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.
- Except for temporary increases to accommodate Alaska and Hawaii; at the next census and reapportionment, it reverted to 435.
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.
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!
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.
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 ensures the winner will be majority-supported.
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.
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”. 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:
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’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 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 much NS 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.)
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.
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.
Commenting on those swings, North Canterbury Federated Farmers president Cameron Henderson said:
There were definitely “strategic farmers” voting Labour in an effort to avoid a Labour-Greens government.
He added a caveat, that most of the vote swings in these seats came from urban voters within predominantly rural electorates. Nonetheless, his confidence that there were strategic farmers is a nice anecdote regarding what some political scientists have regarded as strategic voting motivated not by who can win locally but by which parties may form government.
As I noted in my election preview in late July, there were only two likely outcomes of this election: A Labour–Green coalition or a Labour single-party majority. There were no occasions over the last several months when a National-led government was likely based on any publicly available evidence. For most farmers, a government in which the center-left Labour Party has a parliamentary majority is a much more palatable outcome than one in which that party needs the Greens for its majority.
In Shugart and Wattenberg (2001) we ask if mixed-member systems offer a “best of both worlds.” That is, do they allow simultaneously for the benefits of local representation and individual-member accountability that are the (supposed) advantages of single-seat plurality (FPTP) and the representation of smaller national parties that might struggle to win districts but would be represented under proportional representation (PR).
There was a question mark in the book’s subtitle. Over time, I have come to believe that indeed the proportional type (MMP) does have a strong tendency to offer the best of both worlds. The reason is that members elected in districts have incentives to behave as local representatives at the time that there is close approximation between party vote and seat shares (assuming compensation is carried out nationwide or in large regions). The majoritarian type (MMM, as in Japan and Taiwan) probably does not; it is much closer in its overall incentive structure to FPTP, even though it does indeed permit smaller national parties to win seats.
For MMP, the “best of both worlds” argument assumes that parties nominate dually–meaning many elected members will have run in a district and had a (realistically electable) list position simultaneously. If they do, then even the list-elected members will have a local base, and should have incentives to act as the local “face” of the party, including possibly by offering constituent services. Both prior anecdotes I have shared from New Zealand (e.g., “shadow MPs” who win from the list and maintain a local office) and my forthcoming coauthored book, Party Personnel, offer further evidence that MMP does indeed work in this way.
Now comes a terrific anecdote from New Zealand’s 2020 election. In this election, Labour won a majority of seats (64/120) with 49.1% of the nationwide party list vote. In the nominal tier of single-seat districts (electorates) it won 43 of the 72 available seats. Its win included some districts that are normally strongholds of the center-right National Party (which won 35 seats overall and just 26 districts).
Commenting on some of the Labour wins in mostly rural districts, Federated Farmers president Andrew Hoggard said:
in some “flipped” electorates Labour list MPs had worked hard to raise their profile and get involved with the community and this had paid off when they campaigned for the electorate.
This is an ideal description of how the “best of both worlds” argument works: list-elected members have incentives to attend to local needs of the district in which they ran for the nominal seat (but “lost”) in hopes of capturing the local plurality in the next election.
Of course, there were other factors at work as well. I will offer another planting about one of those factors separately. There is also some uncertainty at this stage just exactly the degree to which rural voters flipped, as the wins may have come in significant part from very large swings in the town areas within districts that also include large rural areas. Regardless, MMP offers the key advantage of giving most elected members, if dually nominated, a tie to a local constituency while ensuring close approximation of overall seat totals to party-list votes.
Based on the results of a referendum, Italy will be changing the size of its Chamber of Deputies from 630 to 400. By the cube root law (Taagepera, 1972) a country the size of Italy (around 60.5 million) should have about 392 seats in its first chamber. I’d say 400 is “about 392” and so this outcome is an obviously good thing.
Thanks to Matthew Bergman, Miroslav Nemčok, and Rein Taagepera for calling this to my attention. Rein also sent along an Italian newspaper article (PDF, a bit blurry) in which he was quoted.
The assembly reduction proposal was advanced by the Five Star Movement. As Rein said in personal communication, “sometimes populists get it right.”
Also, the Italian Senate is being reduced, to 200 (from 315, not counting appointed senators). I am not aware of any predictive model for how large a given second chamber “should be”, at least in unitary systems, but I note that in A Different Democracy, 2014, p. 214, we report that the mean second chamber in a unitary state is 0.53 times the size of the first chamber. So Italy is continuing to follow this pattern.
I am aware that there have been ongoing efforts to introduce some small reforms in the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system in Germany. The main challenge is to prevent the Bundestag from expanding so much in size, since a Constitutional Court ruling mandated full compensation.
The brief background is that the system has long had the potential for adding seats to cope with “overhangs”, which happen when a party in a state wins more districts than its party-list share would entitle it to. The Court ruled that the procedure in place over many elections still left the system unacceptably disproportional. (Manuel posted a good primer on the changes back in 2013; see also a long and interesting comment thread here on F&V.)
There are proposals currently being considered in the Bundestag that would attempt to limit the expansion in the chamber’s size that the current system allows. For instance, in 2017, the size went from the basic 598 (299 nominal and initially as many list) to 709 (401 list seats!).
The article I have is from AP, and (predictably) is thin on detail. All it says in the way of substance is:
The new proposal mainly involves keeping the number of constituencies unchanged in the 2021 election but slightly reducing the number of extra seats. By the time of the 2025 election, it calls for the number of constituencies to be cut to 280. A reform commission is supposed to produce a detailed plan.
The article also notes that opposition parties “weren’t impressed.”
I hope some readers might have more detail on what is being proposed.
The New Zealand Maori Party has introduced its party list for the 2020 election, now set for 17 October. The press release boasts of the backgrounds of the candidates, including some sports celebrities and experienced local officeholders. Interestingly, one of the co-leaders has adopted a “burning bridges” strategy–being placed too low on the list (7th) to be elected if he does not win his district (electorate) under New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional (MMP) system. (In some past elections, the party has won only district seats; it did not win any seats at all in 2017.)
The press release says, in part:
In our list we have champion athletes: the founder of Iron Māori (Heather Te Au Skipworth); a coordinator for the diploma in sport and recreation- and a crossfit trainer (Fallyn Flavell); a fourth dan black belt in aikido (Mariameno Kapa-Kingi) and competitive rower (Tumanako Silveria).
We have candidates with vast expertise and experience in local government (Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, Elijah Pue, John Tamihere, Rangi Mclean, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer); a former Cabinet Minister Hon Tamihere; two past youth MPs (Eru Kapa-Kingi and Elijah Pue); and former candidates for the Māori Party, Mana Motuhake, Alliance Labour, and the Christian Heritage Party.
It also has this lovely nugget:
“We are campaigning on the mantra of MMP: More Māori in Parliament” said Che Wilson [party president].
Regarding co-leader John Tamihere, Waatea News quotes him as explaining his taking such a low list position:
This is the Māori thing to do and I could not go back to Parliament if I didn’t have the mandate of the people on the street… My six fellow candidates have put themselves and their whānau up for this challenge and this is my way of showing my support for their sacrifice.
In 2017, the party was within five percentages points in only one of the Maori set-aside electorates, Te Tai Hauāuru. Labour won all seven of them. Back to 2014, the party won two of the electorates, plus one list seat (which I believe is the only list seat it has ever won).
I have not seen polling of the Maori electorates. Perhaps someone reading this has. But with Labour currently running so far ahead of its 2017 showing in national polls, it would seem the Maori candidates have their work cut out for them if the party is to recover.
(The idea of candidates in mixed-member systems “burning bridges” by not taking an electable list rank comes from Krauss, Nemoto, and Pakennen, 2011.)
On March 24, 2019, Ecuador held sectional elections to elect 23 provincial prefects, 221 mayors, 867 city councilors, 438 rural councilors, 4,089 members of rural parish councils, and seven councilors of the Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS), a social regulatory body. The elections had a little bit of everything: complex electoral rules and a mixture of systems, bickering over how to count votes, and results that reinforce what political scientists know about electoral systems’ impacts on party systems. I was fortunate enough to observe these elections as part of the Organization of American States’ Electoral Observation Mission (EOM). Given that the EOM’s final report was finally presented to the OAS Permanent Council until June 19, 2020, I can now offer some political science-based reflections on the experience.
I’ll describe the array of electoral rules and then highlight three noteworthy factors:
- the difficulty in counting null votes in a plurality-at-large election;
- the political party atomization that “pluralitarian” and free list proportional representation produced; and
- the persistence of ballot order effects in plurality-at-large elections, even with order randomization.
It should be noted that Ecuadorian legislators finally passed a bill in December 2019 to switch from free list PR to closed and blocked lists for multi-member elections, among other changes.
Since 1998, elections in Ecuador have been cognitively demanding due to the complexity of the electoral lists and rules governing voting. 2019 was no exception. Despite being a national process, not all voters cast the same number of votes or even used the same number of ballots: voters in urban areas received six ballots to elect representatives at four levels of government (prefect, mayor, urban councilor, CPCCS representatives), while voters in rural areas received seven ballots for five levels of government (prefect, mayor, rural councilor, rural parish boards, CPCCS representatives). Moreover, the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE) employed three different electoral systems across these five different offices:
- Prefects: First-past-the-post
- Mayors: First-past-the-post
- Urban and rural canton councils: Free list PR (5 ≤ M ≤ 15)
- Rural parish councils: Free list PR (M=5 or 7)
- CPCCS (three different ballots): Plurality-at-large, Plurality-at-large, First-past-the-post
The free list, which Tom Mustillo and I have written about and which is sometimes called “panachage” or “open ballot”, is a unique variation of the open list where voters can: 1) cast preference votes for candidates; 2) cast multiple preference votes; and 3) distribute preferences across multiple lists. Alternatively, voters can cast a single list vote. To determine seat distribution, votes are pooled at the party list level (an important detail that distinguishes the free list from plurality-at-large). For national legislative elections, only Switzerland, Luxembourg, Honduras, and El Salvador now use this system, although it is more common at a subnational level in Europe. This system presents a number of complexities for voters (since there are so many candidates from which to choose and so many votes to cast) as well as vote counters (because each voter’s number of votes varies by district magnitude and voters are not required to cast all their votes).
There is a lot of “choice” available to voters. Here is a 2019 ballot for urban councilors from a district in Quito with M=5 that demonstrates it nicely. Voters in this district are allowed to cast up to five votes within or across the 22 party lists, or five out of 110 total candidates. It is no surprise that voters often opt for list votes (plancha, in Spanish) or use only a portion of their preference votes.
Still, Ecuadorian voters should have been accustomed to the free list: before legislators phased in out in late 2019 in favor of closed lists, voters had been using it for 17 years in both national and local elections.
Being tapped with the civic responsibility of working a polling station is a lot of work for elections like these. Poll workers had to tally votes manually, recording not just the choices on six or seven ballots, but counting all M votes on the free list ballots and finding the three choices on the men’s and women’s CPCCS ballots as well (something I explain in greater depth below). The four-person team at the table I was assigned to “quick count” took more than seven hours to tally all of their 250-300 voters’ votes (see the photo below as they were just beginning).
1. Counting Null Votes under Plurality-at-Large
Despite the complexities of the free list, the most compelling ballot in this election turned out to be the one used to elect CPCCS representatives. After a 2018 plebiscite turned this appointed seven-person body into an elected one, electors were supposed to be given seven votes to be distributed however they wanted across the entire ballot (e.g. plurality-at-large/MNTV/block voting). However, in February 2019, the CNE stipulated that to maintain gender parity and minority representation, it would divide the single ballot into three separate ballots:
- A “men’s ballot”, from which voters could cast three votes (plurality-at-large);
- A “women’s ballot”, from which voters could cast three votes (plurality-at-large), and;
- A ballot with indigenous/Afro-descendent/ex-pat candidates, from which voters could cast one vote (SMD plurality).
How to count the votes—or in this case, the non-votes—dominated pre-election discourse.
The CPCCS is an autonomous entity responsible for appointing authorities of the Ombudsman’s Office, the Office of the Comptroller General of the State, and state superintendencies, as well as influencing the designation of certain electoral and judicial authorities. Many politicians and civil society organizations long decried the CPCCS and argued that it should be eliminated as a political body.
Paragraph 3 of Article 147 of Ecuador’s Code of Democracy states that elections can be nullified, “when the null votes exceed the totality of the candidates’ votes, of the respective lists, in a specific circumscription, for each office”. Predictably, there was a current of public opinion in these elections that exhorted voters to cast a null vote as a way to protest the body and demand a national plebiscite on its existence. However, counting the null votes for an office where the voter can cast up to seven votes between three ballots turned out to be more complicated than it may first appear.
Specifically, there is no way to satisfy the “one person, one vote” principal stipulated in the Ecuadorian Constitution if electoral authorities count votes instead of ballots. There are two basic scenarios:
- Scenario 1 (original proposal): A null vote on a plurality-at-large ballot (M=3) is equal to a single vote, meaning that a null voter is only able to cast 3/7 of a null vote (1/7 + 1/7 + 1/7 on each of the three ballots) while a valid voter can cast 7/7 of a vote (3/7 + 3/7 + 1/7)—effectively disenfranchising the null voter.
- Scenario 2 (counter-proposal): A null vote on a plurality-at-large ballot (M=3) is equal to three null votes. This way, both valid and null voters get to exercise a full vote (3/7 + 3/7 + 1/7 in each case). The problem is, the system does not permit cumulation voting, which means a) that the null voter is effectively casting three cumulation votes while a valid voter cannot do the same thing; and b) that anyone using fewer than M valid votes per list ends up using fewer votes than the null voter (e.g. a single blank on the first ballot would give the voter 2/7 + 3/7 + 1/7 = 6/7 of a vote).
Electoral authorities were divided on the interpretation, but eventually settled on the first counting rule. Regardless, the null counting method would not have mattered, since just over 20% of the ballots registered null votes against 50% of valid votes (more than 20% of the ballot for CPCCS were also left blank).
2. Personal Voting and Party System Atomization
Low entrance barriers and guaranteed public financing gave rise to the participation of a whopping 278 political parties, movements, and local organizations. However, all three electoral systems also incentivize the personal vote at the expense of the party. The results were predictable, with extreme party system fragmentation and a lack of mandate for most elected officials.
To just take the FPTP elections, 19 different parties and 10 local political movements split up the 23 prefectures (most of them as part of electoral alliances), with the Social Christian Party winning the most with eight (35%). Eight parties or movements won just a single prefecture.
There was greater atomization at the level of the elections for mayor. There, 42 parties or movements gained political representation in the 221 mayoralties. Sixteen different political parties won ten or more mayoralties, with the most successful party, the Social Christian Party, earning just 43 mayoralties nationwide (19.5% of the national total). The largest party in the preceding twelve years, President Lenín Moreno’s Alianza Pais (“Country Alliance”), managed only 27 mayors nationwide, falling to the fourth position at national level. The excess of municipal and provincial movements led to the formation of various electoral alliances; in fact, multi-party electoral coalitions won 112 of the 221 mayoralties.
These results suggest that without significant changes, the 2021 general elections are likely to be contested by a panoply of parties with weak roots and limited national ambitions, akin to what we see in some other Latin American countries, like Peru.
3. Ballot Order Effects
A third interesting pattern to emerge was a ballot order effect for the CPCCS elections. Recognizing the advantage that candidates near the top of the ballot hold over those placed toward the bottom, the CNE decided candidate placement on each of the three CPCCS ballots in February 2019 via lottery, on national television and in the presence of a public notary.
The 28-candidate men’s CPCCS ballot looked like this, with the women’s ballot and minorities’ ballot organized a similar way:
Despite the lottery, which quite literally randomized candidate placement, there is evidence that candidates towards the top of list enjoyed a distinct advantage over those toward the bottom. The figure below is a scatterplot of CPCCS ballot placement and votes. Red circles represent women candidates (11 nominations), squares are the men candidates (28 nominations), and the diamonds the minority candidates (4 nominations); for each list, I also included the best fit line to show the relationship between ballot position and votes received. In all three cases, there is a clear negative relationship.
This relationship is statistically significant for two of the three lists (men and women; there were only four candidates on the third list). To test the relationship suggested in the figure, I ran a linear regression of the effect of candidate on electoral performance. Employing list fixed effects, the results are consistent with the scatterplot. For each change in position, the mean CPCCS candidate lost around 18,126 votes (p<0.05), or a total of 507,528 votes (18,126) over the range of the 28 positions on the men’s list. Despite placement randomization, then, this vote is just one more example of the pervasiveness of ballot placement effects; given financial and technical constraints (e.g. inability to randomize candidate placement for each paper ballot), it’s hard to imagine how the CNE could have avoided this problem.
Sectional elections in a small country like Ecuador are not often on the radar of international analysts. However, the multitude of electoral systems, debate over null vote counting, and ballot order effectd make it as compelling a case study as many national elections in larger countries that grab international headlines.
South Korea had its assembly election on 15 April, with various covid-19 precautions in place. The Democratic Party of President Moon Jae-in (elected in 2017) won a majority of seats.
As discussed previously at F&V, the electoral system was changed from mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) to, at least partially, mixed-member proportional (MMP) prior to this election. It is only partially MMP not mainly because the number of compensatory list seats is so small (30 out of 300 total), but because there remain 17 seats that are, apparently, allocated in parallel (i.e., as if it were MMM).
There was some discussion in various media accounts (and in the previous thread) of the major parties setting up “satellite” parties to “game” the MMP aspect of the system. Under such a situation, a big party will contest the nominal tier seats and use a separate list to attract list votes and seats. By not linking its victorious nominal candidates with a same-party list, a party can gain extra seats, vitiating the compensation mechanism that defines MMP. This is what happened in Lesotho in 2007, for example. (That thread has an interesting series of comments about the issue, including why German parties do not do this in their MMP system.)
The Democratic Party set up a Together Citizens Party to compete for list seats and the main opposition United Future Party set up a Future Korea Party to do the same.
However, if I understand the results correctly (at Wiki), it seems the satellite was not necessary for the Democratic Party to win its seat majority. The Democrats won 163 constituency seats on 49.9% of the (nominal) vote; with 300 total seats, this is a majority no matter what happens with the list seats. Their satellite won 17 seats on 33.4% of the list votes. The United Future won 84 nominal seats on 41.5% of the nominal vote; their satellite won 19 seats on 33.8% of the list votes. I am finding these numbers hard to understand! Maybe someone else can figure this out for us.
Vanuatu’s state broadcaster live-streamed its election count. Per Radio New Zealand:
The decision to live stream the counting was a unique one, made in an election that has already been tripped by storms, death and the global coronavirus pandemic.
The country went to the polls on 19 March, in some northern islands, this was extended to 20 March, as bad weather prevented ballot boxes from reaching some islands. In this vast country of about 80 islands spread across 1,300km of ocean, they then all had to make their way back.
Last week the country’s electoral commissioner, Martin Tete, died of natural causes in what had been described as an incalculable loss for Vanuatu.
The loss of Mr Tete was also a hurdle for the Electoral Office. Not only had they lost an esteemed colleague, by law, counting was not possible until a new commissioner was appointed.
By the time a new appointee was in place, the government had declared an emergency over covid-19 and restricted meetings to no more than five people.
Elections in Vanuatu are via single non-transferable vote (SNTV), so they are always of interest to me. I have even used data from Vanuatu in published research:
Matthew E. Bergman, Matthew S. Shugart and Kevin A. Watt, “Patterns of Intra-Party Competition in Open-List and SNTV Systems.” Electoral Studies 32, 2 (June, 2013): 321–33; published online at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.electstud.2013.01.004.
And for one chapter in Votes from Seats.
With a “front runner” who so far is not mustering more than a quarter of the vote in polling aggregates (e.g., both Fivethirtyeight and Economist), and four other candidates in the 10%–20% range (here with some variation between different aggregators), it is a good thing the Democratic Party uses proportional representation to choose its nominating-convention delegates. Right?
Well, not this “proportional” system. I will now leave aside those zany rules of the Iowa caucus or the marginally more rational rules of the Nevada caucus, and focus on the closest thing we will get to a national primary: “Super Tuesday”. Specifically, I will focus on California for the the obvious reason that it is the biggest. And happens to be where I live and vote. Other states have broadly similar systems, but for smaller numbers of delegates.
This is one awful example of “proportional representation” (PR). Why? First, because it is not really PR due to the high threshold. Second, because it is ridiculously complex. Third (and flowing from the first two), because it is nearly impossible to know how one should make effective use of one’s vote.
My premise is to assume a voter wants to vote against Sanders. (Any resemblance to any particular actual voter may be coincidental. Or not.) With so many candidates still in the mix, one could at least feel good that it in a big state with a lot of delegates, the proportional allocation will mean your vote is not wasted. It could help select some delegates for whichever non-Sanders candidate the voter selects.
But that is not the case at all.
First, there is the threshold. It is set at 15%, which is extremely high. It is all the worse when, as noted already, so many trailing candidates are at risk of falling below 15%. It is not out of the question that all of California’s delegates could go to Sanders even if he has just 32% of the vote, as in a recent PPIC poll. That poll has Biden in second with only 14%. A delegate sweep is not the most likely outcome (8% are undecided, and many might be weakly supportive of their current choice and thinking strategically, like our hypothetical voter), but it is possible. One hundred percent of the delegates on a third of the vote certainly would not be a “proportional” outcome!
Then there is the districting. Obviously, we know from studies of electoral systems for actual proportional representation systems that having many districts, and low-moderate district magnitude (number of seats–here, delegates–per district) reduces proportionality. On the other hand, if a candidate is just below 15% statewide, the districting might help that candidate, to the extent that there is regional variation in support. Failing to clear the statewide threshold does not preclude getting delegates in a district, as long as the candidate is above 15% in any given district, and that the magnitude of that district is large enough for the candidate to get a delegate with whatever his or her vote share is in the district.
The statewide delegates amount to around 35% of all the delegates awarded in California: 144 of the 415 total. In electoral system terms, the allocation is in parallel, not compensatory like many two-tier proportional systems. That is, a candidate who clears 15% gets a “proportional” share of the statewide delegates and adds on to this whatever number of delegates he or she has won in districts.
A statewide district of M=144 seems huge, right? Well, this being the Democratic Party, they have to make it further complicated. There are two statewide districts, in parallel with each other as well as with the many sub-state districts. The magnitudes are still large, at 54 and 90. (The former are the PLEO, or pledged leaders and elected officials.)
The districts for delegate selection are the state’s districts for the US House. They vary in magnitude for delegate purposes according to recent Democratic voting history in the district. California has 53 districts, and they vary in magnitude from 4 to 7. There are only two districts (numbers 12 and 13) that elect 7. The mean magnitude is 5.1. See the California Democratic Party Delegate Selection Plan (pp. 14-15 of the linked PDF) for the number per district.
(The Plan has no description of the specific allocation formula that I could find, but maybe I missed it; see also GreenPapers.)
So what should our totally hypothetical anti-Sanders voter do? Ideally, figure out which of the other (acceptable) candidates is above 15% in his or her district. Better yet, figure out which one might be marginal for a delegate. That would be a strategic vote based on local support and the district’s magnitude. But it is not as if such information is widely available. One can guess off district demographics, or noisy signals like local offices for the campaigns or yard signs, etc.
The PPIC poll has a regional breakdown within California. But the “regions” are blunt categories–Los Angeles, Other Southern California, SF Bay Area, and Other. There is some considerable variation, even with the caveat that we have 53 districts but four regions. Sanders leads in Los Angeles with 36% and the next up is Biden, at 16%. In Other Southern California they are on 41% and 15%, with Buttigieg also on 15% (the latter supposedly has just 9% in LA). SF Bay Area also has Sanders leading with only 31% and the next closest is Warren at 18% and then Bloomberg at 14%. If, like me, you are in “Other” it is really a mess! We have Warren 18%, Biden 17%, Sanders 16%, Buttigieg 14% (also 11% unknown, higher than other regions). Of course, a lot of these are in the margin of error of the threshold, and each other, and further district-level variation within each region is likely.
So maybe the best is just to figure out which ones are likely to be close to, or “securely” above 15% statewide. Forget the district, and focus on those two large magnitudes at the state level, in which small vote shifts for above-threshold candidates actually could change the delegate totals.
The previous numbers are based on only one poll, of course. There is too little polling of this state. The FiveThirtyEight estimate for California is a little different: 27% Sanders, 16% Bloomberg, 14% Biden, 11% Warren, 10% Buttigieg. (The total for all listed candidates gets us to 89%, so 11% undecided.) Given the paucity of polling, these estimates are based not only on polls, but also on national trends adjusted for state demographics. And, as noted earlier, it risks no one but Sanders being over the threshold, even if that is not in the end a likely scenario, in part because allocating or removing undecideds likely puts at least a couple of other candidates over 15%. Plus, as mentioned, there will be some degree of regional variation that can make a sub-15% candidate statewide be well above that level in a district. But also, remember: many districts have a magnitude so low that even 15% locally would not be enough for a district delegate!
Or there’s voting sincerely. What a concept. Since I don’t like any of these candidates, that would mean staying home. But I don’t want to do that!