Is the LY playing field level?

Almost everyone I’ve ever talked to thinks that the electoral system for the legislature gives a clear advantage to the KMT.  There is a good reason for this belief.  The KMT wins all the small seats.  It wins 6 aboriginal seats, Jinmen, Lienchiang, Penghu, Taitung, and Hualien.  With only 79 seats (plus 34 list seats), this an enormous head start, and it is almost inconceivable that the DPP could make up that deficit.  As a result, almost everyone believes that (unless the blue camp fragments) the current system pretty much guarantees the blue camp a majority in the legislature.  This is reasonable.  It is also wrong.

I’ve written about this before, and I’ll probably revisit it again in the future.  The current legislative election system actually plays pretty fairly.  This is not by any great design (since no one seems to understand it), but just a case of dumb luck.

There are two things going on.  First, the small districts don’t give the KMT as much of an advantage as most people think.  Second, the KMT suffers a reverse gerrymander in its good districts.

First, the KMT’s advantage in small districts isn’t as overwhelming as it seems.  On the surface, it looks like the KMT starts with an 11-0 advantage in cheap seats.  (They are cheap in the sense that the KMT doesn’t have to “spend” many of its votes to “buy” them.)  Since these seats don’t cost much, the KMT still has almost all of its votes to spend in the remaining 68 seats.

First of all, throw away Hualien.  Hualien is nearly a full sized district.  It is just a bit smaller than average, but there are a six other “full sized” districts with fewer voters.  In fact, as I’ll get to in part 2, Hualien is actually an expensive district.

Second, Taitung and Penghu are small, but they are not sure things for the KMT.  These two seats are very much in play, and the DPP might actually be favored to win Taitung.

Third, Jinmen is a small seat, but the KMT advantage is so overwhelming that it really isn’t excessively cheap.  What?  In 2008, the party list vote was 23555 to 1190 for blue and green camps, respectively.  The blue camp won by 22365 votes.  A margin of 22365 is significant in a regular sized district.  To put that in perspective, if you take both camps’ national party list votes in 2008 and divide by 73 to get the “average” district, the blue camp would win an average district by 19760 votes.  Alternatively, think about it this way.  If you took a tossup district and added Jinmen, you would turn that into a safe KMT seat.  In this sense, Jinmen is nothing like Lienchiang, which is so small that it really is simply a free seat for the KMT.  If you added Lienchiang to a tossup district, you would still have a tossup district.  In all, Jinmen is good for the KMT, but the advantage isn’t as wonderful as you might think.

What about the six aboriginal seats.  If aboriginal voters were awarded seats under the same formula as other voters, they would only have two seats.  (Actually, if they were all lumped together instead of split into plains and mountain aborigines, they would only have one seat, since they combine for fewer voters than Hsinchu County.)  No one is suggesting that aborigines should only have two seats, but there is an argument that they should only have four.  After all, when the legislature was cut in half, aboriginal seats were only reduced from eight to six.  At any rate, the blue camp is clearly getting some cheap seats.  However, the aboriginal seats are a bit like Jinmen.  The blue camp advantage is so overwhelming that the seats aren’t as cheap as they might be.  In 2008 the blue camp won 83000 more aboriginal votes (in the district elections) than the green camp.  That’s a margin of nearly 14000 per seat.  Again, there is an advantage here, but it isn’t distorting the overall outcome as much as you might think.

There is nothing redeeming about Lienchiang.  They should not have a seat.

Overall, my non-scientific gut judgment is that the blue camp has a three or four seat advantage from these smaller districts.  It certainly is not an eleven seat advantage.

What about the second part?  The KMT suffers from a reverse gerrymander in many areas.  Before, we were looking at how the KMT wins several cheap seats.  However, they also pay excessive prices for many seats.  The DPP, in contrast, does not overpay nearly as much.

Here are the blue camp’s and green camp’s ten best seats in terms of the margin of victory over the other camp in party list votes in 2008:

Blue Camp Green Camp
rank District advantage rank district Advantage
1 Hsinchu County 91845 1 Tainan County 2 26496
2 Miaoli 2 64975 2 Tainan County 1 24063
3 Taipei County 9 63515 3 Tainan City 1 12574
4 Taipei County 11 61675 4 Kaohsiung County 3 11548
5 Taipei City 8 60571 5 Pingtung County 1 10369
6 Hualien 60080 6 Chiayi County 2 9998
7 Jilong 50649 7 Tainan County 3 9766
8 Taipei City 6 50521 8 Chiayi County 1 6328
9 Taipei County 8 46971 9 Kaohsiung City 5 6225
10 Taipei City 4 46291 10 Kaohsiung City 2 5505
Sum 597093 Sum 122872
-98800 498293 +98800 221672

For those counting at home, the KMT was winning a lot of seats by enormous margins, while the DPP was winning by much closer margins.  Another way of saying this is that the KMT was paying too much for those seats.

Of course, 2008 was not a normal year.  We want to know that the system is fair in a more normal context.  There is no objective way to do this.  You have to make some sort of assumption, and every assumption is flawed in some fairly obvious way.  That’s because we are essentially guessing.  But bear with me.  The way I’m going to proceed is by looking at the “average district” defined above.  In the average district, the blue camp won by 19760 votes.  Let’s imagine that next year the two camps come out exactly even in party votes, so the green camp has an average of 9880 more votes per district, while the blue camp has 9880 fewer.  After making this adjustment, the blue camp wins its ten best seats by an average of 49829 votes, while the green camp wins its ten best seats by an average of 22167 votes.  In other words, the blue camp is wasting more than twice as many votes on its safe seats as the green camp is on its safe seats.

That is the take-home message.  The KMT benefits (though not as much as everyone believes) from its dominance of the smallest seats.  However, that advantage is cancelled out by a large number of regular sized districts that are packed with very high proportions of blue voters.  The map essentially works as a pro-DPP gerrymander.  In the end, the system is roughly fair.  A party that wins a slight majority in the national vote should probably be able to win a slight majority of seats.

2 Responses to “Is the LY playing field level?”

  1. malaita Says:

    〉In the end, the system is roughly fair. A party that wins a slight majority in the national vote should probably be able to win a slight majority of seats.

    I still don’t understand why the system is fair. In the 2008 election, in the total of 78 elected seats, DPP won only 13 (16.7%), while the total votes they got were around 39.1%. (according to the number on wiki)

  2. frozengarlic Says:

    It is fair in the sense that each party has an equal opportunity. That is, if the DPP had gotten 55% and the KMT had gotten 39%, the DPP would have won a smashing victory similar to what the KMT actually won in 2008. More importantly, the 50% line in the (two-party) popular vote should be about the place where the party winning the most seats also changes. Many people fear that the KMT is systematically advantaged. That is, even if the DPP wins, say, 53%, the KMT would still win a majority of the seats. I’m arguing that this probably won’t happen. I think that whichever party wins the popular vote by at least 3% will win a majority of seats in the legislature. In that (very limited) sense, I think the system is fair.

    As malaita points out, the system is not even close to fair in another sense. The results are highly disproportional. The current electoral system really doesn’t proportionality a goal, so it isn’t reasonable to expect proportional results. If you believe that “fair” means proportional, then this system is completely unfair. The solution to this is to throw out the entire system and replace it with a completely different one, something I recently suggested in a short post.

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