NYCRCV

Yesterday’s mayoral primary in New York City was run by ranked choice voting (as I suspect anyone who comes to this site has heard). Analysis of preference flows, when they are available, is going to be interesting. Actually, because it was a highly competitive primary for determining the Democratic nominee, there may not be much discernible pattern. That is, unlike a general election with multiple parties (as in Australian House elations, for example), voters may have had little information or understanding of how to use their ranked choices effectively. This will have been complicated further by what I understand was a relative paucity of explicit preference-exchange deals among candidates (e.g., “vote for me 1st, and then give your second choice to X”). In a primary for a single office, there may not be much incentive for candidates to do such deals. There is little to trade–or at least limited credibility to such trades–unlike in a general election, particularly a partisan one that spans across multiple districts. (There were, of course, also primaries for City Council seats; it is not clear to me how preference trades might work between a mayoral primary and council primaries. Again, the lack of party alignments of the candidates–or, rather, all being of the same party–probably greatly limits effectiveness of any such deals.)

From what we know so far, on first-choice votes, the leading candidate has under a third of the vote, and the next two are in the 20–22% range. That means a healthy lead for the one in the initial first place, Eric Adams, but also a big shortfall from majority.

I have not followed the campaign closely enough to have anything to say about how second preference might break. But I am sure some readers have, so please enlighten us!

Mexico 2021

The following was a comment by Manuel on a post about the 2018 election. It certainly deserves a more prominent planting hole, so I am copying it here. Please note the following is authored by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera of the always valuable Election Resources on the Internet, not by me.

Note Manuel’s very interesting observation that this time the system functioned as pure mixed-member majoritarian (MMM), i.e., with “parallel” allocation of the single-seat district and list components, rather than with any compensatory allocation.

___________

Preliminary results of the June 6, 2021 Chamber of Deputies election in Mexico indicate that no gaming of the 8% disparity cap took place this year, largely because the ruling “Juntos Hacemos Historia” (JHH; Together We Make History) coalition won fewer single-member mandates than in 2018.

With 99.6% of the tally sheets processed, Mexico’s Preliminary Election Results Program (PREP) reports the distribution of Chamber of Deputies single-member seats stands as follows:

PAN – 33
PRI – 11
PRD – 0
PVEM – 1
PT – 0
MC – 7
MORENA – 64
PES – 0
RSP – 0
FXM – 0
PAN-PRI-PRD – 65
PVEM-PT-MORENA – 119

The PAN-PRI-PRD “Va por México” (VPM) opposition coalition ran candidates in 219 of 300 Chamber districts, while JHH (PVEM-PT-MORENA) contested 183. On the basis of the coalition agreements published on the National Electoral Institute (INE) website, the party distribution of single-member seats would be as follows, with party single-member seat and vote shares in parentheses:

PAN – 72 (24.0%; 18.3%)
PRI – 30 (10.0%; 17.8%)
PRD – 7 (2.3%; 3.7%)
PVEM – 30 (10.0%; 5.5%)
PT – 31 (10.3%; 3.3%)
MC – 7 (2.3%; 7.0%)
MORENA – 123 (41.0%; 34.0%)
PES – 0 (0.0%; 2.7%)
RSP – 0 (0.0%; 1.8%)
FXM – 0 (0.0%; 2.5%)
Independents – 0 (0.0%; 0.1%)

The coalition seat and percentage totals, including votes and mandates won by their respective constituent parties running alone, are as follows:

PAN-PRI-PRD – 109 (36.3%; 39.7%)
PVEM-PT-MORENA – 184 (61.3%; 42.7%)

The absence of PVEM-PT-MORENA and PAN-PRI-PRD coalition candidates in many districts made little difference in the overall election outcome. Had both coalitions ran in all 300 districts, the MORENA-led coalition would have had a net loss of just four seats, gained by the PAN-led coalition.

Meanwhile, the official allocation of PR list seats won’t be known until as late as the third week of August, but on the basis of preliminary figures it would be as follows:

PAN – 41
PRI – 40
PRD – 8
PVEM – 12
PT – 7
MC – 16
MORENA – 76
PES – 0
RSP – 0
FXM – 0

Consequently, the overall composition of the Chamber of Deputies would be as follows (seat shares in parentheses):

PAN: 72 + 41 = 113 (22.6%)
PRI: 30 + 40 = 70 (14.0%)
PRD: 7 + 8 = 15 (3.0%)
PVEM: 30 + 12 = 42 (8.4%)
PT: 31 + 7 = 38 (7.6%)
MC: 7 + 16 = 23 (4.6%)
MORENA: 123 + 76 = 199 (39.8%)

Therefore, the coalitions would have the following totals:

PAN-PRI-PRD: 109 + 89 = 198 (39.6%)
PVEM-PT-MORENA: 184 + 95 = 279 (55.8%)

Since no party hit the 8% disparity cap, Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies electoral system operated in a purely parallel manner in this year’s election. Moreover, the JHH coalition parties won between themselves 47.76% of the “effective national vote” cast for parties entitled to take part in the allocation of PR seats. As such, the parties’ joint share of 55.8% of the Chamber seats happened to be just 8.04% above their effective national vote aggregate percentage. Had PR list seats been distributed among coalitions (as opposed to individual parties), the application of the 8% disparity cap would have reduced their overall seat total by only a single mandate.

Finally, the over-representation of the PVEM-PT-MORENA coalition in the Chamber of Deputies – where it retained a reduced but comfortable majority – stems largely from its continued dominance in twelve states in southern Mexico, where it won 85 of 99 single-member seats (85.9%) with 49.1% of the vote, while the PAN-PRI-PRD coalition trailed well behind with 32.9% of the vote and 14 seats (14.1%). In the rest of the country the election was closely fought, and while the VPM coalition parties won the popular vote, 43.5% to 39.2% for the JHH coalition partners, the latter still won slightly more district seats (99) than the former (95). Meanwhile, MC won all its seven district seats in Jalisco state, where it topped the poll with 31.5%, in a close three-way race with the PAN-PRI-PRD and PVEM-PT-MORENA coalitions, which polled 31.3% and 28.6%, respectively.

Party Personnel Strategies is published

Just received: My copy of Party Personnel Strategies: Electoral Systems and Committee Assignments.

A preview of most of Chapter 1 is available for free at Google Books. More details, including the table of contents, can be viewed at the book’s Oxford University Press page.

The back cover has the short summary, as well as some very kind words from other scholars:

The country cases covered in the book, each with its own chapter, are Germany, Japan, Israel, Portugal, Britain, and New Zealand. The research design leverages the electoral-system changes in Japan and New Zealand.

The book develops two “models” of party personnel practices, tested on the patterns of assignment of a party’s legislators to committees, broken down into three categories: high policy, public goods, and distributive. Under the expertise model, parties are assumed to want to harness the perceived expertise of their individual members by assigning them to committees with matching policy functions. We assume all parties in parliamentary democracies would like to achieve such matches, but, depending on features of the electoral system, they may have to trade off fulfilling the expertise model in order to assign according to an electoral–constituency model. Within the expertise model, there are also a series of issue ownership premises, under which parties of the center-right are expected to match experts to high policy and parties of the center-left to public goods (even if they do not expertise-match in other categories). As expected under our theory, the more that an electoral system makes seat-maximization depend on the geographic location of votes (as with FPTP) or on candidate’s personal votes (or both, as with Japan’s former SNTV), the more the electoral–constituency model dominates over the expertise model.

Although not the book’s central theme, a key subtext is that we now probably can take the question mark off of “best of both worlds” regarding the impact of mixed-member electoral systems, at least for the proportional (MMP) variant used in Germany and post-reform New Zealand. These systems show the highest reliance on the expertise model while simultaneously also fulfilling key premises of the electoral–constituency model.

The project was a long time in development. The book arrives thirteen and a half years after the original “central team” (me, Krauss, and Pekkanen) obtained the news that our NSF grant proposal was going to be funded. It was a complex collaboration, involving scholars specializing on each of the cases, who led the data collection and answered many a question we had. The book could never have seen the light of day without their effort. Nor could have been written without the addition to the author team of Matthew Bergman (originally the project’s research assistant, and central data manager, as well as the originator of our issue-ownership premises) and Cory Struthers (who brought new ideas about distributive policy to the author team, and was my first UC Davis Ph.D. student, not counting one who originally started at UCSD before I moved). We also benefitted from numerous other research assistants and the work of several undergraduate students at Davis, who are named individually in the preface.

As foreshadowed previously at this blog, the book is dedicated to one of the most important scholars ever of comparative legislatures, Gerhard Loewenberg, of blessed memory.

Datasets used in the book will soon be made public. They are not quite ready yet (pending review of a planned journal article that will introduce them to the wider public), but I will post a notification when they are available.

Indian assembly size to double, and then some?

Is the Indian Lok Sabha about to be more than doubled in size? There is this paragraph in an article in The Wire by Madhav Godbole otherwise about the role of parliament and its committees in India’s Covid-19 response:

In mature democracies, the efficacy of parliament largely depends on the functioning of its committees. I have been consistently advocating the strengthening of parliamentary committees. The importance of these committees will be all the more after the impending delimitation of Lok Sabha constituencies and an increase in the estimated strength of Lok Sabha to 1,200 members and of Rajya Sabha to 800 members. This is the ostensible reason for the construction of a new parliament building at such a break-neck speed even during the current pandemic. But, this will be futile unless parliament is permitted to function and does not become just an appendage of governance structure.

That size of the Lok Sabha would slightly overshoot the cube root law’s expectation for a country of about 1.3 billion, although it would certainly be closer to the cube root of population than the current 543 members. The current size is about half the cube root (which would be around 1,090), while the proposed expanded assembly would be about 1.10 times the cube root.

I’ve asked before the question of whether there is a tradeoff at some point where an assembly gets too large to be functional, even if it is consistent with the cube root. I have no idea where that point might be. The cube root law itself is based on a balance between two types of “communication channel”–those between representatives and their constituents and those among members themselves. Large countries should have large assemblies, and India currently has a very small assembly for country size.

One thing is for sure, there can be a lot more committees and subcommittees, or else larger committees, if the Lok Sabha is made this large. I don’t think we have a good theory of how committee structure relates to either assembly size or population. Moreover, this is a separate question from how “strong” a committee system is, as the quote from Godbole attests to.

Also it should be noted that this proposed new size for the second chamber, the Rajya Sabha, is quite excessive.

(Thanks to Patrick G on Twitter for the tip.)

Is Scottish MMP being “gamed”?

As noted in an earlier comment thread, initially by Dave Hutcheson, former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, has formed a new party called Alba. It plans to run only list candidates. This has raised some questions about whether this is a “gaming” of the MMP system to enhance the majority of pro-independence parties, bypassing the compensation mechanism. For instance, a pro-independence voter could vote for the Scottish National Party candidate in their single-seat district and the Alba list.

I don’t believe this is true “gaming” in the sense of the dummy lists we have seen in MMP systems in Albania and Lesotho in the past (or even the recent Korean election), but “gaming” does not have a precise definition.

I recommend reading Dave’s comment (linked above) and then the following comment in the same thread by JD Mussel as well as the Politico story he links to. There will also be another new party entering on the pro-union side, All 4 Unity, headed by good old George Galloway (about whom I have written before, most recently under the title, “Galloway is back”; well, he’s back again!). It is similarly motivated to Salmond’s entry: to enhance the total seats for his side of the divide through encouraging tactical split voting.

Then, to get a sense of just how Alba’s entry could affect the result, Leonardo Carella has a very interesting and valuable Twitter thread, viewable in one page thanks to Thread Reader, with simulations under various scenarios.

As I said, I have my doubts this party entry is as problematic as some see it, but it is a debatable point. So, what do readers think?

Electoral system change (kinda?) in Hong Kong

Generally speaking, the activities of the Chinese National People’s Congress don’t warrant any mention on this blog. However, this week the NPC has taken up the matter of Hong Kong’s electoral system: while Hong Kong is not a democracy, it does hold direct elections to a body of some influence.

Coverage of the changes has been somewhat vague and focused on external reaction to the proposals: this reflects the lack of concrete information available at this stage. However, a number of stories have provided more information on what the specific changes to the electoral system are going to look like.

At present, forty members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council are elected directly by voters in six multi-seat districts using closed party lists and the Hare quota with largest remainders. The remaining thirty members are elected in so-called “functional” constituencies, where the franchise is restricted to members of professional groups or industries (such as the insurance industry, or lawyers): these are generally single-seat districts.

A South China Morning Post article outlines one particular feature of this electoral reform: the expansion of the Legislative Council by adding about thirty members, elected by the “Election Committee”. This is a 1200-member (at present) body, elected mostly by members of the same sort of professional organisations and industries, which currently only elects the Chief Executive (the head of government). It is not entirely clear currently how this body would elect its 30 members. However, up until the 2000 election, this body elected six members of the Legislative Council. According to the legislation, these six seats were elected by the multiple non-transferable vote (MNTV). Given the small, elite nature of this electorate, it could be reasonably expected that there would be few obstacles to the pro-Beijing forces sweeping all of the seats allocated to this group.

This article (in Chinese, but Google Translate allows one to glean the key points) offers more detail on what this proposal means for the elected seats. That source suggests that the total number of elected seats will be cut in half, to just 20 (it also reports a higher number of Election Committee seats than the South China Morning Post, which reflects the absence of a concrete proposal) in a 90-member chamber.

Interestingly, however, it also suggests that the electoral system to choose these 20 members would be changed, to what the article refers to as the “dual-seat, single-vote” system. This appears to mean the single non-transferable vote (SNTV) in 10 districts.

There is some precedent for this particular system. South Korea adopted SNTV with two-member districts in 1972 under the authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee. The proposals also resemble, in certain ways, the electoral system used in Chile until the 2017 election, where the D’Hondt system with open party lists was used in two-member districts. Under that system, a party list with one Droop quota (33.3%+1) would be guaranteed half of the seats in a district, meaning that to be guaranteed a majority of seats in a district a list would need to win two-thirds of the vote. While the two-seat SNTV system in Hong Kong lacks the vote-pooling of the Chilean system, it means that a candidate with a Droop quota would be guaranteed to win one seat.

Since Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997, the pan-democratic liberal parties have consistently won the most votes, although not by enough to overcome the pro-Beijing parties’ advantage in the functional constituencies. The new system will make the task of winning a substantial portion of seats in the Legislative Council even harder for the pan-democratic parties, given that if a single pro-Beijing candidate runs in a district and wins a third of the vote, they will be guaranteed a seat: repeated across Hong Kong, this will set a limit of half of the elected seats that the pan-democrats will be able to win. For the pan-democratic parties to win multiple seats, they will need to not only win a massive two-thirds of the vote in a district, but will need to be able to divide their vote evenly between two candidates. This is in a context of tightening political repression for pan-democratic candidates: indeed, a primary election the pan-democrats conducted in order to effectively manage their vote at the next election was declared illegal under new national security legislation.

Under the current LR-Hare system, the high quota has meant that parties generally do behave as though the system were SNTV: as such, vote division is not unusual. However, the changes to district magnitude will produce an electoral system that will likely provide a more systematic advantage to the pro-Beijing parties, making them a significant part of the architecture of repression being imposed.

Czechia: Constitutional Court rules lower house electoral system not proportional enough

The Czech Constitutional Court has ruled that the country’s current electoral system does not adequately fulfil the constitution’s requirement of being in accordance with “the principles of proportional representation” (article 18 of the Czech constitution). The 200 members of the Chamber of Deputies are currently elected under Flexible List-PR in 14 districts ranging in magnitude from 5 to 26, with a nationwide threshold of 5% for parties and 10% for alliance lists. The Constitutional Court struck down the districting scheme on the grounds that it disadvantages small parties, as well as the 10% threshold for lists of more than one party.

As an election is scheduled for October, Parliament will have to agree fairly quickly on a new districting scheme to replace the one the Court has struck down. Unusually, since the Senate usually only has a suspensive veto the Chamber of Deputies can override immediately by absolute majority, article 40 of the constitution requires the electoral law to be approved by consent of both houses.

What is somewhat ironic is that the case was brought to the Supreme Court by a group of 21 members of the Senate, a house which is not required to be elected by PR and is instead elected by runoff in single-seat districts (with elections to the Senate being fairly low salience and *very* low turnout, it has seen some success by minor parties despite the system’s lack of proportionality).

Chamber size and party ‘strength’

What do folks think the correct answer to this question is: How does the size of an assembly affect the strength of political parties?

By strength, I mean the relative freedom of the individual member to cultivate constituency ties and to dissent from party leadership on votes on legislation. I also mean, holding other factors constant.

Suppose a country’s assembly is significantly smaller than its expected size, per the cube-root law. If nothing else changes, how would raising the size be expected to affect the strength of parties?

Obviously, I am thinking about potentially expanding the US House, so a starting point of non-hierarchical parties, and only two of them (and presidentialism, etc.). But I am interested in the question more broadly, and whether features of US party and legislative politics, aside from the small House size, change the impact of increased size on party strength in a manner that might be different from how it would play out in other contexts.

I ask because I genuinely do not know. I could see it going either way. A larger house, for a given population, means each member represents fewer voters, obviously. This could make personal-vote and constituency-service strategies more viable, thereby in some sense making parties “weaker”. On the other hand, a larger assembly (here, independent of population) makes internal collective action more challenging. This could result in members delegating (or simply losing) more authority to internal party leadership, making parties “stronger.” Note that these possible directions of change are closely connected to the two factors that go into the cube root law itself–this is a logical model that is based on balancing (and minimizing overall) two types of “communication channels”: those between legislators and constituents, and those among legislators themselves.

It is possible both directions of change can happen at the same time, implying parties get weaker in some ways and stronger in others. That is, more constituency-oriented behavior, but also more party leadership control over votes and especially over speaking time. I am not sure what that means for overall strength. Maybe that isn’t even the right way to frame the question; skepticism over my own question framing is why I use the inverted commas in the title of this post.

Finally, theoretically and all else equal, a larger assembly means more parties should be represented (per the Seat Product Model). I have my doubts that this would be realized in the US, however, given all the other barriers to third-party representation. Unless the House were truly huge, I do not expect much impact there as long as it is elected in single-seat districts, and with primaries (or with “top two”/”top four” rules). However, parties’ internal strength could be affected. But which way?

Emergency electoral reform: OLPR for the US House

Because the constitutional emergency is likely too deep to just turn the page, small-d democrats face an emergency of another kind. The need to adopt proportional representation has never been greater. The country simply can’t afford the risk that the Republican Party does nothing fundamental to reform itself, and wins back the House in 2022. A change to some form of moderate proportional representation (PR) is essential.

Given the current balance of power in the House, the Republicans would need to flip only about seven seats in 2022. (There are currently three vacancies.) With rare exceptions, presidents’ parties lose votes and seats in midterm elections. With the balance so tight, there is almost nothing to stop Republicans from winning back control of the House, other than perhaps if they descend into internal party chaos. They just might do that. They might even split. But I don’t like seeing the fate of the republic depend on Republicans finding yet another way to squander an easy electoral win that’s there for their taking.

I am not arguing for a change to PR only for the sake of the Democratic Party. In fact, my argument is that this is a way for Republicans to save their own party. The country needs functioning pro-democratic parties on both the center-left and the center-right. At the moment, it has such a party only on the center-left, and even that is a temporary ceasefire amidst a deepening internal division.

Cleavages in American politics today and the need for PR

I would identify three key cleavages in American politics at the moment. (Note: issue positions and cleavages are very much not my academic speciality at all. I admit I am simplifying, but the divisions I identify should be reasonably accurate as a broad summary.) There is the Republican–Democratic cleavage. This one is almost evenly divided, which explains a lot of the current partisan polarization. Hold together just enough–avoid the proverbial circular firing squad–and you can win. Then there is the democratic–authoritarian cleavage. On this one, the pro-democratic segment extends all the way from the leftmost large-d Democrats to somewhere near the middle of the Republican Party. The pro-Trump, white-supremacist, election-denying wing of the Republican Party has shown itself to be completely willing to set aside democracy, and even to promote/tolerate political violence, in order to advance its political agenda. This wing is a cancer that must be removed from the right-wing bloc that currently consists solely of the Republican Party. Then there is, for lack of a better term, the capitalist–socialist cleavage. This one obviously divides the Democratic Party. On one side are Democrats who generally take a more gradualist view of the need for economic policy change, plus nearly all of the right, in being free-market oriented. On the other, left or “progressive” side are Democrats who emphasize various proposals to remake the economic model (including less commitment to free trade), whether or not “socialist” is the correct term or even the term they favor. Think Bernie Sanders and his supporters, as well as some of the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party. Basically, the point is that there are (at least) two “rights” and two “lefts” but currently only one party on the right and one on the left. And the emergency is that one of the “rights” has abandoned democracy and shown a willingness to accept political violence.

The need for PR is to let the free-market small-d democrats in the currently existing parties act independently of their more extreme wings. This is precisely what PR systems permit–each side’s extreme can be its own party rather than a wing of one majority-seeking party, without raising concerns over “spoilers” that arise under plurality elections.1

As I already conceded, I am oversimplifying a complex political scene for the sake of argument. I also am not going to go into the details of how actual coalitions would work under this stylized latent four-party system that PR would allow to break forth. Both the need for electoral coalitions in single-winner offices (Senator, President, governors), and forging legislative coalitions among these parties in the House, would complicate the flexibility of alliances that one obtains when PR is used to elect a single dominant institution (as in many parliamentary systems). The point is simply that PR offers the best means of generating center-spanning coalitions to control House majority outcomes, in contrast to the current system’s generation of majorities that include a fringe–a nakedly authoritarian fringe in the case of the party most likely to win a majority in 2022 under current rules.

So, we need PR to save democracy. But what kind of PR? I would take any kind over the system we have now! But I think there is one that recommends itself because it is the easiest to implement, for voters to understand, and for election authorities to administer.

A model of open-list PR for the US

I favor open-list PR not because it is the “best” system or my personal favorite. Strong cases can be made for single transferable vote (STV, which is a form of ranked-choice voting in multi-seat districts) or for mixed-member proportional (MMP). However, open-list proportional representation (OLPR) best meets the criteria of simplicity in implementation, voting, and administration. My argument for OLPR is inspired partly by my own sense of what is workable, but more largely by a post by Jack Santucci.

It literally could be made our electoral system tomorrow, as follows (I am setting aside the fact that there is a reapportionment and redistricting taking place in 2021-22 in my “tomorrow” scenario). Take 3–5 existing contiguous single-seat districts and merge them into the multi seat districts needed for PR. Thus the proposal is for districts with district magnitude (M) of three to five. (Later I will address states that have fewer than three Representatives.)

Each voter would have one vote for a candidate, just as now, but the ballot would list all the candidates of each party that are running in the larger multiseat district (up to M candidates per list). The initial allocation of seats would be based on summing votes of party candidates nominated to each list, using one of the standard PR allocation rules (I’d favor D’Hondt, but various others could be fine). Then, once each list’s seat total is determined through the application of the PR formula to its collective vote total, its top s vote-earners get the list’s seats (where s is simply the number of seats the list has won). This is standard OLPR, or more formally, it is quasi-list PR, because there is no opportunity to cast a vote for the list as a whole.2

An important question is how to handle nominations to the lists. Personally, I’d prefer to get rid of primaries, as when there is a wider range of choice of both party lists and candidates on those lists, primaries arguably are not needed. However, no proposal that abolishes primaries is likely to fly, politically. I would not let that bog the emergency reform down. I propose embracing ideas that are already out there and being pushed by the independent-politics reformers, such as “top two” and “top four”.

How would this work? One could continue to hold a “primary” in each of the existing single-seat districts; I will now call these nominating districts to distinguish them from the larger general-election districts. The goal here is to avoid making it as unwieldy as it could be if primaries were held in the larger districts to be used in the general election. The first round (call it a primary even though it would stretch the definition thereof) would advance the top c candidates from each nominating district, where c could be four but could be some other number agreed upon.3 Presumably, as is the case in California’s “top two” currently, the candidates themselves would indicate what party they affiliated with on the primary ballot, but use of the label would not be restricted by any central actor in the state (or other level) party.4

Then, between this primary and some date in advance of the general election, let the top cM candidates for the larger general-election district negotiate who goes on whose list and how those lists are branded. The party labels could be ones that are registered in advance of the election (i.e., before the primary) as is currently the case in many states, or it could be left completely open for actors to negotiate between rounds. This is an important detail, but not one I think should be essential to advancing the wider proposal. It could even be a matter of individual states to sort out.

The idea here is that the top-c first round in nominating districts, followed by negotiations over lists for the general, encourages those who have advanced to a slot on the general election ballot to cooperate in order to maximize their seat-winning potential in the OLPR process. At the same time, however, it allows these candidates and their allies to reject anyone who has qualified for a slot on the ballot from being on their list if he or she is too extreme for the brand they want to cultivate.

If general-election lists are restricted to M candidates, then in any case where two or more of the same party have qualified from a given nominating district, one will have to be left off the list, unless there is another nominating district where no candidate of that party qualified. The objective here is not to force any set of candidates to run together. Local actors, including the candidates, decide. They have to balance the supporters that a given candidate can bring with the risk that some candidate drives away other voters in a context in which any given list is likely to win 1 or 2 seats in a three-seat general-election district (or 1–3 in a 5-seat district), rather than 100% of the representation of the single-seat districts, as under the current system. I am not wedded to the various components of this idea, and am completely open to other ideas. The wider point is that there are reformers who dislike parties and there are reformers who want stronger parties. I am looking for a way to thread a narrow needle and build a reform coalition–under emergency conditions.

When coordination fails and candidates who have qualified for a given party exceed M in some district, but they can’t agree on which M get to use the name, what do we do? While I would not normally advocate multiple lists within a party, I’d be willing to allow it to make the idea of lists and PR work. Also, any candidates who, having qualified in the primary, do not find partners to go in together on a list should be free to run as independents.

I should conclude this section by noting that my OLPR proposal is totally severable from my nominating-districts and “top c” proposals. If the latter get in the way of OLPR, I am happy to drop either or both. My ambition is to help make the transition to OLPR politically smoother, by retaining smaller geographic entities as politically meaningful aspects of the implementation of PR (through the nominating districts), and retaining the “bottom up” qualification of general-election candidates that is a hallmark of the current system. The overriding objective is to let different wings of current parties compete separately, outside of a majoritarian context in which splits become spoilers, and general-election candidates are sometimes extremists themselves or are in debt to extremists in their party. Avoiding these pitfalls of the current system is the very essence of PR.

Other issues

I am assuming this proposal stays within the current 435-member House. There are arguments to be made in favor of increasing the size of the House, but I have my doubts that a larger House is by itself inherently valuable. It certainly is not worth the risk of its becoming a poison pill that prevents PR. If advocates of electoral reform make a larger House seem like a condition of electoral reform, the cause of reform is probably doomed.

With a 435-seat House, and even with any House of reasonably achievable larger size, there will remain states with only one or two members. These states will obviously not be able to have districts that elect 3–5 members apiece. So what? Many PR systems have a few districts with one or two members, even when their national average magnitude is larger. This is not a reason to reject a proposal for reform. States that have one Representative could be encouraged to adopt ranked-choice voting, but should not be required to do so.

I should address why I do not advocate STV as the overall system for the House, given the current fashion in some circles for ranked-choice voting solutions. This is not the place to go into reasons why STV may not be desirable in its own right. It has some strong positive features, but also some negative ones. The biggest negatives are the need for voter education, substantially changed ballot formats, and already overstretched election administrators having to adapt their routines to make the more complex counts work. OLPR allows all of this to be as close to the status quo as possible, while still getting PR.5

What about MMP? I have been known to argue it is a good system. However, absent substantial increase in House size, it has some real drawbacks. The single-seat districts have to become considerably larger geographically for MMP to work with the existing state delegation sizes. (The list tier for MMP in the US surely would be state-by-state, or regions within larger states, not nationwide or otherwise multi-state.) The OLPR proposal that I am advancing here also means larger general-election districts, but has the advantage of having more than one member elected from each of these larger districts, while also retaining the more compact districts for nominations. An additional drawback of MMP in the American national context is in how you implement the list tier. It is either closed lists, which might be politically unpalatable, or it is open lists alongside the two-tier structure, adding a considerable further complication.6

So, no, I have not abandoned my general preference for MMP, nor am I claiming STV is a “bad” system. I simply am arguing that OLPR is a good solution to an immediate emergency for democracy.

Conclusion

We must find a way to prevent a new House majority from being elected in 2022 that is under the effective control of an anti-democratic wing. The voters who prefer a center-right party are not going to vote for the existing Democratic Party as long as they fear (rightly or wrongly) that that party is coming under the control of its own extreme “socialist” wing. Voters need choices that are more moderate, as well as parties that can represent voters with grievances that lead them to reject mainstream politics. What we need to avoid is a mainstream party winning a majority of seats while under the control of its grievance-based authoritarian extreme.

I am under no illusions that this will be easy. I certainly accept that any PR proposal is less likely to pass than likely. It requires more institutionally oriented Republicans to see a clear and present danger from continuing to work within a party that has a strong and undeniable anti-democratic tendency, as well as to believe that tendency is too large to be contained within. It also is not going to be immediately embraced by the Democratic establishment that just won all three elected components of the federal government, and so requires them to realize just how fragile and transient their control is.

Difficult though it is to get this proposal accepted, we are in a situation where an emergency exists for democracy. So let’s get to work!

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[Over the years I have done many posts on the idea of adopting proportional representation (of some form) in the US. Please click here and scroll to see them all.]

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Notes

  1. Advocates of ranked-choice voting in single-seat districts (also known as the “alternative vote: or “instant runoff”/IRV) will say that their preferred system also avoids the spoiler problem. This is not fully correct. The issue is that this view takes a district-level perspective. The point of PR is to avoid “spoilers” in larger ideological blocs. Getting the same result from IRV requires something approaching uniform distribution of those blocs across districts, or at least for each group within a bloc to have its own local strongholds, so that the parties/factions within a bloc can meaningfully trade preferences. Otherwise, it mostly leads to the same issues as plurality voting, whereby to win, the larger party/faction within the bloc must appeal to voters of the other. The case for IRV in the current emergency would rest on an assumption that, within the right, the authoritarians are the smaller component. If they are not, they will either win from preferences of those on the moderate right, or will potentially win pluralities of the vote when many voters don’t give second preferences. (We can’t be certain that voters for the mainstream center-right will preference a party on the mainstream left. Maybe they will, maybe not.) This brings me to the final issue: IRV advocates tend to overlook that the best case for the system assumes compulsory preferences, which are unlikely to be adopted (and may even be held unconstitutional) in the US. If many voters give only first choices, then IRV is more or less the same as plurality.
  2. Such an option could be added, but I am trying to keep it as familiar as possible while still getting PR.
  3. It might be wise to set c to the same value as the general-election M; it certainly should not be much smaller than M.
  4. I don’t think anything that generates such control over labels is politically palatable in current American politics, even though most political scientists would say it is desirable.
  5. If the reform included a clause allowing individual states to opt for STV instead of OLPR, I would not object.
  6. There is also the need to prevent parties from gaming MMP with “dummy” lists. This has been discussed previously on this blog. It can’t be dismissed as a serious problem, and so I’d rather just sidestep it in designing a proportional system for the US in the present moment.

US House size increase: Inherently valuable?

We have frequently discussed here the question of the size of the US House. As regular readers will know, the House is undersized, relative to the cube root law, under which an assembly is expected to be approximately the cube root of the population. The law is both theoretical (grounded in a logical model) and quite strong empirically (see the graph posted years ago). However, the US House is far smaller than the cube root predicts, which would be somewhere north of 600. In fact, the House has been fixed at 435 for more than a century,1 even as the population has grown greatly.

So there is a good political science case to be made for expanding House size. My question here is whether expanding the House is something that reformers should pursue for its own sake. Or is it of subordinate value?

I ask because many advocates of a move to proportional representation (PR) will tend to believe that PR would work better in a larger House. The larger the House, the fewer states there are with only one Representative, wherein obviously a plurality or majority system remains the only option.

Strategically, however, it could be a mistake for the PR movement to hitch its wagon to the House expansion movement. If PR is attached to the idea of “more politicians” it is probably in a lot of trouble. Advocates for democracy reform might prefer both a larger House and PR, but wouldn’t most of us prefer PR to a larger House, if we can have only one or the other? (Perhaps I will engage in blasphemy, but I might trade off a somewhat smaller House if it were necessary to get PR. In other words, I value PR ahead of almost any reform I can imagine.)

Another way to look at this is, would the reformist “capital” spent on getting a larger House be worth it if we ended up with 650 single-seat districts instead of 435? I have my doubts.

While a larger House should result in more parties represented, independent of the electoral system, I am not sure I believe that we would see it under otherwise existing US political and institutional conditions. As I’ve noted many times, the Seat Product Model says that the US “should” have a party system with more than two parties, and the largest one averaging around 47% of the seats, instead of our actual average which is obviously greater than 50%. It should have an effective number of seat-winning parties of about 2.75, even with 435 seats. With 650, the expectation rises to 2.94 (and a largest averaging just under 45% of the seats). In the real USA where there are really only two parties, and we keep single-seat districts, do we have any reason to believe just adding about 200 seats (let alone a more realistic 100 or so) would result in any increase in representation of other parties? I doubt it.

So, why bother? Is the value of a smaller number of people per Representative so strong that we want it regardless of how the party system pans out? I worry it actually could have a deleterious effect. Other things equal, more seats means more homogenous districts. Some of those could be minority districts that can’t now be drawn (given other criteria in district line-drawing) and, of course, those minorities in theory could be minority-party supporters as well as nonpartisan minorities (racial and ethnic, etc.). The latter is valuable, of course. But a concern is that in an existing and likely persistent two-party system that you simply end up with more safe seats (Brian Frederick notes this possibility in his book on US House size, even as he argues in favor of an increased size). We have plenty of safe seats already! If we had multiparty politics to start with, I think a larger House would help smaller parties win more seats, and possibly render districts on average more competitive. But in a two-party system, I think it makes districts on average less competitive. (I am not sure about this, so discuss away in the comments!) As for racial and ethnic minorities, I am skeptical that we get enough of a boost from a larger number of single-seat districts to make the tradeoffs in less competitive elections worth it. They’d be better represented by PR anyway, obviously.

Bottom line: With so many reformist needs in US democracy, I don’t think House size is worth pursuing, unless it can be in a package that gets us PR. It certainly should not be allowed to be the poison pill that prevents getting PR, as I fear it could be, were we ever otherwise in a place where PR was a live option.

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  1. Except for temporary increases to accommodate Alaska and Hawaii; at the next census and reapportionment, it reverted to 435.

In Memory of Gerhard Loewenberg

The following is the text of a memorial lecture I gave for Dr. Gerhard Loewenberg on the occasion of his first yarzheit. I delivered it remotely on behalf of Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor; I explain how it came about in the lecture itself. The following text includes some paragraphs that I had to skip in the live session (viewable on YouTube) due to time constraints.

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Comparative Legislatures: Or What America and Israel can learn from Germany

The legislature is the single most important institution of a democratic political system. Yet legislatures are puzzling in terms of how they are able to function, and they tend to be disliked, even reviled, by democratic publics everywhere. Professor Gerhard Loewenberg dedicated his professional life to advancing the comparative analysis of legislatures, and in his last book, published in 2011 (other than his highly engaging memoir from 2012), he wrote about how puzzling the legislative institution is.

On the one hand, he wrote, a legislature consists of technically equal representatives. Each one, upon being seated after having won an election, has the same status as any other. Every one has just one vote on any matter that comes before the chamber for decision. A legislature is a collective body, comprised of equal individual legislators. Yet, as we know from some of the most important studies of social science, collective decision-making is difficult and prone to failure—unless some institution or leader within the legislature is endowed with authority to set the agenda, control members’ speaking time, and otherwise manage the proceedings. Of course, as soon as someone has been given power to do these tasks, by definition the legislators are no longer equal. Some of them have been awarded additional power over the others, some will not be able to speak as much as they wish, and various rules will limit the admissibility of amendments to bills that legislators may hope to advance. 

Moreover, given the complexity of decision making for a modern society, no one legislator can possibly be knowledgeable about all the issues that come before the body demanding a decision. So, legislative chambers establish committees and other means of having some legislators specialize in one set of policies while others specialize in different topics. Again, this changes them from formally equal to at least potentially having outsized influence over specific policies. For instance, members of the agriculture committee acquire more knowledge and procedural advantage than their colleagues over policy related to food supply and farm subsidies, while members of the health committee acquire more knowledge and procedural advantage over policies in that topic. And so on.

These organizational questions—agenda control and committee structure—are among the topics that have fascinated researchers in comparative legislative studies. They are also presumably the key to why voters tend to hold legislative institutions in such disdain. Crafting legislation is something of a dark art, out of the view of most voters. And when they tune in to C-Span or equivalent elsewhere, they may like what they seen even less than they’d imagined. They will often see a mostly empty chamber, or an endless series of procedural measures that make no sense to outsiders. It is all quite “mystifying” as Jerry said in his book, On Legislatures: The Puzzle of Representation

Yet without an elected legislature, you have no democracy. Actual democracies vary in whether they have two legislative chambers or one, whether they have an elected presidency or a ceremonial one (or none at all or even a monarch), and in whether courts can overturn legislation on various grounds. But no country would be called a democracy without having at least one chamber of a legislature elected by the citizens. The legislature is the one political institution that has the greatest claim on being able to represent a microcosm of citizen preferences and interests, and advancing majority rule, the central democratic principle. How much an actual legislature fulfills this central mission is quite variable, as I shall get into in more detail later. But no one can deny the absolute centrality of a legislature, and its representative function, to democracy. 

Given the importance of legislatures to democracy, then understanding these institutions is central to understanding how democracy works, and how representation and democratic policy-making can be improved. It was for the purpose of advancing such understanding that Jerry Loewenberg not only devoted his own career, but also established an entire sub-field and an important journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, in political science devoted to the study of legislatures around the world. 

**

In my remarks this evening, I want to use the cases mentioned in my title—the USA, Israel, and Germany—as examples of what we can learn when we compare legislatures in different countries to one another. Because it is Chanukah, which celebrates an earlier recovery of Jewish national and cultural autonomy in our ancient homeland, this season is an especially appropriate time to reflect on the institutions that maintain the Jewish people’s newly recovered sovereignty in recent times. Moreover, Chanukah is all about bringing light into the darkest of times, as well as a season when Messianic yearnings have long been heightened in our tradition. It may seem strange to say so, especially to my political-scientist friends tuning in, but I see the study of democratic institutions, and especially the promotion of reforms to improve their performance on behalf of a nation, in quasi-Messianic terms. That is, democracy as a set of institutions for governance may be flawed, because they are human-devised. It may even be “the worst of all forms of government, except for all the others” than have been tried from time to time, as Churchill famously remarked. A major theme of Jewish tradition is establishing the Kingdom of Heaven—or more specifically, of offering a challenge to governments that fail to serve the broad interests of the community, including its cultural minorities, over which they claim the right to rule. Until the Kingdom of Heaven is established some day—and whether or not it is anyway meaningful to you that it might be some day—improving democracy is an essential task for our time. Democracy in Israel and the United States has been enduring some dark times of late. It is my hope that comparative legislative studies can shed some light on how democracy works, and how it can be improved. A tikkun, a repair, is in order for democracy. How can learning about different democracies help us think about making government work better? This is my rather lofty ambition for today’s remarks.

**

I will focus mainly on the comparison of the US and Israel, as the two counties’ legislative structures are about as different as any two can be. I will then ask if there might be a middle ground between the extremes represented by the American and Israeli cases. And the answer may be surprising—it is the German case. Or perhaps not so surprising, given that we are here to reflect on the contributions of Gerhard Loewenberg, who emigrated from Germany with his family before the Nazi takeover, and who returned to do research on the Bundestag in the decade-and-a-half following the establishment of the postwar Federal Republic of Germany.

But before I go into the substantive topic, I want to say a little about myself and specifically how I came to be honored with the invitation to give this memorial address.

My own field is indeed comparative legislatures, although until completing a book that will be out in the spring of 2021, most of my research has not been on the internal organization of legislatures, but rather on two aspects of how legislatures are related to the wider political system: (1) the electoral system, defined as the set of rules determining how candidates become legislators; and (2) how legislatures relate to the executive, i.e., either a prime minister or an elected president (or sometimes, as in France and Poland or the pre-war Weimar Republic of Germany, both) and the cabinet. 

My forthcoming book, entitled Party Personnel, is about committees of legislatures—the German and Israeli cases (but not the US) are among the cases included; the book also analyzes the committee systems of Portugal, Japan, Britain, and New Zealand. I am the lead author, and my coauthors and I ask how the electoral system shapes the ways in which individual legislators are assigned to one committee or another. The process of assigning legislators to specific committees is, in all these cases, managed by political party organizations within the legislature.

For instance, political parties might assign their legislators according to expertise developed in their pre-legislative careers (their occupational background). Or the assignments might be made according to their ability to draw votes from a district the party needs to win (assuming the electoral system consists of large number of districts where specific local candidates run, which is not always the case, as we’ll see). These two possible motivations for parties are often in tension! Those legislators who are best at winning additional votes beyond what some “generic” party nominee might win in a local district contest may be only loosely correlated—if at all—with those who have the policy expertise from their prior occupation (lawyer, healthcare worker, teacher, farmer, etc.). And the electoral system is one of the key things shaping which criteria loom largest in a party’s decision about committee assignments. Or so we say in Party Personnel.

Only recently did I purchase a used copy of Dr. Loewenberg’s first book, Parliament in the German System, published in 1967. I was amazed when I began reading it to see how much it foreshadows the kind of questions that motivate my forthcoming book. For instance, in Table 20 of the book we find a summary of the percentage of legislators who come from various occupational backgrounds—lawyers, teachers, business owners, etc.–and it is comparative. It shows not only the figures for the German Bundestag that had been elected in 1957, but also comparable summaries for the UK, France, and Italy. It tracks, for the Bundestag and by political party, the percentage who serve on occupationally related committees (i.e., where their parties are taking advantage of members’ policy expertise) and their tendency to speak in the Bundestag on matters in their speciality vs. as generalists. All this sort of thing is in our Party Personnel book, for more recent German election years and various elections in seven other countries—but we have it a lot easier, thanks to rather bigger computer data processing power than existed over fifty years ago! It is really amazing to me how far ahead of his time Jerry was in thinking about these issues of how different legislatures and political parties make use of expertise in the legislative process. Moreover, the table is itself such a work of art; I just love these fold-out pages. I normally see them in atlases or books with panoramic photos, but the presentation of statistics in this manner is such a sight to behold!

**

Table 20 of Gerhard Loewenberg, Parliament in the German Political System (Cornell University Press, 1967)

When my coauthors and I were finishing up the draft of our book to submit to a publisher for review, we got the news of Jerry’s passing. Because it is a book on comparative legislatures, and because the path the book seeks to advance is grounded firmly in Jerry’s contributions to the field, my coauthors and I immediately made the decision to dedicate our book to his memory.

**

But that still does not explain why I am here, speaking at a memorial hosted by Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, when I myself am in California. For that, I have Rabbi Nadav Caine to thank. And, strangely enough, the pandemic, or more precisely how the pandemic has changed Jewish community. Rabbi Caine was our rabbi back in San Diego; we have known each other for about a dozen years. One Friday night a few months ago, my wife and I played the YouTube recording of the Beth Israel Shabbat evening service, to reconnect with Rabbi Caine and his family, leading the Shabbat service from their home. And at the section where the Rabbi reads the names of those being remembered, I heard… Gerhard Loewenberg. Could it be? It must be. And so I emailed Rabbi Caine after Shabbat. And he told me about Jerry’s daughter, Deborah, being part of the Ann Arbor community. And so, here we are together, thanks to Zoom!

***

I now want to turn to the substantive application of some of the lessons of comparative legislative studies—the case-study section, so to speak. I want to start by sketching some of the key differences between the US and Israeli cases. Then I will bring in the German case a little later. I will mention a few other countries along the way. Hey, it is all about comparative legislatures, after all, so we need to compare, and try to learn from, the experiences of different countries! 

As I said at the start, there are few pairs of long-term democracies that illustrate the extreme poles of legislative and broader institutional design than do the US and Israel.

First of all, the US is, of course, a presidential system, whereas Israel is parliamentary. As the work of comparative legislative scholarship has long recognized, this basic difference in how the executive functions creates fundamental differences in the role of the legislature. Put simply, the most important role of a legislature in a parliamentary system is to produce—and maintain in office or dismiss—the executive. By definition, the prime minister and executive cabinet in a parliamentary system must have the support of a majority of legislators—or at least not the active opposition of a majority. If the majority wants a different prime minister and cabinet, it can act to replace them, or in most cases, an early election can be called.

(The Israeli case has recently taken this to yet greater extreme, having had three elections between April 2019, and March, 2020. As we speak, it seems likely there will be an election in March, 2021, or perhaps June. The term of a Knesset is nominally four years, but it’s looking like four elections in a period of about two years! While this is obviously not an ideal situation, I hope to convince you that it is not so bad. Instead of imposing a government supported by less than a majority of the voters—as the 2016 US presidential election did—it requires the politicians to have the backing of representatives of a majority of the voters and, when political conditions prevent smooth governance, to go back to the public to renew or revise their consent to govern.)

In contrast to the parliamentary model used in Israel and most of Europe, in a presidential system, by definition the head of the government is elected separately. Legislators in presidential systems have no role in choosing the head of government, and also are unable to depose the head before the end of the constitutional term, absent a process that requires more than a simple majority (as the Trump impeachment process served to demonstrate). 

So this—the executive type—is the first major difference between the American and Israeli legislatures.

A second fundamental difference is that the US Congress is, of course, bicameral. House and Senate. Not only are there these two chambers, but they are equally powerful and elected in very different manners. Israel is unicameral. Because it is unicameral and parliamentary, the only national voting choice Israeli voters make is when they are called to the polls to elect a new Knesset.

The third fundamental difference is in how the legislatures are elected—the electoral system. Here I will take the US House and the Israeli Knesset as the first point of comparison, and then bring in the US Senate afterwards. The electoral systems for the House and the Knesset are diametrically opposed in their institutional design: In the US House, every member is elected as the sole representative of his or her district. There are thus as many districts as there are members—435. (Which, by the way, is awfully small to represent a country this large, but I’ll leave that aside.)

However, in Israel there are no districts. Or more accurately, there is one district. All 120 members are elected nationwide. Whereas a US House member is the candidate who wins the most votes in a local district, the Knesset is elected according to proportional representation. Israeli voters do not vote for candidates at all. They vote for a party list. Each list is composed of candidates nominated by the party, and given a priority ranking—what political scientists call a “closed list.” (Other types of list–“open” or “flexible” allow voters to favor one or more candidates within a party’s list.)

So given the closed lists used in Israeli elections, suppose a given list has earned 10% of the votes, Then it will win approximately 12 of the 120 seats, and the winners will be the first 12 candidates on its list. There is a threshold, currently 3.25% of the votes. A list that gets less than that will have no seats. But any list that clears 3.25% will be represented. This is a system designed so as to make room for a lot of parties, and lo and behold, it does! 

In fact, based on predictive models developed in one of my earlier books, we should expect Israel’s Knesset to have about 11 lists with representation, and the largest one to have about 30% of the seats, which would be 36 seats. Thirty six happens to be just one more than the number the two most popular lists tied for in April, 2019. But in elections since then, and in many over the last two decades, the leading list has had even fewer seats—sometimes not even 30 seats (which is 25%). That’s a pretty small leading party—not even half the total number of seats needed to comprise a governing majority!

Note that I have been using “list” and “party” more or less interchangeably. Nonetheless, when talking about Israeli elections and Knesset politics, these terms are distinct. Often there are lists that are presented by alliances of two or more parties. For instance, the Joint List consists of four distinct parties representing Arab citizens of Israel, the Yamina is a list of various ultra-nationalist and Religious Zionist parties, and Blue and White contested the last several elections as an alliance of three distinct centrist parties.

The key is that the electoral system works by allocating seats proportionally to lists, and is designed so as to allow many such lists to win. The most recent election, for example, resulted in just 8 lists getting seats, somewhat lower than the typical 10-12. However, the number of parties is greater, and sometimes partners in elections break up and operate separately in the Knesset. In fact, this is what happened when Benny Gantz signed his coalition deal with Benjamin Netanyahu. Gantz’s list from the election, Blue and White, split, and his election partner, Yair Lapid, became the leader of an opposition party while Gantz became part of the government. 

**

One of the most important things to understand of all this is that, (1) under the Israeli electoral system, a vote cast anywhere in the country has the same weight as a vote cast anywhere else, and (2), whatever percentage of votes a list gets, that is its (approximate) percentage of seats in the next Knesset. 

In the US, by stark contrast, most districts are “safe” for one party or the other. Thus only those voters who happen to live in districts that are closely contested really participate in determining whether control of the House will shift from one party to the other. In the US Senate, of course, there is even more variation across the country in the de-facto value of a vote. California gets the same number of Senators as Wyoming, despite about a 70:1 difference in the states’ populations. And only a few states might determine whether control of this chamber of the national legislature might shift in an election—such as the flips of the seats in Arizona and Colorado this past November, and we’ll all be watching what voters in Georgia do in early January. 

So let’s pull it all together. In the US, voters elect a president and two chambers of congress separately. It is thus often the case that one of these three is held by a different party than at least one of the others, as has been the case since the 2018 election and was also the case for all but the first two years of Obama’s presidency. In the US, votes are aggregated only in local House districts or for the Senate in states of greatly varying population, rather than nationally. There are only two parties of any consequence, so one will have a majority in one or both chambers, and one will have the presidency, but again, no necessary partisan alignment across these institutions. And elections occur at fixed intervals, so if they can’t work together, we get gridlock instead of the Israeli recourse to an early election.

In Israel, there is only one national elected institution—the legislature. There are many parties, and the contest for votes and seats is fully nationwide. The prime minister and cabinet are products of bargaining among parties after an election to determine who can form a coalition capable of holding majority support in the Knesset. The cabinet might fall early, before the next scheduled election, if one or more parties decide not to continue working with their partners. And there can be an early election.

In the Israeli system, there is no local representation, except that a party might choose to place a former mayor or someone else with a local connection somewhere on their list (something they do rather rarely). Unlike in the US, Members of the Knesset have no local base in the sense of a place where voters have chosen them as an individual representative. 

***

For all the reasons just sketched, these two systems are as extreme as they can be in terms of what legislators represent and how they relate to the executive. The question thus might arise of whether it is possible to split the difference between these extremes. I will focus on just one dimension here—how the legislators are elected.

As I pointed out earlier, in the US, every legislator is elected in a unique district. That means, his or her election depends only on voters in one geographic subset of the country—435 different ones in the case of the House. (And each state in the case of the Senate.) By contrast, in Israel, they are elected in one national district, and on closed party or alliance lists.

Each of these has some basic advantages and some disadvantages. On the one hand, the US system makes life difficult for minor parties. Now, here I need to take a little excursus and interject something that even many of my political science colleagues get wrong! We have something called “Duverger’s law”, although calling it a “law” is a sure way to trigger me!!! 

I will try to spare you my long screed against it, but here is the short version. The famous French sociologist, Maurice Duverger, pointed out in the early 1950s that it is hard for parties other than two major ones to win seats when each member is elected by plurality (winner take all) in single-seat districts. This he called the “mechanical effect” because it concerns how the electoral system works to assign seats. And if it is hard for them to win seats, they don’t get many votes—voters don’t want to “waste” their votes on parties that can’t win. This is the so called psychological effect, also known as strategic voting or “lesser of two evils” voting.

The logic is sensible, but it is overstated. It certainly is not a law in the scientific sense (Duverger himself never claimed it was—he just said it was close to being a “true sociological law”). And it certainly is not a law in the sense of a binding constraint on voters or political elites. Nor should we expect it to be. In work that I have done with Rein Taagepera, we show that when there are a lot of districts—even ones electing just a single member, as in the US—there is a theoretical reason to expect parties beyond the top two to win some of those seats and to get significant vote percentages, even to the point of receiving votes in districts where they finish in a distant third place and thus are unable to win locally. And, empirically, this is true in other countries using the single-seat winner-take-all rules—Canada is multiparty, for instance. In the last Canadian election, the Liberal Party won only 33% of the votes and it was overrepresented, due to the non-proportional electoral system. But because it has 46% of the seats, short of a majority, it must take account of the views of other parties in order to govern.

The UK also has multiparty politics, albeit a lesser degree than in Canada. In 2010, a two-party coalition government formed, and after 2017, Theresa May’s government was in a minority in the House of Commons, because of the success of some smaller parties in winning seats.

So the US is a real outlier in having a rigid two-party system even given its electoral system, and even given Duverger’s so-called law. We should have more space in our congressional elections for Greens and Libertarians, and others, even without changing how members are elected. Nonetheless, it is true that it is much harder to get multiparty politics and minority representation using our electoral system than it would be if we used proportional representation.

Additionally, local representation really matters in US elections. It probably matters less than it used to, because voters are much more likely to vote straight party tickets nowadays than they were back in the 1970s and 1980s. (In those days, many districts had Democratic House members but the voters therein had favored Nixon or Reagan for president). Even with stronger party-line voting, we still see House members advertising what they have done on behalf of local communities and Senators emphasizing issues of concern to their states. They are local representatives even as they are also partisan actors. And this is a good thing! Local concerns that cross ideological and party lines need attention from policymakers as much as national policy challenges do.

So the US system makes it hard for minor parties to prosper, which is in many respects disadvantageous, particularly as the parties have become more distinct ideologically (“polarization”) in recent decades. But the US system offers local representation, which is in many respects advantageous.

In the Israeli case, there is certainly no problem with small parties getting seats! In fact, almost anyone—even a strong advocate for proportional representation and coalition governance like myself—would say in Israel the fragmentation of the choices into many small parties goes too far. It makes the formation of governments with a clear agenda for national policy challenges exceedingly difficult, and recently has resulted in three elections within eleven months because of the difficult interparty bargaining.

Yet a very big advantage of the Israeli system is that votes cast anywhere in the country contribute to the seat totals for their preferred parties (as long as they get at least 3.25% of the overall vote). So voters are equal, and the weight of my vote does not depend on the preferences of people who happen to live near me, as is the case in so much of the US where we might live in a safe state or district for one party and thus be essentially ignored at election time (even in presidential elections, given the electoral college). 

And a very big disadvantage of the Israeli system is the absence of local representation. Now, of course, Israel is a much smaller country than the US. But there are still are significant differences across the territory in terms of local infrastructural or other needs, and these do not get represented well in the legislative process for a very basic reason: no legislator in Israel is in any way accountable to local voters. The closed-list system means that they win solely based on their rank on the list, and how well their party performs in the nationwide vote.

So, I asked earlier whether it might be possible to combine the advantages of these two systems without taking in the disadvantages. Yes! Enter the German system.

In Germany, the members of the Bundestag are elected in what electoral-system terminology refers to as “two tiers”. There is one tier that consists of single-seat districts, thus resembling the American system (or those of Canada and Britain) in which a legislator is elected upon winning a plurality of votes in a geographically defined district. This election method comprises about half the seats in the Bundestag. 

The rest are elected in another tier from party lists, thus resembling the Israeli system. Each voters has two votes—one for a local representative (winner take all in their district) and one for a party list. The party list vote is more important for the overall composition of the legislature, but the separate district vote ensures candidates pay attention to a local area, have an incentive to become visible to voters and—crucially–that even a party that loses the local contest will tend to nurture support at the district level.

The way the two tiers are inter-related in the electoral law ensures that the overall balance of parties in the Bundestag is almost perfectly proportional to their nationwide vote shares—just as in Israel. There is a 5% threshold (thus somewhat higher than Israel’s). Under this arrangement, a party’s total number of seats is a mix of however many seats it won in the district tier, plus a number from its list needed to reach its proportional share of the total. Small parties often have only list seats, as they may not have any local wins. (I am glossing over some details here, but this is the general picture.)

The German system, often called mixed-member proportional (MMP), thus ensures that a vote cast anywhere in the territory is just as valuable as one cast anywhere else, in terms of contributing to the overall balance of partisan forces in the national legislature. In this sense, it is like Israel’s system and very unlike the US system. 

At the same time, it also ensures local representation, like the US system but very unlike Israel’s. 

(As an aside, I want to add that about 25 years ago New Zealand changed from single-seat plurality elections to MMP, modeled on Germany’s system. It has been a smashing success for their democracy. So electoral system reform is both possible, and beneficial. An example we could follow.)

Taking the two features together, Germany has coalition governments (as does New Zealand now), but not involving as many small and otherwise incompatible parties as we see in Israel’s coalitions. Germany also has local accountability that really matters. My own research and that of others confirms that members spend time in their districts, and often come from local roots including prior electoral offices or other ties to their communities. And, as we show in the Party Personnel book, committee assignments in the Bundestag are allocated according to a logic by which parties take advantage of expertise (occupational background), but crucially also to take advantage of local variations in party support and policy demands. (We also see this balance of representation criteria having emerged in NZ since they changed to a German-inspired MMP system.)

It has obviously worked quite well, in that Germany in the postwar period developed one of the most robust democracies and probably the strongest legislature in Europe. In fact, the development of that legislature was one of the recurring themes in Jerry’s career, from his very first book (in 1967, as I mentioned earlier) right up to his last publication, which was a remarkable essay published in a German journal (but in English) in 2018, reflecting on the choices made by both the Allied powers and the new German political class that laid the groundwork for the Bundestag’s development.

(Before I close out the section on Germany, I want to note that Germany is a federation of states, like the US, and it has a bicameral parliament. The other chamber, the Bundesrat, is a great model that Americans could learn from! Its members are chosen by state governments, and it has a veto on on legislation that directly affects the states, instead of on all national policy like the US Senate. It therefore deftly balances the state-interest and national-interest tensions inherent in federalism.)

****

Legislatures, as Gerhard Loewenberg showed us, are puzzling institutions. In democracies, they consist of formally equal individual representatives who somehow must organize themselves to make collective decisions on behalf of the citizens they represent. They are essential to democratic governance, yet the very procedures that they devise in order to function make them mysterious to the average voter, who is quite likely to associate the body with the worst features of politics.

We can learn a lot from comparing legislatures in different countries, as Gerhard Loewenberg’s long and distinguished career taught us. Both the US and Israel, as well as other countries, can learn from the German experience of how to balance seemingly contradictory goals of legislative and electoral institutional design. While there will never be a perfectly functioning democratic legislature for the simple reason that societies and the people who comprise them are complex, a process of scholarly and public enquiry into how different systems work can bring us towards a better understanding of how to make democracy work better, both in our own country and elsewhere.

Chag sameach; Chodesh tov. Happy Hanukkah, and a good new month. And may Dr. Gerhard Loewenberg’s memory be a blessing and an inspiration. 

The new Alaskan beast

What do the readers of this site think of the electoral reform just approved by voters in Alaska? I have mixed feelings about it, and I refer to it as a “beast” only because it combines features that never before have been combined in this manner, as far as I know.

It abolishes partisan primaries (except for presidential nominating delegates) in favor of a two-round system. In this sense, it resembles the “top two” systems now in place in California and Washington. However, it has two significant departures: (1) it is the top four candidates who qualify for the runoff, and (2) in the runoff, a ranked-choice vote will be used to determine the winner.

The unique (as far as I know) system thus will combine two methods that are common for winnowing a field and ensuring a majority. That is, we have runoff systems (usually but not not always top two*) and we have “instant” runoffs such as the alternative vote (AV) that entail ranked ballots. Here we have both in sequence in one electoral process.

I generally am not a fan of combining features in this way, because it is uncertain how features that are normally deployed separately will work together. However, this combo has some things going for it. The first round qualification process will not be as limiting as the California case, thereby making it much less likely than it now is here that only candidates of one party compete in the final round, while incidentally also making it more likely that a small-party candidate might be able to compete in the final round. Yet it makes more likely that the winner will be majority-supported. (Ranks will not be compulsory, so not all voters will give four ranks, thereby meaning a winner could still have under a majority.)

If asked, I’d have advised a different proposal, even if it had to retain single-seat districts. (The new Maine model of AV in each party’s open primary, and then AV in the general, is more appealing to me.) But if I were an Alaskan voter, I am certain I would have voted for this.

For more on this measure and others, see Jack Santucci’s Medium post on the “Principles of democratic reform on the ballot in 2020.”

___

*The French National Assembly election rules can allow more than two candidates from the first round to qualify for the runoff, even though most of the time all but the top two withdraw. The German president, under the Weimar constitution, was elected by a two-round system in which multiple candidates–even ones who had not participated in the first round–could participate in the runoff.

“Effective Seat Product” for two-tier PR (including MMP) and MMM

The seat product for a simple electoral system is its assembly size (S) times its mean district magnitude (M) (Taagepera 2007). From this product, MS, the various formulas of the Seat Product Model (SPM) allow us to estimate the effective number of parties, size of the largest, disproportionality, and other election indicators. For each output tested in Shugart and Taagepera (2017), Votes from Seats, we find that the SPM explains about 60% of the variance. This means that these two institutional inputs (M and S) alone account for three fifths of the cross-national differences in party system indicators, while leaving plenty for country-specific or election-specific factors to explain as well (i.e., the other 40% of the variance).

The SPM, based on the simple seat product, is fine if you have a single-tier electoral system. (In the book, we show it works reasonably well, at least on seat outputs, in “complex” but still single-tier systems like AV in Australia, majority-plurality in France, and STV in Ireland.) But what about systems with complex districting, such as two-tier PR? For these systems, Shugart and Taagepera (2017) propose an “extended seat product model”. This takes into account the basic-tier size and average district magnitude as well as the percentage of the entire assembly that is allocated in an upper tier, assumed to be compensatory. For estimating the expected effective number of seat-winning parties (NS), the extended SPM formula (Shugart and Taagepera, 2017: 263) is:

NS=2.5t(MB)1/6,

where MB is the basic-tier seat product, defined as the number of seats allocated in the basic tier (i.e., assembly size, minus seats in the upper tier), and t is the tier ratio, i.e., the share of all assembly seats allocated in the upper tier. If the electoral system is simple (single tier), the equation reduces to the “regular” seat product model, in which MS=MB and t=0.

(Added note: in the book we use MSB to refer to what I am calling here MB. No good reason for the change, other than blogger laziness.)

We show in the book that the extended seat product is reasonably accurate for two-tier PR, including mixed-member proportional (MMP). We also show that the logic on which it is based checks out, in that the basic tier NS (i.e., before taking account of the upper tier) is well explained by (MB)1/6, while the multiplier term, 2.5t, captures on average how much the compensation mechanism increases NS. Perhaps most importantly of all, the extended seat product model’s prediction is closer to actually observed nationwide NS, on average, than would be an estimate of NS derived from the simple seat product. In other words, for a two-tier system, do not just take the basic-tier mean M and multiply by S and expect it to work!

While the extended seat product works quite well for two-tier PR (including MMP), it is not convenient if one wants to scale such systems along with simple systems. For instance, as I did in my recent planting on polling errors. For this we need an “effective seat product” that exists on the same scale as the simple seat product, but is consistent with the effect of the two-tier system on the effective number of parties (or other outputs).

We did not attempt to develop such an effective seat product in Shugart and Taagepera (2017), but it is pretty straightforward how to do it. And if we can do this, we can also derive an “effective magnitude” of such systems. In this way, we can have a ready indicator of what simple (hypothetical) design comes closest to expressing the impact of the (actual) complex design on the party system.

The derivation of effective seat product is pretty simple, actually. Just take, for the system parameters, the predicted effective number of seat-winning parties, NS, and raise it to the power, 6. That is, if NS=(MS)1/6, it must be that MS=NS6. (Taagepera 2007 proposes something similar, but based on actual output, rather than expected, as there was not to be a form of the seat product model for two-tier systems for almost another decade, till an initial proposal by Li and Shugart (2016).)

Once we do this, we can arrive at effective seat products for all these systems. Examples of resulting values are approximately 5,000 for Germany (MMP) in 2009 and 6,600 for Denmark (two-tier PR) in 2007. How do these compare to simple systems? There are actual few simple systems with these seat products in this range. This might be a feature of two-tier PR (of which MMP could be considered a subtype), as it allows a system to have a low or moderate basic-tier district magnitude combined with a high degree of overall proportionality (and small-party permissiveness). The only simple, single-tier, systems with similar seat products are Poland (5,161), with the next highest being Brazil (9,747) and Netherlands before 1956 (10,000). The implication here is that Germany and Denmark have systems roughly equivalent in their impact on the party system–i.e., on the 60% of variance mentioned above, not the country-specific 40%–as the simple districted PR system of Poland (S=460, M=11) but not as permissive as Brazil (S=513, M=19) or pre-1956 Netherlands (M=S=100). Note that each of these systems has a much higher magnitude than the basic-tier M of Germany (1) or larger assembly than Denmark (S=179; M=13.5). Yet their impact on the nationwide party system should be fairly similar.

Now, suppose you are more interested in “effective district magnitude” than in the seat product. I mean, you should be interested in the seat product, because it tells you more about a system’s impact on the party system than does magnitude alone! But there may be value in knowing the input parameters separately. You can find S easily enough, even for a complex system. But what about (effective) M? This is easy, too! Just take the effective seat product and divide it by the assembly size.

Thus we have an effective M for Germany in 2009 of 7.9 and for Denmark in 2007 of 36.9. These values give us an idea of how, for their given assembly sizes, their compensatory PR systems make district magnitude “effectively”–i.e., in terms of impact on the inter-party dimension–much larger than the basic-tier districts actually are. If we think low M is desirable for generating local representation–a key aspect of the intra-party dimension–we might conclude that Germany gets the advantages M=1 in local representation while also getting the advantages of the proportionality of 8-seat districts. (Best of both worlds?) By comparison, simple districted PR systems with average M around 8 seats include Switzerland and Costa Rica. (The Swiss system is complex in various ways, but not in its districting.) Eight is also the minimum magnitude in Brazil. Denmark gets whatever local representation advantages might come from an actual mean M of 13.5, yet the proportionality, for its assembly size, as if those districts elected, on average, 37 members. Actual districts of about this magnitude occur only in a relatively few districts within simple systems. For instance, the district for Madrid in Spain has M in the mid-30s, but that system’s overall average is only 6.7 (i.e., somewhat smaller than Germany’s effective M).

Now, what about mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) systems. Unlike MMP, these are not designed with a compensatory upper tier. In Votes from Seats, Taagepera and I basically conclude that we are unable to generalize about them. Each MMM system is sui generis. Maybe we gave up too soon! I will describe a procedure for estimating an effective seat product and effective magnitude for MMM systems, in which the basic tier normally has M=1, and there is a list-PR component that is allocated in “parallel” rather than to compensate for deviations from proportionality arising out of the basic tier.

The most straightforward means of estimating the effective seat product is to treat the system as a halfway house between MMP and FPTP. That is, they have some commonality with MMP, in having both M=1 and a list-PR component (not actually a “tier” as Gallagher and Mitchell (2005) explain). But they also have commonality with FPTP, where all seats are M=1 plurality, in that they reward a party that is able to win many of the basic seats in a way that MMP does not. If we take the geometric average of the effective seat product derived as if it were MMP and the effective seat product as if it were FPTP, we might have a reasonable estimate for MMM.

In doing this, I played with both an “effective FPTP seat product” from the basic tier alone and an effective FPTP seat product based on assuming the actual assembly size. The latter works better (in the sense of “predicting,” on average for a set of MMM systems, what their actual NS is), and I think it makes more logical sense. After all, the system should be more permissive than if were a FPTP system in which all those list-PR component seats did not exist. So we are taking the geometric average of (1) a hypothetical system in which the entire assembly is divided into a number of single-seat electoral districts (Eeff) that is Eeff = EB+tS, where EB is the actual number of single-seat districts in the basic tier and S and t are as defined before, and (2) a hypothetical system that is MMP instead of MMM but otherwise identical.

When we do this, we get the following based on a couple sample MMM systems. In Japan, the effective seat product becomes approximately 1,070, roughly equivalent to moderate-M simple districted PR systems in the Dominican Republic or pre-1965 Norway. For South Korea, we would have an effective seat product of 458, or very roughly the same as the US House, and also close to the districted PR system of Costa Rica.

Here is how those are derived, using the example of Japan. We have S=480, with 300 single-seat districts and 180 list-PR seats. Thus t=0.375. If it were two-tier PR (specifically, MMP), the extended seat product would expect NS=3.65, from which we would derive an effective seat product, (MS)eff=3.666 =2,400. But it is MMM. So let’s calculate an effective FPTP seat product. Eeff = EB+tS=300+180=480 (from which we would expect NS=2.80). We just take the geometric mean of these two seat-product estimates: (2400*480)1/2=1,070. This leads to an expected NS=3.19, letting us see just how much the non-compensatory feature reduces expected party-system fragmentation relative to MMP as well as how much more permissive it is than if it were FPTP.

How does this work out in practice? Well, for Japan it is accurate for the 2000 election (NS=3.17), but several other elections have had NS much lower. That is perhaps due to election-specific factors (producing huge swings in 2005 and 2009, for example). As I alluded to above already, over the wider set of MMM systems, this method is pretty good on average. For 40 elections in 17 countries, a ratio of actual NS to that predicted from this method is 1.0075 (median 0.925). The worst-predicted is Italy (1994-2001), but that is mainly because the blocs that formed to cope with MMM contained many parties (plus Italy’s system had a partial-compensation feature). If I drop Italy, I get a mean of 1.0024 (but a median of only 0.894) on 37 elections.

If we want an effective magnitude for MMM, we can again use the simple formula, Meff=(MS)eff/S. For Japan, this would give us Meff=2.25; for Korea Meff=1.5. Intuitively, these make sense. In terms of districting, these systems are more similar to FPTP than they are to MMP, or even to districted PR. That is, they put a strong premium on the plurality party, while also giving the runner-up party a considerable incentive to attend to district interests in the hopes of swinging the actual district seat their way next time (because the system puts a high premium on M=1 wins, unlike MMP). This is, by the way, a theme of the forthcoming Party Personnel book of which I am a coauthor.

(A quirk here is that Thailand’s system of 2001 and 2005 gets an effective magnitude of 0.92! This is strange, given that magnitude–the real kind–obviously has a lower limit of 1.0, but it is perhaps tolerable inasmuch as it signals that Thailand’s MMM was really strongly majoritarian, given only 100 list seats out of 500, which means most list seats would also be won by any party that performed very well in the M=1 seats, which is indeed very much what happened in 2005. The concept of an “effective” magnitude less than 1.0 implies a degree of majoritarianism that one might get from multi-seat plurality of the MNTV or list-plurality kind.)

In this planting, I have shown that it is possible to develop an “effective seat product” for two-tier PR systems that allows such systems to be scaled along with simple, single-tier systems. The exercise allows us to say what sort of simple system an actual two-tier system most resembles in its institutional impact on inter-party variables, like the effective number of seat-winning parties, size of the largest party, and disproportionality (using formulas of the Seat Product Model). From the effective seat product, we can also determine an “effective magnitude” by simply dividing the calculated effective seat product by actual assembly size. This derivation lets us understand how the upper tier makes the individual district effectively more proportional while retaining an actual (basic-tier) magnitude that facilitates a more localized representation. Further, I have shown that MMM systems can be treated as intermediary between a hypothetical MMP (with the same basic-tier and upper-tier structure) and a hypothetical FPTP in which the entire assembly consists of single-seat districts. Again, this procedure can be extended to derive an effective magnitude. For actual MMP systems in Germany and also New Zealand, we end up with an effective magnitude in the 6–8 range. For actual MMM systems, we typically get an effective magnitude in the 1.5–3 range.

I will post files that have these summary statistics for a wide range of systems in case they may be of use to researchers or other interested readers. These are separate files for MMM, MMP, and two-tier PR (i.e, those that also use PR in their basic tiers), along with a codebook. (Links go to Dropbox (account not required); the first three files are .CSV and the codebook is .RTF.)

Added note: In the spreadsheets, the values of basic-tier seat product (MB) and tier ratio (t) are not election-specific, but are system averages. We used a definition of “system” that is based on how Lijphart (1994) defines criteria for a “change” in system. This is important only because it means the values may not exactly match what you would calculate from the raw values at a given election, if there have been small tweaks to magnitude or other variables during an otherwise steady-state “system”. These should make for only very minor differences and only for some countries.

Does the electoral system affect polling errors, and what about presidentialism?

I will attempt to answer the questions in the title through an examination of the dataset that accompanies Jennings and Wlezien (2018), Election polling errors across time and space. The main purpose of the article is to investigate the question as to whether polls have become less reliable over time. One of their key findings can be summarized from the following brief excerpt:

We find that, contrary to much conventional wisdom, the recent performance of polls has not been outside the ordinary; if anything, polling errors are getting smaller on average, not bigger.

A secondary task of Jennings and Wlezien is to ask whether the institutional context matters for polling accuracy. This sort of question is just what this virtual orchard exists for, and I was not satisfied with the treatment of electoral systems in the article. Fortunately, their dataset is available and is in Stata format, so I went about both replicating what they did (which I was able to do without any issues) and then merging in other data I have and making various new codings and analyses.

My hunch was that, if we operationalize the electoral system as more than “proportional or not”, we would find that more “permissive” electoral systems–those that favor higher party-system fragmentation and proportionality–would tend to have larger polling errors. I reasoned that when there are more parties in the system (as is usually the case under more permissive systems), voters have more choices that might be broadly acceptable to them, and hence late shifts from party to party might be more likely to be missed by the polls. This is contrary to what the authors expect and find, which is that mean absolute error tends to be lower in proportional representation (PR) systems than under “SMD” (single-member districts, which as I always feel I must add, is not an electoral system type, but simply a district magnitude). See their Table 2, which shows a mean absolute error in the last week before electoral day of 1.62 under PR and 2.28 under “SMD”.

The authors also expect and show that presidential elections have systematically higher error than legislative elections (2.70 vs. 1.83, according to the same table). They also have a nifty Figure 1 that shows that presidential election polling is both more volatile over the timeline of a given election campaign in its mean absolute error and exhibits higher error than legislative election polling at almost any point from 200 days before the election to the last pre-election polls. Importantly, even presidential election polls become more accurate near the end, but they still retain higher error than legislative elections even immediately before the election.

This finding on presidential elections is consistent with my own theoretical priors. Because presidential contests are between individuals who have a “personal vote” and who are not necessarily reliable agents of the party organization, but are selected because their parties think they can win a nationwide contest (Samuels and Shugart, 2010), the contest for president should be harder to poll than for legislative elections, all else equal. That is, winning presidential candidates attract floating voters–that is pretty much the entire goal of finding the right presidential candidate–and these might be more likely to be missed, even late in the campaign.

To test my own hunches on the impact of institutions on polling errors, I ran a regression (OLS) similar to what is reported in the authors’ Table 3: “Regressions of absolute vote-poll error using polls from the week before Election Day.” This regression shows, among other results, a strong significant effect of presidential elections (i.e., more polling error), and a negative and significant effect of PR. It also shows that the strongest effect among included variables is party size: those parties that get more than 20% of the vote tend to have larger absolute polling errors, all else equal. (I include this variable as a control in my regression as well.)

The main item of dissatisfaction for me was the dichotomy, PR vs. SMD. (Even if we call it PR vs. plurality/majority, I’d still be dissatisfied). My general rule is do not dichotomize electoral systems! Systems are more or less permissive, and are best characterized by their seat product, which is defined as mean district magnitude times assembly size. Thus I wanted to explore what the result would be if I used the seat product to define the electoral system.

I also had a further hunch, which was that presidential elections would be especially challenging to poll in institutional settings in which the electoral system for the assembly is highly permissive. In these cases, either small parties enter the presidential contest to “show the flag” even though they may have little chance to win–and hence voters may be more likely to defect at the end–or they form pre-election joint candidacies with other parties. In the latter case, some voters may hedge about whether they will vote for a candidate of an allied party when their preferred party has no candidate. Either situation should tend to make polling more difficult, inflating error even late in the campaign. To test this requires interacting the seat product with the binary variable for election type (presidential or legislative). My regression has 642 observations; theirs has 763. The difference is due to a few complex systems having unclear seat product plus a dropping of some elections that I explain below. Their findings hold on my smaller sample with almost the precise same coefficients, and so I do not think the different sample sizes matter for the conclusions.

When I do this, and graph the result (using Stata ‘margins’ command), I get the following.

I am both right and wrong! On the electoral system effect, the seat product does not matter at all for error in legislative elections. That is, we do not see either the finding Jennings and Wlezien report of lower error under PR (compared to “SMD”), nor my expectation that error would increase as the seat product increases–EXCEPT: It seems I was right in my expectation that error in presidential contests increases with the seat product of the (legislative) electoral system.

The graph shows the estimated output and 95% confidence intervals for presidential elections (black lines and data points) and for legislative (gray). We see that the error is higher, on average, for presidential systems for all seat products greater than a logged value of about 2.75, and increasingly so as the seat product rises. Note that a logged value of 2.75 is an unlogged seat product of 562. Countries in this range include France, India, the Dominican Republic, and Peru. (Note that some of these are “PR” and some “SMD”; that is the point, in that district magnitude and formula are not the only features that determine how permissive an entire national electoral system is–see Shugart and Taagepera, 2017.)

I have checked the result in various ways, both with alternative codings of the electoral system variable, and with sub-sets, as well as by selectively dropping specific countries that comprise many data points. For instance, I thought maybe Brazil (seat product of 9,669, or a logged value just short of 4) was driving the effect, or maybe the USA (435; logged =2.64) was. No. It is robust to these and other exclusions.

For alternatives on the coding of electoral system, the effect is similar if I revert to the dichotomy, and it also works if I just use the log of mean district magnitude (thereby ignoring assembly size).

For executive format types, running the regression on sub-samples also is robust. If I run only the presidential elections in pure presidential systems (73 obs.), I still get a strong positive and significant effect of the seat product on polling error. If I run only on pure parliamentary systems (410 obs.), I get no impact of the seat product. If I restrict the sample only to semi-presidential systems (159 obs.), the interactive effect holds (and all coefficients stay roughly the same) just as when all systems are included. So it seems there is a real effect here of the seat product–standing in for electoral system permissiveness–on the accuracy of polling near the end of presidential election campaigns.

I want to briefly describe a few other data choices I made. First of all, legislative elections in pure presidential systems are dropped. The Jennings and Wlezien regression sample actually has no such elections other than US midterm elections, and I do not think we can generalize from that experience to legislative vs. presidential elections in other presidential systems. (Most are concurrent anyway, as is every presidential election in the US and thus the other half of the total number of congressional elections.)

However, I did check within systems where we have both presidential and legislative polls available. All countries in the Jennings-Wlezien regression sample that are represented by both types of election are semi-presidential, aside from the US. In the US, Poland, and Portugal, the pattern holds: mean error is greater in presidential elections than in assembly elections in the same country. But the difference is significant only in Portugal. In Croatia the effect goes the other way, but to a trivial degree and there are only three legislative elections included. (If I pool all these countries, the difference across election types is statistically significant, but the magnitude of the difference is small: 2.22 for legislative and 2.78 for presidential.)

The astute reader will have noticed that the x-axis of the graph is labelled, effective seat product. This is because I need a way to include two-tier systems and the seat product’s strict definition (average magnitude X assembly size) only works for single-tier systems. There is a way to estimate the seat product equivalent for a two-tier system as if it were simple. I promise to explain that some time soon, but here is not the place for it. (UPDATE: Now planted.)

I also checked one other thing that I wanted to report before concluding. I wondered if there would be a different effect if a given election had an effective number of parties (seat-winning) greater than expected from its seat product. The intuition is that polling would be tend to off more if the party (or presidential) contest were more fragmented than expected for the given electoral system. The answer is that it does not alter the basic pattern, whereby it makes no difference to legislative elections (in parliamentary or semi-presidential systems). For presidential elections, there is a tendency for significantly higher error the more the fragmentation of the legislative election is greater than expected for the seat product. The graph below shows a plot of this election; as you can probably tell from the data plot, the fit of this regression is poorer than the one reported earlier. Still, there may be something here that is worth investigating further.