In Memory of Gerhard Loewenberg

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.

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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. 

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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!

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Table 20 of Gerhard Loewenberg, Parliament in the German Political System (Cornell University Press, 1967)

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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.)

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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. 

“Effective Seat Product” for two-tier PR (including MMP) and MMM

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 model”. 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:

NS=2.5t(MB)1/6,

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 model’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 MMM 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 NS much 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. The concept of an “effective” magnitude less than 1.0 implies a degree of majoritarianism that one might get from multi-seat plurality of the MNTV or list-plurality kind.)

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.

NZ 2020: Strategic coalition voting?

Earlier, I noted that in the New Zealand 2020 election, the Labour Party flipped several seats in mostly rural single-seat districts that are normally strongholds of the National Party.

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.

MMP in NZ: An example of “best of both worlds” in action

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.

Tweaks to MMP in Germany?

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.

NZ2020: Maori Party list-candidate attributes and “burning bridges”

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.)

South Korea 2020

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.

Lithuania threshold reduction

The Lithuanian parliament has passed an amendment to the country’s electoral law. If it secures final passage, as expected, the threshold for party-list seats will be reduced from 5% to 4% for parties running alone and from 7% to 5% for electoral coalitions.

A proposal to reduce the assembly size from 141 to 121 was defeated in a referendum in May.

(Source: Linas Eriksonas, 2019)

Note that Lithuania has a mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system: 70 of 141 legislators are elected in single-seat districts, the rest by list PR (nationwide, non-compensatory). The legal threshold affects only the list component.

South Korea moving to MMP?

South Korea’s National Assembly appears close to passing an electoral reform bill. It seems that it would change the existing mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system to mixed-member proportional (MMP).

I always take media reports about important details of electoral systems with caution, but it seems the list seats will be made compensatory: “Under MMP, parliamentary seats are tied to the percentage of voters’ support for political parties.”

The current system (as of 2016) has 47 non-compensatory list seats, in a 300-member assembly.

However, there is a catch. The article says, “The number of PR posts to be allocated under the MMP representation scheme will be capped at 30.” Yet there are to remain 47 list seats; how are the other 17 allocated? To the largest party, or based on vote shares without taking district wins into account (as under MMM)? I wish it were clear, as such details would make quite a difference.

Regardless, proportionality will be quite limited.

An earlier provision of the reform bill that would have provided for 75 list seats was turned down.

Maybe we can call the new system MMp. Maybe.

Thanks to FairVote Vancouver and Kharis Templeman for the tip.

Quebec to have electoral reform referendum

Per CTV News Montreal, the CAQ governing party in Quebec promises a referendum on a specific electoral-reform proposal to be held concurrent with the next general election in 2022.

The CAQ government on Wednesday introduced its electoral reform law, but backed away from its 2018 campaign promise to have it in place in time for the next general election.

The system is a form of mixed-member proportional representation (MMP), but a complex one. And not very proportional.

The number of seats in the National Assembly would remain 125. The new electoral law would divide Quebec into 80 larger electoral divisions that will mainly be the same as federal ridings, and 17 wider regions:

  • 80 MNAs would be elected according to the current system

  • 45 MNAs on a list of candidates would be divided among the parties, according to the percentage of votes obtained in the 17 regions

Thirty six percent of seats for the list tier is certainly on the small side, and the proportionality would be reduced further by that list tier itself being districted. Note that the mean number of seats per compensation region is only 2.65.

Based on further detail that I learned from Manuel on Twitter (and that I trust he will not mind my sharing here), we can see yet more ways that this proposal is designed to limit proportionality.

…it’s a very constrained implementation of PR, limited by a provincial-level 10% (yes, ten percent) threshold; and districted MMP in seventeen regions, with a new variation of the D’Hondt rule that skews seat distributions in favor of the larger parties.

Regarding the seat allocation method for the compensation seats (which will limit how compensatory it actually will be):

In Scotland and Wales the modified D’Hondt divisors are N+1,N+2,N+3, and so on, where N = number of single-member seats. In the Quebec proposal, they are N/2 + 1, N/2 + 2, N/2 + 3, N/2 being *half* the number of single-member seats, rounded up, and resulting in lower divisors.

One additional detail: the bill provides for separate allocations of single-member and PR list seats among regions – according to the number of registered voters – which guarantee all but one region a minimum of two seats. This would cost Montreal – a PLQ bastion – three seats.

I would still consider this MMP*, as there is a compensation mechanism. I am on record as considering even the Jenkins Commission proposal in the UK to be MMP, albeit with lots of caveats given it was also designed to be about as weak on the P as could be.

Regarding the election of 2018 when the CAQ came into power–surprisingly, with an absolute majority of seats–and the electoral-reform promises made at the time, see this earlier planting.


  • * UPDATE: I am now not sure about this; I need more time to think it through, and that will have to wait till some time in 5780! In the meantime, see this Twitter thread. I think the issue hinges on whether the “modification” to D’Hondt is actually more like Imperiali. While Taagepera and I list Imperiali divisors in our book as being part of the family of PR allocation formulas, we both now believe that it should not be. We were prompted to this view by an email exchange earlier in 2019 with Steven Verbanck (regular F&V commenter). Anyway, to be continued…

PEI 2019: Provincial assembly election and MMP referendum

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Zealand to have referendum questions on 2020 ballot, potentially including “tweaks” to MMP

Earlier in December, the Justice Minister of New Zealand, Andrew Little (Labour) announced that there would be a binding referendum on recreational cannabis use concurrent with the 2020 general election. There may also be a question on euthanasia, and–of core interest to this blog–electoral reform.

Earlier, Little had said:

It has been floating around that if we’re going to do a bunch of referenda, why wouldn’t we put this question about whether we want to make those final tweaks to MMP, reduce that 5 per cent threshold to 4 per cent, get rid of the one-seat coat-tailing provision.

These proposals were part of the Electoral Commission’s MMP Review, but the government at the time (National-led) did not act on them.

The multiparty nature of the New Zealand political system that MMP has institutionalized is apparent in these issues being on the table. Having a referendum on cannabis use was a provision of the confidence and supply agreement that Labour signed with the Green Party after the 2017 election. In addition, Labour’s other current governing partner, New Zealand First, has indicated support for a bill on euthanasia sponsored by the leader of ACT, another of the smaller parties (a right-wing partner to opposition National).

Both provisions that the MMP Review recommended changing have had past impacts on current parties. The ACT has depended for its representation in parliament on the so-called coat-tailing provision (a term I do not like for the alternative threshold) in several elections. The New Zealand First once was left out of parliament for having a vote share between 3.5% and 5%, despite other parties (including ACT) being represented, due to winning a single district (electorate) plurality. (Obviously, 4% would not have helped NZF in 2008, as it had only 3.65%. But the point is that the current provisions produce potential anomalies; I have suggested before that the two thresholds should be brought closer to one another.)

Also of note: Little said that the cabinet had discussed, but decided against, having a citizen’s assembly to deliberate issues related to cannabis (and perhaps also euthanasia).

The gaming of Mexico’s PR disparity cap

One distinctive feature of Mexico’s 500-seat Chamber of Deputies’ mixed-member majoritarian system – under which 300 members are chosen by plurality voting in as many congressional districts, while the remaining 200 seats are filled by party-list proportional representation (initially determined on a nationwide basis) – is a provision which caps party representation at a maximum of eight percentage points above its national proportion of votes cast for parties entitled to participate in the distribution of PR mandates (in addition, no party may have a total number of Chamber seats in excess of 300 mandates). However, in recent years some parties running in electoral coalitions have successfully gamed the system to circumvent the limits imposed by this provision, effectively diluting its intended compensatory effects.

The eight percent disparity cap is implemented by determining the maximum number of Chamber seats each party may obtain; if a party exceeds this amount, its PR seat allocation is reduced so that its total number of plurality and list seats is equal to the capped seat total. For example, in the 1997 legislative election – generally regarded as Mexico’s first truly free and fair vote – the then-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) won 38% of the total vote and 39.98% of the “effective national vote” (“votación nacional efectiva” in Spanish), that is the total number of votes cast for parties entitled to take part in the allocation of PR seats. Therefore, PRI could obtain at most 47.98% (39.98% plus 8%) of the Chamber’s 500 seats, or 239 seats, disregarding fractions. Since PRI had won 165 of 300 plurality mandates in the election, and had been initially assigned 80 PR seats, for a total of 245 seats – six above the capped total – the party’s list mandates were reduced to 74 seats (239 minus 165); the remaining 126 PR mandates were then distributed among the other four qualifying parties.

Prior to 2008, Mexican voters could choose either a party running alone or a coalition, but not a specific party running within a coalition. Therefore, coalitions were treated as parties when it came to allocating Chamber seats and determining the eight percent cap. However, a 2008 electoral reform allowed voters to choose parties running as part of a coalition, and at the same time limited coalitions to plurality elections only. Since then, the distribution of Chamber PR seats has been carried out entirely on an individual party basis, even though coalitions have often continued to determine the outcome of plurality races; most importantly, the allocation of plurality seats among coalition partners has been determined on the basis of officially registered coalition agreements (“convenios de coalición” in Spanish). In due course, larger parties running in coalition with smaller allies discovered they could game the cited provision by assigning plurality seats in the coalition agreement to their junior partners, while these in turn nominated candidates who were actually members of the larger party. In this manner, the larger party artificially reduced its total number of seats, thus making it less likely that it would hit the eight percent cap during the allocation of PR list mandates.

Before 2018, PRI and its ally the Ecologist Green Party of Mexico (PVEM) gamed the system in the manner described, but the scope of their scheme was comparatively limited, not least because PVEM didn’t have a particularly large number of Chamber plurality seats to begin with. Moreover, in 2015 Mexico’s Federal Judiciary Electoral Tribunal (TEPJF) ruled that parties could nominate candidates from a different political party, provided the parties had a coalition agreement. On the other hand, the stratagem pursued in 2018 by the “Juntos Haremos Historia” (JHH; “Together We’ll Make History”) coalition of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), the Workers’ Party (PT) and the Social Encounter Party (PES) was anything but limited. For the Chamber of Deputies, the three parties ran together in 292 of Mexico’s 300 congressional districts, but in the coalition agreement 142 nominations were assigned to MORENA, and 75 each to PT and PES.

To be certain, it is not unusual for smaller parties like PT and PES to have a disproportionate share of single-member nominations in mixed-member majoritarian systems which allow party coalitions: in a nutshell, larger parties often bow to smaller parties’ demands, outrageous as they may be, if that is what it takes to avoid the risk of losing elections. That said, giving away half the Chamber’s single-member seat nominations to a couple of very small parties came across as both extreme and highly suspicious, all the more so considering that for the Mexican Senate plurality races, JHH nominated 49 candidates from MORENA, but only eight from PES and five from PT. However, unlike in the Chamber of Deputies, there is no eight percent cap in place for the distribution of Senate PR seats, and therefore MORENA gained nothing from giving away upper house plurality nominations to its much smaller allies.

JHH went on to score a landslide victory in the general election last July, securing an absolute majority for its presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (better known by his initials AMLO), as well as a sizable plurality in the legislative election. In the Chamber of Deputies, final results show JHH won 220 of 300 plurality seats (including eight mandates won by MORENA running alone), with the following results for its constituent parties:

Party % (Votes) Seats % (Seats)
MORENA 37.2 106 35.3
PT 3.9 58 19.3
PES 2.4 56 18.7
JHH Total 43.5 220 73.3

The sole beneficiaries of the victorious coalition’s over-representation in the plurality component were PT and PES, as MORENA ended up slightly under-represented. Again, while it is not unusual for smaller parties within larger coalitions in mixed-member majoritarian systems to have a share of seats in excess of their percentage of the vote (even without considering the PR component), this was nonetheless a truly extreme outcome. By comparison, the Senate election had a more typical plurality outcome, as shown below:

Party % (Votes) Seats % (Seats)
MORENA 37.4 42 43.8
PT 3.8 5 5.2
PES 2.3 8 8.3
JHH Total 43.6 55 57.3

(JHH’s smaller majority of upper house plurality seats was due to the fact that unlike in the Chamber of Deputies, Senate plurality mandates are allocated on the basis of two seats for the winning ticket and one for the first runner-up in each one of Mexico’s thirty-two federal entities).

For the distribution of Chamber PR seats, MORENA received 41.34% of the effective vote, so it could have no more than 49.34% of the 500 Chamber seats, which translated to 246 seats. However, after the initial allocation of PR mandates MORENA had a total of 188 seats (106 plurality and 82 list), well below its corresponding maximum seat total. On the other hand, PT, with 4.36% of the effective vote, would have been entitled to nine list seats, but unexpectedly exceeded its 12.36% cap, or 61 seats due to the party’s large number of plurality victories; PES fell below the three percent valid vote minimum required to take part in the distribution of PR seats. Consequently, PT’s list seat total was reduced to three mandates, and the remaining 197 PR seats were distributed among the other six qualifying parties. In all, JHH won 308 of 500 Chamber seats, as detailed below:

Party FPTP PR Total % (Total)
MORENA 106 85 191 38.2
PT 58 3 61 12.2
PES 56 0 56 11.2
JHH Total 220 88 308 61.6

Mexico’s National Electoral Institute’s General Council Agreement INE/CG1181/2018 [PDF] details the official distribution of Chamber of Deputies PR list mandates in Mexico’s 2018 federal election, while Federal Elections in Mexico has nationwide- and federal entity-level results of elections in Mexico since 1997.

Although the eight percent cap deprived PT of just six seats, this left several of its leaders without a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, and the party went to court to have the result overturned. To that end, PT actually admitted some of its successful plurality candidates weren’t really party members after all, and sought a judicial review of JHH’s officially registered coalition agreement. However, the court rejected what it correctly perceived as a transparent attempt by PT to re-structure the previously agreed distribution of Chamber plurality nominations, in order to bypass the eight percent cap and increase its number of list mandates. In essence, TEPJF ruled JHH’s coalition agreement was a done deal which could no longer be altered after the election had been carried out with the agreement in place, and for good measure reaffirmed its earlier 2015 ruling that parties could nominate candidates from a different political party, provided the parties had a coalition agreement.

Just as important, TEPJF ruled that under the prevailing legal and constitutional arrangements, it was not possible to consider JHH’s coalition performance as if it were a single party for the purposes of determining over-representation, as it would run counter to the requirement such determination must be carried out on an individual party basis. Had Chamber seats been allocated among coalitions (and had all three major coalitions been in place in every congressional district, as was the case with the presidential election), JHH’s seat total would have been limited to 269 mandates – a significantly reduced yet nonetheless substantial majority.

TEPJF also confirmed that PT exceeded the eight percent cap by six seats (because 12.36% of 500 seats equals 61.8 seats, it was argued the party went above the cap by 5.2 seats (67 minus 61.8), which should have rounded down to five seats; however, this argument was rejected on the grounds that with 62 seats of 500 – 12.4% of the total – PT would have had a disparity gap of 8.04%, a figure just above the eight percent maximum).  The court ruled as well that JHH’s plurality victories could not be assigned to MORENA on account of the fact that the party contributed the vast majority of votes to that end.

(MORENA outpolled both PT and PES in every congressional district, and even if the party had run alone it would have secured a large majority of plurality seats, while PT and PES would have won none. However, in such hypothetical scenarios – which assume an identical distribution of votes among the parties contesting the 2018 federal election – MORENA’s Chamber of Deputies seat total would have been limited to 246 mandates by the eight percent cap, while PT would have received no more than 13 list mandates and PES would have had no seats, leaving MORENA and PT with a relatively slender joint majority in the Chamber.)

Nevertheless, TEPJF’s rulings on some of these controversies were not unanimous. Judge Felipe de la Mata Pizaña wrote a concurring opinion calling for the current implementation of the eight percent cap provision to be reconsidered for future elections, while Judge Reyes Rodríguez Mondragón issued an extensive dissenting opinion, in which he argued that the actual party affiliation of plurality winners should be taken into account for determining the eight percent cap during the distribution of PR seats. Notably, the dissent cites a number of political science scholarly sources, including both the Spanish-language edition of “Presidents and the Party System” (edited by S. Mainwaring and M.S. Shugart) and “Seats and Votes” by R. Taagepera and M.S. Shugart, even carrying out the calculations to determine the effective number of parties index for Mexico.

(For further information, please refer to TEPJF’s rulings on SUP-JDC-0429-2018; SUP-JDC-0438-2018SUP-JDC-0444-2018SUP-REC-0934-2018; and SUP-REC-0943-2018 [PDF].)

However, beyond the practical difficulties entailed by implementing this approach, it is not clear that it would have resulted in a significantly different distribution of seats. After Mexico’s newly elected legislators were sworn in just over three months ago, a large number of JHH’s 220 plurality deputies ostensibly elected as members of PT or PES joined MORENA’s parliamentary group, as shown below:

Party Elected Group Gain/Loss
MORENA 106 162 +56
PT 58 28 -30
PES 56 30 -26

Had the eight percent cap been calculated on the basis of parliamentary group affiliation figures, the initial distribution of PR list seats, which as previously noted granted nine mandates to PT and 82 to MORENA would have been definitive, as neither party would have reached its eight percent-capped seat total. Moreover – and quite ironically – JHH would have obtained an even larger Chamber majority of 311 seats (of which 244 seats would have gone to MORENA, 37 to PT and 30 to PES).

In conclusion, while PT and PES contributed very little in terms of votes to JHH’s sweeping victory in the 2018 federal election, the gaming of the eight percent disparity cap through the assignment of a disproportionately large number of plurality nominations to these parties allowed the coalition to obtain a much larger majority in the Chamber of Deputies than it could have otherwise attained. Even so, the triumphant coalition parties overplayed their hand, and the stratagem backfired on PT; this in turn led to a public disclosure of the scheme’s existence (already highly suspected, not least because it was largely absent in the Senate election, which has no disparity cap provisions), as part of an unsuccessful effort to have the unexpected adverse outcome reversed in court.

Even though a majority of Mexico’s Federal Judiciary Electoral Tribunal justices have reaffirmed the validity of electoral provisions which allow outcomes like these, it seems an obvious flaw in the design of the system that parties can run in alliances, but the caps on over-representation are calculated at the individual party level, as pointed out by Dr. Matthew Shugart himself on this blog shortly after the 2018 federal election took place. Moreover, the gaming of the eight percent disparity cap in the 2018 federal election effectively altered the nature of the Chamber of Deputies electoral system, causing it to function almost like a parallel system, in which the outcome of plurality races had very little impact in the distribution of party list seats. That may not appear to be cause for excessive concern in the here and now, given that JHH would have in all likelihood secured a majority of Chamber seats even if the coalition hadn’t gamed the eight percent disparity cap, but the issue could have wider ramifications with unpredictable consequences in the years to come. 

IRV-MMP

What do folks think of this idea, proposed by Mark Roth in the thread on open-list MMP?

I do not believe it is entirely necessary to have two votes; though I don’t oppose the idea. Essentially I would have IRV-MMP. An instant runoff determines which candidate wins the local seat in each district. First preferences determine who receives the at-large seats. If a voter wants the Greens, but knows that they won’t win locally, a vote 1 Greens 2 Labor has the effect of supporting a winnable local candidate and helping the Greens secure seats in general. I would allow transfers to second (or lower) ranked parties should the first choice(s) of parties not reach a threshold. I would also be inclined to allow a List Party that isn’t running a candidate to appear on the ballot anyway; probably marked to indicate that the List cannot win the local seat. The candidates who lose in their local race would be selected to fill the at-large seats based on their personal vote counts. List order would only be a tiebreaker.

Decoy lists would technically be possible, but they would stick out like a sore thumb, require voter coordination to ensure that the “right” candidate gets the vote in the district level races, and would still need to front candidates in local races to have enough warm bodies.

As I say at the other thread in a comment of my own, I like it much better than the “AV+” idea of having two votes (one ranked-choice for local candidates and the other for list).

Is rural-urban PR gaining on MMP?

In the British Columbia mail-in referendum, the most likely option to win, should change from FPTP be endorsed, has seemed to be Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP). However, a poll from Mainstream BC, released on Nov. 8, suggests that one of the other options could be gaining.

The one that looks close, at least in this poll, is Rural-Urban PR (RUP). I reviewed all of the proposals before, and so will only briefly describe the RUP system here: It would be Single Transferable Vote (STV) for most of the province, but MMP in rural areas. The proposal is meant to address concerns that rural districts (ridings) would have to be too large if STV were used in the entire province, while still giving the rural interior a reasonable degree of proportionality.

This poll shows that on the critical first question, whether to keep FPTP or move to PR, the BC Interior prefers the status quo, 53.3% to 46.7%. Metro Vancouver voters only narrowly favor PR (50.1%), while Vancouver Island favors PR by a slightly wider margin (52.7%). The regional samples are small, so should be treated with caution. Nonetheless, they are suggestive of skepticism of PR in rural areas, exactly what the RUP proposal is meant to address. Overall, it is way too close to call: 50.5% for keeping FPTP, 49.9% for PR.

It is on preference over PR systems that we see the most interesting divide. According to this poll, MMP leads by a wide margin in Metro Vancouver: 50.4% to 32.2% for RUP and 17.4% for the third option, Dual-Member PR (DMP). On Vancouver Island, it is similar, but tighter: 40.4%, 38.3%, 21.3% (this is just 86 respondents). In BC Interior, however, the poll gets RUP on 49.5%, then MMP 37%, and DMP just 13.5%.

Overall, this still puts MMP in front, given the greater population of Vancouver: 44.8%, 38.2%, 17.0%.

It could be that RUP is gaining, as earlier polls had it and DMP both far behind MMP. There is an on-line presence for a specifically pro-RUP effort (“YUP for RUP”). There is some expressed support for RUP, for instance by Andrew Coyne in the National Post. He says he favors it “mostly for the STV part.”

It would be very interesting if RUP ended up winning, but on the strength of rural voters who, were it chosen, would vote by MMP, while Vancouver voters (who would vote by STV) had majority-preferred MMP but would get STV. OK, that was convoluted, but that is the point. It is not a likely outcome, but it is at least possible, provided it is really close in Vancouver and there is a decisive turn towards RUP in rural areas. And would be interesting!

The choice of PR model, if PR defeats FPTP in the first question, will be determined by province-wide alternative vote (the second question is a ranked ballot). So, it would be good to know what DMP supporters’ second choice tends to be. I would guess MMP, but that is just that–a guess. It probably depends on which feature of DMP that minority likes best–all members elected in local districts (for which STV would seem to beat MMP) or province-wide proportionality (for which MMP is clearly better than RUP).

A final note from the poll: It has 963 total respondents, but only 440 for the second question. So lots of voters may be planning to skip the question on choice of models. It is unclear whether that is because those who want FPTP are not weighing in at all, or because of pro-PR canvassers saying things like “if you are confused about the second part, you can skip it” (which I heard in my brief observation of campaigning).