Recent Posts:

Gerrymandering in the Public Interest? || London and Gaza: Can democratic citizens be held responsible for their governments? || Democracy is Disruptive || Cash 4 Rights: why stop in the workplace? ||

Gerrymandering in the Public Interest?

Jan 24, 2016

IPPR suggested an interesting idea last year (p7) - in the absence of real electoral reform can we do something about safe seats? What if we gave the Boundary Commissions a duty to make less of them?

A new duty to consider competitiveness would mean that the commissions would work to reduce the number of ‘safe seats’ in parliament, where this accords with their duty to ensure parity of size and geographic coherence. In 2015, the Electoral Reform Society (2015b) calculated that there were 364 safe seats, where a swing of more than 5 per cent was required for the seat to change hands. Turnout and voter engagement is typically lower in safe seats than in marginal seats, where votes have more influence (ibid). Proactively reducing the number of safe seats and increasing the number of marginals, the boundary commissions could help to gerrymander the conditions for a more competitive electoral process. This in turn would make voters more powerful – or at least reduce the outsized power of voters who live in marginal seats relative to those who don’t.

In practical terms, the boundary commissions could do this by altering the boundaries of particular seats based on the aggregate outcome of the last three general elections by ward results. For instance, if two safe seats adjoin each other, and if it is possible to redistribute wards between each seat in a way that would, based on aggregate outcomes of the last three general elections, make both seats marginal or at least more competitive – and if in doing so the responsible commission can satisfy its other two key duties regarding size and geography – then the commission should redistribute those wards in that way. Giving the UK’s boundary commissions a duty to proactively create more politically balanced electorates within each constituency would thus help to reduce those dimensions of political inequality that are associated with the existence of large numbers of safe seats in a first-past-the-post voting system.

The practical problems with this have been explored at the Constitution Unit blog here (and the IPPR paper authors responded here) but what hasn't been noticed is this is going over a question that occasionally comes up in the US with the idea of a "public interest criteria" when drawing boundaries.

Over there "districting" tends to be controlled by the legislatures - which is a bad idea because they then have both the inclination and the ability to rig future elections more in their favour by better selecting their constituents. Because of this campaigners often argue legislatures should give up this power to independent commissions, who set boundaries based on neutral rules.

Lowenstein & Steinberg[1] argue against this. They say that there are in reality no neutral rules - all rules favour one set of results (and hence one winner) over another. The idea that districts should be 'compact' is meant to stop the long winding districts that are seen to define gerrymandering - but in reality 'compact' districts favour Republicans because Democratic votes are more tightly clustered - they will then be 'packed' in, wasting votes returning large democratic majorities. 'Neutral' compacting isn't neutral.

In the UK where we have the apolitical boundary commissions we see exactly this fight - natural population drift means boundaries favour Labour over time, therefore they oppose more frequent boundary reviews and strict population equality between constituencies and claim long standing constituencies are important to democracy. Conservatives want the opposite - because they benefit from frequent reviews and strict equality. There's not really a point of principle here, equal constituencies doesn't really make people more equal (differential turnout is too big to make this really an important factor) but what are absolutely political points are raised through preferences for various sets of 'neutral' rules. It just can't be done neutrally. There is no 'fair' way of dividing constituencies in a winner takes all system.

So Lowenstein & Steinberg come to a similar conclusion as IPPR - rather than look for rules unrelated to politics (which will never be apolitical) define an explicitly political goal : 'The Strong Competitiveness Criterion' (p.38):

From the standpoint of the political system as a whole, however, there is substantial appeal in the notion that if there is an election-to-election shift in voter sentiment from one party to the other, that shift should be reflected in the composition of the legislature. If a districting plan is drawn so that all or nearly all districts are very one-sided from a partisan standpoint, then all but the most extreme voter shifts from one party to the other will have only a minimal effect on the composition of the legislature.

They then point out a number of important practical things to remember. Should all districts be competitive? Arguably not, if there's a minor uniform swing in one direction ALL seats might switch hands - a disproportionate result. So how many safe seats do we want?

Because of problems like this they look at if even a 'Weak Competitiveness Criterion' (at least some seats should be competitive) could be legally enforceable but still find the 'how many?' issue too hard to escape. They also bring up that we're not really dealing with massive homogeneous forces, but local areas with local issues (p42):

An additional problem arises because competitiveness is not a trait that a district has independent of surrounding circumstances, and those circumstances are not stable. In particular, incumbency is ordinarily a major consideration in assessing the competitiveness of a district.

L & S conclude that ultimately:

[...] the proposed public interest criteria for redistricting demonstrates that none of those criteria can plausibly be numbered among the generally accepted pre-political principles that do or should govern the political process. They are not neutral, they are not grounded in broader principles that command general assent, and in many cases they are incoherent and cannot be made to work. Redistrcting should be one of the objects of the political struggle, not one of the ground rules.

Such a naked defence is of political districting is odd to British eyes because we like to believe that neutral rules exist and can put the Boundary Commissions above politics. But they can't and don't. As long as the electoral system makes the drawing of lines on the map a decision that has knock-on effects on every area of politics, intervention cannot be anything but political.

Implementing a public interest criteria at the same time as maintaining half the rules the Commissions already follow is likely to be impossible in almost all cases. The Boundary Commissions are the horribly messy and complicated back-end that powers the 'simple' FPTP system. Trying to tinker with them to make nicer things happen(even given the baseline) is doomed.

In the meantime IPPR's STV for local government is a good approach! If electoral reform has a future in this country it'll probably be as the result of those kind of steps.

And then when the day comes to vote out FPTP, ask its defenders to try and explain the Boundary Commissions. We'll see who has a 'complicated' electoral system.

[1] Daniel H Lowenstein and Jonathan Steinberg, ‘The Quest for Legislative Districting in the Public interest: Elusive or illusion’,UCLA Law Review 1 1985-1986, Vol. 33, 1985, pp. 1-76

London and Gaza: Can democratic citizens be held responsible for their governments?

Nov 24, 2012

Gilad Sharon's "Flatten Gaza" article in the Jerusalem Post has been rightly widely condemned as being a pretty horrible thing for a mainstream newspaper to publish (even bearing in mind the Jerusalem Post also published a "he went too far, but is he wrong?" article after Brievik), one part especially jumped out at me:

THE DESIRE to prevent harm to innocent civilians in Gaza will ultimately lead to harming the truly innocent: the residents of southern Israel. The residents of Gaza are not innocent, they elected Hamas. The Gazans aren’t hostages; they chose this freely, and must live with the consequences.

If you remember 7/7 bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan's suicide tape, that might be a familiar sentiment:

Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world. And your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters.

The principle here is simple: we elect our leaders, if our leaders chose to wage war with our support then we are all legitimate targets, in or out of uniform, on or off the battlefield.  It's not just to weaken the material war effort or 'morale' of the enemy (dodgy, but anyway), democratic civilians are morally culpable and so indiscriminate violence can be justified.

As it happens Sharon is just plain wrong on the facts, Hamas did win the 2006 elections but the current Hamas government in Gaza results from a 2007 takeover. More interesting for this question is exactly why they won in 2006 - a combination of the electoral system and severe splits within Fatah:

Post-election surveys showed the price of this disunity, a distortion magnified by an electoral system under which half the seats were won in district races[at-large elections with multiple seats] and the other half—the national list—were allocated according to the list’s proportion of the national vote. Thus, Hamas won 29 seats (against Fatah’s 28) in the 66-seat national list with 44 percent of the vote. The non-Hamas vote (56 percent)was divided between Fatah and the four other PLO or “Third Way” lists. But while Hamas candidates won 45 (68 percent) of the 66 district seats in parliament, they did so with 36.5 of the vote. Sixty-three percent voted for non-Hamas candidates, the vast majority dispersed between Fatah’s official and independent candidates. In the end, Fatah won a mere 17 seats in the districts. On the basis of these figures it is difficult to refute Awad’s conclusion. “Hamas did not win the elections—Fatah lost them.” (p.26)

That 36.5% figure is interesting because Labour in the 2005 elections won with just a percent less, on 35.2% percent of the vote.  In both cases the 'culpable party' won with far less than majority support - can we really say there's a lot of collective responsibility there?

But wait - those are the figures for the whole of Palestine - maybe the Gaza districts were more Hamas hardcore. No such luck, using the break down of results from the Carter Center report I made this table of how the vote played out (remember it's at-large districts- as many votes as seats open - so there are many more votes than voters):

District Votes for Change & Reform (Hamas) Total Votes  % Hamas
North Gaza 170021 363832 46.73%
Gaza 364529 941959 38.70%
Deir al-Balah 79594 253882 31.35%
Khan Younis 160014 531480 30.11%
Rafah 61936 153247 40.42%
Total 836094 2244400 37.25%

So even just within Gaza it's hard to argue Hamas had overwhelming support. It's also worth remembering that Gaza has a pretty high proportion of children (43.8% - 0-14) and so democratic decisions by the adult population have more potential legitimacy problems than might otherwise be the case. Saying children 'chose freely' to be bombed because less than half of adults voted for a party six years ago might be pushing democratic accountability a bit far.

Democracy is Disruptive

Oct 13, 2012

Looking back on my child voting notes I remembered an argument that I didn't touch on last time I wrote about votes for children:  that children's different experiences alone, regardless of any question of competence is sufficient to justify representation.

What often annoys me about Votes at 16 arguments is that so many of the arguments deployed are incredibly regressive. Children can pay tax, they should vote! And we'll take away the vote from adults who don't?  If we lived in democracies with property requirements child voting advocates would be arguing that 16-year-olds can own property and should vote, not that there's something wrong with the basic idea. Fundamentally there's no difference between this tax position andIan Cowie's idea that only those who paid more than £100 income tax should be allowed to vote, which itself isn't a long way removed from an argument that the rich pay for more more of the state, why shouldn't they have more of a say?

British democracy has its origins in exactly this idea of a stakeholder democracy, expanding to include any group that might threaten it from the outside. But the real merit of democracy is that it is so disruptive of existing norms - democracy shouldn't simply reflect other power structures (the rich having more of a say than others, men wielding more decision making power than women) but should work to undermine those structures by expressing the always radical notion that everyone deserves an equal say.

Children represent a distinct interest, a massive consumer of state services (which occupy and direct a large amount of their time) and yet the argument often deployed is that they are so like us that it would unfair not to include them, not that they are so different we are missing a vital voice. As Wall put it:

[C]hildren may not always have as much autonomy or power as adults, but they are every bit as different. If the purpose of democratic representation is to respond to the fullest possible diversity of social experiences, then it includes responding to children – and to children’s endless diversity – just as much as it does to adults. Indeed, children would take on a heightened status as the most important test of being democratic, since they are more likely than most to call for political responsiveness from the whole. Being represented in the political sphere should not depend entirely on how competently one can argue for one’s interests or how effectively one can struggle against others for power. It should depend finally on how different one’s experiences are from those of others. (p. 10)

The right to vote should be as expansive as possible because those voted into office are given power over the lives of all. It should be presumed that everyone can vote unless a compelling argument can be provided for exclusion. Children’s right to vote is important if elected representatives are to perform their democratic duties of challenging historical marginalization and responding to constituents’ fullest differences. (p. 12)

From this perspective because the notion of letting children vote is unsettling is an excellent reason to do it - it will disrupt current power relations in a way that improve society.  There's a fine argument that actually, children are a different class of excluded person than all previous examples because their immaturity is transitional - one day they will grow up, no one is permanently excluded - but for the 'democracy as difference' argument this is hollow comfort because their 'difference' representing the child's interests is lost. If the blanket inclusion this implies is too radical, there are schemes that represent children on a fractional basis  (which are at least no worse than complete exclusion).

My personal opinion on votes at 16 has always tended towards supportive indifference, however currently I'm trying to write something long on political equality and democracy and it's been eye opening to see how many democratic theorists are just as willing to ignore the issue ('assume a population of adults' is the spherical cow of democratic theory). It's becoming increasingly hard to hold to the stance that this is an unimportant issue, in the UK the proportion of the population under fifteen is 18% - in Iraq and Libya it's 43%, Tanzania 45%, Uganda 48%. In places where the proportion of children to adults almost approaches parity, how can any account of democracy that excludes children not be severely flawed?

Cash 4 Rights: why stop in the workplace?

Oct 09, 2012

Yesterday George Osborne floated proposals that employers could offer contracts that exchange 'workplace rights for tax-free shares in the company'. While on the surface, this is trading hard-won employment rights for magic beans that may or may not be worth much (and in many businesses' cases, a wily employer could make it worth very little indeed) that's no reason to be harsh on the principle which could be used for any number of things - what are other rights worth?

Have a look through the European Convention on Human Rights and ask yourself, am I really ever going to use that? Take the prohibition in Article 2 against the death penalty, even when we had it in the 20th century we only executed around 11 people a year. Using the 1900 population stats (which only increase and so make this even more favourable) and assuming a life span of 80, I only have a 0.002% chance* of being executed in my lifetime  -  might I not be happy to take few quid a year to waive my right not be executed?

Of course, no one is going to offer me money to waive that right for exactly the same reason it might be appealing,  it's not worth much to me because the chances of execution are low and it's not worth much to other people because the number of people wanting to execute me is also low (hopefully).  In the case for employment rights for shares, the reasoning is that these are rights that people are quite likely to exercise, but actually things would be better if they didn't. The ideal situation for everyone is one where the right is worth very little to me but quite a lot to someone else and there's an obvious candidate for this - voting rights.

It's a famous problem for rational choice explanations of voting behaviour that the benefit to the individual of voting is tiny compared even to the very cheap costs of voting as the chances that your vote is the one that changes the outcome is so tiny that taking it seriously is like planning a route to work that avoids lottery-funded asteroid strikes**. For those of us voting in safe seats we can be pretty confident that our vote is almost entirely useless.  The fact that turnout still tends to be much higher than the 0% it should be is Downs Paradox, and most ways of resolving it rely on people voting on matters other than self-interest, such as loyalty to the group or candidate, or even just people think that voting is a Good Thing that should be encouraged and gone through, even if the benefits to yourself are limited.

But what if we made it even more expensive to vote (or vote freely) by offering money the other way? When a class of NYU students was polled in 2007, two-thirds would exchange their vote for a free year of tuition, half for a million dollars and  20% were as cheap as an iPod Touch (then between $300-400). This isn't just good for candidates and my wallet, a study looking at São Tomé and Príncipe found that decreasing vote-buying also hurt voter turnout and increased incumbent advantage - which are bad things!

There may of course be downsides I'm missing to this, but while we're working out which-rights-are-worth-how-much it's definitely something to think about.


* This is about the same odds as getting a straight flush in poker. Here's the question, did me telling you that make you feel being executed is more or less likely? Straight flushes are possible, your chances of seeing one in every game you've ever played or seen are much higher than the chances of getting one in your first game ever (which as my odds were over a lifetime is equivalent). Likewise dramatic hands are more likely to appear in film or TV depictions. This is a problem because when I give an example of probability your brain does a trick where instead of working on the odds, it tries to think of an example of the thing being described to assess the likelihood of it happening. Hence me giving the example of a straight flush makes 0.002% seem far, far more likely than it actually is.  Basically we're terrible with risk.

** Note: may actually be more likely than that.