Too many legislators and too little efficiency

An op-ed in the Irish Times decries the “inefficiency” of Irish politics. About the Irish political system, Gemma Hussey asks:

Is it fit for purpose? Is our electoral system, which frames that political establishment, suitable for Ireland of the 21st century? […]

We have in Ireland an electoral system, multi-seat proportional representation, which almost ensures that a broad range of the best brains and achievers in the country will never see the inside of Leinster House, much less the Cabinet room. At the same time, we have too many Dáil members.

The electoral system imposes a lifestyle on politicians which is directly inimical to good government and is a considerable deterrent to potential participants.

The skills required to massage a constituency seven days and nights a week have nothing to do with running a small European country with an open economy.

Ministers have to spend 20 to 30 hours a week attending local functions, holding clinics, going to funerals – they’ll lose their seats if they don’t.

The solution? A party-list system and a smaller, unicameral parliament.

Actually, Ireland’s 166-member first chamber, the Dáil, just about nails the “right” size under the cube-root law, given a population of around 4.1 million. I’ll leave it to others to discuss the merits of STV vs. list forms of proportional representation for the 21st century.

Electoral reform and assembly-size reduction in Hungary?

Bargaining is under way between Hungary’s political parties to change the electoral system and reduce the size of the national assembly, reports

While the parties are agreed on key points, the smaller parties are concerned that their two big counterparts–the governing Socialist Party and the main opposition Fidesz–are attempting to squeeze them out. Currently, almost all of Hungary’s parties are in one of two broad (and mostly pre-electoral) coalitions, headed by each of the big parties. The electoral system is one of the world’s most complex: a mostly parallel form of mixed-member system, but one with some compensation for smaller parties. The single-seat districts are in two rounds, by majority-plurality. Several features of the system, including the partial compensation of the list seats, the two rounds of the SSDs, and the presence of a third-tier national list, provide room for the smaller parties to retain representation despite the overall majoritarianism of the system. (See my previous overview of the system and its majoritarian impact.)

The proposed reforms would eliminate the second round. The debate appears to center around whether the national list will be retained and, if so, how many seats will continue to be allocated in it.

With 386 seats, Hungary is currently one of a small number of democracies with an over-sized parliament, relative to the cube-root law (see graph). With a population of around ten million (and just over eight million registered voters in 2006, two thirds of whom turned out), the cube-root law would suggest an assembly size of around 200 to 215. “The parties are more of less agreed that the chamber should be cut to around 200 seats,” according to the report. (So how about that!)

The reduction of the size of parliament would, even without a change in the tier structure, tend to reduce the space for smaller parties. Currently the national list accounts for 58 seats (15%) and the regional lists account for 152 seats (39%). The remaining 176 (46%) seats are the single-seat districts. If those proportions were retained in a 200-seat parliament, the national list would have just 30 seats; more importantly, the magnitudes of the regional list constituencies would be sharply reduced, especially in rural counties. While the national list is currently compensatory (relative to the regional list districts, but not to the entire parliament), with lower regional magnitudes and just 30 national seats, proportionality for the smaller partners within the broad blocs could be substantially reduced.

The item indicates that the smaller conservative Democratic Forum would like a national list “exclusively.” It is not clear if that means it wants a 200-seat national district, or if it means it accepts a mixed-member system, but without the intermediate regional tier. (In overall context, I assume the latter.) In any case, that party is both small and in opposition, so its voice will not count for much, but it may be indicative of discussions over changing the multi-tier structure. Unfortunately, the story is not clear on details such as whether the parallel vs. compensatory dimension of the mixed-member system is up for debate.

In any case, Hungary may be in the process of simplifying its overly complex system and reducing its overly large assembly to match the estimates of the cube-root law. Those would be good developments from the standpoint of the normative dimensions of comparative electoral-systems studies.

County government: Board size and executive election?

The 3 January Christian Science Monitor ran a story under the headline, “Is L.A. area big enough for two mayors?,” about a proposal to establish an elected county executive position in Los Angeles County, California.

All counties in California, aside from San Francisco, have five-member boards that manage the county affairs through an appointed staff accountable to the board. Each member is elected (usually by two-round majority) in his or own district. San Francisco is different, in that it is both a city and county. It has an 11-member Board of Supervisors that is essentially a city council, as well, and it has a directly elected mayor. (In San Francisco, Board members and the mayor are now elected by instant runoff.)

It does indeed raise significant issues of accountability when there is no mayor–whether directly elected or appointed by the board–who is politically responsible for the administration of the county government.

However, I would be even more concerned about the size of the board than about the absence of a separate chief executive, elected or otherwise. Five members is obviously very small for some of these counties, especially Los Angeles, where the population of 9.8 million makes it larger than 42 US states! The CSM article contains a quote from Professor Jack Pitney to the effect that the county Board (in Los Angeles County, but by implication, that of each county aside from San Francisco) is “a de facto executive.” Recognizing that the existing boards are limited in their legislative role (counties are creatures of the state and hence make very little in the way of local legislation, much less than city councils), I would certainly not advocate a large expansion of these boards to approximate a cube-root-law relationship of size to population,* as I might if they were sovereign legislative organs. Yet they are representative, or are supposed to be, given that they are elected. And five seems ridiculously small for any of California’s larger countries.

If the boards are effectively “executive” already then it is logically inconsistent to create a separate elected executive post. Why not expand the board and have it select a chief executive from its ranks?** Pitney invokes Alexander Hamilton in his argument in favor of an elected mayor to augment (supercede?) the generally executive function of the current board:

…as Alexander Hamilton reminded us … a plural executive is seldom a good idea…. It tends to conceal faults and destroy responsibility….

Of course, Hamilton notwithstanding, most comparative political scientists would disagree: Parliamentary systems have plural executives. But that aside, Hamilton was clearly not referring to county government when he made his argument, which came in the context of a debate about what kind of executive to have in a separation-of-powers system. And the problem of a collegial body allegedly concealing faults and destroying responsibility could be fixed by making the collective quasi-executive board more representative. That means larger. It could also mean STV or other more representative electoral systems, but at the very least, reduce the ratio of county residents to board members from LA County’s absurd 1,960,000:1!

So, for county government, why not larger boards that appoint a chief executive instead of little boards with a directly elected mayor?

* Doing so in LA County could mean a 200-seat board!

** Many, mostly smaller, cities in California have mayors appointed by the city council, although there has been a trend towards direct election. Most of the elected mayors, except for some large cities, have mostly ceremonial powers.

Reduce the size of the House?

There is a bill under submission, for which comments are being invited, to reduce the size of the House of Representatives–in New Zealand, that is.

Currently there are 120 members. The proposal would cut it to 100. I will copy here the core of a comment I left at David Farrar‘s blog:

By the cube-root rule (reasonably well established in comparative electoral and legislative studies), New Zealand should have a parliament of about 159 MPs. Anywhere from 126 to 201 would be within the usual empirically observed variation for a country the size of New Zealand. So, yes, the current size is already on the small side, and 100 would be ridiculously small.

Note that I would suggest NZ increase to at least 150 or, at worst, stay at 120, independent of the electoral system. But with MMP, a small parliament means either very large districts or compromising too much on proportionality. MMP perhaps demands an optimally or even over- sized parliament even more than do “pure” FPTP or PR systems.

The argument that a cabinet would dominate such a small parliament is also a serious one (though less so under any kind of PR/coalitional system than with FPTP and single-party cabinets).

The link above places the US House size in comparative perspective, including a graph showing the cube-root relationship.

h/t Holden

Increase the size of the House via the ‘Wyoming Rule’

In comments to one of The Core posts here at F&V, Lewis Batson of Make My Vote Count brings up an excellent idea for a rule to determine the size of the US House of Representatives. Under the “Wyoming Rule,” the standard Representative-to-population ratio would be that of the smallest entitled unit–i.e. currently Wyoming.

The House is currently only slightly malapportioned, but it will get more so over time unless the House size is increased, because of the continuing widening disparity between the smallest states (like Wyoming) and the big ones (like my California).

Lewis notes that currently the Wyoming Rule would result in a House of 569 seats (still a bit small by the cube-root standard noted in my previous Core post, but much closer). California would have 69 seats instead of 53.

This plan should be part of the Democrats’ agenda for the 2006 elections and beyond. It will never get on the Republicans’ agenda, that is for sure. But if Democrats fought for this, it would be a difficult issue for Republicans to oppose (even though they would trot out all sorts of diversionary tactics like “Democrats want more politicians”). Unlike Senate reform (which I know is a long uphill slog, though that will not keep me quiet on it), expanding the House is essential to making it do what everyone understands from High School civics class is its core Constitutional role: Represent the population.

Naturally, if I could have my electoral dreams fulfilled, I would go to MMP at the same time as the House is increased. But I would settle for just a simple uptick in the number of members of the House to the mid-500s (with a mechanism for small upward adjustments after each census), and, of course, a 50-state process of fair redistricting. (And representation–in both chambers–for citizens of the capital territory.)

Representation without gerrymandering or malapportionment! Dare to dream.

Note: In addition to the comments and linked posts below, please also see US House size, continued.

Reapportionment–a better way?

After each census, the number of seats in the US House that each state is entitled to must be recalculated. Rick Hasen’s Election Law Blog contains a pointer to an opinion piece in the Grand Rapids (Michigan) Press that suggests a change in the way this process is done.

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Macomb County, has proposed a fairer and more sensible system for deciding the number of Congress members from each state. […] Ms. Miller’s proposed amendment would change the word “persons” in the 14th Amendment to “citizens.”

The article goes on to say that this would grant Michigan one more seat than it currently has and California six (!) fewer.

Counting only citizens for the sake of determining how many people to have in Congress seems like common sense. Only citizens can vote and enjoy the full rights and privileges the country has to offer.

Well, yes, only citizens vote; however non-citizens pay taxes and receive government services–two reasons that would seem to make them relevant to calculating how much weight a state ought to have in the House of Representatives.

However, there is an alternative solution, and it does not force us to get into a divisive debate about citizenship and representation. It is so simple that it is rather amazing to me that it is rarely discussed:


It really makes little sense that a state should gain population (citizen or non-citizen) yet lose House seats, as Michigan and other states did after the 2000 census.

We are one of the few democracies in the world that does not periodically adjust the size of its lower (or sole) house. There is nothing set in stone about 435. It is just in federal law. In fact, we used to increase the size of the House periodically as population increased. We could do so again. Look at this graph:


(This is for a forthcoming book on American democracy in comparative perspective; all rights reserved, of course.)

You can see two things here:

1. The US used to keep its House size just below the cube-root of its population (as Rein Taagepera’s model predicts), but has not done so since its population was under 100 million (in 1912!).

2. The US House is one the smallest in the world among established democracies with over around 60 million residents (citizen or otherwise).

So, why not make the House even a little bit bigger? We don’t have to go all the way up to 600 or so (which would still leave us below the cube root) all at once. We could just make long-term adjustments with each subsequent census (say 480 next time, then 500, and so on), thereby not depriving Michigan and other states of existing congressional districts.

Further discussion in subsequent posts:

Increase the size of the House via the “Wyoming Rule” (December 1, 2005; also has several interesting comments from readers)

US House size, continued (December 4, 2005)

See also Steven Taylor’s analysis: An Intriguing Proposal (December 2, 2005)