Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Winner-take-all Providing Disproportionate Outcomes in Japanese Elections

On December 14 2014, Japanese voters  well, about half of those eligible to vote — headed out to the polls to choose a new House of Representatives. The incumbent Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) - Komeito alliance emerged victorious, picking up an additional 20 seats to take their total to 326 seats in the 475 member House.

There are three main narratives of this election. One is of an unnecessary and uninteresting "snap" election that merely maintained the status quo. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his coalition were returned to power with another parliamentary supermajority, which means Abe can continue with his program of "Abenomics".   A second narrative is that of historically low turnout. Turnout fell 6 percentage points from 2012, to 53% of the voting age population. (In Japan, voter registration is automatic and administered by local authorities, who add people to the register using the Juki Net register of Japanese residents.)

The third narrative is of the disproportionality between votes cast for the LDP and the constituency seats won by them. Japan uses a parallel voting system, in which every voter gets two votes: one candidate vote for a single member in their local constituency; and a second vote for regional seats, elected using party-list proportional representation in multi-member districts.

In the 180 seats elected by proportional representation, seats were -- predictably -- allocated reasonably proportionally. The LDP won 33.1% of the party list vote across Japan and received 37.8% of the seats.

However, in the 295 constituency seats, LDP candidates received 48.1% of the vote across Japan... but won 223 of the seats. That's 76% of the seats from less than half of the vote. 

And so, overall, the LDP ended up with 291 (61.3%) of the 475 seats in the House of Representatives from 41% of the votes cast.

The disproportionality is due in part to malapportionment:  The 295 constituencies range in size from just over 200,000 registered voters to almost 500,000. The smaller constituencies tend to be rural, where support for the LDP is strongest - and so the LDP can win more seats from fewer votes.

More importantly, the disproportionality is a consequence of the use of single-member districts with winner-take-all in the constituency seats. Single-member districts with winner-take-all are inherently susceptible to disproportionality, especially in heterogeneous populations spread out unevenly (as in Canada) or in multi-party systems (as in Japan).

Unlike in Germany and New Zealand (which use a system similar, but superior, to parallel voting called "mixed member proportional"), the Japanese system makes no attempt to achieve proportionality in the legislative chamber overall. Thus, the unfortunate effects of winner-take-all dominate Japanese election outcomes.

Senate Confirms 3 Commissioners to the EAC

After four years without a quorum (and three years without a single commissioner), the Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) now has a quorum of three confirmed commissioners

The U.S. Senate acted yesterday, December 16, 2014, to confirm the new commissioners: Thomas Hicks (D), Mathew Masterson (R), and Christy McCormick (R). The EAC now has an opportunity to fulfill the duties it has fallen short of for the past few years while it has essential been inoperable. Frankly, this is cause for celebration!

FairVote, among many other organizations that want to see better elections, has been calling on Congress to confirm a quorum of commissioners to the EAC and allow the commission to accomplish its duties described in the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA). In a 2013 email calling on supporters to contact their congressperson, FairVote stated that "creating an active EAC is a simple positive step--and one that happens to be the law." After several years of waiting, that step has finally been taken, and the EAC will be able to function once again with a quorum, and a group of commissioners that have generated optimism among members of the voting community.

The bottom line is that this is exciting. While national standards are not a fix-all solution to the electoral issues plaguing our nation's democracy, they do provide a base of uniform best practices for each state. In an age where thousands of voting jurisdictions run elections in thousands of different ways, and American voting technology falls far short of what it could be, this development is definitely something for voters and fans of democracy across the country to be excited about. This is a huge step forward, and is hopefully just the first step in many by this newly empowered commission.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Taking Election "Selfies" - Fun, but Potentially Illegal

Taking a photo of your completed ballot paper is, it seems, illegal in 44 of the 50 U. S. states. NPR reported on developments in New Hampshire, in which several voters who shared digital images of their completed ballots online are currently under investigation by the New Hampshire attorney-general's office. The offense of "taking a digital image or photograph of [your] ballot and distributing or sharing the image via social media or by any other means" carries with it a fine of up to $1000.

Laws prohibiting voters from copying or revealing the contents of their ballot hark back to the 1890s and the adoption of the Australian ballot. As part of the Australian ballot, voting became secret. Secrecy, long fought for in states like Massachusetts and California, was intended to prevent the bribing of voters (often with liquor). If no one could know how you voted, no one would want to bribe you to vote for them. After all, they might provide you copious amounts of free whisky, only to have you retreat to the secrecy of the ballot booth and vote for a different candidate.

The secrecy of the ballot could only be guaranteed if the state printed and provided the ballot AND voters were prevented from taking their ballot papers (or proof of how they voted) out of the polling place. It is for this reason that, in the age before voting machines, any vote in which the voter identified himself (or, after 1920, herself) was invalid.

Of course, no one in the 1890s could have foreseen the current trend of voters proudly sharing images of themselves with their ballots... and without any expectation of free whisky.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Lessons from the Anniversary of Women's Suffrage in Wyoming

On this date, 145 years ago, Wyoming became the first state in the union to extend voting rights to women. At that time only about 1,000 women lived in the state and benefited immediately from the groundbreaking legislation. However, in 2014, women of voting age across our nation enjoy full suffrage rights, and will hopefully be equally represented in elected office sooner rather than later. Today, it is important to remember that this crucial--and now widely accepted--expansion of voting rights began when a group of legislators had the audacity to expand the electorate beyond the status quo, and allow the American public to recognize the value in a more inclusive democratic process. Without such action, we remain stagnant as a democratic society.

As we approach a similar juncture in our democracy, we should remember the lessons that Wyoming taught us 145 years ago. The debate around lowering the voting age to 16 is reaching a crescendo in the United Kingdom, and is well under way here in the United States. In June of 2013, Takoma Park, MD, became the first U.S. city to extend voting rights in local elections to 16 and 17 year-olds, and FairVote played a significant role in advancing the idea. There was certainly initial skepticism around the idea, however, the city council moved forward, Takoma Park's 2013 local elections took place, and the world kept turning. In fact, 16 and 17 year-old voters participated at higher rates than their older counterparts.

Opponents argue that these young potential voters might not be able to make sound decisions, or that they will vote like their parents--the same arguments that were made when women fought for suffrage. However, just like 145 years ago in Wyoming, Americans are beginning to understand that this expansion of the franchise makes sense, and has some very positive implications for local civic engagement, voter turnout, and the health of our democracy. Takoma Park's neighbor, Hyattsville, is considering adopting the same policy, and localities across the nation should do the same. Here at FairVote, we are confident that one day Americans will look back--as we look back at Wyoming today--and appreciate the innovation of cities like Takoma Park and Hyattsville for their role in expanding the right to vote to America's 16 and 17 year old citizens.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Electing the 114th Senate: Votes and Seats

With Louisiana’s Senate runoff election complete, the makeup of the Senate in the 114th U.S. Congress is now fully determined. Republicans netted nine seats to take a 54-46 majority*, returning to control of the chamber for the first time since their defeat in the 2006 midterms. 

As a body designed to represent states rather than citizens, the Senate’s partisan makeup tends to bear a fairly loose relationship to the raw numbers of votes that were cast to elect its members. With the final election results in hand, let’s take a look at how votes cast for Senate candidates translate to seats in the world’s greatest deliberative body. 

In all, Americans cast 202.5 million votes to elect the current Senate, spread across three election cycles in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Of these, 49% were cast for Democratic candidates and 46.6% for Republicans. Here's how votes cast equated to seats won for the two parties in each of the past four election cycles, with the far-right bars showing this relationship for the entirety of the currently elected Senate (click the image to expand):

Source: The Green Papers, FEC.

In the aggregate, Democratic voters are underrepresented in the Senate and Republican voters are overrepresented compared to their respective strengths in the electorate, although Democrats outperformed their raw vote totals in two of the past four individual elections. 

The 46 Democratic caucus members in the 114th Congress received a total of 67.8 million votes in winning their seats, while the 54 Republican caucus members received 47.1 million votes. This is in part a reflection of differences in turnout across elections and partly a reflection of the slight tendency for small states to elect Republicans and large states to elect Democrats. California Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, for example, won over 13 million votes combined to win their seats, while Wyoming Republicans Mike Enzi and John Barrasso combined for just over 300,000 (2.3% of the California delegation’s total). 

Most of the U.S. population is represented by two Senators from the same party. The below chart breaks down the country’s population (2013 Census estimates) by representation in the Senate: 

Thirty-four states with a combined population of 191.8 million are represented by at least one Republican Senator, compared to 30 states and 213.1 million represented by at least one Democratic Senator. 

Stay tuned for more FairVote analysis of the 2014 midterms and their implications for American democracy. 

*Independent Senators Bernie Sanders (VT) and Angus King (ME) caucus with the Democratic Party. Lisa Murkowski (AK) was elected as a write-in candidate in 2010 but caucuses with the Republican Party. All three are classed here as members of the party they caucus with. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Canadian Parliament Votes on Mixed-Member Proportional Voting

On December 3, 2014, the New Democratic Party (the Official Opposition Party in the Canadian Parliament) moved:
That, in the opinion of the House [of Commons]: (a) the next federal election should be the last conducted under the current first-past-the-post electoral system which has repeatedly delivered a majority of seats to parties supported by a minority of voters, or under any other winner-take-all electoral system; and (b) a form of mixed-member proportional representation would be the best electoral system for Canada.
An impassioned debate broke out. In support of mixed-member proportional (MMP), members of the Canadian Parliament spoke about the "extremely unfair" winner-take-all system and the "false majorit[ies]" it creates. They endorsed MMP as ensuring "no one who goes to vote will be able to say that his vote will not count." In reflecting on the low voter turnouts that blight Canadian elections, member of parliament (MP) Alexandrine Latendresse said, "[w]hen people realize that their vote can make a difference [under MMP] and that they can influence what their government and Parliament look like, they will vote."

The complete transcript of the debates is available on the Canadian Parliament's website.

The motion was ultimately defeated -- though it garnered 110 votes in favor (and 166 votes against). Voting in favor of the motion were most members of the New Democratic Party, half of all Liberal Party MPs, the Green Party, the 2 members of Bloc Quebecois and three Independent MPs.   

Democracy for America's Creative Use of Ranked Choice Voting

The organization Democracy for America recently conducted an internal, online "pulse poll" for likely 2016 Democratic Party presidential candidates.

Unlike "vote-for-one" polls, which often serve only to show fractured results, DFA let its members rank all candidates in order of preference.

On its results page, it shows the results if you look only at first-choices. However, you can click on any candidate to see how polling might look without that candidate in the race. It accomplishes this by recounting that candidates' votes for their second choices.

In a ranked choice voting election as conducted in a number of elections today, including several California Bay Area cities and the largest cities in Minnesota and Maine, a candidate wins by achieving a majority of the active ballots, with weaker candidates removed round-by-round until the strongest winner can be identified.

Instead, this poll allows you to see the results if any candidates are removed in any order, which cleverly allows you to see what polling might look like if only a certain subset of candidates were in the race.

This poll clearly shows Elizabeth Warren winning, with Bernie Sanders coming in second. An even more interesting use of this method would be in Republican internal polls, like those conducted at CPAC. The Republican field currently is particularly fractured and would benefit greatly from the use of ranked choice voting polls.

Illinois Extends Pro-Suffrage Practices

The public policy organization, Demos, has reported that the General Assembly in Illinois passed Senate Bill 172 (SB 172), expanding pro-suffrage practices such as same day registration, grace period registration for university students, and online registration. Illinois joins thirteen other states and the District of Columbia who have extended pro-voting measures that make the process of voting and registering as accessible as possible. 

FairVote's Promote Our Vote program applauds practices that improve voter turnout by making voting easier and more accessible. Practices like the ones Illinois has enacted can increase turnout on all levels of government and create a more civically engaged community. To continue the momentum, more localities should push for more pro-suffrage policies such as a Right to Vote Amendment in the Constitution, extend voting rights to felons, and allow 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in local elections. To learn more visit

What Was the National Partisan Sentiment in November 2014?

As part of its Monopoly Politics report, FairVote has calculated that, controlling for candidacy effects, the underlying national two-party preference of the nation this November was 52% for the Republican Party and 48% for the Democratic Party.This paints a picture of a closer election that the nation-wide two-party vote tally of 53% (R) to 47 % (D). FairVote's underlying national two-party preference is a better measure of the partisan sentiment of the nation in 2014 because, unlike the two-party vote tally, it controls for external factors unrelated to partisan sentiment like the number of incumbents running and the number of uncontested seats.

Our methodology is explained in more detail on the Monopoly Politics website, but it can be briefly outlined. We begin with the an average election, in which the two-party vote is split 50%-50% between the two parties. Then we calculate the 2014 election's deviation from that.

Firstly, we exclude uncontested races and open seats. These races could unduly skew our calculations about voter sentiment.  Then we compare each district's two-party vote tally in the US House in 2014 against the district's two-party vote tally in the most recent presidential election (2012). The two-party vote for president is an imperfect indicator of a district's underlying partisanship, yet it is the best we have available at the district level. Other measures, such as partisan affiliation from registration records or survey data, are less reliable because (in the former case) they include scores of registered voters who did not vote --more than half in 2014 -- or (in the latter case) they have high margins of error associated with small, district-level, sample sizes.

After we do this calculation, we are left with the raw performance of the candidate relative to the district's partisanship.  For example, in Maryland's 5th District, Steny Hoyer (D) received 64.0% of the two-party vote in his district in 2014. In 2012, President Obama (D) received 65.0% of the two-party presidential vote in MD-5. And so, Hoyer's performance was 1% less than the partisanship of his district.

The median Republican candidate's raw performance was 4.64 percentage points better than Mitt Romney's two-party vote in the district. The median Democratic candidate's raw performance was 0.91 percentage points better than President Obama's two-party vote in the district. The midpoint between these two medians provides us a measure of the national partisan swing - 1.9% toward the Republicans. And so, we end up with an underlying partisan preference of 52% (rounded to the nearest whole number) to the Republicans and 48% to Democrats.

In comparing the Republican incumbency advantage over the Democratic incumbency advantage we get a better  measure of how the American electorate viewed the two parties. This is because our measure of partisan preference controls for the effects of incumbency, the fact that there were more Republican incumbents and the greater number of uncontested races for Democratic incumbents. The raw two-party vote numbers are affected by all those factors, which are unrelated to partisan sentiment.

It is interesting to note that 2014 is almost a mirror image of the 2012 election. In 2012, the underlying national two-party preference of the nation was 52% Democrat to 48% Republican. However, a key difference is that in a 52% year for the Democrats (2012), the party won only 46% of all US House seats.  By contrast, in 2014, in a 52% year to the Republican Party, Republicans picked up 56% of the House seats. This bias against the Democratic Party in the US House is alarming,  and is discussed in more detail here.

Congress Member Highlights the Importance of Participation

U.S. Congressional Representative Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) published an op-ed in The Hill this week, explaining the importance of political participation in a democracy. He begins by citing several statistics from the 2014 midterm elections. "[J]ust 36.3 percent (approximately 82 million) of Americans participated in this year's election," he writes. "Only in the 1942 midterm election was turnout lower." He argues barriers to voting are the primary problem and calls for increased access for voters.

FairVote's Promote Our Vote focuses on pro-suffrage practices and policies, supporting concrete changes that ensure fair and equitable voting rights. We seek changes that will improve voter turnout, protect voter access, and expand suffrage.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Latinos Lack in Power Positions in Boston Area City Government

A report commissioned by the Greater Boston Latino Network found that while the Latino population in the Boston area has boomed in recent years, the faces in city government do not reflect this shift. The report asserts that "This is not just about Latinos. This is about the quality of government...Inclusive government is better government."

Here at FairVote, we encourage local leaders to consider the impact that voting structures have on the ability of people of color to be represented in local government. Boston itself is currently considering ranked choice voting (RCV) for it's four at-large city council seats, as a way to improve its local democracy. Cities can also find local solutions to address the often low and racially unequal voter turnout that leads to unrepresentative city governments. Learn more at

U.S. Senate Results Show Continued Rise in Predictive Power of Partisanship

What Election Day showed about the changing face of American democracy

Republicans took the Senate in a wave this November, but the real story of the Senate this year is one of partisan entrenchment: a continued increase in the rise of party affiliation above all other factors as the most important driver of election outcomes.

Democrats defended Senate seats in seven states carried by Mitt Romney in 2012: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia. It appears likely that Republicans will take all of those seats. (Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu will face a tough runoff election in December; Republican candidates won the other six.) Out of all 36 Senate races held this year, only three—in Colorado, Iowa, and Maine—were won by a different party than the party of the winning presidential candidate in that state in 2012. And assuming a Republican victory in Louisiana, the new Senate will contain just 16 “crossover” Senators from states that favored the opposite party in 2012’s presidential election. The lesson? States and voters are aligning themselves by partisanship in increasing lockstep.

The fact that this year’s realignment worked to Republicans’ advantage is in large part because this year’s Senate races were concentrated in conservative states to a historic degree. The Monkey Cage’s Patrick Egan notes that the median state holding a Senate election this year voted for Barack Obama by 7.2 percentage points less than his national vote share in 2012, the largest such gap in over six decades. But the real story here is partisanship, regardless of party, and Republicans may eventually find the shoe on the other foot: eleven of the 16 remaining “crossover” Senators are Republicans in states that voted for Barack Obama in 2012, though not all are deep blue (Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). Five Democratic crossover Senators remain, in Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia.

It’s significant that many of these are perennial presidential battleground states: their partisan composition is close enough to an even split to allow their votes for Senate—like their votes for President—to go either way based on relatively small shifts in the partisan climate, so crossover Senators are an expected phenomenon. In the deep red and blue states, by contrast, the crossover Senators tend to be held tenuously by either vulnerable newcomers or corner-case incumbents. Heidi Heitkamp (D) will face an uphill battle in North Dakota in 2018, having won a razor-thin upset in a strong Democratic year in 2012. Montana’s Jon Tester (D) also scraped out a narrow win in 2012, bolstered by a Libertarian spoiler candidate; he will likely find it difficult to compete in a state that voted for Romney over Obama by 13 points. Meanwhile, blue Maine’s Susan Collins (R) is notably moderate and has held the seat for almost two decades, while red West Virginia’s Joe Manchin (D) is a uniquely conservative Democrat. Though each election cycle has its quirks, these crossover seats are not likely to be sustainable holds in the long term.

The rise of partisanship-as-predictor reflects the increasing ideological divergence between the two parties and the withering of the last vestiges of the parties’ heterogeneity in the twentieth century, such as white Democrats in the South and moderate Republicans in the northeast. This year is a further indication that partisanship is increasingly the dominant driver of federal election outcomes, dwarfing candidates’ attributes, voting records, or campaign tactics and spending. See this analysis from FairVote’s Monopoly Politics report for a fuller look at the dominance of partisanship in national elections—and why it matters.