Ireland’s presidential election, 2011

Ireland has its presidential election today. The president is elected by an “instant runoff”–specifically, the same Single Transferable Vote system that is used for the Irish parliament, but given a single seat, the quota for election is 50%+1. Of course, this means it’s the Alterative Vote, electing the first candidate to reach a majority on either first preferences or transferred lower preferences of voters whose higher-preferred candidates have been eliminated from the count.

As noted in the Irish Times:

TODAY, FOR only the second time since 1938, a presidential election will ultimately be determined by the second, third and fourth preferences cast by voters…  

This year, unless the polls are seriously wrong, no candidate is likely to be within 10 percentage points of a simple majority on the first count. The election, with seven in the race spread out the way they appear to be, is certain to go to a second, probably a third, and possibly even fourth or fifth counts.

The Irish presidency is weak, within a premier-presidential system that is almost parliamentary. Yet I wonder if the current political upheaval could lead to a president asserting more influence for the office.

The Supplementary Vote alternative?

In reviewing the extensive entries about the recent UK electoral system referendum, which had been posted at the LSE blog on British politics over the past year, I was struck by Professor Patrick Dunleavy’s claim that the Supplementary Vote would have been a fairer system to propose. The Supplementary Vote (SV) is another form of “instant runoff,” and thus bears considerable affinity to the Alternative Vote (AV)–the option that actually was put up against the status quo in last week’s referendum (and was defeated resoundingly).

Under SV, voters are allowed to give just two preferences. If no candidate has a majority of first-preference votes, then all candidates in the contest other than those with the top two totals of first preferences are eliminated. Second choices are then redistributed among the top two, and the candidate with the most votes at this stage is elected.

This procedure differs from AV in at least two fundamental respects. First of all, under AV the voter may (or if we are talking about the Australian House of Representatives, must) rank all the candidates, not just two. Second, AV is a sequential elimination method. Rather than eliminating all but the initial top two, it eliminates the weakest candidate at each stage of the count, up until a winner has been determined. AV thus emulates, in one “instant” act of ballot-marking, the sequential processes used in many political parties and legislative institutions to choose a leader, rather than the two-round majority rules used to elect many national presidents, as does SV. ((Intermediate variants are also possible. For instance in some US jurisdictions that have adopted forms of instant runoff, voter preferences are restricted to the top three. The counting process in these jurisdictions typically otherwise follows the AV approach, rather than that of SV (as far as I know; there may be exceptions).

There is also the so-called Contingent Vote, which allows voters to express more than two preferences, but shares with SV the immediate elimination of all but the top two candidates if none has a majority. Thus the Supplementary Vote and the Contingent Vote arguably have more in common with one another than either has with the Alternative Vote, although the Contingent Vote is less likely to waste votes of those who gave their second preference to an already eliminated candidate. (A form of the Contingent Vote seems to be what Sri Lanka uses to elect its president.) ))

SV is used to elect the London mayor and those of some other English cities; it is used nowhere to elect legislators that I know of.

In a post from last summer, Dunleavy stated:

The London form of AV also has the great advantage that it creates a run-off between the top two candidates in a local constituency – only one of them can win.

I must admit to having a hard time understanding why this is a virtue for a ranked-ballot method. If the race has two clear front-runners and one or more also-rans, fine. The two systems would produce the same result, and such a result would be “fair” by almost any standard, I should think. However, if there is uncertainty about the top two as the election day looms, SV poses a real problem for voters. Not only must they know their two top preferences (easy enough), but they must also think strategically about them (potentially a challenge). If one’s first preference is likely to place third or lower, then one must be careful that one’s second preference will clear the initial top two. Otherwise, the second preference will not be counted, as it will have been wasted on an eliminated candidate. By contrast, under AV, if your second preferred candidate has been eliminated, the counters look to your third (and so on).

But isn’t SV a truer (instant) runoff, inasmuch as it is a top-two system? Here is where the instant-ness ceases to be an advantage. In an actual two-round system of majority runoff, the top two choices of the electorate as a whole are revealed before the voters must give their second preference (i.e. before voters whose initial choice was eliminated in the first round decide which of the two remaining candidates to support in the runoff). The risk of a relatively more extreme candidate winning would be greater under SV than under either AV or two-round majority: if more moderate voters lost their second preferences by tending to have cast them on the third-place candidate, relatively more extreme voters may elect, by less than 50%, their preferred candidate. I have no idea how common this would be in practice, but it seems it would be a not implausible effect of SV. In an actual second round, under this scenario, the voters can “update” and vote for the less extreme of the remaining candidates in the runoff. ((I recall this point being addressed somewhere in the political science literature; apologies for not having a citation.))

Given the substantial number of UK constituencies in which there is a close race between second and third, SV would seem to be clearly less fair than AV to voters confronted with strategic choices about estimating which two candidates are the top two of the electorate at large. (By the way, it is also the case that in presidential elections by two-round majority, the gap between the second and third candidates tends systematically to be less than that between the top two, suggesting that SV would indeed be a poor choice for these elections.)

I fail to see why a case could be made that SV is fairer, especially in any setting in which the “Duvergerian” tendencies of an existing FPTP (plurality) system have already broken down–which are pretty much the only situations in which it would be considered in the first place.

The problems with FPTP– and with AV

It has been an interesting week for election-watchers, especially those of us interested in the dynamics of competition in single-seat districts. Canada had its election, with historic shifts in voting patterns, on Monday. Tomorrow the UK votes on whether to retain FPTP or move to the Alternative Vote (AV). And, just to make things even more interesting, voters in parts of the UK–Scotland and Wales–will be voting in MMP elections tomorrow as well.1 Quite a week–and tomorrow is quite a day–for electoral systems!

Here I will offer some observations about why I do not like either FPTP or AV (except from a researcher’s standpoint, for which they are terrific!)

The problem with FPTP is that it is fundamentally a system to elect a local representative in a world in which–at least for Canada and the UK–a general election is mostly a contest among national parties. That’s fine if there are just two parties of any significance. You still get the tension between hundreds of local contests and the clash of national parties. But if most districts are two-party contests, notwithstanding some number of “safe” seats for one party or the other, the system works, on its own terms: A series of local playings of the national contest between government and alternative government.

However, decades ago in Canada and the UK, the voters (and the party elites) largely stopped playing this game. Third parties have become more and more significant, and not only regionally. There seems to be a widespread view, even in the academy, that national multipartism masks local two-partism–that most districts feature two “serious” candidates, just not necessarily the same two in all parts of the country. That may have been true at one time, but it ceased being so some time ago. Now many British and Canadian districts feature a strong third party, and can be won with barely a third of the vote. Or even less. Canada’s election could be a step back to a more two-party pattern, given the collapse of the Bloc and the poor performance of the Liberals, but the latter may well be back. So it is far too early to say.

Sometimes voters in a given district even “tacitly” coordinate to send a minor party to parliament, not because it is best positioned to represent the specifically local interests of the district’s voters, but because the small party has invested in winning this one district that happens to have a demographic base consisting of the type of voters the party appeals to. I am thinking especially of Elizabeth May’s move across Canada to Saanich and Gulf Islands, which she won for a Green party that invested everything there. Caroline Lucas and the UK Greens last year are another such case, although Lucas at least had represented the same locale in other offices previously. It is not that there is anything inherently wrong with this strategy and outcome. Not at all! It just is another piece of evidence that voters and elites not playing the FPTP game.2 The contest in such a district becomes not about local representation, per se, nor about voting for the current or a potential governing party, but about voting for a fringe national party.

Then there is the whole micro-targeting strategy. To the extent that a party tailors its message to ever-smaller subsets of its constituency in swing districts, it, too, is not playing the FPTP game as we (used to) know it. It ceases to be a national campaign, speaking to broad swaths of citizens collectively, and becomes instead a disaggregated message to relatively small blocs of voters who just happen to live in swing districts. Again, not necessarily about local concerns, per se, but about ever-narrower demographic slices.

OK, so British voters can put a stop to all of this by voting for AV, right? Not so fast.

The best argument that the pro-AV camp in this referendum seems to have come up with is that your MP will “work harder” and will have to earn a majority of the district’s voters. I assume MPs tend to work pretty hard as it is, and to the extent that many of them already are pretty close to the median voter in their district (even when winning 40% or less), it is not clear that they have to work any harder under AV. Moreover, given that the proposed version of AV for the UK would allow voters to give only one or as few preferences as they wish,3 it is simply not true that the system will guarantee endorsement of every MP by a majority of voters.

Fundamentally, it seems that the argument for AV in an existing FPTP system where two-party competition is no longer the norm is a reactionary one.4 It puts the emphasis back on who wins the district and by what share of the vote. Yet FPTP parliamentary democracies have mostly gone well beyond that, as I started out with in my overview of the problem with FPTP.5 If significant percentages of voters are routinely voting for parties that have little hope of winning their district, but instead will be a clear third or fourth place finisher, it says they don’t really care about who represents the district. They care about national politics. And the two Green examples mentioned above suggest voters are capable of coordinating when what they care about national politics is electing a nationally small party with what are perceived to be fresh ideas. In neither case is AV necessary, and in the main, it’s not helpful if it is trying to put the genie back in the bottle and return to the good old days of majority winners in each district (as a presumed ideal).

And I would think that AV would be a micro-targeters dream. (Is there evidence for that in Australia, or am I out of line here?)

My take on AV would be different if the system could make a large difference in the way national politics works. And in style maybe it would do so, although I suspect that claims about reducing negative campaigning are exaggerated. (Candidates still have an incentive to see that certain contenders are eliminated from the count before others.) Fundamentally, most UK elections would have had the same basic shape of partisan forces in parliament with AV as they had under FPTP. So you get a reactionary effect at the district level without a clear corresponding progressive effect at the national level.

If FPTP is broken, as I believe it is in the UK (and arguably Canada, even if less this week than it seemed before), the only solution worth the effort is MMP or STV or another proportional system. If only the voters could have the chance to plump for PR…

1. Plus voting for many English local councls; are these all plurality of some form (often, I believe, in multi-seat districts)? There could have also been STV races on tap, in Scottish municipalities, but these are no longer concurrent with the Scottish Parliament elections.

2. If enough of this sort of thing happens to subvert FPTP, it’s fine by me!

3. Which is fine; I do not like the Australian requirement to rank every candidate.

4. But not in the horrifically specious way that William Hague and Margaret Beckett claim in a cross-party no-on-AV article in The Telegraph: that it would take Britain back to the days of the rotten borough by undermining one person, one vote.

5. India, the largest FPTP parliamentary democracy by far, is at least partially an exception to this point. More to come on that, as Indian district patterns are an ongoing research topic of mine.

The cross-cutting anti-AV campaign

The campaign ahead of the UK referendum on the Alternative Vote is seeing some rather strange cross-party activity.

In one of the more curious pairings of the modern political era, David Cameron will today share a platform with the Labour former cabinet heavyweight John Reid as the battle over electoral reform escalates and cuts across party lines. [Independent, 18 April 2011]

The Labour leader, Ed Milliband, is formally supporting AV, but about 100 Labour MPs are against it, as is Cameron and most of his Conservative Party. The LibDems, partners in government with the Conservatives, are of course in favor of AV.

AV might not help Labour or hurt Tories

UK Polling Report has a fascinating account of a recent YouGov poll that attempts to answer the question of how the UK parties would fare under the Alternative Vote (which is being voted on in a referendum in less than a month), given current polling trends.

YouGov found that there would be no net change for the Conservatives, a slight decline for Labour, and a substantial boost for the Liberal Democrats. There would still be a Labour majority, but of only 34 seats instead of the 60 that the same poll projects under FPTP.

The poll involved giving respondents a picture of a ballot paper and allowed them to fill it out as much as they wanted with preferences. This is important because “Labour second preferences disproportionately go to the Green party, but given that the Green party will normally have already been eliminated in a count before Labour is, it’s actually their third or fourth preferences that count.”

Perhaps not at all surprisingly, fewer and fewer Labour voters will give the LibDems a preference at all now.

What this all boils down to is that in Con v Lab marginals the lower preferences of Lib Dems would help the Conservatives win seats from Labour, in Lab v LD seats Conservative lower preferences will help the Lib Dems win seats from Labour, in Con vs LD seats Labour lower preferences will help the Lib Dems… but Con losses there will be cancelled out by Con gains against Labour.

For more details and some important caveats, see UK Polling Report and Gary Gibbon of Channel 4.

Conservatives have good reason to oppose AV

A column in The Independent by John Curtice (Professor of Politics at Strathclyde) suggests that the UK Conservative Party has good reason to oppose the adoption of the Alternative Vote (AV). At every election in the past three decades, save one, the Conservatives would have won fewer seats under AV than they did under First Past the Post (FPTP). The conclusion is based on analysis of polls from these past elections that asked voters who their second choice would have been.

While the Liberal Democrats would have gained seats in most elections, they would not have gained enough in any election to result in neither big party holding a majority in parliament. Only 2010 would have been a no-majority situation, just as it was under FPTP in the election that produced the current Conservative-LibDem coalition.

While the government is going ahead with the referendum on AV for May of this year, as part of its coalition agreement, the two parties are opposing each other on the referendum question.

There is, of course, always the chance that changed voting patterns resulting from the very existence of the coalition itself could make Conservatives a beneficiary of AV in future elections–a possibility not addressed by Curtice’s study. There have been indications recently that at least some Conservatives were warming to AV. Yet based on past experience, Conservatives and AV do not mix.

Curtice’s columns provides some breakdowns of the voting patterns and likely effect at each of the elections analyzed.

There is also a companion article in The Independent on this theme.

Parliamentary ping pong: Passing the AV bill

The two houses of the British parliament played “ping pong” well into the night on the bill to convoke a referendum this May on whether to adopt the Alternative Vote system for future House of Commons elections. The bill finally cleared and has received Royal assent, according to the UK Press Association (in an item released about an hour ago, or 1:00 a.m. Thursday morning, London time). The referendum will go ahead on 5 May, the same day as English local and Scottish and Welsh parliamentary elections.

Today was the deadline set by the Electoral Commission for having the referendum, a critical item in the government’s coalition agreement, ready to go. (Some sources said this week, but not specifically today; the Lords was to go into recess, increasing the urgency.)

The main matter of contention between the houses was over whether to mandate a minimum threshold of participation in order for a majority voting YES to prevail. The Lords had amended the original bill so as to require at least 40% voter turnout in the referendum. The Commons took this amendment out, by a vote of 317-247 earlier this week, which necessitated sending it back to the Lords for approval. Earlier Wednesday, reports Sky News, the Lords voted 277-215 to insist on their turnout amendment.

On another amendment, the Lords defeated by only one vote a proposal that “would have allowed the Boundary Commission extra flexibility when deciding the size of Parliamentary constituencies.” The bill is not only about the AV referendum, but also includes changes to the boundary-delimitation process and a related reduction in the total numbers of constituencies–measures demanded by some Conservatives as a price for swallowing the very idea of considering AV. Some Labour peers have alleged that the constituency changes amount to gerrymandering.

The Lords finally voted down the amendment on the turnout requirement by a vote of 221-153 (according to the UKPA item).

On to the voters…

Biggest British union, 114 Labour MPs, to oppose AV

Today’s Independent reports that the biggest union in the UK, Unite, is preparing to join the campaign to oppose the referendum on changing the electoral system to the Alternative Vote. Close to half of Labour MPs are also on record as opposing AV.

Unite’s possible move would create the “strange bedfellows” situation of the Labour Party’s biggest constituent interest group campaigning alongside traditional Conservative Party organizations that likewise prefer FPTP.

It also would put Unite, along with a large group of MPs, at odds with Labour Party leader Ed Milliband, and some other unions. 114 of the party’s 258 MPs have pledged to join the no side of the referendum.

The referendum will be 5 May.

Oakland’s mayoral election

Concurrent with the statewide general and national midterm elections earlier this month, the city of Oakland, California, elected its mayor. For the first time, the city used the Alternative Vote (instant runoff). The result was a bit of a surprise, in that longtime Democratic Party powerhouse Don Perata was expected to win. However, he lost to Jean Quan, who will be the city’s first woman and first Asian-American mayor.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

When first-place votes were initially counted after the Nov. 2 election, Quan had just 24 percent, and Perata had 35 percent. But Quan proved to be a more popular second and third choice among supporters of the other eight candidates, and in the end, she had 51 percent to Perata’s 49 percent.

This is, of course, exactly how the system is supposed to work: ensure the election of the majority-supported candidate in the event that the candidate with the most first-preference votes is short of 50%+1 of the total votes cast. But the Perata camp is not amused. His political consultant called ranked-choice voting “an injustice” and the result a “travesty” because his candidate won 78% of the precincts, and led by a margin of 10 percentage points.

“In any other contest, it would be a landslide win, not an election loss.”

Normally, even in the realm of first-past-the-post elections, we do not think of plurality candidates with 35% as landslide winners, but Perata himself said:

“I don’t understand how ranked-choice voting works.”


Just as obviously, Quan did.

Quan had been campaigning for months for people to vote for “anybody but Don.” She had told supporters to list City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan as their second choice.

Kaplan, in turn, told her supporters and others to list Quan second or third.

The strategy paid off for Quan when Kaplan, who finished third, was eliminated and her votes redistributed. Quan won 75 percent of them – pushing her from a 10,372-vote deficit to a 2,058-vote victory.

Perata, the Chronicle notes, never told supporters whom they should list second or third. And, apparently, never appealed for any other candidates’ second choices. Stupid strategy, given the electoral system.

The Donegal by-election

Regarding the Donegal South-West by-election, has this tidbit:

Polling stations opened at 7am this [Thursday] morning and remain open until 10pm tonight – though voters on Donegal’s islands voted on Monday, as is traditional, to account for any difficulty in bringing the votes to land.

The count begins at 9:00 a.m. Friday, Irish time.

The Sinn Fein candidate, Pearse Doherty, is expected to win rather easily.

A Red C poll commissioned by Paddy Power two weeks ago showed Doherty commanding a massive lead in the opinion polls, with 40% of respondents saying they were likely to give him their first preference vote, while another 17% said he would receive their second preference.

The electoral system, of course, is single transferable vote. But this election is for one seat, which means the system reduces to the alternative vote, where the quota to win the seat is 50% + 1.

AV referendum going ahead

Labour members of the UK House of Lords narrowly failed to delay the bill to call a referendum on the Alternative Vote for May, 2011. The vote was 224-210 to reject a proposal to refer the bill to a committee for further discussion (i.e. stalling).

The bill would set the referendum for the same date as the elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and some local councils. Labour opposition stems largely from the linkage of the AV referendum to a review of constituency boundaries, which currently favor Labour.

Fair(er) votes

Here is what Yes to Fairer Votes, a pro-AV organization in the UK, says on its “Why vote yes” page:

AV is a small change which will make a big difference.

Just a simple change to what we do on polling day can make a real difference to how politics works in Britain.

The Alternative Vote builds on the current system and makes it better. It eliminates many of its weaknesses and keeps its strengths. It’s a long overdue upgrade to make a 19th century system fit for the politics of the 21st century.

Our parliament will better represent our communities. MPs will have to have a better view of what your community thinks – and that’s because they will have to listen harder to your views.

It’s simple. If someone wants to represent your community they need the votes of the majority of the community. That’s what making every vote count really means.

Say YES! to Fairer Votes. Say YES! to AV.

And now from the no side, where there is an organization called NO2AV, which says it is leading “The Fight for Fair Votes“:

1. Defend our democracy

– A No vote stops minority party voters – like BNP supporters – getting more than one vote when the votes are counted

– A No vote guards against distorting and muddying the debate in marginal seats

– A No vote ensures people vote for who and what a candidate is, as opposed to who and what a candidate is not

2. Keep the power of your vote

– A No vote prevents hung parliaments becoming the norm

– A No vote is a vote against electoral uncertainty and unaccountability

– A No vote puts the power to decide who runs the country into the hands of the people – AV gives it away to the politicians

3. Defeat an unfair, discredited and unwanted change in the way we choose our Government

– A No vote is a vote against a confusing, seldom used and undemocratic system – that even Nick Clegg has called a “miserable little compromise”

– A No vote is a vote against partisan, political tinkering that will stifle the real democratic changes the country needs

– A No vote will defend fair votes and is a call for real reform

Tories warming to AV?

In the last UK election campaign, the Labour Party made an election manifesto call for a referendum on the alternative vote (AV). Of course, they made this when it was fairly likely they were going to be out of power after the election, which indeed they are.

Then came the Conservative-LibDem coalition, with its agreement to hold a referendum on AV, something the Conservatives would never have pledged to do had they won a majority at the election. Indeed, the parties agreed to disagree on the value of AV: the parties would each commit to passing legislation to put the referendum on the ballot, but Conservatives, including PM David Cameron, would be free to campaign for a “no” vote on the AV question. The Liberal Democrats, of course, would campaign in favor.

In last Thursday’s Independent were two items that suggest the opposition to AV within the Conservative ranks may be fading. First, Prof. John Curtice notes how the coalition itself has changed the likely impact of AV on the Conservatives’ chances under such a reformed electoral system.

At the May, 2010, election, had there been AV, the LibDem voters would have split their second preferences between Conservative and Labour, but more would have gone for the latter. Both big parties’ supporters would have tended to give second preferences to LibDems. Thus, says Curtice,

The figures suggested that if the Alternative Vote had been in place, the Liberal Democrats would have won 79 seats, rather than 57. The Conservatives would have won only 281, not 307. Labour would have been marginally better off with 262 instead of 258.

However, things look quite different now, six months into Britain’s coalition government. More Conservatives would likely give their second preferences to a LibDem, but fewer Labour voters would do so.

At the same time twice as many Liberal Democrats might prefer the Conservatives to Labour. If voters had behaved that way in May the Liberal Democrats would still have gained most, with 83 seats. But the Conservatives might have won as many as 316; Labour could have had just 223.

The second item suggests that this changed dynamic has not gone unnoticed among Tories. The Independent‘s Political Editor, Andrew Grice, reports that Conservatives are already considering an “informal pact” in the event that AV passes, in which each coalition party appeals for its voters to give their second preferences to the other partner.

An unofficial pact is seen as more realistic than a more formal share-out of seats under which the Tories and Liberal Democrats did not stand against each other in some seats, including the 57 held by Mr Clegg’s party. A formal deal on seats has been suggested by Nick Boles, a Tory MP and prominent supporter of Mr Cameron’s drive to modernise his party. But the Tory and Liberal Democrat leaderships admit that would provoke strong opposition from local party activists and have reassured them the two Coalition parties will both fight every seat at the next election.

It should be emphasized, but is not mentioned in the article, that a “share-out of seats,” whereby there are mutual stand-down agreements between the partners, would practically be required if FPTP remains the electoral system–if, that is, the parties go into the election with plans to continue their coalition in the next parliament, given a favorable electoral result. Obviously, if the parties are competing against each other in districts decided by plurality, they could tip many districts to Labour, as well as be practically forced to stress their disagreements in the campaign.

So AV might not be so bad in Conservative eyes, after all.

There has been a growing recognition in Tory circles since the formation of the Coalition that a switch to AV could help the party’s prospects. […] Tory MP David Mowat, who had a majority of 1,553 over Labour in his Warrington South constituency in May, said: “If we did have AV and we put Lib Dems second and they put us second, it would be very likely to give us a better result than we might achieve under first-past-the-post. There could be a squeeze effect on Labour.”

The existence of a pact would make it much harder for the LibDems to bargain with Labour after the election in the event the latter party should emerge with the most seats. Making a return of a Lib-Lab pact difficult is obviously in the Tories’ interests.

Current polling looks good for Labour, showing the party within striking distance of a parliamentary majority on around 40% of the vote. Of course, it is only six months into a government committed to deep spending cuts, and Labour has just elected a new leader. Still, the polling is a reminder that the Conservatives could very well have trouble forming a government without some sort of pact in 2015, whether it is pre- or post-electoral. And AV would seem to make a pre-electoral pact more palatable to each party’s activists and voters than would a retention of FPTP.