Archive for the ‘electoral system’ Category

Taipei LY districts

July 10, 2016

For the KMT, it was a dismal legislative election. Even many seemingly entrenched incumbents were swept aside in the enormous DPP wave. For almost all KMT challengers, it was beyond hopeless. Amidst all this ruin and rubble, there were a couple of KMT newcomers who bucked the trend. In particular, Lee Yan-hsiu 李彥秀 and Chiang Wan-an (蔣萬安 Wayne Chiang) managed to push their way into the legislature. Assuming it can’t get worse for the KMT and the pendulum will probably swing back toward the blue camp,[1] Lee and Chiang survived the harshest test and should be set up for long careers in the legislature. They both have districts that should be solidly blue in most years, so defending that turf should be less challenging than winning it in 2016.

I’ve got some bad news for Lee and Chiang. They are about to lose their districts. More precisely, Taiwan is due to redraw legislative districts before the 2020 election, and their districts are almost certainly going to change in ways that they will not like. To make things worse, they really can’t do much to stop the process. The DPP, by virtue of controlling both the legislative and executive branches, has the final say. If the DPP wants to screw Lee and Chiang over, it can.

The Central Election Commission (CEC) has ruled that legislative districts within any given city or county must be within 15% of the mean population. Here’s the problem. Lee’s District 4 is no longer within that range. It was barely under the 15% limit when the districts were drawn in 2006, and it had grown to 21% over the mean by the 2016 election. It has to be redrawn.

    2006   2016  
    Pop. % of mean Pop. % of mean
1 Beitou, Tianmu 334363 1.03 332274 0.99
2 Shilin, Datong 325598 1.00 342977 1.02
3 Zhongshan, Songshan 345086 1.06 361907 1.08
4 Nangang, Neihu 371665 1.14 405507 1.21
5 Wanhua, Zhongzheng 307665 0.94 304815 0.91
6 Da-an 311626 0.96 311718 0.93
7 Xinyi, Songshan 308313 0.95 304577 0.91
8 Wenshan, Zhongzheng 300300 0.92 323189 0.96


Let’s take a step back and discuss some of the basics of redistricting. In principle, administrative districts are supposed to be respected. That simply is not practical in Taipei, with its eight legislative districts and only twelve administrative districts. Some of them will need to be split. However, that does not give designers carte blanche to go crazy and draw Americans-style districts. Take a look at the official map of the current districts. No administrative district is divided into more than two legislative districts. Moreover, the lines don’t look like they go around particular neighborhoods. The Tianmu 天母 neighborhood is put into D1. In Songshan 松山區, the dividing line between D3 and D7 is Nanjing E. Rd. 南京東路, a major thoroughfare. The only one that seems somewhat arbitrary is the line between D5 and D8 in Zhongzheng 中正區, though even that line roughly corresponds to the old Guting area 古亭區. It turns out that the first two of these were somewhat strategic, helping the KMT (who dominated the process in Taipei City in 2006) to ensure that D1 and D4 would be good KMT districts. However, the point for us is that the strategic aims are not obvious at first glance. They weren’t too brazen. (In fact, the DPP might not have even recognized they were being played.)

The Taipei City Electoral Commission (TCEC) gets the first crack at drawing the new districts. Someone in the city government (usually a deputy mayor) will likely chair the TCEC, and they should be able to nudge things in the directions that they prefer. The TCEC plan is sent to the CEC, which can alter it if there is a problem. Unless the TCEC violates the 15% rule, the CEC will probably respect the TCEC recommendation. The CEC then submits the plans to the legislature. The legislature cannot revise the plans. It can only pass them. If it does not pass the plan, the speaker and premier jointly decide what the final electoral districts will be. This means that the speaker and premier can throw away the CEC plan and substitute anything they like. Since both the speaker and premier are DPP members, the DPP can pass anything it likes.

The DPP’s priorities will be to (1) protect the two DPP incumbents in D1 and D2 and the NPP incumbent in D5, (2) create more winnable districts, (3) cause problems for the KMT incumbents, and (4) even out the population differences across districts.


I originally thought that D1 and D2 might be ripe for redrawing. D2 has more than enough DPP voters who might be redistributed to other districts to make them more competitive. However, there are a couple factors that make this unlikely. First, D1 and D2 are almost exactly the right size. There is no obvious reason to redraw the lines. Any change would be attacked as being made solely for the DPP’s political benefit. Second, these are the two DPP incumbents, and incumbents generally don’t like changes. The DPP incumbent in D1 might not mind giving away some of Tainmu (a relatively blue neighborhood) and getting better areas of Shilin 士林區, but the DPP incumbent in D2 would probably resist this. So I’m going to assume that D1 and D2 will be unchanged.

D5 is the other green camp seat. It is slightly undersized right now (9% under the mean), but that is still within the 15% range. Moreover, there are no good neighborhoods to add to it. Everything to the south and east is heavily blue. Keeping the current district is defensible, so that is probably what they will do.

If D5 is unchanged, D8 should probably be left alone as well. One of the informal guidelines is that no administrative district should be broken in more than one place. Since the other part of Zhongzheng is almost exactly the right size when combined with Wenshan 文山區 and D8 is so blue that there is almost no hope that the DPP could ever win it, there is little reason for green designers to want to change D8.


That leaves the other four districts, and this is where it gets fun. Let’s start with the current D4, which includes Nangang 南港區 and Neihu 內湖區. This district is too big and will have to be split up. At first glance, one might think about splitting one of the two administrative districts, but I have a better option. Neihu plus the Dazhi 大直 area of Zhongshan District 中山區 is almost the perfect size. (On the map, Dazhi is the area of Zhongshan north of the Keelung River 基隆河. Roughly, connect the northern borders of Songshan 松山區 and Datong Districts 大同區 in your mind and take the area north of that.) Dazhi and Neihu run together, so this is a natural fit.

This new D4 is also politically devious. Dazhi is a fairly blue area, so taking it out of D3 and putting it into D4 will be a minor disaster for the KMT’s D3 incumbent, Chiang Wan-an. For D4, replacing Nangang with Dazhi will make Lee Yan-hsiu’s district bluer, but there is another problem for her. However, we are getting ahead of ourselves.

What to do with Nangang? It turns out that Nangang and Xinyi 信義區 can fit together nicely to form a new D7. Since the actual boundary between the two administrative districts are small streets and it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, this is another fantastic (read: defensible) combination.

What are the political effects? Lee Yan-hsiu is from a Nangang family. We have now divided her Nangang base from the majority of her electoral district. (Her old city council district was also Nangang and Neihu, so she has spent decades working these voters.) She can either go with 70% of her district into the new D4, or she can try to keep her core areas but contest a completely new set of voters in Xinyi. If she chooses D4, she might well lose a primary fight to a Neihu politician. If she chooses D7, she will either have to beat the incumbent or convince him to retire. Neither way is very appealing for her or for the KMT.

This leaves two districts in the middle of the city. D3 now includes the southern part of Zhongshan and all of Songshan. This D3 should be a competitive district. D6 is Da-an, and it is solidly blue. But wait, we have one final trick. This D3 is 19% over the mean, a bit too big. Meanwhile, Da-an is 7% below the mean. We can shift a few neighborhoods from D3 into D6. Since Zhongshan has already been divided, the neighborhoods should come from Songshan. Which neighborhoods? That depends on how daring you want to be. There is a square in the middle of Songshan district that is very blue (the Minsheng Community 民生社區), while the border areas of Songshan are all greener. If you just take the southwest corner of Songshan, there isn’t much political effect on D3. However, if you stretch that up a bit into the center of Songshan, you start to remove some of the KMT’s best areas. This could be deadly to Chiang Wan-an. However, it would also be patently obvious to anyone looking at a map. This is not a natural line. I decided to split the difference, taking only one extra neighborhood on the southern border of the Minsheng Community. This probably won’t be the actual final district. The DPP will either take the high road and not include that extra neighborhood or go ahead and take one or two more neighborhoods on the logic that, since there are going to be screams anyway, they might as well go ahead and transfer 10000 more deep blue votes from D3 to D6.


What does that leave us with? This table shows I’m going to use eligible voters as a substitute for population since the CEC election database doesn’t report population for each neighborhood. The two rarely differ by more than 2%, so the difference is negligible. All of these districts are within 10% of the mean of eligible voters, so I am confident that they are also within 15% of the population mean. (* indicates no change in district boundaries.) I’ve also included a column with Tsai Ing-wen’s (DPP) presidential vote in each of the proposed districts. If these numbers look high, remember that Tsai won 52.0% citywide.[2]


  Proposed districts 2016   2016
    Eligible % of mean Tsai
1 Beitou, Tianmu* 275449 1.02 54.9
2 Shilin, Datong* 268464 1.00 61.3
3 S. Zhongshan, Songshan 287040 1.07 52.8
4 Neihu, Dazhi 256018 0.95 50.1
5 Wanhua, N. Zhongzheng* 248868 0.93 53.1
6 Da-an, SW Songshan 278852 1.04 47.0
7 Xinyi, Nangang 283372 1.05 49.7
8 Wenshan, S. Zhongzheng* 252360 0.94 43.9


Here’s a map of the central parts of the city (excluding most of the northern two and the southern administrative districts). You can see that the district lines appear to be fairly reasonable looking. There aren’t any crazy and unnatural shapes, with the exception of that one little bump going up near the Minsheng Community.

TGPIS 2016 Taipei downtown v2

The green side currently holds D1, D2, and D5, and these are the three districts in which Tsai got the highest vote share. In my new plan, D3 has been redrawn so that it is almost as green as D5. In the original D3, Tsai won 51.9%, so the DPP has gained 0.9% (and the KMT lost 0.9%). If Chiang Wan-an runs for re-election in 2020 in this district, he will be fighting on significantly tougher turf. The new D4 is actually a bit bluer than the old D4 (Tsai: 51.9%), but I’m fairly sure Lee Yan-hsiu would rather have her old district than have to choose between the new D4 or D7. The DPP has a slightly better chance to win in the new D7 (old D7 Tsai: 49.3%) and D6 (46.6%), but these are going to be tough targets.

What’s my advice to Lee and Chiang? They probably have no way of avoiding these districts (or whatever other districts the DPP wants to impose on them). They have three choices. First, they can put their heads down and try to win re-election in the new, less friendly districts. Second, they can avoid the problem by trying to move up the ladder. The conventional wisdom is that they are too young and inexperienced to be viable mayoral candidates, but successful politicians often climb the ladder faster than expected.[3] The KMT doesn’t have an obvious nominee already in place, so why not Chiang or Lee? Third, they could try to change the game. If the electoral system is changed to a German-style MMP system,[4] these lines won’t matter so much. Chiang and/or Lee could publicly call for electoral reform, which would both give them a national reputation as a forward-looking reformer and also resolve their impending re-election challenge.


There is still one other possible twist to the redistricting story. There exists a fifth possible winnable district for the DPP. However, producing that district would require them to violate all the established norms of fair play. They could do it, and it will tempt them. There are several ambitious DPP city councilors who will probably never get into the legislature without this district. Best of all, it barely overlaps at all with the DPP’s current four winnable districts. I could draw this district with minimal disruption to DPP concerns. Do the DPP leaders have the moral fiber to resist this temptation?

Since I love a good moral conundrum, here is the district. If you take most of the neighborhoods along the Keelung River (the border between Nangang and Neihu) and then also add in the northeastern corner of Xinyi and the southeastern corner of Songhan, you can draw a district that would have just enough population (eligible voters: 251411; 6.5% below the mean) and would be roughly as green as D1 (Tsai: 54.4%). Of course, it would cut up four administrative districts, look terrible, and it would require all the neighboring districts to look terrible as well. Some of the areas south of this district would only be connected to the next district only by mountain hiking trails. I could draw this district and satisfy the letter of the law, but I’d have to step all over the spirit of that law. In the USA, they would do this without a second thought. At least in 2006, Taiwanese designers showed some restraint and eschewed this type of district.

TGPIS 2016 Taipei downtown v3

Does this post make you queasy about Machiavellian partisan machinations? It’s only going to get worse each redistricting cycle as the parties learn how to game the system and knock down norms of restraint one by one. The long-term solution is electoral reform (MMP!) so that the district boundaries do not have such a dramatic effect on winning and losing.

[1] The way the KMT is going these days, this may not be such a reasonable assumption.

[2] 52.0% for the DPP presidential candidate in Taipei City??? Are you kidding me!! I’m still not used to the idea that the DPP can win a straight party to party fight in Taipei.

[3] Barack Obama is a classic example.

[4] In mixed-member proportional systems, the party list ballot determines the total number of seats a party will win. Winning an extra district seat doesn’t increase the party’s total number of seats, so there is little reason to violate norms of fairness to draw friendlier districts.

(too many) legislative candidates register

November 28, 2015

379 candidates have registered for the 79 district and indigenous seats. This includes 356 for the 73 single seat districts, or nearly 4.9 candidates per district. In Taipei City, a whopping 63 people have registered for 8 seats. That’s nearly 8 candidates per seat. If that seems like a lot of candidates, it is. Many of these are not serious candidates. They clutter up the ballot, making it harder for voters to find the real candidates. They also slow down vote counting, raise printing costs (for the ballot and public election notice), waste bureaucrats’ time checking the candidates’ qualifications, and, worst of all :-), they force me to spend extra time whenever I construct a database.

If all the candidates really wanted to run, it would be excusable. However, many of these “extra” candidates don’t really want to run. They have registered so that their party can qualify to run a party list. According to the election law, a party can run a list if it meets one of four conditions: (1) win 2% in the previous presidential election, (2) win 2% in one of the three previous legislative elections, (3) have five incumbent legislators, or (4) runs 10 candidates in district or indigenous races. Newly established parties and minor parties almost all have to rely on the fourth method. They know they have almost no hope of winning single seat races, as those tend to be the province of the two major parties. However, in order to run a list, they have to run ten people in districts, hopeless or not.

This year, 18 lists have been registered, and six of those have qualified by one of the first three methods. That means 12 lists are relying on the fourth method. To put it another way, those 12 lists have nominated 120 district candidates, of whom about five have a prayer of winning a district seat. There are probably at least 100 extra district candidates because of the party list requirement. That’s about 1.25 extra candidates per seat.

Ironically, the election law is designed to discourage frivolous candidacies. Each candidate (or the endorsing party) is required to put down a deposit of NT200,000, and they forfeit this deposit if they do not win at least 10% of the eligible voters. Assuming 75% turnout, the threshold for getting the deposit back is 13% of all valid vote, a level that frivolous candidates rarely reach (almost by definition). In other words, you can enter the race on a whim, but it will cost you a pretty penny. The deposits are supposed to be set high enough to discourage frivolous candidates but low enough not to be a serious barrier to any realistic candidates. In elections without the party list provision, it has, in fact, worked pretty well. There are always a few hopeless candidates, but not too many.

Currently, a party that wishes to present a party list with five people on it must pay a deposit of NT3 million (10 district candidates + 5 list candidates * NT200,000). Basically, the NT2 million for the 10 district candidates is the cost of doing business. Even parties that hope to win a few party list seats know they have little hope of recovering that NT2 million in registration deposits. The requirement to find 10 eligible people adds very little to the financial deterrent.

Clearly, it is time to get rid of the fourth provision. It isn’t working, and it is arguably counterproductive by encouraging, rather than discouraging, frivolous candidacies. If the goal is to discourage frivolous party lists, a large registration deposit of NT2 million for a party list would do the job just as well as the current rule.

And if you like frivolous candidates, don’t worry. You can still have黃宏成台灣阿成世界偉人財神總統. He has registered as an independent.

Should the DPP yield districts?

May 27, 2015

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the DPP’s nomination controversies, but while I was dilly-dallying around beat me to most of what I was going to say. Hats off to you,

Let’s recap. Last week, Lin Yi-hsiung 林義雄 publicly lambasted the DPP for refusing to yield 20 legislative districts to the Social Democratic Party and the New Power Party. While Lin Yi-hsiung is a self-appointed Moral Beacon who we are not supposed to question, his logic was terrible. This had the useful effect of forcing many DPP mouthpieces to point out all the reasons why the DPP should not simply stand aside. Let me see if I can summarize these arguments (plus a few of my own).



  1. The DPP cannot get a majority on its own. It needs to cooperate with smaller parties. The DPP should extend the Ko Wen-je 柯文哲 model to the legislative elections.
  2. If it only yields 13 districts and the two smaller parties must run in at least 20 to be eligible for the party list, the DPP is effectively suffocating them.
  3. The DPP is nominating several city councilors who just won new terms last December. Those people have a solemn democratic contract with the voters and must serve out their terms.



  1. It is up to the voters to decide if they can accept a serving politician’s decision to try to jump to a new office before finishing the current term.
  2. The Ko Wen-je model involved convincing people who had previously voted for the blue camp to vote for him. There is no indication that the SDP or NPP candidates have cross-camp appeal.
  3. Arguably the most important element of Ko’s success was his opponent. None of the KMT’s legislative candidates seems as inept and unlikeable as Sean Lien.
  4. Ko got DPP support by defeating the DPP choice in a poll. Lin is demanding that DPP aspirants simply step aside. The DPP has been willing to let the strongest candidate run, but the NPP and SDP haven’t been able to find many (any?) strong candidates.
  5. DPP voters might not be able to accept being told to vote for a NPP or SDP candidate. The parties don’t have strong party reputations or popular candidates. How can the DPP tell its supporters to vote for a candidate who is a stranger from a party they know almost nothing about?
  6. It isn’t the DPP’s job to devote resources to other parties. If those people wanted to draw on DPP resources, they should have joined the DPP. In fact, they explicitly decided that they didn’t want to be part of the DPP. They valued purity over power. By the way, Lin Yi-hsiung dropped out the DPP several years ago. Why does he think he can tell the DPP who to nominate?
  7. Electoral politics is a game of opinion aggregation. You have to combine the support of many people who will inevitably have some differences of opinion. Successful electoral parties are all big tents. The SDP and NPP have failed at this basic concept. They started with a fairly narrow base and then further divided into two parties. If they can’t even cooperate among themselves, why should the DPP pay them any heed?
  8. Is the DPP also supposed to yield 10 seats each to the Green Party and Tree Party, who also subdivided an already tiny electoral base?
  9. Taiwan has a majoritarian electoral system that crushes small parties. If the DPP wants to win governing power, it has to pay attention to the incentives created by the electoral rules. By the way, Moral Beacon Lin Yi-hsiung is more responsible than any other person for Taiwan’s current electoral system. Ten years ago, he knew what was Right and used his Moral Superiority[1] to shame anyone who took the Wrong position or simply even dared to question his proposed electoral reforms.
  10. Some of the SDP and NPP candidates want to run in districts such as New Taipei 12, which include significant rural populations. Elections in these areas run along a different logic from urban areas. You need to slowly build organizational power over a period of several years. Yielding to a SDP or NPP candidate in such a district would be tantamount to yielding that bloc of voters to the KMT candidate. That, in turn, would ruin any chance of winning the district.
  11. The DPP can’t afford to even signal to voters that it is ok to vote for the smaller parties in the party list tier. The “progressive” side has six(!) parties (DPP, TSU, NPP, SDP, Green, Tree). With a 5% threshold, that means the DPP would have to yield more than 25% of its support to them (and spread it evenly) or risk throwing away votes. If the five small parties each got only 4%, that would swing about six seats to the blue side. Given that the electoral system already gives a mild advantage to the blue side in malapportionment (ie: Lienchiang and Aborigines are overrepresented), the green side cannot afford to give away any PR seats. Perhaps if the four smaller parties merged into one party, the voters might have some confidence that it could pass the 5% threshold. However, they have instead chosen to subdivide their already tiny base.


If you haven’t figured it out already, I don’t think much of Lin’s arguments. Electoral politics is a high-stakes game for political power, not a summer camp for nurturing naïve but earnest activists. Supporting idealistic but hopeless candidates at the cost of yielding governing power to the other side is simply irresponsible.

If the green side is to win a majority, it will have to be competitive in some of the “difficult” districts and even win a few. In fact, the DPP seems to think that its people have a chance in some of them. I have seen comments that the potential DPP candidates lead the KMT incumbents in both New Taipei 1 and New Taipei 12 in internal DPP polling. Take that with a grain of salt, but if there is any chance at all the DPP has to doggedly go after it. They should resist any thought of yielding those districts simply to make some tiny splinter party look better.

If Lin wanted small parties in the system, maybe he should have thought about that a decade ago. Perhaps he should have listened to voices trying to tell him what would happen instead of shouting them down.[2]

One nice thing is that the small parties seem to have clearer heads about their relationship with the DPP than Lin does. A few have commented that they are not in the DPP and want to maintain some distance from it. I don’t particularly share their enthusiasm for purity, but at least they understand the consequences of their choice.



[1] It was a good week for Morally Superior people. Morally Superior presidential candidate Shih Ming-teh 施明德 went on a talk show this week. When DPP city councilor Kao Chia-yu 高嘉瑜 asked him if his proposal of a Greater China above the ROC and PRC was basically the same as the KMT position he threw a temper tantrum. How dare she put a hat on him! She is such a lazy student! Shih punctuated his petty outburst by slamming his fist on the table. Yes, of course! It is completely unacceptable in a democratic system to ask someone running for the presidency to clarify and defend their position on the most important question facing the country, given that that person is Morally Superior. (I wonder what St. Wang Chien-hsuan 王聖人 was doing this week.)

[2] Why am I so wary of people with a strong sense of right and wrong? A basic premise of pluralistic democratic politics is that people have different values and want different things. In an authoritarian society, someone can designate certain values as “correct,” and this implies that other values are “wrong.” People holding “wrong” values are often struggled against. To give two examples, communist states often label people as “enemies of the people,” and Thais will put you in jail if you dare to question the existence of the monarchy. In a democracy, we don’t have to struggle against people who disagree with us. We simply label them as partisans. If they are in the opposition, we ignore them as harmless crackpots. If they are in the governing coalition and implement policies consistent with those values, at least we don’t have to publicly acknowledge that those policies and values are “right.” We can openly disagree and try to reverse them in the future. Acknowledging that there is no such thing as an absolute “right” or “wrong” allows us to accept diversity of opinion in society, promotes tolerance, and provides democratic politics with space to breathe.

How about open list?

March 26, 2015

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.

negative voting

March 5, 2015

Last week, a group of prominent figures, including Shih Ming-teh 施明德, Sean Chen 陳沖, and Su Chi 蘇起, proposed that Taiwan should employ a new electoral system, which they called “negative voting.” As I understand the proposal, this is intended for single seat elections. Each voter would still cast one vote. Currently, the vote must be a positive one, so that each vote increases the candidate’s total by one. Under this proposal, the voter would have the option to either cast a positive or a negative vote. A positive vote would increase a candidate’s total by one, while each negative vote would decrease the candidate’s total by one.

If I understand correctly, some variant of this system is sometimes used in elections for board of directors of corporations. I do not know of any sort of negative voting used in elections for public offices. (The closest thing I know of is Approval Voting, a system invented and promoted by a couple of professors at New York University. In Approval Voting, the voter can vote for as many candidates as he or she approves of. If you vote for all but one, that is mathematically equivalent to a negative vote for that candidate. However, since a voter can cast different numbers of votes, approval voting differs from the proposed negative voting in important ways. I don’t think Approval Voting has been adopted for any elections to public offices.)

Let’s look at how this system might affect who wins or loses. If there are two candidates, negative voting really doesn’t make any difference. If you prefer A to B, you either vote positively for A or negatively for B. This system is designed to affect races with at least three candidates, so let’s delve into that. Assume there are three candidates. A is a leftist, B is a centrist, and C is a rightist. If the polls say that A, B, and C have 40, 30, and 30% support respectively, we can normally expect A to win. A’s supporters are happy with this and will go ahead and cast positive votes for A. B’s supporters know that B is losing, but they don’t have a clear second favorite candidate. Some of them prefer A to C, and some prefer C to A. They could hedge their bets and vote negatively against their least favorite candidate. Mathematically, this would be equivalent to voting for both B and their second favorite candidate. C’s supporters have a much easier choice. They all prefer B to A, so they can simply vote against A. If all of B and C’s supporters vote negatively, we thus get A: -5%, B: 0%, C: -15%. So B wins with zero votes?? Hmm. I wonder if the proponents of negative voting considered what would happen if the “winner” got zero or even negative votes. That seems like an outcome the PRC would love to see! (Note: B also wins A:10, B: 30, C: 0 if A’s and B’s supporters cast positive votes and only C’s supporters cast negative votes.)

Vote totals aside, the important point is that the new system changes the outcome. Instead of the leftist (who led in first preferences), the moderate is now the winner. Some people see this as a desirable outcome. In technical jargon, B is the Condorcet winner. That is, B wins the head to head matchups against all the other candidates. (In a one on one matchup, B beats A, 60-40, and B beats C, 70-30.) Negative voting empowers moderates! Hooray!

Not so fast, but hold that thought while we first explore a different idea.

Negative voting will be most useful to factionalized parties who cannot agree on a single candidate. Image that party A has a majority in society (A: 55; B: 45), but it has two big factions that will not yield to each other. Eventually both candidates, A1 and A2, both decide to run. Assume that the first preferences now break down as follows: A1: 30, A2: 25; B: 45. In a plurality race, B is going to coast to an easy victory. However, if 80% of party A’s voters vote negatively, they can avoid losing to B, even though they were unable to resolve their intra-party squabble. The result would be A1: 6, A2: 5, B: 1.

I think this is the real purpose of the proposal. People inside the KMT fear that the Wang and Ma factions are terribly split, and they will not be able to cooperate (perhaps even if Chu runs). Or perhaps Ma simply wants to run his own candidate. Negative voting avoids the problem of resolving intra-party tensions by simply allowing KMT sympathizers to vote against the DPP. Of course, this assumes that the KMT is still the dominant party. I understand that many people within the KMT believe that the voters will come back to them when real power (ie: national power) is at stake, though I suspect they are fooling themselves. I think their fundamental problem is that Tsai Ing-wen might have over 50% of the votes, not that the pro-Ma and anti-Ma factions can’t cooperate. At any rate, I think there is tremendous value in forcing a party that wants to hold governing power to first be able to resolve basic internal conflicts. If a severely factionalized party wins power, will it be able to effectively govern?

Let’s go back to that idea about negative voting encouraging moderates. Imagine a two candidate race, with A narrowly leading B by 52-48. What could B do to change the outcome? What if an extremist candidate BB on B’s side of the spectrum jumped in? In a normal plurality race, this couldn’t help B at all, since any votes BB won would almost certainly be taken from B. However, with negative voting, it might be different. Imagine BB is a terrible person, spewing all sorts of offensive and inflammatory rhetoric. BB would be all over the news, and voters would be outraged. In fact, some might come to the conclusion that it is important to resoundingly reject BB’s horrible ideas. However, those negative votes against BB would probably come predominantly from A’s side of the spectrum, since BB’s ideas would naturally be extremely offensive to them and only moderately offensive to voters on B’s side of the spectrum. If BB won positive support from 1% (originally B voters), while 7% of A voters and 1% of B voters decided to make a statement by voting against BB, the result would now be A: 45, B: 46, BB: -7%. BB would in fact be resoundingly rejected. However, this would also throw the election to B.

I think most of us can agree that democracy is not well-served when vile extremists can affect the outcome of a race by hurting the chances of the mainstream candidate on the other side of the spectrum. This is why positive voting, in which voters have to support something, is the norm. With positive voting, candidates are not rewarded for being offensive. With negative voting, the more offensive a candidate is and the more voters that are shocked into rejecting him or her, the more power and influence that candidate has.

To put it bluntly, this proposal for negative voting is a terrible idea.

A short comment on the idea that negative voting would save money: Candidates/parties currently get NT30 for each vote, so negative voting would supposedly reduce the public subsidy.

I’m starting to believe that the surest sign that some proposed electoral reform is a bad idea is that its proponents stress how much public money it will save. It seems almost like they are trying to distract us from their weak arguments about why it will produce better politics with shiny, shiny money!

There is a good reason for the public to subsidize parties. We have a general interest in parties that have the capacity to do things like formulate policy platforms. Bureaucracy and think tanks cost money. Back in the mid-1990s, when Shih Ming-teh was DPP party chair, the DPP could barely afford to pay rent. His predecessor Huang Hsin-chieh 黃信介 routinely wrote a personal check to cover the DPP’s monthly operating costs. That party struggled to avoid bankruptcy; it certainly did not have the capacity to do long term planning or prepare a broad set of policy proposals that it might pursue if it were to become the governing party. Shih seems currently to be arguing that the public subsidy is a waste. I disagree. I don’t want to return to the days in which there was only one party with the capacity to govern.

Combine or separate?

February 12, 2015

The Central Election Commission is set to decide later today whether the 2016 legislative and presidential elections will be held separately or simultaneously. As everyone no doubt remembers, the 2008 elections were held separately and the 2012 elections were combined. I hope they are held separately, though I don’t think the political effects will be that large. Some of the most common arguments are as follows:

  • Combining the elections will save money and reduce social disharmony.

Uggh. I hate this stupid argument. Elections aren’t that expensive to stage. If you need to save money, don’t hold a stupid university games or give sweetheart BOT contracts to conglomerates. For heaven’s sake, don’t skimp on democracy. If the better option is to separate the two elections, then spend a (very) little money and do it right. As for the social disharmony, we live in a pluralist society. Not everyone thinks the same way. There is nothing wrong with this. Harmony, which is usually imposed by social elites, is much more sinister than an open airing of disagreements in the context of an election. Let’s move on to sensible considerations.

  • The legislative election has to be held by mid-January, but the presidential inauguration isn’t until May 20.

To me, this is the most important argument. Since President Ma has already served two terms, there will be a new president in 2016. Four months between the election and the inauguration is a long, long time. Some might argue that President Ma is already a lame duck, and power is already gravitating to the likely presidential contenders. This is true, but until the election there will be some degree of uncertainty about who the next president will be. Once the result is known, all uncertainty is removed. Further, the time between the election and the inauguration is typically taken up with determining the composition of the new government. Elites have a strong incentive to ignore the current officeholders in order to angle for a new position or to curry favor with those who have already been designated. In short, we would face a four month power vacuum. This could easily be shortened to two months by separating the two elections.

If the elections were separated, the legislative election might be moved to its traditional spot on the calendar. Prior to 2008, legislative elections were held in late November or early December. I think this was done in order to avoid the late December holidays and the early January student exams. I never really cared for such an early election because it meant that the old legislature usually reconvened for a lame-duck session in January to pass lots of politically sensitive legislation – ie: stuff that voters didn’t want. Regardless, the point is that separating the elections would allow the legislative election to be held at the optimal time, whatever that might be. (I’m not sure this is possible in 2016 since the Central Election Commission has a number of procedural deadlines, but it could be a possibility in the future.)

  • If combined, the legislative election will be dominated by the presidential election. This has several variants:
  1. Media will focus entirely on the presidential contest.
  2. Turnout for the legislative election will be ~80% instead of ~60%.
  3. Small parties without a presidential candidate will be ignored.
  4. The party list vote will merely be a copy of the presidential vote.
  5. Voters will be more likely to decide their district legislative votes based on the presidential races rather than on the individual legislative candidates.

(6a) The KMT will do better in the legislative election if it is not combined.

(6b) The DPP will do better in the legislative election if it is not combined.

These arguments are all basically correct. The presidential vote will dominate the legislative vote. However, it will do that whether or not the elections are combined, so the effects will be limited. In 2012, the presidential race completely dominated the legislative election. Almost all the media focus was on the presidential election. For example, there were new polls nearly every day on the presidential race, but there were almost no polls on individual legislative district races. The TSU, New Party, Green Party, and the litany of hopeless parties were almost entirely ignored unless they were able to convince one of the two main presidential candidates to go on stage with them. Likewise, the PFP was also mostly ignored even though it had a presidential candidate. The legislative votes also turned out to be very close to the presidential votes if one looks at the blue/green divide. However, a significant number of voters opted for one of the smaller parties on the party list ballot. Indeed, the TSU probably benefitted, since it never came anywhere close to 9% in the polls.

In 2008, when the two elections were held separately, there was more media focus on the legislative elections. For example, there were some polls on the individual races. Turnout was under 60%. This is important, as it is generally desirable to have as many people vote as possible. For many people, especially those who don’t live near their voting location, going to the polls twice in a short time is a sizeable burden. Nonetheless, the political effects were muted. The media, the two big parties, and the voters all treated the legislative elections as preliminaries to the main event. With just two months between the two elections, the presidential campaign was already in full swing. For many people, the legislative elections were merely the first opportunity to express their presidential preferences. In 2008, there were slightly larger deviances between presidential and legislative vote totals than in 2012, but not by that much. Further, the long-term trend has been toward stronger partisan voting, so the decline from 2008 to 2012 might not even be due to the different electoral calendar.

As for 6A and 6B, most people seem to think that separate elections would be better for the KMT. The logic is that the KMT is unpopular now, and by separating the elections the KMT could allow its incumbents to rely on their individual local popularity. That might be reasonable. However, I’m not sure what effect the lower turnout would have. In 2008, the different turnouts didn’t seem to matter, implying that the two sides failed to mobilize roughly the same number of supporters in the legislative elections. After the 2014 elections, in which there are some indications that the green side was better at mobilization, I’m not sure the KMT should want to compete in another mobilization contest so soon. In a presidential election, given the intensity of the media coverage and the total attention paid by society, just about all of the electorate living in Taiwan will turn out. (To put it another way, the overwhelming majority of the 20% that does not vote live outside Taiwan.) In a legislative election, not everyone in Taiwan will turn out to vote simply because legislators don’t seem as important as the president. You have a much harder task in mobilizing your supporters, and I think this might be harder for a demoralized KMT voting base than for a relatively energized DPP. Maybe not, but my second point is that it isn’t necessarily obvious which major party would benefit from separating the two elections. (My first point is that the legislative election will be dominated by the presidential election no matter when it is held, so whichever party benefits won’t benefit very much.)

If it were up to me, I’d separate the two elections in order to shrink the period between the presidential election and inauguration. If they combine the elections “in order to save money,” I’ll puke in my mouth just a bit. Either way, don’t get too excited about which party is getting the advantage, because any advantage will likely be very, very small.

How MMP could crash

December 18, 2014

Ideas are flying left and right for changing the constitutional system. I’ll get to them at some point, but right now those proposals are so vague that I can’t analyze them. Instead, let’s look at a much more mature proposal, the one to change the electoral system to a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system.

First, let’s review some vocabulary. A mixed member system combines two types of electoral formulae. In one tier, voters can vote for individual candidates. This is called the “nominal tier,” since you usually vote for a particular name. In most mixed systems, the nominal tier employs single seat districts. In the other tier, voters select a party, and parties designate individuals to sit in any seat that the party wins. This tier almost always uses some sort of party list, so it is called the “list tier.”

There are two major types of mixed member systems. In Mixed Member Majoritarian (MMM) systems (in Chinese often labeled 兩票並立制) the tiers are unlinked, so what happens in one has no effect on how the seats are handed out in the other. Taiwan, Japan, and Korea all have MMM systems. To illustrate, imagine a country with 200 total seats, half in each tier. There are four parties who win 40%, 30%, 20%, and 10% of the votes respectively.

District votes 40% 30% 20% 10%
District seats (A) 76 22 2 0
List votes 40% 30% 20% 10%
List seats (B) 40 30 20 10
Total seats (A+B) 116 52 22 10
Seat share 58% 26% 11% 5%

Since Party A is the most popular party, let’s imagine that it will win most (76) of the district seats, Party B will win most of the rest (22), and Party C will win the remaining two seats. In the list tier, the seats are distributed to each party proportionally according to the list vote. The overall seat distribution is simply the sum of the two tiers. In this example, Party A wins a clear majority of the overall seats even though it won far less than 50% of the votes. This is what we call a manufactured majority, and it is quite possible in MMM systems. (The KMT holds a manufactured majority right now; it did not get 50% of the votes in either tier in 2012.) This is why the system is labeled with the third M, “majoritarian.”

The other flavor of mixed member systems is called Mixed Member Proportional (MMP; in Chinese usually called 兩票聯立制). In MMP, the two tiers are linked. The list tier vote is much more important than the nominal tier vote, as the party vote determines the overall seat share. Using the same example from above, the seats are distributed as follows:

List votes 40% 30% 20% 10%
Total seats (A) 80 60 40 20
District votes 40% 30% 20% 10%
District seats (B) 76 22 2 0
List seats (A-B) 4 38 38 20
Seat share 40% 30% 20% 10%

Start by looking at the party list votes. Since Party A got 40% of the list tier votes, it will get 40% of the total seats, or 80 total seats. In the nominal tier, Party A has won 76 seats, so in order to get to a total of 80, it needs an additional 4 seats. Note that Party A gets the most party list votes, but it actually gets the fewest party list seats. Under the MMP logic, winning more districts doesn’t help a party win more total seats, it only changes which people get to sit in those seats. If Party A had won a 77th seat by beating one of the Party C district winners, it would have only won three list seats. Party C would have then gotten a 39th list seat. Either way, Party A gets 40% of the total seats and Party C gets 20%.

So the biggest difference between MMM (Taiwan’s current system) and MMP (which Tsai Ing-wen is promoting) is that MMM has majoritarian tendencies because the tiers are independent while MMP is proportional because the tiers are linked.

There are lots of arguments to be made for why MMP is better. My personal opinion is that just about anything other than a straight American-style single seat plurality system would be better than Taiwan’s current MMM system. However, I’m not going to go into these arguments right now. What I want to look at now are the arguments for why MMP won’t work. The concern is not that MMP will produce bad politics, but rather that, if we are not careful, MMP could simply self-destruct. Most of these concerns center around “overhang seats.”

Go back to the previous example. What if, instead of winning 76 district seats, Party A had won 82? Its 40% list share vote only entitles it to 80 seats, so perhaps it should get -2 list seats! What the Germans and most other countries using MMP do is to create overhang seats.

A B C D Total
List votes 40% 30% 20% 10% 100%
Total earned seats (A) 80 60 40 20 200
District votes 40% 30% 20% 10%
District seats (B) 82 16 2 0 100
List seats (A-B) 0 44 38 20 102
Total seats 82 60 40 20 202
Seat share 40.6% 29.7% 19.8% 9.9%

Party A is allowed to keep all 82 of its district seats, and it does not get any list seats. Party B is supposed to get 60 total seats, so it gets an additional 44 list seats. Likewise, Party C gets 38 list seats, and Party D gets 20 list seats. You will notice that this makes 102 list seats. The total chamber is thus enlarged. Instead of 200 members, there are now 202 members. Because of the overhang seats, Party A has a slightly larger seat share than vote share, while the other three parties are slightly underrepresented.

This may not seem so serious, but Germans think it is. In Germany, overhang seats have caused the parliament to expand by as many as 29 seats or about 5% of the total chamber (if my memory is correct). In Taiwan, we are used to the idea that a party’s seat share and vote share might be a little off, but Germans take the principle of proportionality much more seriously. In fact, the German constitutional court has ruled the current system is unconstitutional since it can produce such disproportional outcomes, and it has demanded that the overhang system be revamped. They haven’t finalized how they will reform the system, but one possibility is to expand the seats going to the other parties as well. In the above example, Party B might also get two more seats, and Parties C and D might each get one more seat. Thus, instead of having 202 seats, the two overhang seats might require a chamber with 206 total seats. With a lot of overhang seats, the chamber size might spiral out of control.

If this were the main problem, I wouldn’t be too worried. Taiwan has historically been willing to put up with modest amounts of disproportionality. Moreover, the modest disproportionality from a few overhang seats would be less than the average disproportionality incurred under either the current MMM system or the former SNTV system. Moreover, as long as the list tier is expanded from the current 30% of all seats to closer to 50% of all seats, we shouldn’t expect to see too many overhangs. The main reason Germany has overhang seats is that they have party lists in each state rather than one national list. If Taiwan had one list for Taipei City, the KMT might easily sweep all the district seats with less than 50% of the party vote (especially with revitalized PFP and New Parties), thus creating the potential for overhang seats. However, with a national list, the KMT’s overrepresentation in the north is balanced out by their underrepresentation in the south, so overhang seats are unlikely. (The 2008 sweep would have been just shy of requiring overhang seats.)

However, what if the KMT or DPP cynically set out to create overhang seats? Could they crash the system? Let’s go back to the first MMP example, where Party A won 76 district seats and only 4 list seats. What if Party A decided that 4 list seats wasn’t enough for their 40% list votes? What they could do is to form a fake party called Party A*. All of the district candidates would run under the Party A* label, and all of the list candidates would run under the Party A label. Now let’s look at the table:

A A* B C D Total
List votes 40% 0% 30% 20% 10%
Total earned seats (A) 80 0 60 40 20 200
District votes 0% 40% 30% 20% 10%
District seats (B) 0 76 22 2 0 100
List seats (A-B) 80 0 38 38 20 176
Total Seats 80 76 60 40 20 276
Seat share 29.0% 27.5% 21.7% 14.5% 7.2% 276

Since Parties A and A* are legally unrelated, Party A gets a full 80 list seats to reflect its 40% party list vote share, while Party A* gets to keep all of its 76 district seats as overhang seats. Of course, they are actually the same party, and instead of 40% of the total seats, they have managed to win 56.6% of the total seats. Well now, that’s quite a difference.

Of course, if Party A did this, Party B would respond with a fake Party B* and so on. The logical result is that the MMP system of 100 nominal tier and 100 list tier seats would be transformed into a de facto MMM system with 100 nominal tier and 200 list tier seats. If we change the constitution to replace MMM with MMP, we probably don’t want to end up back with MMM. Moreover, it would be dishonest MMM, all the parties would snipe at each other for refusing to honor the rules of the game, the general public would think even less of politicians’ sense of fair play, and satisfaction with the way democracy works would probably sink even lower.

Would the parties really do this? In Italy, they actually have. About a decade ago, both of the major alliances came up with fake party lists precisely to avoid having success in the nominal tier count against the list tier. Not coincidentally, Italy recently discarded its mixed member system altogether. Germans have also recently become aware of what they call “negative voting,” though they haven’t yet been cynical enough to present fake party lists. (Insert your own joke about rule abiding German culture and corrupt Italian cultures here.) I have a hard time believing that the largest party in Taiwan would see an opportunity to turn a mere plurality in the legislature into a majority and wouldn’t seize it. If Taiwan does opt for a MMP system, there needs to be some way to prevent the fake list problem. I’m not quite sure how to do this without causing all sorts of other problems.

This brings us to the second serious problem. If you do find some way to ensure that all of a party’s candidates actually use the party’s label, what do you do about independents? Consider Yen Ching-piao 顏清標. Because of Yen’s background with organized crime, he and the KMT have decided that it is better for him not to officially join the party. In the past two elections, the KMT simply didn’t nominate a candidate in his district, and Yen won as an independent. He isn’t the only one. Both the KMT and DPP have found it useful at various times to defer to independents. However, these arrangements essentially take us back to the previous problem. Any seat won by an independent will, by definition, result in overhang seats. As such, if you allow independents, the KMT and DPP have an incentive to encourage their members to run as independents (or at least not to force allies to join their party). One solution is to not allow independent candidates. In Bolivia, all candidates must represent a party, and every party must nominate a candidate for every office. I don’t think this is a plausible arrangement for Taiwan. There is a very strong tradition of independents going back to the authoritarian era. Many people consider the option to quit their party and take their candidacy directly to the people to be a basic democratic right. Again, I’m not quite sure how to square this circle.

MMP could work in Taiwan, but the details matter. If reformers ignore potential abuses, they might be burying a time bomb right in the heart of the democratic system. I’m actually starting to think that these problems are sufficiently serious that we should consider a different electoral system, such as the old SNTV system or some version of Open List PR.

Coordination failures in City Council races

December 4, 2014

Consider the city council election in New Taipei District 5. This is the Zhonghe 中和區 district, traditionally a KMT stronghold. It elected 6 seats this year. Here are the results.

votes party Win
江永昌 Chiang 38,503 DPP Y
邱烽堯 Chiu 28,764 KMT Y
陳錦錠 Chen 26,290 KMT Y
游輝宂 You 24,703 Ind Y
張瑞山 Chang 21,768 DPP Y
林秀惠 Lin HH 21,678 DPP Y
金瑞龍 Chin 21,159 KMT
戴德成 Tai 13,965 New
林朝鑫 Lin CH 8,788 Ind

The DPP won half the seats with only 39.9% of the vote. (They actually won more votes than the KMT, though that isn’t as impressive as it sounds. Both of the independent and the New Party candidate are from the blue camp, so the district is basically 60-40 in favor of the blue camp.)

The KMT nominated three candidates, but it only won two seats. Could it have won all three seats? It certainly looks like it could have. The third KMT candidate (Chin) lost the last seat by only about 500 votes. If the KMT had been able to shift a thousand votes from their top candidate (Chiu) to Chin, they would have won the last seat. This is what we call a coordination failure. If the KMT had coordinated their electoral strategy more successfully, they might have won another seat.

But wait, you say. The DPP could play that game too. The top DPP candidate had lots of extra votes. If we imagine the KMT could have rearranged its votes, why don’t we assume that the DPP could have as well? In fact, if you allow both parties to distribute their votes perfectly, the DPP comes out on top. The DPP had 81949 votes, so each of its three candidates could have won 27316. The KMT only had 76213, or 25404 for each candidate. But wait (again!). The independent candidate (You) won with only 24703 votes. If both parties had rationed their votes perfectly, the DPP would have won the first three seats, the KMT would have won seats four through six, and the independent candidate would have lost. So the KMT really could have won three seats with better coordination.

Of course, we are knee-deep in questionable assumptions. Most importantly, many of the KMT’s (and DPP’s) votes are personal, not partisan. A person might like Chen because Chen did some constituency service for her or because Chen was her elementary school classmate, and that voter’s second favorite candidate might not be another KMT nominee. Still, it is probably safe to assume that there is a pool of KMT supporters who would be willing to switch to any KMT candidate if that helped to produce more KMT winners. It is not entirely unrealistic to think about moving votes around.


Coordination failures are at the heart of the Single Non-transferable Vote (SNTV) electoral system. Like in every system, the most important thing is winning popular support. However, votes must be turned into seats, and this is particularly convoluted in SNTV. Some systems are proportional, such as the party list system used in Taiwan’s legislative elections. If a party gets 35% of the votes, they should get 35% of the party list seats. Some systems are majoritarian, such as the geographical seats in Taiwan’s legislative elections. If a party gets 35% of the votes, it might end up with a very low seat share (if it is opposed by one large party) or a very high seat share (if the other 65% of the votes are fragmented among many smaller parties. SNTV is generally considered to be a semi-proportional electoral system, since parties usually win roughly similar proportions of votes and seats. However, there are no guarantees of proportionality, and a party that suffers too many coordination failures can win a far lower seat share than one might expect.

There are three ways to mess up. A party can nominate too few candidates, it can nominate too many candidates, or it can fail to distribute its votes appropriately among its nominees. In the above example, the DPP had enough votes for three seats. It could have messed up by nominating only two candidates. That doesn’t happen very often. It generally only happens when a party does unexpectedly well at the polls. More commonly, a party will nominate too many candidates. Sometimes this happens because the party’s support is shrinking. Usually, there simply are too many people who want to run, and none of them are willing to step aside. In the last two election cycles, the KMT has suffered both of these. The 2010 Taichung city council race was a particularly stark example. In the old Taichung County, the KMT’s vote share fell from 45% in 2005 to 35%, while the reduction in total seats meant that there were lots of incumbents who were unwilling to step aside. The result was too many candidates chasing too few votes and a KMT bloodbath. The third failure is the one we saw in 2014 New Taipei 5, the failure to ration votes evenly to each nominee. This is the most common error.

One of the big questions in the academic literature is whether SNTV is good for small parties or for big parties. The initial answer was that it must be good for small parties. Small parties face much simpler coordination problems. It is much easier for small parties to figure out how many people to nominate. The answer is almost always one. With only one candidate, vote rationing is not a problem. Supporters simply vote for the only party nominee on the ballot. If there are enough votes for two seats, things get more difficult. The small party might nominate incorrectly, not believing it really has that much support. More importantly, with two candidates, vote rationing becomes a challenge. It is hard to ensure that both candidates will get the same number of votes. If two is hard, three is harder. Compared with four, three is a breeze. In general, the more seats a party can win in a given district, the harder it is to turn those votes into the full number of seats. If this is correct, it should be very hard to hold big parties together, since the electoral system rewards smallness.

That logic seems sound, but observers noticed that big parties always seemed to win a seat bonus. For example, in the 1992 Legislative Yuan elections, the KMT won 53% of the votes but 59% of the seats. How could this be? There are two answers. First, in the absence of any coordination failures, SNTV will produce results exactly equal to the D’Hondt system of proportional representation. Among all the PR systems, D’Hondt is the friendliest to big parties. (I’ll explain this later on.) Second, some big parties are governing parties. Governing parties can use their control of state resources to mitigate coordination problems. If too many people want to run, a governing party might convince one of them to withdraw by offering her a position in the cabinet, by promising a big bank loan to the candidate’s company through a state-run bank, by threatening to start inspecting the candidate’s food oil company every month, or by using the judicial system to investigate unethical financial practices. Governing parties might also be better at figuring out how many nominees are appropriate, since they can draw on information about economic development, the popularity of various government programs, and other national trends from their control of the government bureaucracy. Finally, they should be better at vote rationing. If one candidate is weaker than other nominees, they can shift state resources to that candidate. For example, the government could suddenly pave a lot of roads in the candidate’s home area. (Note: Before you start screaming at your computer about how this is blatant abuse of power and the goddamn KMT cheats like hell and the playing field isn’t level and that is Taiwan’s democratic birth defect, please be aware that this literature was all developed by scholars studying Japan, not Taiwan. Taiwan was merely a corroborating case.)

So who made more errors this year, the KMT or the DPP? On the one hand, the KMT was the governing party, so we should expect it to do better. (National governing power has generally been a better indicator than local governing power.) On the other hand, the KMT had a surprisingly awful election in terms of winning votes. It is always harder to shrink than to grow, so we might expect that the KMT overnominated in too many places.

Measuring coordination failures is a subjective matter. Some people insist that we should judge whether the KMT erred based on the actual performance of all the other candidates. In the Zhonghe example, the KMT should have known that its candidates each needed at least 21679 votes (since the last wining non-KMT candidate got 21678), so it failed. I think this demands too much, since it assumes the KMT could estimate how many votes each individual candidate would get (after the other parties rationed their votes) and then ration its own votes appropriately. I prefer to assume simply that the parties can estimate how many votes each party will get, but not how many votes each individual candidate will get. We can then assess how many seats each party “should have” won (with no errors) and how many it actually won.

If no one makes any errors, SNTV becomes equivalent to the D’Hondt system. D’Hondt is a system of divisors which essentially asks how many votes you can pay for each seat. Take all the parties’ vote totals, and give the first seat to the highest number. So the DPP wins the first seat. Then divide that party’s vote by two. The next seat goes to the new highest number, so the KMT wins the second seat. After that, the DPP wins the third seat, and now the DPP’s vote total is divided by 3. Eventually, the KMT and DPP both win three seats. Given the KMT’s 76213 votes, it can give three candidates 25404 each. The DPP can’t take away and of those seats. If it tried to nominate four candidates, it could only give each one 20487. This would put them behind not just the KMT’s three candidates, but also behind You. Thus, my expectation for this district is that the KMT and DPP should both win three seats.

votes 2 3 4
KMT 76213 (2) 38107 (4) 25404 (6) 19053
DPP 81949 (1) 40975 (3) 27316 (5) 20487
New 13965
You 24703
Lin CH 8788

In the actual election, the DPP won three seats, so they did not suffer a coordination failure. The KMT only won two seats, so they failed. (Note that this can seem a little unfair. The KMT’s three candidates were more closely bunched together than the DPP’s three, but because the DPP had more overall votes it had a larger margin for error. In the end, winning seats is what matters.)

You will notice that in this example, when a coordination failure occurs, it costs a big party a seat and a little party (in this case, an independent) benefits. This is not unusual. Little parties often depend on big parties making mistakes. Little parties might not have enough votes to be assured of winning a seat, but they might have just enough to be able to sneak in whenever a big party messes up.


I looked at the city council races for all 375 seats in 83 districts in the six metro city council elections this year. There were a total of 33 errors. The KMT made 18 mistakes, the DPP made 14, and the New Party made one. Most of those seats went to independents and small parties. Independents won 18, the TSU gained 3, the PFP got 2, and the New Party got 1. The two big parties did get a few, with the KMT taking 6 and the DPP winning 3. Here is how this affected seat shares:

votes seats seats
SNTV D’Hondt
actual no errors
KMT 36.5 40.3 43.2
DPP 41.6 44.5 47.7
New 1.6 0.5 0.5
PFP 2.0 1.3 0.8
TSU 2.3 1.3 0.5
Green/Tree 1.1 0.3 0.3
Independents 14.9 11.7 6.9

The KMT won 36.5% of the votes and had a potential seat bonus of 6.7%. However, it only managed to realize part of that and had to settle for 40.3% of the seats, a seat bonus of 3.8%. The DPP’s potential seat bonus was a bit smaller (5.9%) as was its actual seat bonus (2.9%). Overall, I think the two parties both did quite well. They both had numerous districts with four, five, or more nominees, and these are extremely difficult to get right. Both big parties are getting quite good at playing this game.

There are people who think that this need for appropriate nomination and vote rationing strategies is an argument for abolishing the SNTV system. Sometimes more seats can go to parties that have won fewer votes, and that is a basic failure for any electoral system. However, the more I think about it, the more I like it. SNTV rewards parties for developing the capacity to act collectively. If you want to be big enough to win governing power, you need to be able to resolve your internal differences. Parties that can overcome these coordination challenges are rewarded with more seats. There are always temptations to break ranks, but parties that can effectively cooperate will reap an electoral reward.


Just for fun, let’s try something else. Remember that I said the D’Hondt system was the friendliest PR system for big parties? Note that in the above table, small parties and independents (who are simply single person parties) are dramatically underrepresented. What would produce a more proportional result?

There is already a much more proportional system in use in Taiwan. The Central Election Commission uses a quota formula used to determine party list seats in the legislature and also to apportion legislative or city council seats to various districts. Again, start with the party totals in Zhonghe. Calculate the quota by dividing the total number of votes by the number of seats. Quota=205618/6 = 34269. Divide each party’s vote total by the quota to determine how many complete quotas each party gets. In this example, the KMT and DPP both have enough votes for two full quotas. However, that is only four seats, and this district has six. The last two seats are determined by comparing the remainders. In this case the largest two remainders belong to You and the New Party.

votes quotas Remainder Largest? total
KMT 76213 2 7675 2
DPP 81949 2 13411 2
New 13965 0 13965 1 1
You 24703 0 24703 1 1
Lin CH 8788 0 8788 0

This formula is clearly more favorable to small parties. The DPP has 5.8 times as many votes as the New Party, but it only wins twice as many seats. Whether you think that is reasonable probably depends on how you feel about small parties.

The difference between the two systems is roughly the difference between preset prices and haggling. In the quota system, the price of each seat is fixed. If you have a quota, you can buy a seat. In D’Hondt, you can bargain. Ok, I’ll give you x votes for 2 seats or y votes for three seats. The critical difference is that the price for a full seat is lower in D’Hondt. Big parties buying multiple seats at full price can thus buy more seats. If the price of a quota is higher, why do small parties do better in a quota system? They don’t pay full price! The last seat a party wins can come at a discount. For small parties, the last seat is the first seat. Thus the New Party was able to win a seat with only 40% of a quota.

These extremely cheap first seats can cause major problems. While they help ensure a voice for small parties, they also create a strong incentive for big parties to splinter. Remember, if the DPP breaks into three parties called Chiang, Lin, and Chang, it can win three seats instead of two. The DPP is actually penalized for presenting a common name and a common platform. It should split up into lots of small parties. If you think this sounds far-fetched, it is actually an accurate description of what happened in Colombia. After several election cycles, the politicians figured out how to work the system and eventually every party list elected only one person. In other words, they turned a quota system into SNTV. This eventually led to electoral reform to a German-style mixed electoral system.

These problems haven’t cropped up in Taiwan for two separate reasons. In seat apportionment, each district is guaranteed one seat regardless of size, so the various districts are only competing for full quotas. Anyway, cities and counties aren’t really strategic actors that can split up or merge for electoral gain. In the legislative elections, the 5% threshold ensures that parties cannot win one cheap seat. Any party that gets at least 5% will win at least two seats, so all additional seats require a full quota.

What happens if we use the quota rule on the 375 municipal council seats?

votes seats seats seats
SNTV D’Hondt Quota
actual no errors CEC rule
KMT 36.5 40.3 43.2 37.9
DPP 41.6 44.5 47.7 41.1
New 1.6 0.5 0.5 1.3
PFP 2.0 1.3 0.8 1.1
TSU 2.3 1.3 0.5 1.6
Green/Tree 1.1 0.3 0.3 0.5
Independents 14.9 11.7 6.9 16.5

This is a much more proportional result. The two big parties get roughly the same seat share as their vote share. The four small parties also do much better, though they still don’t get quite as many seats as votes.

Anyway, this little exercise was just for my fun. Some people like to think about how to get more votes. I like to think about how to turn the votes you already have into more seats. I’m just a nerd that way.


No flags for you

October 19, 2014

One of the reasons that the Frozen Garlic blog was silent so late into the election season this year is that it simply didn’t feel like there was an election in the Taipei area. I kept waiting for the flags to go up to signal the beginning of the election season, but there are still no flags in Taipei. There are no flags in New Taipei either. In my neighborhood, which is technically in Keelung City, only one candidate has put up flags. No flags, no election feeling for me. Last weekend I took a trip to Pingtung, and as soon as we got off the freeway we were engulfed in campaign flags. Aaahh, democracy! I felt so happy and warm. We drove back and stopped by Taichung, and, again, there were no campaign flags. What is going on?

It seems there is a concerted push against planting flags this year. One campaign office told me that the six direct municipalities have put together a no-flag policy. We got a leaflet in Keelung from a DPP candidate saying that she promised not to put up any flags this year and implying that this was part of a wider campaign. I haven’t been outside of the Taipei area much this election season, so I can’t say what things look like on the east coast, Changhua, Hsinchu, Chiayi, or most other areas. But as you can probably tell, I’m not happy about this development.

The “good people” in society have been complaining about campaign flags for years. Flags are supposed to be chaotic, dirty, and visual pollution. To this I reply, have you looked at a Taiwan streetscape recently? Between the cacophony of colorful business signs, the flags advertising mango ice cream at family mart, the epilepsy-inducing flashing LED lights at every betelnut stand, the huge neon (nowadays LED) billboard ads for TECO air conditioners, and the ubiquitous real estate ads plastered on every inch of bare concrete walls, Taiwan is hardly lacking in visual stimulation. I’m supposed to believe that those things are all part of the natural environment, but campaign flags are horrible visual pollution??

I suspect the campaign against campaign flags is rooted in distaste for democracy. I feel warm and fuzzy inside when I see the island festooned in its campaign clothes because I love election season. It reminds me that the country is exercising its fundamental right of self-governance by giving power to the people. Other people, I suspect, have quite different gut feelings about the election holiday season. There are many people who gravitate toward the idea that bureaucrats should run the show. Bureaucrats love to talk about unity and harmony; elections are the very essence of division and conflict. This sort of feeling is common not only in the mainlander elites but also in the Taiwanese elites who think that everything is better in Japan. (One of the things usually admired about Japan is how the colonial bureaucrats set up all the good infrastructure and systems that Taiwanese enjoy today.) Both groups often see politicians, especially local politicians, as corrupt, narrow-minded, and uncultured. Yet elections are precisely the time when these rough barbarians threaten the power of the wise, educated, selfless bureaucratic elite. I think this causes gut-level fear and disgust with democratic processes, which are by nature disorderly, emotional, unstructured, and aimed at communicating with the unwashed masses rather than commanding them from above. One reaction to an instinctive distaste for the messiness of the democratic process is to criticize it as ugly and excessive. A “good society” would not see so much chaos, sniff the media and government elites. Why not try to regulate it out of sight?

Wait, maybe the bureaucrats are really sincere. Maybe they really just don’t like flags on streets. That argument might hold water except for one thing. The government plants lots of flags on Taiwan city streets. Most major streets in Taipei (and other major cities) have flags up almost year round. They typically advertise some government-sponsored event. No, let me rephrase that. They typically advertise some event held in a government-owned venue. Thus we see flags for the Taipei book fair, a violin performance, a furniture exhibition, or a pop concert. How are these justifiable? The city government puts them up as a public service to educate the public about some upcoming public event. After all, if the people aren’t informed about a public event, how can they participate as a civic community in public life? It is important for the health of the collective community, after all, that they be able to attend public events and experience a sense of collective solidarity by doing things together. You know, like go to Lady Gaga concerts. (Yes, the Taipei city government put up flags all over the city advertising Lady Gaga. Obviously, those were public service announcements, not visual pollution. Fortunately, the Lady Gaga concert was well-attended, so Taiwan now enjoys a much stronger civic culture.) Campaign flags, on the other hand, are pure visual pollution. They are clearly not serving any important purpose such as informing the general public of an upcoming public event in which widespread public participation would make society stronger or create bonds of solidarity by sharing the experience of performing some public duty. Nope, just visual pollution.

(One other example. Last weekend the government put up a different set of flags in many locales all over the island. They were red, with some blue and a white star in the upper left corner. Those rows and rows of flags were serving the public interest and were definitely not visual pollution.)

I realize I’m going to lose this fight. I also understand it isn’t the end of the world. Democracy will manage to survive, and most people will still turn out to vote and figure out who to vote for. Still, I can’t help but feel that Taiwan is losing a bit of its unique flair and that democracy is a bit less festive without the cacophony of colors lining the streets in election season. Sigh.

I hate (the name) FPTP

February 19, 2014

[This post has nothing to do with politics in Taiwan.  If you only care about that, you can skip this one.  This is a nerdy political science terminology rant.]


I don’t like First Past the Post (FPP*).  For one thing, it’s a lousy electoral system.  However, that’s a topic for another day.  What I’ll be hating in this post is the name itself.

(*The acronym is also an irritant.  Most people write FPTP even though we drop the T for almost every other use of “the.”  So you can have the inconvenience of writing a four-letter acronym (and remember, the whole point of an acronym is brevity), or you can use a three-letter acronym and look like you are unaware of the rest of the world.  Ugh.)

FPP rests on an analogy: elections are like a horse race.  Just as the first horse to run the whole track and pass the post at the finish line is the winner, so it is in plurality elections with only one seat at stake.  Just as the fastest horse wins, so does the candidate with the most votes.  Easy.

Except that single member plurality (SMP) elections are nothing like a horse race.  In a nutshell, there is no fixed post.  In a horse race, the finish line is set out clearly before the horses start running.  Every jockey knows that the race will be exactly one mile (for example).  The competition is to go exactly one mile faster than everyone else.  In an election, no one knows where the finish line will be before the voting starts.  The candidates may know how many eligible voters there are, but they cannot say (with any certainty) how many votes they will need to win.

What would a true FPP election look like?  Imagine a mayoral race in a city with 100,000 eligible voters.  Where is the post?  In a FPP horse race, the post is always attainable.  (Have you ever seen a horse race where all the horses dropped dead from exhaustion before reaching the finish line?)  So we have to imagine what the lower range of turnouts is and then we have to account for an unexpectedly large number of candidates running.  So let’s assume that we are really, really sure that at least 50,000 voters will turn out, and we can’t imagine the race becoming so fractionalized that no one could get 20% of the vote.  That implies that we should set the post at no higher than 10,000 votes.  (Remember, that’s a maximum; it would often be lower.)  So the electoral commission advertises the election, saying the first candidate to get to 10,000 votes will be named mayor.  Several candidates register, thinking they can get 10,000 votes.  On election day, the race is to get your votes out as early as possible.  Votes would have to be counted as soon as they are cast (so much for secrecy), and somehow all the precincts would have to be synced up so that they all reported simultaneously.  If voting starts at 8:00am, it might be over by 8:30.  One imagines that campaigns would become expert in lining up voters before the polls opened so that their votes would be cast before opponents’ supporters had a chance to weigh in.  They would also practice voting as fast or as slow as possible so that the people in line would or would not have a chance to vote, depending on past voting history at that precinct.

This race looks nothing like a SMP election.  There is no reason to expect there will only be two candidates.  On the one hand, lots of horse owners think their horse can run a mile really fast, and, in a city with 100,000 eligible voters, several candidates will think they have 10,000 supporters.  If the race is to get 10,000 supporters to the polls as early in the morning as possible, the true FPP election is not a contest over the median voter.  Rather, you will want to mobilize a highly energized but relatively small fraction of the electorate.  (Wait, that sounds more like PR with large M!?!)  On the other hand, there is no reason to aggregate.  In an election, two candidates with overlapping support might split their vote and both lose.  In a horse race, no horse runs faster or slower because a similar horse is also in the race.  If one horse drops out, its time isn’t added or subtracted from any other horse’s time.  Most horse races have 8 or 12 entrants; most SMP races have far fewer.

I could go further.  For example, a lower or higher turnout would be akin to jockeys being able to move the post closer to or further away from the starting line.  However, I think the basic point is clear by now.  SMP elections are not like horse races since there is no fixed post.  Consequently, there is no way to be the first past the post.  The analogy and the terminology are fatally flawed.  If you think it through to the logical conclusions, a “true FPP” election would actually look more like the polar opposite of a SMP election.