How Parliamentary Elections Work in Finland
(These are my notes after skimming the Finnish Election Law)
For purposes of electing the Finnish Parliament, the country is divided up into 13 regions. Åland elects one representative, and the rest elect multiple (between 6 and 35) representatives. All representatives are elected through regions; there are no supra-regional representatives.
Candidates are generally grouped together into parties, joint lists, or electoral alliances. The distinction is not relevant to my notes here; in each, multiple candidates are named, without further distinction. Voters identify one candidate who they support; this vote will then be counted as a vote for the candidate’s list, in addition to influencing the ranking of the candidate within their list. (That is, a list’s vote count is the sum of the votes received by each candidate on the list)
I originally found the method of using the votes to determine the precise representatives a little bit confusing, so I will describe it in two different ways here: first, an intuitive way that I believe is equivalent to the prescribed manner, then I will detail the manner as it is actually described in the law.
The Intuitive Explanation
The number of representatives a list receives within a region will be proportional to the number of votes that list receives; so if Party A wins twice as many votes as Party B, Party A will receive twice the number of representatives. Within each list, the n candidates which received the most votes in the list will be appointed, where n is the number of representatives from that list.
The Prescribed Manner
Candidates will be ranked within their list according to the number of votes they receive. They will then receive a score, which is (Total List Votes / Rank within list); So the 3rd place candidate in a list that received 60,000 votes will get a score of 60,000 / 3 = 20,000.
All candidates in the region will then be listed in a single roll, with spot #1 belonging to the candidate with the highest score, and continuing accordingly. The first n candidates will be appointed as representatives, where n is the number of representatives given to that region.
It is left as an exercise to the reader that the two descriptions I gave match.
I will contrast this to Denmark, which is also a Nordic country, has a roughly similar system, and similarly ranks highly on various rankings of countries, including the World Happiness Report. While I haven’t read the Danish election law yet, I am roughly familiar with that system, and have strong ties to the country, and lived there for a year and a half.
One noticeable difference is that there are only regional representatives in Finland, with no representatives that balance things out on a national level. I don’t think this poses a big problem, maybe resulting in a distortion resulting in a couple percent one way or the other. I actually find myself confused as to why leveling seats are needed in Denmark (which also uses regional party lists), which I may resolve by actually reading through the Danish election law.
Another difference (in theory, not in practice) is that Denmark affords parties the choice to be closed-list, meaning that a party could choose the ranking of candidates instead of letting voters decide. In practice, I don’t think any parties actually do that, so it’s not a real difference (though, this can be contrasted with Israel, which uses closed lists exclusively. I cannot currently demonstrate this, but I suspect this explains part—not all—of Israel’s current political troubles).
I believe in Denmark, voters may indicate a different party to support than the candidate they name. There are gaps in my knowledge as to exactly how this is operationalized, but the idea is to allow voters to support their preferred candidate, even when they think weird things are going on in that candidate’s party at large.
A final difference is that there is a threshold of 2.5% of the vote required in Denmark for a party to receive seats (I’m not sure if this is on both the regional and national levels, or only the national level; but I think I’ve heard that it’s specific to the national level, in which case it’s not actually that different to the Finnish system), whereas in Finland, there is no such threshold.
One aspect that drives my curiousity in this matter, is to see how this information can be used to implement a better system in my home state, California (I know I mentioned I want to leave California and the States, but even if I do leave, laying the groundwork for a better system here will be a good thing for California itself, America as a whole, and even the entire course of the history of humanity, and I care deeply about that).
One difference that stands out to me is that Finland’s Parliament is much larger (at 200 members) than any of California’s representative bodies—The State Senate has only 40 members, the State Assembly is larger at 80 members, and our delegation to the US House is 52 members large. While the state-level bodies could be made bigger (and maybe even the State Senate could be abolished? It’s not clear to me that it has any real purpose), the delegation to the US House is fixed, at least on the scale of effort I’m focusing on; and getting real change to happen will require the support of the people, and the fewer things that have to be changed, the more easy that will be to get, so I’d rather not try to change the size of the state legislatures unless it’s really needed.
Adopting a system similar to Finland, while holding the size of the bodies constant, will require either much smaller regions than in Finland, which would introduce substantial distortions, or will require a big reduction in the number of electoral districts, which I worry will not be popular in California (while I personally suspect regional representation is overrated, particularly in the context of proportional representation, people are used to electing regional representatives, and reducing regional representation is a criticism / concern I have heard mentioned seriously by people who don’t support proportional representation).
That causes me to suspect that while Finland’s system works well over there, it would be better to focus on systems that work well with districts with 3 or 5 members, with 15% − 20% of the seats used as leveling seats (to level out the inevitable distortions introduced with such small districts), in the context of electoral reform in California.
I hadn’t previously heard of this method of combining candidate-within-party and party-level preferences into a single vote. Seems like a nice, simple system.
I think that used to also be the case in Denmark, that a vote for candidate within the party was also a vote for the party, but that was changed for the reasons I mentioned above to the current system where one can vote for a different party than the chosen candidate’s party.
One common point of feedback I received from my recent posts is that perhaps I’m a little too grounded in theoretical aspects, and not focused enough on what’s actually going on. As part of my plan to address this, I am digging in deeper into what the actual systems are; another path that will be worth taking to address this is to look deeper into the reality of the situations in the countries I am looking at, and try to illustrate why their systems are leading to better or worse outcomes (without denying cultural factors, of course; but 1) I have a better grasp on how to change constitutions than how to change cultures—in California, the former is actually quite straightforward as long as there’s public support, and 2) I suspect that culture is largely downstream of constitutions, with constitutions shaping incentives, and the incentives then shaping people’s beliefs and values; more aligned constitutions will ultimately lead to more aligned culture).