Electoral reform’s comeback in the United Kingdom

About two years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog in which I argued that the increased vote shares for the two major parties in the United Kingdom at the 2017 election, and the relatively low levels of disproportionality that this had created, meant that no political party would be able to have both the incentive and ability to change the electoral system.

Since then, things have changed somewhat.

The inability of Theresa May’s government to propose a Brexit deal which would satisfy parliament and the reluctance of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to express its full-throated opposition to Brexit has led to former UKIP leader Nigel Farage forming the new Brexit Party, and the Liberal Democrats and Greens making considerable headway. At European Parliament elections held in May of this year, the Conservatives and Labour won just 22% of the vote between them, with the Brexit Party finishing in a comfortable first and the Liberal Democrats coming second. Since then, the Conservatives and Labour have also plummeted in polling for Commons elections, with only a few percentage points seperating them and the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats.

Now, the Brexit Party have joined the Liberal Democrats, regionalist parties, and Greens, long advocates for the cause of electoral reform, in calling for the replacement of first-past-the-post with an as-yet unspecified proportional electoral system. While it may seem slightly unusual for Farage’s party to be promoting an idea that is more often associated with the left wing of politics in the United Kingdom, it can be explained with reference to the potential uncertainty that the party has about the number of seats they could win under FPTP given that current estimates of their support are around 20%. While all such predictions should be taken with a grain of salt given the dramatic changes in party support, one analysis of opinion polling suggests that 20% of the vote for the Brexit Party could translate into just 68 seats, while the Conservatives’ 23% would translate into 193 seats and Labour’s 25% would secure them 257 seats.

In such circumstances, the Brexit Party may well see it as wiser to argue for an electoral system that guarantees them a stable share of seats, rather than entering into the potential lottery of a near four-way tie under FPTP. However, does this logic apply to the ‘major’ Labour and Conservative parties? After all, they lead the Brexit and Liberal Democrats only narrowly, and this lead could be erased by a weak campaign, leaving them with a potentially disastrous seat haul.

Would either of these two major parties be willing to change their positions on electoral reform? Labour may appear to have a more substantial ideological committment to electoral reform: after all, then-leader Ed Miliband backed the Alternative Vote in the 2011 referendum and a Labour government introduced list PR for European elections, MMP for devolved assemblies, and the Supplementary Vote for directly elected mayoralties. The Conservatives opposed AV, and promised to roll back MMP for the London assembly and the Supplementary Vote in their 2017 manifesto.

However, in this case the political logic of the electoral system may run the other way. The histograms below show the share of the vote cast for the Labour and Conservative parties at the 2017 election, in seats where each party won. As can be seen, Labour have more winners with higher majorities than the Conservatives, who won virtually all of their seats with less than 62.5% of the vote.

labourtory

(data from Constituency Level Election Archive)

This suggests that the Conservative seat total may be more vulnerable to a dramatic drop in the party’s vote share than Labour, which has more seats in which they can afford to lose a large share of their vote. This is reflected in the aforementioned Electoral Calculus analysis, which gives the Conservatives 64 fewer seats than Labour for a vote share slightly less than two percentage points lower. As such, a switch to PR may make more political sense for the Conservatives, despite their long ideological committment to FPTP.

At this stage, talk of electoral reform is somewhat theoretical: as wrangling over Brexit continues, Parliament is unlikely to be able to find time to dedicate to the complicated exercise of changing the electoral systen, and the currently pro-PR parties have only derisory representation in this Parliament. However, if the next Prime Minister is unable to deal with their slim majority in this Parliament, a new election may bring these issues to a head, and bring the problems of the FPTP system in a four-party system out of the realm of the theoretical.

Open-list PR and the definition of antisemitism

Here’s an unexpected convergence of my interests. Open-list PR has helped lead to a Finnish organization’s adoption of the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism.

Via JPost:

The recently elected Finnish MP Hussein al-Taee, a supporter of the Islamic Republic of Iran, was embroiled in an antisemitism, racism and homophobia scandal in May. After revelations in the Israeli and Finnish media about his antisemitic Facebook posts CMI [Crisis Management Initiative] scrubbed him from its website…

Alas he’s still in parliament. His preference votes placed him sixth on the SDP list, which won 7 seats In Uusimaa district; he was a mere 63 votes ahead of the list’s first loser.

It is possible that his views may have helped him edge out other candidates and win a seat. But on the positive side, his election evidently helped increase sensitivity of the CMI to anti-semitism.

PEI 2019: Provincial assembly election and MMP referendum

Prince Edward Island election day was today. Results appear to be pointing towards a lead in votes and seats for the Progressive Conservatives. Thus the expectation (at least according to some polling) that the Greens might form the government looks unlikely now. The Green Party appears to be in second place, although closer (in votes) to the third place Liberals than to first place. The Liberals are the outgoing governing party, with a seat majority.

It looks like it will be a minority situation, which I think will be a first for PEI.

Voters were also voting in a referendum on whether to replace FPTP with a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, with the voter brochure showing it as an open-list variant. That looks like a close call at this point, but most likely it has been defeated. To pass, the MMP proposal requires not only a majority of votes, but also a win in 17 of the 27 districts. At the moment, CBC is reporting it will win no more than 15 (and may not have a provincewide majority anyway).

PEI has been here before, having voted in a non-binding ballot (conducted by phone or online) for MMP in 2016, and having defeated an earlier MMP referendum by a big majority in 2005.

Today’s referendum had an odd ballot format: the NO option appears above the YES option. I am not sure I have ever seen that before.

(There is one district that did not vote today in the assembly election; a candidate, of the Greens, died in a canoe accident last Friday, so there will be a by-election at a future date.)

Candidates on closed lists: If only Glick had been ranked higher

I do this occasional series on party lists, and how candidates can matter, even when the list is closed (meaning voters can’t vote for a specific candidate, and the order in which candidates would be elected is set by the party, prior to the election).

Here is another one for the files.

An official of the New Right party in Israel has claimed that the party would have cleared the 3.25% threshold if only one of its candidates, Caroline Glick, had been ranked in the top 4. A party that clears the threshold gets 4 seats as a minimum. Glick, a US-born author, was ranked 6th.

The official making the claim is none other than Jeremy Saltan, whose polling aggregations I referred to throughout the campaign. He was New Right’s head of outreach to English-speaking voters.

Saltan is quoted in the Times of Israel as saying, “Already during the campaign Anglos told me they would have voted for us if we put her higher.”

Further, “Saltan said the party should have emphasized that it was the only party with a US-born candidate featured prominently on its slate and campaign.”

While I would tend to be a little skeptical of a claim like this, I would not rule it out. In the final results, the party missed the threshold by a slim margin, ending up with 3.22%. So it is possible that potential Anglo voters could have stayed with the party, rather than defect to Likud (or United Right or even Zehut) had they been more confident it would clear the threshold, and that Glick would be elected.

My main skepticism is that the party was generally polling at more than 4 seats, so if anything, the fact that she was individually marginal, but the party (allegedly) was not, should have encouraged more voters, not fewer, to favor New Right if they were otherwise wavering.

Anyway, it is always good to have another one for the “candidates matter, even in closed lists” file.

Finland 2019

The Finnish parliamentary election is today. The expectation from pre-election polling is that the center-left parties may make gains. The result may be close enough for regional variance in party strengths to matter to the outcome, as was the case in 2007. Since then, the electoral system has been modified slightly, with some smaller-magnitude districts merged. Thus regional variance should not matter as much as it did then.

The system is districted open-list PR, so candidates matter greatly, and the system permits multiparty alliance lists (which need not have the same combinations in all districts).

(A more substantial electoral reform, with nationwide compensation, was proposed after 2007. But it did not pass.)

Finally, Israel has a totally normal election

[Updated with final results]
Israel has seemingly defied the Seat Product Model in recent years, with a top seat-winning party smaller than expected, and a number of parties greater than expected, based on its electoral system. To be fair to the Seat Product Model (SPM)–and who would not want to be fair to the SPM?–in earlier years of the state, the largest party had been bigger than expected and the number of parties smaller. On average, over its 70+ years, the State of Israel is pretty close to a normal country, at least as far as the SPM is concerned. But, oh, those fluctuations! And it had been many years since it was not overly fragmented, even given an electoral system that invites fragmentation through use of a single nationwide district.

At last, 2019 produced a result over which we can all sigh with relief. Someone got the memo, and the election produce a totally compliant result!

Here are the seat totals and percentages for each of the parties that cleared the threshold.

Likud 35 29.17
B&W 35 29.17
Shas 8 6.67
UTJ 8 6.67
Hadash-Ta’al 6 5.00
Labor 6 5.00
URWP 5 4.17
Yisrael Beitenu 5 4.17
Kulanu 4 3.33
Meretz 4 3.33
Ra’am-Balad 4 3.33
120 100.00

The Seat Product Model gives us a baseline expectation from the “seat product”, which is defined as the mean district magnitude, times the assembly size. Then the seat product is raised to a given exponent, based on deductive logic as to what the outcome of interest should be expected to be, on average. In the case of the largest party, the exponent is –1/8. The largest party in the 2019 Israeli election, Likud, is one seat off the 30% (which would be 36, which actually was the number in the preliminary count), at 29.17%; the expectation is a share of 0.302=(120 x 120)^–1/8. So the ratio of actual to expected is 1.036. So just about right on target.

The SPM exponent for the number of parties winning at least one seat is 1/4, which yields an expectation of 10.95. The actual number was 11. For the effective number of seat-winning parties, the exponent is 1/6, for an expectation of 4.93. The actual value from the above seat shares works out to 5.24, which is 1.062 times the expectation.

All in all, totally normal!

So it will be fun to update the following graph for my forthcoming chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Israeli Politics and Society, and show the lines for observed values over time coming back to the expected values, which are marked by the horizontal solid line in each plot. The dashed line marks the mean for the entire period, through 2015. Vertical lines mark changes in electoral-system features other than the district magnitude and assembly size–specifically formula changes or threshold increases. (I have not yet run calculations for deviation from proportionally for 2019.)

So, how did this happen, quite apart from the strong pull of the SPM, given that everyone presumably had plenty of time to read the book, which was published in 2017?

My main answer is strategic voting, following upon strategic alliance formation. The forging of the Blue & White alliance in late February, gave the opposition at least a sense of momentum and opportunity to defeat Netanyahu and Likud. The alliance surely benefited a great deal from voters deserting other parties in the opposition in order to bolster B&W. At the same time, many voters on the right no doubt feared B&W just might win, and so defected to the strongest party in the bloc, Likud. Never mind that this sort of within-bloc strategic voting is not entirely rational–the government will be the set of parties that can reach 61 votes, whether or not that set includes the largest party overall. Voters may not understand that fully, or may expect that if one of the top two parties could be at least a few seats ahead of the other, it might be politically difficult for the second to form the government even if it was mathematically feasible.

Such strategic voting would explain why Labor did so poorly. It had been polling near ten seats, which would have been bad enough for the once grand party. But that it ended up on an embarrassing six is probably attributable to strategic defection to B&W. Similarly, Meretz’s very close scare, winning only 4 seats on 3.63% of the votes. The threshold is 3.25%.

Speaking of the threshold, one of the big stories of the election was the failure of New Right to clear it, ending up at 3.22%, despite having been at 6-8 seats in most polls throughout the campaign. That, too, may be due to strategic defection, to either Likud itself or back to the alliance that New Right leaders Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked split from, Bayit Yehudi (running within the new Union of Right Wing Parties).

The result shows two relatively dominant parties, each at 29.2%, and then a smattering of small parties. The third largest seat total is shared by the two ultra-orthodox parties, Shas and UTJ, which have just 8 apiece (6.7%). Seven other parties have 4-6 seats each. This is a result that actually makes a lot of sense for an electoral system with such a high seat product, which allows sectarian interest (different flavors of religious politics, different tendencies within the Arab minority, different strands of left-Zionism, etc.) to win representation, while still featuring two parties around which potential coalitions could form. (Leave aside for now the trouble B&W would have had forming a government even had it been a couple of seats ahead of Likud; it was still a potential alternative pole of attraction.)

In the recent past, I have felt that the low threshold–formerly 2% and even lower farther back in time–was not the issue driving fragmentation. And, in fact, the increases in the threshold in 2003 and 2015 (with the last increase actually leading to a moderately high threshold, not a “low” one) did little to bring fragmentation down, as the graph above shows. The driver of fragmentation was the absence of a real “big” party–with even Likud struggling to break 25%–and a surplus of mid-sized parties, which I am defining as parties with around 10-20 seats apiece. Well, this time the party system really looks different, with a leading party almost exactly the expected size, a second party its equal, and then a bunch of little parties. That implies that a somewhat higher threshold–either 4% or 5%–could make a difference, after all. Now would be a good time to seize the day, and form a unity government to do just that. Of course, that is unlikely to happen for various reasons, some of which I mentioned in the previous post. And high thresholds can have perverse outcomes, leading to greater risk of some relevant segment of the electorate being left out.

Speaking, still, of thresholds, I should acknowledge something about the fit to the SPM. The SPM formulas used above do not take thresholds into account. Why not? Simple. Because the formulas work without taking them into account! However, had there been no threshold, the Israeli result would have been different, obviously. Even if we assume no change in party/alliance formation in the absence of a threshold (massive and unrealistic assumption), three more parties would have won seats: Zehut (2.7%) and Gesher (1.7%), in addition to New Right. So then we are up to 14 parties, and some corresponding increase in the effective number and decrease in size of the largest.

In Votes from Seats, we propose some “first approximation” predictive models based on thresholds instead of the seat product. Given a threshold of 3.25%, these predict a largest party of 42.5% (or a little less with a “second approximation” that I will leave aside here), and an effective number of parties of 3.13. As we can see, these do not do so well on the Israeli election of 2019. So the SPM has it, notwithstanding the complication of the threshold making the SPM fit better than it might otherwise for this election.

Finally, a totally normal election in Israel.

Israel 2019 result

[Updated with final results]

The election results are final, after a couple of days of doubt about just who had cleared, or not cleared, the 3.25% threshold, and a few more days of final scrutiny (which cut Likud’s total by one seat and boosted the UTJ). The New Right, the party formed by Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked when they bolted from Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi), came up just short of winning any seats. With 3.22% of the vote, the party now joins the list of contenders for nearest miss of all time in any country with a nationwide threshold.

Meanwhile, one of the two Arab lists in this election, Ra’am-Balad, which many polls showed falling below the threshold, just made it, with 3.34%. Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut (build the Third Temple now and smoke dope!), which was the sensation of the latter part of the campaign with most polls showing it well above the threshold, came in at only 2.73%. I don’t usually ascribe great impact to specific campaign stunts, but his appearance on a comic show just before the election was one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen a politician do. Could it have cost him votes of wavering voters who had mistakenly thought he was a serious politician?

The contest between Likud and the opposition alliance, Blue & White, would have been exciting if only there had actually been more at stake. Two of the three exit polls showed B&W ahead, but there was not much doubt that Likud would be in a better position to form a coalition than B&W, even before the two parties pulled even. Then, in the final results, Likud pulled ahead.

The votes for the top two were 26.45% for Likud and 26.12% for B&W. In seats, Likud has the edge, 36-35.

Taking all the parties in the government at the time the election was called, we have results for the new Knesset (which has 120 seats total) as follows:

Party/alliance 2019 2015
Likud 35 30
Shas 8 7
UTJ 8 6
URWP 5 8
Kulanu 4 10
total 60 61

The table compares the results with 2015; the number for URWP (Union of Right Wing Parties) for 2015 refers to Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi), which, minus New Right, is the main component in the new Union.

At first glance, this looks like potentially bad news for current PM and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. However, if he comes to agreement with Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home), the total rises to 65. YB won 6 seats in 2015 and will have 5 in the new Knesset.

Bargaining with YB leader Avigdor Liberman is never easy. He joined the government some time after it was formed following the 2015 election. (One of those elected in 2015, Orly Levy, defected when the party joined the government.) He also left the government about a year before the term was up, in November, resigning as Defense Minister and bashing Netanyahu for being too soft on Hamas. That move left the coalition with just a bare majority of 61 seats and was one of the things that precipitated the election being held early. Shortly after the polls closed, Liberman stated that he would not recommend anyone for prime minister when the various faction heads meet with the president, who then is obliged to assess who has the best chance of forming a government.

Even if Liberman were to remain in opposition–and he may simply be playing hard to get–it would not necessarily prevent Netanyahu from forming a government. There is no requirement for 61 affirmative votes. And there is no way that Liberman is going to vote with the left and Arab parties for an alternative. However, with or without Yisrael Beitenu, it may be another relatively unstable government.

The other possibility, of course, is a coalition of the top two parties–a so-called “unity” (or dare I say “grand coalition“?) government. An “unsourced report” says this is under consideration. I say we consider this spin until proven otherwise. On the other hand, we should also take with a grain of salt the statement by Yair Lapid (no. 2 in Blue & White) that he is “personally opposed to sitting in a government with Netanyahu.” At this point, most of what is said, either by leaders in public or by various unnamed sources, is just part of the bargaining process.

A Likud-BW coalition would be quite a letdown to voters who voted for B&W because Gantz told them over and over again how the most important thing was to kick out Netanyahu. Still, I do not think we should assume it is completely ruled out till we see how the bargaining among the right-wing parties unfolds.

As far as specific candidates elected, there are some interesting developments. Israeli lists are, of course, closed. So when a party or alliance list performs at the outer limits of what is expected, some candidates may be elected whose personal attributes or social-group ties were part of the reason for their being given a marginal rank in the first place. Both Likud and Blue & White outperformed the pre-election polls. With 35 seats, B&W elects a candidate who was the country’s first openly gay mayor (Eitan Ginzburg, of Ra’anana), who was #32 on the list. In fact, the number of LGBT members hits a record high, with five, who also include Idan Roll and Yorai Lahav Hertzano, #34 and 35 on the B&W list. In addition, B&W elects Gadi Yevarkan (#33), an Ethiopian immigrant.

Likud’s over-performance elects two additional women from a party list that had only two in its top ten and just a few more in the top 30: May Golan (#32 and an anti-immigrant activist) and Osnat Mark (#35, already in the Knesset since last year). (One of the most interesting will be Keren Barak, who had a safe slot at #24. Click the link to see what I mean.)

With only four seats, Meretz failed to elect its first-ever Druze candidate, Ali Salalha, who was ranked #5. I have not checked city-level results to see if Meretz dominated the vote in his home town of Beit Jann, as was expected due to his candidacy. But it was not enough for an extra seat. Meretz’s vote share was 3.63%; the next largest list was able to win five seats, with 3.70%. So Salalha may not have missed by much. (Meretz also had an Ethiopian immigrant, Mehereta Baruch Ron, a deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, at #6.)

The party formed by Orly Levy Abekassis (the YB defector mentioned above), Gesher, was a big flop. It won only 1.73%. Her social policy emphasis had looked like it could win 5 or as many as 8 seats according to polls through much of last year, but it faded rapidly once the campaign really got underway. She should have struck a deal with B&W. It might have netted them a couple more seats, although even then, a B&W-led government would have remained out of reach, most likely.

I’ll be back with more later about the aggregate outcome.