How about open list?

Last week DPP legislator Kao Chih-peng 高志鵬 proposed that Taiwan should adopt open list proportional representation for the party list tier. Taiwan currently uses closed lists to elect the 34 party list seats. In closed list systems, the parties submit ranked lists to the electoral commission, and voters cast votes for party names. If a party has enough votes to win five seats, the candidates ranked #1 through #5 are elected. Open list is slightly more complicated. Parties submit unranked lists to the electoral commission. On the ballot, voters still only make one choice. They can vote for any name on any list, and in some systems they also have the option of simply voting for a party rather than any individual candidate. So, in a 3 seat district with three parties, the ballot would look something like this:

 □ People’s Party  □ Business Party  □ Fifth Column Party
 □ Chen  □ Yin  □ Xi
 □ Lin  □ Tsao  □ Li
 □ Huang  □ Kou  □ Hu

Voters can mark their stamp in any of the twelve boxes. The votes are then all pooled up to the party level, and seats are distributed to parties just as in a closed list system. For example, all the votes in the first column are summed to get the total for the People’s Party. Let’s assume that the People’s Party got 1000 votes: 700 people voted for the party without expressing a preference for any individual, 80 voted for Chen, 20 voted for Lin, and 200 voted for Huang. If the 1000 party votes were enough to win one seat, that seat would go to Huang. If it were enough for two seats, Huang and Chen would be the winners.

Vote totals for individual names are not compared across lists. For example, assume the Business Party got 220 votes (4 for the party, 201 for Yin, 7 for Tsao, and 8 for Kou) and the Fifth Column Party got 215 votes (2 for the party, 210 for Xi, 1 for Li, and 2 for Hu). According to the current formula, the People’s Party would get 2 seats (Huang, Chen) and the Business Party would get one (Yin). The fact that Xi got more individual votes than Huang, Chen, or Yin is irrelevant. (This is the major difference between open list and the single non-transferable vote system used in local elections and in legislative elections until 2004.)

I like open list PR. In fact, if you let me choose Taiwan’s next electoral system, I’d probably opt for some version of open list PR. Some of the attractions include:

Proportionality. Unlike the old SNTV system and especially unlike the current mixed system, open list distributes seats according to the party vote.

Opportunities for small parties. This depends on the size of the districts. With larger districts, smaller parties have an opportunity to win seats. It isn’t quite as easy as in the old SNTV system. For example, in the old 10 seat SNTV districts in Taipei City, a candidate might win a seat with as little as 3-4% of the vote. In open list, a party would probably need to get closer to 7-8% to win a seat in that district. However, winning seats is still far easier for small parties in open list than in the current single seat districts.

Parties can win seats all over the country. One of the worst things about the current system is that the KMT has become a northern party and the DPP has become a southern party. The KMT legislative caucus thus is constantly tempted to ignore the south while the DPP caucus has almost no one to speak for northern interests. The two big parties also have a hard time fielding credible candidates for executive races in the other area since they don’t have any incumbent legislators in those areas. Whatever the next system is, it is imperative to remedy this flaw.

Disincentives for party unity. The current system empowers party leaders. The party lists are ranked by the party leaders. This means that anyone who wishes to win a seat on near the top of the party list has to curry favor with party leaders. (Note that “leaders” can be plural; winning the favor of the party chair is a good strategy, but you might also try to impress some other faction, party power broker, or interest group that can demand a space on the party list. For example, the military traditionally gets one or two spots on the KMT party list.) Legislators from single seat districts have to worry more about the general public. However, many of those legislators represent safe seats. They are more likely to lose their seats because of internal party challenges than because the voting public turns against their party. In sum, legislators in the current system have strong incentives to respond to the demands of party leaders. My personal judgment is that this has swung too far in the direction of party power, and I would like to see legislators become more responsive to the general public. Open list gives party leaders far less power over whether a legislator can win re-election. (It may even go too far in the opposite direction, which is why my ideal system would be some sort of modified list in which parties rank candidates but voters have the power to modify those ranks.)

Empower list legislators. For the past 20 years, Taiwan has had two types of legislators: list legislators and “real” legislators. List legislators have always been seen as second class legislators. On the one hand, they are looked down upon because many believe they didn’t win their seats in an open contest. Instead, the seat was given to them by a party leader. On the other hand, because they weren’t forced to contest a general election, many of them have never needed to develop power resources (networks, money, mass popularity). District legislators have these sorts of power resources and can often simply push list legislators aside. You can see this condescending attitude toward list legislators in the two term limits. No one thinks of limiting district legislators to two terms since they win their seats and do a service to the party, but list legislators are seen as consuming party resources and are therefore a net drag on the party. Sooner or later, Taiwan is going to have to come to grips with this caste system, especially if the legislature is expanded by expanding the number of list legislators. The open list system would force list legislators to “earn” their seats by winning large numbers of votes, and it would thus narrow the gap in power between district and list legislators.

Drawing districts. Open list uses multi-member districts, so it is not necessary to manipulate district lines for political advantage. This is one of the worst problems with the current system.

One thing that I don’t care about might be the prime attraction to political parties. I have a suspicion that the reason Kao Chih-peng wants open list is that the DPP has had such a hard time figuring out a fair way to rank the lists. Open list would sidestep this problem by delegating it to the electorate. I say, if a party can’t figure out how to make a decision on a relatively simple matter such as constructing a party list, it might not be qualified to tackle more complex tasks, such as governing the country.

There are a few downsides to open list. As you might expect given its similarity to SNTV, most of these complaints are familiar to us in Taiwan. The most common complaint is that open list encourages localism, particularism, pork-barrel politics, and money politics. This is almost certainly correct. In general, the more party-centric a system is, the cheaper elections will be. If campaigns are primarily done by national figures on a party vs party basis (such as in closed list or a presidential election), they can use the ample national media coverage to communicate party positions to the electorate. This takes advantage of economies of scale. Individual candidates in a candidate-centered system (such as open list) have to target smaller groups of voters with some appeal that differentiates them from all the other candidates in their party. Local construction, vote buying, and one or two extreme positions are great ways to set yourself apart from all the other wonderful candidates on your party’s list. In particular, we should probably see a lot more wasteful development projects with open list. Pork is great for the constituency that gets it, but everyone else hates it. If you are only appealing to a small part of the country, pork is wonderful. If you are talking to the entire country, pork may alienate more voters than it attracts.

The other major downside is that open list can create factionalism. In SNTV, one of the primary roles of factions is to secure nominations for faction members. In open list, nominations are not as scarce. Since every vote counts toward the party total, parties have a strong incentive to nominate as many candidates as are legally permitted. So nominations are only a minor source of factionalism. The major impetus comes from the way that open list rewards superstars. A superstar who vacuums up large numbers of votes in an SNTV election hurts her party by causing fellow party members to lose. In open list, those votes are pooled and help the other party members to win, so the other party members appreciate the superstar and want to run in the same district with her. If the superstar clashes with the party chair or other party leaders, she can count on support from other legislators in her district. They certainly don’t want her to leave the party and run on a different list. If a party has several of these superstars, it might be difficult to hold the party together.

Let me reiterate: I think Taiwanese parties need a bit more fragmentation. Taiwan does not have many access points for dissatisfied people to press their claims. Taiwan is not a federal system, and local governments do not have lawmaking authority. Taiwan does not have an upper house. The judicial system is not really a co-equal branch of government, to say nothing of the useless Control Yuan. The unicameral legislature has no formal procedures requiring a supermajority, and the current electoral system can lead to a lopsided majority of seats with only a plurality of votes. In sum, a unified party with a plurality – not even a majority – of votes at election time has unchecked power for four years. This can lead governing parties to ignore changes in public opinion and press ahead with unpopular policies, which in turn can lead to systemic instability. I think the system would be healthier and more stable if it were a bit harder for a party to maintain unity in the face of low public popularity. The fragmentation argument is actually one of the primary attractions of open list to me, though I think most people might disagree with me.

With all these attractive features, it might surprise you that I don’t think Kao Chih-peng’s proposal is wise. His proposal is simple, only changing one thing about the current system. Changing from closed list to open list might work, but you’d have to tweak a couple other things as well.

From a practical standpoint, voting would be a nightmare. In 2012, eleven parties presented party lists for the 34 list seats. Since every party has a strong incentive to nominate a full list, that would be 385 options for each voter. How large would the ballot paper have to be? In Brazil, each candidate gets a four digit code that the voter writes down. In another country in Latin America (Colombia?), they did away with the enormous ballot paper and simply put a huge poster with all the candidates and their codes in each voting booth. However, in Taiwan there is a long tradition of only allowing voters to stamp something. Maybe you could use electronic voting and sort them by party, but can you imagine Grandma with Alzheimer’s trying to scroll through all those options trying to find that one that she can barely remember to begin with?

More importantly, 34 seats is a large district. With electoral systems, larger districts exaggerate the effects. Thus, you would get an extremely proportional result. Instead of mild incentives toward pork barrel politics and factionalism, you would get very strong incentives. Worst, I fear extremists and corrupt politicians rather than mainstream politicians would be the biggest winners.

Remember those superstars? In larger districts, they will get enormous numbers of votes. Mainstream voters will gravitate toward these better known people, perhaps even hoping to send a message that they support mainstream values. These superstars will win the top seats on the party list. However, if they soak up all the mainstream votes, the lower ranked and relatively anonymous winners can win seats by relying on much narrower constituencies. They might depend on a particular locality, they might buy votes, or they might mobilize a small segment of extremist voters by taking a particularly extreme position.

To give an extreme example, in the 2010 election for the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, Rio de Janeiro elected 46 seats. The Party of the Republic (PR) got 1,202,364 votes, which entitled it to 7 seats. The first winner was Anthony Matheus de Oliveira, who won 694,862, or over half the total votes cast for the PR in Rio. I think it is fair to say he represents the mainstream of that party. The sixth and seventh seats were won by Liliam sa de Paula and Paulo Feijo Torres, who won a mere 29,248 and 22,619 respectively. I don’t have any idea who voted for them, but they clearly represent a much narrower slice of voters than Matheus. Given the conventional stories about Brazilian politics, it is quite possible that they got most of their votes from a specific town or special interest.

What would happen in Taiwan? The KMT had enough votes to elect 16 people in 2012. It’s pretty easy to imagine that famous people, such as Speaker Wang and Deputy Speaker Hung would have gotten sizeable chunks of votes. However, it is also easy to imagine the 15th and 16th winners securing their victories with far narrower support bases.

I think that if Taiwan were to adopt open list voting for the party list tier, it would be wise to divide Taiwan smaller districts. For example, you might do use north, central, and south districts, each electing 10-15 people. This would greatly reduce the size of the ballot paper. More importantly, it would reduce the gap between the first and last winners on each party list and force contenders to appeal to a wider spectrum of voters. The downside is that smaller parties would be disadvantaged by the higher effective threshold. Rather than needing to get 5% to cross the legal threshold, a party might need 9% to win one seat in a 10 seat district. However, a further tweak borrowed from Germany could remedy this problem. In Germany, seats are determined by the national party votes. These seats are then assigned to each state, where winners are determined by the ranks on those state lists.

I don’t think Taiwan will end up with an open list system. I think we will move toward the obvious changes that are already on the table and cause the minimum amount of disruption. I think we eventually will get a German-style MMP system. To increase the number of seats, the easiest fix is simply to maintain the current 73 districts and 6 aboriginal seats and increase the number of list seats to 79. They’ll make a big deal of minor changes (lowering the threshold to 3%) or almost irrelevant changes (lowering the voting age to 18). More critical parts of the system, such as whether dual candidacies are allowed will be ignored or dealt with as an afterthought. I’m not aware of any MMP systems in which candidates are not allowed to register in both tiers, but Taiwan might become the first. This reform would improve on the awful current system in a number of ways, but it wouldn’t do anything about the concentration of power. In fact, that system would make party leaders even more powerful than they are now. I’d rather have some version of open list, but I suppose it isn’t my choice.

One Response to “How about open list?”

  1. jsmyth Says:

    Sounds like US state legislatures should use this system!

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