Are Albanians smarter than Germans?

Campaign for vote-splitting in GermanyIf there was a catwalk for political institutions, mixed electoral systems would be the newest fashion trend. They are incredibly popular among politicians, pressure groups, and academics all around the world. Mixed electoral systems combine proportional representation with local representation in single-seat districts. Now, just a few weeks before the Constitutional Court of Germany is debating (again) about loopholes in mixed electoral systems, my article about strategic manipulation under these systems has been published online in the International Political Science Review.

In fact, the German electoral system is the best-known example of mixed electoral system, with voters voting simultaneously for a local candidate and for a national party list. Overall (surplus mandates apart), the allocated seats are exactly proportional to the parties’ vote share.

Almost the same electoral system has ended up in chaos in Albania, Italy, Lesotho and Venezuela. As my article shows, political parties can easily organise in a special pattern of strategic voting, which puts the electoral system completely out of order. More precisely, large parties can achieve over-representation by encouraging their voters to split their votes. They vote with the candidate vote (Germany: “Erststimme”) for their favourite party, but cast their list vote (“Zweitstimme”) for a different party, which is allied to their favourite party. If many voters follow this recommendation, then they outsmart the electoral system mechanism which is designed to lead to proportional results. Instead, the parties applying such a strategy will be massively over-represented.

I have simulated the consequences of such electoral strategies, and showed that there is no solution that would prevent them. Interesting enough, however, in 60 years of application of this electoral system in Germany, there is no known instance where such a strategy would have been used at large-scale. My tests (not published) for several recent elections show no sign that vote-splitting between CDU and FDP or between SPD and Greens has anything to do with such a strategy. In contrast, in young democracies, voters and parties have quickly learned how to abuse the electoral system.

De Borda: a wise manThis opens the question whether German-style mixed electoral systems with a compensatory mechanism are of any use at all. Note that there are many seemingly genius electoral systems discussed in the theoretical literature, which nobody would ever use in a real-world democracy, because they have very nice outcomes if everybody votes sincerely, but have devastating results, once actors start playing them strategically. This is why, for instance, the father of the Borda Count, Jean-Charles de Borda, told that his system was “intended only for honest men”.

I do not think that politicians and voters will ever be honest (except for Germans). Therefore, I am wondering whether German-style mixed electoral systems should be on the catwalk, or rather in the trash bin.

PS: At the NCCR Democracy, we have just started a new research project on mixed electoral systems, jointly with Christian Rubba who has joined us this month. New results coming soon.

This entry was posted in Elections and tagged , , , , by daniel bochsler. Bookmark the permalink.

About daniel bochsler

Daniel Bochsler is Assistant Professor of Democratisation at NCCR Democracy at the University of Zurich. He received his PhD in Political Science from the University of Geneva. His main research interests include elections, political parties and ethnic politics, with a special focus on young democracies. He has been for research stays at the Universities of Tartu, Belgrade, at the University of California at Irvine and at the Central European University in Budapest. His monograph “Territory and Electoral Rules in Post-Communist Democracies” has been published by Palgrave.

3 thoughts on “Are Albanians smarter than Germans?

  1. By reading the commentary on the elections today in Lower Saxony, it looks like they finally understood how to rig the system. Vote-splitting between CDU and FDP allegedly saved them from an ever worse result, such as FDP failing at the 5% treshold.
    Waiting for the commentary from the specialists! Is this a first instance of large-scale use of the vote splitting strategy, or just a hyped commentary?

  2. I’m afraid, this case is not very different from other occurrences of vote-splitting in Germany. And I would be hesitant to state that they imitated the Albanians (and Lesothians, Venezuelans, Italians). In Lower Saxony, you would find two alternative explanations of vote-splitting, which were not present in Albania, and both are more plausible than the “Albanian” strategy.

    1. CDU partisans gave their party vote to the FDP, to help their junior partner to cross the 5% threshold.
    2. FDP partians casted their candidate votes for CDU candidates, as they knew that their own candidates have no chance of winning a constituency mandate. (Hence, the very common form of strategic voting under the plurality system.) The same applies for Greens & SPD.

    Neither of the two strategies are intended to produce surplus mandates – but they contribute to it as a side-effect. As there are so different explanations, you can’t judge whether the surplus mandates were strategically produced, or happened just as an accident. In Albania, 2005, both explanations can be ruled out, as – according to the party votes – the Republican party was larger than the Democratic party, so nobody can plausibly claim that any of these two explanations could play a role.

    And, there is a third point, why an “Albanian” strategy seems implausible to me in Lower Saxony. There was clearly a campaign for CDU voters to cast their party vote for the FDP. However, would anybody have anticipated that there would be sufficient split-voters, in order to produce overhang mandates? Considering that nobody dared to anticipate were the FDP would cross the 5% threshold (and now they gained 10% of the party votes), I would doubt. Would the FDP have gained less than 8.5% of the party votes (rough estimation), no overhang seats would have produced. But you would need to calculate this through carefully, and also take into account that the CDU probably expected a lower election result.

  3. Daniel, this is a great, short piece. I meet far too many people who advertise the German system around the world, because it looks smart. It’s a case where the best is the enemy of the good.

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