I’m Just Sayin’

Back in late 2000, I remember no shortage of German acquaintances suggesting to me that the fiasco in Florida was enough to call the whole US system of elections into question.

Shoes. Other feet.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Germany and tagged by Doug Merrill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

41 thoughts on “I’m Just Sayin’

  1. Is anyone in Germany claiming that votes are not being counted or are being ignored for one reason or another (idiotically designed ballots, too long lines at voter booths, ex-criminals not allowed to vote, inaccurate voter lists etc).

    There were two issues in the US in 2000, the electoral college rather than popular vote issue, and the incompetence/corruption of florida balloting issues. While wonks focussed on the former, my feeling was that popular outrage was directed at the latter. It is, as far as I have heard, only the former, the technical details of how votes translate into seats in a non-intuitive fashion, that corresponds to the US.

  2. Mrs T.’s post notwithstanding… I don’t think that either counting or disenfranchisement are the German problem at hand, Doug. But fair enough, let’s have the Queen appoint a minister for Germany, except for Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, which she apparently does not fancy ;).

  3. Very strange post, indeed…
    Heck, I’d go so far as to say that, in a situation where the electorate is so clearly divided, it’s a testament to the wisdom of the German system (and indeed, most parliamentary systems) that the various interests must find a way to share power, thus ensuring that a greater percentage of the population is represented.

  4. There have also been attempts to map the post-election manoeuvering into the Bush-Gore crisis in 2000, such as this post from Josh Marshall, but that doesn’t work so well either. Schroder has the advantage of incumbency whereas Gore was closest to the White House in 2000, but Bush had the people where he needed them — in Tallahassee, and in the US Supreme Court. Schroder is playing the tougher game, so in that sense maybe similar to Bush, but this is coalition negotiations we’re talking about, not a dodgy legal theory that decides an election.

  5. To be fair, there is bound to be a constititional challenge due to the Dresden mess. And overhanging seats are on the very verge of constitutionlity due to negative votes. see some decisions of the constitutional court.

  6. The Dresden mess is due to the lack of a standin rule. If such a rule were in place, a repeat of Dresden could not occur – and thus there would be no danger of overhanging mandates being perceived as a problem.

  7. I’m with Doug on this one.

    Notwithstanding debates about the electoral college (a.k.a. federalism) and the presidential system, the problems of Florida in 2000 were problems of execution rather than a flaw in “the whole US system of elections.”

    I believe what Doug is saying is that his German acquaintances were wrong, as would be anybody today who ignorantly suggests the German results call into question the German system.

  8. When you use some tools like power measures (banzhaf measure) I would assume that any German has almost the same power with 2nd vote.

    In the US thats surely not the case. Shapley/Shubik addressed this point already 40-50 years ago.

    So I strictly prefer the German system.

  9. The negativity issue could also be remedied by changing the system for consolidating the statewide lists into a nationwide list. A standin rule, however, would prevent situations like the “Dresden mess” occurring at all, while a system change could take many different forms. Calling for it would mean creating a problem rather than solving one.

    None of this is even remotely as problematic as inverting the result of the popular vote in a system that´s supposed to be “First Past The Post” by means of an electoral college, though.

  10. I believe what Doug is saying is that his German acquaintances were wrong, as would be anybody today who ignorantly suggests the German results call into question the German system.

    Bingo.

    And thank you to several of the commenters above for illustrating my point so nicely.

    (Martin, if US ballots were as simple as German ballots, there is no doubt they could be counted as quickly. We elect a great many people in a great many jurisdictions all on one day. It is inherently complex.)

    (Joerg Wenck, the electoral college has been around for more than four times as long as the Bundesrepublik. I’d say that qualifies it as having stood the test of time rather well. Certainly no one actually involved in US presidential politics is unaware of it mechanisms, nor do they claim that it is a pure FPTP system.)

  11. The second part of my previous comment was, of course, based on the PROBABILITY OF OCCURRENCE of a misrepresentation of voter decisions.

    In fact, I would like to ask if the public wouldn´t expect some members of the electoral college to switch over in order to enable the winner of the popular vote to move into the White House. If it didn´t, another question could arise: why might a president who would be invested with more power than any government in a parliamentary system, yet not have been elected by a majority of voters decide to call for the spread of a different kind of system – democracy – abroad? I´d be puzzled about such a degree of (involuntary?) altruism.

    Doug, my conclusion is that should the electoral college be called upon in the future to reverse the results of the popular vote it would likely decline to do so, thus indicating that it no longer serves a discernible function.

    I have never liked the “test of time”-argument. It favours bacteria over humans and has historically been referred to by politicians who took it upon themselves to classify humans
    into humans proper and human bacteria.
    No offense intended – I just want to point out the illogicality that I´m probably not alone in perceiving. To convince me, you´d have to show that what has persisted for a long time will also stand the test of the future. The individuals comprising the electoral college might easily do so, but that outcome would practically be predicated on their willingness to erase institutional memory from their minds. You´d be left with the equivalent of the hemoglobin gene in yeast.
    If, OTOH, you really want to go back to the original source code of the institution in question, you have a tough job on your hand. Which is what I wanted to point out by posing the hypothetical about democracy and war.
    One last point: Who called the whole system of US elections into question? I´d not want to be identified as the person who did so.

  12. The only person that comes to my mind as having called the whole system of US elections into question is General Tommy Franks.

  13. Doug, “the fiasco in Florida” specifically, does not call the whole of the US constitution into question, but that’s not what you said. I certainly think it does call the the whole US system of elections into question.

  14. Florida does call into question aspects of the constitution, mainly that it doesn’t have much at all to say about elections.

    Ignoring Florida, the outcome of 2000 does call into question the electoral college, but it’s not a question of it being stupid, but of principle and power. If the EC was based on house seats, not house+senate seats, Gore would have been president.

  15. Joerg, by ‘stand-in rule’ I presume you mean a rule whereby a party whose direct-mandate candidate dies or or is otherwise unable to compete in the election can be easily swapped out for a substitute, without the need for a subsequent special election (Nachwahl) in accordance with § 43 BWahlG and § 82 BWO? If so, that would fix only one of the Dresden problems, and the less serious one at that.

    Your stand-in rule would mean that the denizens of Dresden I could have voted last Sunday along with all the other Germans. That would have eliminated the possibility that we wouldn’t know for sure who won until the Dresdners voted. But as it turns out, this was not an issue. The overall results won’t depend on Dresden I — the result there could mean a difference in the total number of CDU MPs, but not a difference big enough to make their number smaller than that of the SPD.

    The real problem with Dresden is the possibility that the votes of CDU supporters there will have ‘negative weight’ if there are too many of them. And that would be a problem regardless of when the election was held. Voters in other Länder have seen their votes negatively weighted before. When this happens on a normal election day, it doesn’t get as much attention. But it’s the same serious issue whenever it happens.

    On the larger issue, I have to say that I mostly disagree with Doug. Where he is right is that the US electoral college, whatever criticisms one might wish to level at it, is not inherently illegitimate. It can produce the occasional perverse result. But I don’t know whether there is any electoral system that cannot occasionally arrive at one kind of perverse result or another.

    Now here’s where I disagree. The really perverse things about some recent US elections have not been structural issues. In addition to the problems of execution some have noted, there have been widespread reports of fraud and efforts to disenfranchise certain voters.

    And, though it hardly makes the US system illegitimate that the electoral college can (rarely) produce the perverse result that the loser of the popular vote gets more electoral votes, there is serious question whether George Bush was even entitled to a majority in the electoral college. Thanks to one of the most shamefully partisan Supreme Court decisions of all time, we may never know for sure. And, though the phenomenon of ‘negatively weighted’ votes in a Bundestag election is just as much a stucture-driven perverse result as is a popular-vote loser winning in the US electoral college, the latter is surely a somewhat more fundamental issue. The one makes the ‘wrong’ person head of state (in a presidial system, where that role actually matters); the other merely causes a marginal reduction in the size of a party’s representation in a large parliament.

    And finally, as many have noted, the fact that the various parties are having to scramble to cobble together a government might be frustrating (and not only to politicians), but it isn’t a ‘problem’ at all.

  16. “illegitimate that the electoral college can (rarely) produce the perverse result that the loser of the popular vote gets more electoral votes”

    It’s not perverse, it’s intended to work that way. House+Senate seats. And of course, the presidential election was originally much more indirect, and much less democratic.

  17. I believe what Doug is saying is that his German acquaintances were wrong, as would be anybody today who ignorantly suggests the German results call into question the German system.

    Hm. Let’s pick apart the voting from the counting. The county-by-county implementation of different voting machines, and the state-wide disenfranchisement of voters on dubious grounds. As others have said, the electoral college is perhaps the least worrying aspect of Florida 2000, since it unveiled a host of messes that called the system of voting — not the translation of counted votes into a result — into question.

  18. @Mrs. Tilton:
    “When this happens on a normal election day, it doesn’t get as much attention. But it’s the same serious issue whenever it happens.”

    Not sure about the extent to which we disagree here. Evidently the design process for a voting system involves two stages: choosing from the menu of basic choices – proportional representation vs. FPTP vs. a weighted mix – and implementing a detailed system of rules. My suggestion was that the attention-getting hole that resulted in Dresden I needs to be plugged immediately. The technical glitch you are referring to goes by the name of Hare-Niemeyer (the guys who invented the procedure donated their surnames as labels). Several alternatives have been proposed. The Bundeswahlleiter – the top official overseeing the federal election process in Germany – and the Ministry of the Interior have put their weight behind something called Sainte-Laguë. All it does is enforcing internal compensation of overhang mandates instead of external compensation. To wit: no extra mandates are created – the selection of candidates from relatively less successful lists of the party is reduced until the overall number of mandates is proportional to the party´s percentage of the vote across Germany as a whole. I don´t see why a law to that effect couldn´t be ready for approval by christmas.

  19. To wit: no extra mandates are created – the selection of candidates from relatively less successful lists of the party is reduced until the overall number of mandates is proportional to the party´s percentage of the vote across Germany as a whole. I don´t see why a law to that effect couldn´t be ready for approval by christmas.

    Because it doesn’t solve the basic problem. You cannot rule out overhanging seats unless you are prepared to live with a bloated parliament.

    Hare-Niemayer is especially bad because it has the negative vote effect based on Zweitstimmen alone without any overhanging seats.

    It is simply impossible to compensate for overhanging seats with internal measures because a party might have more seats than it deserves through lists in any case.
    Simple proof: A party may have 0 votes (Zweitstimmen) and yet get direct candidates. There is therefore a lower number of Zweitstimmen beyond which you cannot compensate, no matter what.
    Disregarding the 0 Zweitstimmen case, you can always counter with adding seats to the party without overhanging seats, but you might in extreme cases double the number of parliamentarians that way(strictly speaking the number approaches infinity going to 0 Zweitstimmen).

    In fact, if the number of choices is larger than 2, you can mathematically proof that a voting system without paradoxes is impossible. You might say that God wants a two-party system >:->

  20. The negativity issue could also be remedied by changing the system for consolidating the statewide lists into a nationwide list.

    Made unlikely, not remedied. A national lists is just unlikelier to produce overhanging seats, it does not prevent the.

    A standin rule, however, would prevent situations like the “Dresden mess” occurring at all

    Both candidate and replacement die, flood or fire destroy ballot box, outbreak of a dangerous desease require a delay, etc …

    You cannot rule out such things.

  21. “a voting system without paradoxes is impossible”
    I know. I didn´t imagine I could propose a ruleset that would be immune against such arguments. I think your recourse to the 0 Zweitstimmen case illustrates that I have restricted myself to proposing changes that reason and realism call for, rather than mistakenly trying to present a “perfect solution”.
    Ruling out procedures that are “especially bad” seems to be a good approximation to sound practice.
    I can, however, easily present a scenario where your vision of bloated parliaments etc. would be highly relevant. The recipe would be to combine the German system with the current American craze for redistricting as a means of making incumbents invincible. Presumably a politician who knows that his followers will swallow anything he asks for could indeed induce his base to cast their Zweitstimmen for whatever party he recommends for whatever reason. Vote-selling and -buying on a large scale could be expected to ensue.
    So let´s be moderate in our approach.

    “God wants a two-party system”
    How do you know that God has designed evolution with a view to maximizing simplicity? Systems theory would point you the other way: highly rewarding outcomes depend on maximizing complexity and reducing contingency. Thus the real argument against my shooting-from-the-hip approach might be that a reform of Germany´s election law should also contain a provision that enables voters to express weighted preferences for the candidates a party puts on its list – some degree of “Bavarianization” of the procedure (hopefully not the results).
    Another interesting question would be whether there are small modifications that could prevent a simple system from causing loss of information in the process of transmitting voter intentions. What´s the effect of voter registration requirements? Low voter turnout is an obvious source of information loss, yet there seems to be no indication whatsoever that it is correlated
    with the complexity of the decision task voters are asked to perform.

  22. I should add that Europeans who feel superior to Americans b/c elections, Bush, etc are stupid and obnoxious. A better reaction, provided your not Italian or something, would be “there but for he grace of god go my country”, to continue on the theological theme.

  23. A better reaction, provided your not Italian or something, would be “there but for he grace of god go my country”, to continue on the theological theme.

    No, it wouldn’t be. It would take deliberate knackering on a grand scale to transform, say, the British system of casting one’s vote and having it counted into something close to that on display in the US, both in 2000 and 2004.

  24. “Doug, my conclusion is that should the electoral college be called upon in the future to reverse the results of the popular vote it would likely decline to do so, thus indicating that it no longer serves a discernible function.”

    Huh!? The electoral college didn’t reverse the popular vote in 2000 — why the hell would they do so in the future?

    If anything, the 2000 election showed the U.S. electoral college is here to stay.

    By the way — in my view the outrageous thing about the 2000 election is that it ever went to the Supreme Court. By law and by rights it never should have. It should have been decided by the (Republican) Florida state legislature — which had the power to appoint Florida’s slate of electors under the constitution, and which was answerable to the people of Florida. The result would have been the same, and yet more democratic.

  25. Scott MacMillan is right. The U.S. Constitution gives states the right to determine how their presidential electors are determined, the federal government isn’t involved in it.

    Some states split their electors based on the percentage of the vote, most don’t.

    The winner-take-all method is as old as the U.S. The founding fathers, wise men that they were, felt that it was most important for democracy that each election led to a clear winner.

    Some disagree with that, I don’t. There really isn’t anything worse for a democracy than to hold a general election and not come to a conclusion.

  26. The US Senate, the Electoral College, the Bundesrat and the Überhangsmandaten are all consequences of taking the states seriously. The states are more powerful in the US, but in both systems they are entities that exist prior to and as constituent parts of the system and not as creations of the national government. (The contrast with Polish wojewodships and possibly French departments is instructive.) Interestingly, in 1990 it was not East Germany that joined West Germany but rather each state from the former DDR that acceded to West Germany.

  27. Let us note also in passing that the decisive margin in the US election in 2000 was a little more than 500 votes out of approximately 106,000,000 cast. That’s a difference of slightly more than four parts per million.

    Back-of-the-envelope calculations tell me that roughly 48 million votes were cast in the German elections. For the German vote to be as close as the US election in 2000, that would be a margin of 12 votes. Does anyone want to be that there are not 12 improper votes in Germany? More to the point, does anyone want to bet that if both major parties applied all of their resources to finding 12 questionable ballots that they could not be found?

    For other European countries, the margin is even slimmer. A similarly close election in Sweden, for example, would have a difference of less than two voters.

    I’m just sayin’.

  28. no the Germans are nowhere NEAR as bad as the Americans.. no, regardless of their problems, AT LEAST they are not like THE STUPID AMIS!!!
    of that they can be REALLY PROUD!!
    two candidates fighting like children over the results..Bush/Gore, Schroeder/Merkel – NO, the Germans are not like the Amis AT ALL! ONLY I am able to form a stable government.. ONLY I AM.. Go Gerd GO!!!
    I am being persecuted by the Media.. Go GERD GO!
    speaking of Reforms.. did you know that Reformstau was the word of the year in 1997?

    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wort_des_Jahres

    No, be proud, Germans, at least you are nowhere nearly as bad as the stupid Amis..
    your country is in a funk and has been for seven years.. but at least you are not like the AMis!!!

    you German posters above are correct, the American system should be reformed.. can you please help us?
    You are so examplary when it comes to reforming. For heaven’s sake, it took an act of God to change the store opening times…

  29. Doug,

    The Florida election may have had only a 500 vote margin (in one count or another), but there were 1000’s of ballots ruined in Florida by incompetent ballot design (2000 butterfly ballots, and 10,000+ double votes in a ballot with instructions to vote for one candidate on each page and presidental listings that ran over two pages) and 10,000’s more never cast due to intimidation and intentionally racist voter role purges. Estimates of voter suppression and mis-voting from credible sources have run as high as 1 million votes in the entire US.

    2000 wasn’t a freakish year in how bad our electoral system is, it was just a freakish year in that a fantastically tight election brought attention to just how bad it usually is.

  30. “Huh!? The electoral college didn’t reverse the popular vote in 2000 — why the hell would they do so in the future?”

    When someone else referred to the popular vote, I guess he meant this result:

    George W. Bush Republican Texas 50,460,110 47.9%
    Al Gore Democratic Tennessee 51,003,926 48.4%

  31. “two candidates fighting like children over the results..Bush/Gore, Schroeder/Merkel – NO, the Germans are not like the Amis AT ALL!”

    Mebbe this looks childish in a 2 party system. When there are more than 2 parties you could call this coaltion formation. 😛

    “speaking of Reforms.. did you know that Reformstau was the word of the year in 1997?”

    Yes. Because did almost nothing and the SPD used the Bundesrat to stop his tiny reforms.

    “you German posters above are correct, the American system should be reformed.. can you please help us?”

    Dunno, which Germans have said so. My point is simply that I prefer our system. For example:

    “A voter in California is 3.344 times more likely to change the outcome of the election.”

    http://www.cs.unc.edu/~livingst/Banzhaf/

    When you like such results. GO steve GO.
    Actually I dont give a **** at all.

  32. @siron
    got you going, eh? if you don’t care, why did you reply?
    that is why I live in Germany, everything is PERFECT.. and SOCIALLY JUST

    you said : ‘My point is simply that I prefer our system. ‘

    and my point is that the American system is not too bad.. it has limped along for 200 plus years..
    we’ll see what Germany looks like 150 years from now..
    if there are any Germans left…

  33. Charles S.,

    Points taken, of course.

    Mine is that I don’t think there’s a voting system in Europe that’s accurate to four parts per million. (Voter registration in Germany, for instance, is based on information from the Meldeamt. Anyone who is willing to bet that there are fewer than 20 people in Germany living in a place other than where they are officially registered is invited to just send me the money directly. And that’s all that it would take to shift a German election that’s as close as the American one was in 2000.)

    What lessons or responses Europeans take from the American election in 2000 says much more about them, individually, than about us.

  34. Mine is that I don’t think there’s a voting system in Europe that’s accurate to four parts per million.

    There does not need to be. If the result is essentially random 50:50 we might as well admit it. Any winner will do. All that matters is that the procedures are followed and no instability ensues.

    The American system met that standard, albeit barely.

  35. The election system in the U.S. does need an overhaul.

    As it stands the process seems to arouse a lot of partisan bickering and suspicion. We even had Jimmy Carter recently hinting that Gore won that contested race against Bush.

    Since the U.S. – as represented by G.W.B. – sees itself as the emissary of democracy and freedom around the world, the most basic thing it should look after is it’s own democratic engine aka the election process.

Comments are closed.