Majority rules (sort of): California’s Prop. 25

Earlier this week, I wrote about Propositions 20 and 27, which would change the process of redistricting in California. There is another measure on the ballot that also concerns the political process, in this case Proposition 25, which would alter the rules for passage of the state budget.

Currently, the state constitution requires a two-thirds vote in each house to pass a budget. Prop. 25 would allow each house of the legislature to pass the budget bill with a simple majority. Taxes would still require two thirds.

With the state regularly deadlocked thanks to the current minority-veto provision, this is a no-brainer. I will vote YES on 25, without hesitation.

Still, I wonder if the argument could be made that it would be worse to permit spending to pass by a majority, but tax increases only by 2/3, than to require the same size majority for both. Prop. 25 is a half measure, at best. But it is important to enhance the accountability of the legislative majority and reduce the minority veto power (independent of partisan control). This is long overdue.

California’s propositions 20 and 27: Redistricting reform again?

Yet again, the voters of California are being asked to decide on the process of redistricting. This time, we are being asked not one, but two questions.

Proposition 20 would extend the current redistricting commission to include US House seats. It currently applies only to state legislative elections and the Board of Equalization (which administers the tax code). Proposition 27 would abolish the commission entirely, and return all redistricting back to the regular political process–the legislature and governor.

The current commission was enacted by voter initiative only in 2008. So, exactly one general election later, we are being asked to either extend its mandate or get rid of it.

In 2008, I expressed opposition to the measure that created the current commission. The reason is certainly not that I am not in favor of legislators getting to draw their own district boundaries. It is an inherent conflict of interest. At the time I quoted one of my favorite political reformers of all time, Henry Droop, who wrote the following lament in 1869:

from Maine westward to the Pacific Ocean, in the last ten years, in no state whatever had there been an honest and fair district apportionment bill passed for the election of members of Congress [except] where two branches of a legislature were divided in political opinion, and one checked the other.

Despite my belief that independent commissions, rather than partisan elected officials, should handle redistricting, I was against this measure because of its being effectively a bipartisan commission, rather than a really independent one, and having an unduly complex selection process. I will not belabor the arguments here; any reader who wants to see my logic at the time can read the original. There was a lively debate in the comment thread at the time.

But now I get a chance to reconsider. And I think I will vote NO on 27, that is to keep the new status quo of the redistricting commission. I still do not like the model created by this commission, but I would rather improve it than abolish it. If we put legislators back in the line-drawing business, we might never get it back. If nothing else, voter fatigue over more and more redistricting measures may set in (if it has not already!).

Now, what about extending it to cover US House districts? I believe I will vote NO on 20 as well. Again, I most certainly oppose letting legislators draw district lines. However, I have never been a fan of unilateral disarmament. The federal dimension matters here, and this measure takes California’s legislature (controlled by Democrats) out of the process of determining the boundaries of 53 House districts (12% of the total number of House seats!), with no reciprocal move by Republican-controlled states to “disarm” their legislatures from controlling a like number of districts. As I also said in the earlier post,

Thus redistricting reform in the House presumably should be done via constitutional amendment or an interstate compact (on the model of the National Popular Vote for the presidency).

I can’t say that I feel good about either of these votes. And I welcome arguments in the comments. Who knows, maybe some readers will persuade me to vote otherwise. But for now, I am voting to retain a bad existing commission (NO on 27), but not to extend its mandate to include House seats (NO on 20).


Shortly after the 2008 election, I reviewed just how uncompetitive California’s districts were. The bigger issue here is that, redistricting commission or not, it simply will not be easy to create more competitive districts. The problem of lack of competition is deeper than the process by which we draw districts for our electoral system of first-past-the-post.

California Prop 14

In Tuesday’s election in California, Proposition 14 would eliminate the current system of partisan primaries and institute a majority-runoff system.

It’s a bad system for voter choice, meaning no third-party or independent candidates on the November ballot (unless one of them happened to have made the top two in the first round, five months earlier when issues may have been different and turnout lower). Many districts under this “reform” may have two Democrats or two Republicans as the only candidates in the “general” election.

I agree with Stop Top Two that Californians should vote no on 14.

NZ MMP referendum announced

As Errol noted in a previous thread, the New Zealand government has announced the schedule for public consultation on whether the country should retain its mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system.

Somewhat mirroring the process of double referenda that led to MMP’s adoption in 1992-3, there will be an initial referendum with the questions, “do you want a change from MMP?” and “if changed, what to?” This will be concurrent with the 2011 general election.

Then, if a majority say they prefer not to retain MMP at the first referendum, there will be a second referendum on MMP vs. the leading alternative identified by the first one. This second referendum would happen with the 2014 general election.

The alternatives and exact question wording are still being developed. Will the alternative to be pitted against MMP be chosen by plurality? That could have some perverse outcomes and incentives, if there is not a consensus on the best alternative (as there was when MMP was pitted against other alternatives to FPTP in 1992). NZ uses ranked-choice ballots (with STV) at some local elections, and one or more of the alternatives is likely to be one of ranked-choice ballots. So why not use AV to choose the electoral system?

Constitutional crisis in Honduras

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has vowed to defy a Supreme Court order to reinstate the head of the army.

The BBC reports:

Mr Zelaya fired Gen Romeo Vasquez after he refused to help with a referendum on constitutional change that could allow the president to seek a second term.

Both Congress and the courts have already deemed the planned referendum unlawful.

An initial referendum plebiscite* is set for this Sunday,

to ask Hondurans if they approve of holding a vote on unspecified constitutional change at the same time as the presidential election in November.

The story also notes that “hundreds of troops” have been deployed in Tegucigalpa, with the army saying they are there, in the BBC’s words, “to prevent disturbances by the president’s supporters.”

Zelaya, of the Liberal Party, was elected in a close election in November, 2005. He beat Porofirio Lobo of the National Party, 918,669 (49.9%) to 850,005 (46.2%).

The Liberal party has 62 of the 128 seats (48.4%) to the Nationals’ 55. Given that the BBC indicates that congress has declared Zelaya’s referendum unlawful, and the governing party is just a few seats short of a majority, I wonder if all the other parties voted against the president’s own unified party, or if the Liberals are split over the question of auto-succession. I hope someone can fill us in on details.

As for votes, the Georgetown database shows the vote for the two parties as 7,746,806 to 6,983,056. Why so many more legislative than presidential votes? Because Honduras used for the first time in 2005 a very unusual variant of open-list PR in which the voter may cast as many candidate-preference votes as the district’s magnitude (M, the seats elected in the district), which ranges from 2 to 23, and averages 8.8. I do not think the votes can be cast across lists of different parties (which leaves me wondering what is the point of having M preference votes**). I suppose we could get a rough approximation of party votes by dividing a party’s preference votes by 8.8, in which we would estimate around 880,000 for the Liberals and 793,500 for the Nationals. But that would be very rough. For the record, the Liberal total of preference votes is only 44.8% of the total votes cast, suggesting Zelaya’s coattails were limited. But that does not tell us the disposition of his party with respect to his reelection attempt.

Honduras has had a quite stable democracy since 1985 1981. But it does not look so stable right now.

Update: See what boz has to say, including, in the comments, a great quote from the president regarding his handpicked legislative leader, and in two (so far) posts at his blog. He calls one episode in this crisis “one of the more dramatic moments of Latin America politics I’ve seen in recent years.”

* I think a vote submitted unilaterally by the executive on a matter that would benefit the chief executive personally is properly termed a plebiscite, and not a referendum (which implies a legislative act that requires popular confirmation).

Update: a contact tells me that the president is calling it a “survey” and using the national statistical institute, rather than the electoral commission, to carry it out!

** I assume parties must be able to nominate many more than M candidates, or it would really make no sense. Even then, it hardly does, because any given party will win many fewer than M seats, except in the smallest districts. Ecuador also recently adopted a similar M-votes system, except that Ecuadorian voters may vote for candidates on different party lists. I would not even begin to try to explain the complex weighting rules employed for allocating seats to parties there.

Electoral system referendum in Italy

Today and tomorrow Italians (a few of them anyway) vote in a referendum to change (again) the country’s legislative electoral system.

As I understand it (and more informed readers, as always, are invited to correct me in the comments) the main proposal is to strike from the current electoral law the provision that awards to the largest pre-electoral coalition a guaranteed majority (nationally in the Chamber, region-by-region in the Senate). Instead, if the measure passed, the majoritarian bonus would go to the largest party list.

Give the nature of the Italian party system, this would be quite a radical change. It would generate extreme disproportionality and likely not, as its supporters claim, turn Italy into a “sistema bipartitico.” (Click the country name in the “Planted in” line above for previous discussions here.)

There are actually three related questions–one for each house of the legislature and one to ban candidates from running on a party’s (closed) list in more than one district. The full text (in Italian) is at the link above.

The measure is unlikely to pass, due to low turnout. The vote coincides with the second round of local elections.

(Thanks to Filippo, in an e-mail, for the reminder.)

So, it is OK for a “majority” to take away rights

Shame on the California Supreme Court for, by a 6-1 vote, caving. This ruling was entirely expected, of course. It was probably even constitutionally correct, which only reinforces the need we have been discussing for an entirely new constitution.

While the argument that the reversal of a Court-granted right contained in Proposition 8 amounted to a a “revision” rather than an amendment to the constitution always seemed a stretch, its failure to convince the Court reveals the deeper problem: under what model of “good government” can a majority of voters (which might be a quarter or so of registered voters) trump the highest court of the jurisdiction when the issue at hand involves the rights of minority groups?*

There was a time when this state had a reasonably well deserved reputation as progressive. Now it has fallen behind various New England states and Iowa in the most important civil rights issue of the 21st century so far. Indeed, although the Court claims that those marriages performed in the brief era between the first Court ruling and Prop. 8 remain legal, in fact they have been placed in an illogical second-class, and hence potentially vulnerable, position.

* Whereas it takes a two-thirds vote of the legislature to pass a budget.

Now what?

The voters of California, in their wisdom anger, have turned down the ‘Budget Stabilization‘ measure, giving it barely over one third of the vote. The other measures failed by similar wide margins. Except for the stupid one, which of course passed, with nearly three fourths of the vote.

Now what?

The F-word* has been tossed around a lot at faculty discussions.

I suppose we are about to see what emergency powers the Governator has, because an emergency is what the state faces.

One final note: When my wife and I went to vote, about an hour before polls closed, a poll worker actually was excited to see us. He said to his colleagues, actual voters!

* Furloughs.

A very unspecial election

Well, it is almost here. The ‘special’ election that is anything but. A slew of statewide measures that “have to” pass, but probably won’t. Actually, one probably will, and it is the one that shouldn’t: 1F, which docks legislators’ pay during deficits–as though it was politicians’ personal, even venal, motivations that got us into this mess. Rather than, say, their electoral motivations and the constitution’s minority-veto constraints.

This is an election I would like to sit out. But under almost any scenario I can see, the consequences of defeat (especially of 1A) are far worse than this compromise package, negotiated by the Republican Governor, the Democratic legislative majorities, and the few Republican legislators who finally relented from their party’s no-deal-at-any-costs strategy. So duty calls me to the polls. Ugh.

OK, let’s go back to thinking about how the state could be reformed into an actual democracy.

The ‘no’ argument on BC-STV

I find it quite striking that the argument submitted by the campaign to defeat British Columbia’s referendum on adopting STV (and posted alongside the ‘yes’ at CBC) does not address the inter-party dimension. That is, it does not attack STV on the grounds that it would eliminate (or reduce) the tendency towards single-party governments or allow “extreme” parties into the legislative assembly.

In fact, the argument against STV is almost entirely directed at the intra-party dimension, that is the nature of the parties and the extent of individual legislator accountability one would get, buttressed by claims about the Irish experience. The core of the intraparty attack is:

STV replaces local representation with regional representation by a group of MLAs, who would be hard to hold accountable for their actions. Proponents claim that there are no safe seats with STV, but with STV many politicians in Ireland hang on for over thirty years.

Their parties run only as many candidates in each area as they think they can elect, thereby creating safe seats and increasing the power of political parties who determine who they nominate to be members of parliament. That reduces the choice available to voters.

Attacking the “vote management” incentives STV gives parties is a very smart strategy, as is arguing that members will be less “accountable” to local constituents.

Before the quoted passage, there is the usual line of attack on the alleged complexity of voting and vote-counting under STV, including a rather disingenuous claim about how transfers work. Rather remarkably, this attack is buttressed by a link to a video made by the Citizens Assembly that recommended the system.

No STV is confident that those who watch the short video (prepared by the Citizens’ Assembly) explanation of how the Single Transferable Vote count takes place will reject; so confident that it is posted on the top of the No STV website.

Nowhere are any inter-party arguments invoked. Indeed,

No STV takes no position on whether other electoral systems – such as Mixed Member Proportional – might be an improvement [on the status quo].

The Green Party, currently not in the legislature due to FPTP, is also invoked:

In this election the Green Party is supporting STV, but in 2004 it submitted a brief to the Citizens’ Assembly strongly opposing STV. They interviewed the Green Party in Ireland and reported to the Assembly on how it actually works.

(Of course, in the meantime, Ireland’s Green Party has become a member of a coalition cabinet–something that would not happen with FPTP, even if it might plausibly have happened earlier or with greater strength under MMP.)

By contrast, the ‘yes’ argument is almost entirely based upon the inter-party dimension (a preference for not having majorities that are manufactured by FPTP), as well as an appeal to BC voters to establish their province as “the foremost laboratory of electoral reform in Canada.” Their argument even acknowledges the “too complicated” objection to STV (thereby violating one of the principles of framing an argument). It invokes the majority vote in 2005 in favor of the proposal,” essentially admitting that vote was based on low information!

While I would certainly vote ‘yes’ were I voting in BC, I have to give the ‘no’ side the credit for a much stronger argument. They attack STV where it is most vulnerable, rather than attempt to defend FPTP and manufactured majorities. And the use of the Citizens Assembly video looks like a master stroke. Meanwhile, the ‘yes’ side fails to even mention the process by which ordinary citizens crafted the proposal, which was allegedly a selling point last time around.**

* When it won 57% of the vote. It required 60%.

** Is deliberative democracy dead?

Venezuelan term limits

With the approval of yesterday’s Venezuelan referendum, not only will President Hugo Chavez be eligible to run again when his current term ends in 2012 (and again in 2019…), but also we have one less country with legislative term limits. The referendum removes term limits on all elected officials, not only the president. Venezuela’s Chavista constitution was among the very few countries where national legislators have (or had) limits on the number of terms they can serve.

Mexico has prohibited consecutive terms for legislators since the 1930s, as has Costa Rica since the 1940s. I believe the Philippines still has limits on the number of terms its legislators may serve. Ecuador did at one time, but I recall they were lifted. (Maybe someone knows the details.) Of course, several US states have such limits. But legislative term limits are rare overall. They just became a bit rarer.

For lots of graphs and other analysis of the referendum, see Caracas Chronicles. See also boz’s five points. Greg Weeks makes a point with which I heartily concur: “I would add that the opposition deserves more analytical scrutiny, given that Chávez has been in power a decade [in which there have been regular elections] but it remains fragmented and incoherent.”

Justices will hear Prop 8 challenge

The California Supreme Court has granted a hearing on the challenges to Prop 8, which eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry.

Four of the seven justices voted with the majority in the original ruling overturning the state’s previous voter-enacted ban on same-sex marriage. Of these four, one voted against yesterday’s 6-1 decision to grant a review of the challenges to Prop. 8. In other words, of the six to vote to grant a review, half were in the previous ruling’s minority. That breakdown of the votes for further review is probably not good news to proponents of equal marriage rights. We won’t know till well into next year, as the hearing is scheduled for March.

Will state justices hear arguments against Prop. 8?

Some signs suggest the State Supreme Court will grant a review of Proposition 8, which took away the right the same court granted earlier this year for same-sex couples of marry.

The case petitioners are seeking to argue before the court is that the proposition amounts to a “revision” rather than an “amendment” to the state constitution, because it strips a fundamental right. I am no legal scholar, so I won’t pretend to assess the legal value of that argument. However, with the decision so recent, and 4-3, and with California justices subject to periodic retention elections (and potentially subject to a recall-election petition), I would not put good money on their being willing to insist on their earlier decision and overturn the measure.

Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said he believes courts should allow same-sex marriages.

And then there will also be the legal question–if Prop. 8 is not overturned–of whether the marriages performed between the time of the Court’s ruling in spring and the fall election would remain valid.

Yet another interesting angle is that the state’s Attorney General, Jerry Brown, is a proponent of inclusive marriage rights, but his job title would require him to defend the state’s newly enacted constitutional amendment stripping that right if it comes before the court.

Irish EU referendum

In an effort to maximize turnout, polls will be open till 10 p.m. tonight, Irish time, in Ireland’s referendum on the Lisbon EU Treaty. Ireland is the only EU country having a referendum on this treaty. The cynic might note that referenda have such a nasty habit of turning out contrary to the wishes of the elites who so carefully craft agreements that it is just too risky to submit such big issues to the masses. But the treaty needs unanimous ratification by signatories, so a failure in Ireland (where any constitutional change must be submitted to the electorate) would send everyone back to the drawing board yet again.

Polls have been divided on which side is ahead, and conventional wisdom evidently suggests that low turnout favors the no.

Full coverage will be available at The Irish Times.

The Thai constitutional referendum

The constitutional revision process set up by the military government has reached its conclusion, as Thai voters approved the new constitution, which will replace the charter of 1997.

It was not exactly a ringing endorsement, however. Only 57.8% voted for the draft and the voter turnout was only 57.6%. Although I can’t say for sure, I believe the recent historical record of constitutions drafted by authoritarian governments claiming to be returning to democracy are passed overwhelmingly. (I can think of one outright defeat: Uruguay in 1980. Perhaps readers will know of others.)

RTE Ireland also offers a brief summary of some of the new provisions (with some details from the original edited out and commentary of mine added in footnotes):

MILITARY: […] The constitution also gives a blanket amnesty to the military officers who launched the September 2006 coup against Mr Thaksin, and their appointed officials.

PRIME MINISTER: A prime minister cannot serve for more than eight consecutive years. The previous charter had no limits. ((Along with Botswana and South Africa, Thailand will become one of the few parliamentary systems to impose term limits on the chief executive.))

Only 96, or one fifth, of MPs are required to launch a no-confidence motion against the prime minister. The 1997 ‘People’s Constitution’ required two fifths. […]

SENATE (UPPER HOUSE): The 150-seat senate is divided into two groups. Seventy-six senators will be elected directly and 74 appointed by an unelected panel of judges and the heads of independent state watchdogs.

Under the previous constitution, all 200 senators were elected directly. ((By SNTV with party affiliations prohibited.)) […]

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES (LOWER HOUSE): The 1997 constitution’s principle of ‘one constituency, one MP’ makes way for a complicated population-weighted system under which more populous constituencies get more MPs.

The lower-house electoral system was actually MMM after 1997 (see previous entries here in the Thailand block for details). The new one restores a version of the old MNTV system (1 – 3 seats each), but from other sources, I understand that there will still be a list tier, as well: 400 seats in the nominal tier and 80 in the list tier (with no separate list vote and, I believe, a ban on dual candidacy). Unlike the 1997-2006 system, the list tier is itself regional, rather than a single national district.

The new constitution will not be quite a restoration of the pre-1997 system, but it contains many elements more in line with it than with the one overthrown by the military. It certainly is more favorable to the old pre-Thaksin regional elites than the 1997 charter was.