For the upcoming Israeli election, divisions on the left are not the problem

Israel’s general election has been set for 9 April. This election is both “late” and “early”. The term is four years, and this election will be more than four years after the last election (which was in March, 2015). Yet under Israel’s Basic Law provision on election dates, the date for 2019 could have been as late as November. Nonetheless, the Knesset passed a bill in late December setting the election date.

All indications, at least for now, are that the Likud and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, will remain at the head of the government following the election. Polls put Likud far ahead of the second party, which in many polls is a new entrant, Israel’s Resilience, founded by former IDF chief of staff, Benny Gantz. The real question is who will be the coalition partners. Both the governing “nationalist camp” and the opposition feature numerous parties, as usual, but also splits, including several new entrants since the election was announced.

There is often poor understanding of how Israeli politics works. To a degree, that’s understandable, as it is a complex political scene (and society). However, there is really no excuse for a major publication like The Economist getting it as wrong as it did in its 3 January edition.

The author of the piece shows a poor understanding of the dynamics of proportional representation and parliamentary government, mistakenly claiming that the center-left could win if only it were not divided into so many different parties. I want to use this claim as a foil, and illustrate why it is so mistaken.

Basically, the reason there are so many parties in Israel is two-fold: there are real socio-political divisions and there is a quite extreme proportional-representation system. Because of the high proportionality, divisions within a potential governing bloc are quite unlikely to be the reason such a bloc fails ultimately to end up in government. (Yes, there is a moderately high threshold that can cause some wasting of votes. We will come back to that.) A government needs to command the votes of one more than half the Knesset (61 of 120); no party will win a majority (none ever has), and so the process of forming a government is one of post-electoral bargaining. Whoever can get 61 votes in the Knesset (assembly) forms the government. A minority government–tolerated by some Knesset parties that don’t have a formal governing role–is theoretically possible, as it almost always is in a parliamentary democracy, but highly unlikely in Israel.

The Economist claimed that Netanyahu could be defeated if only the opposition would unite. The premise is based on two observations; they are true as far as they go, but that is not very far. First,

Under Mr Netanyahu, Likud has never received more than a quarter of the national vote. Yet it has dominated Israeli politics with the help of smaller nationalist and religious parties.

Second,

Were [opposition parties] running as one they would probably gather 40% of the vote, overtaking Likud.

The idea of a united center-left overtaking Likud is plausible, although 40% could be a stretch. Based on the aggregation of recent polls, all the opposition parties, not including Yisrael Beiteinu and the Joint List, come to an estimated 45.5 seats, which would be about 38%. So if all those parties formed one alliance list, they might get close to 40%. Moreover, is not out of the question that Yisrael Beiteinu (YB), which left the government in November, could join a center-left coalition. Even if they get to 40%, however, getting to the 61 seats needed for a majority remains a stretch. For one thing, it is virtually impossible to construct coalition scenarios around the Joint List being in. (The reasons why would be a topic for another thread; the short version is they would not accept if invited to join a governing coalition, which they won’t be.)

The problem is that this 38% or 40% might still not be enough, absent either a polling shift (or substantial error) in their favor or the defection of some party from the current bloc of governing parties, other than YB. If the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) parties joined them in government, that would be another 11.7 seats on the current polling estimate. So if we take the current opposition (minus Joint List), and add in YB and the two Haredi parties, we are at 45.5 + 4.5 + 11.7. Look, we made it to 61.7! A very bare majority, if the polls are spot-on. But not so fast.

While the Haredi parties have governed with left parties before, the broad center-left alliance the Economist is imagining includes at least one party that would be highly unlikely to go into government with the Haredi parties. Yesh Atid, currently polling at 12.7 seats, has as one of its core reasons for being the diminution of ultra-orthodox religious privileges in society; it successfully kept the Haredi parties out of government when it joined a coalition after the 2013 election. It is hard to imagine it agreeing to sit in a government with the Haredi parties (and vice versa). In fact, one of the reasons for the election being called when it was is that the government–again–failed to resolve the Haredi military draft issue, as required by the Supreme Court. It would not be any easier for a center-left-religious coalition to handle. Such a coalition could also be a problem for Meretz, which is a highly secular, left-wing party. YB, which gets most of its votes from the Russian community, is also closer to Yesh Atid on these issues, because of the official rabbinate’s rejection of many Russian immigrants’ Jewish status, although it has sat in nationalist-religious coalitions before, obviously.

Thus we see here already a reason why the Economist’s explanation for why the left won’t unite into a single alliance–“But none of the party leaders is prepared to serve as number two”–is insufficient. The opposition contains not only differences over who should be its leader, but also real divisions over what should be the course of action of the next government. A lot of the divisions may be personalities, but by no means all of them.

Nonetheless, let’s take the claim at face value. Let’s assume that there is an opposition alliance that, upon uniting, somehow not only does not lose any substantial share of its current voters because of pre-election compromises it has to make, but also is able to attract some voters from the right. It ends up with 48 seats (40%), while Likud has only 30 (25%). Is the most likely government–even with such a board alternative pre-electoral coalition able to start bargaining with the other parties–still one led by Likud? Yes, probably.

While it seems somewhat implausible that a pre-election alliance with 40% would be kept out of power if it was really 15 percentage points ahead of the largest list on the other side, any scenarios that have the center-left forming the next government have to get over the parliamentary arithmetic and real political issues mentioned already before they should be taken seriously.

Moreover, it is not as if the divisions on one side are occurring in a vacuum in which the other side does not exist or know what is happening. If, somehow, the center-left united and was polling at 40%, the right surely would respond with alliance-making of its own. While the various personalities in the smaller right-wing parties and in Likud clearly have a fair amount of contempt for one another, they arguably have fewer unbridgeable policy divisions than the center-left. In other words, if they were faced by a genuine threat of a united center-left, they’d almost certainly construct a more united right. We have seen it before: Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu put together a pre-election alliance in 2013, in part out of concern that Yesh Atid might surpass Likud in seats. While there is no procedural advantage to the largest party or list (just ask Tzipi Livni about the 2009 result), there is nonetheless political value in being first, or at least in not too far behind. Already, there are rumors that Likud and current center-right partner Kulanu may be negotiating a joint slate. (On current polling, that would combine for 34.3 seats, or just under 30%.)

Nonetheless, the bottom line is that, regardless of which list gets the most votes and seats, the government will be the one that can assemble a coalition consisting of at least 61 seats. And the simple fact is that advantage in votes falls to the broad right, not the left. There is no sense in which the divisions on the left are preventing it from winning. This is a proportional system, and so divisions are not costing any potential bloc seats, as they would in a majoritarian system.

But, hold on, what about that threshold? Is it possible that the left could deprive itself of seats because some of its parties fall below the threshold? If that happens, then it does indeed waste votes and potentially displace some seats to the right. So, yes, it is possible. The threshold is 3.25%, and at least one party on the center-left is below that (Livni’s HaTenua). However, Livni clearly is going to take part in some new alliance, now that she has been booted in an especially insulting fashion out of the Zionist Union that she formed with Labor before the 2015 election. Besides, this was not a claim the Economist piece made; it does not even mention the threshold.

One new party that has entered, Gesher (headed by current MK and YB-defector Orly Levy-Abekasis) is perilously close to the threshold. However, it is rather likely it will end up joining some pre-electoral bloc. There is also the newly registered party, Telem, of former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who has declared he will not sit in a coalition with Netanyahu. Lists, including any alliances, need not be finalized till late February. (And, yes, this will be a general election in more ways than one.)

Moreover, it is not only the left that has to worry about the threshold. Netanyahu was sufficiently worried to propose lowering the threshold before the election. This was after the Knesset had passed the bill to set the election and “disperse” itself, but before the split in one of his current nationalist governing partners, Bayit Yehudi. The effort on the threshold failed, but it shows that it is not just the opposition that has divisions that could cost it.

The remnant of Bayit Yehudi is currently below the threshold. With 2.8 seats, it is about 1.2 short (the 3.25% threshold means usually the minimum size of a party in the Knesset will be 4 seats). It will probably align with one or more other very minor ultranationalist parties, but even in such an alliance, it could still be left out.

The defectors from Bayit Yehudi, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, have formed a party to be called New Right. It is currently on 8.8 seats. It will seek to cement the Judea & Samaria settler vote and others opposed to any territorial concessions (helped by recruiting Caroline Glick to the list); it will remain a natural partner for Likud even as it seeks to differentiate itself both from Likud and from Bayit Yehudi. Yet even without the remnant of Bait Yehudi passing the threshold, the current coalition partners are at about 59 seats. So now we are up against one other critical fact of the Israeli party system: there are various parties on the center-left that would be willing to join a Likud-led government. In fact, of all the parties on the center-left (not counting the Joint List, which will not be in any government), the only one I am sure would not join Likud is Meretz, and if we take Ya’alon at his word, whatever list he is on won’t back Netanyahu. (As mentioned before, it is also hard to see Yesh Atid in a government with the Haredi parties, but the party has been in a Likud-led coalition before.)

It just very hard to see a realistic scenario for a non-Likud government, absent a major shift in public preferences. Note that I have not even mentioned yet the legal troubles facing Netanyahu. Could that lead to a shift towards the center-left? Maybe. But don’t count on it. More likely, were the PM to be faced with charges before the election, he’d lose some votes to New Right. In fact, that could even be one of the reasons Bennett and Shaked made their move: their new party and its emerging platform could appeal broadly on the right in a way that the hardline orthodox religious (but not Haredi) components of Bayit Yehudi never would have.

To summarize, divisions on the left (or right) will not keep a camp from winning its full seat potential. Yes, if a party needed for the bloc to form a coalition majority falls below the threshold, that could displace seats to a rival bloc. However, parties that are at serious risk of not reaching 3.25% are likely to ally with other parties. It does not matter if the entire center-left unites; it still has less support in the public than the nationalist camp, and thus the latter would remain in stronger position to form a government. Moreover, it is not even clear that a united center-left would gain more votes than the separate parties can win, given the real divisions they reflect. To some degree this is true on the right, too (see the 2013 Likud Beitenu case), but the right is more cohesive as a potential (and current) government. Things could change between now and the election, but I would not count on it. Scenarios in which the current opposition will be the next government need a more credible story in their favor than just that the opposition needs to be more united.

New Zealand to have referendum questions on 2020 ballot, potentially including “tweaks” to MMP

Earlier in December, the Justice Minister of New Zealand, Andrew Little (Labour) announced that there would be a binding referendum on recreational cannabis use concurrent with the 2020 general election. There may also be a question on euthanasia, and–of core interest to this blog–electoral reform.

Earlier, Little had said:

It has been floating around that if we’re going to do a bunch of referenda, why wouldn’t we put this question about whether we want to make those final tweaks to MMP, reduce that 5 per cent threshold to 4 per cent, get rid of the one-seat coat-tailing provision.

These proposals were part of the Electoral Commission’s MMP Review, but the government at the time (National-led) did not act on them.

The multiparty nature of the New Zealand political system that MMP has institutionalized is apparent in these issues being on the table. Having a referendum on cannabis use was a provision of the confidence and supply agreement that Labour signed with the Green Party after the 2017 election. In addition, Labour’s other current governing partner, New Zealand First, has indicated support for a bill on euthanasia sponsored by the leader of ACT, another of the smaller parties (a right-wing partner to opposition National).

Both provisions that the MMP Review recommended changing have had past impacts on current parties. The ACT has depended for its representation in parliament on the so-called coat-tailing provision (a term I do not like for the alternative threshold) in several elections. The New Zealand First once was left out of parliament for having a vote share between 3.5% and 5%, despite other parties (including ACT) being represented, due to winning a single district (electorate) plurality. (Obviously, 4% would not have helped NZF in 2008, as it had only 3.65%. But the point is that the current provisions produce potential anomalies; I have suggested before that the two thresholds should be brought closer to one another.)

Also of note: Little said that the cabinet had discussed, but decided against, having a citizen’s assembly to deliberate issues related to cannabis (and perhaps also euthanasia).

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.

BC: Sticking with FPTP

I thought it would at least be close. It was not.

61.3% of voters in British Columbia voted to keep the FPTP system.

In the (now moot) second ballot question, MMP was favored over the other options, on 41.2%, with DMP a (surprising?) second on 29.5% and RUP on 29.3%. A total of 831,760 votes were cast in the second question, versus 1,380,753 in the main question. So fully 40% of voters did not answer the “what if” question.

The second question permitted a ranking of choices on the three alternatives. In the redistribution of preferences, MMP won with 63.05% (of 779,698 votes).

In 2009, I wrote a post entitled “BC: FPTP forever?” And then the question of change came up again a mere nine years later. But this is a pretty decisive defeat. I know forever is a long time. But it seems unlikely for proportional representation to get another chance anytime soon.

The gaming of Mexico’s PR disparity cap

One distinctive feature of Mexico’s 500-seat Chamber of Deputies’ mixed-member majoritarian system – under which 300 members are chosen by plurality voting in as many congressional districts, while the remaining 200 seats are filled by party-list proportional representation (initially determined on a nationwide basis) – is a provision which caps party representation at a maximum of eight percentage points above its national proportion of votes cast for parties entitled to participate in the distribution of PR mandates (in addition, no party may have a total number of Chamber seats in excess of 300 mandates). However, in recent years some parties running in electoral coalitions have successfully gamed the system to circumvent the limits imposed by this provision, effectively diluting its intended compensatory effects.

The eight percent disparity cap is implemented by determining the maximum number of Chamber seats each party may obtain; if a party exceeds this amount, its PR seat allocation is reduced so that its total number of plurality and list seats is equal to the capped seat total. For example, in the 1997 legislative election – generally regarded as Mexico’s first truly free and fair vote – the then-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) won 38% of the total vote and 39.98% of the “effective national vote” (“votación nacional efectiva” in Spanish), that is the total number of votes cast for parties entitled to take part in the allocation of PR seats. Therefore, PRI could obtain at most 47.98% (39.98% plus 8%) of the Chamber’s 500 seats, or 239 seats, disregarding fractions. Since PRI had won 165 of 300 plurality mandates in the election, and had been initially assigned 80 PR seats, for a total of 245 seats – six above the capped total – the party’s list mandates were reduced to 74 seats (239 minus 165); the remaining 126 PR mandates were then distributed among the other four qualifying parties.

Prior to 2008, Mexican voters could choose either a party running alone or a coalition, but not a specific party running within a coalition. Therefore, coalitions were treated as parties when it came to allocating Chamber seats and determining the eight percent cap. However, a 2008 electoral reform allowed voters to choose parties running as part of a coalition, and at the same time limited coalitions to plurality elections only. Since then, the distribution of Chamber PR seats has been carried out entirely on an individual party basis, even though coalitions have often continued to determine the outcome of plurality races; most importantly, the allocation of plurality seats among coalition partners has been determined on the basis of officially registered coalition agreements (“convenios de coalición” in Spanish). In due course, larger parties running in coalition with smaller allies discovered they could game the cited provision by assigning plurality seats in the coalition agreement to their junior partners, while these in turn nominated candidates who were actually members of the larger party. In this manner, the larger party artificially reduced its total number of seats, thus making it less likely that it would hit the eight percent cap during the allocation of PR list mandates.

Before 2018, PRI and its ally the Ecologist Green Party of Mexico (PVEM) gamed the system in the manner described, but the scope of their scheme was comparatively limited, not least because PVEM didn’t have a particularly large number of Chamber plurality seats to begin with. Moreover, in 2015 Mexico’s Federal Judiciary Electoral Tribunal (TEPJF) ruled that parties could nominate candidates from a different political party, provided the parties had a coalition agreement. On the other hand, the stratagem pursued in 2018 by the “Juntos Haremos Historia” (JHH; “Together We’ll Make History”) coalition of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), the Workers’ Party (PT) and the Social Encounter Party (PES) was anything but limited. For the Chamber of Deputies, the three parties ran together in 292 of Mexico’s 300 congressional districts, but in the coalition agreement 142 nominations were assigned to MORENA, and 75 each to PT and PES.

To be certain, it is not unusual for smaller parties like PT and PES to have a disproportionate share of single-member nominations in mixed-member majoritarian systems which allow party coalitions: in a nutshell, larger parties often bow to smaller parties’ demands, outrageous as they may be, if that is what it takes to avoid the risk of losing elections. That said, giving away half the Chamber’s single-member seat nominations to a couple of very small parties came across as both extreme and highly suspicious, all the more so considering that for the Mexican Senate plurality races, JHH nominated 49 candidates from MORENA, but only eight from PES and five from PT. However, unlike in the Chamber of Deputies, there is no eight percent cap in place for the distribution of Senate PR seats, and therefore MORENA gained nothing from giving away upper house plurality nominations to its much smaller allies.

JHH went on to score a landslide victory in the general election last July, securing an absolute majority for its presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (better known by his initials AMLO), as well as a sizable plurality in the legislative election. In the Chamber of Deputies, final results show JHH won 220 of 300 plurality seats (including eight mandates won by MORENA running alone), with the following results for its constituent parties:

Party % (Votes) Seats % (Seats)
MORENA 37.2 106 35.3
PT 3.9 58 19.3
PES 2.4 56 18.7
JHH Total 43.5 220 73.3

The sole beneficiaries of the victorious coalition’s over-representation in the plurality component were PT and PES, as MORENA ended up slightly under-represented. Again, while it is not unusual for smaller parties within larger coalitions in mixed-member majoritarian systems to have a share of seats in excess of their percentage of the vote (even without considering the PR component), this was nonetheless a truly extreme outcome. By comparison, the Senate election had a more typical plurality outcome, as shown below:

Party % (Votes) Seats % (Seats)
MORENA 37.4 42 43.8
PT 3.8 5 5.2
PES 2.3 8 8.3
JHH Total 43.6 55 57.3

(JHH’s smaller majority of upper house plurality seats was due to the fact that unlike in the Chamber of Deputies, Senate plurality mandates are allocated on the basis of two seats for the winning ticket and one for the first runner-up in each one of Mexico’s thirty-two federal entities).

For the distribution of Chamber PR seats, MORENA received 41.34% of the effective vote, so it could have no more than 49.34% of the 500 Chamber seats, which translated to 246 seats. However, after the initial allocation of PR mandates MORENA had a total of 188 seats (106 plurality and 82 list), well below its corresponding maximum seat total. On the other hand, PT, with 4.36% of the effective vote, would have been entitled to nine list seats, but unexpectedly exceeded its 12.36% cap, or 61 seats due to the party’s large number of plurality victories; PES fell below the three percent valid vote minimum required to take part in the distribution of PR seats. Consequently, PT’s list seat total was reduced to three mandates, and the remaining 197 PR seats were distributed among the other six qualifying parties. In all, JHH won 308 of 500 Chamber seats, as detailed below:

Party FPTP PR Total % (Total)
MORENA 106 85 191 38.2
PT 58 3 61 12.2
PES 56 0 56 11.2
JHH Total 220 88 308 61.6

Mexico’s National Electoral Institute’s General Council Agreement INE/CG1181/2018 [PDF] details the official distribution of Chamber of Deputies PR list mandates in Mexico’s 2018 federal election, while Federal Elections in Mexico has nationwide- and federal entity-level results of elections in Mexico since 1997.

Although the eight percent cap deprived PT of just six seats, this left several of its leaders without a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, and the party went to court to have the result overturned. To that end, PT actually admitted some of its successful plurality candidates weren’t really party members after all, and sought a judicial review of JHH’s officially registered coalition agreement. However, the court rejected what it correctly perceived as a transparent attempt by PT to re-structure the previously agreed distribution of Chamber plurality nominations, in order to bypass the eight percent cap and increase its number of list mandates. In essence, TEPJF ruled JHH’s coalition agreement was a done deal which could no longer be altered after the election had been carried out with the agreement in place, and for good measure reaffirmed its earlier 2015 ruling that parties could nominate candidates from a different political party, provided the parties had a coalition agreement.

Just as important, TEPJF ruled that under the prevailing legal and constitutional arrangements, it was not possible to consider JHH’s coalition performance as if it were a single party for the purposes of determining over-representation, as it would run counter to the requirement such determination must be carried out on an individual party basis. Had Chamber seats been allocated among coalitions (and had all three major coalitions been in place in every congressional district, as was the case with the presidential election), JHH’s seat total would have been limited to 269 mandates – a significantly reduced yet nonetheless substantial majority.

TEPJF also confirmed that PT exceeded the eight percent cap by six seats (because 12.36% of 500 seats equals 61.8 seats, it was argued the party went above the cap by 5.2 seats (67 minus 61.8), which should have rounded down to five seats; however, this argument was rejected on the grounds that with 62 seats of 500 – 12.4% of the total – PT would have had a disparity gap of 8.04%, a figure just above the eight percent maximum).  The court ruled as well that JHH’s plurality victories could not be assigned to MORENA on account of the fact that the party contributed the vast majority of votes to that end.

(MORENA outpolled both PT and PES in every congressional district, and even if the party had run alone it would have secured a large majority of plurality seats, while PT and PES would have won none. However, in such hypothetical scenarios – which assume an identical distribution of votes among the parties contesting the 2018 federal election – MORENA’s Chamber of Deputies seat total would have been limited to 246 mandates by the eight percent cap, while PT would have received no more than 13 list mandates and PES would have had no seats, leaving MORENA and PT with a relatively slender joint majority in the Chamber.)

Nevertheless, TEPJF’s rulings on some of these controversies were not unanimous. Judge Felipe de la Mata Pizaña wrote a concurring opinion calling for the current implementation of the eight percent cap provision to be reconsidered for future elections, while Judge Reyes Rodríguez Mondragón issued an extensive dissenting opinion, in which he argued that the actual party affiliation of plurality winners should be taken into account for determining the eight percent cap during the distribution of PR seats. Notably, the dissent cites a number of political science scholarly sources, including both the Spanish-language edition of “Presidents and the Party System” (edited by S. Mainwaring and M.S. Shugart) and “Seats and Votes” by R. Taagepera and M.S. Shugart, even carrying out the calculations to determine the effective number of parties index for Mexico.

(For further information, please refer to TEPJF’s rulings on SUP-JDC-0429-2018; SUP-JDC-0438-2018SUP-JDC-0444-2018SUP-REC-0934-2018; and SUP-REC-0943-2018 [PDF].)

However, beyond the practical difficulties entailed by implementing this approach, it is not clear that it would have resulted in a significantly different distribution of seats. After Mexico’s newly elected legislators were sworn in just over three months ago, a large number of JHH’s 220 plurality deputies ostensibly elected as members of PT or PES joined MORENA’s parliamentary group, as shown below:

Party Elected Group Gain/Loss
MORENA 106 162 +56
PT 58 28 -30
PES 56 30 -26

Had the eight percent cap been calculated on the basis of parliamentary group affiliation figures, the initial distribution of PR list seats, which as previously noted granted nine mandates to PT and 82 to MORENA would have been definitive, as neither party would have reached its eight percent-capped seat total. Moreover – and quite ironically – JHH would have obtained an even larger Chamber majority of 311 seats (of which 244 seats would have gone to MORENA, 37 to PT and 30 to PES).

In conclusion, while PT and PES contributed very little in terms of votes to JHH’s sweeping victory in the 2018 federal election, the gaming of the eight percent disparity cap through the assignment of a disproportionately large number of plurality nominations to these parties allowed the coalition to obtain a much larger majority in the Chamber of Deputies than it could have otherwise attained. Even so, the triumphant coalition parties overplayed their hand, and the stratagem backfired on PT; this in turn led to a public disclosure of the scheme’s existence (already highly suspected, not least because it was largely absent in the Senate election, which has no disparity cap provisions), as part of an unsuccessful effort to have the unexpected adverse outcome reversed in court.

Even though a majority of Mexico’s Federal Judiciary Electoral Tribunal justices have reaffirmed the validity of electoral provisions which allow outcomes like these, it seems an obvious flaw in the design of the system that parties can run in alliances, but the caps on over-representation are calculated at the individual party level, as pointed out by Dr. Matthew Shugart himself on this blog shortly after the 2018 federal election took place. Moreover, the gaming of the eight percent disparity cap in the 2018 federal election effectively altered the nature of the Chamber of Deputies electoral system, causing it to function almost like a parallel system, in which the outcome of plurality races had very little impact in the distribution of party list seats. That may not appear to be cause for excessive concern in the here and now, given that JHH would have in all likelihood secured a majority of Chamber seats even if the coalition hadn’t gamed the eight percent disparity cap, but the issue could have wider ramifications with unpredictable consequences in the years to come. 

Is AV just FPTP on steroids?

In debates over electoral systems in Canada, one often hears, from otherwise pro-reform people, that a shift to the alternative vote would be worse than the status quo. It is easy to understand why this view might be held. The alternative vote (AV), also known as instant runoff (IRV), keeps the single-seat districts of a system like Canada’s current first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, but replaces the plurality election rule in each district with a ranked-ballot and a counting procedure aimed at producing a majority winner. (Plurality winners are still possible if, unlike in Australia, ranking all candidates is not mandatory. The point is that pluralities of first or sole-preference votes are not sufficient.)

Of course, the claim that AV would be FPTP on steroids implies that, were Canada to switch to AV, the current tendency towards inflated majorities for a party favored by less than half the voters would be even more intensified. This is plausible, inasmuch as AV should favor a center-positioned party. A noteworthy feature of the Canadian party system is the dominance, most of the time, by a centrist party. This is unusual in comparison with most other FPTP systems, notably the UK (I highly recommend Richard Johnston’s fascinating book on the topic). The party in question, the Liberal Party, would pick up many second preferences, mainly from the leftist New Democratic Party (NDP) and so, according to the “steroids” thesis, it would thus win many more seats than it does now. It might even become a “permanent majority”, able to win a parliamentary majority even if it is second in (first-preference) votes to the Conservatives (who thus win the majority or at least plurality of seats under FPTP). The “steroids” claim further implies that the NDP would win many fewer seats, and thus Canada would end up with more of a two-party system rather than the multiparty system it has under FPTP.

There is a strong plausibility to this claim. We can look to the UK, where AV was considered in a referendum. Simulations at the time showed that the Liberal Democrats would stand to benefit rather nicely from a change to AV. While the LibDems are a third party, heavily punished by the FPTP electoral system even when they have had 20% or so of the votes, what they have in common with the Canadian Liberals is their centrist placement. Thus, perhaps we have an iron law of AV: the centrist party gains in seats, whether or not it is already one of the two largest parties. An important caveat applies here: with the LibDems having fallen in support since their coalition with the Conservatives (2010-15), the assumptions they would gain from AV probably no longer apply.

On the other hand, we have the case of the Australian House of Representatives, which is elected by AV. There, a two-party system is even stronger in national politics than in the FPTP case of the UK, and far more so than in Canada. (When I say “two party” I am counting the Coalition as a party because it mostly operates as such in parliament and its distinct component parties seldom compete against one another in districts.)

It is not as if Australia has never had a center-positioned party. The Australian Democrats, for example, reached as high as 11.3% of the first-preference votes in 1990, but managed exactly zero seats (in what was then a 148-seat chamber). Thus being centrist is insufficient to gain from AV.

Nonetheless, the combination of centrism and largeness does imply that Canada’s Liberals would be richly rewarded by a change to AV. Or at least it seems that Justin Trudeau thought so. His campaign promised 2015 would be the last election under FPTP. While he did not say what would replace it, he’s previously said he likes a “ranked ballot” and he pulled the plug on an electoral-reform process when it was veering dangerously towards proportional representation.

Still, there are reasons to be somewhat skeptical, at least of the generalization of the Australian two-party experience. The reasons for my caution against the “steroids” view are two-fold: (1) the overlooked role of assembly size; (2) the ability of parties and voters to adapt.

Assembly size is the most important predictor of the size of the largest party, disproportionality, and the effective number of seat-winning parties in countries that use single-seat districts. (It is likely relatively less important when there are two rounds of voting, as in France, but still likely the most important factor.) This is a key conclusion of Votes from Seats. It is thus important not to overlook the fact that Australia has an assembly size considerably smaller than Canada’s. In the book, Taagepera and I show that Australia’s effective number of seat-winning parties and size of largest parliamentary party are almost what we would expect from its assembly size, even if FPTP were used. (See also this earlier post and its comment thread; how close it is to expectation depends on how we count what a “party” is.) The data are calculated over the 1949-2011 period, and the effective number of parties has been just 1.10 times the expectation from the Seat Product Model (which is based only on assembly size when single-seat districts are used). Similarly, the average largest party has been 93% of the expected size (averaging 54.2% of seats when we would expect 50.5%).

Thus we do not need to invoke the alleged steroids aspect of AV to understand the dominance of two parties in Australia. But this does not mean it would not make a difference in Canada. Consider that the current effective number of parties and size of the largest party in that country, averaged over a similar period, are also just about what we should expect. The multipartism, including periodic minority governments, that characterize Canada are not surprising, when you use the Seat Product Model (SPM). They are surprising only if you think district magnitude is all that matters, and that FPTP is FPTP. But it isn’t! An electoral system using the FPTP electoral rule with an assembly of more than 300 seats is a different, and more multiparty-favoring, electoral system than one with 150 seats. Replace “FPTP” in that sentence–both occurrences–with “AV” and it is surely still true.

But what about the centrist party, the Canadian Liberals? Surely AV would work differently in this context, and the Liberals would be a much more advantaged party. Right? Maybe. If so, then it would mean that the SPM would be overridden, at least partially, in Canada, and the largest party would be bigger than expected, for the assembly size, while the effective number of parties would be lower than expected. Of course, that’s possible! The SPM is devised for “simple” systems. AV is not simple, as we define that term. Maybe the SPM is just “lucky” that the one country to have used AV for a long time has the expected party system; or it is lucky that country has the “correct” assembly size to sustain two-party dominance. (Australia is the Lucky Country, after all, so if the SPM is going to get lucky one place, it might as well be Australia.)

This is where that other factor comes in. While no one has a crystal ball, I am going to go with the next best thing. I am going to say that the SPM is reliable enough that we can predict that, were Canada to have AV, it would have an effective number of parties around 2.6 and a largest party with around 48% of seats. In other words, just about where it has been for quite some time (adjusting for the House size having been a bit smaller in the past than it is now). Note these are averages, over many elections. Any one election might deviate–in either direction. I won’t claim that a first election using AV would not be really good for the Liberals! I am doubting that would be a new equilibrium. (Similarly, back in 2016 I said my inclination would not be to predict the effective number of parties to go down under AV.)

Parties and voters have a way of adapting to rules. Yes the Liberals are centrist, and yes the Conservatives are mostly alone on the right of the spectrum (albeit not quite as much now, heading into 2019, as in recent years). But that need not be an immutable fact of Canadian politics. Under AV, the Liberals might move leftward to attract NDP second preferences, the NDP center-ward to attract Liberal and even Conservative second preferences, the Conservatives also towards the center. It would be a different game! The Greens and other parties might be more viable in some districts than is currently the case, but also potentially less viable in others where they might win a plurality, but struggle to get lower ranked preferences. The point is, it could be fluid, and there is no reason to believe scenarios that have the largest party increasing in size (and being almost always the Liberals), and correspondingly the effective number of parties falling. With 338 or so districts, likely there would remain room for several parties, and periodic minority governments (and alternations between leading parties), just as the SPM predicts for a country with that assembly size and single-seat districts.

As I have noted before, it is the UK that is the surprising case. Its largest party tends to be far too large for that huge assembly (currently 650 seats), and its effective number of seat-winning parties is “too low”. Maybe it needs AV to realize its full potential, given that the simulations there showed the third party benefitting (at least when it was larger than it’s been in the two most recent elections).

Bottom line: I do not buy the “FPTP on steroids” characterization of AV. I can understand were it comes from, given the presence in Canada of a large centrist party. I just do not believe Liberal dominance would become entrenched. The large assembly and the diversity of the country’s politics (including its federal structure) both work against that.

I agree with electoral reformers that PR would be better for Canada than AV. I also happen to think it would be better for the Liberals! But would AV be worse than FPTP? Likely, it would not be as different as the “steroids” claim implies.

IRV-MMP

What do folks think of this idea, proposed by Mark Roth in the thread on open-list MMP?

I do not believe it is entirely necessary to have two votes; though I don’t oppose the idea. Essentially I would have IRV-MMP. An instant runoff determines which candidate wins the local seat in each district. First preferences determine who receives the at-large seats. If a voter wants the Greens, but knows that they won’t win locally, a vote 1 Greens 2 Labor has the effect of supporting a winnable local candidate and helping the Greens secure seats in general. I would allow transfers to second (or lower) ranked parties should the first choice(s) of parties not reach a threshold. I would also be inclined to allow a List Party that isn’t running a candidate to appear on the ballot anyway; probably marked to indicate that the List cannot win the local seat. The candidates who lose in their local race would be selected to fill the at-large seats based on their personal vote counts. List order would only be a tiebreaker.

Decoy lists would technically be possible, but they would stick out like a sore thumb, require voter coordination to ensure that the “right” candidate gets the vote in the district level races, and would still need to front candidates in local races to have enough warm bodies.

As I say at the other thread in a comment of my own, I like it much better than the “AV+” idea of having two votes (one ranked-choice for local candidates and the other for list).