The US Supreme Court gerrymandering case

I do not have time to dissect the arguments before the US Supreme Court in the case concerning the permissibility of the partisan gerrymander in Wisconsin. It clearly is a case of great importance to issues we care about at this blog. So, feel free to discuss here.

I highly recommend two pieces by Michael Latner:

Sociological Gobbledygook or Scientific Standard? Why Judging Gerrymandering is Hard (4 OCt.)

Can Science (and The Supreme Court) End Partisan Gerrymandering and Save the Republic? Three Scenarios (2 Oct.)




MMP weekend: Germany and New Zealand 2017

We are entering days of convergences. Over the next two days, the Jewish and Islamic new years and the first day of Autumn coincide. Then, on the weekend, we have the convergence of elections in the two countries that offer our best examples of mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation electoral systems: Germany and New Zealand. (Lest I be accused of hemispherism, let me hasten to note that in one of those countries, the election will be the day after the start of spring.)

In the case of Germany, which votes Sunday, there really has been no doubt for some time that the CDU/CSU alliance would place first, but it will be down from its 2013 result. There is also little doubt that the two parties that missed the 5% party-vote threshold in 2013 will clear it this time: the center-right FDP and the far-right AfD. The SPD, which briefly flirted with the lead in the polls some months after changing its leadership, looks like it may struggle to break 25% of the vote. The real question is what the coalition will be, after the election results are known.

I would expect the SPD to want a period of opposition to recollect itself after what looks sure to be another disappointing result for the party. Thus it may not be willing to renew the current CDU/CSU+SPD big coalition (what we should stop calling a grand coalition; my more direct translation of the German term is more apt). If the FDP has enough seats to combine with the CDU/CSU, we might see a return to the center-right combo that governed from 2009 to 2013, as well as in many past terms. There is just enough error in the projections from polling to allow for the possibility that this could be a viable combine. (Mouse over the numbers in the table at that link for the range of vote and seat projections for each party.)

However, the most likely result seems to me to be Jamaica! I will admit to rooting for this: CDU/CSU + FDP + Green. (The name refers to the parties’ colors.)

In New Zealand, the contest for Saturday’s election is much more uncertain. For months it seemed National, which heads the current multi-party governing arrangement, was cruising to another win. Then Labour changed its leader and surged (similar to the German pattern). By a few weeks ago, the two largest parties were running neck and neck, while the Greens stumbled badly and looked at risk of failing to clear the 5% party-vote threshold. This scenario was posing a potential difficult challenge for center-left voters: Do you vote Labour to bolster its formateur status (as the largest party, although there is no formal right of first attempt to the largest in New Zealand)? Or do you vote Green to ensure there is a viable partner for Labour other than Winston Peters and his New Zealand First (NZF) party? Given that the electoral system is MMP, you can do both: vote for Labour in your district (electorate) and vote Green on the list. However, while that might be a voter’s way of making a statement of preferred coalition, only the party vote affects the overall balance of seats in parliament. (Some exceptions to that statement, as I will get to below, but none likely relevant to the Labour-Green situation discussed here.)

In recent days, some polling suggests that National might be pulling ahead again. The result could be very close, and it could be a situation in which NZF is pivotal (although that may be less likely than it seemed some weeks ago). That is, assuming NZF makes it. The party has been tending downward and is hovering near 5%, as are the Greens . Here is where the electorate (district/nominal) vote comes in. The threshold provision for a party to participate in nationwide proportional allocation is 5% of party-list votes or one electorate. (Additional MPs elected beyond the electorate candidate are what I have termed “piggyback MPs“, not to be confused with that other MMP creature, the “shadow MP“.) The Greens do not have an electorate where they are viable, but NZF does.

Peters, the NZF leader, currently holds an electorate seat, Northland, having won it in a by-election in 2015. He is the party’s candidate again for the seat. If he retains it, his party would qualify for additional list seats, even if it fell below the 5% party-vote threshold.

The other electorate contests that matter include the one in Epsom, although it is not really a contest. The seat is safe for the one Act MP, David Seymour, who is quite certain to return. It is probably not likely that the Act party vote will be sufficient to earn the party a second seat, although I saw one projection a week or so ago that suggested it was possible. Act has been a governing partner with National since 2008.

Then there is Waiariki, one of the Maori set-aside seats. (Voters who claim Maori descent can choose to vote in their special Maori electorate or in the general electorate seat in which the reside.) Te Ururoa Flavell is fighting to hold the seat, which is the only way his party will retain a presence in parliament. That is quite a change for the party, which has been a National governing partner since 2008. In the past it has won as many as five electorate seats (in 2008) and in 2014 it had sufficient party votes to win a list seat for the first time, in addition to its win in Waiariki electorate. This time, it may end up with just one seat–or zero.

One electorate we know will not matter this time is Ohariu. United Future leader Peter Dunne resigned in August, after a 33-year career as an MP. This effectively kills the party, which has been a support partner to every government, whether led by Labour or National, since 2002. Only in 2002 did the party clear the party-vote threshold, and since 2008, Dunne has been its only member.

In an interesting twist on the Ohariu story, the Greens had initially decided not to contest the seat, in order to give the Labour candidate a chance to defeat Dunne and thereby knock a National partner out of the government-formation equation. When Dunne resigned, the Greens announced a candidate for the seat. With Dunne not running, there is no scenario in which this electorate will matter for the parliamentary balance, so there was no reason for the Greens not to have “local face” on the party (even though many of its voters will split their vote and give their electorate vote to the Labour candidate anyway). Running a candidate is thus another example of what I have called green contamination.

Two MMP elections in one weekend. Now that will be something to watch!


Parties and personal-vote earning attributes in OLPR

In the forthcoming Votes from Seats, Rein Taagepera and I build on the earlier argument of Bergman, Shugart, and Watt (Electoral Studies, 2013) about incentives of political parties to “manage” the competition among their candidates under various intra-party allocation rules. The short version of the story is that parties under open-list PR should be willing to tolerate “laissez faire” competition, because no excess in the number of candidates nor imbalance in the candidates’ votes can affect the party’s ability to convert its collective vote total into a proportional share of the seats (within the limits of the district magnitude and inter-party allocation formula).

The claim about laissez faire competition under OLPR rests on the assumption that parties are only interested in seat-maximization, and not in the precise set of candidates who win. It also rests on the assumption that “party” and “list” are the same thing.

The second assumption is already relaxed in Votes from Seats, where we devote almost an entire chapter to the topic of how alliance lists work, focusing on the cases of Brazil, Chile, and Finland. In these systems (and some others) many lists contain candidates of two or more parties. In that case, the parties on the list are in direct competition with one another for a share of the seats won by the list as a whole. Thus parties would need to manage their vote–i.e., concern themselves with the distribution of votes across their candidates.

The first assumption–regarding parties’ indifference about their personnel–is not something we actually believe is true in practice. Science involves making simplifications, and we show in the book that using this simplifying assumption is quite powerful in predicting, via deductive logic, the average patterns in the preference vote shares of candidates (i.e., candidate votes divided by total list votes in a district). So, for the purposes of the book (and the earlier article), the strict assumption of indifference worked to get us a step farther down the road to understanding how electoral systems shape candidate vote shares.

In earlier drafts of the book, we worked on attempts to analyze how parties might affect the election of specific candidates, even though they lack ranking control, through nominations. We took these sections out because we were unable to come up with a deductive model of the process–a key methodological criterion around which the book is based. In the remainder of this entry, I will post and discuss two graphs that we took out of the book but that demonstrate the (still underdeveloped) idea of parties’ engaging in forms of intraparty management–even under OLPR.

The immediate reason for returning to think about this now was the recent American Political Science Association annual meeting, at which I presented a paper with Åsa von Schoultz that incorporates both the logical models of preference-vote distribution and the personal vote-earning attributes (PVEAs) of the candidates themselves. On the same panel was a fascinating paper by José Antonio Cheibub and Gisela Sin, which (among other things) analyzed the discontinuity in ratios of one candidate’s votes to the next candidate’s when they are sorted in descending order by preference votes. They find that, in Brazil, there is a tendency for these ratios to be greater at “last winner to first loser” and at “first loser to second loser” than among winners higher up or losers lower down.

A pattern like that found by Cheibub and Sin would not be found if there were not some “coordination” going on. Such coordination could be done by voters or by interest groups or others with a desire to see certain candidates elected over others. Or it could be done by parties. If by parties, it would be a form of intra-party management. For instance, parties could achieve a desired concentration of votes on the eventually elected candidates by ensuring a mix of candidates appealing to different groups of voters, or through allocating campaign resources, or some mix of these and other tactics.

One way to manage the vote would be through exploiting the party’s knowledge of the relative appeals of specific candidates or types of candidates. If the party had perfect information, it could renominate just the right number of incumbents and nominate the right number of local council members, or other politicians with popular appeal and whom the party sees as promising future legislative personnel. In other words, through nominating candidates with given PVEAs it could structure the balance of different traits and constituencies represented within its delegation.

The following data plots from Brazil and Finland point towards how such PVEA management might work.


The plots show the share of candidates at any given relative rank (list position/seats won) who have a given PVEA: incumbent assembly (national) member or local council. The local regression (lowess) curves plot the pattern, and in the case of Brazil, I also plot a lowess for the state assembly members running on the deputies list (but not the data points, because of the clutter). The incumbent MP curves for the two countries are nearly identical, with relatively few MPs losing and more near the top preference vote totals.

The local candidates’ curves also have a similar shape—rising near the bottom of the electable ranks on the list and then still rising among the top losers, before plummeting. The obvious difference is that there are a lot more locals in Finland than in Brazil. The curve for Brazilian state legislators running for federal deputy looks like a much-flattened version of the incumbent deputies’ curve.

These plots may be showing that parties are indeed managing the distribution of votes across candidates. They are doing so by whom they nominate. They probably have pretty good information about the vote-earning potential of various candidates, and they can “clear a path” for the candidates they consider sufficiently valuable by not putting too many similarly strong candidates on the list against them. Obviously, what I have shown here does not prove that point, but it is suggestive of how parties might “coordinate” on the intraparty dimension, through managing the types of candidates they select.

A possible objection is that parties could not possibly know the votes that a candidate could bring to the list. After all, these lists–especially in high magnitude districts–are so competitive! Another graph suggests it might not be so hard for parties after all, at least when nominating candidates who have run before for some office.


Do parties have good information about the votes a candidate will obtain? Evidently so. This graph compares 2002 votes of Brazilian candidates to 1998 votes, whether their 1998 campaign was as a deputy candidate or a state legislative candidate. The diagonal is the equality line; a regression is not much different from it. In other words, a candidate’s votes in the prior election are a pretty strong predictor of the candidate’s votes in the current election (at least in Brazil, 1998-2002). This is generally true for those who won their contest the previous election and those who had small vote totals. And it applies to state legislative candidates even though they are running in different-magnitude districts. (The legislators of a given state are elected in a single statewide district, just as the national deputies are elected in state districts, but the magnitudes are greater for the state legislature.)

Parties amaze sometimes at how good they are with this stuff!

Certainly, when I see things like this I realize that all the old ideas about chaotic competition in OLPR or parties lacking control just do not stand up.

So, yes, parties can tolerate laissez faire competition among the candidates on their list–provided they are interested only in maximizing the list’s seat total. And assuming that this is all they care about allows us to understand average patterns of vote distribution. A key goal is to introduce other variables–notably PVEAs–to understand how individual candidates deviate from these logically predicted (and empirically confirmed) averages. That was the point of the von Schoultz-Shugart APSA paper, focused on Finland. The next step is to try to understand PVEAs and prior vote totals as a window on how parties manage the vote, even under OLPR.

Poland’s protests–and institutions

Protests in Poland have been making international news. The object of the protests is the government’s plans to undermine the independence of the judiciary. The case illustrates several important points about how political institutions affect policy (and can have potential international repercussions). The escalation of the crisis over these plans in recent days makes the decision some months ago to lead with Poland’s 2015 elections and their aftermath in the forthcoming Votes from Seats look like a good one.

We (Rein Taagepera and I) use the case to demonstrate how seemingly small institutional details can tip outcomes in favor of a party with a strong agenda that might undermine democracy itself. (Yes, the very first example mentioned in the book is the US presidential election of 2016.)

The background is that the Polish ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS) has a majority of seats in the first chamber of the assembly (the Sejm). PiS also holds the presidency. It has a manufactured majority, despite the use of a proportional representation system. In fact, the party won only 37.6% of the votes. This would place the assembly majority on the short list of lowest vote percentages ever turned into a majority by a “proportional” electoral system. Moreover, it was a “honeymoon” election–the assembly was elected about six months after the president.

The manufactured majority was possible due to several factors. One is the use of D’Hondt divisors, which tend to boost the largest party’s overrepresentation, especially when it has a strong lead in votes over the runner up (in this case, Citizen’s Platform, with 24.1%). It is also due to the legal thresholds: 5% for a party and 8% for a pre-electoral alliance. This resulted in substantial wasted votes, particularly with the Democratic Left running as an alliance and getting 7.6% of the vote. Had it become a “party” it would have been represented, and the PiS surely would not have won a majority of seats. Or, obviously, had the alliance won just over 0.4% more votes, it would have won seats.

However, the 37.6% itself did not come in a vacuum. As noted, this was a honeymoon election: it was six months after the election of the president to a five year term. Based on a formula (purely empirical, but based on theory) in Votes from Seats, we expect an election with 10% of the presidential inter-electoral period elapsed to result in a modest boost for the newly elected president’s party. The formula (shown in an earlier post on the French 2017 elections) suggests what we can expect for the party’s assembly votes, expressed as a ratio to the president’s own votes (in the first round if a runoff system). We call that ratio the “presidential ratio” or RP. For elapsed time of 10%, we expect RP=1.13. Given that the president, Andrzej Duda, had earned 24.8% of the vote, we’d expect the party to get 39.3%. This is barely over what it actually got (37.6%). So, yes, honeymoon elections matter. (By comparison, PiS had 29.9% in the previous assembly election, in 2011.)

It was not even a sure thing that it would be the PiS that would benefit from the honeymoon boost. First it had to win the runoff, and it did so quite narrowly (51.8% to 48.4%).

So, the current crisis could have been averted, most likely, if any one of the following had been true, thereby preventing the PiS majority government:

(1) Duda had lost the runoff;

(2) The assembly election had not been scheduled so soon after the presidential;

(3) The electoral formula was some common proportional method other than D’Hondt;

(4) There was not a high threshold for alliances, or the Left had made itself into one party (or gotten just a small increase in its votes).

So, yes, institutions do matter!

And institutions may yet matter one other way to this story, and in a way relevant to a couple of my earlier co-authored books. The president has a veto that takes 3/5 to override, and Duda has indicated opposition to his own party’s proposals on the judiciary.  He may veto it. Presidents, after all, may help their parties gain power, but they are not beholden to them once in office. Under Poland’s semi-presidential system, the president and prime minister may disagree, even when from the same party. So the story may have at least one other act yet to come.

Greek constitutional and electoral reform update

Constitution Net has a valuable update on proposals for reforms to the constitution and electoral system of Greece.

Alexis Tsipras and his coalition have proposed

The possibility of direct election and the reinforcement of the competences of the President of the Republic, the proliferation of constitutional referendums, the introduction of the constructive vote of no-confidence, and steps towards the separation of the church and state.

These measures have stalled. However, electoral reform is still advancing.

The SYRIZA-ANEL coalition government did, however, submit a bill on the introduction of proportional representation in Greek election law, which was approved by the Greek parliament on 18 July 2016.

The main change appears to be the elimination of the bonus adjustment. Under the Greek constitution, the law would not take effect at the next election, but only at the one after that. Unless, that is, the government calls a referendum, a path that is apparently inconsistent with constitutional provisions.


Lebanon’s new electoral system

This is a guest post by Steven Verbanck

Lebanon finally has rewritten its electoral so that parliament can be renewed in 2018 (the sitting parliament was elected in 2009). The best explanations I’ve found so far are on Blog Baladi, Moulahazat, and Executive Magazine. Until I’ve found a translation of the text of the law itself, I have to rely on these sources.

1. Lebanon makes a major electoral system change by changing from multiple non-transferable vote (MNTV) to (open) list PR with average magnitude of 8,5 (128 seats in 15 districts, range 5 to 11).

It’s in line with a more general trend: many countries once started with MNTV but when elections become more partisan, search for ways to make the outcome less risky. One way to do this is to reduce district magnitude, with many countries ending up with M=1 (FPTP). In Lebanon the endpoint was the qada as district (law of 1960 and Doha law of 2008: 26 districts). Designing even smaller districts is too difficult given the predetermined allocation of every seat to a specific religious community.

The districting still bears the mark of majoritarian thinking: they avoided merging districts that differ too much in their religious makeup.

Introducing a proportional system makes the outcome less risky in competitive districts (51%-49% -> 3-2 instead of 5-0) but on the other hand, in districts who were until now won overwhelmingly, competition become viable (80%-20% -> 4-1 instead of 5-0)

Specifically, they have chosen single quota largest remainder as allocation mechanism between lists. The quota is also threshold and the quota is recalculated with the vote total of the lists still in the running.

2. The intraparty allocation of seats to candidates is rather complex because they combine proportionality between parties with the prefixed allocation of seats to religious communities and to sub-districts (= nada).

A voter is not restricted to candidates of his own religious community but can only give a personal vote to a candidate of his sub-district. It’s unclear to me if a voter has the option of a list vote without a personal vote for a candidate of that list.

All candidates (irrespective of their list or their religious community & sub-district) are ordered according to their personal vote share in their sub-district (not the absolute number of personal votes to balance sub-districts of different sizes).

Seats are then awarded one by one to the candidates in that order. As soon as a list is awarded all its seats, all lower candidates of that list are defeated and as soon as a religious community & sub-district is awarded all its seats, all lower candidates of that religious community & sub-district are defeated. Or put in another way: a candidate loses if enough higher placed candidates of his list have already won to fill the vacancies of that list or if enough higher placed candidates of his religious community & sub-district have already won to fill the vacancies of that religious community & sub-district.

For lower-placed candidates this can be somewhat erratic and unpredictable: you can end up defeated because your list or religious community & sub-district has already enough winners, while lower placed candidates overtake you because their list and their religious community & sub-district still have vacancies. (This will even more be the case if personal votes are concentrated on the first candidate on the list: the differences in personal votes between lower candidates then becomes less meaningful but stays relevant for the allocation.)

For the last vacancy, there can be only one winner because there is only one list left with one vacancy and only one religious community & sub-district left with one vacancy, no matter how few votes that candidate received. (Compare with Romania 2008 where the Hungarian party won the last seat, the only seat of the expatriate district for Africa & Middle-East with only 2% of the votes in that district.)

I have no idea what happens if there is no such candidate: does the seat remain empty? (Compare with Mauritius where sometimes no candidate meets the requirements for the best loser seats.) This problem, proportionality in two dimensions (rows and columns, parties and preset religious communities & sub-districts) can be solved in a better way .)

More parliamentarism in Central Asia

The Venice Commission has published an generally positive opinion on the Georgian government’s proposal for constitutional reforms. The reforms were proposed after the governing Georgian Dream party won 115 seats in the 150 member legislature in elections, slightly more than the three-quarters majority required to amend the document.

Specifically, the amendments propose repealing direct elections to the Presidency, replacing it with election by a 300-member electoral college composed of members of the national legislature and local councillors. In addition, most of the powers of the Presidency are stripped. This creates a parliamentary system, with a Prime Minister only removable through a constructive vote of no confidence.

The previously unicameral legislature will be replaced, nominally, with a bicameral legislature, comprised of a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies. However, the Senate specifically includes members elected from Abkhazia, currently under the control of a separatist government, and is only to be created after “appropriate conditions have been created throughout the territory of Georgia”. This would seem to imply that the chamber can only be created when Abkhazia returns to government control, and the Venice Commission’s report confirms that they understand its creation will be delayed.

In addition, there are changes to the electoral law. The existing mixed-member majoritarian system with a roughly even split between single-member constituencies elected using the two-round system and party-list PR with a 5% threshold will be replaced with a system of list PR only, still with a 5% threshold. While there is little elaboration, the document does specify that seats shall be allocated by the Hare quota, but instead of allocating seats by largest remainders, all remaining seats are allocated to the largest party (a method used in Greece in one of their endless electoral system changes).

The change bears some resemblance to the relatively recent amendments in Armenia. Like Georgia, a semi-presidential system with a legislature elected with a mixed-member system transitioned into a parliamentary one with a legislature elected under a list system with a bonus (though Armenia’s bonus is somewhat more elaborate, and guarantees a majority government in one form or another). While drawing broad conclusions off two examples is obviously bound to be, these two results may suggest that there is a shift away from politics centred around an all-powerful directly elected presidency, and towards more party-based politics.

A more tenuous argument along these lines could be made in relation to the electoral system. In both cases (along with Kyrgyzstan, which actually moved from single-member districts to MMM to party list), a system in which individual candidates were an important part of legislative elections (especially in the years shortly after independence) has been replaced by a system in which parties are the dominant actors. On the other hand, the pendulum has moved the other way elsewhere in the region, in Russia and the Ukraine.

The President, though endorsed by the Georgian Dream party at the 2013 election, does not appear to have been overly enthusiastic about the landslide victory. The Venice Commission did express some concerns about the power of a government with an overwhelming parliamentary majority, but that seems less likely in Georgia than in Armenia, owing to the more proportional system.