Monday, August 13, 2012

Musical Chairs, Veto Constituencies, Accountability Juries, and other Random Ideas: Further Thoughts on Randomizing Electoral Constituencies

(Attention conservation notice: some more thoughts on this proposal, which gained a modest amount of internet attention in the last couple of days – see Dylan Matthews here, Matt Yglesias here, and Evan Soltas here).

Having slept on it and seen a few responses, I am not yet convinced that the proposal I sketched in the post below would actually be a bad idea (though it probably is!). The basic idea is that the electoral constituency or electorate – the group of people who “selects” the legislator – should be separated from the accountability constituency or electorate – the group of people who “disciplines” the legislator1 – in such a way that neither the legislator nor the electors would know in advance who the latter group would be. Such a system would (in theory) mimic some of the structural features of a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance,” so that legislators could not tailor their appeal to any particular group of people but are instead incentivized to speak and act in ways that can be publicly justified to any group in society. But there are a variety of ways of accomplishing this, as I hinted at in the original post. Some of these are very close to current practice; others are not so close. I want to consider here in detail a few of these variations:
  1. “Musical chairs” representation. This is the simplest form of the proposal. (My original idea was in fact closer to option 2 below, “random veto constituencies,” though it seems to have been quickly simplified into this form, which is at any rate simpler and more elegant). Under musical chairs representation, non-incumbent candidates can run in any constituency they choose, but incumbent candidates running for re-election are randomly assigned a constituency shortly before the election date (say, a month or so earlier). The random constituency can be their original electoral constituency (let’s call this the “initial” constituency). We do not need to imagine that the incumbent draws any constituency with equal probability; a system where the incumbent has a higher probability of drawing his/her initial constituency could strengthen the incentive to do the kinds of constituent service that a lot of people seem to find valuable.

    More formally, let’s say there are N constituencies or districts in the system; come election time, incumbents can draw their own initial constituency with probability p, where > 1/N, and any other constituency with probability (1-p)/(N-1). (More complicated assignments of weights are of course possible). When p = 1, the system works identically to current practice – the incumbent always draws his own constituency; when p = 1/N, the incumbent can draw any constituency with equal probability. We might thus think of p as a measure of “localism” in the system. The lower p, the more the re-election seeking politician will need to act in ways that can be publicly justified to any constituency in the country, but he will of course have less incentive to do constituency service or to represent his locality. p can also serve as a measure of incumbent advantage; the higher p, the higher the advantage, all other things equal.

    What might be the benefits of a system where p < 1? By facing the possibility of having to compete for re-election in a constituency other than the one where he has been originally elected, a politician would of course need to avoid acting in ways that can incur disapproval beyond his constituency. But he would still have incentives to represent his constituency, pace Dylan Matthews. For one thing, the chance of drawing his initial constituency is nonzero, and a reputation for serving the constituency one is representing would still be a valuable asset in a race in a different district. Indeed, they might still be able to too easily promise to extract rents on behalf of local interests, as Evan Soltas notes, though I imagine it would be harder to promise this credibly when they don’t know which district they would be representing in the next election. At any rate, promises of local rents aren’t the only criterion by which electorates judge the suitability of candidates, and this system would weaken the appeal of these promises. Moreover, while a district or electorate could insist on electing candidates with purely local appeal, these would, I suspect, tend to be one-term wonders, as would “extreme” candidates. Assuming the distribution of voter preferences is not itself polarized for other reasons, the system would tend to moderate polarization over time as candidates strategically target the “modal” constituency to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the strength of their convictions and their level of risk aversion.

    Elections might nevertheless become more competitive under this system, since p < 1 implies a lower level of incumbent advantage, which might be a good thing (more competitive elections tend to be associated with more public goods provision, though this varies depending on the kind of competition). More importantly, as Matt Yglesias notes, the forms of public justification themselves would shift. An incumbent US congressman who defended agricultural subsidies in Iowa during his term, for example, would need to do so in terms that would resist potential sceptical examination by an electorate in New York. And one should not discount the satisfaction electors would get from giving a sound thumping to a politician they find particularly obnoxious but would not, under current practices, normally be able to defeat. (Soltas’ objection that it “weakens accountability structures to have your performance judged by someone else than whoever installed you” is I think overstated; electors judging the performance of a non-local candidate can always opt for the local challenger, or judge the non-local candidate on the basis of his/her record on issues or national significance, as they often seem to do anyway, and as is perhaps appropriate for candidates to a national legislature). Nevertheless, it is probably safe to say that in the aggregate this system would not produce large shifts in policy from the status quo; after all, many mixed-member proportional systems (New Zealand!) try to achieve similar balances of “national” and “local” concerns, even if they use somewhat different mechanisms and have somewhat different effects on the forms of public justification.

  2. Random veto constituencies. My original proposal tried to preserve local representation in a slightly different way. Perhaps the simplest form of it is the following: non-incumbent candidates are elected according to the vote totals in the constituency they are running, but incumbent candidates are subject to a veto in a randomly selected constituency (assigned shortly before the election). In essence, the challenger must win only in the local constituency, but the incumbent must win in both the local and the randomly selected constituency. If the incumbent loses in the randomly assigned constituency but wins in the local constituency, the challenger takes power; hence the idea of a veto. The system could make allowance for extremely popular incumbents, so that getting, say, 60% of the vote in their local constituency means that they only have to get 40% of the vote in their randomly-assigned constituency, and getting 80% of the vote in the local constituency means they only have to get 20% of the vote in the randomly assigned constituency. (Again, the chances of drawing a particular constituency could be suitably weighted to favour nearby constituencies, for example).

    It seems to me that this system would have most of the advantages of the previous one while preserving the possibility of strongly-rooted local representation. Races remain local, but politicians cannot act in ways that have a strong probability of being disapproved of elsewhere in the country; and incumbent advantage is strongly diminished. Nevertheless, it seems possible that a system of vetoes could create a lot of ill-will; I’m sure people in say, rural South Carolina, would not relish having their choices of representatives vetoed by people in San Francisco or vice-versa. So it does not seem politically sustainable in the long run, even if it would enable the schadenfreude of spectators to see politicians having to justify themselves to hostile electorates beyond their home turf (a benefit that is not to be underestimated; see Jeffrey Edward Green’s The Eyes of the People for a full academic defence).

  3. Accountability juries. One problem with the proposals above is that they favour geographical units of representation at the expense of other possibilities. While randomization of such geographical units may have some benefits, certain interests are never going to be well represented on that basis. One could, however, modify the idea of veto constituencies so that the veto would be exercised by juries selected on the basis of some non-geographical criterion. For example, imagine that before each election, we drew five juries of 500 people each selected on the basis of income – the first jury being composed of 500 people randomly selected from the first income quintile, the second from the second, and so on. Each incumbent candidate is then randomly assigned, shortly before the election, to make his/her case before one of these juries; you could be assigned to speak before a jury of the poor, or before a jury of the rich, but you would not know which one in advance. We could have weeklong, televised trials, perhaps presided over by special investigating magistrates, in an echo of the “audits” Ancient Athens subjected its officials to at the end of their terms. The jury could then vote (perhaps with some suitable supermajority requirement) on whether or not the incumbent should be allowed to run for re-election (in that election; no permanent disqualification is envisioned). The possibilities here are, of course, much more various: how we would organize such juries, run the trials, and so on would be crucial questions. I suspect a system like this would shift policy more radically, but I like the idea of having representatives having to justify themselves to randomly selected constituencies that do not have a geographical basis.

Anyway, I’m sure there are huge problems with all of these proposals, which I don’t expect to be political reality any time soon; this is more a thought experiment than anything else. I would nevertheless be interested to hear what some of these problems are, or what alternatives people can come up with.


  1. Hi Xavier,

    Wouldn't it be simpler to bias the cost of any proposal towards the constituency of the proponent? Thus, if an MP from ChCh puts forward a proposal, his/her constituency will have to pay a higher proportion of the cost (maybe through a reduction of central funding)? There could be a sliding scale there, the more local the benefits of the project the higher the proportion to be carried by the constituency.

    1. Hi Luis,

      I suspect it would not be easy in practice to determine what counts as a "local" benefit of a proposal. But this is another option worth considering.