The US Supreme Court process is just very strange

It would be hard to exaggerate just how much the US model of supreme court has been rejected by the modern democracies of the world. On three dimensions, the US model is really rare: appointment procedure, tenure, and size. And, yes, we should be actively pursuing reform in all these dimensions.
I am going to reference the data in A Different Democracy, which covers 31 countries.
Countries that allow a popularly elected president to nominate, contingent on consent of a malapportioned second legislative chamber, with no extraordinary majority needed:
2 (Brazil, US)
(Two others are by president and 2/3 of senate: Argentina and Mexico)
Countries that provide life tenure to supreme court judges:
3 (Argentina, Denmark, US)
Countries with top court having fewer than 12 members:
7 (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, US)
Countries with all these characteristics: 1
In general, other countries either require extraordinary legislative majorities (such as cases mentioned above) or involvement by non-partisan commissions. Many have terms of several years (usually longer than those of the elected bodies), although quite a few have retirement ages (usually 70 to 75, sometimes younger).
Parliamentary systems often have appointment by the cabinet, and while that sounds quite partisan, I am not aware of other countries that have such politicized appointments as the US has nowadays. There may be some clear reasons why formal executive discretion over supreme-court appointment is not a source of controversy in established parliamentary democracies (to my knowledge), but I can’t claim to know what those reasons are.
It is noteworthy that presidential systems have mostly moved away from anything looking like the US model, and for good reason. The processes that most resemble the US would be those of Argentina or Brazil, not normally countries Americans want to consider peers in terms of democratic process, but actually comparisons that are quite apt.
(Also: not considered here, but covered in the book, is that several countries have constitutional review in a separate tribunal rather than in the apex court. Most such countries are civil law jurisdictions.)

Italy assembly-size reduction: Cube root!

Based on the results of a referendum, Italy will be changing the size of its Chamber of Deputies from 630 to 400. By the cube root law (Taagepera, 1972) a country the size of Italy (around 60.5 million) should have about 392 seats in its first chamber. I’d say 400 is “about 392” and so this outcome is an obviously good thing.

Thanks to Matthew Bergman, Miroslav Nemčok, and Rein Taagepera for calling this to my attention. Rein also sent along an Italian newspaper article (PDF, a bit blurry) in which he was quoted.

The assembly reduction proposal was advanced by the Five Star Movement. As Rein said in personal communication, “sometimes populists get it right.”

Also, the Italian Senate is being reduced, to 200 (from 315, not counting appointed senators). I am not aware of any predictive model for how large a given second chamber “should be”, at least in unitary systems, but I note that in A Different Democracy, 2014, p. 214, we report that the mean second chamber in a unitary state is 0.53 times the size of the first chamber. So Italy is continuing to follow this pattern.

Tyranny of the minority

Excellent, succinct post by G. Elliot Morris about the fundamentally undemocratic (and, yes, unrepublican) nature of American political institutions.

Tyranny of the Minority

Despite what the founders intended, the Supreme Court is now fully able to be controlled by a significant minority of the country’s voters. Of course, it is not a popularly-elected branch of government, but there are costs associated with minoritarian rule that transcend the original intent of the founders.

[Excerpted from the post at Moriss’s blog]


Academics and journalists

This is such an interesting comment about academics and journalists by Andrew Gelman, in response to question as to whether he and Nate Silver might do a joint podcast or other discussion about election forecasting (Gelman says he’s asked and Silver has not responded):
The more general question, maybe, is how journalists and academics can interact. A traditional model is that the academic does the research and the journalist writes about it. Or the academic does the work and the journalists writes about it with a critical eye, Felix Salmon style. A different model is that the journalist and the researcher are the same person: that’s what Nate [Silver] is doing. Maybe a better way to put this is that the “journalist” and “academic” roles have been erased and replaced by the analyst, who does both. Bill James was a pioneer in this. Finally, there’s the model in which the academics and journalists collaborate, which is what Merlin and I are doing with Elliott [Morris]. At this point, you might ask, why do Merlin and I need Elliott at all: why would a forecast by two political scientists be improved by a journalist? The immediate answer is that the Economist forecast is Elliott’s baby: he came to us to ask for help. The longer answer is that 3 people are better than 2, and the distinction between academic and journalist is not always so clear. I do a lot of writing, Elliott does a lot of programming, and we both have thought a lot about politics. I’ve found that collaboration almost always makes things better, as long as the collaborators can get along.
Anyway, Nate seems pretty set in his go-it-alone, don’t involve academic researchers approach, and I really like to collaborate, so maybe that’s one reason we’re having difficulty communicating.
Also, unrelatedly, Nate is a public figure and so he suffers from what I’ve called the David Brooks or Paul Krugman problem: he gets so much low-quality criticism from randos on the internet, that he’s developed a way of pattern of ignoring or firing back at criticism, rather than engaging with it directly. It can be hard to have a conversation, public or private, with someone who’s gotten into the habit of considering outside criticism as a nuisance rather than a source of valuable input.

NSW Nats break with Liberals (to a degree)

Interesting comment to a thread on AV from Tom Round, and which I wanted to “promote” to where it would be seen from the front gate of the virtual orchard:

The NSW Nationals have just announced that they are moving to the crossbenches, ie breaking their coalition with the Liberals in our oldest State Parliament, over a ban on shooting koalas.

However, it’s still a good deal tighter than a supply-and-confidence non-aggression pact because the Nats have not yet handed in their Ministerial portfolios.

(Tom also included what he called a “NSFW” addendum, but I will let you go to the original comment for that.)

Tweaks to MMP in Germany?

I am aware that there have been ongoing efforts to introduce some small reforms in the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system in Germany. The main challenge is to prevent the Bundestag from expanding so much in size, since a Constitutional Court ruling mandated full compensation.

The brief background is that the system has long had the potential for adding seats to cope with “overhangs”, which happen when a party in a state wins more districts than its party-list share would entitle it to. The Court ruled that the procedure in place over many elections still left the system unacceptably disproportional. (Manuel posted a good primer on the changes back in 2013; see also a long and interesting comment thread here on F&V.)

There are proposals currently being considered in the Bundestag that would attempt to limit the expansion in the chamber’s size that the current system allows. For instance, in 2017, the size went from the basic 598 (299 nominal and initially as many list) to 709 (401 list seats!).

The article I have is from AP, and (predictably) is thin on detail. All it says in the way of substance is:

The new proposal mainly involves keeping the number of constituencies unchanged in the 2021 election but slightly reducing the number of extra seats. By the time of the 2025 election, it calls for the number of constituencies to be cut to 280. A reform commission is supposed to produce a detailed plan.

The article also notes that opposition parties “weren’t impressed.”

I hope some readers might have more detail on what is being proposed.

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

The New Zealand Maori Party has introduced its party list for the 2020 election, now set for 17 October. The press release boasts of the backgrounds of the candidates, including some sports celebrities and experienced local officeholders. Interestingly, one of the co-leaders has adopted a “burning bridges” strategy–being placed too low on the list (7th) to be elected if he does not win his district (electorate) under New Zealand’s mixed-member proportional (MMP) system. (In some past elections, the party has won only district seats; it did not win any seats at all in 2017.)

The press release says, in part:

In our list we have champion athletes: the founder of Iron Māori (Heather Te Au Skipworth); a coordinator for the diploma in sport and recreation- and a crossfit trainer (Fallyn Flavell); a fourth dan black belt in aikido (Mariameno Kapa-Kingi) and competitive rower (Tumanako Silveria).

We have candidates with vast expertise and experience in local government (Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, Elijah Pue, John Tamihere, Rangi Mclean, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer); a former Cabinet Minister Hon Tamihere; two past youth MPs (Eru Kapa-Kingi and Elijah Pue); and former candidates for the Māori Party, Mana Motuhake, Alliance Labour, and the Christian Heritage Party.

It also has this lovely nugget:

“We are campaigning on the mantra of MMP: More Māori in Parliament” said Che Wilson [party president].

Regarding co-leader John Tamihere, Waatea News quotes him as explaining his taking such a low list position:

This is the Māori thing to do and I could not go back to Parliament if I didn’t have the mandate of the people on the street… My six fellow candidates have put themselves and their whānau up for this challenge and this is my way of showing my support for their sacrifice.

In 2017, the party was within five percentages points in only one of the Maori set-aside electorates, Te Tai Hauāuru. Labour won all seven of them. Back to 2014, the party won two of the electorates, plus one list seat (which I believe is the only list seat it has ever won).

I have not seen polling of the Maori electorates. Perhaps someone reading this has. But with Labour currently running so far ahead of its 2017 showing in national polls, it would seem the Maori candidates have their work cut out for them if the party is to recover.

(The idea of candidates in mixed-member systems “burning bridges” by not taking an electable list rank comes from Krauss, Nemoto, and Pakennen, 2011.)

Possible New Zealand election delay

As already flagged in a couple of comments at the earlier planting on the New Zealand election (thanks, Errol), there is now some discussion of a delay in the polling date. The dissolution of parliament did not take place Monday as had been expected. This does not immediately mean the election date, 19 September, has to be pushed back. But it means it is possible.

This uncertainty is due to the recent return of COVID-19 cases to the country, and all the complications that could cause for holding the election. There are provisions of the election law, added rather recently, that would permit delay under specified conditions even after a dissolution.

Details at The Conversation and at Stuff.

Poland 2020: Presidential runoff

The second round of Poland’s presidential election is Sunday, 12 July. I really did not expect a close runoff. As I showed in a graph in 2017, both things that have to happen are relatively rare: (1) First round leader with >40% not getting 50% in runoff, and (2) First rounder runner-up with ~30% getting >50% in runoff.

In the first round on 28 June, incumbent Andrzej Duda earned 43.5% and the runner-up Rafal Trzaskowski earned 30.5%. (The third place candidate had 13.9%.) Yet several polls in the past week have shown the race for the second round too close to call.

It is worth noting, given my interest in electoral cycles, that whereas Duda benefitted from a honeymoon election in 2015 that helped his party (Law and Justice, PiS) get into strong enough position to win a parliamentary majority, Trzaskowski would have no such advantage. The PiS already narrowly held its majority in 2019 and another assembly election is not due until October, 2023. And while there is a procedure by which the president can call early assembly elections, the power is not unilateral and the parliamentary majority should be able to avert such recourse by the president (see Articles 145 and 155 of the Polish Constitution).

(The 2015 presidential and assembly elections demonstrate so many interesting effects of electoral rules that the sequence features prominently in the introductory chapter to Votes from Seats.)

“Instability” in Israeli politics?

I was asked to offer some remarks on current “instability” in Israeli politics.* Instead, I am going to argue that Israeli politics suffers from too much stability—at least at the level of party and electoral politics. The fact that Israel underwent three elections between April, 2019, and March, 2020, might seem to imply political instability. So might the government recently formed, with its unwieldy power-sharing provisions and the parties’ need to reform constitutional provisions (Basic Laws) in order, at last, to prevent what could have been a fourth election within two years.

However, if we go a little deeper, there are two aspects of fundamental stability that have led the country’s politics to this current situation. First is the fact that a right-wing nationalist bloc of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and the two Haredi (ultra-orthodox) parties, usually also joined by an ultra-nationalist and religious-Zionist party (currently Yamina), has been unwilling to break up in order to facilitate government-formation. Likud and the Haredi factions function almost like one party nowadays, even though they run as three separate ones in elections.

The second factor is the persistence of anti-Zionist ideology among the Arab parties, who in their alliance known as the Joint List, have emerged as a (potentially) powerful force able to command about 12% of the Knesset seats. One can hardly ask parties representing the Arab sector to be Zionist, but if they would cease being opposed to the very nature of the political system (or be replaced by more pragmatic parties), they could participate in governments and bring benefits back to their voters who polls show care much more about better public services and integration into Israeli society than about ideological goals or the wider Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Because of these two aspects of excessive political stability (or we might say stasis), it proved impossible after the two elections of 2019 and almost impossible after the 2020 election for a government spanning the political center to form. Yet consider that in three elections within eleven months, the right-Haredi bloc headed by Netanyahu failed to win a majority of seats. It did especially badly, relative to the 2015 election, in the second election of 2019, held in September. It recovered only slightly this past March. Yet at the same time, the Blue & White electoral alliance headed by Benny Gantz and its potential coalition partners also failed to win a majority for an alternative government. Blue & White could have formed a government only with the cooperation of the Joint List—or else it needed the Likud.

In most parliamentary democracies with complex multiparty systems, what happens when no bloc of ideologically similar parties wins a majority of seats is that a coalition of the center forms, leaving the extremist parties of both left and right out. But owing in part to Netanyahu’s preoccupation with his own legal problems, he was unwilling to break up his loyal bloc. Meanwhile, many of Gantz’s secular and left-leaning allies were unwilling to enter a government with the Haredi parties due to sharp differences over issues of religion and state.

Only with the unwillingness of the key parties to go to fourth elections, particularly in the context of the covid-19 crisis, did such a center-right coalition (which excludes the far right Yamina, as well as the most secular components that had been included within Blue & White) finally form. They could have arrived at a similar destination much sooner if the right-Haredi bloc had been more flexible, and alternative governance options would be more feasible if the Arab bloc could be part of a government or of its Knesset support base.

In other words, Israeli politics would benefit from just a little bit more instability.

Before concluding, I want to add two final points—one on the institutional context and one looking ahead:

(1) It is not the case, as some commentators claim, that Israeli politics would be more stable if it would change its highly proportional electoral system. The country has about the number and relative size of parties we expect from the electoral system it has (based on mathematical models I have contributed to developing and testing). But it does not follow that the country would be better served by changing the system to reduce the number of parties. The system suits the country’s social divisions well. A more disproportional system would create more, not less instability, by making it less transparent how popular support would be turned into baragaining power in the Knesset and government.

(2) Will the current government last? The constitutional reforms that were passed as a condition of its formation make it likely that it will, at least for a while, by instituting a rotation in the Prime Minister position and making it harder than usual for the leader of one bloc to depose the other and break up the government. However, by August, it must pass a budget. If Netanyahu wants to prevent a budget deal, he probably can, and this would force an early election. Polls consistently show that the right-Haredi-ultranationalist bloc would win a majority if an election were held now. However, it is not clear that he would want such an outcome even if he could engineer it. All of Netanyahu’s coalition governments but one have had at least one party of the center-left in them in order to balance out the ultranationalist parties (and the farther right of his own Likud). The exception was the one formed after the 2015 election, which was a narrow right-wing government. And it was precisely his small right-wing partners who maneuvered to bring that government down, precipitating the first of these three recent elections when no election actually would have been due until November, 2019. Netanyahu may be quite happy with the deal he has now while his legal process slowly plays out. In other words, Israeli politics may be a good deal more stable than it appears to many observers.

* At an on-line meeting of Davis Faculty, scheduled for 5 July. In addition to drawing on several earlier posts on Israel at this blog (some of which are linked in this post), I also draw on my teaching of Israeli Politics at UC Davis, as recently as this past spring quarter.

Ecuador’s 2019 Local Elections

On March 24, 2019, Ecuador held sectional elections to elect 23 provincial prefects, 221 mayors, 867 city councilors, 438 rural councilors, 4,089 members of rural parish councils, and seven councilors of the Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS), a social regulatory body. The elections had a little bit of everything: complex electoral rules and a mixture of systems, bickering over how to count votes, and results that reinforce what political scientists know about electoral systems’ impacts on party systems. I was fortunate enough to observe these elections as part of the Organization of American States’ Electoral Observation Mission (EOM). Given that the EOM’s final report was finally presented to the OAS Permanent Council until June 19, 2020, I can now offer some political science-based reflections on the experience. 

I’ll describe the array of electoral rules and then highlight three noteworthy factors:

  1. the difficulty in counting null votes in a plurality-at-large election;
  2. the political party atomization that “pluralitarian” and free list proportional representation produced; and
  3. the persistence of ballot order effects in plurality-at-large elections, even with order randomization.

It should be noted that Ecuadorian legislators finally passed a bill in December 2019 to switch from free list PR to closed and blocked lists for multi-member elections, among other changes.

Electoral Systems

Since 1998, elections in Ecuador have been cognitively demanding due to the complexity of the electoral lists and rules governing voting.  2019 was no exception. Despite being a national process, not all voters cast the same number of votes or even used the same number of ballots: voters in urban areas received six ballots to elect representatives at four levels of government (prefect, mayor, urban councilor, CPCCS representatives), while voters in rural areas received seven ballots for five levels of government (prefect, mayor, rural councilor, rural parish boards, CPCCS representatives). Moreover, the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE) employed three different electoral systems across these five different offices:

  1. Prefects: First-past-the-post
  2. Mayors: First-past-the-post
  3. Urban and rural canton councils: Free list PR (5 ≤ M ≤ 15)
  4. Rural parish councils: Free list PR (M=5 or 7)
  5. CPCCS (three different ballots): Plurality-at-large, Plurality-at-large, First-past-the-post

The free list, which Tom Mustillo and I have written about and which is sometimes called “panachage” or “open ballot”, is a unique variation of the open list where voters can: 1) cast preference votes for candidates; 2) cast multiple preference votes; and 3) distribute preferences across multiple lists. Alternatively, voters can cast a single list vote. To determine seat distribution, votes are pooled at the party list level (an important detail that distinguishes the free list from plurality-at-large). For national legislative elections, only Switzerland, Luxembourg, Honduras, and El Salvador now use this system, although it is more common at a subnational level in Europe. This system presents a number of complexities for voters (since there are so many candidates from which to choose and so many votes to cast) as well as vote counters (because each voter’s number of votes varies by district magnitude and voters are not required to cast all their votes).

There is a lot of “choice” available to voters.  Here is a 2019 ballot for urban councilors from a district in Quito with M=5 that demonstrates it nicely. Voters in this district are allowed to cast up to five votes within or across the 22 party lists, or five out of 110 total candidates.  It is no surprise that voters often opt for list votes (plancha, in Spanish) or use only a portion of their preference votes.

Figure 1. Ballot for urban councilors from a district in Quito


Still, Ecuadorian voters should have been accustomed to the free list: before legislators phased in out in late 2019 in favor of closed lists, voters had been using it for 17 years in both national and local elections.

Being tapped with the civic responsibility of working a polling station is a lot of work for elections like these. Poll workers had to tally votes manually, recording not just the choices on six or seven ballots, but counting all M votes on the free list ballots and finding the three choices on the men’s and women’s CPCCS ballots as well (something I explain in greater depth below). The four-person team at the table I was assigned to “quick count” took more than seven hours to tally all of their 250-300 voters’ votes (see the photo below as they were just beginning).

Figure 2. Poll workers sorting ballots before counting votes


1. Counting Null Votes under Plurality-at-Large

Despite the complexities of the free list, the most compelling ballot in this election turned out to be the one used to elect CPCCS representatives.  After a 2018 plebiscite turned this appointed seven-person body into an elected one, electors were supposed to be given seven votes to be distributed however they wanted across the entire ballot (e.g. plurality-at-large/MNTV/block voting). However, in February 2019, the CNE stipulated that to maintain gender parity and minority representation, it would divide the single ballot into three separate ballots:

  • A “men’s ballot”, from which voters could cast three votes (plurality-at-large);
  • A “women’s ballot”, from which voters could cast three votes (plurality-at-large), and;
  • A ballot with indigenous/Afro-descendent/ex-pat candidates, from which voters could cast one vote (SMD plurality).

How to count the votes—or in this case, the non-votes—dominated pre-election discourse.

The CPCCS is an autonomous entity responsible for appointing authorities of the Ombudsman’s Office, the Office of the Comptroller General of the State, and state superintendencies, as well as influencing the designation of certain electoral and judicial authorities.  Many politicians and civil society organizations long decried the CPCCS and argued that it should be eliminated as a political body.

Paragraph 3 of Article 147 of Ecuador’s Code of Democracy states that elections can be nullified, “when the null votes exceed the totality of the candidates’ votes, of the respective lists, in a specific circumscription, for each office”. Predictably, there was a current of public opinion in these elections that exhorted voters to cast a null vote as a way to protest the body and demand a national plebiscite on its existence. However, counting the null votes for an office where the voter can cast up to seven votes between three ballots turned out to be more complicated than it may first appear.

Specifically, there is no way to satisfy the “one person, one vote” principal stipulated in the Ecuadorian Constitution if electoral authorities count votes instead of ballots. There are two basic scenarios:

  • Scenario 1 (original proposal): A null vote on a plurality-at-large ballot (M=3) is equal to a single vote, meaning that a null voter is only able to cast 3/7 of a null vote (1/7 + 1/7 + 1/7 on each of the three ballots) while a valid voter can cast 7/7 of a vote (3/7 + 3/7 + 1/7)—effectively disenfranchising the null voter.
  • Scenario 2 (counter-proposal): A null vote on a plurality-at-large ballot (M=3) is equal to three null votes. This way, both valid and null voters get to exercise a full vote (3/7 + 3/7 + 1/7 in each case). The problem is, the system does not permit cumulation voting, which means a) that the null voter is effectively casting three cumulation votes while a valid voter cannot do the same thing; and b) that anyone using fewer than M valid votes per list ends up using fewer votes than the null voter (e.g. a single blank on the first ballot would give the voter 2/7 + 3/7 + 1/7 = 6/7 of a vote).

Electoral authorities were divided on the interpretation, but eventually settled on the first counting rule. Regardless, the null counting method would not have mattered, since just over 20% of the ballots registered null votes against 50% of valid votes (more than 20% of the ballot for CPCCS were also left blank). 

2. Personal Voting and Party System Atomization

Low entrance barriers and guaranteed public financing gave rise to the participation of a whopping 278 political parties, movements, and local organizations. However, all three electoral systems also incentivize the personal vote at the expense of the party. The results were predictable, with extreme party system fragmentation and a lack of mandate for most elected officials.

To just take the FPTP elections, 19 different parties and 10 local political movements split up the 23 prefectures (most of them as part of electoral alliances), with the Social Christian Party winning the most with eight (35%).  Eight parties or movements won just a single prefecture.

There was greater atomization at the level of the elections for mayor. There, 42 parties or movements gained political representation in the 221 mayoralties. Sixteen different political parties won ten or more mayoralties, with the most successful party, the Social Christian Party, earning just 43 mayoralties nationwide (19.5% of the national total). The largest party in the preceding twelve years, President Lenín Moreno’s Alianza Pais (“Country Alliance”), managed only 27 mayors nationwide, falling to the fourth position at national level. The excess of municipal and provincial movements led to the formation of various electoral alliances; in fact, multi-party electoral coalitions won 112 of the 221 mayoralties.

These results suggest that without significant changes, the 2021 general elections are likely to be contested by a panoply of parties with weak roots and limited national ambitions, akin to what we see in some other Latin American countries, like Peru.

3. Ballot Order Effects

A third interesting pattern to emerge was a ballot order effect for the CPCCS elections.  Recognizing the advantage that candidates near the top of the ballot hold over those placed toward the bottom, the CNE decided candidate placement on each of the three CPCCS ballots in February 2019 via lottery, on national television and in the presence of a public notary.

The 28-candidate men’s CPCCS ballot looked like this, with the women’s ballot and minorities’ ballot organized a similar way:

Figure 3. The CPCCS ballot for men


Despite the lottery, which quite literally randomized candidate placement, there is evidence that candidates towards the top of list enjoyed a distinct advantage over those toward the bottom. The figure below is a scatterplot of CPCCS ballot placement and votes. Red circles represent women candidates (11 nominations), squares are the men candidates (28 nominations), and the diamonds the minority candidates (4 nominations); for each list, I also included the best fit line to show the relationship between ballot position and votes received. In all three cases, there is a clear negative relationship.

Figure 4. Scatterplot of CPCCS ballot placement and votes


This relationship is statistically significant for two of the three lists (men and women; there were only four candidates on the third list). To test the relationship suggested in the figure, I ran a linear regression of the effect of candidate on electoral performance. Employing list fixed effects, the results are consistent with the scatterplot. For each change in position, the mean CPCCS candidate lost around 18,126 votes (p<0.05), or a total of 507,528 votes (18,126) over the range of the 28 positions on the men’s list.  Despite placement randomization, then, this vote is just one more example of the pervasiveness of ballot placement effects; given financial and technical constraints (e.g. inability to randomize candidate placement for each paper ballot), it’s hard to imagine how the CNE could have avoided this problem.

Sectional elections in a small country like Ecuador are not often on the radar of international analysts.  However, the multitude of electoral systems, debate over null vote counting, and ballot order effectd make it as compelling a case study as many national elections in larger countries that grab international headlines.

The end of pomegranate bloom season

All three varieties of pomegranate that I currently am growing have recently finished their bloom. Fruit set is well underway. These photos were taken on 7 June.

Two excellent varieties I grow are Parfianka and Ambrosia. The Parfianka fruit is deep red and has a wine-like complexity. It is the richest tasting pomegranate I have ever tasted. The Ambrosia has flesh that is pink, almost white, and very soft seeds, and is also very sweet. (If you think you do not like pomegranates either because they are too tart or the seeds bother you, try Ambrosia!) What I find really interesting is that the flowers roughly match the color distinctions of the fruit varieties they lead to. Here is a Parfianka blossom, with some already set fruit visible as well.

That is deeper red than common varieties. The fruit arils (the flesh surrounding the seed) is even darker red when ripe. Now compare to Ambrosia, showing here a flower that is about done and is transforming into a fruit.

The flower is obviously much lighter in color. The arils are even more so–as I mentioned above, almost white.

Here is a Parfianka fruitlet with just a hint of blossom petal left on it.

Finally, the third variety is the ubiquitous Wonderful. If you buy a pomegranate or the juice, at least in the US (and also our exports), it probably came from this variety, grown somewhere in the Central Valley. I used to think it was badly misnamed, but that is because I’d never had a tree-ripened one grown in the proper climate. Here they are really good, although I would still take either of my other two any day. As you can seem its flowers are also very red, but not quite as vivid as the Parfianka.


PM rotation in Ireland?

In the earlier planting on Israel’s new government, I asked if examples of rotating the position of prime minister existed outside of Israel. There is evidently a good chance we might be seeing one in Ireland!

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is expected to be taoiseach in the first half of a coalition government with Fine Gael and the Greens, with Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar going second. (Source: Irish Times; h/t to Steven Verbank.)

There was even some discussion of the Greens’ leader also being part of a possible rotation deal.

Senior Green sources had previously floated the idea of Mr [Eamon] Ryan also getting a year as taoiseach, although Mr Ryan ruled this out…

What a shame. I am pretty sure it would have been the first case of leaders of three different parties taking turns as prime minister under a coalition agreement!

(Taoiseach is the Irish term for the prime minister.)

The 35th Israeli government and Basic-Law revisions

Last week, Israel finally got a new government, after three elections in under a year, the most recent of which was March of this year.

And what a government it is! Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud will remain prime minister, with a planned rotation of the premiership to Benny Gantz in 18 months.

It is being referred to as a “unity government” but that is a strange term for a government, the formation of which led to the break-up of three of the multi-party alliances that contested the most recent election, most especially Gantz’s Blue and White list. Maybe just like with “grand coalition” in Germany and Austria, it is time to dispense with the term, “unity government,” for Israel.

The most recent Israeli governments to which the term applied were following the Knesset elections of 1984 and 1988. In these elections the two main parties (Likud and Labor) each had won around 40 or more seats and formed governments in which the two parties governed together. Unlike the European examples, the parties in the earlier Israeli examples also agreed to rotate the premiership (two years one party, two years the other), although this plan broke down during the second term of planned “unity”.

This new government has the rotation plan again, but in other respects, it is quite novel. For one thing, as alluded to already, one of the two main components of the agreement, Blue and White, split. The part headed by Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi has joined the government with Likud, but the part consisting of Yesh Atid (led by Yair Lapid) and Telem (led by Moshe Ya’alon) will go to opposition. Likud won 36 seats in the most recent elections and Blue and White 33. However, with the split, the governing portion of the latter brings only 18 seats to support the cabinet. Thus, unlike the previous “unity” governments, in this one the two main lists that are forming the cabinet and rotating the premiership do not have a majority of Knesset seats between them (they have 54, where a majority is 61.)

(Yesh Atid and Telem, who will be in opposition, have 16 seats; there were also two from B&W who split off and joined the government as a separate party and two from the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance who joined the new rump B&W, while another effectively joined the Likud’s bloc… it gets complicated!)

Despite the imbalance now of the two main components, Likud and (rump) B&W, each has rough parity in the government. This is a sense in which it is still sort of a “unity” government. B&W currently has 13 ministers, while Likud has 14, even though the Likud caucus is twice the size of B&W’s. In addition, the B&W splinter joining the government, the 2-seat Derech Eretz, gets one minister. So does Gesher, which is just Orly Levi-Abekasis, who split from Labor-Gesher-Meretz to join the government. And Labor has two. In addition, there is Rafael Peretz, who split from the nationalist Yemina (the rest of which is going into opposition), plus one from United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and one from Shas. (The latter two, both haredi–or ultra-orthodox–parties, combine for 16 Knesset seats.)

Thus, strictly in portfolios, the remnant of Blue and White made off really well, getting 37% of the cabinet despite contributing only around 22% of the cabinet’s parliamentary basis. Likud gets 40% of the cabinet, with about 44% of the parliamentary basis.

Plus, of course, there is the rotation. Gantz gets a turn at the premiership after 18 months, if the agreement lasts. So, while critics on the leftish side of the political spectrum are calling Gantz a sell out for going into government with Netanyahu, he actually got a pretty good deal, in terms of the portfolios:legislators ratio. (I will not go into policy in this post, but my sense is he did decently well there, given the bargaining situation.)

In the end, both blocs failed to win three straight elections–even the first of which was called several months earlier than required. And so compromise was the only option. Well, no, actually it was not. A fourth election in just over a year’s time could have been called. In fact, under Israeli law, it would have happened automatically had a deal not been struck to form a government. Polling strongly suggested a new election would finally give the Nethanyahu-led bloc (Likud, Yemina, UTJ, and Shas) more than 61 seats.

The bargaining over government formation, when there is a looming return to elections, always takes place against the backdrop of what each side expects in the event of a new election. This only enhances the significance of the portfolio balance and rotation Gantz was able to extract. Likud and its allies certainly had no reason to fear the outcome of an election, and could have just run out the clock and let it happen, while blaming Gantz (and Lapid) for dragging voters to the polls yet again.

So Netanyahu and his allies struck a deal either because the ongoing coronavirus crisis made going back to the polls seem unappealing, or because Nethanyahu really preferred a coalition containing at least one party to his left over one formed around a narrow right-wing (nationalist-haredi) bloc. The reason need not be one or the other. Both factors probably matter.

But bear in mind that Nethanyahu has always had coalitions in which he had partners from the center-left as well as to his right, with the partial exception of the one formed after the 2015 election–the one that was ended early to kick off what would turn out to be a sequence of three elections. In that coalition, Kulanu (10 seats) was to Likud’s left, although firmly part of the “nationalist camp” in its self-definition (and merged with Likud after the first of the three 2019-20 elections). Thus it is entirely plausible that Nethanyahu preferred some sort of deal with Gantz, and could not get Gantz to back down from demands that his bloc get a large share of the cabinet even if he failed to bring his whole list with him. With the ulranationalist Yemina (6 seats) going into opposition, and the two haredi parties not really fitting on the left-right dimension (which, in Israel, is mostly about doves vs. hawks), Likud for the first time in the Netanyahu era will anchor the farthest right position in the cabinet. Had they gone back to elections that resulted in a majority for the right-haredi bloc, Likud would have anchored the farthest left position in the likely government.

(As an aside, I wonder how Lapid could possibly have been willing to go to another election, given polling suggesting only around 10% or so for his list. Or maybe he just really decided that being opposition leader was the least unattractive of all his options.)

On the question of whether the agreement can last, the coalition deal includes some creative constitution re-drafting. Before it was voted in as the government, the proto-coalition amended Basic Laws in order to attempt to secure its position, and thus not be vulnerable to a potential Nethanyahu decision to break it up early and precipitate elections. Here are the main points (thanks to JD Mussel for these):

  • There is now a new legal category of government called an “Alternation Government”. The following apply to such a government:
  • PM can’t fire ministers from other bloc without alternate PM’s consent.
  • If an election is called by the Knesset, with at least 12 members of the right bloc voting for it, Gantz automatically becomes PM (and vice versa after PM alternation).
  • The PM’s existing power to call an election (which is not exactly that, since a new government can be formed within 21 days) now requires the consent of the alternate PM.
  • Neither a sitting PM nor alternate PM can serve in a government installed as result of a constructive no-confidence vote (whereby 61 members of Knesset must elect a new government in order to oust the incumbent).
  • The Basic Law change contains an entrenchment clause: “This Basic Law [probably meaning specifically these amended clauses] may only be changed with the votes of 75 MKs,”

A strange beast Netanyahu and Gantz have created! But a political (and public-health) crisis required some creative bargaining and constitutional innovation.

A couple of final small thoughts:

  • Is this the first time in the annals of parliamentary government that a formateur (the one designated to attempt to form a government) had himself installed as Speaker to preserve his leverage while bargaining to install someone else as (initial) Prime Minister?
  • Is this the first case known to constitutional history of a 62.5% majority to amend?

Dividing the Rulers: How Majority Cycling Saves Democracy

The following is a guest planting by Dr. Yuhui Li. I suggested Dr. Li draft something for this blog about his recently published book. (Note: I was the Ph.D. committee chair for Huey at UC Davis.)

You can buy the book by clicking here, and taking advantage of a discount! You can get 30% off by entering the code, UMCYCLING (for a limited time).

I’m grateful that Matthew offers to post this introduction of my book Dividing the Rulers: How Majority Cycling Saves Democracy. I hope it may interest some fellow political scientists.

The initial thought about the project originated from a debate I had years ago on Chinese social media regarding the choice of political systems. It appeared to me that many people were skeptical about the idea of democracy out of the fear that the majority, at least in theory, could be as tyrannical as individual dictators. But years later, when I learned about the social choice theories as a PhD student, I noticed an almost opposite criticism of democracy from academia, namely the instability of social choice. Both arguments sound convincing, but also at odds with each other: It’s hard to imagine a decision-making body that is both cyclical and tyrannical. In the process of solving the puzzle, I came across Nicholas Miller (1983) and Anthony McGann (2006) and realized that the two arguments can be reconciled. Cycling and the tyranny of the majority can both exist, but they can be negatively correlated with each other. As cycling is clearly the lesser of the two evils, it may be exactly the reason that democracies tend to be less tyrannical than alternative systems.

So building on Miller and McGann, I started to develop a theory and design an experiment to untangle the process of how cycling can actually be a good thing and help the temporary losers of an electoral game. I argue that in a voting body, the key factor that prevents cycling is the cost incurred on those who defect from the winning coalition. If a country’s legislative body has a low “defection cost”, cycling is more likely, and the distributive outcome more equal.

I have to admit, unfortunately, that my modeling skills are not enough to formalize a game with continuous options and highly unstable equilibria, but I did present a rather convincing strategic process showing that in a three-player committee, if the defection cost is higher than 50% of the distributable benefits in a giving round, cycling cannot happen. I then conducted an experiment by grouping respondents into three-player committees to verify that process. The experiment results turned out to be more variant than I had expected, but largely confirmed the hypothesis that a high defection cost can deter cycling and result in a more “tyrannical” outcome, with less frequent power alternation. I show that while cycling introduces uncertainty into the policy outcome, it is exactly that short-run uncertainty that creates the long-run equality by reshuffling winners and losers.

In the second half of the book, I connect such a phenomenon to the design of electoral institutions. I argue that low defection costs explain the favorable distributive outcome in countries in which the parliament does not have a majority party and the executive is subordinate to that parliament. This way, not only is the winning coalition more inclusive, but more importantly, it is vulnerable to defection and gives the losing side a better bargaining position.

While it is a common belief in the literature that the outcome of electoral system design cannot be predicted with high accuracy, I construct a comprehensive dataset on countries’ largest party vote shares and show that a no-majority party system can be guaranteed in almost any country as long as the electoral system is sufficiently proportional. I explain such a phenomenon by developing a demand and supply theory of political parties, explaining why, with very few exceptions such as South Africa’s ANC, a majority party’s politicians and voters both have strong incentives to split as long as the electoral system allows small parties to survive. And therefore the aforementioned theory that cycling leads to equality is not merely a thought exercise, but an attainable outcome giving appropriate institutional design.

There are two features of this book that I think are worth noting. First, it goes beyond positive empirical study of political institutions and offers a clear normative objective for institutional design, which is to ensure an unstable winning coalition to guard against a tyrannical government, whether it represents a majority or not. And second, the book is accessible for readers with minimal political science training, as I strive to convince as many people as possible by using intuitive methods and providing explanations to advanced concepts.