Archive for October, 2008

Reflections on MMP

Malcolm Mackerras has written in Thursday’s Crikey, critiquing New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional electoral system (subscription required):

Having studied the referendum results of September 1992 and November 1993, and having studied opinion poll data, it is clear to me that a solid majority of New Zealanders believes that the system of single-member electorates is a fair and reasonable way by which to elect 70 members of their parliament. That being so it would be fair to allow political parties to get the full benefit of their winnings of such seats.

However, MMP does not do that. The Maori Party, United Future and Act are allowed to get the full benefit but, under this contrivance, Labour and National are not. For every extra constituency seat Labour and National wins they are robbed of a party list seat.

He also says:

The ballot paper handed to each elector reads “You have 2 votes”. However, ordinary New Zealanders are smart enough to know what that means. If you are on the Maori roll you really do have two votes. Again if you are on the roll for Epsom, Ohariu or Wigram you really do have two votes. For everyone else, however, it is a two-ticks-one-vote system. Your one real vote is your party vote.

Mackerras’ argument is that the concept of the electoral threshold means that, in those electorates where a minor party is competitive, the race for an electorate becomes a significant contest, while any other electorate becomes pretty much meaningless. Mackerras is also a supporter of PR-STV or Hare-Clark, so he isn’t simply an opponent of PR systems.

There are two main problems with New Zealand’s electoral system. The first is the fact that certain seats still retain significance, but rather than the marginal seat problem in single-member electorates, where most electorates are safe, electorates take on greater importance in New Zealand where they make the difference between a party making it into Parliament or not. At the 2005 election, ACT leader and Epsom candidate Rodney Hide made the argument to the conservative electorate that, by voting for him, the electorate would still see his National opponent elected as a List MP while bringing in Hide and other ACT MPs. This tactical voting for conservative voters in this one electorate isn’t available in most other electorates.

The concept of allocating seats to a party on 2% while not allocating seats to a party which won 3% also retains the issue of favouring parties with geographically concentrated representation. MMP also encourages independent MPs (such as those who have left a major party) to establish a party which they dominate rather than remain as an independent. This has resulted in high personal votes for one MP resulting in a group of other MPs, totally unknown to the public, on no other basis but their loyalty to their party leader, as was seen with United Future New Zealand in 2002.

The other major issue with New Zealand’s system is the distinction between list MPs and electorate MPs, and the problem inherent in all party-list electoral systems. While MPs in the Irish and Tasmanian versions of PR-STV, and in most single-member electorate systems, may get elected on the back of their party endorsement, local members generally are required to have a minimum level of community support, competence and effectiveness to win. In contrast, the New Zealand system, as well as bodies such as the New South Wales Legislative Council, sees people with no respect for the electorate’s opinion of them.

The single-member electorates also mean that, for Maori electorates, representation remains restricted to the First-Past-the-Post era, with the Maori Party on track to win all seven seats, despite remaining below 50% support in the Maori community.

So what’s the alternative? An Irish-style PR system, perhaps including one STV electorate covering Maori voters, would see a much better distribution of local members of Parliament and would remove the anomaly of MPs elected with no popular basis. MPs like Peter Dunne would remain a highly popular independent in one electorate, rather than becoming the leader of a large party bloc despite being the only name known to any New Zealanders. However, it appears that there is little appetite in New Zealand for further improvements, with most pro-PR campaigners fighting to defend MMP from those, particularly in the National Party and the business community, pushing for a return to first-past-the-post.

US08 – Vote early, vote often

With six days to go before polls close in the US, levels of early voting are at their highest levels in a US election. As of Tuesday, the Washington Post summarised early voting figures as:

More than twelve million voters have already cast ballots in the presidential contest, according to one estimate, and new data from the Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll shows these voters breaking Democratic by a wide margin.

Among those who said they have already voted at an early voting location or sent in an absentee ballot, Barack Obama picked up 60 percent of the vote in the new poll to John McCain’s 39 percent.

These voters make up 9 percent of “likely” voters in the track.

The senator from Illinois has a similar lead, 58 to 39 percent, among those who plan to vote early but have not yet. (Those who plan to vote on Election Day also go for Obama, but by a narrower, 51 to 45 percent.)

Across key states, levels of early voting are on track to exceed 2004 figures, with as many as 25% of voters casting their ballots before election day. Some states have already exceeded 2004 figures, including states such as Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina. Daily Kos has laid out the figures in various key states.

So what does this mean? There are clear indications that Barack Obama is favoured, with polls suggesting he holds leads of up to 20% amongst those who have already cast their ballots. Fivethirtyeight.com has also suggested a clear correlation between massive levels of early voting turnout and large African American populations, which suggests that turnout amongst the African-American population is strongly surging. Considering Obama’s domination of this demographic, it bodes well for the Democrat, particularly in southern states such as Georgia and Mississippi, where there are also close Senate races.

Most recently, Republican Governor of Florida Charlie Crist has announced an extension in voting hours for early voting in the key southern state, while Georgia has refused to follow suit.

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Florida, The Year 2000

Courtesy of FiveThirtyEight.com, this fascinating report outlining what went on in the process of calling the state of Florida for Al Gore, then reversing it to George W Bush, before returning the state to be “too close to call”.

Where do the Greens go in the ACT?

With the final count resulting in the fourth Green, Caroline le Couteur, elected to the final seat in the ACT Legislative Assembly, the ACT’s local parliament now includes 7 Labor MLAs, 6 Liberal MLAs and 4 Greens MLAs. On top of that, the ACT Greens today announced that new Ginninderra MLA Meredith Hunter will take on the role of “Parliamentary Convenor” of the ACT Greens, which most media has taken as making her the de facto leader of the ACT Greens. The determination to not name Hunter as the party’s “leader” suggests a reluctance to embrace the concept, the party being dragged kicking and screaming into electing a leader. It also suggests that the party will embrace a minimalist model which does not give much power over the party outside Parliament and the other Greens MLAs, which isn’t surprising considering the Greens’ political history.

So where do the Greens go from here in determining the make-up of the next ACT Government? What options are on the table?

The biggest choice the Greens need to make are whether they will support a Labor government led by Jon Stanhope or a Liberal government led by Zed Seselja. The ALP has a larger presence in the Assembly, although both parties have sufficient MLAs to form a government with Greens support. Another factor supporting a decision to favour Labor is the position of most Greens voters. The pre-election Patterson poll indicated substantially higher levels of Greens voters preferring Mr Stanhope as Chief Minister. On the other hand, the Liberals have appeared to be an easier party to conduct negotiations with, with Labor beginning the negotiations by suggesting they would not move easily to work with the Liberals. The ALP’s history of minority government suggests a difficulty in cooperating with crossbenchers. Indeed, the Liberals have offered at least one ministry in a Liberal/Green government to the Greens, while Stanhope has suggested that he does not favour a model with both Labor and Greens ministers in a coalition government. On the other hand, the Liberal party room includes a number of very conservative MLAs, despite the Cabverra Liberals being considered one of the most progressive Liberal Parties in the country.

So what model could the Greens use as part of an alliance with Labor or Liberal? On all four previous occasions when the Greens have supported a government in Australia (twice in Tasmania and twice in the ACT, supporting Liberal and Labor equally), they have adopted the Confidence and Supply model. This involves the two parties negotiating an agreement that commits the crossbench party, in exchange for some policy commitments, to supporting the government’s budget and to vote with the government (or in some cases, abstain) in the case of any confidence motions which would bring down the government. The Greens would retain freedom to vote with or against the government on all other issues and would not take on any ministries. This model would give the Greens the freedom to oppose the government on an issue-by-issue basis, avoid needing to join a day-to-day governing partnership with a party with whom they have a poor relationship. It also allows the Greens to retain a separate identity and still campaign against the government at the next election. On the downside, it dramatically restricts the ability of the Greens to influence the policy direction of the ACT. While they would achieve some policy concessions and would have the balance of power in regards to legislation, they would not be able to demonstrate their ability to govern by holding a ministry.

On the other hand, the Greens could move towards a full coalition with Labor or the Liberals. This would involve the Greens taking on one or more ministries within a coalition cabinet consisting of ministers from two different parties. The two parties would agree to a common policy platform, made up of an amalgam of the two parties’ election platforms. It could involve the Greens taking on the Deputy Chief Minister position. On the plus side, Greens Ministers holding portfolios such as Transport or Education could have dramatically greater impacts on the ACT’s policy agenda than minor policy concessions given by a government in exchange for arms-length support. It would also give the Greens the first opportunity to demonstrate an ability to govern competently and move away from a constant crossbench/oppositional role.

On the downside, a full coalition would tie the Greens to every bad and/or unpopular decision made by the Labor or Liberal government. The Greens would also be permanently outvoted in cabinet and in any joint party room. History in New Zealand suggests that minor parties working in coalition with a major party suffer at the following election, while the major party partner tends to benefit from incumbency much more clearly.

There is a third alternative, namely that the Greens would take ministries outside of cabinet. This arrangement was used in the second Carnell government, for independent Health Minister Mike Moore, as well as in the last Labour government in New Zealand, which appointed New Zealand First leader Winston Peters as Foreign Minister and United Future leader Peter Dunne as Revenue Minister. In all these cases, these ministers were only bound to cabinet solidarity in their portfolios. This resulted in the spectacle of the NZ Foreign Minister criticising the New Zealand government’s decision to sign a free trade agreement with China. This would likely be much better for the Greens than a full coalition, although Labor would tend to see it as the worst of both worlds. It would give up ministries without gaining control over the Greens’ political agenda.

The final consideration is how many ministries the Greens would take if they were to take on ministerial portfolios. The current Labor government included 9 MLAs, 5 of whom were ministers. These proportions were reflected in the numbers of MLAs and Cabinet ministers in each of Labor’s factions. If this was reflected in any deal, a Labor-Green ministry would include 4 Labor ministers to represent the 7 Labor MLAs, and 2 Greens ministers to repreent the four Greens MLAs. A similar proportion would see the Greens have two ministries out of five in a Liberal-Green ministerial arrangement. Although I’m sure both Labor and Liberal would prefer a smaller Greens presence.

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This week in satire – October 27

Note: I’m going to be away from the internet for much of this week, so expect less regular posts. But I’ll be back on Saturday to get ready for Tuesday’s US election.

Jon Stewart examines the various “anti-American” accusations made by conservative politicians in the last week. Be sure to also watch the follow up quiz: are you a real American, or a fake American?

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The Daily Show’s take on Barack Obama’s introductory video at the Democratic National Convention:

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And finally, I’ve also included a Saturday Night Live clip: what if Al Gore had won the 2000 election? Since it opens automatically, I’ve placed it below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »

Swing state stories: Virginia

Since Eisenhower’s first election in 1952, Virginia has been a solidly Republican state, only going to the Democrats in the landslide election of 1964. As a former Confederate state, the state was solidly Democratic until the 1950s and 1960s, which saw a switch to the Republicans.

In local politics, Virginia was dominated by Republicans in the 1990s, with Republican governors George Allen and Jim Gilmore winning election in 1993 and 1997 respectively. Virginia has the stricted term limits law in the country, with governors limited to one four-year term in office. During the 1990s the Senate contingent was split between Democrat Chuck Robb and Republican John Warner.

Virginia gained an extra seat in the US House of Representatives in 1993, going from 10 to 11 seats. After Democrats lost one seat at the 1994 Republican landslide, but held six of eleven seats from 1994 to 2000. The 2000 election saw Virgil Goode change from Democrat to Independent, resulting in a 5-5-1 split, while the Republicans won control of the Virginian House of Delegates and former governor George Allen won the Senate seat for the Republicans. The following redistricting in 2001 strongly favoured the Republicans. They gained a seat at a 2001 special election in the 4th district. The 2002 election saw one more Republican defeat a Democrat, while Independent Virgil Goode was re-elected as a Republican. The Republicans have maintained this 8-3 lead in Virginia House of Representatives seats at the 2004 and 2006 elections.

The Democrats won back control of the governorship in 2001, when liberal businessman Mark Warner was elected to office. The 2005 election saw his lieutenant governor, Tim Kaine, elected as his successor.

The 2006 race for the Senate saw former Reagan Secretary of the Navy and Vietnam veteran Jim Webb challenge sitting Senator George Allen. Webb remained behind for most of the campaign, until the turning point of the Macaca scandal in August, when Allen was videoed using a racial epithet against a Webb supporter of Indian heritage who appeared at an Allen event. After Webb began climbing in the polls, he took the lead in late October and ended up defeating Alllen by a slim 9329 votes, a margin of 0.4%. The race was the closest in the country and decided which party would hold a majority in the Senate.

Geographically, Virginia is a divided state. A quarter of Virginia’s population lives in Northern Virginia, which is made up essentially of the southern suburbs of Washington DC, leaning heavily to the Democrats. In contrast, the southern, more rural districts, are heavily dominated by the Republicans.

The races in 2008

In late August 2007, long-serving Republican Senator John Warner announced that he would retire at the 2008 election. Two weeks later, former governor Mark Warner (no relation) announced he would run as a Democratic candidate for Senate. Facing no Democratic primary opposition, Warner took an early lead over his potential Republican opponents. The Republicans chose another former governor, Jim Gilmore, following Gilmore’s withdrawal from the Republican presidential primary. Yet Warner has dominated the race for the entire campaign. The Pollster.com average has strongly favoured Warner for the entire campaign, Warner currently leads by 59.4% to 32%. Out of all the Democrats’ potential Senate gains in 2008, Warner is the most likely. It seems impossible that the Democrats won’t pick up this seat.

In addition to the three seats won in the past three elections, the Democrats appear on track to win back the Northern Virginia 11th District, after losing it at the 1994 election. In addition, the Democrats have outside shots of winning the 2nd and 5th Districts. In particular, the 2nd District has seen a rapid rise in the Democrat vote in the last few months.

The presidential race in Virginia has also shifted strongly to the Democrats. John McCain held a lead from February until June, when his gradually declining lead was eliminated. McCain and Obama remained neck-and-neck for three months, before McCain’s vote collapsed in mid-September, with Obama taking a dominant lead in the state, with Obama now leading by an average of 8.1%. Virginia’s status as a solid Obama gain is making it extremely difficult for McCain to find the 270 electoral votes needed to win. If Obama carries through on his current lead and wins, Virginia will likely be an essential component of that victory.

Pollster.com rolling average of the Virginia presidential race

Meanwhile, in Scotland…

Gordon Brown has had a bad year with by-elections in the UK. Four by-elections were held in two months in the summer of 2008. Labour lost the seat of Crewe and Nantwich to the Conservatives in May. Following the election of Conservative Boris Johnson as Mayor of London, his seat of Henley went to a by-election in June. Labour suffered an embarrassing result, coming fifth, behind the Greens and British National Party, polling 3.1%. Labour did not contest the Haltemprice and Howden by-election, triggered by the resignation of Conservative Shadow Home Secretary David Davis in protest over the Brown government’s counter-terrorism laws. Two weeks later, in late July, Labour suffered its worst blow, when Glasgow East, Labour’s third safest seat in Scotland, was lost to the Scottish National Party with a 26% swing. After four months relief, the voters of Glenrothes in Scotland go to the polls on Tuesday, November 6, following the death of Labour MP John McDougall from mesothelioma.

Brown was riding high in the polls straight after he succeeded Tony Blair in mid-2007 following the defeat of Labour in the Scottish parliamentary election. In October speculation grew that Brown would call a snap election, but following a negative poll Brown backed down. The last year has seen Brown miles behind David Cameron’s Conservative Party, while Labour has fallen further behind the Scottish National Party in Scottish polls for both Scottish and Westminster elections. May-July 2008 saw Labour lose two seats in Westminster as well as suffering many losses in council elections across England and Wales and the defeat of Labour in the London Mayoral election.

While it appeared that the SNP would be a favourite to win Glenrothes. It is much more marginal than Glasgow East, and lies close to the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election, won by the Liberal Democrats off Labour in 2006. The local council is also run by a coalition of the SNP and Liberal Democrats, which has been rocked by statements made by council leader and SNP candidate Peter Grant regarding council policy. Gordon Brown’s performance in the polls has improved since the beginning of the financial crisis, with Brown’s internal critics in the party shelving plans to depose him as Prime Minister.

This will be the most significant by-election of Gordon Brown’s campaign so far. After a poor year, Brown has demonstrated that his economic abilities are still useful. Yet polls are yet to show Brown blunting Cameron’s advance. Alex Salmond is likewise dominant in Scottish politics. This is Brown’s best chance to strengthen his position, if he can manage to withhold the SNP tide. We’ll see what happens on November 6.

New Zealand update

New Zealand goes to the polls on November 8 to elect its national Parliament. New Zealand uses the Mixed Member Proportional system (which is best explained by Deborah at Larvatus Prodeo) which means that, in addition to 63 general electorates, and 7 Maori electorates, 50 list MPs are elected to “top up” parties who win less electorates than their share of the vote warrants. Parties must poll over 5% or win one electorate seat to be allocated list seats, and if a party wins more electorates than their share of the vote warrants, an “overhang” is created.

The 2005 election saw the opposition National Party recover from its 2002 collapse, winning 48 seats to the Labour Party’s 50. The Greens lost three seats, falling to 6, while New Zealand First lost 6 seats, falling to 7. NZF leader Winston Peters lost his electorate seat of Tauranga, but NZF managed to stay above the 5% threshold. The libertarian ACT Party (founded by former Labour Finance Minister Roger Douglas) plummeted in the polls, and looked like losing all nine of its seats without an electorate seat, but a focused campaign by ACT leader Rodney Hide in the Auckland seat of Epsom saw him win the seat and bring one fellow list MP into Parliament with him. The Maori Party, founded with the resignation of Labour minister Tariana Turia, won four of the seven Maori seats of the Labour Party. United Future New Zealand fell from 8 seats to 5, while one of the two remaining Progressive MPs was defeated.

Labour formed a government with Progressive MP Jim Anderton, New Zealand First and United Future, with Winston Peters becoming Foreign Minister and UF leader Peter Dunne also taking a ministry. They also gained agreement from the Greens to abstain on matters of confidence and supply, guaranteeing the government a majority.

This campaign has seen an interesting development in New Zealand’s party system. Out of the six minor parties, four of them are committed to supporting one particular major party following the election. Jim Anderton, as the sole Progressive MP, has effectively become a bonus Labour MP, with his party having little chance of winning a second seat in the list seats. Indeed, Progressive’s party vote has collapsed so far that they may qualify for zero seats, meaning that Jim Anderton himself would fill an overhang. New Zealand First has been buffetted by crises and scandals, and National leader John Key has ruled out cooperating with the party. The Greens have announced that they will work with Labour after the election, after producing a policy checklist and then evaluating Labour and National against the criteria. On the other hand, ACT clearly are seen to favour National.

National has dominated polling for most of the year, regularly breaking 50%, raising the spectre of a National majority government. Yet Labour’s advantage lies with its better relationship with minor parties. Out of the six minor parties in Parliament, only ACT and the Maori Party have not played a part in supporting the Labour government in the last three years. Polls suggest that the Maori Party is on track to win 6 or even 7 of the Maori seats, even though their party vote will only warrant electing 3 or 4 Maori Party MPs, meaning that an overhang will be created, increasing the number of seats needed for a majority. The Green Party has also been polling strongly, suggesting an increase in Green MPs after the election. ACT have hovered around their 2005 levels, although they hold out high hopes of winning a third seat for the returning Roger Douglas. United Future appears to be on track to only win one seat. New Zealand First appears on track for defeat, with the party struggling to poll above 3%. Without the seat of Tauranga, which appears on track to stay with the Nationals, the party will lose all of its 7 seats.

So what are the implications for post-election talks? The polling average website Curiablog currently predicts National winning 60 seats to Labour’s 45, with Greens winning 9, Maori Party 6, ACT 2, Progressive and United Future 1 each and NZF being eliminated. In this situation, National could form a government with the support of ACT and United Future. But if National’s vote falls any further, they will have to rely on the Maori Party in the balance of power. The Maori Party represents a strongly left-wing constituency, which has previously tended towards Labour. Polls suggest their supporters want the Maori Party to go with the Labour Party. The Maori Party also has a strong relationship with the Greens, who have committed to support Labour. Yet despite the indications that the Maori Party would be a natural fit with Labour, the party appears to be straining to find an excuse to work with National, with co-leader Tariana Turia appearing to favour a National government while her fellow co-leader Pita Sharples favours Labour. Yet it hasn’t been easy. National remains committed to the abolition of the Maori seats in 2013, while the Maori Party wants the seats entrenched, which would require a referendum of Maori voters to abolish them. Racial gaffes by National politicians such as Shadow Immigration Minister Lockwood Smith have also harmed the chances of National forming a government with Labour the Maori Party.

The trends lean towards the Maori Party holding the balance of power. While they may wish to support a stronger National/ACT government, they may well be forced to choose a Labour/Green government instead.

ACT results update

It seems that the ACT Electoral Commission is updating results every evening around this time (although I’m running on Wednesday night’s results. Each day they enter a certain number of booths worth of ballots into the computer, then they distribute the preferences for those booths, as well as all electronic votes (the vast majority of pre-polls, plus some election-day votes cast in the town centres of Gungahlin, Belconnen, Civic, Woden and Tuggeranong).

As of Monday night Caroline le Couteur was leading by 49 votes over her fellow Green Elena Kirschbaum at the key point in the count, when Elena was eliminated. Caroline then was 49 votes behind Liberal Jeremy Hanson for the last position.

As of Wednesday night, Elena is now 11 votes ahead of Caroline, and 101 votes behind Jeremy Hanson. Jeremy is also only 57 votes behind Liberal Giulia Jones, suggesting that she could be at just as much risk as Hanson.

So what does it tell us? First of all, it’s incredibly close either way. It appears that the split between Elena and Caroline could make the difference. It’s possible that Caroline performs better against Jeremy Hanson than Elena, meaning that if Elena leads over her the Greens chances could be slightly less.

Apart from electronic votes, all of which have been counted, votes have been counted in booths whose names begin in “A”, “B” or “C”, so obviously a lot is yet to be counted. But I’d point out that Campbell, where I scrutineered, was a very strong booth for Jeremy Hanson personally and a weak booth for the Greens generally. So it is better for the Greens if they are losing by 101 votes at this point.

Update: Antony Green in comments at Poll Bludger seems to have tonight’s result. Elena Kirschbaum has won the last spot on the latest count off Giulia Jones by 58 votes. This is gonna take forever.

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US08: It ain’t over ’til it’s over, but…

As an extra item for people to consider, Charlie Cook lays out how the metrics of the race show that Obama’s position is much stronger than what the polls say. The simple facts he lay out demonstrate Obama’s dominance and how John McCain will struggle to come close:

The metrics of this election argue strongly that this campaign is over, it’s only the memory of many an election that seemed over but wasn’t that is keeping us from closing the book mentally on this one. First, no candidate behind this far in the national polls, this late in the campaign has come back to win. Sure, we have seen come-from-behind victories, but they didn’t come back this far this late.

Well worth reading in full.