Thursday, November 05, 2009

The 2010 votes: gerrymandering in Venezuela

There is still some stuff to be written to prepare for the election sets of next year. In particular the latest battles between the opposition as to hold primaries or not and the infamous "tarjeta unica". But it is more important to visit in detail the last (?) issue left from this series of posts: how the new electoral law will allow for gerrymandering by the CNE as it pleases.

Perhaps the hardest things that any electoral uni-nominal system has faced is the design of electoral circumscriptions. History has told us that no one ever reached a satisfactory solution, some going all the way to civil wars in order to decide how a circumscription should count its electors and inhabitants (does the US political debates in the mid XIX century ring a bell for some of you?). Of course proportional systems do not suffer of this as much, though they are not exempt of the problem when they establish regional lists. The problem is that you may pixelate a country in even squares but each square will have an unequal number of people in it, and very differing interests as you go from the middle of the picture to the edge. Trying to group the pixels in uneven squares to get image detail is actually not very easy and could blur further the picture.

When politicians try to have their hand in pixel distribution things get even more out of shape as they try to group their supporters in thin support districts while they dump their opponents in huge majority opposing districts. A most famous designer of electoral districts was a certain Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts who showed how it was done, no matter how ridiculous the shape of the new district would be.

You can imagine that if gerrymandering can be done in countries like the US or France where the post office can reach every nook and cranny, what can be done in countries like Venezuela where millions of people have never received a letter, not even a bill, through mail. Who knows how many people actually live and vote in a given district? This was a problem before Chavez. You can assume now that the problem is much worse, and of course much more tempting to use for chavismo.

I do not know how much time I will dispose of to illustrate the extent of the problem so I chose for the time being to dissect the case of Miranda state. It will be quite a long post by itself.

Before I start you should know that contrary to the US where the state legislatures decide of new electoral district boundaries every ten years once a semi reliable census has been performed, in Venezuela as of now it will be the 5 rectors of the electoral board, the CNE, who will decide of new electoral districts with little supervision and no possibility for redress. Add to this that the last electoral census was nine years ago, and a sham at that, and that the INE is well known for fudging all sorts of statistics and you can guess the possibilities that open for the chavista controlled CNE who will have all sorts of convenient numbers to justify any arbitrary decision they decide to take.

This being said. Until last year electoral districts were created by adding municipalities until enough of them yielded enough people to justify a representative. Municipalities could not be cut, sliced, etc... and in addition they had to touch each other. In that way it was hoped, even though the distribution could not be quite fair, that at least abuses by electoral authorities would be limited through the political parties influencing them, and that the union of these municipalities would yield some kind of "regional" interest. Considering that in Venezuela it is difficult to determine exactly who lives where the system sort of worked.

The Miranda case: from 1998 until today

The first figure is the example of possible Miranda state electoral result, based on the 2008 results and how districts were decided in the old system. In 2008 the regional vote was Governor Disodado Cabello with 507K votes, defeated by challenger Capriles Radonski who got 584K votes. Right click to enlarge in a different window. Note: since the minor parties in that state did not get together 2% of the vote I am just ignoring them altogether and considering all through this post that there are only two sets of candidates. To simplify matters, you know.

From above you can see that the result next year extrapolating from 2008 would be 4 district seats for the opposition (blue triangles) and 3 list seats for a total of 7. Chavismo (red stars) would get 4 district seats too, and 2 list seats for a total of 6. That is, 7 to 6 seats, really close to the vote percentages: for the oppositions 53.5% vote for 53.8% seats.

Thus the old system works even with the infamous "morochas" if both sides use the electoral trick and present a united front. It will not be really representative of the diversity of the state but at least representative of the overall majority (read preceding posts for more details).

Yet the system carried a certain number of problems, and was unfair to the opposition electorate as the next figure indicates, even if in this case the final result was fair. Let's look first at the raw data from 2008. According to the CNE data from 2005 and 2008 we can list each electoral district and its number and the different municipalities that are included in each district (matching colors with the above map); how each municipality voted for Diosdado and Capriles, and the population of the district. In the last column I calculate the percentage of that population that voted for the major candidates.

The first observation we can thus discuss is that of the 21 municipalities that include Miranda only 8 had more than 40% people voting, and of these 8, ONLY 2 were carried by chavismo/Diosdado (red stars). Independently from the virtues and defect of Diosdado Cabello as a candidate, it is clear that any gerrymandering requires a consideration of districts more likely to have high voter participation, and isolate or group them together as required.

The advantage of chavismo becomes clearer in this next figure when we look at the electoral "quotient". That is, how the CNE determined how many districts are created and how many of those ones will include more than one representative (in Miranda case only one district, Sucre, has two representatives).

In the first columns we have the districts and their municipalities, as above. Then we have the population in each district for 2005. Then I divide the population by 8 (8 district seats in 2005, there will be 10 in 2008) for the "quotient" of which I use to calculate what I call the elector value of each district. Before I go into that number, it is this one rounded up or down that determines how many seats each district gets, in the one before last columns (Sucre got two because Miranda got an extra national seat for some reason not of the scope of this discussion).

The voter value number as I calculated it allows to compare the worth of each district. If I divide the 1.26 of district 4 by the 0.72 of district 1 the results is 1.75. This means that the electoral value of an elector in district 1 is almost the double of the value of an elector in district 4 since it will take almost two votes of the inhabitants of district 4 to "neutralize" a vote from district 1. Obviously, trying to address such issues is one way to enter into gerrymandering as I will show next.

How will Miranda by chopped for 2010?

The first thing to remember is that from 5 list votes Miranda will go to three representatives elected through the list vote. Thus to the original 8 district representatives we must add two new seats which oblige new calculations and perhaps redistricting. I do not know of course what will the CNE decide in the end, I am just offering you a possible scenario next. It will include a reasonably legal and justified change, and an unconstitutional one made legal through the new law. Let's start with a new table.

The table just above is the same posted just before except that now the "quotient" is calculated over 10 representatives, at 278.903 people. The last column is the division of the district population which rounded up requires the CNE to add one seat to district 4 and district 2. But what you can observe is that when we look at the voter value now district 4 has an advantage and the district punished the most is district 7! The CNE should normally accept that though there is a way to change district configuration that would be acceptable, legal and without changing the overall results. That new result, in theory, would be as the figure below shows:

The result now would be coming from:
1)removing two representatives from the list vote, one from each side,
2)the addition of of one opposition seat to district 4 and one chavista seat for district 2.

In other words we do retain an overall fairness of representative distribution for the state, 6 to 7 seats won, even if district 7 is more unfairly represented than district 4 was.

But through gerrymandering the CNE can change the result without too much trouble.

First, the municipality of Los Salias, who votes heavily for the opposition, could be split from district 7 to 4. Now the elector value for 7 would drop from 1.42 to an acceptable 1.16 while the voter value of district 4 would go up from 0.79 to 0.92, all more acceptable. The final result should still remain the same taking 2008 numbers, BUT... the opposition victory in district 7 would now be razor thin and a heavy chavista investment in that district could turn it around for a razor thin victory. That is, reasonably safe districts 1, 5 and 6 could be worked out less intensely while the financial effort of vote buying could be focused on 7. In a year where electoral money will be less plentiful, such details count a lot. Not to mention that other tricks can be used to favor chavismo in district 7 such as voter migration from district 5. If that strategy were to work opposition would now get 6 seats to 7 for chavismo EVENT THOUGH the opposition would still get MORE THAN 50% of the vote!!!

But it gets better. According tot he new CNE law parishes (and maybe even smaller geographical units?) can be detached from their municipality and joined to another one strictly for electoral purposes. If clearly this could be use to reinforce chavismo in Guacaipuro by giving it some border area of Urdaneta, there is a much more spectacular application in Sucre, district 3.

With the new seat distribution district 2 is now the one with the best voter value at 0.74, and thus the most unfairly advantaged. Compensation cannot really come from district 1 which is still favored itself. Compensation can come only from district 3, Sucre municipality. But there is a problem, it voted opposition in 2008, even though the majority of this districts is comprised of "ranchos", low economical class areas in theory Chavez lovers.

Now, close examination of district 3 reveals that the parish close to district 4, Leoncio Martinez, voted for Capriles by 30.786 votes to the meager 6.801 votes Diosdado Cabello received. By cutting off this parish, including it into district 4 AND including the remaining of Sucre into district 2 we create a new large district which elects 4, FOUR, representatives. And the beauty of it is that the chavista advantage in district 2 is enough to compensate the deficit in 3. Not by much, but enough. The result of all of this combined is shown in the new map below:

With the 2008 numbers where Capriles Radosnski won with 584k to 507k votes, chavismo gets 8 seats to the 5 that the opposition now gets! And if the trick works in district 7, that number becomes 9 to 4!!!!!!!! In other words, with a theoretical vote 560 to 531 (51.3% to 48.7%) won by the opposition chavismo could still get 9 to 4 seats, that is 69% of the seats!!!!! 49% of the vote becomes 69% of the seats!!!!

The counter part of course is that if chavismo continues its decline in Miranda, the opposition c could carry the 4 seats of the new super district 2 and with 55% of the vote it would carry 9 to 4. However observe that for the opposition to carry 69% of the seats IT NEEDS to carry at least 55% of the vote, 6 points more than what chavismo requires, courtesy of CNE redistricting (one legal and on illegal moves). Note, to underline this hypothesis I have put a red and blue question mark in these narrow margin results, the districts that could go either way if votes are counted as they should be.


It should be crystal clear that in front of redistricting the only weapon the opposition has is a perfect unity of candidature, coupled to all the usual, as, etc, etc.... Any division will not only be a sure disaster in district 7, but also in 3 if kept as is. A divided opposition can lower the required 49% vote of chavismo to acquire a seat majority to as low as 40-45%!!!

Unity is the requisite sine qua non. The CNE, we can be absolutely sure, will try to establish as favorable a redistricting for chavismo as possible, and also publish the final electoral map as late as possible to hinder as much as possible the opposition effort to reach unique candidate nominations. Chavismo has no such problem because not only they will know these changes before hand, and certainly before the opposition, but because their party structure and authority of its beloved leader will allow for a prompt and definite nomination process.

The opposition leadership has a huge challenge in front of it. Not only it needs to reach some form of unity agreement but it also needs to reach it alone because the kind of game involved in redistricting can only be countered by political parties, not by NGO organizations that will not even be received at the CNE offices. Civil society and naive folks like me can only hope to impress that notion on the political chiefs that must fight this battle.

-The end-

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