In yesterday’s review of the German election outcome, I used the extended Seat Product Model (SPM) formula for two-tier PR systems. I have done this many times, and Rein Taagepera and I (in our 2017 book, Votes from Seats) do explicitly include mixed-member proportional (MMP) in the category of two-tier PR systems.
However, there is one problem with that characterization. All other two-tier PR systems that I can think of entail a single vote, which is then used both for allocating seats in the basic tier and pooled across districts for national (or sometimes regional) compensation.
MMP, of course, usually entails two votes–a nominal (candidate) vote used only in the basic tier, and a second, party-list, vote used for determining overall proportionality. (In MMP, the basic tier is a “nominal tier” because the vote there is cast for a candidate, and the district winner earns the seat solely on votes cast for him or her by name.) This two-vote feature is a complex feature of MMP that is actually emphasized in my more recent coauthored book, Party Personnel Strategies, but which I may have tended to underplay in my comparative work on modeling the effects of electoral systems on party systems. Of course, by being two-tier, it is already a non-simple system, as Taagepera and I define that term. But we also say that two-tier PR, including MMP, is as simple as an electoral system can be and still be included in the complex category (see p. 263 and 299 of Votes from Seats).
Maybe that is not an accurate statement for two-vote MMP. Our definition of simple (pp. 31-36) concentrates on two features: (1) all seats allocated within districts, and (2) adherence to the rank-size principle, such that the largest party gets the first seat in a district, and remaining seats are allocated in a way that respects their relative sizes (i.e., by any of the common PR formulas). We further say that for simple PR, “the vote for candidate and for party is one act” (p. 35). This latter condition still holds for any two-tier list-PR system, because there is a list vote that applies both for allocating seats within a district, and also for the “complex” feature of the supra-district compensation mechanism. Obviously, however, MMP as used in Germany violates the principle that “the vote for candidate and for party is one act.” So maybe it is not “simple enough” to qualify as an almost-simple complex system. (Yes, that was a complex statement, but that’s kind of the point.)
If MMP were to tend to produce a party system more fragmented than expected from the extended SPM, it might be due to the “second” vote, i.e., the list vote. To test this, one could aggregate all the nominal votes and use them as the notional list votes in a simulated compensation. (This is how MMP in Germany worked in 1949, albeit with compensation only at state level. It is also how MMP now works in Lesotho.) The aggregation of basic-tier votes should work better from the standpoint of modeling the party system impact of the key features of a given MMP system–the size of the basic tier and the share of seats in the compensation tier.
The catch in all this is that, of course, till quite recently German MMP was under-fragmented, according to the SPM, despite using a separate list vote. Thus the issue did not arise. The New Zealand MMP system also has matched expectations well, after the first three post-reform elections were over-fragmented relative to model prediction. The graph below shows the relationship over time between the expectations of the SPM and the observed values of effective number of seat-winning parties (NS) in both Germany and New Zealand. For the latter country, it includes the pre-reform FPTP system. In the case of Germany, it plots NS alternately, with the CDU and CSU considered separately. As I noted in the previous discussion, I believe the “correct” procedure, for this purpose, is to count the “Union” as one party, but both are included here for the sake of transparency. In both panels, the dashed mostly horizontal line is the output of the extended SPM for the countries’ respective MMP systems1; it will change level only when the electoral system changes. (For New Zealand, the solid horizontal line is the expectation under the FPTP system in use before 1996.)
The German party system from 1953 through 2005 was clearly fitting quite poorly, due to how under-fragmented it was for the electoral system in use. The old CDU/CSU and SPD were just too strong and overwhelmed the considerable permissiveness of the electoral rules.2 So clearly the question I am raising here–whether the two-vote feature of MMP means it should not be modeled just like any (other) two-tier PR system–is moot for those years. However, perhaps it has become an issue in recent German elections, including 2021. The underlying feature of voter behavior pushing the actual NS to have risen to well above “expectation” would be the greater tendency of voters towards giving their two votes to different parties. At least that would be the cause in 2021, given that we saw in the previous post that the basic tier produced almost exactly the degree of fragmentation that the SPM says to expect. It is the compensation tier that pushed it above expectation, and the problem here (from a modeling perspective) is that the formula implicitly assumes the votes being used in the compensation mechanism are the same votes being cast and turned into seats in the basic (nominal) tier. But with two votes, they are not, and with more voters splitting tickets, the assumption becomes more and more untenable.
The previous planting on this matter emphasized that the SPM is actually performing well, even in this most recent, and quite fragmented, election. I am not trying to undermine that obviously crucial point! However, the marked rise in NS since 2009–excepting 2013 when the FDP failed to clear the threshold–may suggest that the model’s assumption that the two votes are pretty similar could be problematic.
Maybe two-vote MMP is more complex after all than its characterization as a two-tier PR system–the simplest form of complex electoral system–implies. In fact, maybe I should stop referring to MMP as a sub-category of two-tier PR. Yet for various reasons, it is a convenient way to conceptualize the system, and as yesterday’s discussion of the recent German election showed, it does work quite well nonetheless. It could be based on a flawed premise, however, and the more voters cast their nominal and list votes differently, the more that flaw becomes apparent.
A work in progress… in other words (fair warning), more such nerdy posts on this topic are likely coming.
1. The “expected NS” line for Germany takes the tier ratio to be 0.5, even though as I argued in the previous entry, we really should use the actual share of compensation seats in the final allocation. This would have only minimal impact in the elections before 2013; in 2021, it makes a difference in “expected” NS of 0.36.
2. Partly this is due to the 5% list-vote threshold, which is not a factor in the version of the SPM I am using. In Votes from Seats, we develop an alternate model based only on a legal threshold. For a 5% threshold, regardless of other features, it predicts NS=3.08. This would be somewhat better for much of the earlier period in Germany. In fact, from 1953 through 2002, mean observed NS=2.57. In the book we show that the SPM based only on mean district magnitude and assembly size–plus for two-tier PR, tier ratio–generally performs better than the threshold model even though the former ignores the impact of any legal threshold. This is not the place to get into why that might be, or why the threshold might have “worked” strongly to limit the party system in Germany for most of the postwar period, but the permissiveness of a large assembly and large compensation tier is having more impact in recent times. It is an interesting question, however! For New Zealand, either model actually works well for the simple reason that they just happen to arrive at almost identical predictions (3.08 vs. 3.00), and that for the entire MMP era so far, mean NS has been 3.14.
The German general election of 2021 has resulted in a situation in which neither major party can form a government without either the other, or more likely, a coalition that takes in both the liberal FDP and the Greens. With the largest party, the social-democratic SPD, under 30% of seats, it is an unusually fragmented result compared to most German elections. Naturally, this being Fruits & Votes, attention turns to how much more fragmented this outcome is than expected, given the electoral system. The answer may be a bit of a surprise: not all that much. I expected this outcome to be a significant miss for the Seat Product Model (SPM). But it is really not that far off.
For a two-tier PR system, of which Germany’s MMP can be thought of as a subtype, we need to use the extended version of the SPM developed in Votes from Seats.
NS = 2.5t(MSB)1/6,
where NS is the effective number of seat-winning parties (here, meaning the expectedNS), M is the mean district magnitude of the basic tier, SB is the total number of seats in the basic tier, and t is the “tier ratio” defined as the share of the total number of assembly seats allocated in the compensatory tier. For Germany, basic-tier M=1 and SB=299. The tier ratio could be coded as 0.5, because the initial design of the system is that there are 299 list tier seats, allocated to bring the result in line with the overall party-list vote percentages of each party that clears the threshold. However, in Germany the electoral law provides that the list tier can be expanded further to the extent needed to reach overall proportionality. Thus t is not fixed; we should probably use the ratio that the final results are based on, as NS would necessarily be lower if only 299 list seats had been available. In the final result, the Bundestag will have 735 seats, meaning 436 list seats, which gives us a tier ratio of t=436/735=0.593. Plug all this into the formula, and you get:
NS = 2.50.5932991/6=1.72*2.59=4.45.
Now, what was the actual NS in the final result? We have to ask ourselves whether to count to two Christian “Union” parties, the CDU and the CSU, as one party or two. The answer really depends on the question being asked. They are separate parties, with distinct organization, and they bargain separately over portfolios and policy when they are negotiating a coalition with another party. However, for purposes of the SPM, I firmly believe that when two or more parties in a bloc do not compete against each other (or, alternatively, do so only within lists over which votes are pooled for seat-allocation1), they should be treated as one. The SPM does not “care” whether candidates of the bloc in question are branded as CSU (as they are in Bavaria) or as CDU (the rest of Germany). It simple estimates the effective number of “agents of the electorate” given the electoral rules. In terms of national politics, these are the same “agent”–they always enter government together or go into opposition together, and they jointly nominate a leader to be their Chancellor candidate.
Taking the CDU/CSU as a “party” for this purpose, we get actual NS =4.84 in the 2021 election. So, given an expectation of 4.45, the actual outcome is just over 8.75% higher than expected. That is nothing too extraordinary. For comparison purposes, we can just take the ratio of actual NS to expected NS. Here are some elections in the dataset used for Votes from Seats that are in the same range of over-fragmentation as Germany 2021:
(The table indicates as ‘simple’ those with a single tier; others are two-tier.)
The ratio variable has a mean of 1.021 in the full dataset and a standard deviation of 0.359. Its 75th percentile is 1.224 (and 25th is 0.745). So the German election of 2021 is actually very well explained by this method. The degree of fragmentation we saw in this election is not too surprising. It is about what should be expected with MMP consisting of 299 nominal-tier M=1 seats and a very generous and flexible compensation tier.
As an aside, if we used the initial tier size (299, so t=0.5) in the formula, we would get an “expected” NS=4.09. This would mean a ratio of 1.183, still short of the 75th percentile of the 584 elections included in the book’s main statistical test. Here is the company it would be keeping in that neighborhood:
country year simple Ns exp_Ns ratio
Germany 2009 0 4.83 4.121066 1.172027
St. Kitts and Nevis 2000 1 1.75 1.491301 1.173472
Luxembourg 2009 1 3.63 3.077289 1.17961
Canada 2004 1 3.03 2.560218 1.183493
Denmark 1998 0 4.71 3.965222 1.187828
Venezuela 1963 0 4.32 3.63006 1.190063
Korea South 1988 0 3.55 2.981969 1.190488
Czech Republic 2010 1 4.51 3.767128 1.197199
Iceland 1991 0 3.77 3.146183 1.198277
This would put the German 2021 election about as “over-fragmented” as the Canadian election of 2004. In other words, still not a big deal. If we count the two “Union” parties separately, obviously the degree of over-fragmentation goes up considerably. As I have said already, I think for this purpose counting them as one is the correct decision.2
As far as size of the largest seat-winning party is concerned, the SPD has 206 seats, for 28.03%. The SPM would predict, given expected NS=4.45, that the largest should have 32.6% (240 seats out of 735); that’s a ratio of 0.860 (which is a slightly bigger miss than the NS ratio of 1.088, the reciprocal of which would be 0.919). It is worth pausing on this for a bit. Polling before the election said the largest party might be only on a quarter of the votes. This was accurate, as the SPD won 25.7%. The advantage ratio (%seats/%votes) is 1.09, which is rather high for an electoral system that promises as near-perfect proportionality as Germany’s current system does, with its compensation for overhangs (cases in which a party has won more nominal-tier seats in a state than its list votes would have entitled it to). This bonus is a result of a rather high below-threshold vote. Not as high in 2013, of course, when two parties (FDP and AfD) narrowly missed the nationwide 5% threshold. But still considerably high, at 8.6% combined for all parties that failed to win a seat.
It is also worth asking whether the logic behind the extended SPM for two-tier systems holds for this German election. The formula says that the basic tier produces an initial allocation of seats consistent with the SPM for simple systems, and then inflates it based on the size of the compensation tier. So we can ask what the effective number of seat-winning parties is in the basic tier alone. It should be NS =(MSB)1/6= 2991/6= 2.59. In fact, the basic-tier NS in this election was 2.51 (as before, taking CSU/CSU as one party). The ratio of 0.969 is a pretty trivial miss. We should expect the largest party to have won 0.490 of these seats (about 146). Actually the Union parties, which together won the most single-seat districts, won 143 (0.478). Thus Germany’s MMP system, in the 2021 election, actually did produce a basic-tier (nominal-tier) party system pretty much just like it should, given 299 seats and M=1 plurality, and then augmented this through a large compensatory national tier. The actual inflator is a factor of 1.93=4.84/2.51, rather than the expected 1.72=2.50.593. Had it been 1.72 instead, the final effective number of seat-winning parties would have been 4.32, about “half a party” less than in reality, implying almost exactly one third of seats to the SPD instead of just 28%.
This surprised me (pleasantly, of course). When I saw that the Greens and AfD each had won 16 seats in the nominal tier, I thought that was too many! But in fact, it works out. Maybe sometimes even I think Duverger had a law, or something. But given 299 single-seat districts, this is pretty much in line with expectations.
The outcome is interesting in the many ways that it serves as a primer on details of the electoral system. Here I mean not only the substantial expansion of the Bundestag from 598 to 735 seats, due to the way the compensation mechanism works, but also the thresholds. One of the best known features of the German electoral system is the 5% nationwide threshold. But of course, the threshold is more complex than that. It is 5% of the national party-list vote or three single-seat wins, except if a party is an ethnic-minority party. All these provisions were on display. For instance, the Linke (Left) party fell below the 5.0% threshold, yet is represented at full proportionality. That is because it won three individual mandates, thus fulfilling the “or” clause of the threshold. There was a point on election night when it looked as if the Linke might hold only two single-seat districts. In that case, with less than 5% of the list votes nationwide, it would have held only those seats as its total. By winning three, it is entitled under the law to full proportional compensation, and as a result it was awarded 36 list seats. Then, for the first time in a very long time, an ethnic party has won a seat. The South Schleswig Voters’ Association (SSW), which had not contested federal elections in decades, ran in this one and was able to win a single (list) seat, because as a representative of the Danish and Frisian minorities, it is exempt from the usual threshold provisions, as long as its votes are sufficient to qualify it for a seat when the threshold is ignored. Its 0.1% of the national vote was good enough. The SSW has had some renewed success in state elections in Schleswig-Holstein recently, and now it has scored a seat in the federal parliament for the first time since 1949. In 1949, the MMP system was a bit different, in that the 5% threshold was determined state-by-state, rather than nationwide. If the threshold had been state-by-state in this election, one other party would have earned seats. The Free Voters won around 7.5% of party-list votes in Bavaria. However, they managed only 2.9% nationwide (and no district seat), so they are shut out.
Now attention turns to what the coalition will be. Two options are on the table: SPD+Greens+FDP (“traffic light”) or CDU/CSU+Greens+FDP (“Jamaica”). The possibility of a broad left coalition has been ruled out by the election results: SPD+Green+Linke is not a majority. It was never likely anyway; the SPD and Greens did not spend recent years convincing voters they were safe options near the center of German politics to team up with the far left. Nonetheless, had it been mathematically possible the SPD might have used it as leverage against the FDP. My guess is that the traffic light coalition will form. Despite some serious policy differences between the FDP and the other two, it would be a government made up of the winners of the election, as these three parties all gained votes compared to 2017. On the other hand, one led by the CDU/CSU would be led by a pretty big loser, even though it is mathematically possible and the Greens seem to have been positioning for it over the last several years.3 Following the election, the DW live blog has been reporting on comments by various prominent CDU and CSU politicians that could be interpreted as saying the bloc needs some time in opposition, after the disappointing result. I suspect this is the view that will prevail, and after a lot of intense and difficult bargaining, Germany will be led by a traffic light coalition for the first time.
1. Here I am thinking of cases like Chile, where alliance lists contain candidates of different parties, but for purposes of how the electoral system assigns seats between competing teams of candidates, we should count the alliances, not the component parties. The same condition applies in Brazil and Finland, only there it is essentially impossible to aggregate to a meaningful national alliance category because the combinations of parties are not always the same across districts. In Chile, and also in the FPTP case of India–as well as in the current case of Germany–there is no such problem, as the alliances are nationwide in scope and consistent across districts.
2. For the record, counting them separately yields NS=5.51 in this election, which would put the ratio just barely above the 75th percentile.
3.To be clear, they are much happier working with the SPD, but what I mean is that their positioning for the possibility of a coalition with the CDU/CSU should make finding common ground with the FDP easier than it otherwise would have been.
Heinz Brandenburg on Twitter walks readers through a very useful explainer on how the current Germany version of MMP deals with overhangs through a multi-layered compensation mechanism, and why it could mean the new Bundestag will top out at more than 800 seats!
It is best to read it in its native Twitter, but following is the text of most of it (courtesy of the ThreadReader app) . The starting point, not quoted here, is a poll of current party standing in the state of Bavaria.
[the remainder of this text is not mine, but Brandenburg’s; numbers correspond to tweets in the thread]
Last time around, the CSU won 38.8% of the vote but all of the constituencies in Bavaria (they even swept all of Munich). That results in so-called overhang and compensatory seats. How are these calculated?
1/ Well, there are 93 regular seats allocated to Bavaria, 46 of which are constituencies. CSU winning them all meant 46 seats, but they only had 38.8% of the list vote or about 42% of the vote once you discount votes for parties that did not get into the Bundestag.
2/ 42% of the vote would mean their proportional share of seats was 39, not 46. So they got 7 Ueberhangmandate (overhang seats), i.e. 7 more seats than their proportional share.
3/ Since 2013, these seats have to be compensated for. So other parties get additional seats, to the extent that the 46 seats the CSU won amount to 42% of the total number of seats in Bavaria. So Bavaria actually had 108 seats in the Bundestag, not 93.
4/ But that is not the end of it. Bavaria’s 93 seats are proportional to its population size. If the state’s seat share increases to 108, then the 15 other states also need a larger share. And it wasn’t only Bavaria.
5/ Baden-Wuerttemberg got 96 instead of 76 because of the CDU winning all constituencies, Brandenburg 25 instead of 20 because CDU won all but one constituency, Hamburg 16 instead of 12 because SPD won all but one constituency, and so on.
6/ What happens then is that to keep the 16 states’ share of seats in the Bundestag proportional, not only overhang seats within states need to be compensated, but overhang and compensatory seats within states have to be compensated across states.
7/ So North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the biggest German state, did not produce any overhang seats, because SPD and CDU are more evenly balanced there. But it got 14 compensatory seats, to make up for additional seats given to other states.
8/ It is not a perfect compensation across states. Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg have 15 and 20 seats, respectively, more than their normal share in the 2017 Bundestag. NRW only 14, despite being the larger state.
9/ Berlin, Niedersachsen and NRW were the only states where no overhang seats were dished out in 2017, largely a reflection of dominance of the CDU in a fragmenting party landscape.
10/ CDU won all seats in five states, almost all seats in over a dozen states, despite having their worst election result in history, with 33%.
Could be very different this time around, with them down to 20% and the SPD at 25%. More states could get away without overhang seats.
11/ But one single state can make a big difference, and if the result in Bavaria is anywhere close to the recent polls (CSU 28%) it could be a dramatic effect.
12/ Even at 28%, the CSU would like win almost all constituencies. These are the four most marginal seats. Muenchen-Nord and Nuernberg-Nord are most likely to fall to the SPD. But the others are not certain.
So the CSU could still end up with 42-44 seats, on just 28% of the vote, or 31% if we remove votes for parties that do not get into the Bundestag.
14/ By my calculations, that would mean Bavaria’s seat share increases to 129 seats from their current 108 (and their nominal allocation of 93).
Once other states are compensated, that would get us to possibly 840 seats.
15/ A few changes have been made, which I have taken into account – the first three overhang seats will not be compensated, which would keep Bavaria’s share at 129 rather than 135 under 2017 rules.
16/ And overhangs can also be compensated against a party’s list seats in other states. But I don’t think that applies to the CSU. They won’t take CDU seats away in other states to compensate for CSU over-representations.
17/ So one such lop-sided result, under increasing fragmentation – where suddenly 28% of the vote share allow a party to win almost all constituencies – can have incredible effects on the size of the Bundestag.
18/ The nominal size of the Bundestag is 598. This one result in Bavaria could increase the size of parliament by 40%.
It won’t be quite like September, 2005, back when the virtual orchard was just a sapling, but somewhat like that September sixteen years ago featured several interesting elections, this month also looks great for election watchers.
In September, 2005, we had elections in three major examples of mixed-member systems: Japan, New Zealand, and Germany. (As I look back, I see I wrote several times about Afghanistan’s election that month; I am guessing there will no longer be a need for new Afghanistan elections plantings. I also see lost of posts about a hurricane disaster in New Orleans. Some things do recur, though fortunately in this case not on as horrific a scale, though bad enough.)
In September, 2021, we have the California recall. I don’t have anything at the moment to say about that beyond what I’ve already said. We have Germany, again, with its general election on 26 Sept. And we have Canada, on 20 Sept. There are also various other elections this month, but these are the two I will focus on here.
The German election for this September has been known about for a long time, as it is occurring on schedule (unlike the one in 2005). The Canadian one, on the other hand, is a snap election as one would not have been due till 2023. Both of these elections are going to become case studies in how campaigns really can matter.
For months it has seemed certain that in Germany, the ruling Christian Democratic/Christian Social “Union” bloc (CDU/CSU) would again come out on top, with the Greens in second place and a likely new coalition partner. Then a funny thing happened: the Social Democratic Party (SPD), for years seemingly finished as a major party, started to surge and seemingly now has pulled ahead of the CDU/CSU. The range of coalition possibilities is suddenly rather large, with some novel possibilities in the cards.
The election is also notable compared to past German elections in that the incumbent Chancellor (prime minister), Angela Merkel (CDU) is not a candidate to remain head of government. In fact, it seems likely that the campaign has caused voters to reckon with the with the less than inspiring leadership of the party’s chosen successor to Merkel (Armin Laschet), to feel less than sure they are ready to make the Greens potentially the largest or even second largest party, and to have turned to the SPD and its new leader, Olaf Scholz as the potential safe pair of hands to lead the government. These three parties seem certain to be the big three, but with the largest still below 25% in polls, it will probably take three parties to forge a majority coalition (taking the Union as one for purposes of government-formation, even though it is actually two parties). Unless all three govern together, or the current no-so-grand coalition clears a majority fo seats and continues in power, only with the SPD on top, it is going to take some combination involving the Free Democrats (FDP) to have a majority coalition. The post-election bargaining will be interesting (FDP with either Greens or SPD is not “natural”), and thus the election will really matter for which combines are possible and how much bargaining power each party has.
In Canada, the Liberal Party of incumbent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looked safe to be not only the largest party, but also to win a majority of parliamentary seats. In fact, given that the election timing was the government’s choice, that is precisely why it is happening–to convert a minority Liberal government into a majority Liberal government. Then Trudeau called the election and a funny thing happened: his party started sinking in the polls and the Conservatives appear to have caught up. In votes, that is.
As in 2019, the Conservatives could lead in votes and still come second in seats. The Conservatives probably need to win the votes by more than a couple percentage points to have a reasonably good chance at a plurality of seats, due to their inefficient vote distribution across the country. A majority Conservative government probably requires that party to keep adding support at a rapid pace, and that may be happening. Yet if that continues, some voters would probably dessert the New Democratic Party (NDP), currently running at around 20%, in favor of the Liberals. Given the FPTP electoral system, of course, such NDP desertion for the Liberals would not be guaranteed to help the latter at the aggregate seat-winning level, although it probably would do so. (Canada’s Green Party, meanwhile, is in a shambles, largely because its black, female, Jewish leader was not sufficiently anti-Israel for others in the party.) One thing seems safe to say at this point: A Liberal majority has become rather unlikely.
That’s the funny thing about campaigns. Sometimes they actually matter.
The back cover has the short summary, as well as some very kind words from other scholars:
The country cases covered in the book, each with its own chapter, are Germany, Japan, Israel, Portugal, Britain, and New Zealand. The research design leverages the electoral-system changes in Japan and New Zealand.
The book develops two “models” of party personnel practices, tested on the patterns of assignment of a party’s legislators to committees, broken down into three categories: high policy, public goods, and distributive. Under the expertise model, parties are assumed to want to harness the perceived expertise of their individual members by assigning them to committees with matching policy functions. We assume all parties in parliamentary democracies would like to achieve such matches, but, depending on features of the electoral system, they may have to trade off fulfilling the expertise model in order to assign according to an electoral–constituency model. Within the expertise model, there are also a series of issue ownership premises, under which parties of the center-right are expected to match experts to high policy and parties of the center-left to public goods (even if they do not expertise-match in other categories). As expected under our theory, the more that an electoral system makes seat-maximization depend on the geographic location of votes (as with FPTP) or on candidate’s personal votes (or both, as with Japan’s former SNTV), the more the electoral–constituency model dominates over the expertise model.
Although not the book’s central theme, a key subtext is that we now probably can take the question mark off of “best of both worlds” regarding the impact of mixed-member electoral systems, at least for the proportional (MMP) variant used in Germany and post-reform New Zealand. These systems show the highest reliance on the expertise model while simultaneously also fulfilling key premises of the electoral–constituency model.
The project was a long time in development. The book arrives thirteen and a half years after the original “central team” (me, Krauss, and Pekkanen) obtained the news that our NSF grant proposal was going to be funded. It was a complex collaboration, involving scholars specializing on each of the cases, who led the data collection and answered many a question we had. The book could never have seen the light of day without their effort. Nor could have been written without the addition to the author team of Matthew Bergman (originally the project’s research assistant, and central data manager, as well as the originator of our issue-ownership premises) and Cory Struthers (who brought new ideas about distributive policy to the author team, and was my first UC Davis Ph.D. student, not counting one who originally started at UCSD before I moved). We also benefitted from numerous other research assistants and the work of several undergraduate students at Davis, who are named individually in the preface.
As foreshadowed previously at this blog, the book is dedicated to one of the most important scholars ever of comparative legislatures, Gerhard Loewenberg, of blessed memory.
Datasets used in the book will soon be made public. They are not quite ready yet (pending review of a planned journal article that will introduce them to the wider public), but I will post a notification when they are available.
The following is the text of a memorial lecture I gave for Dr. Gerhard Loewenberg on the occasion of his first yarzheit. I delivered it remotely on behalf of Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor; I explain how it came about in the lecture itself. The following text includes some paragraphs that I had to skip in the live session (viewable on YouTube) due to time constraints.
Comparative Legislatures: Or What America and Israel can learn from Germany
The legislature is the single most important institution of a democratic political system. Yet legislatures are puzzling in terms of how they are able to function, and they tend to be disliked, even reviled, by democratic publics everywhere. Professor Gerhard Loewenberg dedicated his professional life to advancing the comparative analysis of legislatures, and in his last book, published in 2011 (other than his highly engaging memoir from 2012), he wrote about how puzzling the legislative institution is.
On the one hand, he wrote, a legislature consists of technically equal representatives. Each one, upon being seated after having won an election, has the same status as any other. Every one has just one vote on any matter that comes before the chamber for decision. A legislature is a collective body, comprised of equal individual legislators. Yet, as we know from some of the most important studies of social science, collective decision-making is difficult and prone to failure—unless some institution or leader within the legislature is endowed with authority to set the agenda, control members’ speaking time, and otherwise manage the proceedings. Of course, as soon as someone has been given power to do these tasks, by definition the legislators are no longer equal. Some of them have been awarded additional power over the others, some will not be able to speak as much as they wish, and various rules will limit the admissibility of amendments to bills that legislators may hope to advance.
Moreover, given the complexity of decision making for a modern society, no one legislator can possibly be knowledgeable about all the issues that come before the body demanding a decision. So, legislative chambers establish committees and other means of having some legislators specialize in one set of policies while others specialize in different topics. Again, this changes them from formally equal to at least potentially having outsized influence over specific policies. For instance, members of the agriculture committee acquire more knowledge and procedural advantage than their colleagues over policy related to food supply and farm subsidies, while members of the health committee acquire more knowledge and procedural advantage over policies in that topic. And so on.
These organizational questions—agenda control and committee structure—are among the topics that have fascinated researchers in comparative legislative studies. They are also presumably the key to why voters tend to hold legislative institutions in such disdain. Crafting legislation is something of a dark art, out of the view of most voters. And when they tune in to C-Span or equivalent elsewhere, they may like what they seen even less than they’d imagined. They will often see a mostly empty chamber, or an endless series of procedural measures that make no sense to outsiders. It is all quite “mystifying” as Jerry said in his book, On Legislatures: The Puzzle of Representation.
Yet without an elected legislature, you have no democracy. Actual democracies vary in whether they have two legislative chambers or one, whether they have an elected presidency or a ceremonial one (or none at all or even a monarch), and in whether courts can overturn legislation on various grounds. But no country would be called a democracy without having at least one chamber of a legislature elected by the citizens. The legislature is the one political institution that has the greatest claim on being able to represent a microcosm of citizen preferences and interests, and advancing majority rule, the central democratic principle. How much an actual legislature fulfills this central mission is quite variable, as I shall get into in more detail later. But no one can deny the absolute centrality of a legislature, and its representative function, to democracy.
Given the importance of legislatures to democracy, then understanding these institutions is central to understanding how democracy works, and how representation and democratic policy-making can be improved. It was for the purpose of advancing such understanding that Jerry Loewenberg not only devoted his own career, but also established an entire sub-field and an important journal, Legislative Studies Quarterly, in political science devoted to the study of legislatures around the world.
In my remarks this evening, I want to use the cases mentioned in my title—the USA, Israel, and Germany—as examples of what we can learn when we compare legislatures in different countries to one another. Because it is Chanukah, which celebrates an earlier recovery of Jewish national and cultural autonomy in our ancient homeland, this season is an especially appropriate time to reflect on the institutions that maintain the Jewish people’s newly recovered sovereignty in recent times. Moreover, Chanukah is all about bringing light into the darkest of times, as well as a season when Messianic yearnings have long been heightened in our tradition. It may seem strange to say so, especially to my political-scientist friends tuning in, but I see the study of democratic institutions, and especially the promotion of reforms to improve their performance on behalf of a nation, in quasi-Messianic terms. That is, democracy as a set of institutions for governance may be flawed, because they are human-devised. It may even be “the worst of all forms of government, except for all the others” than have been tried from time to time, as Churchill famously remarked. A major theme of Jewish tradition is establishing the Kingdom of Heaven—or more specifically, of offering a challenge to governments that fail to serve the broad interests of the community, including its cultural minorities, over which they claim the right to rule. Until the Kingdom of Heaven is established some day—and whether or not it is anyway meaningful to you that it might be some day—improving democracy is an essential task for our time. Democracy in Israel and the United States has been enduring some dark times of late. It is my hope that comparative legislative studies can shed some light on how democracy works, and how it can be improved. A tikkun, a repair, is in order for democracy. How can learning about different democracies help us think about making government work better? This is my rather lofty ambition for today’s remarks.
I will focus mainly on the comparison of the US and Israel, as the two counties’ legislative structures are about as different as any two can be. I will then ask if there might be a middle ground between the extremes represented by the American and Israeli cases. And the answer may be surprising—it is the German case. Or perhaps not so surprising, given that we are here to reflect on the contributions of Gerhard Loewenberg, who emigrated from Germany with his family before the Nazi takeover, and who returned to do research on the Bundestag in the decade-and-a-half following the establishment of the postwar Federal Republic of Germany.
But before I go into the substantive topic, I want to say a little about myself and specifically how I came to be honored with the invitation to give this memorial address.
My own field is indeed comparative legislatures, although until completing a book that will be out in the spring of 2021, most of my research has not been on the internal organization of legislatures, but rather on two aspects of how legislatures are related to the wider political system: (1) the electoral system, defined as the set of rules determining how candidates become legislators; and (2) how legislatures relate to the executive, i.e., either a prime minister or an elected president (or sometimes, as in France and Poland or the pre-war Weimar Republic of Germany, both) and the cabinet.
My forthcoming book, entitled Party Personnel, is about committees of legislatures—the German and Israeli cases (but not the US) are among the cases included; the book also analyzes the committee systems of Portugal, Japan, Britain, and New Zealand. I am the lead author, and my coauthors and I ask how the electoral system shapes the ways in which individual legislators are assigned to one committee or another. The process of assigning legislators to specific committees is, in all these cases, managed by political party organizations within the legislature.
For instance, political parties might assign their legislators according to expertise developed in their pre-legislative careers (their occupational background). Or the assignments might be made according to their ability to draw votes from a district the party needs to win (assuming the electoral system consists of large number of districts where specific local candidates run, which is not always the case, as we’ll see). These two possible motivations for parties are often in tension! Those legislators who are best at winning additional votes beyond what some “generic” party nominee might win in a local district contest may be only loosely correlated—if at all—with those who have the policy expertise from their prior occupation (lawyer, healthcare worker, teacher, farmer, etc.). And the electoral system is one of the key things shaping which criteria loom largest in a party’s decision about committee assignments. Or so we say in Party Personnel.
Only recently did I purchase a used copy of Dr. Loewenberg’s first book, Parliament in the German System, published in 1967. I was amazed when I began reading it to see how much it foreshadows the kind of questions that motivate my forthcoming book. For instance, in Table 20 of the book we find a summary of the percentage of legislators who come from various occupational backgrounds—lawyers, teachers, business owners, etc.–and it is comparative. It shows not only the figures for the German Bundestag that had been elected in 1957, but also comparable summaries for the UK, France, and Italy. It tracks, for the Bundestag and by political party, the percentage who serve on occupationally related committees (i.e., where their parties are taking advantage of members’ policy expertise) and their tendency to speak in the Bundestag on matters in their speciality vs. as generalists. All this sort of thing is in our Party Personnel book, for more recent German election years and various elections in seven other countries—but we have it a lot easier, thanks to rather bigger computer data processing power than existed over fifty years ago! It is really amazing to me how far ahead of his time Jerry was in thinking about these issues of how different legislatures and political parties make use of expertise in the legislative process. Moreover, the table is itself such a work of art; I just love these fold-out pages. I normally see them in atlases or books with panoramic photos, but the presentation of statistics in this manner is such a sight to behold!
When my coauthors and I were finishing up the draft of our book to submit to a publisher for review, we got the news of Jerry’s passing. Because it is a book on comparative legislatures, and because the path the book seeks to advance is grounded firmly in Jerry’s contributions to the field, my coauthors and I immediately made the decision to dedicate our book to his memory.
But that still does not explain why I am here, speaking at a memorial hosted by Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, when I myself am in California. For that, I have Rabbi Nadav Caine to thank. And, strangely enough, the pandemic, or more precisely how the pandemic has changed Jewish community. Rabbi Caine was our rabbi back in San Diego; we have known each other for about a dozen years. One Friday night a few months ago, my wife and I played the YouTube recording of the Beth Israel Shabbat evening service, to reconnect with Rabbi Caine and his family, leading the Shabbat service from their home. And at the section where the Rabbi reads the names of those being remembered, I heard… Gerhard Loewenberg. Could it be? It must be. And so I emailed Rabbi Caine after Shabbat. And he told me about Jerry’s daughter, Deborah, being part of the Ann Arbor community. And so, here we are together, thanks to Zoom!
I now want to turn to the substantive application of some of the lessons of comparative legislative studies—the case-study section, so to speak. I want to start by sketching some of the key differences between the US and Israeli cases. Then I will bring in the German case a little later. I will mention a few other countries along the way. Hey, it is all about comparative legislatures, after all, so we need to compare, and try to learn from, the experiences of different countries!
As I said at the start, there are few pairs of long-term democracies that illustrate the extreme poles of legislative and broader institutional design than do the US and Israel.
First of all, the US is, of course, a presidential system, whereas Israel is parliamentary. As the work of comparative legislative scholarship has long recognized, this basic difference in how the executive functions creates fundamental differences in the role of the legislature. Put simply, the most important role of a legislature in a parliamentary system is to produce—and maintain in office or dismiss—the executive. By definition, the prime minister and executive cabinet in a parliamentary system must have the support of a majority of legislators—or at least not the active opposition of a majority. If the majority wants a different prime minister and cabinet, it can act to replace them, or in most cases, an early election can be called.
(The Israeli case has recently taken this to yet greater extreme, having had three elections between April 2019, and March, 2020. As we speak, it seems likely there will be an election in March, 2021, or perhaps June. The term of a Knesset is nominally four years, but it’s looking like four elections in a period of about two years! While this is obviously not an ideal situation, I hope to convince you that it is not so bad. Instead of imposing a government supported by less than a majority of the voters—as the 2016 US presidential election did—it requires the politicians to have the backing of representatives of a majority of the voters and, when political conditions prevent smooth governance, to go back to the public to renew or revise their consent to govern.)
In contrast to the parliamentary model used in Israel and most of Europe, in a presidential system, by definition the head of the government is elected separately. Legislators in presidential systems have no role in choosing the head of government, and also are unable to depose the head before the end of the constitutional term, absent a process that requires more than a simple majority (as the Trump impeachment process served to demonstrate).
So this—the executive type—is the first major difference between the American and Israeli legislatures.
A second fundamental difference is that the US Congress is, of course, bicameral. House and Senate. Not only are there these two chambers, but they are equally powerful and elected in very different manners. Israel is unicameral. Because it is unicameral and parliamentary, the only national voting choice Israeli voters make is when they are called to the polls to elect a new Knesset.
The third fundamental difference is in how the legislatures are elected—the electoral system. Here I will take the US House and the Israeli Knesset as the first point of comparison, and then bring in the US Senate afterwards. The electoral systems for the House and the Knesset are diametrically opposed in their institutional design: In the US House, every member is elected as the sole representative of his or her district. There are thus as many districts as there are members—435. (Which, by the way, is awfully small to represent a country this large, but I’ll leave that aside.)
However, in Israel there are no districts. Or more accurately, there is one district. All 120 members are elected nationwide. Whereas a US House member is the candidate who wins the most votes in a local district, the Knesset is elected according to proportional representation. Israeli voters do not vote for candidates at all. They vote for a party list. Each list is composed of candidates nominated by the party, and given a priority ranking—what political scientists call a “closed list.” (Other types of list–“open” or “flexible” allow voters to favor one or more candidates within a party’s list.)
So given the closed lists used in Israeli elections, suppose a given list has earned 10% of the votes, Then it will win approximately 12 of the 120 seats, and the winners will be the first 12 candidates on its list. There is a threshold, currently 3.25% of the votes. A list that gets less than that will have no seats. But any list that clears 3.25% will be represented. This is a system designed so as to make room for a lot of parties, and lo and behold, it does!
In fact, based on predictive models developed in one of my earlier books, we should expect Israel’s Knesset to have about 11 lists with representation, and the largest one to have about 30% of the seats, which would be 36 seats. Thirty six happens to be just one more than the number the two most popular lists tied for in April, 2019. But in elections since then, and in many over the last two decades, the leading list has had even fewer seats—sometimes not even 30 seats (which is 25%). That’s a pretty small leading party—not even half the total number of seats needed to comprise a governing majority!
Note that I have been using “list” and “party” more or less interchangeably. Nonetheless, when talking about Israeli elections and Knesset politics, these terms are distinct. Often there are lists that are presented by alliances of two or more parties. For instance, the Joint List consists of four distinct parties representing Arab citizens of Israel, the Yamina is a list of various ultra-nationalist and Religious Zionist parties, and Blue and White contested the last several elections as an alliance of three distinct centrist parties.
The key is that the electoral system works by allocating seats proportionally to lists, and is designed so as to allow many such lists to win. The most recent election, for example, resulted in just 8 lists getting seats, somewhat lower than the typical 10-12. However, the number of parties is greater, and sometimes partners in elections break up and operate separately in the Knesset. In fact, this is what happened when Benny Gantz signed his coalition deal with Benjamin Netanyahu. Gantz’s list from the election, Blue and White, split, and his election partner, Yair Lapid, became the leader of an opposition party while Gantz became part of the government.
One of the most important things to understand of all this is that, (1) under the Israeli electoral system, a vote cast anywhere in the country has the same weight as a vote cast anywhere else, and (2), whatever percentage of votes a list gets, that is its (approximate) percentage of seats in the next Knesset.
In the US, by stark contrast, most districts are “safe” for one party or the other. Thus only those voters who happen to live in districts that are closely contested really participate in determining whether control of the House will shift from one party to the other. In the US Senate, of course, there is even more variation across the country in the de-facto value of a vote. California gets the same number of Senators as Wyoming, despite about a 70:1 difference in the states’ populations. And only a few states might determine whether control of this chamber of the national legislature might shift in an election—such as the flips of the seats in Arizona and Colorado this past November, and we’ll all be watching what voters in Georgia do in early January.
So let’s pull it all together. In the US, voters elect a president and two chambers of congress separately. It is thus often the case that one of these three is held by a different party than at least one of the others, as has been the case since the 2018 election and was also the case for all but the first two years of Obama’s presidency. In the US, votes are aggregated only in local House districts or for the Senate in states of greatly varying population, rather than nationally. There are only two parties of any consequence, so one will have a majority in one or both chambers, and one will have the presidency, but again, no necessary partisan alignment across these institutions. And elections occur at fixed intervals, so if they can’t work together, we get gridlock instead of the Israeli recourse to an early election.
In Israel, there is only one national elected institution—the legislature. There are many parties, and the contest for votes and seats is fully nationwide. The prime minister and cabinet are products of bargaining among parties after an election to determine who can form a coalition capable of holding majority support in the Knesset. The cabinet might fall early, before the next scheduled election, if one or more parties decide not to continue working with their partners. And there can be an early election.
In the Israeli system, there is no local representation, except that a party might choose to place a former mayor or someone else with a local connection somewhere on their list (something they do rather rarely). Unlike in the US, Members of the Knesset have no local base in the sense of a place where voters have chosen them as an individual representative.
For all the reasons just sketched, these two systems are as extreme as they can be in terms of what legislators represent and how they relate to the executive. The question thus might arise of whether it is possible to split the difference between these extremes. I will focus on just one dimension here—how the legislators are elected.
As I pointed out earlier, in the US, every legislator is elected in a unique district. That means, his or her election depends only on voters in one geographic subset of the country—435 different ones in the case of the House. (And each state in the case of the Senate.) By contrast, in Israel, they are elected in one national district, and on closed party or alliance lists.
Each of these has some basic advantages and some disadvantages. On the one hand, the US system makes life difficult for minor parties. Now, here I need to take a little excursus and interject something that even many of my political science colleagues get wrong! We have something called “Duverger’s law”, although calling it a “law” is a sure way to trigger me!!!
I will try to spare you my long screed against it, but here is the short version. The famous French sociologist, Maurice Duverger, pointed out in the early 1950s that it is hard for parties other than two major ones to win seats when each member is elected by plurality (winner take all) in single-seat districts. This he called the “mechanical effect” because it concerns how the electoral system works to assign seats. And if it is hard for them to win seats, they don’t get many votes—voters don’t want to “waste” their votes on parties that can’t win. This is the so called psychological effect, also known as strategic voting or “lesser of two evils” voting.
The logic is sensible, but it is overstated. It certainly is not a law in the scientific sense (Duverger himself never claimed it was—he just said it was close to being a “true sociological law”). And it certainly is not a law in the sense of a binding constraint on voters or political elites. Nor should we expect it to be. In work that I have done with Rein Taagepera, we show that when there are a lot of districts—even ones electing just a single member, as in the US—there is a theoretical reason to expect parties beyond the top two to win some of those seats and to get significant vote percentages, even to the point of receiving votes in districts where they finish in a distant third place and thus are unable to win locally. And, empirically, this is true in other countries using the single-seat winner-take-all rules—Canada is multiparty, for instance. In the last Canadian election, the Liberal Party won only 33% of the votes and it was overrepresented, due to the non-proportional electoral system. But because it has 46% of the seats, short of a majority, it must take account of the views of other parties in order to govern.
The UK also has multiparty politics, albeit a lesser degree than in Canada. In 2010, a two-party coalition government formed, and after 2017, Theresa May’s government was in a minority in the House of Commons, because of the success of some smaller parties in winning seats.
So the US is a real outlier in having a rigid two-party system even given its electoral system, and even given Duverger’s so-called law. We should have more space in our congressional elections for Greens and Libertarians, and others, even without changing how members are elected. Nonetheless, it is true that it is much harder to get multiparty politics and minority representation using our electoral system than it would be if we used proportional representation.
Additionally, local representation really matters in US elections. It probably matters less than it used to, because voters are much more likely to vote straight party tickets nowadays than they were back in the 1970s and 1980s. (In those days, many districts had Democratic House members but the voters therein had favored Nixon or Reagan for president). Even with stronger party-line voting, we still see House members advertising what they have done on behalf of local communities and Senators emphasizing issues of concern to their states. They are local representatives even as they are also partisan actors. And this is a good thing! Local concerns that cross ideological and party lines need attention from policymakers as much as national policy challenges do.
So the US system makes it hard for minor parties to prosper, which is in many respects disadvantageous, particularly as the parties have become more distinct ideologically (“polarization”) in recent decades. But the US system offers local representation, which is in many respects advantageous.
In the Israeli case, there is certainly no problem with small parties getting seats! In fact, almost anyone—even a strong advocate for proportional representation and coalition governance like myself—would say in Israel the fragmentation of the choices into many small parties goes too far. It makes the formation of governments with a clear agenda for national policy challenges exceedingly difficult, and recently has resulted in three elections within eleven months because of the difficult interparty bargaining.
Yet a very big advantage of the Israeli system is that votes cast anywhere in the country contribute to the seat totals for their preferred parties (as long as they get at least 3.25% of the overall vote). So voters are equal, and the weight of my vote does not depend on the preferences of people who happen to live near me, as is the case in so much of the US where we might live in a safe state or district for one party and thus be essentially ignored at election time (even in presidential elections, given the electoral college).
And a very big disadvantage of the Israeli system is the absence of local representation. Now, of course, Israel is a much smaller country than the US. But there are still are significant differences across the territory in terms of local infrastructural or other needs, and these do not get represented well in the legislative process for a very basic reason: no legislator in Israel is in any way accountable to local voters. The closed-list system means that they win solely based on their rank on the list, and how well their party performs in the nationwide vote.
So, I asked earlier whether it might be possible to combine the advantages of these two systems without taking in the disadvantages. Yes! Enter the German system.
In Germany, the members of the Bundestag are elected in what electoral-system terminology refers to as “two tiers”. There is one tier that consists of single-seat districts, thus resembling the American system (or those of Canada and Britain) in which a legislator is elected upon winning a plurality of votes in a geographically defined district. This election method comprises about half the seats in the Bundestag.
The rest are elected in another tier from party lists, thus resembling the Israeli system. Each voters has two votes—one for a local representative (winner take all in their district) and one for a party list. The party list vote is more important for the overall composition of the legislature, but the separate district vote ensures candidates pay attention to a local area, have an incentive to become visible to voters and—crucially–that even a party that loses the local contest will tend to nurture support at the district level.
The way the two tiers are inter-related in the electoral law ensures that the overall balance of parties in the Bundestag is almost perfectly proportional to their nationwide vote shares—just as in Israel. There is a 5% threshold (thus somewhat higher than Israel’s). Under this arrangement, a party’s total number of seats is a mix of however many seats it won in the district tier, plus a number from its list needed to reach its proportional share of the total. Small parties often have only list seats, as they may not have any local wins. (I am glossing over some details here, but this is the general picture.)
The German system, often called mixed-member proportional (MMP), thus ensures that a vote cast anywhere in the territory is just as valuable as one cast anywhere else, in terms of contributing to the overall balance of partisan forces in the national legislature. In this sense, it is like Israel’s system and very unlike the US system.
At the same time, it also ensures local representation, like the US system but very unlike Israel’s.
(As an aside, I want to add that about 25 years ago New Zealand changed from single-seat plurality elections to MMP, modeled on Germany’s system. It has been a smashing success for their democracy. So electoral system reform is both possible, and beneficial. An example we could follow.)
Taking the two features together, Germany has coalition governments (as does New Zealand now), but not involving as many small and otherwise incompatible parties as we see in Israel’s coalitions. Germany also has local accountability that really matters. My own research and that of others confirms that members spend time in their districts, and often come from local roots including prior electoral offices or other ties to their communities. And, as we show in the Party Personnel book, committee assignments in the Bundestag are allocated according to a logic by which parties take advantage of expertise (occupational background), but crucially also to take advantage of local variations in party support and policy demands. (We also see this balance of representation criteria having emerged in NZ since they changed to a German-inspired MMP system.)
It has obviously worked quite well, in that Germany in the postwar period developed one of the most robust democracies and probably the strongest legislature in Europe. In fact, the development of that legislature was one of the recurring themes in Jerry’s career, from his very first book (in 1967, as I mentioned earlier) right up to his last publication, which was a remarkable essay published in a German journal (but in English) in 2018, reflecting on the choices made by both the Allied powers and the new German political class that laid the groundwork for the Bundestag’s development.
(Before I close out the section on Germany, I want to note that Germany is a federation of states, like the US, and it has a bicameral parliament. The other chamber, the Bundesrat, is a great model that Americans could learn from! Its members are chosen by state governments, and it has a veto on on legislation that directly affects the states, instead of on all national policy like the US Senate. It therefore deftly balances the state-interest and national-interest tensions inherent in federalism.)
Legislatures, as Gerhard Loewenberg showed us, are puzzling institutions. In democracies, they consist of formally equal individual representatives who somehow must organize themselves to make collective decisions on behalf of the citizens they represent. They are essential to democratic governance, yet the very procedures that they devise in order to function make them mysterious to the average voter, who is quite likely to associate the body with the worst features of politics.
We can learn a lot from comparing legislatures in different countries, as Gerhard Loewenberg’s long and distinguished career taught us. Both the US and Israel, as well as other countries, can learn from the German experience of how to balance seemingly contradictory goals of legislative and electoral institutional design. While there will never be a perfectly functioning democratic legislature for the simple reason that societies and the people who comprise them are complex, a process of scholarly and public enquiry into how different systems work can bring us towards a better understanding of how to make democracy work better, both in our own country and elsewhere.
Chag sameach; Chodesh tov. Happy Hanukkah, and a good new month. And may Dr. Gerhard Loewenberg’s memory be a blessing and an inspiration.
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.
This is a strange development, and one to keep a concerned eye on. The German state of Thuringia, which held an election October, 2019, will now have a premier from the Free Democrats (FDP), who barely cleared the 5% threshold in the election. The FDP candidate for state premier, Thomas Kemmerich, was elected by one vote over the incumbent, Bodo Ramelow, of the Left Party. With the help of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), an extreme right party, Kemmerich defeated Ramelow in a third round of voting, 45-44.
The two largest parties in the state parliament since the 2019 election are the two most extreme parties in the German party system–The Left with 29 seats, and the AfD with 22. The Christian Democrats (CDU) came third with 21, then 8 for the Social Democrats (8), and 5 each for Greens and FDP (who really did just scrape over with 5.0%). The outgoing government was Linke-SPD-Green. But they fell to 42 seats out of the 90, compared to 46 in 2014. The 2014 outcome was also a little unusual–a three-party coalition excluding the largest party (CDU, which had 34, with Left second on 28). But not as unusual as whatever government Kemmerich will put together now.
I don’t know how common a government led by the sixth largest party in parliament is, but I am guessing pretty uncommon. (Answer in comments!) Kemmerich says he will not bring the AfD into a coalition, but he now owes his position to them. What does this mean for the cordon sanitaire the establishment parties (and the Left, which really can’t be called “establishment”) have been maintaining against the far right?
UPDATE: The premier-elect has resigned, and early elections will be proposed. A decision on early elections requires a vote in the state parliament. In fact, it requires a two-thirds majority, and at this point the state’s CDU leadership has been opposed to returning to the electorate.
One of the options for electoral reform in British Columbia is mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation. The criteria for the potential system allow for a post-referendum decision (if MMP is approved by voters) on whether the party lists should be open or closed. The guide that was sent to all BC voters shows a mock-up of a ballot that looks like New Zealand’s, with closed lists. However, the provincial premier has stated that, if MMP is adopted, lists will be open.
When it comes to lists, it is my opinion that citizens will elect all of the members of the legislature. They will select names that are representative of their communities.
I remain uncertain about the value of open lists under MMP. Is it worth the extra ballot complexity? What additional gain does one get from having preference votes determine order of election for those winning compensatory seats? The MMP Review in New Zealand after the 2011 referendum (in which voters voted to keep MMP) looked at this question extensively. It came down firmly on the side of keeping lists closed.
Nonetheless, the statement by the premier suggests he believes the system is less likely to be chosen if voters expect the lists to be closed. And, given regional districts on the compensation tier, as explicitly called for in the system proposal, the lists would not be too long and thus the ballots not too complex.
It happens that there is one MMP system in existence in which the lists are open. Such a system has been used in Bavaria for quite some time. I actually proposed such a model in a post way back in 2005, quite early in the life of this blog. At the time I had no idea that what I had “invented” was, more or less, the existing Bavarian model.
Of course, Bavaria just had an election. In the thread on that election, Wilf Day offered some valuable insights into how the open lists worked. I am “promoting” selections from Wilf’s comments here. Indented text in the remainder of this post is by Wilf.
The Bavarian lists are fully “open,” and the ballot position has no bearing on the outcome, except to the extent the voters are guided by it, especially seen in voting for the number 1 candidate.
Of the 114 list seats, 31 were elected thanks to voters moving them up the list, while 83 would have been elected with closed lists.
Did the first on the list always get elected? Almost. In the region of Lower Bavaria, the liberal FDP elected only 1 MLA, and he had been second on their regional list.
Did the open lists hurt women? I did not check most results, but the SPD zippers their lists, and I noticed in Upper Palatinate the SPD elected 2 MLAs, list numbers 1 and 3 (two women). Conversely, in Middle Franconia the SPD elected 4 MLAs: 1, 2, 3, and 5 (three men).
Little known fact: a substantial number of voters in Bavaria, being used to voting in federal elections where their second vote is just for a party, blink at the Bavarian ballot, look for the usual space to vote beside the party name, it’s not there, so they put an X beside the party name anyway. A spoiled ballot? No, they count it as a vote for the party. Not a vote for the list as ranked, it does not count for the ranking or for any candidate, but it does count in the party count. Just like Brazil, where a vote for the party is not a vote for the list ranking, except Bavaria does not publicize the option of voting for the party.
Among the more interesting new Free Voter MLAs:
Anna Stolz, lawyer, Mayor of the City of Arnstein; she had been elected Mayor in 2014 as the joint candidate of the Greens, SPD, and Free Voters; the local Greens said they were very proud of her as Mayor. The Free Voter delegates meeting made her number 5 on the state list, but the voters moved her up to second place as one of the two Free Voter MLAs from Lower Franconia.
From Upper Bavaria, the capital region, list #12 was Hans Friedl, with his own platform: “a socially ecologically liberal voice, an immigration law based on the Canadian model, no privatization of the drinking water supply, a clear rejection of the privatization of motorways”). The voters moved him up to #8, making him the last of 8 Free Voters elected in that region.
Note: the comments are excerpted, and the order of ideas is a little different from where they appear in the thread. I thank WIlf for his comments, and for his permission to make them more prominent.
As most readers of this blog probably already know, the German state of Bavaria held its state assembly election on 14 October. The result was a huge rebuke to the long-governing Christian Social Union, which is the regional alliance partner of federal Chancellor Angle Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.
The CSU normally wins a majority of seats on its own, but will be far short this time. (I read somewhere that this is only the third time the party has been below 50% of seats in the postwar period, but I did not confirm whether that is correct.)
The CSU has won 37.2% of the votes, a loss of over ten percentage points compared to the previous state election. The biggest gain was for the Greens, who will now be the second largest party in the state assembly, having won 17.5% of the votes. The Free Voters are next, with 11.6%. Then comes the SPD; their 9.7% is a loss of over half their vote percentage since last election. The FDP barely cleared the 5% threshold (5.1%), and the extreme-right AfD easily entered the assembly for the firs time, with 10.2%. The Left Party was below the threshold (3.2%).
So, what will the next government of Bavaria be? The CSU has, of course, ruled out working with the AfD. They would have a majority if they joined with the Greens, but that seems unlikely. The CSU+FDP would probably not be a majority (although given below-threshold votes, which total around 8.6%, maybe it will be when the seat allocations are complete). That leaves the Free Voters as the most likely option. They are a center-right party; at least I think that is a fair characterization. Actually, characterizing them as a “party” might be controversial. They claim to be a collection of independents, and they do not require their members of the assembly to vote as a bloc. That may have to change, soon.
The “preliminary” talks between the CDU, CSU, Greens, and FDP on a so-called “Jamaica coalition” have hit an impasse, with the FDP pulling out. This was the only viable coalition following the recent elections, assuming the SPD doesn’t change its mind and decide to go back into government.
So, new elections? Or sweetening the FDP’s offer, while somehow not losing the Greens?
We are entering days of convergences. Over the next two days, the Jewish and Islamic new years and the first day of Autumn coincide. Then, on the weekend, we have the convergence of elections in the two countries that offer our best examples of mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation electoral systems: Germany and New Zealand. (Lest I be accused of hemispherism, let me hasten to note that in one of those countries, the election will be the day after the start of spring.)
In the case of Germany, which votes Sunday, there really has been no doubt for some time that the CDU/CSU alliance would place first, but it will be down from its 2013 result. There is also little doubt that the two parties that missed the 5% party-vote threshold in 2013 will clear it this time: the center-right FDP and the far-right AfD. The SPD, which briefly flirted with the lead in the polls some months after changing its leadership, looks like it may struggle to break 25% of the vote. The real question is what the coalition will be, after the election results are known.
I would expect the SPD to want a period of opposition to recollect itself after what looks sure to be another disappointing result for the party. Thus it may not be willing to renew the current CDU/CSU+SPD big coalition (what we should stop calling a grand coalition; my more direct translation of the German term is more apt). If the FDP has enough seats to combine with the CDU/CSU, we might see a return to the center-right combo that governed from 2009 to 2013, as well as in many past terms. There is just enough error in the projections from polling to allow for the possibility that this could be a viable combine. (Mouse over the numbers in the table at that link for the range of vote and seat projections for each party.)
However, the most likely result seems to me to be Jamaica! I will admit to rooting for this: CDU/CSU + FDP + Green. (The name refers to the parties’ colors.)
In New Zealand, the contest for Saturday’s election is much more uncertain. For months it seemed National, which heads the current multi-party governing arrangement, was cruising to another win. Then Labour changed its leader and surged (similar to the German pattern). By a few weeks ago, the two largest parties were running neck and neck, while the Greens stumbled badly and looked at risk of failing to clear the 5% party-vote threshold. This scenario was posing a potential difficult challenge for center-left voters: Do you vote Labour to bolster its formateur status (as the largest party, although there is no formal right of first attempt to the largest in New Zealand)? Or do you vote Green to ensure there is a viable partner for Labour other than Winston Peters and his New Zealand First (NZF) party? Given that the electoral system is MMP, you can do both: vote for Labour in your district (electorate) and vote Green on the list. However, while that might be a voter’s way of making a statement of preferred coalition, only the party vote affects the overall balance of seats in parliament. (Some exceptions to that statement, as I will get to below, but none likely relevant to the Labour-Green situation discussed here.)
In recent days, some polling suggests that National might be pulling ahead again. The result could be very close, and it could be a situation in which NZF is pivotal (although that may be less likely than it seemed some weeks ago). That is, assuming NZF makes it. The party has been tending downward and is hovering near 5%, as are the Greens . Here is where the electorate (district/nominal) vote comes in. The threshold provision for a party to participate in nationwide proportional allocation is 5% of party-list votes or one electorate. (Additional MPs elected beyond the electorate candidate are what I have termed “piggyback MPs“, not to be confused with that other MMP creature, the “shadow MP“.) The Greens do not have an electorate where they are viable, but NZF does.
Peters, the NZF leader, currently holds an electorate seat, Northland, having won it in a by-election in 2015. He is the party’s candidate again for the seat. If he retains it, his party would qualify for additional list seats, even if it fell below the 5% party-vote threshold.
The other electorate contests that matter include the one in Epsom, although it is not really a contest. The seat is safe for the one Act MP, David Seymour, who is quite certain to return. It is probably not likely that the Act party vote will be sufficient to earn the party a second seat, although I saw one projection a week or so ago that suggested it was possible. Act has been a governing partner with National since 2008.
Then there is Waiariki, one of the Maori set-aside seats. (Voters who claim Maori descent can choose to vote in their special Maori electorate or in the general electorate seat in which the reside.) Te Ururoa Flavell is fighting to hold the seat, which is the only way his party will retain a presence in parliament. That is quite a change for the party, which has been a National governing partner since 2008. In the past it has won as many as five electorate seats (in 2008) and in 2014 it had sufficient party votes to win a list seat for the first time, in addition to its win in Waiariki electorate. This time, it may end up with just one seat–or zero.
One electorate we know will not matter this time is Ohariu. United Future leader Peter Dunne resigned in August, after a 33-year career as an MP. This effectively kills the party, which has been a support partner to every government, whether led by Labour or National, since 2002. Only in 2002 did the party clear the party-vote threshold, and since 2008, Dunne has been its only member.
In an interesting twist on the Ohariu story, the Greens had initially decided not to contest the seat, in order to give the Labour candidate a chance to defeat Dunne and thereby knock a National partner out of the government-formation equation. When Dunne resigned, the Greens announced a candidate for the seat. With Dunne not running, there is no scenario in which this electorate will matter for the parliamentary balance, so there was no reason for the Greens not to have “local face” on the party (even though many of its voters will split their vote and give their electorate vote to the Labour candidate anyway). Running a candidate is thus another example of what I have called green contamination.
Two MMP elections in one weekend. Now that will be something to watch!
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.