A recent entry at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog by Paasha Mahdavi (Georgetown) is a summary of the author’s really fascinating research on Iranian MP reelection rates. Mahdavi finds that MPs from more resource-rich regions are more able to secure reelection because they get credit from targeted spending in their districts.
Reelection rates in Iran are overall low: “Since 1980, less than 30 percent of politicians running again in Iranian parliamentary elections retained their seats.” However, rates vary substantially across districts.
The relationship between increased resources and reelection rates is statistically stronger in those districts that elect one MP than in those that are multi-seat districts (graph at Mahdavi’s blog entry). Mahdavi argues this is due to the stronger accountability relationship when there is only one MP.
So far so good. It is terrific to see this sort of research in any country, but especially in Iran, which of course has an authoritarian regime, yet one with regular semi-open elections (which have long fascinated me).
However, can we please get the terminology right? Mahdavi writes:
Iran’s parliament is elected by what political scientists call a “mixed-member system.” Some districts only elect one representative while others elect two or more.
The term, “mixed-member system” does not simply mean a system in which the country contains a ‘mix’ of different magnitudes, including some that are single-member. (If that were the case, there would be many more “mixed-member” systems than there in fact are, as magnitudes ranging from 1 to some higher number are pretty common.*) A mixed-member system is defined by the following two minimal criteria:
1. The entire country is divided into districts in which candidates win on their own individual votes (“nominal” election, some of us call it). These districts in practice usually are all single-seat, although that is not a defining requirement for many typologies, including mine.**
2. Every voter also resides in a multi-member district–which may be the entire country, though could be regional–in which legislators are elected via party lists (in practice, almost always proportionally).
It is these overlapping components or tiers, one individual (and usually single-seat plurality or majority) and the other party list (proportional) that make a system mixed-member. Numerous other features define sub-types (mixed-member proportional, where the list seats are allocated in a compensatory manner, vs. mixed-member majoritarian, where the two sets of seats are elected separately or “in parallel”); there may be separate votes in the two types of districts (as is usually the case) or your candidate vote might also count for the candidate’s party’s list (as in Mexico). Despite these variations, the two criteria mentioned above are required for the system to be mixed-member.
In Iran, there are no party lists (as this term is understood in the electoral systems literature). All candidates win based on their own nominal votes–that is votes cast for them personally. The system for parliament (and some other elected bodies) is probably best characterized as a form of multiple nontransferable vote (MNTV); however, unlike most such systems, I believe that there is a provision for a second round where sufficient candidates have not met some threshold of votes*** in the first round.
I read something like Mahdavi’s fascinating Monkey Cage post and have two thoughts: (1) Very cool research that I wish I had done; (2) I still have plenty of my regular work to do, because even as vast as the subfield of electoral-systems analysis has become, political scientists in other subfields still make fundamental errors about well established electoral system terminology.
* One example: the current Venezuelan system clearly meets the two criteria here for qualifying as mixed-member; several of its nominal-election districts elect more than one member.
** Finland, Peru, Spain, and Switzerland are among the districted PR systems having at least one district has a magnitude of just one seat. There have been examples of electoral systems in the past (although I can’t think of a current one) with numerous single-seat districts along with other districts that are multi-seat. There also have been many cases of mostly single-seat districts but some districts electing two or more candidates, non-prorportionally. (India in its first elections was such a case, and farther back, UK.)
*** I do not know details here. Majority? If so, how determined, given magnitude greater than one, and the possibility that not all participating voters use their full M votes (M=magnitude of the district)?