Wednesday, 5 March 2008

The Useful Vote - on the Spanish Election System

With the high number of parties represented, I have assumed that the seats of the Spanish parliament are assigned through proportional representation. That is only partly true. The constituencies are the same as the provinces and the reason for the distortion is that each province has the right to a minimum of 2 seats (plus 1 each for Ceuta and Melilla). Using this method, the first 102 of in total 350 seats are allocated. Only the remaining 248 are split proportionally based on the number of inhabitants with permanent residence (N.B: not according to the electoral roll) of each province. For us foreigners, this means that although we are not entitled to vote, we are taken into consideration when seats are allocated to the province where we live.

This results in a situation where the value of a single vote is not the same throughout the state. That, in turn, gives the parties incentives to think in terms more typical for “first past the post” systems, when they decide were to spend time and money during the election campaign. For examples, let us use figures from the last elections (2004) to see how 47 seats were allocated to the 4 Catalan provinces.

Barcelona (where Vilanova i la Geltrú belongs) is Catalonia’s by far biggest constituency. In 2004, 3.052.310 people cast their vote to elect representatives for 31 seats. We could thus say that there was 1 seat per each 98.462 voters, or that you needed 3,2% of the vote to win 1 seat. The smallest party represented was ICV-EUA which won 2 seats thanks to 6,5% of the total vote of the province.

Lleida is the other extreme. With 234.244 people voting in 2004 and 4 seats in the parliament, each seat cost 58.561 votes (substantinally lower than in Barcelona) but roughly 25% of the total vote. The smallest party represented was ERC which won 1 seat thanks to 21.5% of the votes. PP, with 14.6% of the vote, did not win any seat in this province.

Tarragona and Girona had 6 seats each in the outgoing parliament, so the proportionality of the allocation is slightly higher than in Lleida, but very far from what we see in Barcelona. We can therefore conclude that any new party has bigger chances of winning parliament representation by focusing on Barcelona, rather than on any of the other Catalan provinces or Catalonia as a whole.

The system also has implications for tactical voting, so it is not surprising that some Catalan parties talk about the useful vote (el vot útil). As an example, in Tarragona in 2004, the last seat went to PP, the 4th biggest party with 17.0%, while the 5th biggest party, ICV-EUA reached only 3,8%. In this year’s election, has ICV-EUA invested enough in their Tarragona campaign to radically narrow that gap? If not, one could argue that a left leaning Catalan nationalist should rather vote for a second best option like ERC, to make sure that they keep their 1 seat, rather than to hope for ICV-EUA to reach the number of votes needed.

I was already looking forward to the outcome of the elections on the state level, but now the vote allocation of each province will be exciting. And let us remember that although they differ in value, it is clear that every vote counts.

# The methods used for allocating votes or calculating the percentages needed for a seat are not the correct ones, but merely serve as simplified approximations for my argumentation.
# Under no circumstances do I instruct people in Tarragona to only vote for parties which already have seats in the parliament representing their province.


Keefieboy said...

So Cueta (population 74.000) and Melilla (population 57.000) each get a seat in Parliament? Extraordinary.

Erik Wirdheim said...

Yes, that is a nice litte bonus for being small, is it not?