The new Alaskan beast

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 ensures the winner will be majority-supported.

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.”

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*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.

Two parties are not enough

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.

If the USA had direct plurality election of the president, what effect on the party system?

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% 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 somewhat. 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.

Thinking about the US method of presidential selection

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.

Thanks to Alan for the tip.

The US Supreme Court process is just very strange

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.
I am going to reference the data in A Different Democracy, which covers 31 countries.
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
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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.)

Tyranny of the minority

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.

[Excerpted from the post at Moriss’s blog]

 

About that post on the Democratic race…

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.

Super Tuesday guide

I made myself a guide to the states (not all of them) voting today. It includes the FiveThirtyEight polling aggregate and the most recent individual polls (which will have been included in the aggregate as well). It also has the poll closing times.

Sanders Biden Bloomberg Warren others Polls close (PST)
Alabama 5:00
538 18.4 40.2 15.9 10.9 14.6
Swayable Mar 1-2 20 42 20 10 8
Data for Progress Feb 27-Mar 2 22 47 18 12 1
Arkansas 5:30
538 18.1 27.5 21 12.5 20.9
Swayable Mar 1-2 17 28 25 10 20
Data for Progress Feb 27-Mar 2 23 36 22 15 4
Hendrix Coll. Feb 6-7 16 19 20 9 36
Colorado 6:00
538 26.8 18.2 15.8 16.3 22.9
Swayable Mar 1-2 29 20 19 12 20
Data for Progress Feb 27-Mar 2 32 18 16 21 13
Elucd Feb 26-Mar 1 34 10 9 14 33
Magellan Strategies Feb 24-25 27 11 11 15 36
Data for Progress Feb 23-25 34 10 14 20 22
Massachusetts 5:00
538 26.8 18.2 15.8 16.3 22.9
Swayable Mar 1-2 27 17 18 15 23
Data for Progress Feb 27-Mar 2 26 26 15 28 5
Suffolk Feb 26-29 24 11 13 22 30
Minnesota 6:00
538 26.2 18 12 14 29.8
Swayable Mar 1-2 27 20 14 8 31
Data for Progress Feb 27-Mar 2 32 27 16 21 4
North Carolina 4:30
538 22.1 34.5 14.4 11.3 17.7
Swayable Mar 1-2 23 36 18 10 13
Data for Progress Feb 27-Mar 2 27 36 18 14 5
Elucd Feb 26-Mar 1 26 25 15 12 22
High Point Univ Feb 21-28 28 14 20 12 26
Tennessee 5:00
538 24.7 29 15.7 12.3 18.3
Swayable Mar 1-2 27 28 17 9 19
Data for Progress Feb 27-Mar 2 27 34 20 15 4
Oklahoma 5:00
538 30.6 22.1 13.7 13.6 20
Swayable Mar 1-2 26 38 11 13 12
Data for Progress Feb 27-Mar 2 28 35 19 16 2
Sooner Feb 17-21 13 21 20 9 37
Texas 5:00
538 28.2 25.5 16.5 13.3 16.5
Swayable Mar 1-2 28 27 20 12 13
Data for Progress Feb 27-Mar 2 28 30 20 15 7
AtlasIntel Feb 24-Mar 2 35 25 16 9 15
Emerson Coll Feb 29-Mar 1 31 26 16 14 13
Elucd 31 20 14 13 22
Note: some parts of Texas are in MST, where polls close at 6:00
California 8:00
538 31.2 21.7 14.7 14.9 17.5
Swayable Mar 1-2 29 21 19 10 21
Data for Progress Feb 27-Mar 2 32 25 17 16 10
AtlasIntel Feb 24-Mar 2 34 26 15 15 10
Point Blank Feb 29-Mar 1 34 22 10 14 20
Emerson Coll. Feb 29-Mar 1 38 21 11 16 14

I inadvertently left Virginia off the original. Here it is:

Virginia 4:00
538 21 39 14.6 12.3 13.1
Swayable Mar 1-2 20 36 20 11 13
Data for Progress Feb 27-Mar 2 24 39 18 17 2
AtlasIntel Feb 24-Mar 2 28 42 11 10 9
Change Res. Mar 1-2 25 45 10 13 7
Chris. Newport U Feb 3-24 17 22 13 8 40

 

Super Tuesday district magnitudes

I was curious what the district magnitudes were for states voting on Super Tuesday. That is, how many delegates to the Democratic convention are chosen in each district? In addition to a variable number per district, there are (almost) always two statewide districts. Each district–congressional and statewide has a 15% threshold. It is this complexity that makes these systems a strategic voters’ nightmare, given that we still have four “serious” candidates that are active and may be viable in many states (and two who may hover near 15% in many states and districts).

So here is a rundown of the states that are voting today, thanks to the Green Papers. All states are included there; see links at the top of the page for upcoming states. Another excellent source is Frontloading HQ. The table shows the mean by district, the district minimum and maximum, and the two sets of statewide delegates.

State CD Mean Min CD Max CD At large PLEO
Ala. 4.9 3 8 11 7
Calif. 5.1 4 7 90 54
Colo. 6.3 4 9 14 9
Maine 8 7 9 5 3
Mass. 6.6 6 8 20 12
Minn. 6.1 4 10 16 10
N.C. 5.5 3 9 24 14
Okla. 4.8 4 6 8 5
Tenn. 4.7 4 7 14 8
Tex.* 4.8 2 10 49 30
Utah 4.8 2 7 6 4
Vt. 17
Virg. 5.9 4 7 21 13
* Texas elects its delegates in its 31 state senate districts instead of congressional districts; Vermont has only statewide delegates

For comparison of how these break down at district level, here is how it worked in South Carolina (Green Papers for the delegates; South Carolina State Election Commission for the vote percentages).

BIDEN SANDERS
District Tot Qual Del Tot Alloc Del Tot Alloc Del
Vote Vote Vote Pct. Vote Pct.
CD1 103,538 65,251 6 45,340 43.79 4.169 4 19,911 19.23 1.831 2
CD2 78,881 52,156 4 36,503 46.28 2.8 3 15,653 19.84 1.2 1
CD3 51,321 33,842 3 22,287 43.43 1.976 2 11,555 22.52 1.024 1
CD4 70,394 44,856 4 27,509 39.08 2.453 2 17,347 24.64 1.547 2
CD5 69,852 50,690 5 36,916 52.85 3.641 4 13,774 19.72 1.359 1
CD6 93,204 70,304 8 55,855 59.93 6.356 6 14,449 15.50 1.644 2
CD7 71,043 51,116 5 37,469 52.74 3.665 4 13,647 19.21 1.335 1
PLEO 538,233 368,215 7 261,879 4.978 5 106,336 2.022 2
At-Large 538,233 368,215 12 261,879 8.535 9 106,336 3.465 3
Total 54 39 15
Delegates

For the record, the highest percentage Tom Steyer had was in district 3, where he had 14.55%. So close! (But the district elected only 3, so even 15% of the vote would have been insufficient.) He also had 13.06% in district 6. The closest Pete Buttigieg came was in district 1, where he had 12.55%. Elizabeth Warren’s best was only 9.29% (district 4).

The strategic voters’ nightmare that is US Democrats’ “proportional” system

With a “front runner” who so far is not mustering more than a quarter of the vote in polling aggregates (e.g., both Fivethirtyeight and Economist), and four other candidates in the 10%–20% range (here with some variation between different aggregators), it is a good thing the Democratic Party uses proportional representation to choose its nominating-convention delegates. Right?

Well, not this “proportional” system. I will now leave aside those zany rules of the Iowa caucus or the marginally more rational rules of the Nevada caucus, and focus on the closest thing we will get to a national primary: “Super Tuesday”. Specifically, I will focus on California for the the obvious reason that it is the biggest. And happens to be where I live and vote. Other states have broadly similar systems, but for smaller numbers of delegates.

This is one awful example of “proportional representation” (PR). Why? First, because it is not really PR due to the high threshold. Second, because it is ridiculously complex. Third (and flowing from the first two), because it is nearly impossible to know how one should make effective use of one’s vote.

My premise is to assume a voter wants to vote against Sanders. (Any resemblance to any particular actual voter may be coincidental. Or not.) With so many candidates still in the mix, one could at least feel good that it in a big state with a lot of delegates, the proportional allocation will mean your vote is not wasted. It could help select some delegates for whichever non-Sanders candidate the voter selects.

But that is not the case at all.

First, there is the threshold. It is set at 15%, which is extremely high. It is all the worse when, as noted already, so many trailing candidates are at risk of falling below 15%. It is not out of the question that all of California’s delegates could go to Sanders even if he has just 32% of the vote, as in a recent PPIC poll. That poll has Biden in second with only 14%. A delegate sweep is not the most likely outcome (8% are undecided, and many might be weakly supportive of their current choice and thinking strategically, like our hypothetical voter), but it is possible. One hundred percent of the delegates on a third of the vote certainly would not be a  “proportional” outcome!

Then there is the districting. Obviously, we know from studies of electoral systems for actual proportional representation systems that having many districts, and low-moderate district magnitude (number of seats–here, delegates–per district) reduces proportionality. On the other hand, if a candidate is just below 15% statewide, the districting might help that candidate, to the extent that there is regional variation in support. Failing to clear the statewide threshold does not preclude getting delegates in a district, as long as the candidate is above 15% in any given district, and that the magnitude of that district is large enough for the candidate to get a delegate with whatever his or her vote share is in the district.

The statewide delegates amount to around 35% of all the delegates awarded in California: 144 of the 415 total. In electoral system terms, the allocation is in parallel, not compensatory like many two-tier proportional systems. That is, a candidate who clears 15% gets a “proportional” share of the statewide delegates and adds on to this whatever number of delegates he or she has won in districts.

A statewide district of M=144 seems huge, right? Well, this being the Democratic Party, they have to make it further complicated. There are two statewide districts, in parallel with each other as well as with the many sub-state districts. The magnitudes are still large, at 54 and 90. (The former are the PLEO, or pledged leaders and elected officials.)

The districts for delegate selection are the state’s districts for the US House. They vary in magnitude for delegate purposes according to recent Democratic voting history in the district. California has 53 districts, and they vary in magnitude from 4 to 7. There are only two districts (numbers 12 and 13) that elect 7. The mean magnitude is 5.1. See the California Democratic Party Delegate Selection Plan (pp. 14-15 of the linked PDF) for the number per district.

(The Plan has no description of the specific allocation formula that I could find, but maybe I missed it; see also GreenPapers.)

So what should our totally hypothetical anti-Sanders voter do? Ideally, figure out which of the other (acceptable) candidates is above 15% in his or her district. Better yet, figure out which one might be marginal for a delegate. That would be a strategic vote based on local support and the district’s magnitude. But it is not as if such information is widely available. One can guess off district demographics, or noisy signals like local offices for the campaigns or yard signs, etc.

The PPIC poll has a regional breakdown within California. But the “regions” are blunt categories–Los Angeles, Other Southern California, SF Bay Area, and Other. There is some considerable variation, even with the caveat that we have 53 districts but four regions. Sanders leads in Los Angeles with 36% and the next up is Biden, at 16%. In Other Southern California they are on 41% and 15%, with Buttigieg also on 15% (the latter supposedly has just 9% in LA). SF Bay Area also has Sanders leading with only 31% and the next closest is Warren at 18% and then Bloomberg at 14%. If, like me, you are in “Other” it is really a mess! We have Warren 18%, Biden 17%, Sanders 16%, Buttigieg 14% (also 11% unknown, higher than other regions). Of course, a lot of these are in the margin of error of the threshold, and each other, and further district-level variation within each region is likely.

So maybe the best is just to figure out which ones are likely to be close to, or “securely” above 15% statewide. Forget the district, and focus on those two large magnitudes at the state level, in which small vote shifts for above-threshold candidates actually could change the delegate totals.

The previous numbers are based on only one poll, of course. There is too little polling of this state. The FiveThirtyEight estimate for California is a little different: 27% Sanders, 16% Bloomberg, 14% Biden, 11% Warren, 10% Buttigieg. (The total for all listed candidates gets us to 89%, so 11% undecided.) Given the paucity of polling, these estimates are based not only on polls, but also on national trends adjusted for state demographics. And, as noted earlier, it risks no one but Sanders being over the threshold, even if that is not in the end a likely scenario, in part because allocating or removing undecideds likely puts at least a couple of other candidates over 15%. Plus, as mentioned, there will be some degree of regional variation that can make a sub-15% candidate statewide be well above that level in a district. But also, remember: many districts have a magnitude so low that even 15% locally would not be enough for a district delegate!

Or there’s voting sincerely. What a concept. Since I don’t like any of these candidates, that would mean staying home. But I don’t want to do that!

The zany Iowa allocation

Really, this is unjustifiable. I used to believe the Democratic Party actually used “proportional representation” for its presidential nominating delegate allocation. But this is not even close.

“Realigned vote” is the shares after participants in candidate-supporting groups that were below 15% in any given precinct shift to their second choice. This is the only good part of the whole process. The “realignment advantage” is just an indicator of how much a candidate gains (or loses) at that stage: the realigned vote share divided by the initial vote share.

How you get from there to the final delegate allocation is clearly some sort of black magic. It goes by way of this weird phantom called “state delegate equivalents”.

And somehow out comes an allocation in which a candidate who started off in second place, even after realignment, not only comes in first in delegates but somehow is over-represented to about the same degree as the first place party in your average FPTP election. (Delegate advantage is the delegate share divided by the realigned vote share.)

This is not proportional representation. Whatever it is, it is no way to run a presidential nominating process.

And I have not even mention the great app failure, or the possibility that some precinct-level allocations were just calculated wrong. (See spreadsheet of errors.)

Sources for data: NYT, WaPo, IDP.

See also a breakdown of available delegates by county and precinct. (The IDP link above has it even more detailed.)

Democratic primary: Don’t understate Biden’s dominance

The fragmentation of the US Democratic Party’s field of presidential pre-candidates exaggerates the weakness–real though it is–of the clear front-runner, Joe Biden.

Taking two poll trackers, Economist and FiveThirtyEight, here are those polling at five percent or more:

Pre-candidate Economist FiveThirtyEight
Biden 26 27.3
Sanders 17 17.8
Warren 16 14.7
Buttigieg 8 8.0
Bloomberg 7 5.0
(Sub-)total 74 72.8

It is noteworthy that even with so many candidates and different methodologies, the two trackers agree on the order. The only really substantial difference between them is in the estimate for Bloomberg. Not shown here, the two trackers also agree in the order of the next three: Yang, Klobuchar, and Booker. After that they diverge on the farther trailing candidates. (Economist has both Gabbard and Steyer at 1% but lists her ahead of him; perhaps we could say they agree on the order of the top ten.)

In the Economist tracker, the full list of all candidates who are given a vote percentage includes five listed as “<1%” (trailing two estimated at 1%). If we assumed all these five averaged 0.5% (which is probably too high) we still get to only 88.5% as a “total”. So that leaves too much for the thirteen who were running but have dropped out; the tracker does not report a percentage undecided. If we take Biden’s percentage over all those with at least 1%, he is just over 30%. Still pretty weak for a front-runner. But the one in second place, Sanders, would rise only to just under 20%. That’s a large gap.

Applying the same exercise to the FiveThirtyEight percentages–which have six candidates over 1%–we get a “total” of 86.3% and the top two at 31.6% and 20.6%.

The Democratic Party obviously does not use a nationwide two-round majority rule. But if it did, where would a top two 30–20 finish rank? How likely would it be that the second place candidate would win the runoff? I looked at this question in 2016; the graph at that post shows rather few real-world presidential contests with approximately 30–20 for the top two. But if one were to draw a line on the graph marking the region in which the gap is ten percentage points or more, no second-candidate comeback shows up with this large a gap until the leading candidate is around 35% (Austria 2016, the case that prompted the post). That is, even with a first-round candidate as weak as a third of the vote or less, comebacks occur only when the two are rather closer than Biden and Sanders are at this point. And this is, of course, before one even considers ideological placement of the candidates.

What I am getting at, in case it is not obvious, is that it is hard to imagine Biden not being the winner were there a hypothetical direct two-round primary–and even if the field stayed this fragmented up till the first round (which is itself unlikely). Perhaps Warren’s chances increase slightly if this nationwide primary were run under the alternative vote. She might pick up enough from eliminated candidates to surpass Sanders in the final two when calculated this way. It still seems a stretch that she could end up with a majority after reallocation of preferences.

Now, let’s try a different hypothetical. The primary actually uses proportional representation to allocate delegates. Sort of. There is a 15% threshold, and the rules consist of a mix of statewide delegate allocation and allocation in congressional districts using varying district magnitude. If it were a single-shot affair rather than sequential across states and regions, only three candidates look like they would get any delegates (generously granting Warren what she needs to get over 15% in the FiveThirtyEight tracker or allowing for regional variance even if she stayed at 14.7%). In this scenario, Biden has 44% or 45% of the above-threshold vote. That might just be enough to win a majority of elected delegates or close to it, given a medium district magnitude on average. It would certainly put him close.

(There are 3,836 “pledged” delegates; 435 congressional districts plus separate statewide districts for the states that have more than one congressional district, DC, and various territories means ~480 districts, so an average magnitude of about 8.)

None of this is to say Biden can’t be caught by someone. And in the real and strange world, Iowa and then New Hampshire get to go before anyone else. According to FiveThirtyEight, Biden is in a tight three-way fight in their Iowa estimate, with Buttigieg still clinging to a slight lead over Biden and then Sanders (19.7–19.1–18.3), with Warren at just 13.4%. The New Hampshire estimate is similar, only with Sanders the one clinging to a narrow lead over Biden and Buttigieg (18.0–17.3–15.6) and Warren at 13.9%. (Gasp–the fifth place candidate is Tulsi Gabbard, on 4.9%.)

The odd (I am being kind) procedure the party uses in the real world could still produce a surprise, if Biden fails to get a plurality in either Iowa or New Hampshire, and if the pre-candidate (or two or more) beating him were to surge nationally afterwards. It looks unlikely to me. I think Biden has it, barring an occurrence of something even stranger than the method by which the party selects its nominee.

“Winnowing works”–or does it?

I keep seeing political scientists–among those who focus on the US case–using a hashtag that says, “winnowing works”. It has got sufficiently under my skin that I decided to rant about it just a little. Honest, just a little.

I take it they are indicating that it is a good thing that the process set by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has led to several presidential precandidates dropping out already. Sure, in that sense, winnowing works–by definition. That is, the field is smaller than it was a few weeks ago.

But is it working at the task that is presumably the one we should judge it by–producing a strong nominee? I have my doubts. I have very serious reservations about the current top three (Biden, Sanders, Warren). This is (somewhat) independent of their specific policies or track records. They are all old, and each one brings some significant baggage or potential problems with electability.

Maybe I am just unhappy that candidates I disliked less than the rest of the field, like one emphasizing an issue that should be front and center and was one of the few governors in the field (Inslee), one I just happen to find appealing (Booker), or one who seems especially well positioned to win Great Lakes area states lost in 2016 (Klobuchar) are all languishing. But that’s the point. Some of these currently lesser know candidates might have been better choices (Inslee is already out). But they have been, or likely soon will be, winnowed out months before anyone actually casts a vote.

The DNC is doing something very strange here. On the one hand, it continues to pander to the insistence of certain small and unrepresentative states to go early in the process of voting, on the theory that voters seeing a candidate up close are better able to make choices than the rest of us. On the other hand, it has created these big media events (“debates” is not really an appropriate term) and qualifications based on national polling and contributors, which make mass-media name recognition especially important. Am I wrong to see this as a fundamental contradiction?

There are many, many things I do not like about the US process of presidential selection. But I am just not convinced that winnowing is working at delivering a good nominee, vetted by actual voters whether in little states or the Democratic electorate at large.

Rotation of US Supreme Court justices?

According to the transcript of the Democratic pre-candidates’ debate (night 2), Bernie Sanders said:

I do not believe in packing the court. We got a terrible 5-4 majority conservative court right now. But I do believe that constitutionally we have the power to rotate judges to other courts. And that brings in new blood into the Supreme Court…

I would not pretend to know what Bernie meant. He says some strange things. But the Constitution is pretty brief on structure of courts. Let me try to imagine what he meant, and consider whether it could be constitutional.

Could legislation establish that there is a wider panel of appellate justices from which Supreme Court justices are drawn for periods of time? I am certainly not a constitutional lawyer, but maybe.

In Article III, Section 1, the US Constitution states, in part,

The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour…

So we know from this that how “inferior courts” are structured is up to Congress, and that individual judges can’t be subjected to a term of some set length, without a constitutional amendment.

We also know, from Article II, Section 2, that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint … Judges of the supreme Court.” No other judges of any court are mentioned. So legislation could establish the inferior court judges are appointed by the Supreme Court, for example (a model that is actually used in some countries). But the point about “rotation” raised by Sanders is the reverse: could members of the Supreme Court be drawn from other courts, rather than be sitting on a permanent body?

I do not see why not. The judges as individuals can’t be dismissed except for violating “good behaviour”. But could not Congress establish that the President, at set periods, appoints (with advice and consent) judges from the Circuit Courts to sit on the Supreme Court, who at set periods rotate back to their “inferior” courts? The only obstacle that becomes immediately apparent to me is if the specific court (Supreme or inferior) a judge sits on is considered part of his or her “Compensation” (capital C in original, Article III, Section 1). But if all judges in these courts are accorded the same salary and benefits, then maybe the Constitution actually does permit some sort of rotation.

Now, I am not saying that Sanders is clever enough to have thought it though the way I just articulated. Nor I am claiming that I have not overlooked some other constitutional obstacle. But the Constitution is a lot more vague than folks might think when it comes to stipulating how the federal judiciary is structured. Most of that is left to Congress.

The 2018 Ranked Choice Voting Election in Maine’s Congressional District No. 2

Maine’s recent congressional election – the first-ever federal poll in the U.S. to be held under Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) – took place against a backdrop of continuing opposition by the Republican Party to the recently introduced voting system. State GOP leaders not only called on their voters to rank just the party’s candidates, but sought as well a court ruling to prevent RCV from determining the outcome of the U.S. House of Representatives election in Congressional District No. 2, and subsequently a recount of all ballots in the election (later called off while it was underway).

Nonetheless, a significant minority of Republican voters in the district ignored party exhortations and indicated valid rankings for at least two candidates, while substantial minorities of non-GOP voters only gave a first preference to Democratic or independent candidates. At the same time, the number of voters who engaged in bullet voting – indicating a preference for just one candidate – constituted a minority of the voting electorate in CD-2. This is notable when one considers that in both the 2016 and 2018 RCV referendums held in Maine, a majority of voters in CD-2 rejected the switch from plurality voting.

Moreover, a federal judge first allowed the RCV count to take place, and subsequently issued a ruling upholding the constitutionality of the election in the congressional district, where incumbent Republican Bruce Poliquin obtained the largest number of first preference votes, but fell short of an absolute majority; he then lost the second and final round of counting to Democratic challenger Jared Golden, who prevailed with 142,440 votes (50.6%) to Poliquin’s 138,931 (49.4%) following the elimination of independent candidates Tiffany Bond and Will Hoar, whose second preferences were transferred to the remaining two candidates. The First Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently denied Congressman Poliquin’s motion for an injunction to prevent Golden from being declared the winner, and Poliquin – who wanted the election outcome determined solely by the first preference count, or by a re-run under plurality voting – dropped the lawsuit challenging RCV shortly thereafter.

The following table, based on a tally of 296,077 cast vote records in CD-2, published by Maine’s Secretary of State on his official website, shows the distribution of first preference votes for each candidate with at least a valid second preference for another candidate (“Preference”), or no second and successive preferences for a different candidate (“Bullet”); the “Other” category groups ballots with valid first preferences, but no valid second or successive preferences due to either overvoting on the second preference ranking – indicating a second preference for more than one candidate – or undervoting i.e. leaving blank more than one consecutive ranking beyond first preference while indicating preferences for other candidates, or a combination of both. State of Maine 2018 Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) Election Data has frequency counts for all 1,564 tallied preference combinations in the CD-2 election.

Candidate Bullet % Preference % Other % Total
Bond (I) 4,333 26.2 12,106 73.1 113 0.7 16,552
Golden (D) 51,423 39.0 79,551 60.3 1,039 0.8 132,013
Hoar (I) 2,120 30.8 4,713 68.6 42 0.6 6,875
Poliquin (R) 89,228 66.5 43,955 32.8 1,001 0.7 134,184
Total 147,104 50.8 140,325 48.5 2,195 0.7 289,624

There were 435 overvotes and 6,018 undervotes in the first preference count; the latter figure – which included 5,711 ballots undervoted on all available rankings – is noticeably lower than the reported number of blank ballots in the plurality-based 2014 and 2016 U.S. House elections in CD-2, and it is also lower than the number of blank ballots in the district for this year’s gubernatorial election in Maine, which was also carried out by plurality voting. At the very least, these numbers indicate the introduction of RCV did not bring about an increase in the number of blank or invalid ballots. In addition, the very low number of overvotes strongly suggests there was little voter confusion about the new electoral system.

Of the 147,104 voters in CD-2 who indicated valid preferences for just one candidate, 137,971 indicated only a first preference, including 315 cases with a second preference but no first preference, while an additional 9,133 voters indicated a valid first preference (or a valid second preference without a first preference), as well as additional preferences, but only for a specific candidate; a large majority of these – 7,706 voters – gave all five preference rankings to their chosen candidate. Under Maine’s RCV counting rules, these votes had the same effect as having indicated only a first preference for the selected candidate. However, while ballots with valid preferences for just a single candidate constitute a narrow majority of the valid first preference votes, they represent a minority of 49.7% of all votes cast in the district. By contrast, in both the 2016 and 2018 RCV referendums, CD-2 reported a majority of votes against RCV both among the valid and overall vote totals. Moreover, even among voters casting valid first preferences, those who indicated a first preference only were a minority of 47.6%.

Bullet voting for the two major-party candidates had no impact in the CD-2 election outcome, since their first preferences were tallied in the second count as preferences for continuing candidates. However, the 6,453 ballots with valid rankings for either Bond only or Hoar only made up the bulk of the 8,253 non-transferable votes in the second count (most of the remaining 1,800 votes in that group had valid rankings for both Bond and Hoar, but not for the other two candidates). It has been suggested that these voters were confused as to which candidates would make it to the second count, but a far more likely explanation is that they simply wished to support the independent candidates only and didn’t care for either of the two major-party candidates. In fact, their behavior is functionally the same as that of voters in traditional runoff systems casting a blank or invalid ballot in the runoff election, after the candidates they originally supported were eliminated in the first round of voting. Moreover, Bond and Hoar first preference voters had the lowest proportion of bullet voting, at just under two out of seven ballots cast for them.

The overall distribution of bullet votes and preference votes in the CD-2 election closely resembles the 2016 and 2018 RCV referendum outcomes, and it would seem this is not entirely a coincidence: in towns with more than ten voters, there were moderately strong correlations between bullet voting in 2018 and opposition to RCV in 2016 (0.62), as well as between preference votes in 2018 and support for the new electoral system two years earlier (0.64); when the correlations were calculated on the basis of valid votes only, both stood at 0.63.

In conclusion, neither all GOP voters in CD-2 ranked Congressman Poliquin only (nearly a third cast a preference vote) nor did all Golden voters (or those backing independent candidates Bond and Hoar) rank other candidates – this was the case with almost three out of eight non-Poliquin voters. There was little evidence of voter confusion, and casting a preference vote or a bullet vote may have been indicative of ongoing support for RCV or opposition to it, respectively; if so, the election outcome did not point to growing opposition to the newly adopted electoral system. Just as important, these findings should leave no doubt that RCV is not a clear-cut partisan issue.