Monday, September 12, 2016

Optional Preferences and Pauline Hanson

At the recent 2016 Australian federal election, the right-wing anti-immigration and anti-Islam One Nation Party performed remarkably strongly, winning four Senators and coming fourth in the nationwide Senate vote, with 4.3%. The party was formed in 1997 by Pauline Hanson, a Member of the House of Representatives from Queensland elected as an independent, after she was dis-endorsed by the Liberal Party for controversial comments about Indigenous Australians and government benefits.

Ms Hanson was defeated in the seat of Blair at the 1999 federal election, but unsuccessfully contested elections for a variety of offices after that, sometimes as an Independent and sometimes as a One Nation candidate. In some cases, she came very close to election, but it is only now that she has won a seat in the Senate, with 9.2% of the vote for One Nation in Queensland (Malcolm Roberts, Hanson's running mate was also elected).

With this strong a result, attention has turned towards the next Queensland state election, which is scheduled to take place in 2018. Polls show the minority Labor government of Premier Annnastacia Palaszczuk is currently in a tight race against the opposition Liberal National Party. One Nation's recent revival in support in the state, however, could potentially have a substantial impact on this election.

The other remarkable thing about the next Queensland election will be that it will take place under a somewhat different electoral system. Earlier this year, the Palaszczuk government changed the electoral system from optional to compulsory preferential voting. This means that voters must number every box on the ballot paper to cast a formal vote. From 1992 to now, voters were permitted to number as many or as few boxes as they liked. In the event that the count reached a stage where a voter had not marked preferences between the remaining candidates, that ballot was placed in the 'exhausted' pile, and exited the count.

The question now is; what impact will the change to compulsory preferential voting have on One Nation's chances at this election? One Nation has performed strongly in the state in the past; they won 11 seats, and 22% of the votes, at the 1998 election under optional preferences.

Do preferences help or hurt Pauline Hanson?

The strongest ever performance for One Nation in any sort of election was the party's result in the Queensland election 1998. The party won 22% of the first preference vote, and eleven seats, coming close to the balance of power.

What would this election have looked like under compulsory preferential voting? In order to do this, I assumed that exhausted votes would have flowed in the same way as those cast with preferences (for example, if at a certain count the preferences of Candidate C 40% of preferences went to Candidate A, 40% to Candidate B and 20% exhaust, I distributed 50% of Candidate C's votes to A and the same to B).

I looked at twelve seats in the course of conducting this analysis; the six most marginal seats won by Labor, and the six most marginal won by the National Party, where the final preference count was between that party and One Nation. The results of this analysis are below.

Seat Party held by OPV margin CPV margin Seat Party held by OPV margin CPV margin
Crows Nest NAT +0.9 +1.5 Bundaberg ALP +2.0 +0.6
Gympie NAT +1.7 +3.7 Cairns ALP +2.3 +1.5
Callide NAT +2.3 +3.3 Ipswich ALP +3.4 +3.3
Burnett NAT +8.8 +2.3 Kallangur ALP +3.9 +2.0
Hinchinbrook NAT +8.6 +9.8 Murrumba ALP +5.0 +3.8
Cunningham NAT +8.9 +10.1 Waterford ALP +5.2 +4.0

As can be seen, CPV tightens margins in seats eventually won by Labor, and increases margins in seats eventually won by the National Party. This intuitively makes sense; preferences from centre-right parties would be expected to flow to the right-wing candidate ahead of the centre-left candidate, and thus the simulated stronger flow of these preferences would be expected to strengthen the right-wing candidate.

This is from an election where One Nation were very prominent, though. In the 2015 election, Ms Hanson ran only for the seat of Lockyer. In this seat, Ms Hanson received 26.7% of the primary vote, to 33.7% for Liberal National incumbent Ian Rickuss. The final count resulted in Mr Rickuss narrowly holding the seat, winning 50.2% to 49.8% for Ms Hanson. Oddly enough, Ms Hanson received the preferences of 41% of Labor voters, compared to 29% that went to Mr Rickuss and 29% that exhausted. Compare this to the result for the same electorate in 1998. One Nation candidate Peter Prenzler received just 16.5% of Labor preferences, against 45.4% for the National candidate.

The difference may well have had something to do with the lower statewide profile of One Nation in 2015. The party ran only eleven candidates and they had not won any seats at the state or national level for a long period of time. Opponents of the incumbent LNP government decided upon a campaign message of 'number every box, and put the LNP last'. In Lockyer, such a vote would have gone  to Ms Hanson. Something similar may have happened in the Maranoa House of Representatives seat, where One Nation received a roughly even split of preferences from the votes for lower candidates, despite 65% of these votes coming from Labor and the Greens (the AEC does not have exact figures on where these preferences came from).

It may be that the increased profile of One Nation will hurt them in some way; increased awareness of the party's support by left-leaning voters, combined with the LNP not being in government (and thus not so antagonistic to the left), might lead to them preferencing the LNP as a lesser of two evils.

Of course, the situation would be somewhat different based on the One Nation votes cast in 2016. The party received a much lower share of the vote than in their 1998 result, though admittedly there were many more parties on the Senate ballot paper than in the average Queensland state electorate. Nonetheless, even in the House districts that the party contested, the highest vote share that they managed was 17.8% in Maranoa with seven other candidates. No One Nation candidate receiving this vote was elected in 1996. It may well just be that, on these support levels, One Nation would be unable to win any seats, compulsory preferences or no compulsory preferences. This would be made even more likely given that One Nation's most prominent member, Pauline Hanson, has six years in the Senate to go.

It is rather hard to predict precisely what the impact of the change to compulsory preferential voting will be. The LNP were able to get away with telling voters to 'just vote 1' under optional preferences. Under the new system, their voters will have to choose between supporting a partisan enemy (Labor) or an radical party which they could feel close to in a partisan sense; evidence from 2001 suggests that most voters opted for the latter. On the other hand, in seats where Labor preferences are distributed, compulsory preferences could mean a stronger flow of Labor preferences to the more moderate LNP candidate; whether Labor voters will do that is debatable, though, given that they do not appear to have done that in Lockyer, and perhaps not in Maranoa.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The United States Electoral College and third party candidates

As most of my readers will know, elections to the Presidency of the United States, as well as approximately a third of the Senate, the entire House of Representatives, and various other state and local offices will be up for election on November 8 (by tradition, the first Tuesday in November).

While primaries for some lower-level offices are yet to take place, Presidential candidates for both major parties have been chosen through a series of primaries and caucuses. The Democrats have chosen Hillary Clinton, the early favourite, though she faced a stiff challenge from left-wing Bernie Sanders. On the other hand, a crowded Republican field narrowed to one candidate; controversial businessman Donald Trump, who had little support from the party leadership, won the nomination.

Trump's views represent a substantial diversion from traditional Republican thinking on a variety of issues. The most notable one of these is free trade; Mr Trump is opposed to it, but Republicans have traditionally supported free trade. Trump's tax plan is also a bone of controversy; while it would reduce tax rates, normally something the Republicans would support, it also does not make cuts to government programs like Medicare (health insurance for the elderly) and Social Security (the government retirement program), thus meaning that the deficit would increase.

These two issues have led a number of Republicans to look elsewhere in the presidential field. While some will vote for Ms Clinton, one other candidate gaining traction is Gary Johnson, of the Libertarian Party. The Libertarians have normally been a very minor political presence in the United States; occasionally winning a seat in state legislatures. The party's best performances have been in Senate and House elections when support for either the Republicans or Democrats in a state or district is so overwhelming that only one of the major parties puts up a candidate; when a Libertarian runs in one of these seats, they normally win a substantial share of the vote.

This year, Mr Johnson is currently polling at around 6-8% in national polls. Mr Johnson receiving support from dissatisfied Republicans is no doubt helped by his credentials as a Republican; he served as the Republican governor of New Mexico, and his running mate William Weld served as the governor of Massachusetts, also as a Republican. While this does not look like much, it would represent the strongest performance ever, by a long way, for a Libertarian in a presidential election.

Some Democrats are also not wholly happy with Hillary Clinton. Some supporters of Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, view Ms Clinton as too right-wing, and are also looking elsewhere. This has caused a much more muted increase in support for Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Not all polls include Ms Stein, but those that do mostly show her receiving 2-4% support; a low figure, but a substantial increase over the 0.36% she received in 2012 (though she was not on the ballot in all states at this election).

Minor candidates and Presidential elections

In countries where a President is elected, there are two main ways this is normally done; the plurality system, or the two-round system.

Under the plurality system, voters vote for one candidate, and the candidate with the most candidates is elected. Such a system is used in Taiwan, South Korea, and Venezuela, amongst others. In a close nationwide race, this system has a tendency to lead to two main contenders, as supporters of any weaker third candidate would have strong tactical incentives to vote for the member of the top two they most prefer.

However, when voters do not do this, the system can lead to candidates from one political faction being elected despite a majority of the electorate not supporting that faction. For example, at the Taiwanese presidential election in 2000, the pro-Taiwanese independence Democratic Progressive Party nominated Chen Shui-bian, who won 39.3% of the vote. However, two candidates from the opposing bloc (generally in favour of Chinese reunification) ran; the Nationalist candidate Lien Chan won 23.1%, and independent James Soong won 36.8%. For this reason, despite an apparent majority of voters supporting a pro-unification President, the pro-independence candidate won.

Most countries that have an elected President use a runoff system. Under such a system, voters vote for one candidate in the first round. If one candidate receives a majority, that candidate is elected; if not, a second round takes place, normally a couple of weeks after the first, when voters choose between the top two (in most cases) candidates.

This means that there is no incentive for tactically abandoning your most preferred candidate for the lesser of two evils in the first round, as unless a candidate in the first round wins 50%+1 (in which case choosing the lesser of two evils would not have mattered) you will be able to make that choice in the second round.

However, such a system can have its disadvantages. For example, at the 2002 French presidential election, the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement candidate, incumbent President Jacques Chirac won 20% of the vote. It was expected that he would face Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin in the second round, but a large number of left-leaning voters voted for other leftists in the first round; for example, the Workers' Struggle candidate won 5.7%, the Green won 5.2%, and the Communist won 3.4%. This meant that Jospin received only 16.2%, behind far-right candidate Jean Le Pen, who won 16.9%.

In the runoff, leftists voted for Chirac over Le Pen, resulting in Chirac winning 82% of the vote. These results demonstrate that there are still incentives for tactical voting under a two-round system; a voter may tactically vote to make the opponent of their most preferred candidate in the runoff an unpalatable radical.

The United States has a somewhat different, and currently unique, manner of electing the President. Each state is allocated a number of 'electors' equivalent to the number of members that state has in the House of Representatives and Senate combined. Each state has two Senators, regardless of size, but the number of members each state has in the House is proportional to its population. This method of allocation over-represents smaller States; for example, the state of Montana has 341,333 people per elector, but the state of California has 705,454 people per elector.

This means that on Election Day, voters are not voting for a presidential candidate, but rather electors who pledge to vote for that presidential candidate. There have been cases in the past where these electors have not voted for the candidate they were listed on the ballot for, though this has never changed the outcome of a presidential election.

Potential incentives of the Electoral College

So, what incentives would the Electoral College have, in terms of small party candidates? Well, over time, certain parties have become wholly dominant in states. For example, the Democratic Party has won the state of Massachusetts, in nearly all cases with a double-digit margin of victory, in all elections since 1984. The same goes for the Republican Party in Texas. This is why presidential elections are focused on swing states; those states where the race between the top two candidates is especially close, like Pennsylvania and Florida. Winning extra votes in a safe state is irrelevant, as the number of electoral votes (which are what matter) do not change. 

If you live in a safe state, even if there is a close vote nationwide, you have no incentive to tactically vote to support the 'lesser of two evils', given that the winner of your state is virtually determined in advance. In theory, then, people in safe states should be more willing to vote for third party candidates, given that there is little danger of them 'wasting their vote' and electing someone they dislike.

But does this work in practice? Let's look at two third-party candidates who were both totally unlikely to win; John Anderson in 1980 and Ross Perot in 1996. Mr Anderson was a moderate Republican congressman opposed to the right-wing views of party nominee Ronald Reagan, while Mr Perot was a populist businessman running on a platform of deficit reduction. Perot had run in 1992, but this campaign may not have had the same tactical messaging for the voters, since Perot was in first place in some early polls.

The below charts show a comparison between the vote shares for these candidates by state, compared to the margin between the top two candidates, which represents how close a state was.

There is something of a correlation between the two factors, with the correlation being stronger with Perot than with Anderson (the precise correlation factor being 0.13 for Anderson and 0.30 for Perot). However, there are many other factors which vary these numbers, and it is still quite a weak correlation, which makes it somewhat difficult to draw any conclusions.

It is interesting, though, to consider the states that the third party candidates will do best in. Mr Johnson has public profile in New Mexico, which, though it has been quite close in the past, was comfortably in the Democrat column in 2012 (a margin of ten points to Obama). The state's high Hispanic population is also unlikely to approve of Mr Trump's rhetoric on immigration, which would mean that both campaigns would be sensible to ignore the state.

Mr Johnson's running mate, Mr Weld, is the former governor of Massachusetts, a very safe Democratic state (despite the Republican candidate for President coming from the state, it went Democratic by 23 points). While these two cannot choose their home states, for the Libertarians their states make them sensible nominees, as their home state boosts will not be cancelled out by tactical voting.

The lower statewide profile of the Green ticket (Ms Stein has run for Governor of her home state of Massachusetts, but with little success, and her highest office remains being in the Lexington town meeting, while her running mate Ajamu Baraka does not appear to have run for any office) makes this factor less relevant for them. Nonetheless, it will help Ms Stein somewhat that the state where she has the most profile (relatively speaking) is a safe state, where she will have somewhat clearer air to campaign.