Robin E. Best, Ph.D.
State University of New York at Binghamton
Country: United States (New York)
Representation and Electoral Systems
Political Parties and Interest Groups
Elections, Election Administration, and Voting Behavior
Comparative Political Institutions
In October 2017, the Supreme Court heard an appeal of a November 2016 ruling striking down Wisconsin’s State Assembly districts as a Republican gerrymander that illegally dilutes the weight of Democratic votes. We take the opportunity to revisit this litigation to evaluate three proposed methods of detecting gerrymanders: the “efficiency gap,” a count of Assembly districts carried by statewide candidates, and the difference between the district-level partisan median and mean. The first two measures figure either centrally or peripherally in the plaintiffs’ case in Wisconsin, while the third is the approach we favor. We expand on the analysis offered at trial by evaluating how these measures fare across a variety of elections in Wisconsin and with the aid of 10,000 alternative Assembly maps drawn by computer. The alternative maps provide the appropriate baseline with which to gauge the level of vote dilution in Wisconsin and distinguish between the effect of residential geography and the Legislature’s actions. The results show that Wisconsin’s Assembly map is a substantial gerrymander according the median–mean comparison across all elections, while the two tests relied upon by the plaintiffs provide mixed results. We examine the measurement qualities of each test and show that the efficiency gap and districts-carried count both capture elements beyond partisan bias. We find no similar ambiguity with the median–mean comparison and conclude that the plaintiffs’ claim that Wisconsin’s Assembly map systematically dilutes the weight of Democratic votes is correct.
Courts have found it difficult to evaluate whether redistricting authorities have engaged in constitutionally impermissible partisan gerrymandering. The knotty problem is that no proposed standard has found acceptance as a convincing means for identifying whether a districting plan is a partisan gerrymander with knowable unconstitutional effects. We review five proposed standards for curbing gerrymandering. We take as our perspective how easily manageable and effective each would be to apply at the time a redistricting authority decides where to draw the lines or, post hoc, when a court is asked to decide whether an unconstitutional gerrymander has been enacted. We conclude that, among the five proposals, an equal vote weight standard offers the best prospects for identifying the form of unconstitutional gerrymanders that all but ensure one party is relegated to perpetual minority status.
We endorse G. Bingham Powell’s cautionary corrective to challenge Paul Warwick’s conclusions that the median mandate thesis needs to be jettisoned because there is not a close match between median voter and government left-right positions. More to the point, however, we go beyond Powell’s mild caution to challenge Warwick’s rejection more assertively and thoroughly. We show his rejection mistakes responsiveness for congruence, misapprehends how and why the median mandate thesis distinguishes between those two concepts, and fails to take account of a measurement artifact associated with his survey data.
We propose standards for detecting partisan gerrymandering as a finding of fact and for determining whether the factual finding is legally significant. The standard is grounded in the U.S. constitutional principle of equal voting rights and is easily manageable inasmuch as its prime analytical feature requires comparing a party’s district median vote percentage to its district mean vote percentage. Equally important, the median-mean comparison serves as an effective indicator of whether gerrymandering is the cause of the inequitable treatment. We apply the standard to six alleged cases of gerrymandering of congressional districts and find three cases are not gerrymanders, three are gerrymanders, and one of the three gerrymanders crosses the threshold to legal significance.
Scholars commonly use a measure of the discrepancy between party vote shares and seat shares (observed disproportionality) as a proxy for the effects of electoral institutions. We illustrate the problems with doing so and, instead, recommend that scholars use more direct measures of institutional characteristics. Conceptually, we demonstrate that observed disproportionality cannot accurately capture institutional effects. Empirically, we show that (1) the variance of disproportionality is much higher when electoral rules are restrictive than when they are permissive, (2) the conclusions we draw about the effects of observed disproportionality differ substantially across samples of elections, and (3) replacing measures of observed disproportionality with more direct measures of electoral system characteristics such as district magnitude produces different and more reliable results.
This article examines the consequences of increased party system fragmentation for oppositions, their respective governments and representation more generally, focusing on 18 established democracies. Two of the findings presented here suggest that there is reason to be concerned about the future of parliamentary representation in established democracies. Firstly, an increasing proportion of votes now go to parties that do not receive a proportionate share of legislative representation, implying that a growing degree of organized opposition is extra-parliamentary. Secondly, the findings show that parliamentary oppositions have generally become more fragmented than their respective governments. This suggests that the composition of governments may not be keeping up with current trends in electoral preferences and, in some cases, that governmental majorities have become smaller and more tenuous. Thus, the overall picture is one of a growing and increasingly fragmented opposition, against a smaller and relatively cohesive government.
In practice, democracies privilege plurality parties. Theories of the democratic process challenge the democratic credentials of this practice. Abstract social choice theory wonders whether an electoral majority even exists. A more optimistic line of argument, prominent in research on collective representation, assumes that the policy position of the median voter embodies the majority electoral preference. The conflict between what democracies actually do and what two leading theories of the democratic process say calls for a comparative inquiry into electoral majoritarianism. For each of a dozen countries, the authors ask whether any political party commands a predominant majoritarian position among voters—that is, is a Condorcet winner—and, if so, which party it is. They find that a Condorcet winning party exists in all 12 countries and that the plurality party can lay more claim to representing the popular majority than the left—right median party. These findings have important implications for the study of democratic representation, which the authors consider in their conclusions.
While institutional theories of party system size are usually examined cross‐nationally, there is ample reason to expect that changes in electoral institutions will affect party system size within countries as well. Although some of this effect may occur immediately, most of the effects are likely to be realised over time and across subsequent elections. A series of error‐correction models examine the short‐ and long‐term effects of changes in electoral institutions on party system size. The results indicate that changes in electoral institutions do produce the expected effects on party system size, and that these effects occur mostly over the long term.
The extent and ways in which popular preferences influence government policy are absolutely central to our understanding of modern democracy. Paul Warwick's discussion of these in the European Journal of Political Research in 2010 puts itself at the heart of the debate with its critique of the median mandate theory of McDonald and Budge, proposing an alternative ‘bilateralist’ concept of representation. This article questions whether this concept has much to add to our theoretical understanding of representational processes. However, Warwick's further conceptual points deserve serious consideration. These concern the time horizons within which representative processes work, and the status of the median position given multi‐motivated voting. At the evidential level, Warwick argues that survey‐based measures of voter and party left–right positions fail to produce the correspondence between median and government policy positions that median mandate theory would have us expect. However, survey‐based measures of median voter and party placements obscure important cross‐national variation. Using the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES 2007), as Warwick does, this article shows that survey respondents norm their own and their country's party positions to their national context. The consequence is to make the political centre in all nations appear similar. Allowing for the relevant cross‐national differences brings the relationship between the median voter and government position back in line with expectations.
This article examines changes in the electoral relevance of traditional social cleavage groups in eight West European democracies, where electoral relevance is defined as group contributions to party vote shares. The approach presented here demonstrates the critical importance of both the electoral behaviour and the size of the cleavage group when electoral outcomes are of interest. The findings from analyses of the behaviour and size of working class and religious citizens (1975–2002) reveal significant declines in the contributions of these groups to party vote shares. Analyses of the sources of these declines point to the importance of group size, suggesting that the changes we observe in election results and party strategies are likely to be long-lasting alterations in the electoral landscape of Western democracies.
Third-party participation in plurality elections should be rare, given the low probability of electoral success. In the United States, the entrenched two-party system makes third-party candidacies especially puzzling. We develop a general theory of these candidacies based on the electoral context, focusing on electoral competition and volatility. When electoral competition is either low or high we expect the number of third-party candidates to be high, due to the opportunities to raise attention to policy issues or affect the election outcome. Moderate levels of competition will produce low levels of third-party candidate participation, as there are fewer prospects of drawing votes or attention. Volatility is expected to have a positive effect, since high volatility signals a de-aligned electorate. We evaluate our claims using US gubernatorial elections, 1977—2005. The results support our claims, suggesting that third-party candidacies are shaped by the degree of electoral volatility and competition.
Institutional theories of party system size tell us that voters and parties should anticipate the mechanical effects of electoral systems and adjust their behaviour accordingly. If these expectations hold true, then the size of the party system at the electoral and legislative levels should maintain a long-run equilibrium relationship, as the number of parties receiving votes is adjusted in response to the number of parties in the legislature. I estimate a series of error-correction models to examine this expectation in 16 Western democracies from 1950 to 2005. Party system size at the electoral level does exhibit a general, equilibrium relationship with party system size in the legislature. However, this relationship has recently disappeared in single-member-district systems. This growing disparity between party system size at the electoral and legislative levels signals important changes in the nature of electoral representation.
Theories of voting tell us that party vote dynamics have two core components, long-run equilibria and more or less rapid returns to equilibria after short-run deviations. Statistical models used to represent these theories, however, tend to emphasize one component or the other. The unbalanced emphasis leaves the theoretical ideas underspecified and produces biased estimates of both long- and short-run components of vote dynamics. We specify the two components in the familiar form of an error correction model and demonstrate its advantages in terms of its theoretical consistency, simplicity, and precise prediction of whether something is wrong. We illustrate its usefulness by applying it to two sets of analyses reported in the literature and showing that it usually changes the conclusions reported in regard to both the equilibrium levels of party competition and the strength of restoring forces.
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