ERA distorts proportional representation

[Published by the Cambodia Herald on 9 January 2014.

As noted in two previous articles, the report of the Electoral Reform Alliance released in early December is intended to discredit Cambodia’s 28 July general election. The first article pointed out that the ERA is dominated and funded mainly by a United States government agency with a thoroughly anti-democratic record. The second debunked the report’s claim that there was something deliberately unfair in the assignment of seats to the provinces.

This article will look at the ERA’s claim that there was something rigged or improper in the way that the proportional representation system operated.

The report claims: “Proportional representation implies that the number of seats allocated to a party should be proportional to the number of votes that party has received. Yet the share of seats for the CPP following the 2013 elections is higher than the party’s share of the popular vote, mostly due to the single-member constituencies in nine provinces (all of which the CPP won).”

As pointed out in the previous article, if there is something wrong with the current voting system as such, the ERA should be complaining to the UN: it was UNTAC, not the CPP, that instituted the system. And while systems in different countries are not exactly the same, the UNTAC-decreed system in Cambodia is not fundamentally different from proportional representation systems in the rest of the world.

At war with arithmetic

But “proportional representation” has never meant, and could not possibly mean, an exact correspondence between the number of votes received and the number of representatives of a party. Even less could it mean that this correspondence must hold good in each electorate. When hundreds of thousands of people are voting for five or six or eight representatives, there is no possibility of more than an approximate match between the proportions of candidates elected and votes received.

A province with a small number of representatives makes a seeming injustice in representation almost inevitable. Single-member provinces give no representation to voters for any party but the one with the largest vote – something that ought to be obvious even to people a bit unhinged by partisan prejudices. A province with two representatives would be highly proportional if two large parties share most of the votes roughly equally, but if there are three parties with nearly the same number of votes, one of them will appear to have been dealt with unfairly. Or if two large parties split most of the vote 75%-25%, the result in that province has to be unfair to one of them. As a general rule, proportional representation in any electorate is more likely to be not very proportional the fewer are the number of representatives to be elected.

As the ERA acknowledges, the CPP did better proportionally because it won all of the provinces that elected just one representative. Therefore, if the CNRP feels that it has received fewer seats than it deserves, perhaps it should devote more effort to winning support in more rural and sparsely populated areas.

It is true that, because of these mathematical facts, the CPP won 55.28% of the seats with 48.83% of the vote. Such a result is not unusual in other countries. In 2000, George W. Bush was elected US president not only with a minority of the total vote (47.9%) but also with half a million fewer votes than his Democratic opponent. And what the ERA report doesn’t tell its readers is that the CNRP also won a share of seats marginally “higher than the party’s share of the popular vote”, getting 44.46% of the vote nationally and receiving 44.72% of National Assembly seats.

How was it possible for both the CPP and CNRP to obtain a larger proportion of seats than their proportion of the vote? A result like that is almost inevitable if there are even one or two parties competing that do not receive enough votes to elect a candidate. In the recent Cambodian general election, there were six such parties.

Those six parties received a total of nearly 450,000 votes, about 6.8% nationwide. The fact that they received no representatives is not an injustice: they were not a single political force, but stood for a variety of different platforms. But it meant that the CPP and CNRP, with a combined 93.2% of the vote, would share 100% of the elected representatives.

This situation is not the creation of the CPP, or even of UNTAC. It is a product of arithmetic, which is normally politically neutral: in a proportional representation election, whenever there is a significant total vote for parties that do not win a seat, at least some of the parties that do win seats will be overrepresented. If the system is a sensible one, the party that wins the most votes will be overrepresented at least as much as its competitors, because otherwise the extra representatives could give the party with the second most votes a majority of seats.

Multi-member electorates

The report’s authors seem never to tire of blaming the CPP for the laws of mathematics. For example, the passage quoted above is immediately followed by: “Some non-single member constituencies saw unequal results. In Siem Reap, for example, the CPP won 49.9% of the votes but received 67% of the seats. In 11 provinces, CNRP’s share of seats was much lower than their share of the popular vote.”

When one examines the details, it isn’t nearly so dramatic. Of course, in the nine single-member provinces that the CNRP lost, its share of seats was significantly lower than its share of the vote. As for Siem Reap, it was electing six representatives. The voting numbers made it immediately obvious that the CPP had won three seats and the CNRP two, so the report’s dispute is only about the final seat. The legal formula gave that seat to the CPP, meaning that it had 67% (4 out of 6) of the province’s seats. If the ERA were advocating a different voting system rather than trying to discredit the CPP, it would have added other examples, such as: In Svay Rieng, the CNRP won 33.6% of the votes but received 40% of the seats. And if the sixth seat in Siem Reap had been awarded to the CNRP, the CNRP would have received 50% of the seats with only 36% of the votes.

Furthermore, there is a clear attempt to mislead readers in the ERA report’s statement that “the CPP won 49.9% of the vote” in Siem Reap. More than 13% of voters in Siem Reap voted for smaller parties. The implication that the CNRP should have received half of Siem Reap’s seats would make sense only if all those smaller party votes were given to the CNRP.

To make an honest judgment of the operation of proportional representation in Siem Reap in this instance, one should compare the votes of the two biggest parties against each other, not the vote of the biggest party against the total vote. Of the votes in Siem Reap that did not go to the six smaller parties, 57.9% were won by the CPP and 42.1% by the CNRP. Four to two is obviously a fairer way than three to three for dividing six seats between those two votes.

We have thus accounted for 10 of the 11 provinces of which the ERA complains. The 11th province is presumably Kratie, which has been often mentioned in CNRP complaints, and which shows up in the ERA report as a province in which the CNRP’s votes per representative elected were very high. But again, things are not as the ERA suggests.

Kratie elects three representatives. The vote for the five smaller parties that had candidates in Kratie totalled less than 7%, so there was no chance of one of those parties winning a seat. Therefore, between the CPP and CNRP, the outcome had to be either 3-0 if the vote was overwhelming for either, or 2-1, which is what happened. The result would have to be 2-1 even if the winning party had only one more vote than the other. That is not the fault of the CPP or of UNTAC, but of arithmetic and the fact that members of the National Assembly cannot be divided into fractions of a person. But in Kratie, the vote difference was considerably more than one: the CPP outpolled the CNRP by more than 10,000 votes. Yet the ERA wants us to believe that there is something illegitimate about the CPP receiving two of the province’s three representatives and the CNRP receiving one.

Yes, if you compare the number of votes that elected one CPP representative in Kratie with the number that elected one CNRP representative, there is an obvious discrepancy. What the report doesn’t tell readers is that any other distribution of seats would have made that discrepancy worse.

Uneven results’

“An easy way to demonstrate uneven results for the parties in elections is to divide each party’s total vote by the number of seats it obtained”, declares the report. That statement is true in isolation but a lie in the context of the real world: it is a lie to pretend that there is any need to “demonstrate” uneven results, when a moment’s thought makes it obvious that election results are always going to be “uneven”.

The report then presents a chart showing the number of votes that elected one representative in each of the 24 provinces. And indeed – surprise! – these are “uneven”; arithmetical laws are just as valid in Cambodia as they are in the rest of the world. What the chart doesn’t show is anything at all systematic about this unevenness. In fact, in the 15 provinces that have more than one seat, there are eight provinces in which it took more CPP votes than CNRP votes to elect a representative and seven provinces in which the reverse was true.

While some voters in a province may feel that something is not right if the party they voted for got only 50% of the representatives while getting 54% of the vote, they need to remember that the situation may be reversed in a neighbouring province. The only reliable key to whether an electoral system is working adequately is whether the party that won the most votes nationally won the most seats. Nobody has yet advanced a detailed and convincing claim that the CPP did not receive about 300,000 more votes than the CNRP on 28 July.

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