On District-Ordered Lists: in reaction to Éric Grenier’s proposal

A month or two back, Éric Grenier from ThreeHundredEight.com, who is often cited on this blog when the discussion turns towards current electoral prospects in Canada, proposed an electoral reform to introduce PR in that country. The proposal suggests a retention of current electoral districts as a list-ordering mechanism: while seats would be allocated proportionally to parties within each province, voters would still cast a vote for one candidate in their district, and each party’s seats would be awarded to the party’s candidates achieving the highest shares of the vote in their districts.

To my knowledge, two countries use a very similar system: Slovenia and Romania. The Slovenian system is practically identical, with the difference that seats are allocated to candidates on the basis of the number of votes they receive in their district, rather than the percentage. The Romanian system is different in that it guarantees a seat to any candidate with more than 50% of a district’s vote, and guarantees that each district has (at least) one representative (with potentially more in the case of an overhang). Another substantially similar case is the German state of Baden-Württemburg, where half the seats are filled by the plurality winners of each district and the other half by the party’s ‘best loser’ candidates by district vote share. In the absence of another moniker (as far as I’m aware) I shall collectively call all these systems (including Grenier’s proposal) ‘District-Ordered List systems’. Of these, only systems where each district winner is guaranteed a seat (as in Baden-Württemburg’s ‘best loser’ scheme) may be considered to be a type of MMP.

Though I recognise that District-Ordered List systems may have some merit, they suffer from some serious disadvantages, especially with comparison to 2-vote MMP.

As the Jenkins Commission put it some years ago, “turning losers into winners” may be seen as problematic. This is even more the case in those systems which do not guarantee district plurality winners a seat, as the representative elected from a district may only have taken a small share of the vote while the first-, second-, third-, and even fourth- placed candidates return empty-handed. In Slovenia (and under the Grenier proposal), some districts, particularly deeply-divided ones, can be left with none of its candidates elected and no local representation at all, while other districts may see more than one candidate elected. Romania doesn’t have that problem as its system ensures that every district has its own MP, but those MPs are more likely to be second- or third-placed within their own district. Baden-Württemburg’s best-loser MMP eliminates most of these problems by ensuring each district’s first-placed candidate gets a seat.

Another limitation of District-Ordered List systems is that they (as proposed or currently used) feature a single vote, meaning voting for district representative is completely tied up with the party vote (unlike the most commonly used variant of MMP, which features two votes: a district vote and a list vote). While ordering lists by district is an attempt to bring individual accountability to the list component[1], having a single vote means that voters cannot assess district candidates independently from the parties. For example, if a voter identifies with a party but dislikes that party’s candidate in his district, he may be faced with a dilemma. That dilemma does not exist under 2-vote MMP, where a district vote for party A’s candidate should not, in principle, affect party B (or any party’s) final seat count, which is determined separately according to the number of list votes attained by each party. This should make individual, district-level accountability stronger under regular 2-vote MMP.

Another issue has been raised previously by Matthew Shugart, this blog’s chief planter:

“By rewarding a candidate for driving up his or her vote even in a district where the candidate has little realistic chance of winning, best-loser allocation exacerbates some of the worst features of FPTP. Whereas under [2-vote] MMP rules, the two big parties have a strong incentive to seek to position themselves near the center of the nationwide electorate to maximize their party vote, under the best-loser rule, they would be back to the old days of targeting districts and seeking to appeal to voters located in relatively closely contested districts. They would want to do so because, even if they are not likely to win such electorates, those are the electorates where their highest quality candidates have the best shot at entering parliament despite losing the district race.”

I don’t know to what degree this has been the case in the aforementioned countries using district-ordered lists[2], but the charge certainly makes sense, although I think it is a little overstated: under First-Past-the-Post, parties target marginal seats as a seat-maximizing strategy. Under any system with district-ordered lists, each party’s seat total is generally determined proportionally and independently of the number of districts won[3]. This means the general effect should be lesser than under FPTP, though it may still be just as strong when it comes to nomination strategies. Either way, Matthew’s argument underlines the point I try to make above: though 1-vote district-ordered list systems are supposed to introduce a certain individual accountability to the list, the fact that voters have but one vote means that to a large extent, voting patterns are party- rather than candidate-based. Safe and marginal seats can therefore be expected to exist by virtue of partisan rather than candidate support. To summarize, this not only means personal, district-level accountability will not be any stronger than under first-past-the-post, but may also impact parties’ nomination strategies at least as much as FPTP.

To some degree, one could address these issues with the best-loser MMP model by slightly modifying it to have two votes: one for district representative and the other determining each party’s overall share of seats, but with list seats going to the ‘best losers’ in the district tier. Voters could split their vote, thus generating district results that more closely reflect voters’ appreciation for the candidates rather than for the parties they are affiliated with (all the while having their list vote count fully for the calculation of the seat total of their preferred party). There would be less of a risk in nominating ‘quality’ candidates in less-than-safe districts, as the relative safety of a district would less be a function of partisan preferences and more of appreciation for the nominated candidates. Of course, this may work only to the degree that people understand and use their two votes in this way. If they would still overwhelmingly vote for their preferred party’s candidate, either because they do not understand that it does not impact their party’s total or for instance because they only value candidates based on their partisan affiliation, the improvement felt would be negligible.

Either way, this also raises a broader question: is pitting individual candidates against other individual candidates of other parties an effective way of holding candidates individually accountable, as under FPTP, MMP or any district-ordered list PR? Personally, I suspect systems where candidates face competition from other candidates of the same party, such as open-list systems or STV, may have more to offer on this score[4].

[1] For example, the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly described best-loser MMP as having “greater accountability [than regular 2-vote MMP] as voters would have a more direct vote for those who are chosen to represent them.”

[2] The evidence Matthew cites comes from Japan, which allows parties to order their lists based on success in districts, but does not make it mandatory.

[3] The exception is overhang, which under some systems may increase a party’s seat total beyond its proportional share, and which may or may not be a realistic prospect, depending on the electoral situation.

[4] Whichever is the case, I can think of only one system that offers a direct compromise between the two principles: open-list MMP.