Should New Zealand do away with by-elections?

In New Zealand’s MMP system, there are by-elections if there is a vacancy between general elections in a single-seat district. This is not a mandatory feature of MMP systems; Germany, for example, has no by-elections. A vacancy in a district is filled off the list of the party of the vacating member.

Nigel Roberts, a leading New Zealand expert on elections and electoral systems, writes in the Dominion Post that New Zealand should end the practice of by-elections. In making the case, he refers to a by-election in the constituency of Mt Albert, which is a safe Labour seat. The Labour Party’s candidate in the by-election, Jacinda Ardern, already is an MP, via the party list. Thus the effect of her winning (which she did) is simply to shift the type of mandate she has*, and have her replaced as a list MP by the next available candidate on the Labour list from the preceding election.

Roberts suggests adding a regional component to the lists in order to ensure that the replacement is from the same region as the district in which the vacancy has occurred.

A potential problem with the proposal is the fact that sometimes a by-election really does shift who controls a district and sometimes can even change the nationwide balance between parties (as happened in a recent case in Northland district). Roberts takes the position that this is better avoided, so as not to change potentially the majority for the government. “Party votes cast in general elections should make or break governments – not electorate votes cast in by-elections,” he says.

I am curious to know what readers think of the proposal.

* As well as, sadly, deprive us of my favorite case of a list MP “shadowing” the district-elected MP.

No, the allies did not “impose” MMP on Germany

An entry on the Whoa! Canada blog claims that the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system Germany uses was an imposition of the allied occupational authorities.

For those who don’t know, at the end of Second World War the victorious Allies governments imposed Mixed Member Proportional Representation on West Germany.

They did this specifically to prevent the rise of another Hitler.

Further on, it makes a specific claim about the then British Prime Minister, in a bold subheading of a section that actually does not even try to elaborate on its claim:

Winston Churchill knew Proportional Representation was a defence against fascism.

This is all very fanciful. The allied occupation authorities did not “impose” MMP on Germany, and the British in particular favored reverting to Germany’s pre-Weimar majoritarian system, as did the Americans. MMP was a product of compromise among the various German parties and the American, British, and French occupation governments.

The (unsourced) claim that Churchill saw PR as a bulwark against fascism is especially creative. At the time, PR was widely (if inaccurately) seen as responsible for the rise of the Nazis. If anything in the German system was adopted to be a bulwark against fascism, it was the 5% threshold–the very most non-proportional feature of the system to this day.


For a good overview of the adoption of MMP in Germany, see Susan E. Scarrow, “Germany: The Mixed-Member System as a Political Compromise,” in Matthew S. Shugart and Martin P. Wattengerg, eds., Mixed-Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds? Oxford University Press, 2001.

Colombia electoral reform video

If you understand Spanish, you should watch John Sudarsky’s video criticizing the current electoral system of Colombia (which is open-list* PR, including in the 100-seat nationwide district of the Senate), and advocating MMP.**

I offer for your viewing pleasure, not necessarily as an endorsement.

___________

* Mostly. Parties have the option to present a closed list, and there are always some members of each house elected this way. But most come from open lists.


** The video and website only call it “mixed”, but it seems pretty clear from the examples given that it is intended to be MMP.

PEI 2016: Referendum favors MMP

The Canadian province of Prince Edward Island (PEI) held a referendum (“plebiscite”) on electoral reform. The voting, which could be done online or by phone, took place from 27 October to 7 November, Results have now been announced, and the majority preference is mixed-member proportional (MMP).

Interestingly, it was a vote among multiple options, conducted by alternative vote (instant runoff). The initial plurality choice was the status quo, first past the post (FPTP). But this was the first choice of only 31.2%. The runner up in first preferences was MMP, with 29%.

Through elimination of lower-ranking choices and transfer of preferences, MMP came out with a majority on the fourth round of counting, 55% to 45% over FPTP (leaving out exhausted ballots, which were just under 5%).

Other options were “FPTP with leaders” (status quo, except that party leaders who did not win a riding would get a seat if the party cleared 10%), “Preferential Voting” (i.e., alternative vote), and something new called “Dual-Member Proportional“.

Perhaps it is not at all surprising that the transfer patterns reveal a “change as little as possible if we must change” coalition and a “more change” coalition. FPTP took a bigger lead on the count following elimination of FPTP+, by far more timid of the reform proposals. After the elimination of AV, which would be the next most-similar proposal to the status quo, MMP actually got more of these voters (43.9% to 36.7% for FPTP). Given that DMPR got 19.5%, the pro-AV voters had a clear majority for some sort of PR over keeping majoritarianism. On the final count, MMP got 82.6% of the eliminated votes for DMPR. This adds up to quite a clear consensus for a move away from the majoritarian model. (Note that STV was not an option.)

PEI had a referendum on an official proposal for MMP in 2005, which went down to a big defeat. Since that time, the province has continued to have some of the odd results (e.g. 2007) that are inherent to FPTP, especially given such a small assembly. In the most recent provincial election (2015) there was another large manufactured majority, although the Green Party managed to win a seat despite just 11% of the provincewide vote.

The timing of the vote is interesting, given that the federal parliamentary committee studying electoral reform is due to report in just a few weeks.

The PEI referendum result is non-binding.

Thailand’s new constitution and electoral system

Thailand will be holding a referendum on adopting a new constitution on August 7. A translation of this document is available here. The nation is currently ruled by a military junta, which took power from the elected government in May 2014. If the constitution is adopted, elections will be held in mid-2017 to choose a new civilian government (though that date has been pushed back a fair few times).

The document provides for a bicameral Thai parliament, as has been the norm for the nation’s numerous democratic constitutions. There is a Senate and a House of Representatives. One of the most substantial changes is that the Senate, which was half-elected and half-appointed by the King (I am unclear whether this was to take place on the advice of the government) under the 2007 constitution, and entirely elected under the 1997 one, will now be wholly appointed. This represents a return to pre-1997 practice.

While the Senate only has a delaying role on most legislation, passage at a joint sitting is required for certain ‘organic’ laws, like those on elections, the operation of the Constitutional Court, and the specific method for choosing Senators. This will become especially important in the first term of government, as the first Senate is to be appointed on the advice of the members of the junta.

The House of Representatives is the larger and more powerful of the two houses. As was hinted at by the drafters of the new document, it is to be elected using mixed-member proportional representation, though with closed lists and a remarkably small list tier (150 list/350 constituency).

When this proposal was first put about, I did some simulations of what the House would have looked like following the 2011 election had MMP been used. These estimates are based off a smaller list tier (the size of the one used under MMM in 2011). Any increase in the size of the House is due to overhang.

"Projections
The key loser would be the populist Pheu Thai party, strongly opposed by the coup leaders and the winner would be the Democrat Party, which is considered to have the tacit support of the coup leaders. This would not necessarily be an unfair advantage (given it would give the Democrats a somewhat closer share of seats to their nationwide support), but it would be an advantage nonetheless.

MMP is specifically entrenched in the document. Amendment procedures have also changed; while past documents have allowed a majority of members of the House to make amendments, the new document will require 20% support from opposition parties to make amendments. Needing a super-majority isn’t unusual internationally, but not many constitutions contain quite so many specific electoral provisions as Thailand’s.

What impact increased proportionality will have on Thailand’s democracy is not entirely clear. On one hand, it could require governments to form broader coalitions, which might reduce confrontation in Thai politics and thus less resort to extra-constitutional means. On the other, it could lead to a fragmented House and weak, revolving-door civilian governments, like those that existed before 1997.

It is also worth noting that the elections scheduled for mid-2017, if they take place then, will be held under a law written and approved by the current military-appointed legislature.

Regardless of this constitution, Thailand has clearly got serious problems with military intervention. Previous Constitutions of a similar nature to this one ended in failure. It is unclear whether this one will be any better, though I see it as unlikely.

What if Canada adopts MMP?

Among the electoral system types to be considered by Canada’s upcoming reform-proposal process is the mixed-member proportional system (MMP). What might we expect Canada’s effective number of seat-winning parties (Ns) to be under MMP?

As noted in the previous post on comparing the Alternative Vote to FPTP, Canada has had almost exactly the Ns, on average, that we should expect it to have, given its assembly size (around 2.6). Thus I will start from the premise here that Canada would continue to have about what we expect if it had MMP staring in 2019 (or whenever). That is, recent elections the country are neither surprisingly under- or over-fragmented, so there is no reason to think the country would over-shoot the expectation under a new system. (It might be more realistic that it would under-shoot, but that depends on how much we believe there is pent-up demand for new parties or for growth of existing smaller ones. I will leave that aside here.)

The answer to this “what if” depends on the precise MMP model. What Li and Shugart (2016) have shown is that a minor addition to the Seat Product Model (of Taagepera, 2007) captures two-tier compensatory systems well. MMP is a type of two-tier compensatory system, so let’s apply that model to a hypothetical Canadian MMP. The formula is:

Ns=2.5t(MSB)1/6.

In this formula, MSB is the “basic-tier seat product”, defined as the mean magnitude of the basic tier, times the total number of seats in that tier. For a typical MMP system, we retain M=1 in the basic tier, so the basic-tier seat product is simply the number of seats elected in that tier. The t in the formula stands for “tier ratio”, which is the share of the total assembly that is elected in the compensatory tier. This is an exponent on a constant term that is empirically determined to be 2.5. (Determined from the broader set of cases on which this is tested.*)

If a country’s electoral system is “simple”, meaning there is just a single tier, as with FPTP, then the above formula reduces to Taagepera’s (2007) seat product model:

Ns=(MS)1/6.

(In a system with no upper tier, t=0, and MSB=MS.)

For purposes of estimating, I am going to assume the assembly size will remain the same, currently S=338. I will further assume that it would be politically difficult to reduce the number of districts (ridings) in the basic tier of an MMP system too much below the current number (which is, of course, 338). I will adopt two thirds of the current number as my estimate of “not too much”. In such a scenario, we get a basic tier of 225 seats, giving us t=.33:

Ns=2.5.33(225)1/6=1.35(2.47)=3.33.

I did not plan my scenario to get to three-and-a-third, but it has a nice ring to it. And seems pretty reasonable. For comparison purposes, this is not much different form what Canada had in 2006 (3.22) or Germany, an actual MMP system, had in 1998 (3.31).

Based on another formula in Taagepera (2007), which is empirically very accurate, we can also derive an expectation for the seat share of the largest party (s1):

s1 = Ns-.75.

For our hypothetical MMP system in Canada, this implies the largest party with just over 40% of the seats.

We can tinker with the scenarios. For instance, suppose the assembly size were increased to 400, with half the seats in the basic tier. Then we get:

Ns=2.5.5(200)1/6=1.58(2.42)=3.82.

As would be expected intuitively, the fragmentation of the House goes up due to the larger compensation tier, and in spite of the basic-tier seat product being correspondingly lower. This scenario would have an expected s1=.366.

Note that I have ignored thresholds here. My ongoing research with Taagepera suggests that thresholds matter, but unless the threshold is very high (more than 5%) or the seat product, MS, is extremely high, the value of the threshold has much less impact than the parameters discussed here.

In conclusion, under common Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) designs, Canada could expect its House to have an effective number of parties ranging from 3.33 to 3.8, compared to a recent average of around 2.6 under FPTP. Its largest party could be expected to have around 36% to 40% of the seats, on average, compared to majorities or nearly so in recent elections.


* Note that this parameter’s empirical derivation raises the risk that it could be an artifact of the particular sample we have, and thus not reliable for determining an expectation value, as I am doing here. Fortunately, unless it is off by a wide amount, it does not make a large difference. For instance, 2.33 =1.26, whereas 3.33 =1.44. This variance in our prediction is much less than “normal” fluctuation from election to election in many countries.