Scottish referendum on independence

The Scottish referendum on independence from the UK is this Thursday. I offer this space as a place to discuss, and also include some links I have seen recently and found interesting.

Stephen Fisher at Elections Etc. cautions that the polls could be overestimating the “yes” vote. (That would be bad news for the separatists, as only a few polls in the entire campaign have put them ahead.)

John Curtice at What Scotland Thinks probes the question of whether the ‘Missing Million’ could swing the vote to yes.

At Politics Upside Down, Robert Ford, Will Jennings, Mark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien look into the polling trends in great detail and consider what we can learn from them.

UK bill on EU referendum

From the 8 January Guardian, “Labour and Lib Dem whips discuss how to block Tory-backed EU referendum“. Two points of particular interest:

Clerks have controversially told ministers that the Parliament Act can be used on a private member’s bill, so allowing the Commons to enforce their will against unelected peers.

The Parliament Act is the law by which a bill that has been rejected by the House of Lords can be forced through on a second majority vote, thereby overriding the Lords, after a year’s delay. Normally it is applied only to important government bills. However, the government has not formally made the proposal for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU one of its own. Hence it is a “private member’s” bill.


The Commons Speaker will have to decide whether the bill can be given extra time to be debated, but this could then lead to a timetable motion being tabled with one part of the coalition – the Conservatives – calling for extra government time in the Commons and the other opposing extra time.

It remains a constitutional grey area whether one part of a coalition government can table a government timetable motion.

UK legislative practice continues to evolve.

And, of course, the entire story is of interest because while the Conservatives are divided over the EU, their Liberal Democratic coalition partners are pro-EU (and against a referendum that they once favored, when they thought they’d get the definitive pro-EU result they wanted). As the headline indicates, the LibDems will work with the Labour opposition to try to derail the bill from passing before the 2015 election. The issue is just one of many on which the current coalition partners will differentiate themselves in the run-up to that election, with a possible eye to a Labour-LibDem coalition or other cooperation thereafter.

Interesting times in UK politics.

California’s Prop 37: GM foods labelling

The following are some loosely organized thoughts about an initiative measure on California’s ballot, Proposition 37. The proposal is for a requirement to label foods sold in the state that contain–or potentially contain–genetically modified (GM) ingredients.

As someone who has grown organic, usually buys organic, and has some belief (which I can’t claim to be proven) of an allergy to some GM products, I would be inclined towards a yes vote. However, this is not an easy one for me, because there are numerous problems with the measure.

When I look at the list of supporters and opponents, I don’t really like those I’d be siding with if I voted no. If we look upon it as a battle of organized interests over distribution of rents, I’ll go with the organic industry over Monsanto and DuPont every time. But if we’re concerned about good government and sensible consumer-information provision, it’s an easy no.

This is a bad way to go about labelling. Prop 37 has zero tolerance for GM traces, ((Much of this paragraph is based on my reading of the proposal itself (see first link above), and some of it on a report by researchers at the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at UC Davis.)) which means the standard for commingling will be stricter for conventionally grown foods than for organic. The EU and Australia/New Zealand standards allow trace amounts, and it’s almost impossible to avoid some cross-contamination. So almost every non-organic item will bear the label, if 37 passes. What use is that? It’s better to have a standard for “GM free” (but not organic, given that organic us GM-free, within the allowed tolerance) than to label almost everything conventional as (potentially) having GMO. And, of course, there already exist third-party certifications for GMO-free, or you can buy organic. On the other hand, if you agree that our political system has been mostly deaf to calls for stricter standards–as I do–then it’s an easy yes. To me, a yes vote is more a crying out for political attention than a vote for the specific set of standards this would impose.

Fortunately, as far as I can tell. Prop 37 doesn’t have an amendment clause preventing legislative adjustment. One principle I adhere to in most propositions is vote no, whatever the seeming merits, if only a subsequent initiative can amend the proposition. Others require 2/3 votes of the legislature to amend–also bad, but not as bad. I don’t see any such clause in this one, which I think means it would be just like an ordinary statute.

I also dislike, on principle, prop 37’s clause allowing lawsuits against retailers without a “harm” standard.

Further, I dislike that dried fruits are classified as “processed” and therefore subject to labeling requirement. It won’t affect me, because I eat only organic fruits, usually grown right under my own watchful eye. But on principle, this just is non-sensical. (The “processing” designation also applies to smoking, canning, and other preparations that involve only the fruit or vegetable, which is not how I think of “processed foods” more generally.)

I will probably end up voting yes, despite my very significant reservations. It will be a political vote for me, not a policy vote. And that’s all right; as long as we have this nutty initiative process, I might as well vote to push things in a direction I favor, even if the measure is very far from perfect. If I were to learn before Tuesday that I am wrong in my belief that this could be amended by future action of the legislature, I might vote no. For sure, there will be “amendments” from the courts, but that certainly doesn’t make this initiative particularly unusual.

New Zealand 2011: Party and electoral-system choice

(corrected and re-posted)

By using the polling place data posted by the New Zealand Electoral Commission ((And throwing aside all concerns about ecological fallacy!)) we can see the correlations between a party’s strength and voters’ electoral-system preferences.

The figures that follow are simple local regression (lowess) plots of the share of the vote for a given party and the share for a given electoral system in New Zealand’s general election and referendum of November, 2011. ((All percentages (really, shares) of votes in Part B of the referendum are calculated with the denominator being TOTAL votes in the referendum (i.e. informal votes are included).)) The data points themselves are suppressed because with around 6,000 polling places, the graphs would be overly cluttered. (For reasons indicated in a comment referenced below, the analysis is based on 5,375 polling places.)

Before I go any farther with this, I want to shout out a big THANK YOU to Vasi, who extracted the party-vote data from the many separate files posted at the Electoral Commission website.

Figure 1 shows the relationship between the support for each of New Zealand’s four largest parties–National, Labour, Green, and New Zealand First–and support for keeping the current MMP system. What stands out most is how linear the decline in support for MMP is as National support increases. Relative to Labour strength, support for MMP reaches a point where it levels off, but that is mainly because even where Labour receives around 50% support, the vote for MMP is already approaching 80%. Strong Green support is correlated with strong MMP support. No surprise there. There is a rather more limited relationship to votes for New Zealand First.

NZ11 figs 1&2

Figure 2 shows support for the two alternatives that were most likely to be favored by voters who wanted to change from MMP: Supplementary Member (SM, which is what I would call MMM) and First Past the Post (FP(T)P). Clearly, Labour strongholds were duly skeptical of SM, while support for both systems is associated with National’s strong polling places. There is actually a steady 30% or so support (on average) for FPTP in places where Labour wins more than about a third of the vote. I am not sure what to make of this; maybe strong Labour areas include many voters who long for the old days of Labour majorities under the former electoral system.

Figure 3 looks at the two large parties and support for the two options in Part B of the referendum that entail ranked-choice ballots: Preferential Vote (PV, which is usually known as the Alternative Vote) and the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Note that the lowess curves never rise above about 12% for either system. The one thing that stands out for me here is that there is actually some growing support for PV/AV as Labour strength increases. That makes sense, given that Labour could expect to benefit from many Green voters’ transfers. The sharp decline for PV/AV as National support increases is the mirror image of Labour’s trend–and is actually stronger, perhaps because National has so few potential allies who would give it second (or third, etc.) preferences. Still, we can’t make too much out of it, given that support for this system is so low overall. Not surprisingly, support for STV, which is nowhere high, decreases with support for either major party.

NZ11 figs 3&4

Figure 4 shows a rather interesting divergence of support for the two ranked-choice systems according to the strength of three smaller parties, Greens, New Zealand First, and United Future. Finally, we find out who wanted STV: Green voters! Well, actually, even they don’t want it very much, as places where their party vote reaches 40% or more still vote less than 20% for STV as their preferred alternative. Nonetheless, a trend for more STV support in locations with many Green voters certainly makes sense, inasmuch as STV is the only other proportional system on offer. It is a clear second best for supporters of a party like the Greens, which has generally dispersed support, but also (as the graph clearly shows) some pockets where it is locally quite strong. Local strength might enable it to combine with other parties and elect MPs in a few districts, while elsewhere its votes would transfer to Labour and help it elect an additional MP or two.

There is not much trend for the other parties, or for the Alternative Vote (PV), although places where there is a significant minority of United Future voters clearly are not places where voters see much benefit in the Alternative Vote.

Fun with Stata! And thanks again, Vasi, for your assistance!
See comment #6 for some information on the data.

Split voting results in the NZ referendum

Earlier this week, I reported the polling-place correlations of votes for various options in the New Zealand electoral-system referendum of 2011.

An analysis of the split-voting statistics, as compiled by the Electoral Commission, offers another window on the same questions addressed there. The advantage of these data is that they are based on the Commission’s examination of individual ballot papers, as votes in the two parts of the referendum were cast on a common ballot. ((The same page at the Electoral Commission carries out the split-ballot analysis in each district, although not in each polling place.))

As we already knew, most voters who voted to “Keep” MMP (Part A of the ballot) did not vote at all on Part B, where they could select among several potential replacement systems. In fact, 54.7% of “Keep” voters cast “informal” ballots (meaning blank or invalid).

What is most striking is that of those who cast a vote in Part B, a very large plurality voted for the old First Past the Post (FPTP or FPP) system. The percentage of valid Part B votes for FPTP cast by those who voted in Part A to keep MMP was 40.4%! I wonder how many of these were “insincere” votes, by voters who assumed that FPTP could never defeat MMP in the follow-up referendum that would have happened in 2014 if a majority had voted for change in Part A.

The next most popular choice for “keep” voters was STV, with 24.0%. This, of course, makes sense. Voters who prefer proportional representation ought to rank STV and MMP one after the other as their sincerely preferred choices among the systems on offer.

For third place among “keep” voters who chose any system in Part B, “Supplementary Member” actually edged out “Preferential Voting”, 18.7% to 16.9%. The choice here is an interesting one, as it indicates a preference for any sort of mixed-member system–Supplementary Member is actually a mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system–over a return to all single-seat districts with ranked-choice ballots. (Preferential Vote = Alternative Vote or Instant Runoff.) In terms of sincere voting, it is not straightforward which of these “should be” preferred by voters whose first choice is MMP.

On the one hand, MMM (SM) retains a tier of nationwide proportional seats, but these would cease to be compensatory (and, under the specific proposal, there would have been many fewer of them). On the other hand, while PV (AV) abolishes all party-list seats, it gives voters for a losing party in a district the potential of determining on preferences which of the big parties wins the seat. Both systems would likely produce majority governments frequently, but those majorities and the campaigns that produced them would have been of a different character.

As for the “change” voters, there are no surprises. Only 3.7% did not cast a valid vote in Part B. Of the remaining voters who did cast a valid vote, just under half (49.8%) voted to go back to FPTP, and 28.0% voted for MMM (SM).

In the earlier correlation analysis of polling place results, I noted the lack of correlation between the vote for Part A and the vote for STV. As we saw above, 24.0% of “Keep MMP” voted for STV, and so did 12.4% of the “Change” voters (for whom STV came in third place, ahead of PV/AV). When the informal votes are included in the denominator, the percentages drop to 10.9% and 11.9%, strikingly close. It is not possible to say for sure from the available data, but maybe STV was a Condorcet winner in the wider electorate, albeit not an especially popular one overall. That would make some sense, as it provides the compromise features of all members being elected in local districts, yet offering a considerable degree of proportionality.

In any case, MMP is now clearly confirmed as the New Zealand electoral system, and so discussion shifts to the formal review of MMP, and how the system might be “improved”.

New Zealand referendum polling-place data

The New Zealand Electoral Commission has now released its data showing votes in the 2011 electoral-system referendum at the level of the polling place. ((It is in section 7 at the Commission’s Statistics page. I am grateful to Robert Marsh, Senior Project Leader at the Electoral Commission, for sending me the link.))

I have taken a very quick look at the data, and can report some interesting correlations. Keep in mind this is aggregate data, albeit at the level of the polling place, and not individual-level data. ((There are 6,066 observations. The median number of referendum ballots cast per polling place was 129.)) All of the numbers reported here are thus simple correlations of the vote percentages for a given option on Part A of the ballot (keep or change from MMP) with percentages on Part B (the choice of an alternative system, should “change” win).

    Keep, correlated with:
    FPTP (FPP), -.543
    AV (PV), .251
    STV, -.019
    MMM (SM), -.574
    Informal, .745

(Acronyms in parentheses indicate how the systems were identified in the referendum, which is not always consistent with how they are more commonly known outside NZ, and to the terms I prefer to use.)

These correlations suggest that voters who were happy with the current MMP system were more likely to simply abstain than to select any replacement option from Part B. This is a trend that, as noted earlier, was already apparent from the national aggregate data. ((However, as Manuel Alvarez-Rivera noted in a comment to our earlier discussion, at the electorate (district) level, the correlation between “Keep MMP” and an informal vote (abstention or invalid) in Part B, was 0.97. So, when we look at the polling place, the correlation drops quite a bit.))

It is interesting that the only electoral system from Part B that has a positive correlation with a polling place’s percentage vote to keep MMP is the Alternative Vote (known in New Zealand as “Preferential Vote”). It is somewhat surprising that pro-MMP voters would not be more likely to have chosen the only other proportional system on offer, STV. Yet the vote for STV bears hardly any correlation at all with “keep MMP”.

Now, correlations between “change” (i.e. replace MMP) with Part B options:

    Change, correlated with:
    FPTP, .531
    AV (PV), -.254
    STV, .034
    MMM (SM), .594
    Informal, -.751

Not surprisingly, these are close to mirror images of the correlations with “keep MMP”, except for the STV vote (which is simply not well correlated with however a voter voted in Part A).

It is evident that voters who were discontented with MMP were unlikely to abstain from choosing an alternative, and were about as likely to go for either of the majoritarian systems on the ballot that did not entail ranked-choice ballots–that is, FPTP or MMM (SM), but not AV (PV).

As for the small percentage of voters who declined to mark a choice on the keep/change question, this is positively correlated with only one option in Part B: FPTP. It is a weak correlation, at .145, but all of the others are negative and not much different from zero. Perhaps this means that the sort of voter who would abstain in Part A was a low-information “good old days” FPTP voter. (“I don’t get this whole electoral systems thing, but I know things were better before we got rid of FPP.”)

There are more detailed analyses one could do, particularly taking into account partisan trends in electorates and polling places, ((The latter would be very time-consuming, as the Electoral Commission does not seem to have put out a single data file that contains all the polling places, but only the electorate-by-electorate data. So it would be very time consuming–albeit possible–to do this analysis.)) but this makes for a good starting point.

Small corrections, 2 Feb.

The NZ electoral system referendum

Results have now been released from the 26 November referendum on the New Zealand electoral system. The referendum consisted of two parts. In Part A, voters were asked “Should New Zealand keep the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system?” In Part B, voters were asked “If New Zealand were to change to another voting system, which voting system would you choose?”, with a menu of four choices for the change option: First Past the Post, Preferential Voting, Single Transferable Vote, and Supplementary Member.

In Part A, 57.77% voted to keep MMP. This, of course, renders Part B moot. Nonetheless, comparing across the two parts is interesting. While 2,194,774 valid votes were cast in Part A, there were only 1,509,157 in Part B. Informal votes, defined as “when the voter has not clearly indicated the option for which they wish to vote” were just 62,469 in Part A, but a whopping 748,086 in Part B.

If we can assume that essentially all of the 926,819 voters who voted to change from MMP would have indicated a preference over the four change options, then it would seem that approximately half of the “keep MMP” voters did not bother to select an alternative system.* One wonders how many of these voters simply were confident MMP would be kept, so it was not worth taking a stand on (and bothering to learn about) the alternatives, and how many did not understand that they could choose an alternative even while voting for the current system.

Rationally, any MMP supporter should prefer STV over all the others offered, given that STV is the only proportional system among the alternatives.** Yet STV obtained only 252,503 votes (16.7% of valid votes in Part B), placing third among the alternatives. If just under two thirds of the informal vote in Part B had been cast by MMP voters indicating STV as their fallback, then STV would have beaten out FPTP in Part B.

A referendum in 2014 between the two proportional systems would have been interesting, had “change” won in Part A. Instead, however, the old FPTP system dominated Part B. It was probably expectation of precisely such a result that generated such indifference over Part B, as few could imagine FPTP ever beating MMP in a second referendum were one to have been triggered.

The results in Part B, with percentages based on valid votes only, were:

    48.66% FPTP
    24.14% SM (i.e. MMM)
    16.72% STV
    12.47% PV (AV)


* 685,617 is the difference between the valid votes cast in the two parts; this is equivalent to 54% of the 1,267,955 votes for keeping MMP.

** Unless what someone really likes about MMP is the single-seat districts, yet would not want FPTP again. I suppose such a voter might rank Preferential Voting–that is, the Alternative Vote–as second best. And some could argue for “SM” (MMM) as being most similar to MMP, though it is far worse than any option other than FPTP for supporters of parties other than the big two.

No systemic failure–so why change?

Today’s New Zealand Herald has an editorial in favor of a vote to keep the current electoral system in Saturday’s referendum. The key point:

Change would be justified only if MMP had failed to produce governments that voters recognised as an expression of their collective will.

That is a good summary of the argument I have made in published work about “systemic failure” as a precondition for electoral-system change. For a proportional system to have “failed” by objective criteria, it would need to be seen to have prevented the formation of governments that were an expression of collective preferences of the majority. It can happen with proportional systems, but has not in New Zealand–at least not outside of the first MMP election in 1996. As the editorial also notes, “Fears that the minor-party tail would wag the dog have proved largely unfounded.”

As for the second question on the referendum–the choice among possible replacement systems–Scoop published a story with a graphic showing several polling results over time. No system other than the old FPTP (or FPP), which New Zealand abandoned with the two-stage referendum of 1992-93, has made any traction. ((The story also has a link to an Excel spreadsheet with the polling data.))

Referendum Part B polling

Single transferable vote (STV) looks like a clear second choice, but has never polled above 20%, while neither of the other options, “PV” (really the alternative vote/instant runoff) or “SM” (really MMM, the non-compenstory mixed-member variant), has cracked 10%. I commented before on why SM (MMM) is the solution to a problem New Zealand does not actually have, even if anti-MMP campaigners are trying to sell it as a “compromise” between MMP (which they don’t like) and FPTP (which they presume could not defeat MMP in the one-on-one referendum that would follow in three years if a majority votes Saturday for “change”).

Epsom and MMP

If New Zealand voters vote to keep their current MMP system in the referendum on 26 November, there will be a review of whether MMP needs “improvement”. ((Some details and links on the referendum may be found by following the first link in this entry. The question of a review was discussed here previously.))

One of the aspects of the current system up for review would be the threshold for earning party-list seats. Currently it is set at 5% of the party-list vote or one district (electorate) seat won. The case of the Epsom district, in Auckland, shows the strange ways that the one-district clause of the threshold can work. The quotes that follow are from TVNZ. Continue reading

The campaign against MMP

The campaign for New Zealand’s referendum on the electoral system is heating up. Voters will be able to cast two votes in the referendum: one for or against keeping the current mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, and a second to select from among four options for replacement in the event a majority opts for change. If the majority says change from MMP, another referendum in three years will pit MMP against the winner of the second part of this referendum.

The NZ Herald reports that the first anti-MMP billboards are going up this week “as a group of New Zealand’s richest businessmen launch their bid to turf out proportional voting.” Continue reading

Egyptians greet first “democratic” vote with a yawn

Is Egypt’s revolution, if it ever was one, now officially over?

The results of Saturday’s referendum on amendments to the constitution–seen as a first step towards competitive elections later this year–suggest less than great excitement.

According to Ahram, the turnout was around 41%. Yes, forty one.

Of those who bothered to show up, 77.2% said yes to the amendments.

I wondered how this compared to other referenda on either a new constitution, or amendments to the pre-existing authoritarian one, in past transitions to democracy.

The following is probably missing some key cases. I put it together by perusing my volumes of the Nohlen, et al., data handbooks on Latin America and Africa, as well as some sources on Eastern Europe.*

    Country, Year, Turnout,Yes
    Chile, 1989, 93.9, 91.3
    Ecuador, 1978, 60.2, 58.1
    Malawi, 1993, 97.7, 64.7
    Mali, 1992, 98.2, 99.0
    Uruguay, 1980, 78.6, 42.1

What this means going forward, I do not know. Various reports said the pro-democracy forces were divided over whether the reforms went far enough to be worthy of a yes vote. However, I did not hear anything about an organized boycott. Yet the yes vote was fairly strong out of those who voted, while the turnout shockingly weak for a country supposedly in the process of a mass-instigated transition to democracy.

* I did not find any in Eastern Europe that took place prior to democratic elections. However, Poland’s referendum on its constitution in 1993 had a turnout on par with Egypt’s: 42.9. The yes vote was 53.5. Poland was already democratic by this point, having been governed under the interim Little Constitution.

NZ MMP polling

A NZ Herald-Digi poll shows a big increase in support for MMP, compared to the last poll, over a year ago. Support for the current system has grown from about 36% to more than 50%.

Unfortunately, the report in the NZ Herald does not discuss reasons why there has been such growth in pro-MMP sentiment.

The referendum will be concurrent with the general election later this year.

Biggest British union, 114 Labour MPs, to oppose AV

Today’s Independent reports that the biggest union in the UK, Unite, is preparing to join the campaign to oppose the referendum on changing the electoral system to the Alternative Vote. Close to half of Labour MPs are also on record as opposing AV.

Unite’s possible move would create the “strange bedfellows” situation of the Labour Party’s biggest constituent interest group campaigning alongside traditional Conservative Party organizations that likewise prefer FPTP.

It also would put Unite, along with a large group of MPs, at odds with Labour Party leader Ed Milliband, and some other unions. 114 of the party’s 258 MPs have pledged to join the no side of the referendum.

The referendum will be 5 May.

MMP to be reviewed in NZ–if it gets a majority

New Zealand’s Electoral Referendum Bill now calls for a review of the current Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system, if it wins a majority at the referendum next year, NZ Herald reports.

If a majority vote to change MMP, the current system would be pitted against the most popular of various alternatives that will also be on the ballot at the referendum.

Labour and the Greens have pledged to fight to have MMP reviewed regardless of the referendum result, which would mean that a referendum in 2014 would pit a potentially improved MMP – rather than the present system – against an alternative.

Of course, Labour and Greens are the opposition parties, so apparently they are going to lose that battle.

Topics of review, should MMP be retained, would include the threshold. Currently it is 5% of the party-list vote or one district win. In the last election, the New Zealand First party won 4.1% of the list votes but no seats, while the Act Party won 3.7% of the list votes and 5 seats, thanks to winning in the district of Epsom.

Also to be reviewed would be the question of whether a member who is defeated in a district race should be able to win via the party list, as is currently the case–not only in NZ, but in almost all mixed-member systems. (This is an issue we have discussed at F&V before; I argue that allowing such dual candidacy is a logically necessary feature of the system, but there are ways to make it less troublesome for those who find it to be a problem.)

I have to correct the NZ Herald a bit. It notes that one of the alternative systems to be considered is a “Supplementary Member” system, which would have a 90/30 split of members elected from the two tiers: districts with first-past-the-post and PR via party lists. “This would be less proportional than MMP, which has a 70/50 split,” the article says. Indeed, but the more fundamental reason for reduced proportionality is that the list seats would not be compensatory, as they are in MMP. The Supplementary Member is MMM, or mixed-member majoritarian (also known as a “parallel” system), which is less proportional–far less–then MMP, even for a constant ratio of plurality and PR seats.

The article also notes that there will be campaign spending limits on the referendum.

ADDENDUM: Wilf notes in a comment an important detail left out by the Herald. The review will include a consideration of open (or perhaps ‘flexible’) lists. That’s a pretty big change to result potentially from a “YES” vote on the current system!

Israeli referendum law

Under a bill passed into law today, any future agreement by an Israeli government to transfer territory to another state would be subject to a referendum. The law applies to the Golan Heights and those parts of Jerusalem that are over the Green Line that divided the city between 1948 and 1967. It does not apply to Judea and Samaria/West Bank (because the latter has never been designated as territory of the State of Israel).

Israel has no tradition of national referenda, so quite apart from the consequences this law may have for potential peace agreements, it represents a significant departure from the pure form of parliamentary sovereignty that has prevailed up to now.

ADDENDUM: A transfer of territory would require a majority in a national referendum or 80 votes in the Knesset (a two-thirds majority), according to IBA.