Votes, seats, and exit polls: UK 2019 edition

Two political scientists, Pippa Norris and Patrick Dunleavy, have accused the BBC and others of “systemic media bias” on the recent UK election night for not emphasizing the voting outcome and instead focusing on the seats. Their claims appear at the LSE blog. Of course, I am very much inclined to agree that votes and seats both matter–I’ve (co-) written two books that have both words, votes and seats, in their titles, after all! Thus I largely agree with Norris and Dunleavy’s bigger point that media coverage in majoritarian electoral systems tends to exaggerate the notion that a party that wins the seat outcome has a “mandate”. As I said in my own election post-mortem, the “mandate” claim is a stretch, at best, and very much depends on how the electoral system manufactures majorities–not only for Conservatives overall but also for the SNP among Westminster constituencies within Scotland.

Nonetheless, the claims in the LSE blog piece are somewhat hard to swallow. The main argument is that at 10:00 p.m., when polls closed, only the seats were mentioned. The votes did not come till 5:00 a.m., they claim. Anthony B. Masters has already shown that is not actually true, in a really excellent rebuttal. I won’t repeat Masters many points regarding misleading evidence that the LSE blog authors present to make their case.

The deeper issue here is that the exit poll is bound to be more accurate for seats–the initial projection almost nailed the result for the UK as a whole–than for votes. The voting estimates are subject to more error, because of uncertainty about turnout. Moreover, seats are the currency of power. Votes are relevant as a “currency of legitimacy” (as Jonathan Hopkin put it on Twitter), which is important for the subsequent narratives and intraparty soul-searching for the losers. That is, however, very much the kind of stuff that can only happen once the full results are known (not that it stops the media talking heads from engaging in speculation all night long). Basically, it is just very odd to slam as “biased” the media for reporting what was proven to be an actually accurate projection of the one thing the poll was designed to do and that matters most on election night–who won the most seats, was it a majority, and if so, how big?

Besides, as Masters notes in his rebuttal, it is not even true that votes were not being reported all night long. They simply are subject to more revisions as the picture gets clearer because, as noted above, the vote estimate is subject to more error.

Finally, I’d note that it could be much worse. In US elections, the topic of votes hardly comes up in the media, particularly for congressional elections. Even if you stayed up till 5:00 a.m. on election night (not that I ever have), you would not hear what percentage of the House votes each party had.

Reminder from UK 2019 result: Electoral systems matter

Keep this in mind about the UK result. The Conservatives won less than 44% of the vote. Polling has consistently shown that if there were another referendum on Brexit, a majority would vote for Remain. But the Conservatives won 56% of the seats, so Johnson is banging on about his great “mandate” to “get Brexit done”.

You see, electoral systems matter.

Even if you add in the Brexit Party votes (which got no seats), the combined votes cast for parties still advocating outright for leaving the EU do not reach a majority. In fact, it barely breaks 45%.

Meanwhile, the SNP has won 81% of the Scottish seats, with 45% of the votes cast in Scotland. And their leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is going on and on about the mandate for Scotland to decide on independence. It’s a fishy claim.

Which party gained the most in votes, relative to the last general election? That would be the Liberal Democrats. But the party suffered a net loss of one seat (and its leader was defeated).

The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system makes a country seem more divided than it is, and often leads to policy outcomes a majority of voters actually oppose.

FPTP certainly is not very representative. But it can produce a decisive government, and Boris Johnson now looks like he could take his place among the significant Prime Ministers in the country’s recent history.

At least this result means my old lectures about British majoritarianism do not to be heavily caveated as they’ve been for the past several years.

Election days and early voting

Sometimes an orchard is all laid out in neat rows, and then “volunteers” pop up in unexpected places. (For those not familiar with the gardening use of that term, a volunteer is a plant that grows where the gardener did not intend. It is a nicer term than “weed” and does not connote anything undesirable.) This happens in the virtual orchard from time to time.

Case in point: There is a fun and interesting discussion of election days and early voting sprouting and even thriving productively over in the row originally planned for Australian Senate reform. Many readers might find it interesting, so I am calling it out with this link to where it starts. By this point, if you have something to contribute, you might as well add it there, and so I will not have comments open on this guide to unexpected virtual-orchard plantings.

Ecuador list-type change

Ecuador will travel a somewhat rare path in electoral reform: Abandoning a highly candidate-centered system in favor of a highly party-centered one.

In recent elections, Ecuador has used a free list system, in which voters could cast up to M votes (where M is the number of seats in the district) for candidates on one or more different party lists. Any vote for a candidate also counted as a vote for the list for purposes of inter-list allocation. Broadly speaking, a form of the “panachage” systems used in Luxembourg and Switzerland, as well as in recent years El Salvador.

A newly passed reform will switch Ecuador’s list type to closed-list PR.

It is unusual for countries to make a move like this. Japan moved from SNTV to MMM in its first-chamber elections, so that is another example of abolishing intra-party choice. But MMM is still quite candidate-centered, given single-seat districts. (In addition, the optional procedure in the Japanese variant for ranking lists based on district-level performance also preserves a candidate-centered feature, even though candidates on the list do not compete directly with one another for votes.) Colombia moved from de-facto SNTV to a list system, with parties having the option to present either an open or closed list. But I doubt anyone has moved from free list to closed list before. Even a move from open to closed lists must be very rare.

At the same time, Ecuador’s inter-list allocation will move from D’Hondt to “Webster” (Ste.-Laguë).

Even if you do not read Spanish, the linked news item is worth a visit, as it shows a simulation of how the party seat totals would have been different at the last election had Webster already been in place.

I have one concern with the change, if the video also at the linked item accurately portrays what the new ballot will look like. Voters might still tend to mark candidate images in different lists, as the ballot depicted is almost identical. That would make it impossible to tell which one list the voter would favor. But maybe this is not what the ballot really will look like. One must hope not.

Thanks to John Polga for the tip.

The Brexit Party

Just a quick add-on to my previous remarks on the UK 2019 election. Via @kiwiting on Twitter comes this example of a Brexit Party local leaflet.

Look closely and you might actually see the local candidate’s name! As I stress in the preceding post, I expect parties under FPTP (at least in parliamentary systems) to require a national presence in the party system in order normally to do well at the constituency level. That is a key insight of the Seat Product Model, and how it stands apart from “bottom-up” approaches that stress local district-level “coordination” as what drives a party system. But this is pretty extreme: the Brexit Party is not only a single-issue party, it is also a one-man band!

Even though this party at one point was polling above 20% (and won a plurality of the UK vote in the European Parliament elections), it was always hard for me to take the Brexit Party seriously. On the one hand, it certainly is a nationally focused party. On the other hand, the leader Nigel Farage made a decision not to contest any constituency, or to target even one seat somewhere that some candidate of the party might win. The process behind the SPM implies that voters respond to the “viability” of a smaller party, and tend to vote for it without too much regard for the viability of its candidate in their own district. But for that to work, it has to be viable–and preferably winning–somewhere. Not only did the Brexit Party not even try this, it pulled its candidates out of seats the Conservatives hold, while retaining candidates only in districts held by other parties. It is a bizarre strategy if the party was serious, and it is no wonder the party is on life support. Of course, they are going to get their one policy issue enacted (even if not as “hard” as they would like), precisely by not posing too big a risk to the incumbent government’s pursuit of a (manufactured) majority.

UK election 2019

The UK general election is almost here. At this point, it seems quite unlikely that the result will be anything other than a good old fashioned FPTP manufactured majority. Boris Johnson and his Conservatives will win a majority of seats, barring a surprise, despite under 45% of the votes, and will be able to pass their Brexit deal.

If one looks at the polling aggregate graph by the Economist, one might be tempted to conclude it was also a good old fashioned “Duvergerian” pattern at work. As recently as early October, before the election was legislated, the Conservatives were leading on about 33% of the votes, and three other parties ranged from 12% to 25%. Go back further, to June, and all for were in the 18–25% range (with Labour then on top, and the Brexit Party ahead of the Conservatives). Since the latter part of October, and especially since the campaign formally got underway, Conservatives and Labour have both taken off, at the expense of the LibDem and Brexit parties. Notably, the gap between the top two has been quite steady, at 8-10 percentage points. Unlike 2017, there is no evidence at all that Labour is closing the gap. Labour simply are hoovering up the non-Tory (and Remain or second-referendum) votes at the same time as Leave voters have realized there’s no point in voting for a single-issue Brexit Party when the Tories have a pretty “hard” Brexit deal already to go, if only they win a majority of seats.

So, on the one hand, a far more “normal” election for a FPTP-parliamentary system than seemed possible during the long parliamentary deadlock of the past year or more. Just like Duverger’s “law” predicts, right? Desertion of the third and fourth parties for the top two.

Only sort of. Let’s take the current polling estimates for the parties (and not forgetting to include the current 5% “other”, which I will treat as one party, given most of it is one party–the Scottish National Party). It results in an effective number of vote-earning parties of 3.05. That’s a little high for a supposedly classic two-party system! It is, however, lower than seen at any election from 1997 through 2015. In 2017, however, it was 2.89, which was the lowest since 1979. The top two would be combining for 78% of the votes, which is a little higher than most elections from 1974 (February, in a two-election year) through 2001. Even in 2017, hailed by many at the time as the return to two-party politics–albeit dubiously–had a combined top-two of just 82.4%. (It looks like a high figure only compared to 2005-2015, when it ranged from 65.1% to 67.6%.)

Of course, it is the seats that really matter. Seat projections based on election polls under FPTP are never easy. There are various ones out there, but I will go with YouGov‘s.* It has the Conservatives with a projected 359 seats, which is 55.2%, with Labour on 211 (32.5%). Taking all the parties (and here breaking the “Northern Ireland” bloc down a bit, as we know it will consist of more than one such party), we get an effective number of seat-winning parties around 2.4. That is even lower than 2015, driven mainly by the presence of an expected single-party majority.

[*Note: just after I posted this, YouGov posted an update of their projections. I am not going to revise the numbers here. The differences are small, though potentially politically significant. See my first comment below this post.]

The problem with the standard Duvergerian claims about FPTP is that they ignore assembly size: In a larger assembly, we should expect more parties, other things (like district magnitude and formula) equal. While we could argue over how much the expected results of the 2019 election correspond to the so-called law, I’d rather not. What is of interest to me is that the UK case continues its long-term defiance of the Seat Product Model (SPM), and that’s something that I can’t take lying down.

While the conventional wisdom would see 2017 and 2019 as some sort of return to normalcy, it’s actually a challenging case for me. From the SPM (which explains over 60% of the variation in party-system outcomes worldwide, including FPTP systems), we should expect:

Effective number of seat-winning parties: 2.95.

Seat share of the largest party: 0.445.

Effective number of vote-earning parties: 3.33.

The seat outcomes actually never have come very close to the expectations. As for votes, the 1987 election got it right, but was a terrible performer in terms of seats (effective N=2.17!). Taking all the indicators together, the 2010 election is about the closest to what should be “normal” for a FPTP system with such a large assembly: effective N on votes 3.72, seats 2.57, and largest seat share of 0.47. So why was that not finally the start of the kind of party system the country “should” have? I guess we need to blame Nick Clegg. Or David Cameron. (I’d rather blame the latter; he was the one, after all, who thought a Brexit referendum was a good enough idea to go ahead with it.) More to the point, voters’ reaction to Clegg and the LibDems entering a coalition and–gasp–making policy compromises. After which, voters reverted to supporting the big two in greater shares than they are supposed to. In other words, contingency and path dependency overcome the SPM in this case. I hate to admit it, but it’s the best I’ve got!

Speaking of the LibDems, they should have had an opportunity here. Labour has the most unpopular opposition leader in decades. (Deservedly so, but I digress.) And the best hope for stopping Brexit would be tactical voting to increase their chances to win seats where Labour is not best positioned to defeat a Tory. Yet, despite lots of constituency-level tactical voting advice being offered in this campaign, there’s little evidence the message is getting though.

There is tactical voting happening, but as Rob Johns points out in a short video, it is happening based on the national outcome and not on district level. Under the Duvergerian conventional wisdom, voters are alleged to think of their constituency, and vote tactically (strategically) to effect the local outcome. Yet in real life, only a relatively small minority of voters behave that way. That voters use a strategy based on who is best placed to defeat a party they do not like on the national level, instead of at the constituency level, is a point made forcefully by Richard Johnston in his book, The Canadian Party System. It is also the underlying logic of the SPM itself.

So from the standpoint of the SPM, what is surprising is not that there isn’t more tactical voting at the constituency level. It is that there does not remain (so to speak) a strong enough third party, such as the Liberal Democrats, to appear viable nationally so that voters would be willing to vote for its district candidates. Quite apart from the legacy of the coalition that I referred to above, the case for the LibDems as a viable counterweight probably was not helped by a tactical decision it made in this campaign. Its leader, Jo Swinson, declared that a LibDem government would revoke the Article 50 notification and cancel Brexit. Put aside the ridiculous idea that there would have been a LibDem government. If one had resulted from this election, it would have been on far less than 50% of the votes. So you have a government resting on a minority promising to go back on the majority voice of the 2016 referendum without even bothering with a second referendum. That seemed at the time like a dumb position for the party to take. Only recently has Swinson offered the message of what the LibDems could accomplish in a no-majority parliament. But it’s too late. There almost certainly won’t be such a parliament.

The UK really needs a national third party (and fourth…). Contrary to the Duvergerian conventional wisdom, the electoral system actually could sustain it; we would expect the party system to look more like Canada’s (which conforms to the SPM very well, both over time and, in terms of seats, in 2019). Given the larger assembly, the British party system should be even less two-party dominated than Canada’s actually is. It is by now rather apparent that the LibDems are not the third party the system needs to realize its full potential. Will one emerge? Alas, not soon enough to stop a hard Brexit from being implemented by a manufactured majority (for a leader who is pretty unpopular himself) while Labour gobbles up most of the opposition, but falls well short.