The Austrian Question: Or how I corrected some data I’ve been using on two-tier systems

In the previous planting, I presented a revised version of the extended Seat Product Model. I noted that in the process of attempting to improve on the logical model, I discovered some inconsistencies in the treatment of remainder pooling systems in the dataset used in Votes from Seats. Here I describe the problem and how I corrected it. The changes here may still require further refinement, but at least they make the treatment of the cases internally consistent.

This first began to bother me even before Votes from Seats had been published. Figure 17.2 in the book shows how well (or not) the extended seat product model accounts for the effective number of seat-winning parties (NS) over time in several two-tier PR systems (plus Japan, included despite not fitting the category for reasons explained in the book). It plots every election in the dataset for this set of countries, with the observed value of NS shown with the solid grey line in each country plot. The expectation from the extended Seat Product Model (Equation 15.2) is marked by the dashed line. This equation is:

NS = 2.5t(MSB)1/6,

where NS is the effective number of seat-winning parties (here, meaning the expected NS), M is the mean district magnitude of the basic tier, SB is the total number of seats in the basic tier, and t is the “tier ratio” defined as the share of the total number of assembly seats allocated in the compensatory tier.

For countries that changed from simple to complex, the plots also show the expectation in the era of the simple system with the solid dark line. The troublesome case here is Austria, but why? That is my “Austrian Question.” It led me down quite a rabbit hole, but I think I have it figured out, more or less.

Figure 17.2 in Votes from Seats. Expected and actual effective number of seat-winning parties (NS) over time in long-term democracies with two-tier electoral systems. (Click for larger version.)

It always seemed unlikely that the design of the Austrian electoral system was such that expected NS could have reached well over 6 in the latter part of the time series! But that is what our data showed, supposedly. When you get an absurd result, generally you should impeach the data, not the model.1

The problem turned out to be that for several remainder-pooling systems, including Austria, some seats were effectively counted twice in the derivation of the extended seat product. We drew most of our data from Bormann and Golder’s Democratic Electoral Systems Around the World. However, the manner in which we did so handled remainder-pooling systems poorly. With one important exception that I will note below, the error was not in the original data, but in our application of it.

In a remainder-pooling system there is no fixed upper tier. Most two-tier compensatory systems have a fixed number of seats which are allocated nationally (or regionally) to “correct” for distortions in votes-to-seats allocation produced by the lower district magnitude of the basic tier. An example would be the system of Denmark, with 139 basic-tier seats and 40 compensatory seats. Others have a fixed minimum, such as the MMP systems of Germany and New Zealand (where the upper tier can expand if needed due to “overhang” seats, but it has a fixed starting size). In a remainder-pooling system, on the other hand, the “upper tier” can be as large or as small as needed to generate compensation. In theory, all seats could be allocated in the basic tier, and it would end up no different from a simple system. Typically these systems work by stipulating that parties earn seats based on full quotas (usually Hare quota, sometimes Hagenbach-Bischoff) in the districts. Any seats not filled are then “pooled” in a supra-district tier where they are allocated based on pooled votes, rather than being filled within districts. The upper tier is thus whatever number of remainder seats there are from all of the districts, which can vary from election to election depending on how votes are distributed among the parties and across the basic-tier districts.

A particular challenge in the analysis of these systems is that all seats may be attached to districts, and national reporting agencies vary in whether they indicate that a given seat is actually based on supra-district allocation. Thus a district might have, say, five seats, and in the determination of quotas, two parties may have obtained a total of three seats through quotas in the district. The other two seats go to the remainder pool. Maybe, once all the national seat allocation is complete, one of those two remainder seats goes to the largest party (bringing it up to three) and one goes to a third party that was short of a quota in the initial allocation. The complication is that while all five seats are assigned to candidates who were on party lists in the district, only three were assigned based solely on votes cast in the district. The other two were assigned according to the compensation mechanism, drawing upon the pooled votes from across multiple districts. Where is the upper tier? It is sort of a phantom, and if we count the two seats in our hypothetical example as part of the upper tier, and we also count them as part of the district (basic tier), we have double counted them!

Here is where the Austrian case comes in. If we look at the 1990 election, we see an assembly size of 183, with 9 basic-tier districts, averaging 20.3 seats apiece. Bormann and Golder report that 25 seats were allocated as “upperseats”. In our Equation 15.2, the input parameters were MSB=20.3*(183–25)=3207 (rounding off) and t=(25/183)=0.137. That is, the basic-tier seat product is mean district magnitude multiplied by the size of the basic tier (which is total assembly size minus upper seats). But hold on! Those 25 upper-tier seats are taken out of the 20.3 seats per (average) district. Yet our original calculation takes them only out of the “S” part, but not out of the “M” part. They should not be counted in both tiers! Those 25 seats came from the 9 districts, so 25/9=2.8 remainder seats per district, on average. This gives us an adjusted basic-tier M=20.3–2.8=17.5. Now we have MSB=17.5*(183–25)=17.5*158=2765, and t=0.137. This changes the “expected” NS (based on Equation 15.2) from 4.35 to 4.25. Not a huge difference, but one that more accurately reflects how the system actually works.

Where things really went haywire was with the electoral reform that took place before the 1994 election. The Bormann and Golder dataset correctly notes that the number of basic-tier districts was increased to 43. With S=183 unchanged, this is a mean district magnitude of M=183/43=4.26, a figure which matches the description in Electoral System Change in Europe, maintained by Jean-Benoit Pilet and Alan Renwick. However, for some reason, the Bormann and Golder gives first-tier mean district magnitude for the post-1992 system as 17.2. The indicated values of “upper seats” range from 78 to 111 in the elections of 1994–2008. When we apply the same procedures of the preceding paragraph to elections in these years, we get a reduction in MSB from the 2669 we used in the book to a more accurate 196.7. That is quite a change! It comes from the reduction in district magnitude to 4.26, which in turn greatly pushes up the number of seats allocated in upper tiers.2 When we stop double counting the remainder seats, we actually have an adjusted basic-tier magnitude of less than 2, and an upper tier ratio, t=0.5. This changes that rather absurd “expected NS” depicted in Figure 17.2 as 6.3 for recent elections to a more reasonable 3.83. And, in fact actually observed NS in recent years has tended to be in the 3.4–4.2 range.

Here is the corrected version of the figure. (I left Japan off this one.) In addition to using the corrected data, as just explained, it also uses the revision of the extended Seat Product Model:

NS = (1–t)–2/3(MSB)1/6.

Version of Figure 17.2 in Votes from Seats using corrected data. (Click for larger version.)

Austria is no longer shown as system that should be “expected” to have an effective number of parties around six! It still has an observed NS in most years that is smaller than expected, but that’s another story. We are not the first to observe that Austria used to have an unusually consolidated party system for its electoral system.3 In fact, in recent years it seems that the revamped design of the system and the increasingly fragmented party system have finally come into closer agreement–provided we use the revised SPM (as explained in the previous planting) and the corrected electoral-system data, and not the inconsistent data we were using before.

And, here for the first time, is a graph of largest party seat share in these systems, compared to expectations. This seemed worth including because, as noted in the previous planting, the s1 model for two-tier works a little better than the one for NS. Moreover, it was on s1 that the revised logic was based.

Expected and actual largest party seat share (s1) over time in long-term democracies with two-tier electoral systems. (Click for larger version.)

Note that the data plots show a light horizontal line at s1=0.5, given the importance of that level of party seat share for so much of parliamentary politics.

Notes

1. Assuming the model is on solid grounds, which was very much not the case of the original version of application to two-tier PR. I hope it is now, with the revision!

2. Plural because the 9 provincial districts still exist but are now an intermediate compensation tier, and there is a single national final compensation tier. This additional complication should not affect our estimation of the system’s impact on party-system outputs. (It principally affects which candidates from which of a given party’s lists earn the various compensation seats.)

3. This is not unique to Austria. Several European party systems used to have effective number of parties smaller than expected for their electoral system. In recent decades, many have become more fragmented, although the fragmenting trend is not significant, when compared to the SPM baseline). The trend implies that, in many cases, their electoral systems are shaping their party systems more as expected now than in the early post-war decades. In the past, the full electoral system effect may have been tamped down by the stronger role of the major party organizations in society. This is a very big question that it far beyond the scope of my current tasks.

Further note

In order to attempt a further validation of the procedure, I calculated the number of quota seats expected in each district based on my district-level dataset, derived originally from CLEA. I can then sum this up across districts in a given election, and subtract the result from the total assembly size to arrive at an indicator of what the upper-tier size should have been in that election. When I do this, I usually come close to the value for “upperseats”in Bormann & Golder, although not always precisely. I do not know what explains the deviations, but in all but one election they are so small that I would not fret. For the two elections used as examples from Austria above, I get 24 remainder-pooled seats in 1990 (vs. B&G 25) and 111 in 2008 (identical to B&G). Ideally, we would be able to estimate what upper-tier seats should be, on average, for a given design of a remainder-pooling system. Then we could estimate the parameters needed for the extended SPM even if data sources do not separate out the seats allocated on district votes from those allocated via supra-district pooling. This would introduce some unknown error, given that the actual number of remainder-pooled seats can vary depending on election results, for constant institutions. For instance, for the current Austrian system, it has ranged from 81 to 111 between 1995 and 2008. Perhaps there is some mathematical relationship that connects this average (92) to fixed parameters of the electoral system, and that works across remainder-pooling electoral systems. If there is, it has not revealed itself to me yet.