Alternative Vote Minus

The thing to grasp here is that nobody set out to design the system we have. It evolved from a chavista Marramucia (dirty trick) and ended up enshrined as the law of the land despite making almost zero sense and being openly unconstitutional. (Which, when you think of it, is sort of the story of the Chávez era.)

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, lets look at the way the system was originally supposed to work. The muddle starts right with the constitution, which mandates (in Article 186) a voting system that is both proportional and "personalized".

Now, those two goals are not incompatible, but they’re certainly in tension with each other.

Highly personalized systems (such as the First Past the Post system used in Britain and the US) tend to be pretty unproportional – witness the Liberal Democrats’ 9% of the seats on 23% of the votes results in England – while highly proportional systems tend to break the personal link between an individual voter and a given member of parliament (such as the fully proportional system used in Israel, which makes it basically impossible to vote certain people out of parliament, provided they’re high enough on a party list.)

The way Venezuela tried to square that circle after 1999 was through a system that "split the difference" between the Alternative Vote Plus System and the Additional Member System. For those of you who aren’t full-time PolSci geeks, and may be a little hazy on the details, here’s a quick refresher course:

2. Alternative Vote (AV) – this system keeps the local, single MP constituencies but people vote 1, 2, 3 etc (instead of just using a X). Votes are counted in a more sophisticated ways and each MP must get a majority (50%+1) of the votes to be elected.

The key difference in the AV system from FPTP is that in each local contest voters fill in a ballot paper where they number the candidates in order of preference – that is, they put 1 for their first preference; 2 for their second choice; 3 for the party they like 3rdand so on.

We count all the first (top) preferences that voters have given, as now. If any candidate gets majority support (i.e. 50% +1), they immediately win the seat.  If not, the candidate who has the fewest 1stpreference votes is knocked out of the contest, and we look at the second preferences of their voters, redistributing these votes to the remaining candidates in line with these voters’ number 2 choice. This process of knocking out the least popular candidate and redistributing their voters’ choices as voters intended continues until one candidate gets 50 per cent.

In the USA this system is called ‘instant run-off’ and this is a good summary of what AV does – it gives a run-off election when no one gets an outright majority on first preference votes.

3. Alternative Vote Plus (AV+) – this is a variant of the Alternative Vote (AV) method, with most MPs elected locally using AV in single MP constituencies. But now extra MPs are also elected in multi-member seats at regional level. They go to parties that are under-represented in the local contests.

A large proportion of MPs (75% to 85%) are elected according to AV in local constituencies (see above). But now the remaining MPs are separately elected on a ‘top up’ basis for each region or county using proportional representation. Voters have two votes, for their local MP, and for a party list of candidates at the regional top-up level.  We count the share of votes for each party in this top-up election, and elect MPs from the list of candidates for any party that has not got enough MPs from the local contest, given their regional share of the votes. Candidates are elected in the order the party has listed them – so the first seat goes to the top candidate, the next seat to second candidate, etc.

This system tries to match parties’ shares of all local and top-up MPs in each region to the (regional) votes for that party. But because there are far fewer regional top-up MPs than locally elected MPs, the system is at best ‘broadly proportional’ – it is very unlikely to produce results that closely match parties’ MPs to their vote shares.

4. ‘Additional Member’ System (AMS) – this is a more balanced and fully proportional system. Around half of MPs are locally elected, using FPTP as above. The remaining half or so (the ‘additional members’) are regionally elected using PR, so as to match every party’s share of MPs to their votes share.

The basic idea is the same as the AV+ method above. Around half of MPs are locally elected in constituencies: here whoever gets the largest vote becomes the MP. But in AMS voters also have a second vote for regional top-up MPs. Candidates put forward on regional lists by each party. We look at how many local seats a party has in a region, at what share of the votes it has in this region, and if it does not have enough MPs we elect more people from its regional list to bring it up to parity of MPs and vote shares. There’s a formula for doing this that works perfectly.

The one detailed point to notice here is that in some AMS elections (like the Greater London Assembly and Germany) parties have to get a minimum share of the vote to be entitled to get any MPs at all – usually set at 5 per cent. In other AMS elections (Scotland and Wales) the regions used for top-MPs are small enough already, so that this extra rule is not needed.

For the most part, the Venezuelan system agreed in 1999 was an "Additional Member System" except 70-80% of the members would be elected directly, through individual constituencies, rather than the more typical 50%. This made the Venezuelan system a bit less proportional than a classic AMS system: the price it paid to preserve a stronger element of "personalization" – rooting most members in a specific geographic space and thereby making it easier for the electorate to throw out certain specific bums at the next election if said bums screwed up bad enough.

So far, so good.

Enter the marramucia. Ahead of local elections in 2005, Nelson Merentes had a brilliant idea. What if chavismo created a "Twin Party" – a morocha – and ran its candidates in the First Past the Post constituencies under one party label, and its candidates in the Proportional "Top Up" Lists under another party label? That way, one "twin" gets lots of List votes, but zero First Past the Post seats, while the other Twin gets zero list votes but lots of FPTP votes. In effect, this allowed chavismo to "top itself up" – winning majorities in BOTH portions of the vote, and transforming list voting from a mechanism to ensure proportionality into one that deepens the largest party’s advantage. 

Of course, to achieve that, you have to roll out a plan that flagrantly violates the intent of the Elections law, the letter of the constitution, and common sense. In a marginally decent political system, even proposing such a monstruosity should’ve cost Merentes his job and his reputation. In Venezuela, the Supreme Tribunal thought it all honky-dory, and the marramucia paved the way to his current post as head of the Central Bank.

As the inimitable Greg Wilpert explains (though, bizarrely enough, not in the context of shouting himself hoarse over the rank unfairness of the marramucia,)

The pro-Chavez alliance of parties decided to make use of this electoral loophole for the first time in the August 2005 local elections, when it ran candidates on the party list section of the ballot under Chavez’s MVR party (Movement for the Fifth Republic) and no MVR candidates as individuals for the other half of the ballot. Instead, pro-Chavez forces created a new party, known as UVE (Union of Electoral Victors), which ran candidates only on the individual section of the ballot. As a result, while MVR and allied parties won 58% of the proportional vote, the together with the candidates who won on the individual candidate section of the ballot, as members of the UVE party, pro-Chavez forces won 80% of all positions up for election (list plus individual).

‘Na…as they say…guará!

Not only did CNE allow the "Ghost Parties" trick to go forward in 2005, but – worse – last year the government amended the Election Law to allow the same, non-proportional results to be achieved in this year’s election without having to go through that whole rigamarole with the two separate "parties" on the ballot. Basically, it mainlined the morochas. Under the latest incarnation of the law, the List Portion of the election is no longer even nominally meant to "top up" the First Past the Post portion. It’s just a straight up contest between slates that takes no account of the First Past the Post results. As such, it does nothing to guarantee proportionality – which is the entire point of the List portion in an Additional Member System.

What it does do is create about 40 seats (in a 165 member Assembly) that are utterly "safe", totally uncompetitive fiefdoms atop each State’s "Proportional List" that, in all but genuinely extraordinary situations, will split down the middle, with one going to the government’s top guy in the state, and the other going to the opposition’s. 

The lists, then, have come to play a role that’s almost exactly the opposite of what they were meant to achieve. Rather than "balancing" the tendency of the First Past the Post system, they now help further entrench it, creating a small political caste that’s fundamentally inamovible – unfirable. 

It’s a voting system that flagrantly violates both of the constitutional mandates on the voting system: it’s neither proportional nor personalized. Come to think of it, it makes about as much sense as Roy Chaderton’s diplomacy.

I do think it’s fun to speculate about the kind of reception the Venezuelan system would get if somebody proposed it for Britain. A lot of laughter, I suspect is the answer.