Is Scottish MMP being “gamed”?

As noted in an earlier comment thread, initially by Dave Hutcheson, former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, has formed a new party called Alba. It plans to run only list candidates. This has raised some questions about whether this is a “gaming” of the MMP system to enhance the majority of pro-independence parties, bypassing the compensation mechanism. For instance, a pro-independence voter could vote for the Scottish National Party candidate in their single-seat district and the Alba list.

I don’t believe this is true “gaming” in the sense of the dummy lists we have seen in MMP systems in Albania and Lesotho in the past (or even the recent Korean election), but “gaming” does not have a precise definition.

I recommend reading Dave’s comment (linked above) and then the following comment in the same thread by JD Mussel as well as the Politico story he links to. There will also be another new party entering on the pro-union side, All 4 Unity, headed by good old George Galloway (about whom I have written before, most recently under the title, “Galloway is back”; well, he’s back again!). It is similarly motivated to Salmond’s entry: to enhance the total seats for his side of the divide through encouraging tactical split voting.

Then, to get a sense of just how Alba’s entry could affect the result, Leonardo Carella has a very interesting and valuable Twitter thread, viewable in one page thanks to Thread Reader, with simulations under various scenarios.

As I said, I have my doubts this party entry is as problematic as some see it, but it is a debatable point. So, what do readers think?

Aviv 5781

We are in Aviv! Spring, and this day before the day before the spring festival, Pesach, starts, please join me on a little walk around the orchard.

Thanks to a good amount of winter chill (750–800 hours or even more) and a mostly benign spring (more on that qualifier later), the bloom is the best I have seen yet at this location.

oarchard view 24March21

It is getting to be late spring, and so the trees are in various phases of bloom and fruit set. Only a few remain in full bloom at this point.

The first foursome consists of a plumcot, two apriums, and an apricot. As we enter the orchard, the first stone fruit we encounter is the on the upper left of the gallery, the Summer Delight aprium (plum–apricot hybrid that leans towards the latter). It is just wrapping up its bloom. To the right–in both orchard-row terms and in the gallery–is the Cot-N-Candy aprium, a luscious white-fleshed variety that had its best bloom yet for me.

The plumcot, in the lower right, is the Flavorella, one of my favorite of all the stone fruits. It blooms early; the photo shows some of the last few blooms among its well developed foliage. Because it blooms so early, getting cross-pollination, which it needs to set fruit, can be a challenge. The key companion here is the Royal Rosa apricot (lower left), which as this image shows, has a heavy set of fruitlets. It is one of the earliest ripening apricots, and its correspondingly early bloom is one of the traits that makes it an ideal pollen source for the Flavorella.

We then enter a group of peaches and nectarines.

Each has its distinctive shade and shape of pink blossom. In the upper right, Baby Crawford. To its left, Heavenly White nectarine, Donut, and Raspberry Red nectarine. In the bottom row, Sweet Bagel (L) and Liz’s Late nectarine. Donut and Sweet Bagel are called thus because they are flat or “saucer” peaches. None of these has fruited well for me in past years, but the extensive blooms and lack of rain during the bloom time gives me hope of good fruit set this year.

We then enter a realm of great expectation for 2021, the white apricots. These trees do not normally bloom well, although I have had a few fruits one one or both trees in some past years. The blooms this year are the best I’ve seen, and while that’s not a sufficient condition for a crop, it certainly is a necessary one.

On the left is the Monique. This is one of the sweetest and most soft-fleshed stone fruits I know of. It is as true a white apricot as any I have had (as white as the best white peaches). It is a shy bearer, but it is such an amazing fruit that I am happy to keep it going in the orchard row even if it gives only 2-3 fruits every other year. This year maybe it will give a lot more–if all goes well for the next few months. On the right is the Canadian White Blenheim apricot. This is less true white, but is very pale for an apricot not named Monique. It has also had a shy-bearing tendency. But look at that bloom! It is not quite a full yet (note many swollen buds that should open in a day or two). This bloom is impressive; I hope the fruit set is a success!

Now it is pluot time! These plum–apricot hybrids lean more towards plum. They have become better known in recent years as farmers markets and even grocery stores now carry them. I have three varieties. In the gallery below, the upper left shows Splash, a yellow-fleshed pluot. This is always the earliest of the pluots to bloom, which can be tricky for pollination, but the Flavor Finale (upper right) and Flavor King (lower left) always catch up and we get concurrent bloom. The bigger issue with Splash is its tendency to develop some condition (a fungus, presumably) that prevents ripening of the typically heavy fruit set. Hoping the near absence of rain this season–while bad for other reasons–might inhibit fungal growth this year.

I alluded earlier to a caveat about the being spring. We actually had a 32-degree night and a couple others near freezing but with frost in mid-March. This can be bad news during bloom and early fruit set, and a couple of past years, including 2020, had frost or freeze conditions that really devastated some varieties’ bloom or set. The Flavor King, as you can see in this picture, may have suffered some bloom damage. That brown on the blossoms is not a good sign, but fortunately not all the blooms seems to have been hit. Rounding out the gallery in the lower right is the Flavor Delight aprium. This is usually the first stone fruit tree to bloom (it is self-fruitful, fortunately), and as you can see, the fruitlets are relatively large for late March and the tree is fully leafed out by now.

Now come the two pluerry trees. A pluerry is a plum–cherry hybrid. The Sugar Twist (left, in gallery below) had an utterly profuse bloom! However, it looks to have been hit quite hard by the brief cold snaps during its bloom. There may be some fruit setting here, but it will be more sparse than it might have been without the cold. The Candy Heart, which bloomed a little earlier, seems not to have been hit at all by cold. In the photo, you can see one of the last blooms as well as some tiny fruitlets. These two need cross-pollination, and so their not blooming together could be a problem, although they do overlap somewhat. They also have nearby the pluots (Flavor King is a good all-around pollen source for other pluots, as well as plums and pluerries). I also have (not shown) Santa Rosa, Beauty, Methley, and Emerald Beaut plums. With all these blooming, there should be enough pollen to go around for those that need a mate. And there are definitely bees! In fact, look closely, as a couple of the photos actually show a bee in a flower providing a benefit for the orchardist.

The last of the plums or plum hybrids to reach full bloom is the Emerald Beaut, a delicious late-ripening yellow-fleshed plum that is one of my favorites. Its bloom is especially profuse right now.

Emerald Beaut plum

That is a lot of fruit trees and blooms! And the images above do not show all the varieties. The Hunza apricot (in my opinion the best tasting apricot, which also has an edible kernel with amazing complex flavor) is having a good bloom, as is the Shar Kah Pareh apricot (plumcot?), although the latter may have suffered some blossom damage from the cold. I also focused here only on stone fruits, although in the first photo with the overview of the orchard, you can see the Warren pear in bloom in the right foreground. These and more are at the Flickr site. Here is hoping for a lot of fruit!

Electoral system change (kinda?) in Hong Kong

Generally speaking, the activities of the Chinese National People’s Congress don’t warrant any mention on this blog. However, this week the NPC has taken up the matter of Hong Kong’s electoral system: while Hong Kong is not a democracy, it does hold direct elections to a body of some influence.

Coverage of the changes has been somewhat vague and focused on external reaction to the proposals: this reflects the lack of concrete information available at this stage. However, a number of stories have provided more information on what the specific changes to the electoral system are going to look like.

At present, forty members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council are elected directly by voters in six multi-seat districts using closed party lists and the Hare quota with largest remainders. The remaining thirty members are elected in so-called “functional” constituencies, where the franchise is restricted to members of professional groups or industries (such as the insurance industry, or lawyers): these are generally single-seat districts.

A South China Morning Post article outlines one particular feature of this electoral reform: the expansion of the Legislative Council by adding about thirty members, elected by the “Election Committee”. This is a 1200-member (at present) body, elected mostly by members of the same sort of professional organisations and industries, which currently only elects the Chief Executive (the head of government). It is not entirely clear currently how this body would elect its 30 members. However, up until the 2000 election, this body elected six members of the Legislative Council. According to the legislation, these six seats were elected by the multiple non-transferable vote (MNTV). Given the small, elite nature of this electorate, it could be reasonably expected that there would be few obstacles to the pro-Beijing forces sweeping all of the seats allocated to this group.

This article (in Chinese, but Google Translate allows one to glean the key points) offers more detail on what this proposal means for the elected seats. That source suggests that the total number of elected seats will be cut in half, to just 20 (it also reports a higher number of Election Committee seats than the South China Morning Post, which reflects the absence of a concrete proposal) in a 90-member chamber.

Interestingly, however, it also suggests that the electoral system to choose these 20 members would be changed, to what the article refers to as the “dual-seat, single-vote” system. This appears to mean the single non-transferable vote (SNTV) in 10 districts.

There is some precedent for this particular system. South Korea adopted SNTV with two-member districts in 1972 under the authoritarian regime of Park Chung-hee. The proposals also resemble, in certain ways, the electoral system used in Chile until the 2017 election, where the D’Hondt system with open party lists was used in two-member districts. Under that system, a party list with one Droop quota (33.3%+1) would be guaranteed half of the seats in a district, meaning that to be guaranteed a majority of seats in a district a list would need to win two-thirds of the vote. While the two-seat SNTV system in Hong Kong lacks the vote-pooling of the Chilean system, it means that a candidate with a Droop quota would be guaranteed to win one seat.

Since Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997, the pan-democratic liberal parties have consistently won the most votes, although not by enough to overcome the pro-Beijing parties’ advantage in the functional constituencies. The new system will make the task of winning a substantial portion of seats in the Legislative Council even harder for the pan-democratic parties, given that if a single pro-Beijing candidate runs in a district and wins a third of the vote, they will be guaranteed a seat: repeated across Hong Kong, this will set a limit of half of the elected seats that the pan-democrats will be able to win. For the pan-democratic parties to win multiple seats, they will need to not only win a massive two-thirds of the vote in a district, but will need to be able to divide their vote evenly between two candidates. This is in a context of tightening political repression for pan-democratic candidates: indeed, a primary election the pan-democrats conducted in order to effectively manage their vote at the next election was declared illegal under new national security legislation.

Under the current LR-Hare system, the high quota has meant that parties generally do behave as though the system were SNTV: as such, vote division is not unusual. However, the changes to district magnitude will produce an electoral system that will likely provide a more systematic advantage to the pro-Beijing parties, making them a significant part of the architecture of repression being imposed.

Israel 2021a preview

Israel’s general election is 23 March. To give away the punch line, I will note the subject line calls this the “2021a” election. That’s because the final polls point to continuing deadlock, and a high chance that there will be a 2021b later this year.

Of course, such a result is not inevitable. Maybe the polls will be off just enough to give one of the blocs a majority of seats. Or maybe there will be surprises after the election, with some party or parties willing to join a bloc that they seemed to have ruled out up to now. But we probably should take a second election this year as the most likely outcome, based on current information.

Jeremy’s Knesset Insider offers the summaries of all public polls. I took the average of all the polls released on either the 18th or 19th of March. The average of these seven polls shows Likud, headed by PM Benjamin Netanyahu, on 30.7 seats, ranging 29-32. (For perspective, it has 36 from the last election.) The second largest party in all polls is Yesh Atid, headed by Yair Lapid, averaging 18.3 and ranging 17-19.

New Hope, headed by ex-Likud senior MK and minister, Gideon Sa’ar, has stumbled late and is now on an average of 8.9, ranging 7-10. It has been narrowly passed by Yamina, headed by Naftali Bennett, averaging 9.3 and ranging 8-10. We can’t say for sure, but it looks like there has been a recent tendency of some intended Yamina and New Hope voters to go (back) the core party of the right, Likud.

All polls show thirteen lists clearing the 3.25% threshold, with one exception. The final Maagar Machot poll has Ra’am falling below. No final poll has the other “on the bubble” lists failing to clear–Meretz, Blue & White, and Religious Zionist all get 4 or 5 seats in every one of these polls. For perspective, there were 8 lists in the last Knesset (although several of these split as soon as the “unity” government was formed); the Seat Product Model expects 11, on average (and that is indeed about what the long-term average has been).

The most important consideration is, of course, the blocs: which group of reasonably like-minded parties can reach 61 seats, a majority in the Knesset? Actually, there really is only one bloc that acts as such in any coherent way, and that is the “Bibi bloc.” At this point, we can count only three lists as fully part of that bloc, and a fourth with an asterisk. For sure, Likud, United Torah Judaism (UTJ), and Shas will govern together if they can find sufficient allies to form a government. Most likely, the Religious Zionist (RZ) list can be counted in, but not necessarily all of it. RZ is an alliance that includes the Kahanist/racist Otzma Yehudit and the anti-gay (among other antis) and misnamed Noam (the name means pleasantness). When they formed this alliance, they called it a “technical bloc” meaning the parties were only allied for purposes of jointly clearing the threshold (and being part of a surplus vote-sharing agreement signed with Likud, which could help the latter earn an additional seat under the Israeli electoral formula).

Netanyahu says Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the Otzma Yehudit party, will not be in his government. So, if we take him at his word, we should deduct one seat from their total for purposes of summing up the bloc. It is worth noting, however, that saying Ben-Gvir won’t himself sit in the government is not the same as ruling out a government that needs his seat to get to 61, although we can assume Netanyahu would prefer not to have a government that would fall if he failed to appease Ben-Gvir (and he should feel the same way about Noam, but their candidate is 11th on the list and thus Noam will contribute only votes, not one of the seats). When it comes to retaining power, however, he may make “unpleasant” deals.

Having said all of that, the average total for the bloc in these final polls are just 45.9 for Likud plus the two Haredi parties (range 44-47), and 50.7 (49-53) for these parties plus the full RZ. If Yamina joins, you get 60.0 (60 in all polls but one that has the combo at 61) if you also include all of RZ, or 55.1 (ranging 54-56) if you exclude RZ.

All through this campaign, Yamina leader Bennett has been non-committal. He has sat in opposition since a government was finally formed after the March, 2020 election. He has called himself a candidate for Prime Minister. While he has said he will not serve in a government headed by Lapid, he has not said he would not serve in a government that includes Lapid’s party and others outside the Bibi bloc. Bennett pointedly refused to sign a pledge to be part of Netanyahu’s government. Most observers, myself included, assume Bennett would join Bibi if his doing so would get to 61 seats. But he also likely would join a government of non-Bibi parties if he got a better deal. The problem is that those parties may not be in a position to offer a better deal–or any deal at all.

The core opposition that might form a government, including only Zionist parties, reaches an average of only 48.4 seats without Yamina; the range in polls is 48-50. This counts Yesh Atid, New Hope, Yisrael Beiteinu (headed by Avigdor Liberman and formerly part of the Bibi bloc), Blue & White (Benny Gantz), and on the left, Labor, and Meretz. That is six parties, with plenty of policy and personality differences between them, and still well short. Even if Yamina joins, they have only 57.7 (ranging 56-60).

Hence my conclusion that there will be a second election later in 2021. If the polls are not considerably off at the bloc level, the only way a second election will be avoided is if some currently unexpected coalition or support deals emerge.

A deal for a Bibi-bloc government could potentially include Ra’am, which is a party that was previously part of the Joint List (of Arab parties). This is the religious-conservative (Islamist) party that never belonged on the “left” even though as part of the Joint List (which includes Israel’s former communist party) it was routinely classified as part of the left. The party and its leader, Mansour Abbas, has made various policy deals with Netanyahu and seems open to doing so in the next Knesset. Netanyahu has said, however, that he will not form a government dependent on the party for its survival. Would he break that? Would Bennett go along? Well, it may be a purely academic question, as no final poll has this combination at 61 (average 58.6, range 55-60).

Would the grand anti-Bibi alliance accept dependence on Ra’am and/or the Joint List to sustain a government? It seems unlikely–these parties, or at least the Joint List, do not even want to be responsible for forming and sustaining the government of Israel. It is even more unlikely if Yamina is needed, as it surely would be. Even if we take both Arab lists, but not Yamina, we do not get 61 except in one poll (Panels for Maariv), and the average is 60.

A possibility is that Blue & White would go with Bibi again. However, it is a close call whether this would work. If it does not include RZ, but does include Yamina, it averages only 59.7, but the range is 59-63; only one final poll has it over 60. If RZ is added (presumably minus both Otzma and Noam) you can add three or four seats and the bloc has over 61 in all recent polls. (I hesitate to entertain the prospect of New Hope being the one to put Likud over the top. I just don’t see it happening. But if it did, and Yamina was a part of it, it hits 64 on average, with range of 62 to 65.)

A sort of wild card idea is Shas breaks its commitment to Bibi when it is clear no such government can form. This averages 66 seats! It would hard for Shas to sit with Yesh Atid and even harder for it to be with Yisrael Beiteinu. Shas is generally more flexible than UTJ, but it is has been a while since the two went separate ways. If Yesh Atid and allies also brought in UTJ somehow, a government could be formed without needing the now ultra-secular Yisrael Beitneinu. It would result in an average of 65.4. However, it would be hard to imagine all these parties being able to serve with Meretz. The good news is that even without Meretz, these parties combine for 61.3 on average, with only one poll having them below 61 and two having them on 63. So there you have it, a seven-party non-Likud coalition it at least imaginable! It would not be easy or stable, however.

Earlier in the campaign there was much “new hope” that a grand opposition alliance of Zionist parties of left and right could displace the Bibi bloc. As recently as the Panels/103FM poll of 15 March, such a combo had a bare majority (61 seats). But with no final poll showing them at 61 and only one as high as 60, it looks unlikely. Maybe this group of parties will out-perform its final polls. But if not, I don’t see a government being formed from this mess. Israeli politics often surprises me, so maybe it will again, but the safe call is continuing deadlock and a 2021b election being necessary.

Candidacy for prime minister

In presidential systems, it is clear who is a candidate for the position of heading government–anyone who enters the election as a formal candidate for president. What about in a parliamentary system? This seems like a trick question. I assume it is straightforward: A person who is the leader of a party can be assumed to be a candidate for prime minister.

We might qualify that definition of candidacy for prime minister by saying it only applies to the leaders of parties expected to be among the largest in the election. Perhaps leaders of clearly minor or sectarian parties can be dismissed as candidates for the post as they are deemed as highly unlikely to claim the post. However, in presidential systems, we would not define someone on the ballot as “not a candidate” just because he or she was considered unlikely to win the job. Is the standard different in parliamentary systems?

As a starting point, I do not really think it should be. “Candidates” who finish second, third, or even lower in votes in parliamentary elections occasionally do end up as prime minister, whereas only in very rare cases can anyone lower than second in votes become president (and being second in a final or sole round of voting can be sufficient currently only in the USA.*)

Our default, then, should be that, absent a good reason to believe some party is uninterested in heading the government, or no parties would ever let it do so, or that someone other than whoever is the formal party leader is likely to be prime minister should the party be able to fill the post, any party leader is a candidate for prime minister. However, this default may be incorrect, at least in the political discourse of any given parliamentary system.

Take the case of Israel 2021(a?). Twice during the campaign, statements about candidacy for prime minister have entered the media and inter-party conversation. In early March, Yamina leader Naftali Bennett made a statement that he was indeed a candidate for prime minister. At the time, my reaction was basically, no kidding. While his party would likely be too small for its leader to be PM, it does sometimes happen that some party within a coalition other than the largest provides the PM, and Bennett is his party’s leader and top-ranked candidate. Therefore, he is a candidate. Yet he felt there was political advantage in asserting so. In other words, what I called the “default” evidently is not.

Then more recently, Benjamin Netanyahu (the incumbent PM, leader of Likud, and most definitely a candidate for the top post in this election) said he would not debate opposition leader Yair Lapid unless the latter declares he is a candidate for prime minister. I do not think anyone doubts that Lapid is a candidate for the post, but somehow he has to utter the words in order for the incumbent to debate him. The back-story here is that Lapid has been trying to avoid a head-to-head fight and simply position himself as part of a broad replace-Bibi block, and not appear too ambitious to get the job himself. He has implied that he would accept not being PM even if his party, Yesh Atid, were to be the biggest party in the anti-Likud bloc. All polls for many weeks have said the party will be the largest such party, but Lapid is not ruling out allowing someone else–presumably either New Hope leader Gideon Saar or even Bennett–to take the post if that is what is needed to replace Netanyahu. Regardless of declarations, isn’t Lapid clearly a PM candidate? Yes!

So I am genuinely puzzled by contention over which party leaders formally declare themselves to be candidate for prime minister and which ones do not. I wonder if questions of this sort come up often in other parliamentary campaigns.

(Note: I hope to get a pre-election preview post up as I have done for Israeli elections back to 2006 or so. The election is this coming Tuesday, so time is getting short. Anyway, for now, I guess this is the pre-election post. But watch for another possible one.)

____

* Bolivia once had a president who had finished third in the sole round of popular voting. This was possible because the rule at the time was the congress selected from the top three if none had a majority. Later the rule was changed to two-round popular majority.

The Canadian parliamentary vote on using the term, genocide

On 22 February, the House of Commons of Canada voted to label persecution of the Uighur people by the Chinese authorities a genocide. I am not interested for purposes of this blog post in whether that is the right label or not (that’s way beyond my competence or the focus of this blog). I am interested in the unusual nature of the vote.

It was unanimous among those voting, 266-0. However, the government did not take part in the vote. The governing Liberal Party currently has 154 of the House’s 338 seats. Thus as a minority government (see 2019 election result), the possibility of a measure passing over its abstention (or outright objection) is always a possibility even if the party itself votes with the government. In this case, obviously, some Liberals voted for the measure, but most were absent. Only two MPs were present but formally registered an abstention, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who declared he was abstaining “on behalf of the Government of Canada.”

I am not sure how frequently votes pass in this manner, especially on sensitive diplomatic matters, either in Canada or in other parliamentary systems. I am also not sure what the practical (as opposed to symbolic) meaning of such a vote is when the government is not on board with it.

Term limits for a prime minister?

Lots of presidents have term limits–either one term or two, typically (and with variations in whether an interim out of office permits a later return). But terms limits on prime ministers are rare. The only cases that come to mind are Botswana and South Africa. Just to confuse things, those countries call their chief executive “president”; however, they (together with their cabinets) are responsible to the majority in the assembly, and thus these are prime ministers in the sense of heads of government whose political survival depends on parliamentary confidence.

Given the small number of cases, there may not be much of a literature in political science or law about term-limiting prime ministers. I am wondering if readers are aware of anything that one should read to understand the implications and possible motivations for term limits on assembly-responsible executives.

The question of term-limiting the prime minister comes up now and then in Israel, including in the current campaign, where New Hope Party leader Gideon Saar has said the first bill he would advance if he becomes Prime Minister would set a term limit of eight years. The idea has come up also in the past. Once upon a time, apparently even none other than Benjamin Netanyahu thought it was a good idea; this was, of course, before serving 2009–21 (and perhaps beyond) in the position. The issue comes up at times elsewhere as well (such as Grenada and St. Kitts and such a measure was passed, controversially, in Iraq). (Edit: in a comment, JD notes that Belize and Thailand have term limits in their prime ministers.)

I would generally suspect that the logic of term limits (prevent one person from monopolizing power) fits poorly with the logic of parliamentarism (the head of government serves at the pleasure of the assembly majority). But apparently any such poor fit does not prevent the idea surfacing here and there. It would be especially challenging to formulate a workable term-limit provision in a country that often has early elections–sometimes very early and frequent ones–like Israel.

Fifty Shades of Republic | Part 1: State legislative terms of office

The US House of Representatives stands out internationally as the having the shortest term of any national legislative chamber, being the only chamber with all seats up for re-election every two years. With that electoral cycle, it also holds elections more often than almost any elected chamber (a few other chambers hold elections every two years, but with staggered elections for a longer overall term).

[Note: For context, you might want to read the brief introductory post to this series.]

The vast majority of states follow the federal level in electing their lower house for a two-year term. Many states, especially in the original 13 and in the Northeast, used to have annual election, but those all switched to two-year terms at various points during the 19th century. Of the six states lower houses with four-year terms, two (North Dakota and Nebraska’s unicameral) elect half the seats every two years.

By contrast, the federal Senate’s 6-year term is emulated by no state upper house[1]. Most states Senates have a four-year term, which is usually staggered, with half the seats up every two years. Seven states alternate to accommodate the redistricting cycle, with every decade seeing two four-year terms and one two-year term[2]. However, almost a quarter of states (twelve) have biannual terms for both houses.

What does this mean for any reforms? Well, maybe the main thing is simply that there is a lot of work to do! Biannual terms are almost universal, and I suspect they help lower turnout and accountability to voters (though I’m sure interest groups love them) in addition to lowering the government’s effectiveness and time horizons. Another observation is that the staggered elections that exist in about two-thirds of the states could make PR harder to implement in those houses than in other places, at least without disrupting the existing electoral cycle. When staggering puts half the districts up for election, those districts are not necessarily geographically connected, which is a practical necessity if single-seat districts are to be merged to form multi-seat districts which can support PR; if staggered elections mean half the seats in each district are up each time, this means the districts are already larger and harder to make the argument for making even larger. But maybe it’s not a bad idea to combine the move to PR with an abolition of staggering (as well as of bicameralism, as I will no doubt explore in a future post) – my hunch is that most voters probably find it confusing; politicians are probably more likely to feel attached to it, but then again politicians probably have much bigger issues with PR than this one…

What do you think? Do you have any thoughts about legislative term lengths in the states and what it might mean for reform? Or do you have any suggestions for future posts in this series? Please let me know in the comments!


[1] Although I was able to find a partial exception in Maryland’s Senate, which had five-year terms from 1776 until 1838, and then had 6-year terms with 1/3 elected every two until the term was shortened to 4 years in 1851.

[2] The fact that the other states don’t do this can often effectively mean district boundary changes leave a few voters without direct representation in the upper house for up to two years at a time!

Introducing: 50 Shades of Republic – a review of political institutions in US states

The topic of US state constitutions comes up on this blog from time to time. Naturally, they form an obvious comparison to the federal government. They share many similarities with the federal constitution, but also differ from it, and from each other in various ways. On the other hand, state institutions are also easily dismissed, as their design, in practice, varies relatively little from each other and is often mired in antiquated constitutional models. Moreover, given the extremely nationalised of American politics today, it’s not surprising reformers’ focus is more often than not on the federal level. Perhaps partly for these reasons, state institutions often appear not so well known, both by us comparativists and reform proponents, as well as on the part of journalists[1], whom we occasionally ridicule for their apparent ignorance and parochialism when they report about politics outside the US.

Here are two reasons why it is actually important to be more familiar state-level political institutions, specifically for reform-minded Americans. Firstly, institutional reform at any level (but especially at the highest level) in the US is only likely to gain traction once it is shown to work in the United States. So electoral and other reform at the state level should not be a secondary priority – instead, it will probably be crucial to get PR and other reforms on the agenda at the federal level. Secondly, and related to the first reason, some states have institutions that will make reform easier to pass – and these states should be the ones reform advocates should probably focus on. Moreover, some states already implement some political institutions worth emulating, yet these get scant attention either as proposals for reform in other states or in discussions for federal constitutional reform.

These are some of the reasons motivating my new series of posts on this blog: Fifty Shades of Republic – a review of political institutions in the states of the USA. Every few weeks, I will present a different dimension of state political institutions with a map which shows the distribution of different institutional variations across the states. Feel free to copy and distribute these maps – the more the better.

All seriousness aside, I think this will be a fun exercise, and I hope it will prompt some interesting discussions! Let me know in the comments what you think, and especially if there are any specific institutions you would like me to post on.

My first post in the series should be up momentarily…


[1] I’m thinking, for example, of an article I saw recently about a Kentucky bill which had been vetoed by the Governor and whose fate now rested with legislators. Its author wrote at length about various political factors affecting the legislature’s consideration of whether to pass the bill, and the various constituencies and factions involved, but nowhere was there any mention of the fact that in Kentucky, overriding the Governor’s veto takes merely an absolute majority of each house, compared with usual supermajority requirement.

Czechia: Constitutional Court rules lower house electoral system not proportional enough

The Czech Constitutional Court has ruled that the country’s current electoral system does not adequately fulfil the constitution’s requirement of being in accordance with “the principles of proportional representation” (article 18 of the Czech constitution). The 200 members of the Chamber of Deputies are currently elected under Flexible List-PR in 14 districts ranging in magnitude from 5 to 26, with a nationwide threshold of 5% for parties and 10% for alliance lists. The Constitutional Court struck down the districting scheme on the grounds that it disadvantages small parties, as well as the 10% threshold for lists of more than one party.

As an election is scheduled for October, Parliament will have to agree fairly quickly on a new districting scheme to replace the one the Court has struck down. Unusually, since the Senate usually only has a suspensive veto the Chamber of Deputies can override immediately by absolute majority, article 40 of the constitution requires the electoral law to be approved by consent of both houses.

What is somewhat ironic is that the case was brought to the Supreme Court by a group of 21 members of the Senate, a house which is not required to be elected by PR and is instead elected by runoff in single-seat districts (with elections to the Senate being fairly low salience and *very* low turnout, it has seen some success by minor parties despite the system’s lack of proportionality).

Coup or No Coup? Conceptualizing the Capitol Attacks

Note: This is a guest post. Thank you to Matthew for the opportunity to once again contribute to Fruits and Votes, even for an unconventional post like this that does not deal with fruits and only tangentially mentions votes!

The events of January 6 at the US capitol were so shocking and unfamiliar to most Americans that experts’ reactions and understanding varied widely. Although many in the media settled on calling it an “insurrection” or a “riot”, academics’ interpretations seem to have run the gamut. Understanding the storming of the capitol as a “forceful effort to seize power against the legal framework”, Paul Musgrave referred to it as a “coup d’état”. Likewise, Amy Austin Holmes called it a “coup from below”, using terminology that characterizes at what level in the state security forces or society an overthrow attempt originates.

Other scholars pushed back against this interpretation. Erica de Bruin, Jonathan Powell, and Naunihal Singh all argued that the violent and anti-democratic attack does not fit the technical definition of a coup, since rioters did not appear to be part of any organized military or rebel organization. Clarifying his position in The Monkey Cage, Singh argued that “it is the involvement of state security forces that critically separates a coup attempt from an assassination, an invasion, an insurrection or a civil war”.

I agree with these scholars that it wasn’t a coup d’état attempt—at least in traditional sense of the term—but not necessarily for the same reason. After an extensive survey of the academic literature in a 2011 article in The Journal of Peace Research, Powell and Thyne  summarize the roughly consensual definition of a coup as “an illegal and overt attempt by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting executive”. Much discussion subsequent to the capitol attacks has focused on a) whether the attempt was “illegal and overt” and b) focused on the absence of a military role. Nonetheless, it is clear that the objective was not to unseat the incumbent but to keep him in office despite having lost an election. Trump himself brazenly attempted to do this on January 2, when he pressured Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” 11,780 votes to allow him to surpass Joe Biden’s total in that state.

Instead, my immediate reaction to the events of January 6 was that they resembled something that has happened in Latin America and a handful of other places that goes beyond mere “insurrection”: an autogolpe, or “self-coup”, in which a chief executive attempts to render powerless the national legislature and unlawfully assumes extraordinary powers. In a conventional coup, some actor targets the chief executive; in a self-coup, the chief executive targets the legislature.

Other comparativists who study Latin America seem to have made the same observation: Max Cameron, Jennifer McCoy, and Javier Corrales, among others, all found that Donald Trump’s encouragement to protestors to take action against certifying the electoral college vote reflect an autogolpe attempt, or at least the early stages of one. Cameron would know; his 1998 Journal of Democracy article on self-coups in Peru, Russia, and Guatemala may be the seminal article on the topic.

It should be noted that Cameron adds a caveat to his classification of the capitol attack, adding, “all that was missing was the intervention of the armed forces”. However, if Powell and Thyne define the perpetrators of a conventional coup d’état as “the military or other elites”, than it follows that Republican politicians unwilling to vote to certify electoral college votes and encouraging protestors to enter the capitol building qualify as “other elites”.

Nonetheless, it is unfortunate that the terms autogolpe or self-coup suggest they are subtypes of coups, when it seems more likely that they refer to a discrete class of event.

In an e-mail exchange with Matthew, I said that I think Marsteintredet and Malamud (2019) do the best job of anyone at describing the conceptual differences between these terms in their article “Coup with Adjectives: Conceptual Stretching or Innovation in Comparative Research?”. They argue that while there are many ways to walk down the ladder of abstraction with coups (“coup d’état”, “military coup”, “democratic coup”, “non-democratic coup”, “neoliberal coup”, etc.), they see the term “autogolpe” as walking up that same ladder. They write:

Reminiscent of Naudé’s definition from the seventeenth century, the modern self-coup or autogolpe is a more troublesome concept. Although illegal and supported by force or the threat of force, and also perpetrated by state actors, the autogolpe—which has also been called a constitutional or a presidential coup (Helmke, 2017; Roberts, 1995; Varol, 2017: 30)—changes the target from the head of government to other state institutions such as congress or the judiciary.

After more discussion, they conclude that to avoid conceptual confusion, a more appropriate term may be “incumbent takeover”, a term used by Milan Svolik to refer to leaders who use their democratic mandate “to underminekey tenets of democracy, most often by abolishing or manipulating elections”. In fact, Svolik specifically refers to Alberto Fujimori’s autogolpe in Peru in 1992 as a quintessential example of an incumbent takeover. At the same time, Marsteintredet and Malamud recognize the auto-golpe or self-coup has gained academic ground and is referred to regularly in the press. 

Ultimately, I think “insurrection” is a far more apt description than “attempted coup”. But as evidence continues to emerge about the high degree of coordination before the capitol attacks as well as the targets of those attacks, I think “self-coup attempt” and certainly “incumbent takeover” better capture the process.

What do others think?

Chamber size and party ‘strength’

What do folks think the correct answer to this question is: How does the size of an assembly affect the strength of political parties?

By strength, I mean the relative freedom of the individual member to cultivate constituency ties and to dissent from party leadership on votes on legislation. I also mean, holding other factors constant.

Suppose a country’s assembly is significantly smaller than its expected size, per the cube-root law. If nothing else changes, how would raising the size be expected to affect the strength of parties?

Obviously, I am thinking about potentially expanding the US House, so a starting point of non-hierarchical parties, and only two of them (and presidentialism, etc.). But I am interested in the question more broadly, and whether features of US party and legislative politics, aside from the small House size, change the impact of increased size on party strength in a manner that might be different from how it would play out in other contexts.

I ask because I genuinely do not know. I could see it going either way. A larger house, for a given population, means each member represents fewer voters, obviously. This could make personal-vote and constituency-service strategies more viable, thereby in some sense making parties “weaker”. On the other hand, a larger assembly (here, independent of population) makes internal collective action more challenging. This could result in members delegating (or simply losing) more authority to internal party leadership, making parties “stronger.” Note that these possible directions of change are closely connected to the two factors that go into the cube root law itself–this is a logical model that is based on balancing (and minimizing overall) two types of “communication channels”: those between legislators and constituents, and those among legislators themselves.

It is possible both directions of change can happen at the same time, implying parties get weaker in some ways and stronger in others. That is, more constituency-oriented behavior, but also more party leadership control over votes and especially over speaking time. I am not sure what that means for overall strength. Maybe that isn’t even the right way to frame the question; skepticism over my own question framing is why I use the inverted commas in the title of this post.

Finally, theoretically and all else equal, a larger assembly means more parties should be represented (per the Seat Product Model). I have my doubts that this would be realized in the US, however, given all the other barriers to third-party representation. Unless the House were truly huge, I do not expect much impact there as long as it is elected in single-seat districts, and with primaries (or with “top two”/”top four” rules). However, parties’ internal strength could be affected. But which way?

Emergency electoral reform: OLPR for the US House

Because the constitutional emergency is likely too deep to just turn the page, small-d democrats face an emergency of another kind. The need to adopt proportional representation has never been greater. The country simply can’t afford the risk that the Republican Party does nothing fundamental to reform itself, and wins back the House in 2022. A change to some form of moderate proportional representation (PR) is essential.

Given the current balance of power in the House, the Republicans would need to flip only about seven seats in 2022. (There are currently three vacancies.) With rare exceptions, presidents’ parties lose votes and seats in midterm elections. With the balance so tight, there is almost nothing to stop Republicans from winning back control of the House, other than perhaps if they descend into internal party chaos. They just might do that. They might even split. But I don’t like seeing the fate of the republic depend on Republicans finding yet another way to squander an easy electoral win that’s there for their taking.

I am not arguing for a change to PR only for the sake of the Democratic Party. In fact, my argument is that this is a way for Republicans to save their own party. The country needs functioning pro-democratic parties on both the center-left and the center-right. At the moment, it has such a party only on the center-left, and even that is a temporary ceasefire amidst a deepening internal division.

Cleavages in American politics today and the need for PR

I would identify three key cleavages in American politics at the moment. (Note: issue positions and cleavages are very much not my academic speciality at all. I admit I am simplifying, but the divisions I identify should be reasonably accurate as a broad summary.) There is the Republican–Democratic cleavage. This one is almost evenly divided, which explains a lot of the current partisan polarization. Hold together just enough–avoid the proverbial circular firing squad–and you can win. Then there is the democratic–authoritarian cleavage. On this one, the pro-democratic segment extends all the way from the leftmost large-d Democrats to somewhere near the middle of the Republican Party. The pro-Trump, white-supremacist, election-denying wing of the Republican Party has shown itself to be completely willing to set aside democracy, and even to promote/tolerate political violence, in order to advance its political agenda. This wing is a cancer that must be removed from the right-wing bloc that currently consists solely of the Republican Party. Then there is, for lack of a better term, the capitalist–socialist cleavage. This one obviously divides the Democratic Party. On one side are Democrats who generally take a more gradualist view of the need for economic policy change, plus nearly all of the right, in being free-market oriented. On the other, left or “progressive” side are Democrats who emphasize various proposals to remake the economic model (including less commitment to free trade), whether or not “socialist” is the correct term or even the term they favor. Think Bernie Sanders and his supporters, as well as some of the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party. Basically, the point is that there are (at least) two “rights” and two “lefts” but currently only one party on the right and one on the left. And the emergency is that one of the “rights” has abandoned democracy and shown a willingness to accept political violence.

The need for PR is to let the free-market small-d democrats in the currently existing parties act independently of their more extreme wings. This is precisely what PR systems permit–each side’s extreme can be its own party rather than a wing of one majority-seeking party, without raising concerns over “spoilers” that arise under plurality elections.1

As I already conceded, I am oversimplifying a complex political scene for the sake of argument. I also am not going to go into the details of how actual coalitions would work under this stylized latent four-party system that PR would allow to break forth. Both the need for electoral coalitions in single-winner offices (Senator, President, governors), and forging legislative coalitions among these parties in the House, would complicate the flexibility of alliances that one obtains when PR is used to elect a single dominant institution (as in many parliamentary systems). The point is simply that PR offers the best means of generating center-spanning coalitions to control House majority outcomes, in contrast to the current system’s generation of majorities that include a fringe–a nakedly authoritarian fringe in the case of the party most likely to win a majority in 2022 under current rules.

So, we need PR to save democracy. But what kind of PR? I would take any kind over the system we have now! But I think there is one that recommends itself because it is the easiest to implement, for voters to understand, and for election authorities to administer.

A model of open-list PR for the US

I favor open-list PR not because it is the “best” system or my personal favorite. Strong cases can be made for single transferable vote (STV, which is a form of ranked-choice voting in multi-seat districts) or for mixed-member proportional (MMP). However, open-list proportional representation (OLPR) best meets the criteria of simplicity in implementation, voting, and administration. My argument for OLPR is inspired partly by my own sense of what is workable, but more largely by a post by Jack Santucci.

It literally could be made our electoral system tomorrow, as follows (I am setting aside the fact that there is a reapportionment and redistricting taking place in 2021-22 in my “tomorrow” scenario). Take 3–5 existing contiguous single-seat districts and merge them into the multi seat districts needed for PR. Thus the proposal is for districts with district magnitude (M) of three to five. (Later I will address states that have fewer than three Representatives.)

Each voter would have one vote for a candidate, just as now, but the ballot would list all the candidates of each party that are running in the larger multiseat district (up to M candidates per list). The initial allocation of seats would be based on summing votes of party candidates nominated to each list, using one of the standard PR allocation rules (I’d favor D’Hondt, but various others could be fine). Then, once each list’s seat total is determined through the application of the PR formula to its collective vote total, its top s vote-earners get the list’s seats (where s is simply the number of seats the list has won). This is standard OLPR, or more formally, it is quasi-list PR, because there is no opportunity to cast a vote for the list as a whole.2

An important question is how to handle nominations to the lists. Personally, I’d prefer to get rid of primaries, as when there is a wider range of choice of both party lists and candidates on those lists, primaries arguably are not needed. However, no proposal that abolishes primaries is likely to fly, politically. I would not let that bog the emergency reform down. I propose embracing ideas that are already out there and being pushed by the independent-politics reformers, such as “top two” and “top four”.

How would this work? One could continue to hold a “primary” in each of the existing single-seat districts; I will now call these nominating districts to distinguish them from the larger general-election districts. The goal here is to avoid making it as unwieldy as it could be if primaries were held in the larger districts to be used in the general election. The first round (call it a primary even though it would stretch the definition thereof) would advance the top c candidates from each nominating district, where c could be four but could be some other number agreed upon.3 Presumably, as is the case in California’s “top two” currently, the candidates themselves would indicate what party they affiliated with on the primary ballot, but use of the label would not be restricted by any central actor in the state (or other level) party.4

Then, between this primary and some date in advance of the general election, let the top cM candidates for the larger general-election district negotiate who goes on whose list and how those lists are branded. The party labels could be ones that are registered in advance of the election (i.e., before the primary) as is currently the case in many states, or it could be left completely open for actors to negotiate between rounds. This is an important detail, but not one I think should be essential to advancing the wider proposal. It could even be a matter of individual states to sort out.

The idea here is that the top-c first round in nominating districts, followed by negotiations over lists for the general, encourages those who have advanced to a slot on the general election ballot to cooperate in order to maximize their seat-winning potential in the OLPR process. At the same time, however, it allows these candidates and their allies to reject anyone who has qualified for a slot on the ballot from being on their list if he or she is too extreme for the brand they want to cultivate.

If general-election lists are restricted to M candidates, then in any case where two or more of the same party have qualified from a given nominating district, one will have to be left off the list, unless there is another nominating district where no candidate of that party qualified. The objective here is not to force any set of candidates to run together. Local actors, including the candidates, decide. They have to balance the supporters that a given candidate can bring with the risk that some candidate drives away other voters in a context in which any given list is likely to win 1 or 2 seats in a three-seat general-election district (or 1–3 in a 5-seat district), rather than 100% of the representation of the single-seat districts, as under the current system. I am not wedded to the various components of this idea, and am completely open to other ideas. The wider point is that there are reformers who dislike parties and there are reformers who want stronger parties. I am looking for a way to thread a narrow needle and build a reform coalition–under emergency conditions.

When coordination fails and candidates who have qualified for a given party exceed M in some district, but they can’t agree on which M get to use the name, what do we do? While I would not normally advocate multiple lists within a party, I’d be willing to allow it to make the idea of lists and PR work. Also, any candidates who, having qualified in the primary, do not find partners to go in together on a list should be free to run as independents.

I should conclude this section by noting that my OLPR proposal is totally severable from my nominating-districts and “top c” proposals. If the latter get in the way of OLPR, I am happy to drop either or both. My ambition is to help make the transition to OLPR politically smoother, by retaining smaller geographic entities as politically meaningful aspects of the implementation of PR (through the nominating districts), and retaining the “bottom up” qualification of general-election candidates that is a hallmark of the current system. The overriding objective is to let different wings of current parties compete separately, outside of a majoritarian context in which splits become spoilers, and general-election candidates are sometimes extremists themselves or are in debt to extremists in their party. Avoiding these pitfalls of the current system is the very essence of PR.

Other issues

I am assuming this proposal stays within the current 435-member House. There are arguments to be made in favor of increasing the size of the House, but I have my doubts that a larger House is by itself inherently valuable. It certainly is not worth the risk of its becoming a poison pill that prevents PR. If advocates of electoral reform make a larger House seem like a condition of electoral reform, the cause of reform is probably doomed.

With a 435-seat House, and even with any House of reasonably achievable larger size, there will remain states with only one or two members. These states will obviously not be able to have districts that elect 3–5 members apiece. So what? Many PR systems have a few districts with one or two members, even when their national average magnitude is larger. This is not a reason to reject a proposal for reform. States that have one Representative could be encouraged to adopt ranked-choice voting, but should not be required to do so.

I should address why I do not advocate STV as the overall system for the House, given the current fashion in some circles for ranked-choice voting solutions. This is not the place to go into reasons why STV may not be desirable in its own right. It has some strong positive features, but also some negative ones. The biggest negatives are the need for voter education, substantially changed ballot formats, and already overstretched election administrators having to adapt their routines to make the more complex counts work. OLPR allows all of this to be as close to the status quo as possible, while still getting PR.5

What about MMP? I have been known to argue it is a good system. However, absent substantial increase in House size, it has some real drawbacks. The single-seat districts have to become considerably larger geographically for MMP to work with the existing state delegation sizes. (The list tier for MMP in the US surely would be state-by-state, or regions within larger states, not nationwide or otherwise multi-state.) The OLPR proposal that I am advancing here also means larger general-election districts, but has the advantage of having more than one member elected from each of these larger districts, while also retaining the more compact districts for nominations. An additional drawback of MMP in the American national context is in how you implement the list tier. It is either closed lists, which might be politically unpalatable, or it is open lists alongside the two-tier structure, adding a considerable further complication.6

So, no, I have not abandoned my general preference for MMP, nor am I claiming STV is a “bad” system. I simply am arguing that OLPR is a good solution to an immediate emergency for democracy.

Conclusion

We must find a way to prevent a new House majority from being elected in 2022 that is under the effective control of an anti-democratic wing. The voters who prefer a center-right party are not going to vote for the existing Democratic Party as long as they fear (rightly or wrongly) that that party is coming under the control of its own extreme “socialist” wing. Voters need choices that are more moderate, as well as parties that can represent voters with grievances that lead them to reject mainstream politics. What we need to avoid is a mainstream party winning a majority of seats while under the control of its grievance-based authoritarian extreme.

I am under no illusions that this will be easy. I certainly accept that any PR proposal is less likely to pass than likely. It requires more institutionally oriented Republicans to see a clear and present danger from continuing to work within a party that has a strong and undeniable anti-democratic tendency, as well as to believe that tendency is too large to be contained within. It also is not going to be immediately embraced by the Democratic establishment that just won all three elected components of the federal government, and so requires them to realize just how fragile and transient their control is.

Difficult though it is to get this proposal accepted, we are in a situation where an emergency exists for democracy. So let’s get to work!

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[Over the years I have done many posts on the idea of adopting proportional representation (of some form) in the US. Please click here and scroll to see them all.]

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Notes

  1. Advocates of ranked-choice voting in single-seat districts (also known as the “alternative vote: or “instant runoff”/IRV) will say that their preferred system also avoids the spoiler problem. This is not fully correct. The issue is that this view takes a district-level perspective. The point of PR is to avoid “spoilers” in larger ideological blocs. Getting the same result from IRV requires something approaching uniform distribution of those blocs across districts, or at least for each group within a bloc to have its own local strongholds, so that the parties/factions within a bloc can meaningfully trade preferences. Otherwise, it mostly leads to the same issues as plurality voting, whereby to win, the larger party/faction within the bloc must appeal to voters of the other. The case for IRV in the current emergency would rest on an assumption that, within the right, the authoritarians are the smaller component. If they are not, they will either win from preferences of those on the moderate right, or will potentially win pluralities of the vote when many voters don’t give second preferences. (We can’t be certain that voters for the mainstream center-right will preference a party on the mainstream left. Maybe they will, maybe not.) This brings me to the final issue: IRV advocates tend to overlook that the best case for the system assumes compulsory preferences, which are unlikely to be adopted (and may even be held unconstitutional) in the US. If many voters give only first choices, then IRV is more or less the same as plurality.
  2. Such an option could be added, but I am trying to keep it as familiar as possible while still getting PR.
  3. It might be wise to set c to the same value as the general-election M; it certainly should not be much smaller than M.
  4. I don’t think anything that generates such control over labels is politically palatable in current American politics, even though most political scientists would say it is desirable.
  5. If the reform included a clause allowing individual states to opt for STV instead of OLPR, I would not object.
  6. There is also the need to prevent parties from gaming MMP with “dummy” lists. This has been discussed previously on this blog. It can’t be dismissed as a serious problem, and so I’d rather just sidestep it in designing a proportional system for the US in the present moment.

Constitutional perspectives on the electoral count process

I suspect many readers of this site will find the essay by Benjamin A. Kleinerman to be of interest: “The January 6th “Vote”: Constitutional Authority, Political Leadership, and Civic Education“.

Key quote: “All this handwringing about whether to certify the Electoral College’s vote is entirely play-acting.” It was written before the insurrection.

The three brief responses linked at the bottom of Kleinerman’s essay are also worthy of your attention.