NYT endorses a larger House, with STV

Something I never thought I would see: The editorial board of one of the most important newspapers in the United States has published two separate editorials, one endorsing an increase in the size of the House of Representatives (suggesting 593 seats) and another endorsing the single transferable vote (STV) form of proportional representation for the House.

It is very exciting that the New York Times has printed these editorials promoting significant institutional reforms that would vastly improve the representativeness of the US House of Representatives.

The first is an idea originally proposed around 50 years ago by my graduate mentor and frequent coauthor, Rein Taagepera, based on his scientific research that resulted in the cube root law of assembly size. The NYT applies this rather oddly to both chambers, then subtracts 100 from the cube root result. But this is not something I will quibble with. Even an increase to 550 or 500 would be well worth doing, while going to almost 700 is likely too much, the cube root notwithstanding.

The second idea goes back to the 19th century (see Thomas Hare and Henry R. Droop) but is as fresh and valid an idea today as it was then. The NYT refers to it as “ranked choice voting in multimember districts” and I have no problem whatsoever with that branding. In fact, I think it is smart.

Both ideas could be adopted separately, but reinforce each other if done jointly.

They are not radical reforms, and they are not partisan reforms (even though we all know that one party will resist them tooth and nail and the other isn’t exactly going to jump on them any time soon). They are sensible reforms that would bring US democracy into the 21st century, or at least into the 20th.

And, yes, we need to reform the Senate and presidential elections, too. But those are other conversations…

PR-USA: We still need it

Thanks to a shout-out at Twitter by Michael Latner, I went back and re-read a few very old posts (from 2005 and 2006) that I did in the category, PR-USA.

Although all were written with respect to politics of the moment, here on Election Day, 2018, the urgency of significant electoral reform remains. For instance, take the Fivethirtyeight.com forecast for the House. Using their “classic” forecast, we see that “Democrats are favored to win a majority of seats if they win the popular vote by at least 5.6 points”.

That’s right. Democrats could win the popular vote by more than FIVE percentage points and we could still have a Republican House seat majority. That would be a scandal of representation. No electoral system should be considered justified on democratic (or republican–note small initial letters) grounds if it is within the realm of realistic probability that a reversal of the voting plurality could occur even with a five-point edge for one party. (Their forecast gives Republicans about a 14% of retaining their seat majority; if they do so, it will almost certainly be without a plurality of the vote.)

It hardly matters whether the root of such an outcome would be gerrymandering (partisan-biased district-boundary drawing) or simply the geographic distribution of votes (i.e. Democrats running up huge margins in their safest seats while Republicans eke out many more close wins). Both causes are inherent to use of the single-seat plurality (or sometimes majority) electoral system.

Of course, it is easier, in principle, to fix the gerrymandering cause. And there are several such measures, along with other electoral-reform measures, on ballots around the country today. As I said in a post in 2005 opposing (with some reluctance) a measure in my state that was billed as terminating gerrymandering, these do not solve the fundamental problem, even though they would help.

In addition to almost totally ensuring that the party with the most votes also has the most seats, proportional representation would limit polarization, open up alternative dimensions of issue competition, and institutionalize a voice for the sort of anti-establishment sentiment that now only bursts forward in spasms of “radical middle” or “populist” voting.

Henry Droop made many of these points a century ago. I made variants of them a dozen or so years ago. And they remain relevant today. Literally today.

Early STV voting equipment

Voting technology is one obstacle to wider use of ranked-choice voting. Although groups like OpaVote have had open-source fixes for years, US jurisdictions tend to rely on commercial vendors. A decade ago, many of them resisited developing the technology. Now, of course, voters can “complete the arrow,” as is done in San Francisco, or bubble in a candidate-by-ranking matrix, as was done in Maine last week.

The challenges get thornier with STV elections. Due to the “multi-winner” nature of a race, there sometimes are very many candidates. That can result in confused voters and burdensome vote counts. Only in 1991 did Cambridge (MA) solve these problems by computerizing its electoral system. That could have happened as early as 1936, when many cities still were holding STV elections.

As it turns out, IBM had found a way to mechanize the voting process. George Hallett of the erstwhile Proportional Representation League writes:

Among the most persuasive arguments against P. R., in spite of their essential triviality, have been the objections that it required several days to get the result in a large election and that it required paper ballots and hand counting, both of which in plurality elections without the safeguards of a central count have acquired an evil reputation. In connection with the possible early use of P. R. in New York City, where these objectives would be stronger than ever psychologically, an effective answer to them has now been devised.

 

IBM’s system used standard, punch-card readers to count STV ballots at a rate of 400 per minute. According to Hallett, “the final result of a P. R. election in New York City can easily be determined by some time in the morning of the day after election.”

Voters would use a series of dials to rank candidates, one through 20. Then, as some will recall, the machine would record a voter’s votes when they pulled the lever to open the curtain. Opening the curtain punched the holes into the punch-card ballot.

Here is the quotation in its context (albeit a bit blurry):

Other features of the system were:

  • Precinct-based error correction. A voter could not give the same ranking to more than one candidate. Nor could a voter skip a ranking.
  • Freedom of choice. A voter could rank as few candidates as they wanted. They also could rank as many as they wanted. Although the machine was built for 20 rankings, there appears to have been accommodation for write-in and additional candidates. Finally, a voter could go back and change their mind about a ranking.
  • Early “cyber-security.” Now we worry about nefarious actors loading malware onto touchscreens. Back in the 1930s, however, the worry was that poll workers might stuff a ballot box or throw out ballots they did not like. IBM’s solution was simple. Poll workers would not have access to individual ballots. Once a voter voted, the ballot fell into a sealed container, only to be opened in the central-count location.

Why the machine did not catch on remains a mystery. IBM appears to have been pitching it to New York City in advance of the November referendum, which put STV into place from 1937 to 1947. Those passing by 41 Park Row could see a demonstration model at the Citizens Union office.

It is a shame that New York (and other cities) did not go with the system. According to Mott (1926), the average invalid-ballot rate in 19 elections to that point was 9.1 percent. My data reveal invalid rates of up to 18 percent (Manhattan and Brooklyn, 1941). Part of this was abstention altogether. Another part was the lack of interest in discerning voter intent, handling skipped rankings with compassion, and so forth. IBM’s machine, however, would have addressed some of those issues, all while educating voters at the same time that they voted.

Down with the State of the Union

Transplanted here from 2012 (and perviously from 2008 and originally from 2006, with many comments from the the original and subsequent years; links may suffer from linkrot after all these years.)

Something over at PoliBlog reminded me of why I pay no attention to the State of the Union address: It’s a worst-of-both-worlds form of political communication: All the pomp of a Speech from the Throne without any of the give-and-take of Question Period.

Steven takes issue with Lewis Gould’s characterization, from an essay called Ban the Bombast!:

More like an acceptance speech at a national convention than a candid review of the nation’s situation at the outset of a new year, the State of the Union has evolved into a semi-imperial speech from the throne.

Steven suggests that Gould’s “throne” characterization implies the president always get what he wants. Rather, for me, the reference reminds me precisely of what is wrong with the State of the Union address: It is not like a real throne speech at all.

“Speech from the throne” is the term used (with certain variations) in Westminister parliamentary systems. The head of state reads a statement about what “my government…” will do in the coming year. Then once it, and the dignity of the Queen (or her representative in Canada and other Commonwealth Realms) pretending that the government speaks for everyone, is over, things go back to normal. And that normal involves the head of government being hissed and booed and subjected to harsh questions in parliament.

In this respect, the State of the Union is really the worst of both worlds. The head of state stands before the people’s representatives (oh, and the senators, too) and delivers something allegedly about the nation as a whole. But then, as head of government–and therefore a partisan leader–he (i.e. the same person, unlike in Westminster systems) never sticks around to answer tough questions and subject himself to ridicule for the absurdities he has just mouthed. Instead, the opposition has to send someone to a TV/radio studio to give an equally absurd speech that hardly anyone listens to, and thus an opportunity for the sides to engage each other when people actually are paying attention is squandered.

I say dump the whole thing and in its place:

    • (1) go back to the head of state being kept off the floor of the separate legislative body and instead have him send a written message to congress

OR

(2) have the head of government stick around after presenting his plans and spin and make him take questions–preferably weekly, as in Canada and the UK.

That is, keep true to the separation of powers by dumping the image of dignity and superiority that its one-way communication from the “throne” of Congress implies, or make the President jostle and spar with the very same representatives of the people he’s speaking before.

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.

Alabama scenarios

If it is possible, under Alabama election law, for Luther Strange or another Republican to run as an independent, I do not know which of the following is the likelier scenario.

Note: the winner is decided by plurality (most votes, not requiring more than half).

(1) Moore’s support bleeds away to the write-in, who wins a majority (or nearly so) in the deep-red state.

(2) The write-in splits the Republican vote, and Moore has sufficient dead-end support that won’t defect, letting Jones (the Democrat) win with ~40%.

(3) The write-in attracts lots of voters away from Jones who were only considering voting for him as the not-Moore, as well as from Moore himself, such that the write-in wins, but it is a close three-way contest.

One additional consideration: it is pretty late to organize a write-in campaign, and scenarios 1 & 3 both assume that it is possible to get it off the ground, and get voters aware of what they have to do.

I still think the most likely scenario is Moore wins, and sits in the Senate (until such time as the Senate, by 2/3, might vote to expel him).

The US Supreme Court gerrymandering case

I do not have time to dissect the arguments before the US Supreme Court in the case concerning the permissibility of the partisan gerrymander in Wisconsin. It clearly is a case of great importance to issues we care about at this blog. So, feel free to discuss here.

I highly recommend two pieces by Michael Latner:

Sociological Gobbledygook or Scientific Standard? Why Judging Gerrymandering is Hard (4 OCt.)

Can Science (and The Supreme Court) End Partisan Gerrymandering and Save the Republic? Three Scenarios (2 Oct.)