The Constitutional Council’s proposal for the election of members of Althingi includes a fairly radical, although not unexpected change, proposing a system of preferential voting. The proposal is a little short on details, which will be provided in a legislation about parliamentary elections. However, the proposal stipulates that 63 members will be elected from eight or fewer districts and that voters can either vote for a party list or individual candidates. If the voters opt for voting for individual candidates they are allowed to distribute their votes across candidates of different parties and are free to vote candidate running in any district (if there is more than one district). The electoral law can require up to 2/5 of the seats in parliament to be elected from district lists (rather than a national list).
It is a bit difficult to evaluate the proposal as it is rather vague. I assume the intention is that the system is one of proportional representation but it is not explicitly mentioned. Thus, the legislature may have considerable leeway in shaping the electoral law although the constitution fixes some of its parameters. Unfortunately, the Council no longer appears to include its rational for particular proposals (although they may be buried in meeting notes, etc. on the website).
There has been a push to adopt a form of preferential voting in Iceland for some years now so it is not surprising that it appears in the Council’s proposal. The main reason preferential voting has been championed in Iceland is that the parties have frequently been seen to hold too tight a grip on its MPs. The adoption of preferential voting is expected to loosen that grip and allow MPs greater freedom. There are, at least, a couple of reasons to question this argument. First, preferential voting essentially exists in Icelandic politics as most of the parties hold primaries most of the time. Thus, the candidates don’t owe their position on the party list to the party but to the voters in the primaries. Still, voting cohesion in parliament is very high. It is not at all clear that using preferential voting in parliamentary elections will have any effect on the independence of MPs. Second, in a previous post I argued that a high degree of voting cohesion was a function of the parliamentary system of government and that MPs are, more often than not, I suspect, motivated by the prospects of holding higher office. That is, voting against the government is normally not good for ones ministerial career. It is not an accident that the government MPs that we see vote against the government are precisely those that would never have become ministers – and they certainly won’t now.
So, perhaps introducing preferential voting is a harmless innovation – it only moves the preferential vote from the primaries into the general election and a potential benefit is that voters can now vote for candidates from different parties (which they can also do now by voting in multiple primaries). But it is a missed opportunity. Despite what Transparency International might lead one to believe, Icelandic politics are corrupt (the reason Iceland appears clean in TI’s ranking is that corruption in Iceland is not the type captured by TI’s methodology, e.g., bribes). And there is a fair amount of research that suggests that preferential voting affects corruption and the importance of pork barrel politics. Of course, if the electoral law reduces the number of districts to one it might seem that the incentive to engage in pork barrel politics might be removed but the absence of (small) districts doesn’t mean that politicians are unable to figure out carve out constituencies on their own. At any rate, it seems extremely peculiar, given the political surroundings that led to the constitutional reform process, that there is no consideration (as far as I can tell) of how the electoral system may affect corruption in Icelandic politics.
Another part of the proposal requires changes to the electoral law to be approved by 2/3 of the members of Althingi. While this doesn’t bother me, I do worry about whether this doesn’t invite a constitutional crisis as presumably it implies that the new electoral law will have to be adopted by 2/3 majority… and there is no guarantee that the political parties will find it easy to come to an agreement. Unless of course the law is passed before the new constitution is ratified in anticipation of the new provisions in which case it could be adopted by a simple majority?
p.s. David Farrell pointed out to me that the system is somewhat similar to system used to elect the Australian Senate. However, there is no mention of STV in the proposal. A member of the Constitutional Council provides some additional details about the ‘proposed’ (in quotes since it is not actually in the proposal) electoral systems: here (only in Icelandic). In addition to panachage (allowing voting for candidates from different parties) it sounds like the system that the council has in mind also incorporates an element of cumulative voting as by voting for multiple candidates voters essentially split their votes (if you vote for two candidates, each gets half a vote – not clear whether you can decide to give two-thirds of a vote to one candidate and one-third to another). The (semi-)cumulative vote element also suggest that the Council didn’t have STV in mind.
For references: See Required Readings
Some additional notes on related readings. See, e.g., Chang and Golden (2007) for the relationship between electoral systems and corruption. Cain, Ferejohn, and Fiorina (1987) on the personal vote and pork barrel politics. Ames (1995) on pork barrel spending and how politicians carve subconstituencies in multimember districts. Hallerberg and Marier (2004) on electoral systems and budget deficits. The literature on the relationship between electoral systems and various political and policy outcomes is huge and some additional readings are listed in the required readings.