Dual candidacy: yeah or nay?
Dual candidacy – i.e., the ability of candidates to stand for office in single member districts and regional party lists simultaneously – is a contested feature of the additional member system in Wales. It was permitted in 1999 and 2003, banned in 2007 and 2011, and allowed once again in 2016. Whereas its critics believe that dual candidacy undermines the integrity of the electoral system as it allows for losers to become winners, its proponents argue that the practice has a positive effect on the quality of elected representation in the National Assembly for Wales. These debates, however, pay relatively little attention to how dual candidacy influences the experience of voters during elections.
We often associate elections with selecting leaders, but they are also important for educating citizens about politics. The few weeks and months prior to the polling day give politicians their most attentive audience. The First Minister’s Questions are not going to top cat videos in Google search any time soon, but voters might just browse a leaflet that is put through their letterbox ahead of an election. It is important to make most of the time when voters do pay attention to politics.
Dual candidacy encourages campaign effort
The 2016 Welsh Candidate Study asked candidates who stood at the 2016 devolved election about the level of their campaign effort and the length of their full-time campaign. Table 1 summarises the results for different types of candidates – i.e., candidates who stood only in regional list or in single member district, and those who ran in both races (dual candidates).
It is evident that the type of candidacy matters. Dual candidates claimed to have spent more time campaigning ahead of the polling day than those who stood in one electoral tier only. Dual candidates spent, on average, 4.7 hours more per week campaigning in the last month of the campaign than constituency candidates (38.9 versus 34.2), and almost twice as much time than regional list candidates (38.9 versus 19.7). Quantity does not, of course, mean quality. It does, however, indicate a level of effort expended by candidates to engage with voters. The campaign effort of dual candidates was more intense than that of candidates who stood in one electoral tier only at the time when the electorate tends to be most attentive and receptive to political communication.
A similar picture emerges when comparing the length of full-time campaigning by different candidates. While dual candidates started, on average, their full-time campaigns three months before the election, constituency candidates started full-time campaigning roughly one week later, and regional list candidates around two weeks later. The difference of a week – or two – is modest and does not necessarily mean that dual candidates conduct better campaigns, but nevertheless, the difference signals that dual candidates looked to engage with voters over a longer period of time.
Table 1. Campaign effort by candidate type
Dual candidacy encourages campaign complexity
The 2016 Welsh Candidate Study also asked candidates about the nature of their campaigns. Table 2 shows the percentage of candidates who used different campaign activities as part of their campaign strategy. It offers a more nuanced measure of their campaign effort.
Again, dual candidates stand out. The percentage of candidates who used these five campaign tools – canvassing, debating in public, leafleting, media activities, and social networking – is highest for dual candidates (51.9%), compared to 42.6% for constituency candidates, and just 21.2% for regional list candidates. It was dual candidates who were most likely to undertake multifaceted campaigns that incorporate a broad range of campaign activities.
In terms of specific campaign activities, those that reach voters at home (i.e., canvassing and leafleting) were used at similar levels by different candidates. Dual candidates, however, were more likely to use campaign activities that are less personal than regional list candidates and constituency candidates (i.e., debating in public, media activities, and social networking).
Table 2. Campaign complexity by candidate type
A positive case for dual candidacy
The current debates surrounding dual candidacy mainly focus on normative arguments. These are important considerations, but neither should we ignore the empirical evidence associated with dual candidacy. Survey data from the 2016 Welsh Candidate Study suggests that dual candidacy has a positive impact on candidates’ campaigns. The campaigns of dual candidates tend to be more intense, longer, and conducted using a more diverse range of campaign tools, compared to the campaigns put in place by candidates who stand in one electoral tier only.
So what? It is widely acknowledged that an informed electorate contributes to the health of a democracy. The presence of a well-informed electorate improves electoral accountability, ensures more representative policy outcomes, leads to deeper and broader decision process prior to casting one’s ballot, enhances voters’ ability to match their issue preferences to party platforms, and results in higher turnout. In light of these positive effects, a fictitious politician being the second most recognised MEP in the 2016 Welsh Election Study is a truly terrifying piece of information. We know that voters are most receptive to political communication in the run up to elections. The political elites need to make the most of these (short) windows of opportunity.
Dual candidacy certainly does not guarantee a well-informed public participation in elections, nor is it by any means the most important aspect of electoral system design. However, given that dual candidacy encourages candidates to work harder and use a wider range of campaign activities, more electorally-relevant information is likely to end up in the public sphere, and a broader range of the electorate is likely to notice it. These benefits may not be particularly large, but the impact of dual candidacy on how voters experience electoral campaigns is still a positive one.