The biggest limitation of looking at all this is it’s trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, so to speak. First Past the Post requires voter to vote strategically. It’s simply not worth the risk to vote for the candidate you truly believe in in a three-way race if it means a higher chance that the candidate you despise will win.
So the district results aren’t the best way to figure out how voters would’ve selected candidates in an MMP election. The best way would be to actually run an MMP election. But that’s a constitutional amendment and referendum away.
Another limitation is thinking about this as a series of MMP elections rather than what would be different if each election was the first MMP election ever. It’s not so much a problem with the results, it’s an issue with how the results might have been effected.
For instance, the list candidates would be campaigning all over the state, raising their profiles tremendously. They also are more beholden to the party, making internal party politics incredibly important to voters. In an MMP election, non-district candidates are ranked by their party on a list, in the order that the party wants to be seated. So a party’s number one selection is a person they’ve marked as someone they really want to be in the chamber. This means these top candidates are reflective of the party’s general principles.
Figuring out how this would change things is very difficult. I have no idea how crucial the 2002 election might’ve been, when over half of the General Assembly could have been new members with little understanding or care for the various stupid customs the General Assembly operates on. Would these new Reps and Senators have transformed the GA? Or would they have been totally consumed by its workings? And would the split between list candidates and district candidates have caused fissures in the parties during general election campaigns?
A final thing is the number of times the Democrats lose their veto-proof supermajority in the MMP system. It happens in 2004 and 2010, when they underperform with voters. They regain it in two years, but those four years when they lose it could be crucial. The General Assembly may have been far more conservative in the years immediately after 2004 if Gov. Carcieri could’ve vetoed legislation and made it stick. Gov. Chafee might be more popular if he’d been more assertive as a result of his veto power. We talk about the weakness of the governor in Rhode Island, but in this case the Governor has been weakened by circumstance rather than by design.
Beyond this, we really don’t have much of a party system in Rhode Island beyond the Big Two. Most parties can’t pass the threshold for state recognition, which means they don’t get the advantage of appearing at the top of the ballot or on voter registration forms. Smaller parties also suffer far worse from the recruitment problems that all the parties have to some extent.
This is Part 10 of the MMP RI series, which posits what Rhode Island’s political landscape would look like if we had switched to a mixed-member proportional representation (MMP) system in 2002. Part 9 (the Election of 2012) is available here. Part 11 is another look at the Election of 2010.