the federal ones, and we saw posters for these in both Basel and Bern.

We visited three legislative buildings:

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Basel-City’s Canton/City hall

Basel-City’s late mediaeval rathaus (city hall), home to the cantonal legislature which also serves (with the exception of a handful of members) as city council. Unfortunately, we were not able to see the chamber, as the tour clashed with our visit of the Federal Assembly in Bern.
Secondly, Bern’s legislature, the Grosser Rat/Grand Conseil. As far as we could tell there were no regular tours; we were let in by the janitor.

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The Bernese legislature, the Grand Council

Switzerland generally has relatively large legislative chambers. Basel-City, with a population of just under 200,000, has 100 seats, almost double what it should have per cube root; Bern, with a population of  just over a million, has 160, 60% over cube root. The Confederation as a whole is just right with 200 in the lower house for a population of 8.3 million.

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The Federal Assembly’s National Council 

The federal legislature is spectacular. The picture here is of the lower house, the National Council. The upper house, the Council of States, was more difficult to get a good photo of so here’s a link; the wall painting is of a traditional ‘landsgemeinde’ or popular assembly that used to be common in rural areas. Today the practice persists as the form of government of two cantons, where the citizens meet once a year, while the agenda for that meeting, and most details of legislation, are prepared by an elected assembly. One of the members of the Council of States is still elected by their canton’s popular assembly every four years.

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Poster with the candidates of the Socialist/Social-Democratic (depending on whether you translate from French or German) Party in the executive by-election of February 28th (and ultimately also April 3rd for the second round)

Lastly, in Bern, we saw a poster for another campaign – we weren’t sure when we saw it, but it turned out to be for a by-election over two positions in the cantonal executive. Unlike the federal government, the cantonal executive councils are directly elected, mostly (as in Bern) through a two-round system, though proportionally in some cantons. The unusual thing in Bern is that there is one seat reserved for the French-speaking minority of the Bernese Jura – and this seat was one of the two up in the by-election. But, even more interestingly, it turns out this seat is not just reserved to candidates from that region, but the winner is the candidate with the higher geometric mean between the vote total in Bernese Jura and the canton as a whole – a fascinating and likely unique arrangement!

 

 

Mongolia 2016 – an electoral system in turmoil

Today, Mongolia voted in legislative elections under unusual – and worrying – circumstances. At the last such election four years ago, a mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system was used for the first time, replacing multi-seat plurality. This system was supposed to be used again this year, but a court ruling in April invalidated the party-list PR tier, leading the legislature to enact a last-minute election law, returning the country to a plurality system[1].

The MMM electoral system first used in 2012 included 48 seat elected by plurality[2] (mostly out of 2-seat districts, it seems) and 28 by nationwide closed-list PR. The country’s electoral system had already been in flux since the country’s move towards democracy, and has switched back and forth between different types of plurality voting, which seems to have led to a number of bad experiences[3] The 2012 election resulted in a weakening of the main parties, the entry of a number of new parties, and no overall majority by any single party. The Democratic Party governed in coalition with two smaller parties until November 2014, when the main opposition party, the People’s Party, joined the government in a ‘grand coalition’ (Mongolia is premier-presidential).

On April 21st, just over two months before Election Day and after all electoral deadlines had already passed, the Constitutional Court ruled that the party-list system was unconstitutional. The argument was that election using party lists somehow does not constitute direct election because lists are put together by the parties and (in the case of closed lists) allow no input by voters other than the choice between different lists.

As Matthew and I have argued a number of times on this blog, elections by party list are most definitely forms of direct election, closed or otherwise. It makes no more sense to see election from party list where M=10 as ‘indirect election’ than the same thing where M=1, which is effectively the same as plurality. Since I am far from expert on Mongolian constitutional law, I cannot speak directly to the ruling itself. However, there can be no doubt that the timing was highly questionable, as it made any effective remedy almost impossible, and abuse (or at least opportunism) by the political parties very likely. It sets a dangerous precedent.

Unsurprisingly, the new electoral law in reaction to the ruling was supported by both main parties; as the Washington Post puts it, “One can only presume that politicians from both major parties were keen to drop the party list vote because they are well aware of voters’ growing disappointment with them.” This outcome certainly disadvantages the smaller parties. Had the ruling come earlier, the smaller parties might at least have had the chance to protest and attempt to secure some concessions. However, perhaps this analysis is a little unfair to the parties in the legislature. As it happened, the ruling did not come earlier, and as the constitution forbids constitutional amendments this close to an election, it’s difficult to see what real alternative they had. This should probably go down as one of the worst electoral system-related court rulings ever.



[1] What plurality system exactly? Sources differ. Some suggest it’s a return to the 2008 multiple-seat plurality, others a return to the 1996-2004 single-seat plurality, others yet suggest the only change to the current electoral law is the removal of the 28 PR seats, leaving only 48 seats elected by plurality, mainly from 2-seaters.

[2] Not exactly plurality, as a candidate must receive 28% of the vote to be elected, a rule left-over from the previous systems. A ‘second round’ or ‘by-election’ (sources differ) is held if no candidate reaches 28%.

[3] The specific sources of unhappiness among Mongolians with the results over the years are unclear to me, but casual observations do show there was quite some vagaries over the years (with both very lopsided majorities, and minority parliaments), and, in the 2008 case of multiple-seat plurality, the count was deeply opaque.