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 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!

California statewide election vote totals

All of the offices elected statewide in California now have only two candidates in the November election, due to the “top two” runoff system. However, because the first round is no longer a primary in which various parties can pick nominees for the November ballot, the contests can feature two candidates of the same party or one or more independents instead of candidates of one or the other major party. (This is also true of district contests like US House and state legislative seats.)

Thus I thought I would exploit these features–constant number of candidates, but variable affiliations–to probe how a party’s failure to place a candidate in the top two affects voting. I am not claiming any causality or doing any subtle analysis here. Just blunt comparisons of statewide totals, which are suggestive.

Two contests, including Lt. Governor and US Senator, featured two Democrats. One featured a Democrat and a non-party candidate. One contest features two non-party candidates, because the state constitution mandates that the Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) is a non-partisan post. (This is the one office that could be decided in the June first round; it is a straightforward majority-runoff system.)

The bottom data row averages the Democratic and Republican votes across the five races that were Democrat vs. Republican. The right-most data column indicates how the votes cast compare to the governor’s race: a ratio of the vote total in a given race over votes cast for governor. Not surprisingly, governor drew the highest total.

We can see that the average Democrat won just over 5.1 million votes and the average Republican 3.1 million, in contests that had one and only one candidate of each of these two parties. Moreover, all the contests that were D:R straight fights had roughly 98% of the votes of the governor’s race.

On the other hand, if there were two Democrats, the total was under 90% of the governor total (83% for the Lt.Gov and 88.5% for the US Senate). This obviously is partly because many Republican-leaning voters simply skipped the intra-party Democratic contest. (The SPI race, where I believe both candidates were actually Democrats, has a similar ratio.) Nonetheless, that is not the entire story, as the total for the two Democrats in both these races is a lot more than the average single Democrat, at the same time as the leading Democrat did considerably worse than the average single Democrat. In other words, at the same time as Democrats split their own votes across their two candidates, clearly the candidates also picked up some Republican votes. This would be really interesting to investigate on a more granular basis.

Finally, the Insurance Commissioner race is notable. The “no party” candidate in the race is actually a Republican. In fact, he served under that party affiliation in the office before. But candidates choose, before the June first round, what party “preference” to indicate on the ballot (from the approved list), or whether to indicate no party preference. In this contest, the Democrat got far below the average for his party. It could be that there are Democratic-leaning voters who remember Poizner and think he did a good job, although he left the office in 2011, so I have some doubts. Alternatively, it could be that not running under the party label is a good strategy for a Republican in this state. He did not win, but he did get 49.0% of the votes, running around half a million votes ahead of the Republican gubernatorial candidate and around 700k ahead of the average Republican on the statewide ballot. Maybe other candidates of the weaker party in the race will hide their party label in the future, given the current electoral system makes it possible to be one of the top two without a stated party preference.

California Prop. 7: NO!!!!

One of the odder measures on the California ballot in some time (which is indeed saying something) is this year’s Proposition 7. It is a vote to confirm a bill passed by the state legislature earlier in 2018; because it repeals provisions of an earlier initiative (from 1949), it requires voter approval.

Some of the measure is technical “clean up”–for instance, the act on the books currently gives the dates of Daylight Savings Time (DST) as distinct from what is being done in practice, in conformity with federal law. For instance,

The [1949] act also requires, from 1 a.m. on the last Sunday of April, until 2 a.m. on the last Sunday of October, the standard time within the state to be one hour in advance of United States Standard Pacific Time. […]

The bill [Prop. 7] would require the advancement of this time by one hour during the daylight saving time period commencing at 2 a.m. on the 2nd Sunday of March of each year and ending at 2 a.m. on the first Sunday of November of.each year…

The March-November application of DST is what we are actually doing, as mandated by federal law (aside from Arizona and other states or portions thereof that do not use DST at all).

But then comes the part to which I strenuously object. Prop. 7:

(c) Notwithstanding subdivision(b) [concerning the current DST period], the Legislature may amend this section by a two-thirds vote to change the dates and times ofthe daylight saving time period, consistent with federal law, and, if federal law authorizes the state to provide for the year-round application of daylight saving time, the Legislature may amend this section by a two-thirds vote to provide for that application.

In other words, the objective of the sponsors of this measure is to change California, way out here on the Pacific Coast, to the equivalent of Mountain Standard Time year round. We would be on the same time zone in the winter months as Colorado and western South Dakota. It does not make a lot of sense.

For example, under the shift to so-called DST, in early January San Francisco would be looking at sunrise times of 8:25 a.m. That’s awfully late to see daylight; that’s a lot people with typical morning job or school start times out on the road in what will be only very low light at at time when most normal people’s body clocks are still barely out of sleep mode. I struggle to figure out why this is a good idea. (For the record, in Rapid City, SD, near the far eastern edge of the Mountain time zone, and much farther north, sunrise is at 7:27 MST in early January. The time zones do have some logic to them, as currently set up!)

I am old enough to remember when we were going to do DST for a full year nationwide for alleged energy savings in the 1970s. It was considered such a bad experiment that it was suspended, and we went back to standard time, well before the planned end. (Those were the days, when Congress could act quickly on a national issue.)

Really, we should go back to what it says in the original 1949 California act, which was six months on DST (more accurately “summer time”), six months off. That makes too much sense! If we have to get rid of time changes, which apparently bother some people and have some negative impacts, then stick to Pacific Standard Time all year. But this proposal to, in effect, move the state to the Mountain Standard Time zone all year is just DUMB. Please, Californians reading this, vote NO on 7!

California primaries: Myth of the ‘independents’

By JD Mussel

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

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

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

The impact of California’s electoral-system change

Many readers of this blog would be interested in a series of entries at Mischiefs of Faction on the early results of California’s electoral-system change. The entries are based on lengthier articles in a special issue of the California Journal of Politics and Policy.

From the Mischiefs of Faction summary:

top-two, passed by California voters in 2010 and operating in elections since 2012, creates a two-stage election system that replaces the usual primary-then-general system the state used to have. In the preliminary election (ostensibly a primary), voters may pick from any candidates of any party for each office, regardless of their party registration. The top two vote-getters from that election then go to a November runoff election, even if those candidates are of the same political party.

The findings, as we’ll see, are rather mixed, and what evidence we have that the top-two system has changed politics is pretty modest, at best. Yet as the studies note, it is still early; the new system may be encouraging a new type of candidate to run for office, but it’s just to soon to discern the effects of that.

California’s Prop 37: GM foods labelling

The following are some loosely organized thoughts about an initiative measure on California’s ballot, Proposition 37. The proposal is for a requirement to label foods sold in the state that contain–or potentially contain–genetically modified (GM) ingredients.

As someone who has grown organic, usually buys organic, and has some belief (which I can’t claim to be proven) of an allergy to some GM products, I would be inclined towards a yes vote. However, this is not an easy one for me, because there are numerous problems with the measure.

When I look at the list of supporters and opponents, I don’t really like those I’d be siding with if I voted no. If we look upon it as a battle of organized interests over distribution of rents, I’ll go with the organic industry over Monsanto and DuPont every time. But if we’re concerned about good government and sensible consumer-information provision, it’s an easy no.

This is a bad way to go about labelling. Prop 37 has zero tolerance for GM traces, ((Much of this paragraph is based on my reading of the proposal itself (see first link above), and some of it on a report by researchers at the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at UC Davis.)) which means the standard for commingling will be stricter for conventionally grown foods than for organic. The EU and Australia/New Zealand standards allow trace amounts, and it’s almost impossible to avoid some cross-contamination. So almost every non-organic item will bear the label, if 37 passes. What use is that? It’s better to have a standard for “GM free” (but not organic, given that organic us GM-free, within the allowed tolerance) than to label almost everything conventional as (potentially) having GMO. And, of course, there already exist third-party certifications for GMO-free, or you can buy organic. On the other hand, if you agree that our political system has been mostly deaf to calls for stricter standards–as I do–then it’s an easy yes. To me, a yes vote is more a crying out for political attention than a vote for the specific set of standards this would impose.

Fortunately, as far as I can tell. Prop 37 doesn’t have an amendment clause preventing legislative adjustment. One principle I adhere to in most propositions is vote no, whatever the seeming merits, if only a subsequent initiative can amend the proposition. Others require 2/3 votes of the legislature to amend–also bad, but not as bad. I don’t see any such clause in this one, which I think means it would be just like an ordinary statute.

I also dislike, on principle, prop 37’s clause allowing lawsuits against retailers without a “harm” standard.

Further, I dislike that dried fruits are classified as “processed” and therefore subject to labeling requirement. It won’t affect me, because I eat only organic fruits, usually grown right under my own watchful eye. But on principle, this just is non-sensical. (The “processing” designation also applies to smoking, canning, and other preparations that involve only the fruit or vegetable, which is not how I think of “processed foods” more generally.)

I will probably end up voting yes, despite my very significant reservations. It will be a political vote for me, not a policy vote. And that’s all right; as long as we have this nutty initiative process, I might as well vote to push things in a direction I favor, even if the measure is very far from perfect. If I were to learn before Tuesday that I am wrong in my belief that this could be amended by future action of the legislature, I might vote no. For sure, there will be “amendments” from the courts, but that certainly doesn’t make this initiative particularly unusual.

San Francisco to repeal ranked-choice voting?

I am passing along the following action alert, dated 15 June, from Californians for Electoral Reform:

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will, as early as June 26th, consider placing on the November ballot a charter amendment that will repeal RCV for all city-wide elections (Mayor, Sheriff, District Attorney, City Attorney, Treasurer, Assessor-Recorder, and Public Defender), replacing them with a two-round runoff. The first election will be held in September; if no candidate receives 65% or more of the vote (yes, it establishes a 65% winning threshold), the top two go on to a November runoff, seven or eight weeks after the first election. (RCV is kept for the Board of Supervisor elections.)

We need you to contact your Supervisor and tell them why you are opposed to it and ask them to vote against putting it on the ballot. We especially need people who live in District 5, Supervisor Olague’s district, to lobby her, as she may be the swing vote on this issue.

If you don’t know what district you live in, this link should help you.

Some talking points can be found at www.sfbetterelections.com

Additional things to note: San Francisco isn’t used to voting in September; turnout will be abysmally low.

Eight weeks isn’t enough time to certify the first election and get runoff ballots to military and overseas voters. (In some years, such as 2015, there will only be seven weeks between the elections.)

Every year in which we vote for Governor there will be *three* elections: the June statewide primary, the September San Francisco election, and the November general/City runoff election. Talk about voter fatigue, what about poll-worker fatigue!

Please note that the Board of Supervisors will NOT be taking public testimony at the meeting(s) where they consider this issue, as they took public testimony in yesterday’s Rules Committee hearing. Contacting your Supervisor personally is now the best way to make your voice heard. (In addition, you can write the Board, but please contact your Supervisor.)

Thanks,
–Steve Chessin
President, Californians for Electoral Reform
www.cfer.org