Monthly Archives: October 2015

Electoral Reform… some logic please!

It takes about 15 minutes after the outcome of an election held under FPTP for the rumblings for electoral reform to start.  A great deal of nonsense follows, much of it from my putative colleagues in the discipline who ought to know better. (I’m sure The Spaniel will contribute his share of this nonsense in due course.)  I am going to write extensively on the topic in a day or two. (Indeed, I’ll make this a topic for my POLI 310 students.)  But before I do that let’s correct several misconceptions:

  1.  Strategic voting occurs only under FPTP. Uh… no, that’s just not true.  All voting systems save majority vote under two alternatives admit strategic behaviour.  This is the central message of the Gibbard-Satterthwaite Theorem.  This is not merely a theoretical proposition: Gary Cox (1997) demonstrated that desertion from “2nd loser” to the “1st loser” (consistent with people ditching their most preferred but hopeless option to defeat their least preferred option) under a wide variety of electoral formulas.  The limiting factor appears to be district magnitude (i.e., seats per district): after M>5 this behaviour becomes harder to effect.  BUT there other forms of strategic voting nonetheless emerge under various forms of PR even when M>5.  For example, voters try to gauge if they should stick with their preferred party and risk it falling under the threshold or defecting to a viable coalition partner. Or voters may try to balance coalitional blocs (as Kedar suggested). Why one form of strategic voting (e.g., trying obtain a certain coalition) is normatively better than the sophisticated voting we observe under FPTP is beyond me. Strategic behaviour is simply part of human nature IMO – ever notice how even young kids try to play one parent off against another?  Heck, even chimps are strategic! We are strategic, folks… deal with it because there’s no getting rid of it.
  2. FPTP produces “false majorities.”  That’s another old chestnut that gets dragged out after the election of every majority government. A less pejorative term is “manufactured majority,” but that’s actually tangential to a more fundamental point:  there are no “true” majorities in the sense that a majority necessarily reflects a transitive social ordering (save in the case of majority rule over 2 alternatives).  That’s one implication of Arrow’s Theorem.  What do I mean by that?  Well, imagine three options, say, Liberal, Conservative, and NDP.  It may well be that if we constructed a pairwise competition we’d have L>C, C>N, and N > L.  So each option is majority-preferred at some stage.  Which of these majorities is false?  Well, in a sense none and all. To even label majorities “true” or “false” is utterly jejune.  Look, any time we have more than 2 options and are voting over more than 2 dimensions (e.g., economic and social policy), we cannot rule out that there exists a voting cycle, and that the majority that emerges is pretty much a function of the agenda / voting system.  And even if the majority were independent of the electoral system we used, we’d never know it.
  3. “If we’d held the election under PR, this is what the result would have been…”  These sorts of simulations drive me nuts: they are beyond naive. Look, voters’ preferences are endogeneous to the voting system in place; so too are politicians’ actions.   What do I mean by this?  If we adopted medium-to-large-M PR, for example, our larger existing parties would quickly splinter as ambitious politicians defected to start their own parties (see New Zealand for a case study).  Then, given the new options and availability of new voting strategies, people would vote differently.  So the idea that you can hold voters’ revealed preferences (i.e., their votes) constant while you simulate outcomes under different voting systems is naive to the extreme. The confidence bounds on any such exercise are essentially unbounded, and the assumptions, unfounded.
  4. “Under FPTP, many people’s votes don’t count / are wasted”.  This is another bromide.  A vote is said to be “wasted” when it does not elect a winner.  So you’ll often hear advocates of electoral reform talk about adopting voting systems under which all votes count. they’ll say.  I can only infer from such claims that the speaker thinks that every vote cast under their preferred system will go toward electing a candidate, ergo, no votes will be cast for losers.  But here’s the thing:  Logically, we could only achieve this if we guaranteed ex ante that every candidate who ran would win.  I can see only two ways to achieve this: a) ensure that only as many candidates are nominated as there are seats in the House of Commons, with all candidates elected by acclamation; or b) expand the House of Commons so that everyone who wants to be an MP gets to be one. (It would be even better, right, to have winners who did not even need votes?) Seriously, the first option (dictatorial control of the menu of options) is normatively undesirable, and the second is infeasible.  Any time you have more candidates than seats, it will be that case… hold tight here… that some candidates will lose!  I know, it’s shocking, but it gets worse: some people may actually vote for those losing candidates.  This is true under any electoral system.  It’s just that by layering on tiers and effecting panachage, various quotas, etc. some electoral systems obscure this fact.  But, really, you can’t escape the plain fact that if you have more candidates than seats, some candidates will lose…(really, they don’t all get seats, no, no, not even in the Netherlands), and that is, in fact, healthy for representative democracy.  (Aside: Are these the arguments you get, when people grow up having won participation trophies for everything? No losers here, we’re all winners!  Even my 6-year old knows this is a charade.)
  5. “Proportional representation is fair.”  I guess if you equate fairness to proportionality that’s true in a tautological sense. To me proportional representation implies no more or less than  proportionality between parties’ vote shares and seat shares.  Nothing wrong with that. Equally, nothing special about it.  Here’s my issue with focussing disproportionately (ha!) on votes-seats proportionality:  what we actually care about in Parliament are majorities, mainly on the floor – because that determines if the cabinet has the confidence of the House or not – but also in committee where many rules and policies are fine-tuned.  Majorities (neither true nor false, note) are constructed by and reflect parties’ bargaining power.  So if we have a single-party majority, one party has all the bargaining power; if we have a minority situation, then bargaining power is distributed among the parties – which could construct majority coalitions, allow a minority government to operate, etc.  The point being it’s all about bargaining power.  If you are truly committed to the idea of proportionality, it strikes me that consistency requires you to advocate for proportionality in bargaining power… because that’s what really counts. A few elementary examples show that the mapping from seat shares to bargaining power is incredibly erratic. E.g., let A have 40% of the seats; B have 35%, & C have 25% — and let’s assume this is all perfectly proportional to the parties’ respective vote shares: all 3 parties have equal (normalized Banzhaf) power  of 1/3. Now add a fourth party that draws seats about proportionally from A, B, & C: A=31%, B=28%, C=22%; D=19%:  the (normalized Banzhaf) power scores are .417, .25, .25, and .083, respectively. So A lost seats but gained power; whereas C and B lost seats and power, and D’s power is nowhere near proportional to its seat share! Let’s not even discuss parties’ ideological positions and how that might compress or expand the uncovered set. No magic here, just some elementary math and game theory, but it suffices to show that votes-seats proportionality doesn’t guarantee any sort of proportionality in bargaining power. (I am sure that some crazy mathematician genius has a voting system to ensure bargaining power proportionality.  Bring it on, I say.) You might retort that, regardless of disproportionality in bargaining power, anything is an improvement on concentrating all power in one party.  Perhaps, but not only does that exaggerate the situation (recall all those SC cases Harper lost – that was the court effectively checking the executive, no?), but it comes at the cost of some obvious off-setting perversities, e.g. non-monotonicity in power (lose votes, lose seats, gain power! I’m looking at you, Party A).  (P.S.  If A & B formed a coalition, it’s no “truer” or “falser” a majority than if B, C, and D got together.)

None of the above is an argument in favour of FPTP as such.  It’s a plea for some coherent arguments predicated on logic that can withstand some cursory examination. This is evidently a high bar. Sigh.



Show me the money! (part 3 – finale)

So far in this series of posts I have 1) explained the limits on campaign fund-raising and spending that the Canada Elections Act imposes on parties and local constituency associations and candidates; and 2) looked at the parties’ revenues.  Today I am writing on what political scientists know about the impact of campaign spending.

Let’s first consider why the impact of money on votes is important.  There are two dominant concerns: 1) There is a direct concern that money allows those with deep-pockets to buy elections in a way that subverts the political equality of citizens on which democracy is based. 2) There is also an indirect concern that if money is crucial to winning elections, then politicians will have to curry favour with financial backers.  In effect, we (the citizens) have to worry about politicians selling access and favours to their financial backers.  If we took a “systems” view of the political process a la Easton, then we might say that the direct effect of money on politics distort the electoral demands of citizens, which constitute the main inputs of the political process, whereas the indirect effect of money on politics is to distort the nature of public policy, which constitute the main output of the political process.

It being the end of the second longest and highest spending Canadian election campaign, I am going to concentrate on the first of these effects, that is, the effect of money on election outcomes.  I looked at perhaps 20-30 journal articles on campaign spending, and what struck me is how little empirical evidence there is that money obviously distorts election outcomes.  The only article I found that concludes that money unambiguously narrows the scope of representational interests was David Samuels’ (LAPS 2001 [43: 27-48]) piece on campaign spending in Brazil.  Samuels shows that Brazilian election campaigns are enormously expensive, funded mainly by corporate rather than individual donation, leaving leftist parties and candidates (who cannot by law solicit money from unions) at a significant financial disadvantage — and this matters because spending is highly correlated to winning in Brazil.

Against Samuels piece are perhaps dozens that conclude – perhaps surprisingly – that to the extent that campaign spending matters, it consistently favours challengers not incumbents!  This puzzling result originates in Gary Jacobson’s 1978 APSR [72:469-491] paper on campaign spending in US Congressional elections.  Jacobson’s main result was that 1) there was a positive relationship between spending and vote % and the probability of winning, but that 2) this advantage was enjoyed by challengers not incumbents. Jacobson’s paper was very influential (690 google citations & probably lots more in total). And normatively it implies that we should be careful about limiting campaign spending because if we do, we’re probably weakening challengers, strengthening incumbents, and generally undercutting political competition.

But what’s especially puzzling about Jacobson’s result (as he himself noted in a later piece (Public Choice 1985 [47: 7-62]) is that it’s not as if droves of US Congressional incumbents were falling at the hands of free spending challengers; on the contrary, from the 1970s onward, US Congressional incumbents were increasingly likely to secure re-election.  A number of scholars – Green and Kranso chief among them (AJPS 1988 [32:884-907]) – pointed to an obvious endogeneity problem in Jacobson’s research design that might explain the non-effect of incumbent spending:  incumbents’ spending is endogenous to the strength of the challenger they confront: strong incumbents don’t generally face strong challengers (who can do better by preying on more vulnerable incumbents), and so they need not spend heavily to defeat their weaker challengers (who have a tough time raising a lot of money because of their widely perceived weakness).* Once one statistically corrects for this endogeneity problem, incumbent spending seems to matter (i.e., it increases vote share and the probability of winning).

But… but… well, two things.  Firstly, Jacobson (AJPS 1990[34: 334-362) disputed the quality of instruments that Green and Kranso employed… it’s all endogenous, folks! Secondly, Jacobson’s result has proven to be pretty robust in a variety of settings even when researchers have taken care to instrument for challenger quality: Johnston, Fieldhouse, and Pattie (AJPS 1995 [89: 969-983]** find that constituency-level spending in UK elections is associated with increased support for the spending party, but this effect is greater for challengers; Palda and Palda (Public Choice 1998 [94: 157-174]) find that the marginal effect of money on vote shares was twice as great for challengers at French legislative elections as for incumbents; Benoit and Marsh (Party Politics 2003 [9: 561-582]) find a similar result for Irish local elections held under STV and at Irish general elections (AJPS 2008 [52: 874-890]), and Eagles (CdnPP 1993 [19:432-449]) finds a similar result for Canadian general elections. Certainly, these same papers (and many more) show that the differential in the effectiveness of challenger and incumbent spending declines once one controls for challenger quality, but the regularity of the result suggests that the dynamics of campaign spending are fundamentally different for challengers than incumbents… and it seems to suggest, in consequence, that campaign spending limits would largely have the effect of protecting incumbents.  That’s kind of unsettling as it would seem to suggest the normative superiority of high spending US-style elections… but that just seems wrong-headed because 1) empirically, legislative turnover is a lot higher in other countries where much lower spending limits are stringently enforced, and 2) it really does seem (well, this is my jaded view, I guess) that every US MOC is bought and paid for.  What’s that line?.. “An honest politician is one who, once bought, stays bought.”

As you can imagine, a good deal of effort has gone into trying to explain this result.  So what are some explanations.  Jacobson himself advanced a couple arguments:  1) money buys name recognition; incumbents already have that, and so the marginal effect of incumbent spending is obviously going to be lower; 2)and, focussing on survey data of voters’ vote intentions, Jacobson (AJPS 1990 [34] 334-362) argues that there is a strong positive relationship between challenger spending and the voter’s propensity to change their vote intention from the incumbent (or neutrality) to the challenger.  To some extent, incumbent spending offsets this desertion of support, but the incumbent is more vulnerable to desertion because the incumbent starts with the larger (hence less loyalist) base of support (i.e., the incumbent won previously by attracting support which drains away by a challenger spending induced regression-to-the-mean).   This could also be an equilibrium result:  on average, weaker (hence vulnerable) incumbents are taken on by stronger challengers; the marginal effect of spending of the weak incumbent and strong challenger then reflects the underlying quality of the contestants rather that the marginal effect of money on votes per se.  Finally, Benoit and Marsh (AJPS 2008 [52: 874-890]) suggest that incumbents just don’t have to spend so much “hard” money because their offices give them access to alternative resources (e.g., franking, travel budgets, a constituency office & staff).  Exploiting an Irish High Court ruling that these trappings of office represented campaign funds – and hence had to be monetized, they show that incumbent spending is pretty effective. Tangentially, there’s another line of literature that suggests all the (negative) advertising that this money is spent on does not obviously boost or suppress turnout (see, e.g., Goldstein and Freedman (JOP 2000 [62])

So what does all this suggest? Well, I started off by relating a result (from Brazil) that essentially confirms our worst fears about the role of money in elections (i.e., that it gives the rich undue voice).  That result is not directly relevant to elections in advanced democracies (why not, see below), but it ought not to be overlooked.  We should consider it in view of the fact that the results from the Jacobson-line of research are all from places where 1) both incumbents and challengers have access (even if not equal) to resources;  and 2) where there exist many private individuals who can donate those resources (as opposed to just a few large donors).   Those two factors appear sufficient to generate a situation where the influence of money on elections is not totally one-sided in favour of incumbents.  (Just look at legislative turnover rates in Canada over the long run.) To the extent campaign finance rules in Canada have curbed corporate donation in favour of individual donations, the situation appears pretty satisfactory.  Further, the imbalance in revenues between the rich Tories and less wealthy Liberals and NDP ought not to be of great concern: the gap is not huge, and research suggests that Liberal and NDP dollars will have a much larger marginal effect than Tory spending in this election.   Certainly, the Jacobson-like results suggest we probably don’t want to push down campaign spending limits to the point where incumbents’ advantage from office (which Benoit and Marsh show is real) is decisive in elections. Equally, if state funding just works to increase all parties’ budgets, it won’t really alter the fundamental dynamics of how money effects elections***… so much money is spent for little effect, i.e., it’s inefficient.

*There’s another endogeneity problem: incumbents do not stand for re-election at random; those truly at risk of defeat tend to resign rather than fight hopeless re-election campaigns.

** Kudos to Johnston, who looks to have published essentially the same paper in, Johnston and Pattie, Party Politics 1995 [1:261-73].  Behind most lengthy academic CVs lies a lot of salami-sliced results judiciously packaged into N+1 journal articles, where the +1 stands for “one too many”!

***Recall, we get the Jacobson-result in low-spending Irish local elections, in France and Canada, where spending limits are stringent, at modest-spending Irish general elections, where no limits exist, and in high-spending US election. So it looks like the dynamic is independent of spending levels.




Some quick hit thoughts (some related to the election, some not)

  1. Sweden’s December Agreement has collapsed.  The government looks like it will be able to survive by relying on a lack of coordination and co-operation among the Right Bloc parties.  But as I noted a while back, there would be significant pressure on the Right Bloc parties to start staking out clear positions on immigration or risk losing votes to the Swedish Democrats.  And lo it has come to pass, with the Moderates urging a tougher immigration policy. I think this whole episode is fascinating.  I’ll have to discuss it further.
  2. Homer-Dixon has a column in the Lunch & Pail on how the Conservatives pushing of the niqab issue damaged the NDP to the extent that progressive voters could clearly coordinate on the Liberals as the best alternative to Harper.  Two thoughts: a) H-D argues that making the niqab an issue was a monumental blunder because it worked to break the coordination problem on the left.  But really, that was an unintended consequence; you can’t judge the rationality of the action on the basis of ex post outcomes.  Ex ante the Tories were looking at a bunch of polls that showed 70% of Canadian agreed with them on the issue.  How often do you see majorities that size?! And if both The Spaniel and Mulcair disagreed with the Tories’ stance on the issue , why, ex ante, would the Tories see this as an issue that would upset the coordination problem on the left? b) Funny, but I pushed this same thesis to my colleague, Fred Cutler, in the hallway at work the other day.  Fred led me back to his computer and made a pretty persuasive pitch that the NDP slide did not start with the niqab but before.  Perhaps, the Liberal leap-frog of the NDP on deficit spending was a stroke of genius?  Really, I don’t care:  I’m a legislative scholar; elections are just things that periodically shift parties’ bargaining power.
  3. But let’s do pity, Tom Mulcair: he’s been a principled adult though this whole affair, and he’s very likely to lose his job.  I do not see the NDP backbench and base taking this defeat well.  The move to the centre was supposed to deliver victory; it failed.  I predict a lurch to the left, with somebody like, say, Olivia Chow(?) as leader.  Naomi Klein would be my preferred choice as successor, however.  What can I say, I like watching train wrecks.
  4. It looks like we are heading toward a minority government w. the Spaniel as PM.  Two good things about the Spaniel’s coronation:
    1.  I get to call him “The Spaniel”. In deference to the office, I will capitalize “The” and “Spaniel”.
    2. Canada is truly the land of opportunity: having no intelligence to speak of (or none at all even) is no barrier to the highest office in the land. (I mean even Bob Rae noted on the CBC that “well, sure, he’s not the smartest guy in the room”… Wow.)  Let’s be optimistic.  What did Oliver Wendell Holmes say about Roosevelt:  secondclass intellect but a firstclass temperament. Sure, we’ll have to substitute for “second-class”… “third”, “lower”, “economy”?
    3. Question Period should be a hoot!  Jason Kenney, Naomi Klein, and The Spaniel… imagine. 

…and people say I’m cynical. Me?!  OK, next 2 posts will be a serious again.  I’ll  consider two questions: 1) what does all that campaign spending do? 2) what is the nature of minority government?

Show me the money (part 2)

Wow, long hiatus from blogging.  Due to 1) start of the semester; 2) new classes; 3) onerous service obligations of the sort that the modern university (and UBC, especially) seems to specialize in; and 4) the start of cyclocross season (I suck! I am regularly “caboosing” in the masters class – no bike-handling skills).  I am going to make up for it with a marathon blogging session right up until the government is formed.

Last post, I wrote about limits on party spending.  Let’s now consider party revenue.  Recall from my last post that the Canada Elections Act regulates three sources of political spending:  1) that of national parties, 2) that of electoral district associations and candidates, and 3) that of 3rd parties.  I am just going to consider the war-chests of the national parties here.

It’s pretty easy to go on Elections Canada’s website and find summaries of the parties’ financial statements.  For example, the Conservatives’ statement 2013-2014 is here.

Looking at these, we see that the parties have the following net assets available from 2014:

  1. Conservatives: $22,356,056
  2. Liberals: $9,083,726
  3. NDP: $10,151,613
  4. Bloc: $3,169,676
  5. Greens: $4,380,732

You’ll note the big advantage that the Conservatives enjoy(ed).  It’s not clear how parties’ fund-raising has gone in 2015.  Looking at past elections, it’s clear that the Conservatives don’t actually enjoy as big a gap as this in election spending: first, spending is capped (see last post); second, other parties (esp. the Liberals and NDP) are clearly able to raise cash during campaigns.

A key change in the Elections Act is the demise of public funding of parties (remember that).  Well, the Conservatives did not kill that revenue stream dead immediately on securing a majority.  Rather, reading through the CEA indicates that they instead slowly squeezed off public funding;  parties received their last tranche of that money in April 2015, four months before this election.

In addition to these (central party) funds, parties’ respective candidates raise and spend significant amounts.  (Not significant by US standards, of course: the typical candidate can spend about $150-200K depending on the size of the district’s electorate).  Right now, I can’t get at these; the Elections Canada site is misdirecting me (probably because candidates’ final accounts have to be submitted, reviewed, and posted in short order).

It’s useful to put these amounts into context:  In 2012, the two US presidential nominees spent almost a BILLION dollars each!  There remain loopholes in Canadian campaign finance laws, but I would argue that the federal situation is pretty good in normative terms: we’ve capped spending, eliminated corporate donations, and limited the size of individual donations.  I think reasonable people can disagree on the desirability of state financing:  on one hand, state financing levels the playing field between established and new parties; on the other hand, it makes political parties more reliant on the state and less reliant on civil society.  Certainly, the campaign finance situation is much worse provincially and abysmal at the municipal level:  Vision Vancouver spent 3.4 million last municipal election in Vancouver.  Wow! That’s for a civic election for 422,000 voters or $8/voter for one party – way, way more than we allow federally! (And, of course, there’s the running saga on Montreal’s politics & money nexus.)  If you’re concerned about the influence of money on politics in Canada, your marginal effort is best spent regulating municipal campaign spending IMO.