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.

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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!

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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. 

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.

Thuringia: Leader of smallest party in state parliament elected premier, with AfD support

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.

Open lists in MMP: An option for BC and the experience in Bavaria

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.

Bavaria 2018

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.

No Jamaica?

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?

MMP weekend: Germany and New Zealand 2017

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!

 

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

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

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

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

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

Winston Churchill knew Proportional Representation was a defence against fascism.

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

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


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

Two more AfD breakthroughs in German state elections

Hard on the heels of clearing the 5% threshold in the Saxony elections, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has won a chunk of seats in both Brandenburg and Thuringia. The party went over 10% in both states.

There is even speculation that the Left Party could get its first premier, because the current CDU-SPD coalition (Christian Democrats and Social Democrats) is well short of a majority of the vote in Thuringia. (The two parties had combined for 49.7% in 2009, and easily won a majority of seats in that election.) The Left Party (28.2%) is in second place to the CDU (33.5%), with the SPD third (12.4%). Greens won 5.7%. The three-party bloc of Left-SPD-Greens coalition has 46 seats, the same as the CDU-SPD bloc. Either would control a bare majority of the assembly’s 91 seats. (The AfD is the only other party to have won seats, and has 11; no one is interested in it as a coalition partner.)

In Brandenburg, the SPD retained its plurality, with 31.9%. It currently governs with the Left as a junior partner. The Left, which won 18.6% in this election, is down 9 seats from the last election. The two parties’ combined strength of 47 seats is still a majority in the assembly of 88 seats. SPD (30) + CDU (21) is also a possibility. In additions to the 11 new seats for the AfD, a party called Brandenburg United Civic Movements/Free Voters broke through and won 3 seats. Given that its list vote was only 2.7%, it obviously won on the strength of single-seat district wins.

The Free Democrats continue their collapse. They had 7.6% in Thuringia in 2009 but managed a mere 2.5% this time. It was even worse in Brandenburg, where the FDP won only 1.5% of the vote.

Before the election, federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose CDU is in coalition with the SPD (and the Bavarian CSU) warned against the possibility of a Left-SPD alliance in Thuringia, saying:

There’s a big national party here, the SPD, with a proud history…who would have thought that. A big, proud party like the SPD is making itself small.

Merkel’s remark is a tad self-serving. She has a vested interest in the SPD not trying out new partnerships with the Left (in addition to those states where such a coalition already has worked). Given her lack of partners, with the unattractive (for the mainstream) AfD replacing the FDP on the right, she needs the SPD to be a wiling junior partner for her party.

As I noted before the last federal election, small is exactly what the SPD has become, and its coalitions with the CDU are nowadays somewhat less than “grand”.

Saxony, 2014: FDP out, AfD in

The German state of Saxony voted today. The most noteworthy outcome of the election is that the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has replaced the Free Democrats (FDP) in the state’s assembly. Both parties just missed clearing the nationwide threshold in the national elections last year. For the FDP, today’s result continues a streak of bad results. For the AfD it represents their first seats in any state legislature. And it was not a close call: the party won 9.7% of the vote.

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) remains the largest party, on 39.4%, with the Linke (Left) in a distant second (18.9%). The Social Democrats (SPD) won 12.4%. Greens are at 5.7%, and the National Democrats fall just below the threshold at 4.9%.

The outgoing government was a CDU-FDP coalition. What will the new one be? It would seem it would be CDU-SPD. Is that now set to be the “natural” coalition in German state and national politics?

Piggyback MPs

[Update: I am adding this to the Germany block, due to a discussion that has arisen in the comments.]

Under New Zealand’s variant of Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP), there are two alternative thresholds for receiving party-list seats. Either a party must obtain over 5% of the party-list vote, or else it must win a single district (electorate) and sufficient party-list votes to elect two or more MPs in total (even if its list vote is under 5%).

The latter path towards winning proportional representation seats is referred to in New Zealand as “coat-tailing”. I suppose New Zealanders can call it whatever they want, as long as it is clear to them, given that it’s their electoral system and a problem pretty much unique to them. But I don’t like the term. I understand coat tails as support on one vote (e.g. for congress) that is enhanced by having a popular candidate for another (e.g. president). But that is not what we see in New Zealand. We are talking about an alternative threshold for representation in a single institution, not voting across institutions. Moreover, a case of high coattails normally would mean reduced ticket-splitting. By contrast, in New Zealand, what seems to trouble many commentators (including the Electoral Commission in its MMP Review) is precisely incentives to ticket-split, not by abandoning a small party on the electorate vote (which might be the “normal” type of split-ticket voting under MMP), but in favor of a small party in the electorate vote. For example: National-favoring voters in Epsom voting for the local Act candidate, who had a chance at winning the electorate (and did indeed win it), but giving their list vote to National. The objection is that these voters seem to have more weight by virtue of living in a district that is so safe for one party that a small partner party can win it. But that’s not coattails, as usually understood.

In any case, this was not meant to be just a screed over terminology (though who doesn’t love such screeds?). I wanted to note that a new party in New Zealand, the Internet Party, can win seats only through this provision, whatever we might call it. The IP (good acronym for them!) has formed an alliance with the Mana Party, whose leader, Hone Harawira, has a safe Maori electorate (Te Tai Tokerau).* If Internet Mana were to win enough list votes for two seats, but elect only the one Mana candidate, then the IP would get a candidate via the list (its leader holds the number one slot on the joint list), even without coming near 5% of the list vote. In fact, about 1.3% of the vote would be sufficient.**

Yet the IP actually is against the so-called coat-tailing!

There seems to be a flaw in the process, and it is not necessarily the provision for the alternative threshold. It is in how alliances are allowed to take advantage:

In the Internet Party’s case it could potentially create a public backlash as its alliance with Mana expires just six weeks after the election.

Yes, that would seem backlash-worthy.

As for what to call this type of entry into parliament, I offer a suggestion in the title of this post.

___________
* In this electorate, Labour has done something clever: nominate its local candidate, Kelvin Davis, to a rather low list position. “His ranking of 18 would blunt a Mana tactic of asking people to vote for Mr Harawira because Mr Davis had a safe list spot and would be an MP anyway.

** A potential fly in the ointment is that Mana might elect two electorate MPs, in which case IP is out of luck, unless the list vote goes considerably higher. In fact, if you are a Maori voter in the one non-safe but within-reach electorate for Mana, and you do not happen to like the alliance with IP, your strategy is clear: vote for the Mana candidate, and you get to help block the IP.

The impact of M=96 and no legal threshold

The decision of the German Constitutional Court to invalidate the legal threshold for election of MEPs has been predictably consequential. Given the single 96-seat district, a very large number of parties has won at least one seat, and some have won with less than 1% of the vote.

There will be thirteen parties (counting the CDU and CSU separately) in the German delegation. Seven of them had less than the former 3% threshold; the biggest of the sub-3% parties had not even quite 1.5%. The German government reports the votes; seats are shown at Wikipedia.

Assuming the Wikipedia list is accurate (and it looks likely to be so), these parties that won representation thanks to the Court ruling are: Free Voters, Pirates, Human Environment Animal Protection, National Democrats (yes, a German neo-Nazi will be in the European Parliament), Family Party, Ecological Democrats, and some outfit called Die PARTEI. The last three of these have vote totals ranging from 0.69% down to 0.63%. The NPD’s vote percentage was 1.03.

Also noteworthy is that the Free Democrats continued their slide, winning only 3.36%. They had just missed the 5% threshold for the federal Bundestag elections last year. The Alternative for Germany (AfD), which also had just missed the threshold for the Bundetag won 7.04%.

No threshold for German MEPs

Apparently it is threshold day at F&V. While Israel may be raising its threshold, Germany will be dramatically lowering its. But only for its members of the European parliament (MEPs).

The Constitutional Court ruled in late February that the existing 3% threshold violated political parties’ rights to equal opportunities.

To the immediate question of why, then, the Bundestag (Germany’s elected chamber of the federal parliament) can have a 5% threshold–which was highly consequential in the most recent election–the Court has a ready answer: the role of the Bundestag is to sustain a government, and so limiting fragmentation is a valid interest. However, the European Parliament has no such role, and so it isn’t.

The SPD vote on joining German coalition

The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) membership voted 76% in favor of ratifying the coalition agreement struck by its leadership with the leaders of the Christian Democratic and Christian Social Unions. They will now enter the not-so-grand coalition headed by Angela Merkel, who enters her third term as German Chancellor.

Michael Miebach, deputy director of the Progressives Zentrum think tank, quoted in the Guardian before the vote, summed it all up well:

“It looks more and more like an ingenious chess move that solves several problems at once. Instead of debating the disastrous election result or even the detail of the coalition deal, everyone’s talking about the ballot,” Miebach said. “It will keep in check party rebels who complain that they weren’t asked, and it has proved a useful tool during the negotiations with Merkel. But of course, it could still all end in disaster.”

The chances of an end in “disaster” presumably were never strong, for the reasons Miebach offers elsewhere in the quote. That did not prevent the same Guardian article from saying that a vote against “would lead to nothing short of a national crisis”. Hyperbole? We won’t get to find out.

According to the first-linked news story, at DW,

The CDU will have the chancellor and five ministers. Its sister party, the CSU, will have three ministries. The SPD will have six.

The SPD will have the Justice and Consumer Protection portfolio, which is a newly combined ministry, as well as:

the foreign ministry, a Ministry of Economic Affairs now enhanced with an energy policy mandate, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Family Affairs.

It also gets a Vice Chancellorship.

With six of 15 ministers, the SPD has 40% of the cabinet. The coalition parties control just under 80% of the seats in the Bundestag. The SPD has about 30% of the seats, which corresponds to 38% of the cabinet’s parliamentary basis. So it is represented in cabinet at very slightly above its contribution to the cabinet’s collective Bundestag representation.

How common are party membership ballots to ratify coalition agreements?