Helsinki and Canberra; comparing the electoral systems of the parliaments of Finland and Australia

This is a post for Ma & Pa Farmers (@lutajobe) on Twitter, who had some questions about the comparability of the Australian Parliament and the Finnish Parliament

A note before we begin; Finland is a semi-presidential parliamentary democracy in the European Union, while Australia is a constitutional monarchy and federal parliamentary democracy that is not. For the purposes of discussion, we are ignoring any parliament other than the national ones, the Finnish presidency, and Finnish members of the European Parliament.

Discussion

The Eduskunta

The Finnish Parliament, the Eduskunta, consists of 200 persons – 199 divided across 12 electoral districts, with one member guaranteed for the autonomous region of Åland (Raunio 2014). The apportionment of members is uneven, with each district being allocated a number of members commensurate with the population (Jääskeläinen 2010) – these are multi-member constituencies.

Election of the members is based on an open list proportional vote; you do not vote for parties, it isn’t possible, but for candidates individually (Jääskeläinen 2010; Karvonen 2011; Raunio 2014). This is not a preferential system (Karvonen 2011).

To be elected to the Finnish Parliament, a candidate needs a certain number of votes; this is calculated using the D’hondt method (Jääskeläinen 2010). The formula is:

dhondt

(V is the number of votes, s is the number of seats already won by the party in question)

A good way to think of how it works is to look at it as “paying” seats with votes. Initially, no party has any seats; so the denominator is 0+1, at first. But as each party gets a seat, the denominator goes up by one – the party has to pay for the seat it already has in addition to  the new one – and this continues until all the seats are gone (Wilson 2016) (refer to the Wilson article in Sources, below, for a one-page explanation complete with examples).

The nature of the system – where multiple people can represent one seat – lends itself to an increased number of parties compared to the systems; this is because each seat can only be won by one person, whereas seats that can only be won by one person will ultimately boil down to a two-person contest.

And now we come to the Australian House of Representatives.

The Parliament of the Commonwealth

The Australian Parliament is bicameral; there are two houses which use different systems. We’ll look at each one in turn

The House of Representatives

The House consists of 150 single-member constituencies, elected by the instant run-off (preferential) system, with all preferences distributed until a candidate secures more than 50% of the formal vote (Australian Electoral Commission 2015a).

This is different from, say, the House of Commons in the UK, which is elected via the first-past-the-post system – there are no preferences, and the person who gets the most X’s against their name, wins (even if they did not win the majority of votes) (UK Parliament n.d.).

The issue here is that single-member constituencies, because of their “there can only be one” nature will tend to result in fewer parties in the chamber; you can see this evidenced not just in the composition of the Australian House of Representatives, but also the American one.

On this basis, it is inappropriate to compare the Australian House of Representatives to the Finnish Eduskunta; they’re very different systems, so it’s no wonder they produce different outcomes.

But we have another house to look at.

The Senate

The Senate consists of 76 Senators, 12 for each state and two for each territory, and they are elected on a proportional basis from multi-member constituencies (Australian Electoral Commission 2016).

Instantly we can see that there’s a better comparison to the Finnish system, even though the Australian Senators aren’t allocated based on population, it is a multi-member proportional voting system. But there is one significant difference; the quota.

Australia’s Senate uses the Droop formula, and it works much differently from the D’hondt. The formula is the number of formal ballot papers divided by one more than the number of senators to be elected, plus one (Australian Electoral Commission 2015b), or:

droop

So what’s the difference between Droop and D’hondt, apart from the +1 on the end? It’s the allocation.

Rather than hand out seats based on whoever gets the highest number at each calculation, the formula tells you the minimum number of votes needed to get a seat. If you get over that number, you get a seat. Your excess votes are then transferred, on a pro rata basis, to their next preference; the process deals with the surpluses of elected candidates first, and continues until all the seats are handed out (Australian Electoral Commission 2015b; Green 2016). Note also the preferential nature of the system.


Conclusion

Comparing between parliaments can be fraught – and not just at the national level. It would be wildly inappropriate to compare the Parliaments of Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory; the two systems are very different. The same applies to comparing the Eduskunta with the Australian House of Representatives.

It is reasonable to compare our Senate to the Finnish Parliament though, as the systems are similar, although you have to remember there are key differences; the quota and method, and the Senate has preferential voting.


Sources

Australian Electoral Commission. 2015a. ‘Counting the Votes for the House of Representatives’. Australian Electoral Commission. July 17. http://www.aec.gov.au/Voting/counting/hor_count.htm.

———. 2015b. ‘Counting the Votes for the Senate’. Australian Electoral Commission. July 17. http://www.aec.gov.au/Voting/counting/senate_count.htm.

———. 2016. ‘Voting – The Senate’. Australian Electoral Commission. March 30. http://www.aec.gov.au/Voting/How_to_vote/Voting_Senate.htm#2016.

Green, Antony. 2016. ‘First Preference Votes for Elected Senators’. Antony Green’s Election Blog. March 17. http://blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/2016/03/first-preference-votes-for-elected-senators.html.

Jääskeläinen, Arto. 2010. Finnish Election System: Overview. 72/2010. Helsinki: Finnish Ministry of Justice. http://oikeusministerio.fi/material/attachments/om/julkaisut/6Fioq3rxv/OMTH_72_2010_Finnish_Election_System__Overview_32_s.pdf.

Karvonen, Lauri. 2011. ‘Preferential Voting in Finland: How Much Do Candidates Matter, and to Whom and Why?’ In . Seattle: Åbo Akademi University. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1908705.

Raunio, Tapio. 2014. ‘The Finnish Eduskunta: A Parliament in a Semi-Presidential System’. United Kingdom: Political Studies Association. https://www.psa.ac.uk/sites/default/files/RAUNIO%20-%20Finnish%20Eduskunta_blog_Final.pdf.

UK Parliament. n.d. ‘Voting Systems in the UK’. UK Parliament. http://www.parliament.uk/about/how/elections-and-voting/voting-systems/.

Wilson, Helen J. 2016. ‘The D’Hondt Method Explained’. University College London. Accessed April 21. http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~ucahhwi/dhondt.pdf.

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