Very pleased with this article by Geoffrey Skelley at FiveThirtyEight: “How The House Got Stuck at 435 Seats.” The author interviewed me for the piece, and references my work and that of coauthors, including Rein Taagepera, the discoverer of the cube root law of assembly size.
There is also a good visualization tool for how each state would be over- or under-represented with various House sizes.
What do folks think the correct answer to this question is: How does the size of an assembly affect the strength of political parties?
By strength, I mean the relative freedom of the individual member to cultivate constituency ties and to dissent from party leadership on votes on legislation. I also mean, holding other factors constant.
Suppose a country’s assembly is significantly smaller than its expected size, per the cube-root law. If nothing else changes, how would raising the size be expected to affect the strength of parties?
Obviously, I am thinking about potentially expanding the US House, so a starting point of non-hierarchical parties, and only two of them (and presidentialism, etc.). But I am interested in the question more broadly, and whether features of US party and legislative politics, aside from the small House size, change the impact of increased size on party strength in a manner that might be different from how it would play out in other contexts.
I ask because I genuinely do not know. I could see it going either way. A larger house, for a given population, means each member represents fewer voters, obviously. This could make personal-vote and constituency-service strategies more viable, thereby in some sense making parties “weaker”. On the other hand, a larger assembly (here, independent of population) makes internal collective action more challenging. This could result in members delegating (or simply losing) more authority to internal party leadership, making parties “stronger.” Note that these possible directions of change are closely connected to the two factors that go into the cube root law itself–this is a logical model that is based on balancing (and minimizing overall) two types of “communication channels”: those between legislators and constituents, and those among legislators themselves.
It is possible both directions of change can happen at the same time, implying parties get weaker in some ways and stronger in others. That is, more constituency-oriented behavior, but also more party leadership control over votes and especially over speaking time. I am not sure what that means for overall strength. Maybe that isn’t even the right way to frame the question; skepticism over my own question framing is why I use the inverted commas in the title of this post.
Finally, theoretically and all else equal, a larger assembly means more parties should be represented (per the Seat Product Model). I have my doubts that this would be realized in the US, however, given all the other barriers to third-party representation. Unless the House were truly huge, I do not expect much impact there as long as it is elected in single-seat districts, and with primaries (or with “top two” or even “top four” or five). However, parties’ internal strength could be affected. But which way?
Because the constitutional emergency is likely too deep to just turn the page, small-d democrats face an emergency of another kind. The need to adopt proportional representation has never been greater. The country simply can’t afford the risk that the Republican Party does nothing fundamental to reform itself, and wins back the House in 2022. A change to some form of moderate proportional representation (PR) is essential.
Given the current balance of power in the House, the Republicans would need to flip only about seven seats in 2022. (There are currently three vacancies.) With rare exceptions, presidents’ parties lose votes and seats in midterm elections. With the balance so tight, there is almost nothing to stop Republicans from winning back control of the House, other than perhaps if they descend into internal party chaos. They just might do that. They might even split. But I don’t like seeing the fate of the republic depend on Republicans finding yet another way to squander an easy electoral win that’s there for their taking.
I am not arguing for a change to PR only for the sake of the Democratic Party. In fact, my argument is that this is a way for Republicans to save their own party. The country needs functioning pro-democratic parties on both the center-left and the center-right. At the moment, it has such a party only on the center-left, and even that is a temporary ceasefire amidst a deepening internal division.
Cleavages in American politics today and the need for PR
I would identify three key cleavages in American politics at the moment. (Note: issue positions and cleavages are very much not my academic speciality at all. I admit I am simplifying, but the divisions I identify should be reasonably accurate as a broad summary.) There is the Republican–Democratic cleavage. This one is almost evenly divided, which explains a lot of the current partisan polarization. Hold together just enough–avoid the proverbial circular firing squad–and you can win. Then there is the democratic–authoritarian cleavage. On this one, the pro-democratic segment extends all the way from the leftmost large-d Democrats to somewhere near the middle of the Republican Party. The pro-Trump, white-supremacist, election-denying wing of the Republican Party has shown itself to be completely willing to set aside democracy, and even to promote/tolerate political violence, in order to advance its political agenda. This wing is a cancer that must be removed from the right-wing bloc that currently consists solely of the Republican Party. Then there is, for lack of a better term, the capitalist–socialist cleavage. This one obviously divides the Democratic Party. On one side are Democrats who generally take a more gradualist view of the need for economic policy change, plus nearly all of the right, in being free-market oriented. On the other, left or “progressive” side are Democrats who emphasize various proposals to remake the economic model (including less commitment to free trade), whether or not “socialist” is the correct term or even the term they favor. Think Bernie Sanders and his supporters, as well as some of the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party. Basically, the point is that there are (at least) two “rights” and two “lefts” but currently only one party on the right and one on the left. And the emergency is that one of the “rights” has abandoned democracy and shown a willingness to accept political violence.
The need for PR is to let the free-market small-d democrats in the currently existing parties act independently of their more extreme wings. This is precisely what PR systems permit–each side’s extreme can be its own party rather than a wing of one majority-seeking party, without raising concerns over “spoilers” that arise under plurality elections.1
As I already conceded, I am oversimplifying a complex political scene for the sake of argument. I also am not going to go into the details of how actual coalitions would work under this stylized latent four-party system that PR would allow to break forth. Both the need for electoral coalitions in single-winner offices (Senator, President, governors), and forging legislative coalitions among these parties in the House, would complicate the flexibility of alliances that one obtains when PR is used to elect a single dominant institution (as in many parliamentary systems). The point is simply that PR offers the best means of generating center-spanning coalitions to control House majority outcomes, in contrast to the current system’s generation of majorities that include a fringe–a nakedly authoritarian fringe in the case of the party most likely to win a majority in 2022 under current rules.
So, we need PR to save democracy. But what kind of PR? I would take any kind over the system we have now! But I think there is one that recommends itself because it is the easiest to implement, for voters to understand, and for election authorities to administer.
A model of open-list PR for the US
I favor open-list PR not because it is the “best” system or my personal favorite. Strong cases can be made for single transferable vote (STV, which is a form of ranked-choice voting in multi-seat districts) or for mixed-member proportional (MMP). However, open-list proportional representation (OLPR) best meets the criteria of simplicity in implementation, voting, and administration. My argument for OLPR is inspired partly by my own sense of what is workable, but more largely by a post by Jack Santucci.
It literally could be made our electoral system tomorrow, as follows (I am setting aside the fact that there is a reapportionment and redistricting taking place in 2021-22 in my “tomorrow” scenario). Take 3–5 existing contiguous single-seat districts and merge them into the multi seat districts needed for PR. Thus the proposal is for districts with district magnitude (M) of three to five. (Later I will address states that have fewer than three Representatives.)
Each voter would have one vote for a candidate, just as now, but the ballot would list all the candidates of each party that are running in the larger multiseat district (up to M candidates per list). The initial allocation of seats would be based on summing votes of party candidates nominated to each list, using one of the standard PR allocation rules (I’d favor D’Hondt, but various others could be fine). Then, once each list’s seat total is determined through the application of the PR formula to its collective vote total, its top s vote-earners get the list’s seats (where s is simply the number of seats the list has won). This is standard OLPR, or more formally, it is quasi-list PR, because there is no opportunity to cast a vote for the list as a whole.2
An important question is how to handle nominations to the lists. Personally, I’d prefer to get rid of primaries, as when there is a wider range of choice of both party lists and candidates on those lists, primaries arguably are not needed. However, no proposal that abolishes primaries is likely to fly, politically. I would not let that bog the emergency reform down. I propose embracing ideas that are already out there and being pushed by the independent-politics reformers, such as “top two” and “top four”.
How would this work? One could continue to hold a “primary” in each of the existing single-seat districts; I will now call these nominating districts to distinguish them from the larger general-election districts. The goal here is to avoid making it as unwieldy as it could be if primaries were held in the larger districts to be used in the general election. The first round (call it a primary even though it would stretch the definition thereof) would advance the top c candidates from each nominating district, where c could be four but could be some other number agreed upon.3 Presumably, as is the case in California’s “top two” currently, the candidates themselves would indicate what party they affiliated with on the primary ballot, but use of the label would not be restricted by any central actor in the state (or other level) party.4
Then, between this primary and some date in advance of the general election, let the top cM candidates for the larger general-election district negotiate who goes on whose list and how those lists are branded. The party labels could be ones that are registered in advance of the election (i.e., before the primary) as is currently the case in many states, or it could be left completely open for actors to negotiate between rounds. This is an important detail, but not one I think should be essential to advancing the wider proposal. It could even be a matter of individual states to sort out.
The idea here is that the top-c first round in nominating districts, followed by negotiations over lists for the general, encourages those who have advanced to a slot on the general election ballot to cooperate in order to maximize their seat-winning potential in the OLPR process. At the same time, however, it allows these candidates and their allies to reject anyone who has qualified for a slot on the ballot from being on their list if he or she is too extreme for the brand they want to cultivate.
If general-election lists are restricted to M candidates, then in any case where two or more of the same party have qualified from a given nominating district, one will have to be left off the list, unless there is another nominating district where no candidate of that party qualified. The objective here is not to force any set of candidates to run together. Local actors, including the candidates, decide. They have to balance the supporters that a given candidate can bring with the risk that some candidate drives away other voters in a context in which any given list is likely to win 1 or 2 seats in a three-seat general-election district (or 1–3 in a 5-seat district), rather than 100% of the representation of the single-seat districts, as under the current system. I am not wedded to the various components of this idea, and am completely open to other ideas. The wider point is that there are reformers who dislike parties and there are reformers who want stronger parties. I am looking for a way to thread a narrow needle and build a reform coalition–under emergency conditions.
When coordination fails and candidates who have qualified for a given party exceed M in some district, but they can’t agree on which M get to use the name, what do we do? While I would not normally advocate multiple lists within a party, I’d be willing to allow it to make the idea of lists and PR work. Also, any candidates who, having qualified in the primary, do not find partners to go in together on a list should be free to run as independents.
I should conclude this section by noting that my OLPR proposal is totally severable from my nominating-districts and “top c” proposals. If the latter get in the way of OLPR, I am happy to drop either or both. My ambition is to help make the transition to OLPR politically smoother, by retaining smaller geographic entities as politically meaningful aspects of the implementation of PR (through the nominating districts), and retaining the “bottom up” qualification of general-election candidates that is a hallmark of the current system. The overriding objective is to let different wings of current parties compete separately, outside of a majoritarian context in which splits become spoilers, and general-election candidates are sometimes extremists themselves or are in debt to extremists in their party. Avoiding these pitfalls of the current system is the very essence of PR.
I am assuming this proposal stays within the current 435-member House. There are arguments to be made in favor of increasing the size of the House, but I have my doubts that a larger House is by itself inherently valuable. It certainly is not worth the risk of its becoming a poison pill that prevents PR. If advocates of electoral reform make a larger House seem like a condition of electoral reform, the cause of reform is probably doomed.
With a 435-seat House, and even with any House of reasonably achievable larger size, there will remain states with only one or two members. These states will obviously not be able to have districts that elect 3–5 members apiece. So what? Many PR systems have a few districts with one or two members, even when their national average magnitude is larger. This is not a reason to reject a proposal for reform. States that have one Representative could be encouraged to adopt ranked-choice voting, but should not be required to do so.
I should address why I do not advocate STV as the overall system for the House, given the current fashion in some circles for ranked-choice voting solutions. This is not the place to go into reasons why STV may not be desirable in its own right. It has some strong positive features, but also some negative ones. The biggest negatives are the need for voter education, substantially changed ballot formats, and already overstretched election administrators having to adapt their routines to make the more complex counts work. OLPR allows all of this to be as close to the status quo as possible, while still getting PR.5
What about MMP? I have been known to argue it is a good system. However, absent substantial increase in House size, it has some real drawbacks. The single-seat districts have to become considerably larger geographically for MMP to work with the existing state delegation sizes. (The list tier for MMP in the US surely would be state-by-state, or regions within larger states, not nationwide or otherwise multi-state.) The OLPR proposal that I am advancing here also means larger general-election districts, but has the advantage of having more than one member elected from each of these larger districts, while also retaining the more compact districts for nominations. An additional drawback of MMP in the American national context is in how you implement the list tier. It is either closed lists, which might be politically unpalatable, or it is open lists alongside the two-tier structure, adding a considerable further complication.6
So, no, I have not abandoned my general preference for MMP, nor am I claiming STV is a “bad” system. I simply am arguing that OLPR is a good solution to an immediate emergency for democracy.
We must find a way to prevent a new House majority from being elected in 2022 that is under the effective control of an anti-democratic wing. The voters who prefer a center-right party are not going to vote for the existing Democratic Party as long as they fear (rightly or wrongly) that that party is coming under the control of its own extreme “socialist” wing. Voters need choices that are more moderate, as well as parties that can represent voters with grievances that lead them to reject mainstream politics. What we need to avoid is a mainstream party winning a majority of seats while under the control of its grievance-based authoritarian extreme.
I am under no illusions that this will be easy. I certainly accept that any PR proposal is less likely to pass than likely. It requires more institutionally oriented Republicans to see a clear and present danger from continuing to work within a party that has a strong and undeniable anti-democratic tendency, as well as to believe that tendency is too large to be contained within. It also is not going to be immediately embraced by the Democratic establishment that just won all three elected components of the federal government, and so requires them to realize just how fragile and transient their control is.
Difficult though it is to get this proposal accepted, we are in a situation where an emergency exists for democracy. So let’s get to work!
[Over the years I have done many posts on the idea of adopting proportional representation (of some form) in the US. Please click here and scroll to see them all.]
Advocates of ranked-choice voting in single-seat districts (also known as the “alternative vote: or “instant runoff”/IRV) will say that their preferred system also avoids the spoiler problem. This is not fully correct. The issue is that this view takes a district-level perspective. The point of PR is to avoid “spoilers” in larger ideological blocs. Getting the same result from IRV requires something approaching uniform distribution of those blocs across districts, or at least for each group within a bloc to have its own local strongholds, so that the parties/factions within a bloc can meaningfully trade preferences. Otherwise, it mostly leads to the same issues as plurality voting, whereby to win, the larger party/faction within the bloc must appeal to voters of the other. The case for IRV in the current emergency would rest on an assumption that, within the right, the authoritarians are the smaller component. If they are not, they will either win from preferences of those on the moderate right, or will potentially win pluralities of the vote when many voters don’t give second preferences. (We can’t be certain that voters for the mainstream center-right will preference a party on the mainstream left. Maybe they will, maybe not.) This brings me to the final issue: IRV advocates tend to overlook that the best case for the system assumes compulsory preferences, which are unlikely to be adopted (and may even be held unconstitutional) in the US. If many voters give only first choices, then IRV is more or less the same as plurality.
Such an option could be added, but I am trying to keep it as familiar as possible while still getting PR.
It might be wise to set c to the same value as the general-election M; it certainly should not be much smaller than M.
I don’t think anything that generates such control over labels is politically palatable in current American politics, even though most political scientists would say it is desirable.
If the reform included a clause allowing individual states to opt for STV instead of OLPR, I would not object.
There is also the need to prevent parties from gaming MMP with “dummy” lists. This has been discussed previously on this blog. It can’t be dismissed as a serious problem, and so I’d rather just sidestep it in designing a proportional system for the US in the present moment.
We have frequently discussed here the question of the size of the US House. As regular readers will know, the House is undersized, relative to the cube root law, under which an assembly is expected to be approximately the cube root of the population. The law is both theoretical (grounded in a logical model) and quite strong empirically (see the graph posted years ago). However, the US House is far smaller than the cube root predicts, which would be somewhere north of 600. In fact, the House has been fixed at 435 for more than a century,1 even as the population has grown greatly.
So there is a good political science case to be made for expanding House size. My question here is whether expanding the House is something that reformers should pursue for its own sake. Or is it of subordinate value?
I ask because many advocates of a move to proportional representation (PR) will tend to believe that PR would work better in a larger House. The larger the House, the fewer states there are with only one Representative, wherein obviously a plurality or majority system remains the only option.
Strategically, however, it could be a mistake for the PR movement to hitch its wagon to the House expansion movement. If PR is attached to the idea of “more politicians” it is probably in a lot of trouble. Advocates for democracy reform might prefer both a larger House and PR, but wouldn’t most of us prefer PR to a larger House, if we can have only one or the other? (Perhaps I will engage in blasphemy, but I might trade off a somewhat smaller House if it were necessary to get PR. In other words, I value PR ahead of almost any reform I can imagine.)
Another way to look at this is, would the reformist “capital” spent on getting a larger House be worth it if we ended up with 650 single-seat districts instead of 435? I have my doubts.
While a larger House should result in more parties represented, independent of the electoral system, I am not sure I believe that we would see it under otherwise existing US political and institutional conditions. As I’ve noted many times, the Seat Product Model says that the US “should” have a party system with more than two parties, and the largest one averaging around 47% of the seats, instead of our actual average which is obviously greater than 50%. It should have an effective number of seat-winning parties of about 2.75, even with 435 seats. With 650, the expectation rises to 2.94 (and a largest averaging just under 45% of the seats). In the real USA where there are really only two parties, and we keep single-seat districts, do we have any reason to believe just adding about 200 seats (let alone a more realistic 100 or so) would result in any increase in representation of other parties? I doubt it.
So, why bother? Is the value of a smaller number of people per Representative so strong that we want it regardless of how the party system pans out? I worry it actually could have a deleterious effect. Other things equal, more seats means more homogenous districts. Some of those could be minority districts that can’t now be drawn (given other criteria in district line-drawing) and, of course, those minorities in theory could be minority-party supporters as well as nonpartisan minorities (racial and ethnic, etc.). The latter is valuable, of course. But a concern is that in an existing and likely persistent two-party system that you simply end up with more safe seats (Brian Frederick notes this possibility in his book on US House size, even as he argues in favor of an increased size). We have plenty of safe seats already! If we had multiparty politics to start with, I think a larger House would help smaller parties win more seats, and possibly render districts on average more competitive. But in a two-party system, I think it makes districts on average less competitive. (I am not sure about this, so discuss away in the comments!) As for racial and ethnic minorities, I am skeptical that we get enough of a boost from a larger number of single-seat districts to make the tradeoffs in less competitive elections worth it. They’d be better represented by PR anyway, obviously.
Bottom line: With so many reformist needs in US democracy, I don’t think House size is worth pursuing, unless it can be in a package that gets us PR. It certainly should not be allowed to be the poison pill that prevents getting PR, as I fear it could be, were we ever otherwise in a place where PR was a live option.
Except for temporary increases to accommodate Alaska and Hawaii; at the next census and reapportionment, it reverted to 435.
The following is the text of a memorial lecture I gave for Dr. Gerhard Loewenberg on the occasion of his first yarzheit. I delivered it remotely on behalf of Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor; I explain how it came about in the lecture itself. The following text includes some paragraphs that I had to skip in the live session (viewable on YouTube) due to time constraints.
Comparative Legislatures: Or What America and Israel can learn from Germany
The legislature is the single most important institution of a democratic political system. Yet legislatures are puzzling in terms of how they are able to function, and they tend to be disliked, even reviled, by democratic publics everywhere. Professor Gerhard Loewenberg dedicated his professional life to advancing the comparative analysis of legislatures, and in his last book, published in 2011 (other than his highly engaging memoir from 2012), he wrote about how puzzling the legislative institution is.
On the one hand, he wrote, a legislature consists of technically equal representatives. Each one, upon being seated after having won an election, has the same status as any other. Every one has just one vote on any matter that comes before the chamber for decision. A legislature is a collective body, comprised of equal individual legislators. Yet, as we know from some of the most important studies of social science, collective decision-making is difficult and prone to failure—unless some institution or leader within the legislature is endowed with authority to set the agenda, control members’ speaking time, and otherwise manage the proceedings. Of course, as soon as someone has been given power to do these tasks, by definition the legislators are no longer equal. Some of them have been awarded additional power over the others, some will not be able to speak as much as they wish, and various rules will limit the admissibility of amendments to bills that legislators may hope to advance.
Moreover, given the complexity of decision making for a modern society, no one legislator can possibly be knowledgeable about all the issues that come before the body demanding a decision. So, legislative chambers establish committees and other means of having some legislators specialize in one set of policies while others specialize in different topics. Again, this changes them from formally equal to at least potentially having outsized influence over specific policies. For instance, members of the agriculture committee acquire more knowledge and procedural advantage than their colleagues over policy related to food supply and farm subsidies, while members of the health committee acquire more knowledge and procedural advantage over policies in that topic. And so on.
These organizational questions—agenda control and committee structure—are among the topics that have fascinated researchers in comparative legislative studies. They are also presumably the key to why voters tend to hold legislative institutions in such disdain. Crafting legislation is something of a dark art, out of the view of most voters. And when they tune in to C-Span or equivalent elsewhere, they may like what they seen even less than they’d imagined. They will often see a mostly empty chamber, or an endless series of procedural measures that make no sense to outsiders. It is all quite “mystifying” as Jerry said in his book, On Legislatures: The Puzzle of Representation.
Yet without an elected legislature, you have no democracy. Actual democracies vary in whether they have two legislative chambers or one, whether they have an elected presidency or a ceremonial one (or none at all or even a monarch), and in whether courts can overturn legislation on various grounds. But no country would be called a democracy without having at least one chamber of a legislature elected by the citizens. The legislature is the one political institution that has the greatest claim on being able to represent a microcosm of citizen preferences and interests, and advancing majority rule, the central democratic principle. How much an actual legislature fulfills this central mission is quite variable, as I shall get into in more detail later. But no one can deny the absolute centrality of a legislature, and its representative function, to democracy.
Given the importance of legislatures to democracy, then understanding these institutions is central to understanding how democracy works, and how representation and democratic policy-making can be improved. It was for the purpose of advancing such understanding that Jerry Loewenberg not only devoted his own career, but also established an entire sub-field and an important journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, in political science devoted to the study of legislatures around the world.
In my remarks this evening, I want to use the cases mentioned in my title—the USA, Israel, and Germany—as examples of what we can learn when we compare legislatures in different countries to one another. Because it is Chanukah, which celebrates an earlier recovery of Jewish national and cultural autonomy in our ancient homeland, this season is an especially appropriate time to reflect on the institutions that maintain the Jewish people’s newly recovered sovereignty in recent times. Moreover, Chanukah is all about bringing light into the darkest of times, as well as a season when Messianic yearnings have long been heightened in our tradition. It may seem strange to say so, especially to my political-scientist friends tuning in, but I see the study of democratic institutions, and especially the promotion of reforms to improve their performance on behalf of a nation, in quasi-Messianic terms. That is, democracy as a set of institutions for governance may be flawed, because they are human-devised. It may even be “the worst of all forms of government, except for all the others” than have been tried from time to time, as Churchill famously remarked. A major theme of Jewish tradition is establishing the Kingdom of Heaven—or more specifically, of offering a challenge to governments that fail to serve the broad interests of the community, including its cultural minorities, over which they claim the right to rule. Until the Kingdom of Heaven is established some day—and whether or not it is anyway meaningful to you that it might be some day—improving democracy is an essential task for our time. Democracy in Israel and the United States has been enduring some dark times of late. It is my hope that comparative legislative studies can shed some light on how democracy works, and how it can be improved. A tikkun, a repair, is in order for democracy. How can learning about different democracies help us think about making government work better? This is my rather lofty ambition for today’s remarks.
I will focus mainly on the comparison of the US and Israel, as the two counties’ legislative structures are about as different as any two can be. I will then ask if there might be a middle ground between the extremes represented by the American and Israeli cases. And the answer may be surprising—it is the German case. Or perhaps not so surprising, given that we are here to reflect on the contributions of Gerhard Loewenberg, who emigrated from Germany with his family before the Nazi takeover, and who returned to do research on the Bundestag in the decade-and-a-half following the establishment of the postwar Federal Republic of Germany.
But before I go into the substantive topic, I want to say a little about myself and specifically how I came to be honored with the invitation to give this memorial address.
My own field is indeed comparative legislatures, although until completing a book that will be out in the spring of 2021, most of my research has not been on the internal organization of legislatures, but rather on two aspects of how legislatures are related to the wider political system: (1) the electoral system, defined as the set of rules determining how candidates become legislators; and (2) how legislatures relate to the executive, i.e., either a prime minister or an elected president (or sometimes, as in France and Poland or the pre-war Weimar Republic of Germany, both) and the cabinet.
My forthcoming book, entitled Party Personnel, is about committees of legislatures—the German and Israeli cases (but not the US) are among the cases included; the book also analyzes the committee systems of Portugal, Japan, Britain, and New Zealand. I am the lead author, and my coauthors and I ask how the electoral system shapes the ways in which individual legislators are assigned to one committee or another. The process of assigning legislators to specific committees is, in all these cases, managed by political party organizations within the legislature.
For instance, political parties might assign their legislators according to expertise developed in their pre-legislative careers (their occupational background). Or the assignments might be made according to their ability to draw votes from a district the party needs to win (assuming the electoral system consists of large number of districts where specific local candidates run, which is not always the case, as we’ll see). These two possible motivations for parties are often in tension! Those legislators who are best at winning additional votes beyond what some “generic” party nominee might win in a local district contest may be only loosely correlated—if at all—with those who have the policy expertise from their prior occupation (lawyer, healthcare worker, teacher, farmer, etc.). And the electoral system is one of the key things shaping which criteria loom largest in a party’s decision about committee assignments. Or so we say in Party Personnel.
Only recently did I purchase a used copy of Dr. Loewenberg’s first book, Parliament in the German System, published in 1967. I was amazed when I began reading it to see how much it foreshadows the kind of questions that motivate my forthcoming book. For instance, in Table 20 of the book we find a summary of the percentage of legislators who come from various occupational backgrounds—lawyers, teachers, business owners, etc.–and it is comparative. It shows not only the figures for the German Bundestag that had been elected in 1957, but also comparable summaries for the UK, France, and Italy. It tracks, for the Bundestag and by political party, the percentage who serve on occupationally related committees (i.e., where their parties are taking advantage of members’ policy expertise) and their tendency to speak in the Bundestag on matters in their speciality vs. as generalists. All this sort of thing is in our Party Personnel book, for more recent German election years and various elections in seven other countries—but we have it a lot easier, thanks to rather bigger computer data processing power than existed over fifty years ago! It is really amazing to me how far ahead of his time Jerry was in thinking about these issues of how different legislatures and political parties make use of expertise in the legislative process. Moreover, the table is itself such a work of art; I just love these fold-out pages. I normally see them in atlases or books with panoramic photos, but the presentation of statistics in this manner is such a sight to behold!
When my coauthors and I were finishing up the draft of our book to submit to a publisher for review, we got the news of Jerry’s passing. Because it is a book on comparative legislatures, and because the path the book seeks to advance is grounded firmly in Jerry’s contributions to the field, my coauthors and I immediately made the decision to dedicate our book to his memory.
But that still does not explain why I am here, speaking at a memorial hosted by Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, when I myself am in California. For that, I have Rabbi Nadav Caine to thank. And, strangely enough, the pandemic, or more precisely how the pandemic has changed Jewish community. Rabbi Caine was our rabbi back in San Diego; we have known each other for about a dozen years. One Friday night a few months ago, my wife and I played the YouTube recording of the Beth Israel Shabbat evening service, to reconnect with Rabbi Caine and his family, leading the Shabbat service from their home. And at the section where the Rabbi reads the names of those being remembered, I heard… Gerhard Loewenberg. Could it be? It must be. And so I emailed Rabbi Caine after Shabbat. And he told me about Jerry’s daughter, Deborah, being part of the Ann Arbor community. And so, here we are together, thanks to Zoom!
I now want to turn to the substantive application of some of the lessons of comparative legislative studies—the case-study section, so to speak. I want to start by sketching some of the key differences between the US and Israeli cases. Then I will bring in the German case a little later. I will mention a few other countries along the way. Hey, it is all about comparative legislatures, after all, so we need to compare, and try to learn from, the experiences of different countries!
As I said at the start, there are few pairs of long-term democracies that illustrate the extreme poles of legislative and broader institutional design than do the US and Israel.
First of all, the US is, of course, a presidential system, whereas Israel is parliamentary. As the work of comparative legislative scholarship has long recognized, this basic difference in how the executive functions creates fundamental differences in the role of the legislature. Put simply, the most important role of a legislature in a parliamentary system is to produce—and maintain in office or dismiss—the executive. By definition, the prime minister and executive cabinet in a parliamentary system must have the support of a majority of legislators—or at least not the active opposition of a majority. If the majority wants a different prime minister and cabinet, it can act to replace them, or in most cases, an early election can be called.
(The Israeli case has recently taken this to yet greater extreme, having had three elections between April 2019, and March, 2020. As we speak, it seems likely there will be an election in March, 2021, or perhaps June. The term of a Knesset is nominally four years, but it’s looking like four elections in a period of about two years! While this is obviously not an ideal situation, I hope to convince you that it is not so bad. Instead of imposing a government supported by less than a majority of the voters—as the 2016 US presidential election did—it requires the politicians to have the backing of representatives of a majority of the voters and, when political conditions prevent smooth governance, to go back to the public to renew or revise their consent to govern.)
In contrast to the parliamentary model used in Israel and most of Europe, in a presidential system, by definition the head of the government is elected separately. Legislators in presidential systems have no role in choosing the head of government, and also are unable to depose the head before the end of the constitutional term, absent a process that requires more than a simple majority (as the Trump impeachment process served to demonstrate).
So this—the executive type—is the first major difference between the American and Israeli legislatures.
A second fundamental difference is that the US Congress is, of course, bicameral. House and Senate. Not only are there these two chambers, but they are equally powerful and elected in very different manners. Israel is unicameral. Because it is unicameral and parliamentary, the only national voting choice Israeli voters make is when they are called to the polls to elect a new Knesset.
The third fundamental difference is in how the legislatures are elected—the electoral system. Here I will take the US House and the Israeli Knesset as the first point of comparison, and then bring in the US Senate afterwards. The electoral systems for the House and the Knesset are diametrically opposed in their institutional design: In the US House, every member is elected as the sole representative of his or her district. There are thus as many districts as there are members—435. (Which, by the way, is awfully small to represent a country this large, but I’ll leave that aside.)
However, in Israel there are no districts. Or more accurately, there is one district. All 120 members are elected nationwide. Whereas a US House member is the candidate who wins the most votes in a local district, the Knesset is elected according to proportional representation. Israeli voters do not vote for candidates at all. They vote for a party list. Each list is composed of candidates nominated by the party, and given a priority ranking—what political scientists call a “closed list.” (Other types of list–“open” or “flexible” allow voters to favor one or more candidates within a party’s list.)
So given the closed lists used in Israeli elections, suppose a given list has earned 10% of the votes, Then it will win approximately 12 of the 120 seats, and the winners will be the first 12 candidates on its list. There is a threshold, currently 3.25% of the votes. A list that gets less than that will have no seats. But any list that clears 3.25% will be represented. This is a system designed so as to make room for a lot of parties, and lo and behold, it does!
In fact, based on predictive models developed in one of my earlier books, we should expect Israel’s Knesset to have about 11 lists with representation, and the largest one to have about 30% of the seats, which would be 36 seats. Thirty six happens to be just one more than the number the two most popular lists tied for in April, 2019. But in elections since then, and in many over the last two decades, the leading list has had even fewer seats—sometimes not even 30 seats (which is 25%). That’s a pretty small leading party—not even half the total number of seats needed to comprise a governing majority!
Note that I have been using “list” and “party” more or less interchangeably. Nonetheless, when talking about Israeli elections and Knesset politics, these terms are distinct. Often there are lists that are presented by alliances of two or more parties. For instance, the Joint List consists of four distinct parties representing Arab citizens of Israel, the Yamina is a list of various ultra-nationalist and Religious Zionist parties, and Blue and White contested the last several elections as an alliance of three distinct centrist parties.
The key is that the electoral system works by allocating seats proportionally to lists, and is designed so as to allow many such lists to win. The most recent election, for example, resulted in just 8 lists getting seats, somewhat lower than the typical 10-12. However, the number of parties is greater, and sometimes partners in elections break up and operate separately in the Knesset. In fact, this is what happened when Benny Gantz signed his coalition deal with Benjamin Netanyahu. Gantz’s list from the election, Blue and White, split, and his election partner, Yair Lapid, became the leader of an opposition party while Gantz became part of the government.
One of the most important things to understand of all this is that, (1) under the Israeli electoral system, a vote cast anywhere in the country has the same weight as a vote cast anywhere else, and (2), whatever percentage of votes a list gets, that is its (approximate) percentage of seats in the next Knesset.
In the US, by stark contrast, most districts are “safe” for one party or the other. Thus only those voters who happen to live in districts that are closely contested really participate in determining whether control of the House will shift from one party to the other. In the US Senate, of course, there is even more variation across the country in the de-facto value of a vote. California gets the same number of Senators as Wyoming, despite about a 70:1 difference in the states’ populations. And only a few states might determine whether control of this chamber of the national legislature might shift in an election—such as the flips of the seats in Arizona and Colorado this past November, and we’ll all be watching what voters in Georgia do in early January.
So let’s pull it all together. In the US, voters elect a president and two chambers of congress separately. It is thus often the case that one of these three is held by a different party than at least one of the others, as has been the case since the 2018 election and was also the case for all but the first two years of Obama’s presidency. In the US, votes are aggregated only in local House districts or for the Senate in states of greatly varying population, rather than nationally. There are only two parties of any consequence, so one will have a majority in one or both chambers, and one will have the presidency, but again, no necessary partisan alignment across these institutions. And elections occur at fixed intervals, so if they can’t work together, we get gridlock instead of the Israeli recourse to an early election.
In Israel, there is only one national elected institution—the legislature. There are many parties, and the contest for votes and seats is fully nationwide. The prime minister and cabinet are products of bargaining among parties after an election to determine who can form a coalition capable of holding majority support in the Knesset. The cabinet might fall early, before the next scheduled election, if one or more parties decide not to continue working with their partners. And there can be an early election.
In the Israeli system, there is no local representation, except that a party might choose to place a former mayor or someone else with a local connection somewhere on their list (something they do rather rarely). Unlike in the US, Members of the Knesset have no local base in the sense of a place where voters have chosen them as an individual representative.
For all the reasons just sketched, these two systems are as extreme as they can be in terms of what legislators represent and how they relate to the executive. The question thus might arise of whether it is possible to split the difference between these extremes. I will focus on just one dimension here—how the legislators are elected.
As I pointed out earlier, in the US, every legislator is elected in a unique district. That means, his or her election depends only on voters in one geographic subset of the country—435 different ones in the case of the House. (And each state in the case of the Senate.) By contrast, in Israel, they are elected in one national district, and on closed party or alliance lists.
Each of these has some basic advantages and some disadvantages. On the one hand, the US system makes life difficult for minor parties. Now, here I need to take a little excursus and interject something that even many of my political science colleagues get wrong! We have something called “Duverger’s law”, although calling it a “law” is a sure way to trigger me!!!
I will try to spare you my long screed against it, but here is the short version. The famous French sociologist, Maurice Duverger, pointed out in the early 1950s that it is hard for parties other than two major ones to win seats when each member is elected by plurality (winner take all) in single-seat districts. This he called the “mechanical effect” because it concerns how the electoral system works to assign seats. And if it is hard for them to win seats, they don’t get many votes—voters don’t want to “waste” their votes on parties that can’t win. This is the so called psychological effect, also known as strategic voting or “lesser of two evils” voting.
The logic is sensible, but it is overstated. It certainly is not a law in the scientific sense (Duverger himself never claimed it was—he just said it was close to being a “true sociological law”). And it certainly is not a law in the sense of a binding constraint on voters or political elites. Nor should we expect it to be. In work that I have done with Rein Taagepera, we show that when there are a lot of districts—even ones electing just a single member, as in the US—there is a theoretical reason to expect parties beyond the top two to win some of those seats and to get significant vote percentages, even to the point of receiving votes in districts where they finish in a distant third place and thus are unable to win locally. And, empirically, this is true in other countries using the single-seat winner-take-all rules—Canada is multiparty, for instance. In the last Canadian election, the Liberal Party won only 33% of the votes and it was overrepresented, due to the non-proportional electoral system. But because it has 46% of the seats, short of a majority, it must take account of the views of other parties in order to govern.
The UK also has multiparty politics, albeit a lesser degree than in Canada. In 2010, a two-party coalition government formed, and after 2017, Theresa May’s government was in a minority in the House of Commons, because of the success of some smaller parties in winning seats.
So the US is a real outlier in having a rigid two-party system even given its electoral system, and even given Duverger’s so-called law. We should have more space in our congressional elections for Greens and Libertarians, and others, even without changing how members are elected. Nonetheless, it is true that it is much harder to get multiparty politics and minority representation using our electoral system than it would be if we used proportional representation.
Additionally, local representation really matters in US elections. It probably matters less than it used to, because voters are much more likely to vote straight party tickets nowadays than they were back in the 1970s and 1980s. (In those days, many districts had Democratic House members but the voters therein had favored Nixon or Reagan for president). Even with stronger party-line voting, we still see House members advertising what they have done on behalf of local communities and Senators emphasizing issues of concern to their states. They are local representatives even as they are also partisan actors. And this is a good thing! Local concerns that cross ideological and party lines need attention from policymakers as much as national policy challenges do.
So the US system makes it hard for minor parties to prosper, which is in many respects disadvantageous, particularly as the parties have become more distinct ideologically (“polarization”) in recent decades. But the US system offers local representation, which is in many respects advantageous.
In the Israeli case, there is certainly no problem with small parties getting seats! In fact, almost anyone—even a strong advocate for proportional representation and coalition governance like myself—would say in Israel the fragmentation of the choices into many small parties goes too far. It makes the formation of governments with a clear agenda for national policy challenges exceedingly difficult, and recently has resulted in three elections within eleven months because of the difficult interparty bargaining.
Yet a very big advantage of the Israeli system is that votes cast anywhere in the country contribute to the seat totals for their preferred parties (as long as they get at least 3.25% of the overall vote). So voters are equal, and the weight of my vote does not depend on the preferences of people who happen to live near me, as is the case in so much of the US where we might live in a safe state or district for one party and thus be essentially ignored at election time (even in presidential elections, given the electoral college).
And a very big disadvantage of the Israeli system is the absence of local representation. Now, of course, Israel is a much smaller country than the US. But there are still are significant differences across the territory in terms of local infrastructural or other needs, and these do not get represented well in the legislative process for a very basic reason: no legislator in Israel is in any way accountable to local voters. The closed-list system means that they win solely based on their rank on the list, and how well their party performs in the nationwide vote.
So, I asked earlier whether it might be possible to combine the advantages of these two systems without taking in the disadvantages. Yes! Enter the German system.
In Germany, the members of the Bundestag are elected in what electoral-system terminology refers to as “two tiers”. There is one tier that consists of single-seat districts, thus resembling the American system (or those of Canada and Britain) in which a legislator is elected upon winning a plurality of votes in a geographically defined district. This election method comprises about half the seats in the Bundestag.
The rest are elected in another tier from party lists, thus resembling the Israeli system. Each voters has two votes—one for a local representative (winner take all in their district) and one for a party list. The party list vote is more important for the overall composition of the legislature, but the separate district vote ensures candidates pay attention to a local area, have an incentive to become visible to voters and—crucially–that even a party that loses the local contest will tend to nurture support at the district level.
The way the two tiers are inter-related in the electoral law ensures that the overall balance of parties in the Bundestag is almost perfectly proportional to their nationwide vote shares—just as in Israel. There is a 5% threshold (thus somewhat higher than Israel’s). Under this arrangement, a party’s total number of seats is a mix of however many seats it won in the district tier, plus a number from its list needed to reach its proportional share of the total. Small parties often have only list seats, as they may not have any local wins. (I am glossing over some details here, but this is the general picture.)
The German system, often called mixed-member proportional (MMP), thus ensures that a vote cast anywhere in the territory is just as valuable as one cast anywhere else, in terms of contributing to the overall balance of partisan forces in the national legislature. In this sense, it is like Israel’s system and very unlike the US system.
At the same time, it also ensures local representation, like the US system but very unlike Israel’s.
(As an aside, I want to add that about 25 years ago New Zealand changed from single-seat plurality elections to MMP, modeled on Germany’s system. It has been a smashing success for their democracy. So electoral system reform is both possible, and beneficial. An example we could follow.)
Taking the two features together, Germany has coalition governments (as does New Zealand now), but not involving as many small and otherwise incompatible parties as we see in Israel’s coalitions. Germany also has local accountability that really matters. My own research and that of others confirms that members spend time in their districts, and often come from local roots including prior electoral offices or other ties to their communities. And, as we show in the Party Personnel book, committee assignments in the Bundestag are allocated according to a logic by which parties take advantage of expertise (occupational background), but crucially also to take advantage of local variations in party support and policy demands. (We also see this balance of representation criteria having emerged in NZ since they changed to a German-inspired MMP system.)
It has obviously worked quite well, in that Germany in the postwar period developed one of the most robust democracies and probably the strongest legislature in Europe. In fact, the development of that legislature was one of the recurring themes in Jerry’s career, from his very first book (in 1967, as I mentioned earlier) right up to his last publication, which was a remarkable essay published in a German journal (but in English) in 2018, reflecting on the choices made by both the Allied powers and the new German political class that laid the groundwork for the Bundestag’s development.
(Before I close out the section on Germany, I want to note that Germany is a federation of states, like the US, and it has a bicameral parliament. The other chamber, the Bundesrat, is a great model that Americans could learn from! Its members are chosen by state governments, and it has a veto on on legislation that directly affects the states, instead of on all national policy like the US Senate. It therefore deftly balances the state-interest and national-interest tensions inherent in federalism.)
Legislatures, as Gerhard Loewenberg showed us, are puzzling institutions. In democracies, they consist of formally equal individual representatives who somehow must organize themselves to make collective decisions on behalf of the citizens they represent. They are essential to democratic governance, yet the very procedures that they devise in order to function make them mysterious to the average voter, who is quite likely to associate the body with the worst features of politics.
We can learn a lot from comparing legislatures in different countries, as Gerhard Loewenberg’s long and distinguished career taught us. Both the US and Israel, as well as other countries, can learn from the German experience of how to balance seemingly contradictory goals of legislative and electoral institutional design. While there will never be a perfectly functioning democratic legislature for the simple reason that societies and the people who comprise them are complex, a process of scholarly and public enquiry into how different systems work can bring us towards a better understanding of how to make democracy work better, both in our own country and elsewhere.
Chag sameach; Chodesh tov. Happy Hanukkah, and a good new month. And may Dr. Gerhard Loewenberg’s memory be a blessing and an inspiration.
The runoffs for the two US Senate seats in the state of Georgia are now just over three weeks away (5 Jan.). The first rounds, which were concurrent with the presidential election, were about six weeks ago. To my surprise, limited polling shows both races very close, but with the Democrats holding slight leads.
Some readers might be asking, why surprise? After all, the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, just won Georgia. While I do not pretend to know enough about Georgia politics to prognosticate these races, I want to do what F&V always does–focus on the rules, and how they make some outcomes likelier than others.
At its most basic, the challenge for Democrats is that the Senate contests in Georgia require a majority–that’s why there are runoffs, after all–whereas winning the state’s presidential electors requires only a plurality. And a plurality is what Biden won: 49.495% to 49.260%. The Libertarian ticket won the remaining 1.245%. That is pretty close to a majority, but not quite there.
Now, look at the first-round results for the full six-year Senate term. The incumbent, David Perudue (R), won 49.73% to 47.95% for Jon Ossoff (D). That is pretty close to a majority, too! But because the requirement to win is that a candidate must obtain more than half the votes cast, it is not sufficient. (The remainder was won by a Libertarian candidate, with 2.32%.)
The basic premise is that it is nearly impossible to lose a runoff when you are that short of the winning threshold in the first round. Not impossible, just nearly so. If we look at presidential runoffs around the world–which is the most comparable dataset I have available–candidates that close to a first-round win generally do not lose the runoff. The graph I posted in 2017 of the cases for which I had data show only one such example. In Ghana 2000, the eventual winner had trailed in the first round, 47.92–49.13, and then won the runoff, 50.23–49.77. Note: 49.1%, not 49.7%, as Perdue won in this first round; however, the eventual winner in the Ghana case was at about the same level as Osoff in the first round, 47.9%.
Of course, a senate race is not the same as a presidential contest. Moreover, I am looking at only 36 presidential runoff elections that went to a second round. (It is not an exhaustive dataset, but it was pretty close to being so, for reasonably stable democracies, as of around 2015 when I collected it.) It is noteworthy that in the dataset, no candidate in a two-round majority system reached 49% without clearing 50%.
So, there are two ways to read this. If you get close to a majority in the first round, you are pretty likely to get there in the second. Or, if you fail to get there in one round despite being so close, maybe there really is a majority that doesn’t like you. Which one will the Perdue–Osoff race be? Beats me! But I certainly would caution against a bet on Osoff.
The other contest is a bit different, in that the rules are different. It is a special election, and the first round did not feature one candidate per party. Instead, the first round was a non-partisan election (not a primary!) in which there were multiple candidates of each major party. Had one of them earned more than half the votes, that would have sufficient, but when none did, the top two advance (and it would have been the top two even if both had been of the same party).
As it happened, neither was near 50% in the first round. In fact the leader was a Democrat, Raphael Warnock, with just 32.9%. The runner-up was a Republican, the appointed incumbent Kelly Loeffler, with only 25.9%.
Turning again to the presidential runoffs, a case where the top two were around a third and a quarter of the vote is more open to going either way in the runoff. Of course, in this case, that’s bad news for the Democrats, who have the leading candidate.
The other key consideration here is the partisanship of the also-rans. The third candidate was another Republican, with 19.95%. (No other candidate reached 7%.) So the top two Republicans combine for 45.9%, which is well ahead of Warnock’s total, but also still well short of 50%. Overall, there were six Republicans in the first round and eight Democrats. The Democrats combined for 48.39%, the Republicans for 49.37%. These are remarkably close to the combined totals in the full-term Senate race (47.95% D, 49.73 R).
Thus if partisans all voted for their party’s runoff candidate, the two races put the Republican within a hair’s breadth of a majority before any runoff ballots are cast. On the other hand, the close divide between two Republican candidates in the first round could indicate divisions sufficient to reduce turnout and same-party voting in the runoff for those who supported the main defeated candidate.
Taking it all together, in both races it really does come down to turnout, whether one or the other party has a harder time getting its voters back to the polls again. It is likely turnout will be lower without the presidential candidates on the ballot. But will it be lower on one side or the other? Democrats need to keep their motivation up, and count on the other side’s presidential candidate’s loss being demobilizing. I don’t have the knowledge of the situation to offer even a hunch as to which is more likely.
A final consideration about the rules to bring in is: Could this be seen as a honeymoon election? We know that such election timing favors the newly elected president’s party. Recent cases in point would be France 2017 and Ukraine 2019. The timing–an early January runoff following an early November presidential election–certainly fits.
I would not consider these contests to follow the honeymoon-election logic for a couple of reasons. First, these Senate contests are already underway, with a concurrent first round. By definition, a honeymoon election is one that occurs in its entirety soon after a presidential election. That does not mean it could not follow the same logic. It just means we have no reason to expect it to do so, as voters have already registered their Senate candidate preferences once, concurrent with the presidential election.
Second, the actual cases of honeymoon surges for the winner of the presidential election all have taken place in multiparty systems. That means that some of the gain for the president’s party surely comes from those who voted for candidates of parties that finished third or lower in the presidential contest, not from the main loser. As noted above, the third-party vote in the presidential contest in Georgia was only 1.25%, and we hardly can count on Libertarians to be the key to Democrats winning these runoffs. (On the other hand, that the Libertarian senate candidate in the Perdue–Osoff race won 2.32%, more than a percentage point over what their presidential candidate got, could mean real resistance by this small party’s voters to Perdue. As an aside, in the special election, the Libertarian managed only 0.7%.)
The truth is that we do not know, in actual honeymoon elections, how much of the surge is voters swinging between the presidential election and the legislative (and how much such swing is from the first loser’s party) versus how much is turnout changes. In this case, importantly, any party swings or turnout drops (or increases) have to occur with respect to candidates for the legislative races who already contested a concurrent election.
The bottom line is that I am surprised the Democrats might actually be leading. I think the Republicans should be favored, Perdue somewhat more than Loeffler. The two senate contests could go different ways, but given the strength of partisan voting these days, that seems unlikely. I would not actually bet on any given outcome. Apparently it will be close. If the Democrats somehow pull off wins, it will be a pretty remarkable outcome!
What do the readers of this site think of the electoral reform just approved by voters in Alaska? I have mixed feelings about it, and I refer to it as a “beast” only because it combines features that never before have been combined in this manner, as far as I know.
It abolishes partisan primaries (except for presidential nominating delegates) in favor of a two-round system. In this sense, it resembles the “top two” systems now in place in California and Washington. However, it has two significant departures: (1) it is the top four candidates who qualify for the runoff, and (2) in the runoff, a ranked-choice vote will be used to determine the winner.
The unique (as far as I know) system thus will combine two methods that are common for winnowing a field and ensuring a majority. That is, we have runoff systems (usually but not not always top two*) and we have “instant” runoffs such as the alternative vote (AV) that entail ranked ballots. Here we have both in sequence in one electoral process.
I generally am not a fan of combining features in this way, because it is uncertain how features that are normally deployed separately will work together. However, this combo has some things going for it. The first round qualification process will not be as limiting as the California case, thereby making it much less likely than it now is here that only candidates of one party compete in the final round, while incidentally also making it more likely that a small-party candidate might be able to compete in the final round. Yet it makes more likely that the winner will be majority-supported. (Ranks will not be compulsory, so not all voters will give four ranks, thereby meaning a winner could still have under a majority.)
If asked, I’d have advised a different proposal, even if it had to retain single-seat districts. (The new Maine model of AV in each party’s open primary, and then AV in the general, is more appealing to me.) But if I were an Alaskan voter, I am certain I would have voted for this.
For more on this measure and others, see Jack Santucci’s Medium post on the “Principles of democratic reform on the ballot in 2020.”
*The French National Assembly election rules can allow more than two candidates from the first round to qualify for the runoff, even though most of the time all but the top two withdraw. The German president, under the Weimar constitution, was elected by a two-round system in which multiple candidates–even ones who had not participated in the first round–could participate in the runoff.
That subject line will not surprise anyone who has spent time on this blog over the years. The need for a multiparty system (and electoral institutions to support it) in the USA has been a consistent theme here since the very earliest green shoots of the virtual orchard.
Two recent essays by Seth Masket demonstrate the point very well, even if it was not the author’s intention (and I see no indication that it was).
What broke the Republican Party? Masket notes just how different the GOP of Romney and Trump are, and concludes that “Those in the new GOP no longer see the Reagan-Bush Republicans as members of the same party.”
The Party of Self-Doubt. Masket reviews the recriminations between progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party over an election win that felt more like a defeat in some ways, due to more limited success in non-presidential offices than expected.
These essays, taken together, are excellent demonstrations of the tension in trying to cram different tendencies into one of two large parties. In most democracies, these intra-party groups would be separate parties. And if they were, voters could actually choose among them in general elections, and thus shape the direction of whichever left or right (or other) camp wins leadership of the executive branch, and of the majority coalition in control of Congress, at a given election.
Perhaps even more importantly, voters who dislike the currently ascendant tendency on their side of the wider left–right divide would not have to cross over to the other side in order to punish the incumbent. This is not a new idea, of course. I will leave you with a quote from Henry Droop who noted this problem in his critique of two-party politics and the electoral systems that support it.
With majority voting they can only intervene at general elections, and even then cannot punish one party for excessive partisanship, without giving a lease of uncontrolled power to their rivals.
A longer excerpt and context is offered at this blog’s Droop page. Oh, and Droop observed this a century and a half ago.
I know the 2020 election result–assuming the Senate majority remains Republican*–has ended any chance of serious electoral reform passing for the foreseeable future. But what if the National Popular Vote (NPV) compact were enacted? If there were no other reforms, the compact would result in the US President being elected by direct nationwide plurality.
Given the way assembly and presidential party systems work together in systems with powerful directly elected presidents, just changing to direct election in the USA could open up the wider party system in a way fully consistent with expectations from its existing electoral system. It is likely that direct election would lead to more presidential candidates winning votes, and that, in turn, would potentially lead to more parties in House elections, because the House party system is probably currently being restrained by how the presidency is elected more than by how the House itself is elected.
The House electoral system has seat product of 435. (The seat product of a single-tier electoral system is its mean district magnitude, times the assembly size.) Based on the Seat Product Model, the expected party system in the US House would have an effective number of seat-winning parties of around 2.75, on average, and a largest party averaging around 46.8% of the seats (about 204 seats). Of course, the actual party system has an effective number just below 2.0 and a largest party always above 50% of the seats. Do not blame the electoral system for the absence of other parties in American national politics. Even with single-seat plurality (in a few states, majority), the electoral system for the House should be expected to support more parties than what we actually have.
If we look at the worldwide dataset of presidential elections that Rein Taagepera and I analyze in Chapter 11 of Votes from Seats, the mean total for winning presidents under nationwide plurality is 48%. That is, of course, below the long-term average for US presidents, which is 52%, although it has trended downward since 1992 and averages around 49% over the past three decades, suggesting there is indeed some pent-up demand for more options. The leading presidential candidate typically wins more than the 48% that is the average in countries using direct plurality because the multi-seat plurality rule used at the state level in the electoral college normally suppresses third parties. And, unable to attract many votes in presidential contests, sustained party organizations beyond the top two are lacking. If they existed, they likely would compete for House seats as well.
It just so happens that a switch to direct plurality election of the president would be pretty consistent with what the existing House electoral system should be yielding! The estimates we have are: A president winning 48% on average (roughly what Hillary Clinton won in 2016, though with the electoral college that was not good enough); A largest party in the House having 47% of the seats. Based on other formulas in the Seat Product Model (SPM), the expected vote share of the largest party in the House then would be 42.5%, for an implied effective number of vote-earning parties of 3.13.
While it would be nice to have proportional representation of some sort for the House, it actually is the case that just changing to nationwide plurality for the presidency–as the NPV would produce–might be sufficient to “unleash” the House seat product and bring about a relatively more multiparty, but not significantly fragmented, House party system.
A quick comparative check of the data is in order, to see how these estimates compare to other countries’ experience. Across 117 presidential and semi-presidential systems (including, for the latter, only those with “strong” presidents), the mean share for the first-round or sole-round leading presidential candidate is 46.64% and the mean vote share for the largest assembly party in those same cases is 40.43%. Restricted to just pure presidential systems and those that elect their presidents by plurality (only 25 observations) we have 44.88% and 40.95%, respectively. So 42.5% for the largest vote share in US House elections is within the ballpark of other presidential systems’ observed experience; the set of cases from which I just reported average values has a mean seat product of 934.5, which is obviously higher than the US House’s seat product, and so they should be expected to have higher average fragmentation (smaller leading party) than the USA.
Additionally, Taagepera and I also have a model in Votes from Seats to estimate the effective number of presidential candidates (Np) from the assembly electoral system. It is Np=1.44[(MS)1/4 +1]1/3 (where M is the district magnitude–here 1, obviously–and S is the assembly size). For the US, this yields Np=2.55. We did not try to predict the vote share of the leading presidential candidate, but a rough approximation from that effective number would be 49.5%. Thus, roughly 48-50% for the president, on average, from direct plurality, plus a largest party in House elections in the ~43% vote range, seem like good educated guesses if the US were to change to direct plurality, by way of the NPV, even without any change in the House electoral system.
Given that reform to PR normally follows, rather than leads, an increase in vote share to parties other than the majors, it is even possible that the NPV’s anticipated effect on the wider party system could generate momentum towards House electoral reform. But that is beyond the scope of this planting, which was simply intended to show that the currently under-fragmented House (according to the SPM) could be brought in line with expectations simply by making presidential elections direct via plurality.
A couple of caveats: First, the exercise here reveals that the multi-seat plurality system of the current electoral college could be a major drag on the party system at the moment, preventing the House from having the party system its seat product could support. However, we should not ignore the Senate. Given that the Senate is a co-equal chamber, parties need to organize with this body in mind, as well as with an eye towards seat-winning potential in the House. And the Senate seat product is ridiculously small. Even if it were taken to be 100, based on the Senate’s total size, that would be small–roughly the size of New Zealand’s before its electoral reform in the 1990s. However, it is worse than that: I think its seat product actually should be coded as 33, as that is the normal number of seats at stake in any given election. And if we run the SPM on a seat product of 33, we get an expected largest party seat share of 65% (!). Obviously, the actual is already normally well below that, at least in recent times. So that suggests that the more “permissive” House electoral system is already helping keep the Senate less dominated by one party than the Senate electoral system in isolation would.
The second caveat is that primaries also reduce party-formation incentives to some unmeasurable but probably significant degree. But my working assumption is that ideological groups within the existing parties would bypass primaries for president if the latter were elected nationwide, and that the resulting new parties would want to show their flag in House elections, too, under such a scenario. Yes, of course, single-seat districts make life hard on smaller parties. But note that no single-seat plurality system in the world with a seat product greater than about 100 has a party system as dominated by two parties as the USA has. So small parties can find ways to win local pluralities. They just need to be unleashed. And plurality election of the president would help the House’s existing seat product do its thing.
Electoral reform is not happening soon. The NPV itself is likely off the table for now. Even if sufficient states (totaling at least 270 electoral votes) were to agree to enter into the compact, it presumably would take effect only with the approval of Congress. Thus as long as Republicans control the Senate, its chances are poor. Nonetheless, the issue will not go completely away (I hope!), and it is thus helpful to understand that just this one measure could break the dam of the rigid two-party system for elections to the national legislature, even without any reform of how the House is elected.
* Well, the Senate did not remain Republican, but even a year later, serious electoral reform looks dead nonetheless. It is just not a Democratic priority.
Thinking about the US method of presidential selection is something I do a lot, and have written about before (both at F&V and in academic works). This planting won’t have any new ideas on the topic. However, I want to call readers’ attention to a “symposium” at Balkinization on the topic, which began on 13 October. The first entry there makes some good criticisms against the current method that are less commonly articulated–for instance, that the electoral college is vulnerable to “stalking horse candidates” and to the whims of billionaires with egos as big as their asset portfolios.
The symposium is motivated by a couple of new books on the topic (see at the top of their post), and has had further installments posted in subsequent days.
Note: I found the various parts of the symposium hard to locate on the Balkinization blog when I went back in early February to re-read them. So, I am providing the links here. The one above takes you to Part 1. Then click these for Part 2, and Part 3. (The last one there is an idea from Edward Foley for state-by-state ranked-choice voting for presidential electors.)
It would be hard to exaggerate just how much the US model of supreme court has been rejected by the modern democracies of the world. On three dimensions, the US model is really rare: appointment procedure, tenure, and size. And, yes, we should be actively pursuing reform in all these dimensions.
Countries that allow a popularly elected president to nominate, contingent on consent of a malapportioned second legislative chamber, with no extraordinary majority needed:
2 (Brazil, US)
(Two others are by president and 2/3 of senate: Argentina and Mexico)
Countries that provide life tenure to supreme court judges:
3 (Argentina, Denmark, US)
Countries with top court having fewer than 12 members:
7 (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, US)
Countries with all these characteristics: 1
In general, other countries either require extraordinary legislative majorities (such as cases mentioned above) or involvement by non-partisan commissions. Many have terms of several years (usually longer than those of the elected bodies), although quite a few have retirement ages (usually 70 to 75, sometimes younger).
Parliamentary systems often have appointment by the cabinet, and while that sounds quite partisan, I am not aware of other countries that have such politicized appointments as the US has nowadays. There may be some clear reasons why formal executive discretion over supreme-court appointment is not a source of controversy in established parliamentary democracies (to my knowledge), but I can’t claim to know what those reasons are.
It is noteworthy that presidential systems have mostly moved away from anything looking like the US model, and for good reason. The processes that most resemble the US would be those of Argentina or Brazil, not normally countries Americans want to consider peers in terms of democratic process, but actually comparisons that are quite apt.
(Also: not considered here, but covered in the book, is that several countries have constitutional review in a separate tribunal rather than in the apex court. Most such countries are civil law jurisdictions.)
Excellent, succinct post by G. Elliot Morris about the fundamentally undemocratic (and, yes, unrepublican) nature of American political institutions.
Tyranny of the Minority
Despite what the founders intended, the Supreme Court is now fully able to be controlled by a significant minority of the country’s voters. Of course, it is not a popularly-elected branch of government, but there are costs associated with minoritarian rule that transcend the original intent of the founders.
Now that Bernie Sanders is out of the contest for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, I think we can safely say that my take from late December was more or less correct. Oh, I might have wobbled a little bit in my confidence some time in February. But I never did believe the various projections that Sanders had become the favorite, even when things were looking rather bleak for Joe Biden. I certainly did not see things going through all the twists and turns that they did. That Biden would come out on top was not inevitable. Nonetheless, Biden’s dominance of the period before any actual voting started always seemed likely to play out in some fashion with him as the nominee. Or so I said in late December. That was my story and I was sticking to it!
Biden was not my first choice. He might not even have been my fifth choice in the original field (I am glad I never had to rank them!). But I am glad Sanders finally bowed to the inevitable, and got out of a contest in which his only real chance always depended on prolonged fragmentation and implausible “theories” about voter mobilization.