Electoral systems Archive


SA Labor banning above-the-line preferences in upper house

The South Australian Labor government has released legislation to reform the voting system used for the South Australian upper house. Like the federal and NSW upper houses before it, the legislation aims to eliminate the flawed and opaque group voting ticket system, but it comes up with a strange model which would have some odd outcomes.

I won’t spend a lot of time analysing the proposal in detail, for that check out the work by Kevin Bonham and Henry Schlechta.

In this piece I want to explore the theoretical problems with the SA Labor government’s proposed bill, and some alternatives, as well as raising some frustrating hypocrisy left over from this year’s Senate reform debate.

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Victorian local government election review – the rest of the story

Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post about the Independent Local Government Electoral Review Panel in Victoria, chaired by former federal Liberal MP Petro Georgiou. In particular I focused on recommendations to modify the local government franchise, by extending the right to vote to all permanent residents (ie. non-citizens) living in the local government area, removing the second vote for businesses in the City of Melbourne, and generally simplifying and clarifying the process for non-residents to gain the right to vote in all council elections.

The review’s reports, however, covered much more than the franchise, so I thought I would return to the topic and summarise some of the most interesting recommendations, below the fold.

There are two reports – stage 1 and stage 2. I have listed the recommendation number for those recommendations I have discussed.

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The end of gerrymandering in California

I’ve blogged a few times over the last couple of years about the perverse processes used in most US states when drawing electoral boundaries for Congress and state legislatures.

In a series of referendums in 2008 and 2010, California’s voters approved the creation of an independent commission to redraw California’s boundaries after the decennial census.

New boundaries will be used for the first time next week for the House of Representatives. The previous boundaries were used from 2002 to 2010 (and you can download Google Earth maps of those boundaries from this page), and the new boundary will be used until 2020.

California’s previous boundaries were drawn to ensure that incumbents, both Democrat and Republican, were able to retain their seats, and these boundaries were very successful in preventing competitive races over the last decade.

These boundaries were severely gerrymandered – jagged boundaries interlocking with each other and covering different areas. This was a similar style to other big states such as Florida and Texas, where districts are transparently designed to produce a particular result.

The new boundaries in California are completely different – seats tend to be far more compact – covering a much smaller geographic area and reflecting local communities. Looking at the new boundaries, it’s immediately obvious what a massive affect these changes have made.

The following maps show the old and new boundaries for the Los Angeles area and the San Francisco Bay area.

Congressional districts in the Los Angeles area, 2002-2010.

Congressional districts in the Los Angeles area, 2012.

Congressional districts in the San Francisco Bay area, 2002-2010.

Congressional districts in the San Francisco Bay area, 2012.

The new boundaries have already had some interesting effects, with incumbents running against each other.

California has also recently instituted the ‘jungle primary’ system, where all candidates from all parties compete in a single primary, and the top two candidates, regardless of party, proceed to the general election. This has meant that there will be a number of races this week where two sitting Democratic members of Congress will be running against each other for the same seat.


Alice Springs Council: bad electoral systems at work

A friend recently referred me to an academic paper (PDF) produced by Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University. The paper discusses the electoral system used by the Alice Springs Town Council (and all local government in the Northern Territory) to elect council members.

Alice Springs has an elected mayor and a further eight aldermen elected to represent the entire council area. Darwin elects twelve aldermen through four three-member wards, as well as an elected mayor.

Rather than using a system of proportional representation, NT councils use a system of exhaustive preferential voting to fill seats in multi-member districts. This page shows the counting process and results of the 2008 council election.

Under this system, the first seat is filled using a regular preferential ballot (like how a House of Representatives seat, or a mayoral race, is decided). The second seat is decided by a similar preferential ballot after excluding the candidate who has already been elected. This process continues until all seats are filled.

This tends to result in lopsided results, with a majority voting block winning most of the seats up for election. While you would win one of eight seats with a vote of 11% under a proportional system, most or all seats would go to the majority under the exhaustive preferential system.

A similar system was used to elect Senators from 1919 to 1946. Almost all elections produced a result where all three of a state’s Senators up for election were from the same party. The United Australia Party and the Country Party collectively held 33 of 36 seats following the 1935 election, and the ALP commanded a similar lopsided majority following the 1946 election.

It is also used to elect two-member wards in New South Wales. It was used to elect Wollongong and Shellharbour councils prior to their sacking in 2004, and is used for the City of Botany Bay. Botany Council consists entirely of Labor members, who were all elected unopposed in 2008.

Alice Springs is a controversial council, with a recent history of targeting the homeless and conflict between the council and communities on the fringe of the town. The area has been the centre of conflict over the federal government’s intervention on indigenous issues. In 2009, the council decided to begin fining beggars and remove blankets from local homeless people.

The paper focuses on the indigenous population who live in town camps on the outskirts of Alice Springs. They make up approximately 10% of the population of the town of Alice Springs but are socially distinct from the urban Alice population.

While this population could consistently elect a single alderman to the Town Council under proportional representation, they have been locked out of the council under the current system.

With Alice Springs Council regularly taking a hostile attitude to local homeless people and the indigenous population, it is interesting to consider the way that the majoritarian electoral system encourages neglect of minorities and locks them out of representation.


UK Labour chooses a new leader

The UK Labour Party is currently entering the final stages of a months-long process to choose a leader to succeed Gordon Brown, following their election defeat earlier this year.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown resigned, both as Labour leader and as Prime Minister, on 11 May, six days after the general election produced a hung parliament, leading to a coalition of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

Under Labour Party rules, the Leader and Deputy Leader of the party are elected by a vote of three groups of people, with their votes weighted such that each group makes up one third of the votes counted:

  • Labour members of the House of Commons and European Parliament
  • Individual members of the Labour Party
  • Individual members of affiliated organisations (mainly trade unions)

Votes are counted using preferential voting. In 2010, voting will close today, September 22, with the result announced at the Labour conference on Saturday September 25.

It’s important to stress how different this is to how all political parties in Australia elect their leaders. Under this system, which was introduced in 1993 and used to elect Tony Blair in 1994 and Gordon Brown in 2007, grassroots members of both the party and affiliated organisations become much more significant, although the one third of the vote cast by Members of Parliament is nothing to sneeze at.

At the leadership election in 1994, Blair was easily elected, winning over 50% in every category, although that varied from 52% of party members to 60% of MPs. In 2007, Brown was elected unopposed.

The only close election conducted under this system was the party’s deputy leadership election in 2007. None of the six candidates gained more than 20% of the vote in the first round, with the three voting groups leaning towards different candidates. After a series of eliminations, Harriet Harman narrowly defeated Alan Johnson. Johnson won a majority amongst affiliated organisations and MPs, but lost due to Harman winning a larger majority amongst party members.

There are five candidates standing in 2010. Former Foreign Secretary David Milliband; former Climate Change Secretary Ed Milliband; former Education Secretary Ed Balls, former Health Secretary Andy Burnham; and London MP Diane Abbott.

Each candidate was required to receive 33 nominations from Members of Parliament. Left-winger John McDonnell originally made an attempt at achieving  this number, before withdrawing and endorsing Abbott. David Milliband, who was nominated by many more than 33 MPs, “loaned” some of his nominators to Abbott to get her over the line.

Four of the five candidates are strikingly similar, while the fifth stands out. Abbott is a member of the party’s left and held no ministerial office in the Blair/Brown Government. She is the only woman and the only candidate from an ethnic minority standing. She has been a Member of Parliament since 1987, while none of the other candidates was elected to Parliament before the turn of the decade.

The leading candidates are the brothers Milliband. David, the older brother, was elected to Parliament in 2001 and was previously a senior advisor to Tony Blair. Ed was elected to Parliament in 2005 after serving as an advisor to Gordon Brown.

Ed Balls was an advisor to Gordon Brown in opposition and the early years of government, going on to serve as chief economic advisor at the Treasury before being elected to Parliament in 2005. He went on to serve in the Brown Cabinet, alongside his wife Yvette Cooper, who has been a member of Parliament since 1997. Cooper was considered a possible candidate for the leadership, but withdraw in favour of her husband.

Andy Burnham has been an MP since 2001, and served as Health Secretary from 2009 to 2010, and a number of other roles before that.

Limited opinion polling has shown that, on primary votes, the Milliband brothers stand out ahead of the rest of the field, a September poll showed Ed Milliband slightly ahead, although David was winning a slim majority amongst MPs. Their campaigns have drawn a sharp distinction in terms of the direction of the Labour Party. David Milliband has emphasised the need to win back the voters lost to the Conservatives by maintaining the centre ground staked out by Tony Blair, while Ed Milliband and his supporters have talked more about winning back those alienated by Tony Blair’s “third way” agenda.


A tale of two systems

Last Saturday we saw state elections in Australia’s two smallest states. Both states have been governed by the Labor Party for a number of terms and saw a resurgent Liberal Party threaten the ALP’s hold on power. In both states, we saw a swing away from the ALP. That’s where the comparisons end, because South Australia’s election was conducted using a single-member preferential voting system, while Tasmania uses the single transferable vote proportional representation system (known locally as Hare-Clark).

Last weekend stands as a perfect comparison between the two broad options in western democracy about how we organise our elections: do you go for a system of single-member electorates, or do you aim for a system that closely reflects each party’s vote in the seats in the Parliament?

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Electoral Reform Green Paper released

The federal government today released its second Electoral Reform Green Paper, following on from a Green Paper dealing with election funding released in December 2008.

The document is a comprehensive examination of all issues around Australian elections, blowing out to 260 pages in total.  Each chapter includes a section on areas for potential change, and in these areas the paper canvasses a mind-boggling range of options in terms of changing our electoral system and electoral practices. The mainstream media coverage has largely focused on issues like fixed four-year terms and lowering the voting age to 16, but the paper also covers issues such as:

  • Introducing proportional representation in the House of Representatives, either through Hare-Clark or a list system.
  • Creating special electorates for expatriates or indigenous Australians
  • Requiring the registration of how-to-vote cards
  • Regulating internal party processes such as preselections to ensure internal democracy
  • Introducing optional preferential voting
  • Reforming enrolment systems and many elements of AEC processes
  • Abolishing compulsory voting (11.71)
  • Allowing permanent residents to vote
  • Disenfranchising the 157,000 British subjects who are currently enrolled without Australian citizenship

It’s well worth a read, if only for learning a lot more about how elections work in Australia. It’s fair to say that the paper brings up many options that are politically unpalatable and very unlikely, but it is a fascinating read.

Submissions can be made up to 27 November, while they will also have an online discussion forum from the 9th to the 13th November to allow interested persons to discuss the paper online.


Guest post at FairVote Blog

I’ve been taking a break post-EU but will be back to usual transmissions soon, with a final concluding post on the EU and a couple of other posts. However, you may satisfy yourself in the meantime by reading a guest post I wrote for the blog of FairVote, a US group campaigning for fair electoral processes, proportional representation and preference voting in US elections. The post deals with the impact of preference voting on the Greens in Australia.


Cameron pushes his own reforms

Following on from potential Labour leader Alan Johnson’s call for the implementation of proportional representation in the House of Commons, Conservative leader David Cameron has proposed his own raft of reforms:

  • Limit the power of the prime minister by giving serious consideration to introducing fixed-term parliaments, ending the right of Downing Street to control the timing of general elections.
  • End the “pliant” role of parliament by giving MPs free votes during the consideration of bills at committee stage. MPs would also be handed the crucial power of deciding the timetable of bills.
  • Boost the power of backbench MPs – and limit the powers of the executive – by allowing MPs to choose the chairs and members of Commons select committees.
  • Open up the legislative process to outsiders by sending out text alerts on the progress of parliamentary bills and by posting proceedings on YouTube.
  • Curb the power of the executive by limiting the use of the royal prerogative which allows the prime minister, in the name of the monarch, to make major ­decisions. Gordon Brown is making sweeping changes in this area in the constitutional renewal bill, but Cameron says he would go further.
  • Publish the expenses claims of all public servants earning more than £150,000.
  • Strengthen local government by giving councils the power of “competence”. This would allow councils to reverse Whitehall decisions to close popular services, such as a local post office or a railway station, by giving them the power to raise money to keep them open.

I think some of these ideas are genuinely very good. Fixed term parliaments is a good step towards improving democracy, particularly if it entrenched the recent reality that most governments choose to go to the polls after four years. Other changes to the role of local government and the power of the executive likewise are a good step.

Some of them, however, seem gimmicky or impossible to maintain. The idea that sending out text messages and posting Parliament on Youtube is a major reform seems just silly. While I like the idea of MPs having a free vote when amending legislation and allowing backbench MPs to elect chairmen of their committees, they seem completely at odds with the current electoral system, apart from really being the responsibility of party leaders rather than the Prime Minister. A Conservative PM can’t force a Labour Opposition to allow its members a free vote.

Any future Conservative government will hold a majority in Parliament and will need to maintain it to stay in power. While it may be easy in his early days to grant his MPs this freedom, as soon as Labour begins to threaten him, and the day-to-day battle of winners and losers returns, pressure will come to bear on MPs with theoretical independence to not rock the boat and be a team player. Such a system would not be very different from the current reality. Likewise, a Conservative government faced with the embarassment of a party opponent winning the chair of a major committee could easily put pressure on its MPs.

You can’t create an independent legislature in a political system where a government is part of the legislature and the electoral system gives the party of government a majority. If you want to give MPs independence from the executive, you have two options:

  • Separate the executive from the legislature, as the US does. This would remove the close connection between the votes of MPs and the existence of their government. It would also reduce the ability of the executive to control MPs through the giving away of government offices and reduce their incentive to devote energy to maintaining rigid party discipline.
  • Change the electoral system so that most elections do not result in a government majority. Even if a significant minority of MPs are members of the government party and even ministers, a hung parliament is independent of government. Even a loose coalition or a minority government with agreements with minor parties produce vastly more accountability than a majority government.

There is actually a compromise option. I would argue that we have effectively created a hybrid model in Australia, with a separation of powers between the executive and the legislature, if you consider the legislature to be the Senate. Effectively the House of Representatives’ only real role in government now is as an electoral college and a pool of potential ministers.

In contrast, the Senate functions as an independent body in two ways. Firstly, it is proportional, and thus is usually independent of the government. Even though a large minority are loyal to the government, the body as a whole is independent. Of course, like any independent legislature, a dominant government can occasionally take control of the legislature (as, you could argue, the Nationals have effectively now done in New Zealand). In addition to that, even though ministers sit in the Senate, the government is not responsible to the Senate, thus Senators are elected without consideration of whether they will make or break the government, although, like any legislature, in extreme cases they can undermine the government beyond simply blocking legislation (think 1975, or Bill Clinton’s budget crisis in 1995).

Of course, it doesn’t deal with the issue that governments still hold power with minority support, and it doesn’t deal with the major issue that you have a chamber with so much of the power and resources reduced to an echo chamber and electoral college. But it could be a first step in the UK, by replacing the House of Lords with an elected Senate, along the same lines as the Australian Senate, or possibly the way that the UK elects it’s Members of the European Parliament.


Jenkins reheated

With the resurgence of interest in proportional representation in the UK, and calls for an electoral reform referendum at the 2010 general election, I tracked down and read the report of the Jenkins Commission, which proposed a PR system for the UK House of Commons in 1998.

The 1997 Labour manifesto promised a referendum on proportional representation, and upon election the Blair government appointed an independent commission headed by Lord Jenkins, former President of the European Commission, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and founding figure in the Liberal Democrats.

It’s a fascinating proposal. It’s essentially a modification of the German MMP system, called Alternative Vote Plus. Essentially, 80-85% of MPs would still be elected by constituencies, although they would be elected using Australian-style preference voting. In addition, “top-up” seats would be elected in a large number of regions, with the Jenkins Commission proposing 80 regions for the entire UK, including 65 in England.

I’ve come around to the idea of an MMP system as a way of reducing the impact of PR on our culture of electorates, although I still would prefer a Hare-Clark/STV system. The main problem I see with the Jenkins model is that it really isn’t a proper proportional system. The combination of the low proportion of the MPs elected by top-up lists and the division of these lists into 80 regions means most regions only elect 1, 2 or 3 top-up MPs. This will mean that, in many places, one party will win more constituency seats than their total allocation, and any reallocation will largely be limited to the major parties. Any party smaller than the Liberal Democrats would be lucky to win any seats.

This is particularly bizarre when you consider that where MMP is already used in the UK, in Scotland, Wales and London, almost 50% of the representatives are elected from top-up lists. I tend to think that, if you increased the number of top-up MPs to about 30% of the Parliament, and reduced the number of regions used to elect these MPs to the same constituencies used to elect the European Parliament.

It is fascinating that the UK now has a flourishing electoral reform movement, led by the umbrella group Make My Vote Count, which includes the fantastic Electoral Reform Society. We have nothing like that in Australia. While we have a Proportional Representation Society, it is a tiny group that really is more of a society of interested people than a campaign group. In particular, they have adopted a model for the NSW Parliament which is bizarre and completely impossible to implement.

I had an interesting debate across Twitter with Possum on Friday regarding the possibility for PR in Australia. Some people tend to assume that, just because PR is not in the interests of the major parties, it cannot be implemented. This ignores the fact that major parties in New Zealand, the UK and various Canadian provinces have moved to various degrees towards implementing PR. The ALP has also shown a clear preference for PR in upper houses in Australia, which demonstrates some appreciation of the benefits of the system.

However, all of those countries saw PR became an issue on the agenda once a political campaign group began actively campaigning, lobbying, signing up members and getting media attention. We are a long way away from that here in Australia. Such a campaign group was always in place to be ready for a future political crisis. We can see this in the UK now, where decades of campaigning by the Electoral Reform Society has put them in a position to take advantage of the current political crisis.

This makes me think there is room to move on this issue in New South Wales, as a starting point for future campaigning. If an Electoral Reform campaign could be started over the next year to be pushed during the 2011 election, I believe it could gain traction with voters tired of the current government. Considering that Barry O’Farrell has already opened the door to constitutional change by questioning the current fixed-four-year-term arrangement, I believe there is an opening to pressure the Opposition on some sort of constitutional debate, such as a constitutional convention, royal commission or citizens’ assembly.