Catalonia’s Oct. 27 unilateral declaration of independence from Spain has gained the region a lot of attention — perhaps more so than at any time since the Spanish Civil War. How did Catalonia end up declaring independence? Like the U.S. electoral college, Catalonia’s electoral system can turn a popular vote loser into a winner. In fact, the strong biases built into the Catalan electoral system elevated the crisis by inflating the secessionists’ parliamentary majority. And these same rules may perpetuate the crisis. After the declaration of independence, Spain’s central government used its powers under Article 155 of the constitution to take control of the regional government. Madrid called for fresh regional elections on Dec. 21. But Catalonia’s separatists may win a parliamentary majority again, even if they lose at the polls. The Catalan parliament is elected via proportional representation, which is commonly used around the world. Why did this “proportional” system lead to a surprise advantage for separatists? It’s all in the fine print.
Voting in Catalonia is straightforward; voters cast their ballots for a single party list. Seats are then allocated to the winning parties proportionally within each of Catalonia’s four provinces. Parties must win more than 3 percent of the vote in a province to be eligible to gain seats in that province.
In the 2015 Catalan regional elections, separatists won 48 percent of the vote but elected 53 percent of the 135 deputies. But how did separatists claim 72 seats, a majority?
For starters, seats aren’t distributed evenly across the four provinces. Catalonia’s severe malapportionment means Barcelona Province, the most populous and pro-Spanish, has 14 fewer deputies than it should have, based on population. The three more rural provinces — Girona, Lleida and Tarragona — where separatist parties perform more strongly are correspondingly overrepresented.