Emergency electoral reform: OLPR for the US House

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.

Other issues

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.

Conclusion

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!

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[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.]

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Notes

  1. 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.
  2. Such an option could be added, but I am trying to keep it as familiar as possible while still getting PR.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. If the reform included a clause allowing individual states to opt for STV instead of OLPR, I would not object.
  6. 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.

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% 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.

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.

How liberals ended PR in the US

Proportional representation is a mostly left-wing cause in the US. Some see it as a path to majority-Democrat Congressional delegations. Others see it as a way out of the Democratic Party, period. Much liberal-wing anger centers on the party’s ties to Wall Street. If we had PR, the story goes, the liberal wing would seat its own party. If not, it might at least scare the Clinton wing into responsiveness. And the affinity between PR and left politics might draw on a myth, neatly summarized below:

Proportional representation systems were tried earlier in the past century and then discarded precisely because they favored minority representation (racial and left wing/socialist) too much.

I’ve found evidence that the most liberal Democrats were actually PR’s worst enemies. Yes, racially and economically liberal. I’m talking about the AFL and/or CIO and Young Democrats. At roughly the same time they were pulling the Democratic Party leftward, they were working to repeal PR in at least three of the cities that had it.

Let’s begin with New York City and Cincinnati, since the PR eulogy rests heavily on these cases.

In New York, all signs suggest repeal was about kicking the left off City Council. The CIO did take PR’s side there in 1947, but the Young Democrats opposed it.

What about Cincinnati? It’s said that repeal in 1957 was a reaction to desegregation, simultaneous events in Little Rock, and the success of a local black politician under PR. Another common argument cites Democrats’ bolt from a three-decade coalition deal. Everything we know about American politics implies these ought to have been (racially) conservative Democrats. And we’d expect the CIO and Young Democrats to have opposed them. Not so, and not so.

I argue here that the CIO-affiliated Steel Workers were critical to repealing PR in 1957. Stranger still, their leader was city council’s main advocate for desegregation and collective bargaining. He and the successful black politician were on the same side of every major policy initiative except one: a flat municipal income tax. What about the YDs? Although their role in 1957 remains unclear, they caused the 1954 attempt to repeal PR. Both efforts involved deals with a disciplined, conservative Republican Party.

We find the same basic pattern in Worcester, Massachusetts. Consider this slice of history, from December 1959:

Worcester AFL-CIO supports repeal of PR.I find archival evidence that the Worcester YDs began mobilizing against PR in 1955. This involved rapprochement with the former Democratic “machine.” YDs also tried to get control of the CEA nominating process. Finally, they tried to get the CEA to pull PR from its platform. CEA was the coalition of Republicans and independent Democrats that benefitted from PR in Worcester.

Make of this role what you will. It looks short-sighted in retrospect. It’s clearly ironic, given what we know. The very people you’d expect to clamor for PR today — starry-eyed activists and militant labor organizers — are largely why the working PR examples are gone.

The obvious question concerns motive. Maybe they saw Democrats on the demographic upswing and, in that, a chance to flush Republicans from city government for good. That only explains Cincinnati, however, if the Republicans were ignoring trends that the YDs and/or unions were not. Anticommunism is another big possibility. The problem is that Communists (or anything plausibly resembling them) only gained from PR in New York City and its suburbs. Clearly there’s work to do. Please share any insights.

Yglesias on STV

US political blogger Matthew Yglesias has suggested single transferable vote as ” one solution to polarization” in the US Congress.

I would note that his specific suggestion that New York City could form a single 13-seat district might not be the best way to sell STV. But perhaps one should not quibble with such details, important though they are, at this point.

I did not look at many of the comments (55 at last check), but I did notice that the first comment advocates expanding the size of the House (as an alternative, but why pick just one of these?), and another makes the all-too-common mistake of conflating the increased district magnitude of PR with “at large” plurality (with reference to such a provision in the Puerto Rican legislature).

And at least one of the comments mentions the looming referendum on STV in British Columbia.

John Anderson and Fairvote

I received this appeal from John Anderson today. I make such a contribution every year, and I hope some of my pro-reform American readers will consider doing the same:

December 18, 2007

My fellow friends and supporters of FairVote,

I write from my law school office in Florida, having just put the final touches on another semester of teaching constitutional law. Perhaps it is my regular opportunity to engage so intensely with our nation’s future leaders that stirs in me an ongoing passion to have our nation move to democracy’s cutting edge. Certainly it serves to reinforce one of my deepest commitments: the remarkable work of FairVote as it advances “the way democracy will be.”

I know many of you already appreciate FairVote’s work. Each year our supporters grow in their number and giving, with their recognition of our unique position: we are the one national organization winning a full range of structural reforms necessary to free the voter from the chains of America’s 18th century electoral laws. We turn every gift into innovative thinking, strategic advocacy and one more step toward a democracy that can meet today’s challenges.

Allow me to be as bold as FairVote’s mission: please consider a donation to FairVote this year, as we move to the next level of reform impact. I firmly believe that our time is not coming. It is here. And we need your help.

It’s hard to convey all the successes of our dedicated staff. Rob Richie’s report is a good start. Perusing fairvote.org is even better. But I wish you could have joined me for our Claim Democracy conference and intensive training session with advocates of instant runoff voting and proportional voting from across the nation. Our board meetings sparkle with ideas. You would feel the energy – and see how much change flows from our work.

I wanted to give special thanks to those of you who filled the hall for our 15th Anniversary dinner. The staff surprised me with a tribute, and being there with family and so many FairVote allies made for a moving evening. Fellow board members Krist Novoselic, Eddie Hailes and Rick Hertzberg spoke powerfully about FairVote’s remarkable progress and exciting future. Change is coming, and it is a joy to have an opportunity to be part of it.

My profound thanks and best wishes to you and your family at this special time of year.

Yours sincerely,

John B. Anderson
Chair, FairVote Board of Directors

John Anderson was the first presidential candidate whose campaign I ever worked for, and also the first I voted for. In fact, I was the Garden Grove Area Petition Coordinator, helping him get on the ballot in California in 1980. I wish I had a photo of the old red Cougar I was driving back then and dubbed The Andersonmobile for the multiple (and also red) Anderson stickers affixed to it. I even briefly participated in a movement to draft him as the Reform Party nominee in 2000, but it was clear that Anderson was not interested and the Reform Party wasn’t worthy of either word in its name. ((Let me make clear that the faction–groupuscule would be more like it–that I was loosely involved with had no connection to the eventual Reform nominee, Pat Buchanan. Many of its members were, in addition to Anderson, also interested in drafting John McCain, but most eventually turned to Ralph Nader.))

I had the pleasure of meeting him for coffee about six years ago (when he was in San Diego with the World Federalist Movement). That makes him one of three presidential candidates I ever have had the opportunity to meet personally (the others being Ralph Nader and Bill Richardson). Anderson’s commitment to reform impressed me in 1980–when I supported him as much for his energy-saving gas-tax increase as for anything else. He still impresses me today, especially for his role with Fairvote.
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Popularity of Congress and the need for a new party?

Following up on a couple of interesting posts at the ever-interesting PoliBlog…

Steven refers to a piece by Mark Tapscott, who suggests that it is time for a new party, on account of what is being reported as the “10-year low popularity of the US Congress,”* just months after Democrats took control of the institution.

There is thus a growing perception of Washington as a Tweedle-dee/Tweedle-dum kind of place in which the two political parties are merely two sides of the same coin.

This is the single most significant fact about the political landscape – a growing public disgust with both major political parties.

As Steven notes, the single-seat districts (SSDs) under first-past-the-post (FPTP) by which the US congress is elected makes the emergence of new parties difficult. He mentions both the interparty dimension (the high barrier to entry for a new party created by the need to win a substantial share of the vote in order to gain any significant representation) and the intraparty dimension (the ability of individual legislators to cater to their districts with pork and services distinct from the national party identity).

Really, two-partism is over-determined in the US. It’s not just FPTP. After all, most FPTP systems, such as the UK and Canada, have far more important parties other than the top two. It’s also presidentialism, yet most presidential systems, too, have more than two major parties. Also the use of primary elections and the electoral college–both of which are unique to the USA and either raise the barriers to new parties (the interparty dimension) or increase the opportunities for local tailoring of legislative campaigns (the intraparty dimension).

My response to such arguments about the unlikelihood of new parties absent institutional reform is always as follows:

I can’t name one case in which major change away from single-seat districts to a more representative and democratic electoral system ever occurred without the rise of new parties first.

So, my advice to people who feel it is time for a new party is simple: Find one and participate in and vote for it.

Since 1990, third-party voting in congress is at the highest it’s been in the post-WWII era (see graphs). Make it higher.

On the Tweedle-dee/-dum question, Steven notes that it sounds a bit old-fashioned nowadays:

Ironically, one could argue that with the re-alignment of Southern conservatives in the 1990s from the Democratic to the Republican Party that the two parties are more distinct now than they were ten to twenty years ago.

That certainly is fundamentally right. The centers of gravity of the two parties are further apart than ever, due to greater internal discipline and homogeneity In turn that’s a result of increasing geographic segregation of the parties’ electorates and the impact that has in a single-seat district system. But I doubt the full range of represented views is any greater than in the past. In fact, we would not expect it to be if the major change in the party system is simply the movement of one block of interests (“southern conservatives”) from one party to the other.

Even more to the point, I suspect that that actual range of views represented in the US Congress it is actually narrower–largely as a result of the ever-increasing need for corporate money–once you discount the few who speak up for relatively radical viewpoints from the safety of their own uncompetitive districts (Tancredo, Kucinich, etc.).

On the general subject of congressional approval (the subject of the other PoliBlog post I alluded to), it seems to me that these numbers need to be situated in the context of a major change that has taken place in the last decade (-plus).

Before Newt Gingrich became the closest thing the USA has ever seen (by far!) to a “co-habiting” prime minister, the Speakership and the Congress-as-an-institution that the Speaker heads never had a position within our political system of significant national and partisan profile.

I continue to ask myself: how long can we sustain this new combination of increasingly partisan, nationalized congressional elections with a constitutional structure designed for non-responsiveness to the democratic (small-d) will and more suited for nonpartisan, localized congressional elections?

And, yes, to articulate demands that are currently either not represented at the national level or are bargained away at the elite level, generating frustration and low public approval of our democratic institutions, we do indeed need new parties. And institutional reform. But we’ll need new parties to arise in the current system before we get democratic institutional reform.

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* No discussion of this story would be complete without a link to Charles Franklin’s analysis of the trend.

Arnold and the post-partisan blues

As the quote from Droop at the top of the left sidebar says, most voters in two-party systems are less interested in the “particular points at issue between the two parties” and much more in seeing their country or state “being honestly and wisely governed.”

Reelected in November to his second and final term as California governor, Arnold Schwarzeneger apparently “gets it.” Having run in 2003 above party (bypassing the regular nomination process because the special election concurrent with the recall did not have a primary) and elected by a cross-party electoral coalition, Arnold tried to use his popularity to push through key pieces of the Republican agenda in a special election in 2005. The gambit failed badly, so Arnold reinvented himself again as the “post-partisan” governor. Some of his second-term agenda seems almost Democrat, and some of it even Green, while he maintains broadly popular “conservative” Republican principles on other policies.

In an era when the percentage of independent voters in the state has risen from 9% in 1990 to 19% now, the percentage of independent or third-party members of our state and national legislative bodies has remained barely above zero.

California is not alone in the trend. As noted in the LA Times, a study by Rhodes Cook based on data from 27 US states shows only 75% of voters registered with one of the two mainstream parties (down from82% in 1994). That means a quarter of the electorate in this sample of states–not all states register voters by party–is now independent or other party. Most independents are moderate, non-ideological voters disgusted with the polarization of the main parties on many issues. Many “other” party registrants hold views that are from beyond the mainstream, or even of fringe ideologies, yet–as I noted in the previous two plantings on these topics–even these parties and their voters may have practical solutions for honestly and wisely governing their country or state that would be valuable contributions to the debate.

Now, continuing with the Droop quote:

if this moderate non-partisan section of the electors had their separate representatives in the assembly, they would be able to mediate between the opposing parties and prevent the one party from pushing their advantage too far, and the other from prolonging a factious opposition. 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.

Of course, this danger of uncontrolled power to the former “outs” under majority voting is precisely the risk faced nationally with a change of power in Congress: will Democrats exceed the mandate they obtained from moderate voters who swung their way? And it is also the risk faced by moderate California voters, as the successor to Arnold Schwarzenegger may be another “party hack” in the mold of Davis or Angelides.

Who speaks for the moderate, non-partisan (and multi-partisan) electorate? Hardly anyone, given the lack of representatives speaking for this section of the electorate, and only episodically does a “post-partisan” executive come along to articulate the frustrations of what elsewhere I have called “the radical middle” that is frustrated with the lack of practical solutions offered by the two big parties.

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Related post:

Searching for the center: A citizens assembly for California? (7 February 2006)

From Beyond the Mainstream to views shared by the majority?

Is it a contradiction that some ideas could be “beyond the mainstream” yet shared by a majority of the public? It may seem so, but political reality is a good deal more complex than that, for at least two reasons.

First, what is “mainstream” in terms of accepted political debate within and in the context of election campaigns for our “representative” institutions may be much narrower than the real range of ideas shared within the electorate. That was the essence of the point I was making yesterday about the narrowness of political debate offered by realistic candidates for the US presidency. And, as I noted, the range of options offered to voters in legislative elections is narrower still, even if most views are in fact represented by “the chance opinions of individual members” in districts where it is “safe” to articulate what the rest of the body politic considers beyond-the-mainstream views (quote from Droop).

The second reason that it may not be contradictory that some views might be from beyond the mainstream of regular discourse and yet held by a majority is that the public is generally not highly ideological. Some ideas that are not well represented by the established political parties may, in fact, be quite popular and practical. The key is getting them aired and then represented in the legislature, thereby broadening the debate and facilitating the adoption of practical solutions that might otherwise be easily dismissed as “fringe.”

The context of this planting is a comment given over at PoliBlog to a previous comment of mine. My comment was essentially a rough draft of yesterday’s planting on From Beyond the Mainstream. The follow-up comment claimed that I was wrong to characterize Tom Tancredo’s views on immigration as beyond the mainstream because, according to the commentator, “Tancredo’s views on illegal immigration are … shared by 75% or so of the country.”

Now, I am no expert on public opinion on immigration, or on immigration policy. And my intention is not to debate with someone who runs a blog called The Lonewacko Blog whether his own or Tancredo’s views are beyond the mainstream. However, I would argue that on this issue, as on many others, our immigration policy would be something more sustainable than the mess it currently is if the legislature were elected with some form of proportional representation.

Under PR, the broader spectrum of views among the electorate on the issue would be represented, and the balance of that representation in congress would shift with shifting public opinion as to which issues are most important and what proposed solutions to them are most resonating with the electorate. Rather than festering because the narrow range of mainstream interests is deadlocked on the issue or prefers not even to open it up for long periods of time, the agenda would be more open and the proposals more diverse.

Personally, I abhor the views of someone like Tancredo. But I would welcome a political party articulating his views having a block of seats in congress that would shift in size depending on the size of the electorate that chose to endorse a hypothetical party led by Tancredo.

No, it is not a contradiction that views on a policy may come from beyond the fringe yet be consonant with a majority of the public: We can’t know where the median is on an issue if voters across the country do not have the opportunity to cast an effective vote for their preference among the widest feasible range of views, including those from beyond the mainstream. On that score, our current system of “representative” institutions fails us badly.