Tag Archives: first past the post

Dutch voters defeated Wilders, not the Dutch electoral system

Prime minister Mark Rutte debated populist Geert Wilders in a one-on-one debate Monday night. (Bart Maat / ANP)

One of the growing myths of yesterday’s poor showing for Geert Wilders and the is that, somehow, the Dutch electoral system is somehow responsible for Wilders’s poor showing. 

Consider this paragraph from The Economist that cautions not to extrapolate too much from Wilders’s humbling collapse to just 13% support (good enough, in the current fragmented political context, for second place):

Mr Trump’s win could not have happened without the peculiarities of America’s electoral college. By the same token, the fact that Mr Wilders did not win does not translate on to Ms Le Pen. The Dutch political system is open and diffuse, with over a dozen parties in parliament and low barriers for new ones to make it in. The French system is more rigid.

I’ve seen this theme increasingly on Twitter today (especially on #MAGA Twitter) — somehow as if it’s okay to disregard the Dutch election result because seats in the Tweede Kamer are awarded on the basis of proportional representation or because of the Dutch parliamentary system, as if another system would have delivered a resounding victory for Wilders and the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom).


Imagine that Dutch elections were instead organized like American elections. You would see a primary on the right (much like we’ve seen recently in Italy, even though it’s more of a parliamentary system). In this hypothetical primary, Wilders would have campaigned against not only prime minister Mark Rutte, but against Christian Democratic leader Sybrand Buma and Christian Union leader Gert-Jan Segers and even Thierry Baudet, the head of a little-known group, the Forum voor Democratie (FvD, Forum for Democracy), a small right-wing populist and eurosceptic group that managed to win 1.8% of the national vote yesterday. If you extrapolate the results — that’s a little tricky because the Dutch voted for parties, not for personalities — it’s clear that right-leaning voters far preferred Rutte to Wilders.

That would have been true in 2012, by the way, and it would have been true in 2010 (the high-water mark for Wilders and the PVV). An American-style ‘primary’ in 2006? Former Christian Democratic prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende would have easily defeated both Rutte and Wilders. In a presidential-style ‘general election,’ Rutte would have faced off, perhaps, against Alexander Pechtold, the leader of the left-liberal Democraten 66 (D66, Democrats 66), with Wilders standing on the sidelines stewing over Islam or running a doomed third-party challenge. (Though of course sore-loser laws in the United States would have effectively prevented Wilders from running both for the Republican nomination and a third-party candidacy).

Imagine, too, a world where Dutch elections used the French system. Rutte and Wilders, as the leaders of the two parties with the largest number of votes in the 2017 election (again, it’s tricky to conflate votes for parties and votes for individuals) would presumably face one another in a runoff.

But it’s hard to see where Wilders would have picked up votes, much beyond the populist 50PLUS party or the FvD. That’s clear enough from the 65% (or so) of the Dutch electorate that supported moderate parties of both the left and the right that are generally pro-Europe and tolerant (if not always enthusiastic) of immigrants. Rutte, I’d be willing to wager, would win a French-style runoff by the same margin that centrist Emmanuel Macron currently enjoys against populist Marine Le Pen in polls forecasting the May presidential runoff in France.

Finally, consider the United Kingdom, where each member of parliament is elected in a single-member constituency by first-past-the-post voting.

There’s a reason that third parties fare so poorly in FPTP systems — they are unfairly disadvantaged.

See the map above from the 388 municipalities of The Netherlands. That sea of dark blue? It’s the wave of municipalities where Rutte’s governing Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) would have won on a FPTP basis. In a world where the Tweede Kamer was a 388-member parliament, the VVD would easily dominate it, followed (not particularly closely) in second place by the Christen-Democratisch Appèl (CDA, Christian Democratic Appeal), represented above in dark green.

By my count, the PVV won first place across just 23 municipalities. That compares with 13 municipalities where the Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (SGP, Reformed Political Party) won the highest number of votes (see in orange above) — a party that wants to run the country on ‘biblical principles’ and Calvinist orthodoxy!

The system — in this case at least — had no bearing.

Wilders has no one to blame but himself and his party’s vague and divisive message. It simply didn’t break through to many Dutch voters, and that lack of enthusiasm would have manifested itself in any number of electoral systems.

Would ‘lottocracy’ be a better form of government than democracy?


Winston Churchill is attributed with the quote, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.’

But it’s William F. Buckley who said, ‘I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.’

Alex Guerrero, assistant professor of philosophy, medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania (and also a law school classmate of mine), thinks Buckley may have been on to something, and he makes the case for selecting representatives not by elections, but through a lottery system in Aeon today:

First, rather than having a single, generalist legislature such as the United States Congress, the legislative function would be fulfilled by many different single-issue legislatures (each one focusing on, for example, just agriculture or health care). There might be 20 or 25 of these single-issue legislatures, perhaps borrowing existing divisions in legislative committees or administrative agencies: agriculture, commerce and consumer protection, education, energy, health and human services, housing and urban development, immigration, labour, transportation, etc.

These single-issue legislatures would be chosen by lottery from the political jurisdiction, with each single-issue legislature consisting of 300 people. Each person chosen would serve for a three-year term. Terms would be staggered so that each year 100 new people begin, and 100 people finish. All adult citizens in the political jurisdiction would be eligible to be selected. People would not be required to serve if selected, but the financial incentive would be significant, efforts would be made to accommodate family and work schedules, and the civic culture might need to be developed so that serving is seen as a significant civic duty and honour.

At first read, it sounds like a nightmare out of an Arthur Miller play.  Three hundred random US citizens would congregate to tackle a discrete issue like climate change, health care reform, or immigration reform.

What’s so bad about democracy? 

Before you dismiss the idea outright, it’s important to bear in mind the long, long list of problems with elections, in their current form in the United States and in other mature democracies — and that’s saying nothing about the question of free and fair elections in countries where democratic institutions are less robust.  The business of policymaking of a typical 21st century government is typically too complex for direct democracy to thrive in most jurisdictions. The need to become informed about the nuances of even major policy decisions would quickly overwhelm all of us.  Experiments with direct democracy, through the proliferation of ballot initiatives to decide key issues, have worked better in some places (Switzerland) than in others (California).  The limitations of direct democracy have meant that, outside the classical era of Athenian democracy and a few referendum-driven jurisdictions, ‘democracy’ for most people today means representative democracy.  Voters elect legislators and executives on the basis of a plethora of policy positions.

Of course, by gaining efficiency, indirect democracies lose precision — voters will choose one candidate over another for many reasons, and no voter’s policy priorities may line up entirely with any candidate.

Moreover, we can see the other problems of representative democracy in modern US politics.  Marketing and advertising, since at least the onset of the television era, can now be more important than policy positions.  Accordingly, representatives spend more time today raising money from donors than tending to the business of lawmaking, undermining the one-person-one-vote principle that undergirds representative democracy.  As Alex notes, the current process is subject to all sorts of problems.  The influence of money and lobbyists can lead to agency and electoral capture.  Collective action problems are rife — interest groups who care deeply about an issue can skew policies to their favor, even at the expense of the widely dispersed gains that might otherwise accrue to the rest of the population.  Protectionism, tariffs and free trade is a classic example.

Gerrymandering, barriers to entry and the advantages of incumbency massively reduce competition within the political marketplace.  It’s left us with a system where, as Alex writes, ’44 per cent of US Congresspersons have a net worth of more than $1 million; 82 per cent are male; 86 per cent are white, and more than half are lawyers or bankers.’ It’s a system where Congressional reelection rates in the United States routinely exceed 90% — even in a massive ‘wave’ election like the 2010 midterms that saw a Republican wave, the reelection rate was still 85%.  Part of that you can blame on gerrymandering, but more so on the natural preferences and geopolitical distribution of urban and rural voters — and perhaps even more so on the US electoral system (i.e., single-member plurality districts instead of proportional representation).  

Tradition, financial and political infrastructure, a first-past-the-post electoral system and path dependence mean that, in the United States, two political parties reign supreme.  When those two parties agree on policy preferences, it means there’s effectively no competition within the political marketplace on many key issues — in the past three decades, this has included drug legislation, foreign policy, national security, military affairs, gun regulation, financial regulation, home ownership policy and other matters.  In many cases, the bipartisan consensus has turned out to be wrong.

Electoral competition, too, is rife with short-term thinking.  In a world where public servants are focused on reelection in two years (the US House of Representatives), four years (the US president) or six years (the US Senate), there will always be a temptation to focus on short-term benefits at the expense of long-term costs.  Say what you want about the People’s Republic of China, but the governing Chinese Communist Party has to contemplate long-term effects of its policies, because there’s no alternative party to blame.  In the US system, Democrats and Republicans can rotate in and out of office and blame each other for perpetuity.  Not so in China — the CCP has to own its policy decisions or face a massive popular revolt.

That all assumes, too, that voters make well-informed, rational decisions.  As Bryan Caplan argues in The Myth of the Rational Voter: How Democracies Choose Bad Policies, borrowing from the insights of economic theory, ‘democracy’ fails primarily due to irrational and ill-informed voters:

In the naive public-interest view, democracy works because it does what voters want.  In the view of most democracy skeptics, it fails because it does not do what voters want.  In my view, democracy fails because it does what voters want.  In economic jargon, democracy has a built-in externality.  An irrational voter does not hurt only himself.  He also hurts everyone who is, as a result of his irrationality, more likely to live under misguided policies.  Since most of the cost of voter irrationality is external — paid for by other people, why not indulge?  If enough voters think this way, socially injurious policies win by popular demand.

It’s also worth asking how truly ‘democratic’ elections have become.  Since the 20th century, government has become so complex that many policy decisions are two steps removed from the ballot box, with legislators ceding control to specialized regulators.  In the United States, the wide-ranging administrative and regulatory state nearly amounts to a fourth, unelected branch of government.  Critics of the European Union have long pointed to a ‘democratic deficit’ within the growing EU institutions.  Despite a growing role for the elected European Parliament and perhaps a more representative era in selecting the European Commission, the key decisions of European integration (including the creation of the single market and monetary union) were made more by treaty than at the ballot box. 


So should we, therefore, turn to policymaking-by-lottocracy?  Continue reading Would ‘lottocracy’ be a better form of government than democracy?

Don’t blame the constitution for the shutdown — blame single-member plurality districts!


Dylan Matthews at The Washington Post wrote impressively yesterday about the perils of presidentialism and blames the current federal government shutdown not on the individual actors in the US Congress, but on the US constitution itself.  Citing the late Juan Linz, who died Tuesday (coincidentally), Matthews points to a body of comparative politics research that shows presidential systems are more likely to fall into dictatorship and chaos than parliamentary systems:USflag

But it’s not just that [James] Madison’s system is unnecessary. It’s potentially dangerous. Scholars of comparative politics have shown that presidential systems with a separation of executive and legislative functions, like America’s, are considerably more likely to collapse into dictatorship than are parliamentary systems where the executive and legislative branches are merged. That’s because there are competing branches of government able to claim democratic legitimacy and steer the ship of state at the same time — and when they disagree profoundly, there’s no real mechanism for resolving the dispute.

But parliamentary systems come with their own challenges.  Italian prime minister Enrico Letta, who won a no-confidence vote yesterday after a four-day political crisis spurred by the whimsy of a single, highly volatile opposition leader, may disagree that parliamentary systems are necessarily more stable.

Matthews is right to poke holes in the sanctity with which the US political system holds 18th century governance documents, including the US constitution and the writings of Madison and others (after all, it’s important to remember that the original constitution plunged the United States into civil war — it’s the post-1865 version that includes the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments that we use today).

We live in a 21st century world that doesn’t always fall into sync with 18th century political economy.  The US constitution, whether Americans like it or not, is no longer state-of-the-art technology for constitutions and hasn’t been for decades, and the US presidential system isn’t one that many countries choose to follow these days.  When the United States helped craft new political systems in Germany and Japan after World War II, they built parliamentary governments with mechanisms alien to the American system.

But in a world where a minority of one house of the legislative branch of government can shut down the US government, it’s a tall order to ask that American political elites contemplate a major constitutional adjustment — a constitutional amendment to transform the United States into a parliamentary system would require the support of two-thirds of the US House of Representatives and the US Senate and the support of three-fourths of the 50 US states.

While we’re working through thought experiments, can we can lay some of the blame on the nature of the American electoral system?  Maybe the United States should elect members of Congress through some form of proportional representation (or ‘PR’) instead of a ‘first-past-the-post’ system — more technically, single-member district plurality.

Although it’s typical to think about PR as a voting system used more often in parliamentary systems, both Canada and the United Kingdom (which have parliamentary systems) use a pure ‘first-past-the-post’ system to elect members to each of their respective House of Commons, while México (which has a presidential system) uses a mixed system that relies heavily on PR to determine members of both houses of its Congress.

How first-past-the-post skews US congressional elections: the 2012 conundrum

In the United States, House members are elected in single-member districts on the basis of ‘first-past-the-post’ voting.  That means that the candidate who wins the most votes in the district wins the House seat.  Typically in the United States, at least, that means the winning candidate will win over 50% of the vote (or close to it) because of the cultural dominance of the two-party system.  That kind of two-party dominance, by the way, is much more likely to develop under the American electoral system (first-past-the-post in single-member districts) than under PR systems.  That phenomenon even has a name — Duverger’s Law — and we could spend a whole post pondering the mechanisms and effects of it.

So in the most recent November 2012 US congressional election, Democrats won 48.3% of the national vote and Republicans won 46.9% for the national vote.  But Democrats won just 201 seats to 234 for Republicans — the party that won 1.7 million fewer votes nonetheless holds a fairly strong majority of seats in the House (by historical standards).

The skew is even more intense on a state-by-state basis.  Here’s a chart that shows five swing states that US president Barack Obama won in his November 2012 reelection bid where Republicans simultaneously won a majority of the state’s congressional delegation — the first column is Obama’s reelection percentage and the second column is the percentage of that state’s House seats held by Republicans:


It works both ways — here’s another chart that shows five solidly Democratic states where Democrats hold an outsized advantage in the House.  Again, the first column is Obama’s reelection percentage and the second column in the percentage of House seats held by Democrats:


What would proportional representation mean for the US House? 

Contrast this to a PR system where seats are awarded on the basis of the party’s overall level of support.  There are nearly as many varieties of PR electoral systems as there are countries on the map, but the general idea is that if a party wins 25% of the vote, it should hold 25% of the seats in the legislative body.  Often, there’s an electoral hurdle — so a party would have to win 4% of the total vote in order to win any seats in the legislative body. Continue reading Don’t blame the constitution for the shutdown — blame single-member plurality districts!

How would Italian politics function under a ‘French’ electoral system?


Former center-right foreign minister Franco Frattini is far from the fray of Italian politics these days — he didn’t run in last week’s Italian elections and he’s currently a candidate to replace Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.France Flag IconItaly Flag Icon

Nonetheless, Frattini (pictured above) spoke in Washington yesterday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as well as to a small audience at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and amid a set of thoughtful remarks about Italy’s election and its post-vote gridlock, one remark stood out in particular — that Italy should revise its electoral law by adopting the system currently in use by France, a two-round system whereby deputies are elected in single-member constituencies.

When election results came in last Monday, despite pre-election polls showing that the broad centrosinistra (center-left) coalition headed by Pier Luigi Bersani would win, returns showed Bersani’s coalition doing poorer than expected.  The broad centrodestra (center-right) coalition headed by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and the anti-establishment, anti-austerity Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement) founded by blogger and activist Beppe Grillo, both polled much better than expected — so much so that Italy now has a hung parliament. A centrist coalition headed by outgoing technocratic prime minister Mario Monti placed far behind in fourth place.

A ‘winner bonus’ for Bersani in Italy’s lower house, Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies), based on the fact that his coalition (just barely) won a greater number of votes than any other coalition or party, means that the center-left will command a 340-seat absolute majority in the Camera.

But because seats are awarded on a regional basis to Italy’s upper house, the Senato (Senate), no one emerged with anything close to a majority — and it became clear that even a widely mooted Bersani-Monti coalition would fall far short of a majority.

So election law reform has become a top-shelf issue in the wake of last week’s elections, not only because of the inconclusive result last week, but because it’s one of a handful of items that both Grillo and Bersani, the leader of the center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), agree upon, so reform could be a key element of any agenda that a short-term Bersani-Grillo alliance might enact before a new election.

Even members of Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) want to reform the election law, and even Roberto Calderoli, who pushed the law through the Italian parliament, has called it a ‘porcata,’ a pig’s dinner.

But agreeing that the election law is a mess and agreeing on a new law are two different things.

So what have Italy’s three most recent voting systems — the postwar open-list proportional representation system, the mixed, mostly first-past-the post system adopted in 1993, and the closed-list proportional representation system (with a ‘winner bonus’) adopted in 2005 — historically meant for stability or chaos in Italy’s parliament?

How does the French system vary from Italy’s current system?

And how would a French system work in Italy?

Continue reading How would Italian politics function under a ‘French’ electoral system?

More thoughts on the final Italian election results and Italy’s electoral law


For what it’s worth, we have the final results from the weekend’s Italian election from the interior ministry.Italy Flag Icon

As exit polls indicated and early resulted showed, Pier Luigi Bersani’s centrosinistra (center-left) coalition won 29.54% in the race for Italy’s lower house of parliament, the Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies) to just 29.18% for former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centrodestra (center-right) coalition, 25.55% for Beppe Grillo’s protest  Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement) and just 10.56% for technocratic prime minister Mario Monti’s centrist coalition.

As the winner of the largest vote share, Bersani’s coalition is entitled to a majority of 54% of the seats in the lower house:

Italy Camera 2013

In the upper house, the Senato (Senate), there’s no such ‘seat bonus’ at the national level; instead, the winner in each of Italy’s 20 regions gets a ‘bonus’ in that it wins 55% of the seats in each region, meaning that the centrodestra actually edged out the centrosinistra in total number of senatorial seats, even though Bersani’s coalition won 31.42% and Berlusconi’s coalition won just 30.58%.  That means, of course, if the Senato‘s seats were awarded on the same basis as the Camera‘s seats (they cannot be out of constitutional considerations with respect to Italy’s regions), Bersani would be the clear prime minister today.

Italy Senate 2013

The reason for the center-right’s senatorial victory is pretty clear when you look at the region-by-region winners (as shown the map below, with blue for centrodestra and red for centrosinistra):

Screen Shot 2013-02-26 at 2.49.21 PM

As you can see, not only did Berlusconi nearly sweep the mezzogiorno, the swath of southern Italy that contains Campania and Sicily, (the second- and fourth-largest regions), his coalition won Lombardy, the largest prize in the center-north of the country.  His coalition also came very close to winning Piedmont in the northeast and Lazio in the center as well, and the centrosinistra leads in total votes only because it was able to rack up large margins in its historically reliable heartland in the regions of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna.

It’s in particular fascinating to take a look at the party-level vote, especially in the lower house elections, because you get a better sense of how the coalition system and the national ‘seat bonus’ system really has skewed the next parliament to favor the centrosinistra (center-left) coalition, despite the fact that Grillo’s Five Star Movement actually outpolled not only Berlusconi’s party, the Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom), but also even Bersani’s party, the Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), though it didn’t outpoll the broader center-left and center-right coalitions:

Camera vote 2013

Here, however, is the breakdown of seats by party:

Camera seats 2013

The disparity between vote share and awarded deputies shows how important coalitions have become in Italian elections since Berlusconi’s government changed Italy’s election law in 2005, which transformed the previous system — in operation from the early 1990s — a split vote that awarded most of the seats on a ‘first-past-the-post’ basis and some on a proportional representation basis to the current ‘proportional representation’ system (with a national ‘bonus’ in the lower house and a regional ‘bonus’ in the upper house).* Continue reading More thoughts on the final Italian election results and Italy’s electoral law