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How the Proportional Representation system affects your vote

Monday, September 16, 2013
Nigel Henry

This Q&A was developed by Nigel Henry of Solution by Simulation following the parliamentary debate on proportional representation, which concluded in the Senate last Wednesday. Local government elections will take place on October 21. Solution by Simulation accurately predicted the outcome of the Tobago House of Assembly election, published in our January 14 edition.


Q: So, let’s start with the basics. What exactly is proportional representation, and what’s the big deal about it?
A: Proportional Representation (PR) describes a method of deciding the winners of elections in which multiple members from one district are elected in proportion to the votes recorded for each party or candidate. It contrasts with the “first past the post” system (FPTP) in which a single member is elected from each district.


As of September 11, Trinidad and Tobago will now use PR to elect aldermen to the municipal corporations, with exactly four aldermen elected in each corporation by PR. The resulting system is more properly called a Parallel Voting system, since FPTP and PR-elected members will sit in the same chamber (the city, borough or regional corporation council). 



So exactly how does PR work?
Our version of PR will be implemented using what is called a closed-list system in which an elector’s vote will count in favour of a party’s list of candidates for aldermen. The list is “closed” because electors choose the list on the whole, and cannot influence which candidate on a given list is elected first.


We will use the so-called “largest remainders” (LR) method of calculation, and more specifically, the Hare version. In formal terms, the LR method is calculated by dividing the number of votes each party gets by a “quota.” But I find it easiest to think of LR as awarding a party an elected candidate for each time its vote tally surpasses a fixed benchmark, in our case 25 per cent. Any remaining seats are then filled by the party or parties that are closest to their next benchmark.


In other words: If Party A captures at least 25 per cent of the vote, it is awarded at least one alderman, if it captures at least 50 per cent of the vote, it is awarded at least two aldermen, and so on. Once these first-round aldermen are awarded, the party that is closest to its next 25 per cent benchmark will receive one of any remaining aldermen positions. 



Can you use real numbers to illustrate?
Consider the following example: Party A gets 49 per cent, Party B 35 per cent and Party C, the remaining 16 per cent. Party A and Party B will be awarded one alderman each for crossing 25 per cent. Then Party A is awarded a second alderman for being closest to the next benchmark; having one per cent less than 50 per cent. Party C will be awarded the final alderman with its 16 per cent being counted as its “remainder.”


The LR-Hare formula is the easiest of all the PR systems to understand, and is the most “fair” since its results most closely approximate the underlying vote distribution.



So who will be the winners and losers in this new system?
Well, like any PR system, smaller parties will receive larger representation compared to in a FPTP system. However, since only four aldermen will be elected to each regional corporation, a “small” party will therefore be required to earn a significant number of votes across the entire corporation to elect an alderman. In practice, therefore, the “winners” will be the runner-up parties in each corporation. In practice, there will almost always be at least one minority or “opposition” voice in each corporation. 


For example, in the 2010 local government elections, the PNM was completely eliminated from four of the 14 corporations entirely. However, under the LR formula they would have retained a presence in the form of an alderman—on the Mayaro/Rio Claro, Princess Town and Couva/Tabaquite/Talparo Regional Corporations. If the 2010 local government elections were rerun using the following system, the composition of the corporations would have been significantly more balanced than at present.


What other interesting changes can we look forward to?
Under the new rules, the FPTP councillors and PR aldermen may be in vastly different proportions. Take 2010 again: in Arima and San Fernando, the Partnership won the councillor seats 6-1 and 7-2 respectively. But under the new rule, the aldermen in each case would be evenly split at 2-2. Point Fortin shows the same effect in reverse: The PNM won the councillor seats by a 5-1 margin, but again the aldermen elected would have been 2-2.


The mechanics of coalition politics will also be affected since two parties cannot “pool” their support or share a common list.  In the last Sangre Grande Borough Corporation election, the UNC received 53 per cent of the vote share, and the COP received ten per cent.



Together, the 63 per cent of the vote share would have resulted in three Partnership aldermen elected. But since each party must earn its own aldermen, the PNM would have been able to split the allocation 2-2. We may therefore see candidates running under the banner of a coalition partner to allow a single coalition party to contest all the seats in a given corporation. Post-election coalitions fare even worse: if the votes were split 17-17-2, the “2” would have no say in who controlled the corporation.



Seems like a lot of change coming our way?
Not really, at least not yet. With just four aldermen per corporation, the new rules would rarely change the majority party in any corporation. In fact, in the 2010 counter-factual, the absolute number of representatives on each side would change very little.  In most cases, the result is that two aldermen would be added—one from each major party.


But again, the balance will still be actually closer to the numerical “will” of the electorate, especially for the five City and Borough Corporations. For example, in Point Fortin, which went 43-57 in favour of the PNM in 2010, the PP’s 43 per cent rounded down to 13 per cent representation, and the PNM’s 57 per cent rounded up to 88 per cent representation. In the new system, this will be more balanced at 30-70.


The system does in fact lower the numerical bar to gain representation.  Once a party hits the “magic number” of 12½ per cent of the corporation-wide vote, even if it does not win any district, it can secure the election of an alderman, in a two-party contest.



Anything else?
The proposed PR system will increase the presence of minority voices who have earned a sizable share of the vote. However, in most cases, an otherwise disenfranchised party will merely receive one alderman, and at most two aldermen, out of a total of ten to nineteen elected officials in the corporation.


The LR-Hare formula will allow for an easily comprehensible introduction to PR for Trinidad and Tobago, and may be a low risk trial for more expanded PR, since it will make only very minor changes to the composition of each corporation, and will have little or no bearing on who controls which corporation.


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