Political and Social Affairs Division
THE IMPORTANCE OF ELECTORAL SYSTEMS
SYSTEMS: THE MECHANICS
A. Majoritarian Systems
Single-Member Plurality Systems
Multi-Member Plurality Systems
Single-Member Majoritarian Systems
a. The Alternative Vote
b. The Two-Ballot System
B. Proportional Representation
Party List Systems
Party List Systems: Variants
a) Largest Remainder System
b) The Highest Average System
c) Highest Average System (Sainte-LaguŽ Modified
d) Combining the Formulae
Single Transferable Vote Systems (STV)
C. Mixed Systems
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF THE SYSTEMS
AND MAJORITARIAN ELECTORAL SYSTEMS
Single Member Plurality Systems
Multi-Member Plurality Systems
Single-Member Majoritarian Systems
PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION (PR)
Party List Systems: Variants
Single Transferable Vote
ON CHANGE TO ELECTORAL SYSTEMS
A. New Zealand
is dissatisfaction with the way that our electoral system translates
votes into seats. There is a strong regional dimension to this
dissatisfaction, with residents of Alberta and Quebec being least
likely to find the current process acceptable. It should be emphasized,
however, that in no region of the country does more than a bare
majority find the workings of the present system acceptable.(1)
INTRODUCTION: THE IMPORTANCE OF
subject of electoral systems, though dry-as-dust to some and arcane to
many, is --- or ought to be --- of central interest to anyone concerned
with the operation of democratic systems of government. Elections are
the defining moment in any democracy and in representative democracies,
as one scholar reminds us, elections perform two fundamental tasks: they
confer authorization upon those chosen to represent the electors and they
hold representatives to account for their actions while in office.(2)
Electoral systems, the means by which elections are formally structured,
are thus a vital component in the achievement of these goals.
defined, electoral systems are the mechanisms by which the preferences
of citizens are translated into seats in representative institutions.
As such, their impact on a whole range of elements that make up the political
character of a society is quite considerable. The behaviour of political
parties and candidates for elected office will, for example, in large
measure be conditioned by the shape of an electoral system. Canada's electoral
system is a case in point. Academic observers have noted that in this
country the electoral system is weighted in favour of regional preferences,
so that parties are encouraged emphasize regional rather than national
concerns during election campaigns. This has tended to produce patterns
of representation at the national level whose focus is regional and whose
consequences are centrifugal.(3)
importantly, the way in which an electoral system translates votes into
seats in elected assemblies may influence the degree of public support
for the democratic system itself. If, for example, citizens do not perceive
that their preferences are adequately reflected in the legislature following
an election, their support for the system in general is likely to decline.
Turnout during elections will drop off, respect for politicians and elected
representatives will fall, and laws enacted by government will not be
seen as fully legitimate.
is an ideal, an abstraction which often assumes concrete dimensions for
the vast majority of people through the electoral system. For many, an
election marks the only occasion of any form of political participation
--- it is the only tangible evidence of what it means to be a citizen
in a democratic society. It is therefore of utmost importance that electoral
systems be seen as fair and as fulfilling public expectations; if not,
democracy itself is put at risk.
are no strangers to debates over electoral systems.(4)
The most recent of these debates took place during the last round of constitutional
talks and focused on proposals to transform the Canadian Senate into an
elected body.(5) Although there is little evidence that Canadians
are ready to adopt new means of structuring their electoral systems, it
is likely that these debates will continue. As the quotation that opens
this paper suggests, citizens of our country are not altogether happy
with the status quo. Citizen discontent with "politics as usual"
has sometimes prompted a demand for changes in the structure of political
institutions, including the way elections are organized, as this paper
will show. The citizens of two countries, New Zealand and Italy, have
just voted in large numbers for major overhauls to the structure of their
view of the fact that electoral systems will remain a world-wide topic
of discussion, this paper aims to acquaint the reader with the general
outlines of the principal electoral systems currently used in representative
democracies. The first section describes the mechanics of these systems,
while the second section summarizes their claimed advantages and drawbacks.
Two concluding sections examine the recent efforts by citizens of New
Zealand and Italy to change their electoral systems.
ELECTORAL SYSTEMS: THE MECHANICS
electoral systems currently in use in representative democracies can be
divided into two basic kinds: majoritarian systems and proportional representation
systems (often referred to as PR).
majoritarian electoral systems, winning candidates are those having attracted
the most votes in a given electoral district. Majoritarian systems differ
according to the number of representatives elected in an electoral district
and the kinds of majorities (simple or absolute) that winners must achieve.
1. Single-Member Plurality Systems
plurality (SMP) systems are commonly found in countries that have inherited
elements of the British parliamentary system; it is this kind of electoral
system that is most familiar to Canadians.
electoral districts represented by one member in an elected assembly,
simple rather than absolute majorities suffice to determine the winner
of an electoral contest.(6) Each elector marks a single "X" (or other
similar mark) beside the name of the candidate of his or her choice. Although
several candidates may compete for the seat, the winner need only attract
the largest number of votes cast. For this reason, this kind of electoral
system is referred to as a "single-member plurality" or a "first
past the post" system. Electoral systems of this sort are used in
Canada, the United States, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
2. Multi-Member Plurality Systems
some majoritarian electoral systems, more than one member per electoral
district can be sent to the assembly.(7)
Voters in this kind of system mark off as many names on their ballots
as there are seats to be filled. As is the case in single-member systems,
the candidates with the most votes are declared elected.
3. Single-Member Majoritarian
contrast to the systems just described, single-member majoritarian systems
seek to ensure that the winning candidate has the support of an absolute
majority of the voters in his or her district. There are essentially two
ways of achieving this outcome.
a. The Alternative
that employ an alternative vote (also referred to as a preferential
voting system or PV) require voters to rank-order their preferences
on their ballots. Electors write number 1 down beside their first choice,
2 beside the second, and so on. If, when the ballots are tallied, no candidate
receives an absolute majority, the candidate with the least votes
is eliminated and his or her ballots are redistributed according to the
second choices marked on them. This process continues until a winner emerges
with more than half of the total vote. The alternative vote system has
been used for elections to the Australian House of Representatives (Australia's
lower house) since 1918.
b. The Two-Ballot System
two-ballot or second-ballot system is another means of ensuring that the
winning candidate is supported by a full majority of voters. Under this
system, balloting may take place in two stages. During the first, voters
have a choice among several candidates, only one of whom they may vote
for. If no clear winner emerges from this first round of voting, a second
ballot is held between the two candidates with the best showing. (In a
variant of this system, when more than two candidates appear on a second
ballot, a simple plurality determines the winner.)
system was most recently used in France for parliamentary elections in
March 1993. The French changed this system briefly, in 1986, replacing
it with proportional representation (see below), but restored the two-ballot
system shortly afterward. The system is widely used for presidential elections,
including those held in France.
second major category of electoral system is known as proportional
representation or PR. PR systems are specifically designed to allocate
seats in proportion to votes, in the hope that assemblies and governments
will accurately reflect the preferences of the electorate. PR systems
are now the most frequently used electoral systems in western democracies.(8)
PR, political parties are assigned a number of seats in parliament corresponding
to the degree of support they have received in a given electoral district;
of necessity, this arrangement dictates that all PR systems rely on multi-member
districts.(9) PR systems are of two basic types: party list systems
and single transferable vote (STV) systems.
1. Party List Systems
party list systems, voters in an electoral district choose from among
slates of candidates put forward by the various parties contesting an
election. When the votes are tallied, each party is entitled to seat the
number of members from its list that corresponds to its share of the popular
vote; for example, if a given party obtains 30% of the vote, then it would
send 3 members out of a list of 10 candidates to the legislature.
discourage the emergence of splinter parties, jurisdictions using this
system sometimes set a vote threshold that parties must obtain in order
to qualify for seats. Thresholds vary from jurisdiction from jurisdiction;
in Israel parties must receive a minimum of 1% of the popular vote in
order to qualify for seats in the Knesset.(10)
In Germany, on the other hand, parties must win a minimum of 5% of the
national vote or win seats in three single-member constituencies before
they are given seats on a proportional basis.(11)
Once the threshold is met, different methods, described below, are used
to calculate how seats will be allocated among the parties.
a party's share of the available seats has been determined, it must be
decided which candidates on its list will be declared elected. In most
jurisdictions this depends on the order in which candidates' names appear.
Those whose names appear at the top of their party's list of candidates
thus have the best chance of being elected, those at the bottom, the least.
a. Party List Systems: Variants
systems have been criticized because they place considerable power in
the hands of political parties, since they determine the order in which
candidates names appear on the ballot --- and thus which candidates are
most likely to assume office. As a consequence, voters are deprived of
a significant degree of choice and the ballot itself is rendered less
meaningful. In order to redress this imbalance, some jurisdictions that
use a list system allow electors a greater degree of choice among the
candidates. This variation on the party list system can take two forms.
Under the first, voters have a choice among candidates, but they must
be from one party alone. Under the second form, known as panachage
(used in Switzerland), voters are permitted to make their choices regardless
of party. The basic principles of the party list system are still operative,
however: parties are allocated seats on the basis of the popular vote
all PR systems, there has to be some means of determining the allocation
of seats among those contesting the election. Three formulae are commonly
used to do this: the largest remainder system and two highest
average systems (the d'Hondt version and the Sainte-LaguŽ
version). Table 4 provides a overview of these methods.
a) Largest Remainder System
this system, the first step is to set the quota or threshold of votes
that each party must attain to win a seat. The vote for each party is
then divided by the electoral quota. The simplest method of establishing
a quota (the "Hare quota") functions as follows: the number
of votes cast is divided by the number of seats to be filled. For example,
in a constituency where five seats are to be filled, and 40,000 votes
are cast, the quota would be 8,000 votes. There are three other options
that can be used. Under the "Hagenbach-Bischoff quota," the
number of votes cast is divided by the number of seats to be filled plus
one. When the "Droop quota" is used, the number of votes cast
is divided by the number of seats plus one and one is added to the quotient.
The "Imperiali quota," used in Italy, divides the number of
votes cast by the number of seats plus two.
a seat is awarded to each party for each bloc of votes equal to the quota.
For example, if a Hare quota has been set at 5,000 votes, each party will
be given one seat for each bloc of 5,000 votes that it has received. In
a second step, any remaining seats to be allocated are awarded on the
basis of which party or parties have the highest number of votes remaining
after the quotas have been used up. Table 1 illustrates how this works.
20,000 votes cast
Hare quota: 5,000
Source: Dick Leonard and Richard Natkiel, World
Atlas of Elections: Voting Patterns in 39 Democracies, The Economist
Publications, London, 1986, p. 2.
the table shows, only parties A and B achieve the electoral quota and,
as a result, only two of the four seats can be directly allocated. In
the second step, the third seat goes to party A, since it has the largest
number of votes remaining after the quota has been used. The party with
the second-largest number of remainder votes, party C, is awarded the
fourth and final seat. The largest remainder system is known to reward
smaller parties; here, party C wins as many seats as party B, though it
received only half as many votes.
b) The Highest Average
System (d'Hondt version)
highest average system divides each party's votes by successive divisors
and then allocates seats to the parties in descending order of the quotients.
Table 2 shows the same results as Table 1 but using the d'Hondt highest
average system to allocate the seats.
20,000 votes cast
division by d'Hondt divisors
Source: Dick Leonard and Richard Natkiel, World
Atlas of Elections: Voting Patterns in 39 Democracies, The Economist
Publications, London, 1986, p. 3.
this example, the number of votes received by each party is successively
divided by d'Hondt divisors (1,2,3). Seats are allocated once the use
of all the divisors has been completed; in this way it is possible to
compare the quotients and allocate the seats on the basis of their descending
order. Party A, with the highest quotient of 8,200, is awarded the first
seat; its third-highest quotient of 4,100 gives it the third seat as well.
Party B's second highest quotient of 6,100 gives it the second seat and
its quotient of 3,050 gives it the fourth, and last, seat. It is clear
from this example that the d'Hondt system tends to award seats to parties
that receive the largest share of the votes cast, a factor which indicates
that this system does not provide a large measure of proportionality.
c) Highest Average System
(Sainte-LaguŽ and Saint-LaguŽ Modified versions)
Sainte-LaguŽ and Saint-LaguŽ modified systems use different divisors from
those used by the d'Hondt system. The Sainte-LaguŽ system divides a party's
votes by 1,3,5,7, etc., instead of by 1,2,3,4, etc. A modified version
of this system is used in several Scandinavian countries and involves
setting the first divisor at 1.4 instead of 1 (so that the divisors will
be 1.4, 3, 5, 7, etc.). This tends to favour medium-sized parties in a
d) Combining the Formulae
is possible to combine features of largest remainder and highest average
systems by allocating seats using the Hare quota and d'Hondt divisors.
In the initial stage, the quota is applied; remaining seats are then allocated
through the use of the divisors.
2. Single Transferable Vote
contrast to party list systems, STV systems emphasize the individual candidate
rather than the party. As is the case in all PR systems, electoral districts
using STV are represented by several members in an assembly. Voters are
asked to rank-order their choices among the candidates whose names appear
on the ballot. When the ballots are counted, the first step is sorting
them according to the first choices. In order to be declared elected,
a candidate must obtain a certain threshold of the votes cast. Those candidates
who obtain the threshold during the first stage of counting are declared
elected and any votes they have received in excess of the threshold are
redistributed according to the second choices as marked. The second stage
of counting involves the redistribution of these "surplus" ballots;
once more, those candidates achieving the threshold are declared elected
and any surplus votes redistributed. This process continues until all
vacant seats have been filled.
hypothetical case shows how the STV system, using a Droop quota, works.
If a 3-member electoral district had 1,000 voters, the number of votes
required to win would be
1,000 +1 = 1,000
+1 = 250+1 = 251
3 + 1
1,000 votes cast,
five candidates, STV system
* = declared elected
New Zealand, Electoral Referendum Panel, The Guide to the Electoral
Referendum, Wellington, 1992, p. 9.
3 shows how the votes would be tallied. At the first count, candidate
D obtained the threshold of 251 votes, was declared elected and had his
or her 19 surplus votes redistributed. These surplus votes were redistributed
according to the second choices marked on them, giving the new totals,
which appear in the second count column. No candidate (apart from D) reached
the threshold on the second count so candidate C, who had the least votes,
had all of his/her ballots redistributed for the third count: as a consequence
candidate A was declared elected. On the fourth count, A's surplus ballot's
were redistributed, giving E the necessary threshold. Thus after three
redistributions and four counts, the three seats were filled by candidates
A, D and E. It is noteworthy that candidate B, who received the second
highest number of first preference votes, was not elected in the final
STV system is currently used for elections to the Australian Senate, in
Malta and in the Republic of Ireland. In Australia, voters are now offered
a choice on their ballots between choosing a party list or ranking preferences
among multiple candidates.
C. Mixed Systems
jurisdictions have chosen to use a mixture of majority and proportional
representation systems in order to achieve the benefits of both. Since
the late 1940s in Germany, for example, one half of the seats in the Bundestag
(the lower house of parliament) have been filled by plurality, using single-member
constituencies, while the other half are filled using party lists, according
to the d'Hondt system. Voters mark two choices on their ballot papers:
one from among a list of parties, the other from among a slate of candidates
for district representation.
Quotas and Divisors: the
|1. Hare quota = Votes
2. Hagenbach-Bischoff quota =
Seats + 1
3. Imperiali quota = Votes
Seats + 2
4. Droop quota = Votes
5. d'Hondt divisors: 1,2,3,4,5,
6. Sainte-LaguŽ divisors: 1,3,5,7,
7. Sainte-LaguŽ modified divisors:
summary, when largest remainder systems are used, quotas establish a threshold
of votes that parties must attain to become eligible for seats in multi-member
electoral districts. When highest average systems are used, divisors provide
a means of allocating seats among the parties. Sometimes the two systems
are combined so that quotas are used in the first stage and divisors are
used to determine subsequent allocations.
RELATIVE STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF THE
electoral system is perfect; each has its advantages and disadvantages
of which the careful observer should be aware. This section of the paper
summarizes the arguments made by proponents and critics of the various
is helpful to remember that these arguments are sometimes polemical; an
objective effort to assess each system on its merits is therefore worthwhile.
We should ask whether or not given electoral systems are effective in
achieving certain desired outcomes. One scholar has suggested that elections
in representative democracies should ideally accomplish the following
A parliament reflecting the main trends of opinion within the
Government according to the wishes of the majority of the electorate.
The election of representatives whose personal qualities best
fit them for the function of government.
Strong and stable governments.(12)
might ask, as well, whether a give electoral system is capable of achieving
An outcome which is acceptable to those who have lost the election
and community acceptance of the voting system as the best possible
basis for running the country.
Fostering of respect for different points of view.
Fair representation of minorities and other significant groups
in society, such as business people, women, and labour.(13)
desirable, it would be next to impossible to find an electoral system
that is able to satisfy all of the points listed above. Nevertheless,
these criteria do provide an objective scale which can facilitate comparison
and evaluation of electoral systems. The lists can also serve as a means
of sorting out competing, compelling, and sometimes confusing arguments
made on behalf of the various systems.
PLURALITY AND MAJORITARIAN ELECTORAL
and majoritarian systems offer several benefits. The first is their ability
to produce single-party, majoritarian government. Indeed, research shows
that single-party rule is more likely under plurality than under PR systems.(14)
This means, in effect, that when a voter votes for a party or a candidate,
he or she is also choosing a government. Coalitions are less likely under
this kind of electoral system and it could be argued that the governments
formed as a result have a freer hand in enacting the policies on which
single parties that form governments under the SMP system tend to hold
legislative majorities.(15) This, in turn, tends to produce governments
that are more stable (ie., are not subject to defeat in votes of confidence
and can complete their legislative terms) and more capable of enacting
their legislative programs. Nevertheless, SMP systems are not an absolute
guarantee of majoritarian governments. It can be argued, furthermore,
that majoritarian governments are not necessarily desirable.(16)
propensity toward single party, majoritarian governments, may have an
unexpected effect. Discouraged from electoral participation, small groups
holding extreme positions may be prompted to resort to other than democratic
means to advance their cause. If, on the other hand, the electoral system
allows such groups an opportunity for parliamentary representation, a
measure of conformity with established rules is imposed upon them.
second major advantage of majoritarian systems is their relative simplicity
in the eyes of the electorate. No complicated formula is involved, just
the straightforward proposition that the candidate who gets the most votes
are those, however, who refute the alleged benefits of plurality and majoritarian
systems. One analyst, using the means of analysis suggested above, writes
be relied upon, either to give a parliament reflecting all the
main trends of opinion, or to place in power a government backed
by the majority of the electorate, or even by the largest body
of voters. [They]... frequently [exclude] ... from parliament
men and women whose contributions to it would be most valuable.
[They]... cannot be relied upon, either to give one party power
to govern unhindered according to its own ideas, or on the other
hand to produce government by consent.(17)
most prevalent argument is that representation is not well served by this
kind of electoral system. Because majoritarian systems tend to distort
outcomes by favouring strong parties and under-representing weaker ones,
the wishes of most voters are often not reflected in electoral outcomes.
Critics point out that this discredits the entire political system in
the eyes of those it is meant to serve. At the least, citizens become
uninterested in political involvement, evidenced by declining turnout
at elections; at worst, they use less passive means to show dissatisfaction,
so that democracy is placed at serious risk.
the party with the most votes generally wins more seats than its share
of the popular vote would indicate, other parties are correspondingly
disadvantaged by majoritarian electoral systems. As Canadian political
scientist William P. Irvine explains,
plurality systems tend to exaggerate the parliamentary representation
of the strongest party, to penalize the second party and to devastate
third parties whose support is thinly spread across the breadth
of the country.(18)
corollary is that, by exaggerating the strength of the government party,
majoritarian systems produce weak, ineffective oppositions.(19)
large countries with dispersed populations, plurality systems tend to
discriminate against parties whose support, though national, is thinly
spread. Parties with a strong regional presence but little national support,
tend, on the other hand to be rewarded. A majoritarian electoral system
may thus be viewed as a divisive factor in a country with distinct regions,
since parties have incentives (in terms of electoral rewards) to make
strong regional appeals. Those whose support is concentrated in one region,
or who become champions of regional rather than national concerns, will
be rewarded and regional cleavages will be consequently enhanced.
of majoritarian and plurality systems have attracted the following comments:
Single Member Plurality Systems
systems are considered by many to be superior in their representation
of constituency interests. In majoritarian and plurality systems that
elect one representative per district there is a direct connection between
elected representatives and electors. There can be no ambiguity over who
is responsible for a constituency's interests, unlike the case with PR
systems where districts send more than one representative to the legislature.
systems combine some of the advantages of PR and plurality systems by
ensuring that not only do multiple points of view within a constituency
gain legislative representation (as is the case under PR), but also that
those elected have significant levels of support from the electorate.
Because each district is represented by several members, however, the
lines of responsibility between the elector and the elected are not always
majoritarian systems, in contrast to SMP systems, are designed to ensure
that elected representatives have the support of a full majority of the
constituency's electors. A government elected under this system thereby
enjoys enhanced legitimacy.(20) There is, however, no guarantee that the party or parties
who form the government under this system have the support of a clear
majority of all voters.(21)
additional argument in favour of this kind of electoral system is its
effect on extremist movements. Advocates claim that by favouring strong
parties majoritarian systems discourage the emergence of extremist movements.
Evidence tends to confirm this claim.(22)
under the two-ballot form of single-member majoritarian systems, voters
need be less concerned about "wasting" their votes on the first
ballot, since they know they will probably be given a second choice.
PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION (PR)
principal argument advanced in favour of PR is its ability to reflect
more accurately the preferences of voters in terms of seats in parliament.
Voters are said to be more willing to cast votes for smaller parties when
they know that their votes will produce tangible results, and when seats
are allocated on the basis of the share of the popular vote. The ability,
in general, for PR systems to deliver seats to smaller parties encourages
the formation of such parties, a factor which promises representation
of a wider spectrum of public opinion.
studies confirm that PR systems on average offer greater proportionality
than majoritarian/plurality systems,(23)
some researchers have discovered that it is still possible for a plurality
system to produce a more proportional result than a PR system.(24)
Other factors, such as the number of parties contesting an election, may
influence the proportionality of electoral outcomes.(25)
closely related argument is that PR systems offer greater opportunities
for legislative representation for minority groups and women. However,
a recent Canadian Royal Commission on electoral reform pointed out that
levels of women's representation in elected assemblies are often attributable
to variables other than the electoral system, for example political parties'
adoption of quotas for women candidates. In this respect, the behaviour
of political parties, especially in party-list PR systems, is crucial
to women's ability to gain seats in elected assemblies. More careful analysis
reveals that PR jurisdictions that do not use a quota system for women
candidates have records similar to Canada's in this regard -- and sometimes
is also claimed that, because minority views are not marginalized, political
discourse and political participation are enlivened in PR systems. The
one reliable empirical indicator for this assertion, levels of voter turnout
at elections, tends to confirm this.(27)
against PR, however, can be just as compelling as those in its favour.
Some critics point out that PR systems encourage the emergence of extreme
views, which, though quite often based on short-lived opinions of the
day, are given a certain longevity and enhanced legitimacy through access
to parliamentary representation. This argument is best summed up by Irvine,
who writes that under PR systems
gain representation in parliament and credibility as contestants
in elections. They remain as available and plausible alternatives
if regimes run into economic difficulties, and may be able to
make difficult the functioning of a democratic regime.(28)
systems are also criticized for the complexity of their balloting process
and the way in which votes are tallied. Available information suggests
that, while voter turnout may indeed be high in PR systems, ballot spoilage
is also high, a possible sign of voter confusion when offered a multiplicity
are also expressed about the shape of the governments that result from
PR electoral systems. In contrast to plurality/majoritarian systems which
favour the formation one-party governments, PR systems generally produce
coalitions. Thus, when casting their ballots in a PR system, voters are
not electing a government. Governments under PR are typically formed after
elections, when parties attempt, through a bargaining process, to build
governing coalitions. Voters, in effect, have little direct say regarding
the complexion of their government.
well, coalition governments are viewed as less than stable. The bargaining
among parties continues after the government-building process as various
elements strive to have parts of their agenda adopted as official policy.
Compromise can be brokered, but negotiations often produce rifts that
cannot be resolved. Consequently, unless there are changes in governing
coalitions, the coalition will collapse, leading to new elections. It
is on this basis that some have argued that coalition government is inherently
unstable so that the electoral system that produces it is unsatisfactory.
also claim that, contrary to appearances, coalitions actually make it
more difficult to change governments. Coalition membership may fluctuate
following elections, but the stronger members usually remain in place.(30)
As a consequence, it is much more difficult to change a government under
PR than under plurality/majoritarian systems.
claims are made with respect to the advantages and disadvantages offered
by specific forms of PR.
Party List Systems
who defend party list PR systems argue that political parties occupy an
important place in any representative democracy and that the list system
helps to ensure that the role of parties will be maintained and strengthened.
the other hand, parties acquire too much power when they can determine
whose names will appear at the top of the lists. Those elected on the
basis of this system owe primary allegiance to their parties rather than
to their electorates. Such concerns can be addressed by allowing voters
to choose among lists or within lists.
List Systems: Variants
of the party list system that allow voters to chose either from among
a party's candidates or between the candidates on several parties' lists
allow voters a truer expression of their preferences. These variants help
ensure that the candidates with the strongest levels of support are elected;
the legitimacy of the outcome is enhanced.
however, voter choice is restricted to the candidates from a single party,
candidates will be encouraged to compete against members of their own
party rather than those from rival formations. This puts party cohesion
at risk and makes the task of governing more difficult.
The Single Transferable Vote
STV, unlike party-list forms of PR, emphasizes the candidate rather than
the party, it offers an advantage in that it "...makes possible the
fair representation of opinions which do not coincide with party divisions."(31)
Also, in contrast with party list forms of PR, representatives under STV
systems are more inclined to be attentive to constituency needs because
they depend on their constituents, rather than their party, for re-election.
of STV claim that it leads to weaker parties and hinders the emergence
of a responsible party system because candidates work to attract personal
support, sometimes at the expense of other candidates from their own party.(32)
in Australia has shown that when as many as fifty candidates can contest
an election under an STV system, the process of counting the vote may
be lengthy. An additional disadvantage, also drawn from Australia, is
the complexity of casting a ballot, as suggested by high levels of ballot-spoilage.(33)
REFERENDUMS ON CHANGE TO ELECTORAL
countries, New Zealand and Italy, have recently held referendums in which
citizens expressed a desire to adopt new electoral systems. New Zealanders
indicated a willingness to move away from SMP towards an arrangement including
some proportionality, while Italians went in the opposite direction. It
is noteworthy that in both instances the decision to change systems took
place against a background of dissatisfaction with "politics as usual."
A. New Zealand
18 September 1992, New Zealanders voted in a referendum on electoral change.
Voters were asked whether they supported their single-member plurality
system and, if not, which of four different PR models they would prefer.
Approximately 85% of those who cast ballots voted for a change of system
and of these an overwhelming 70% favoured the mixed system used in Germany
(see above). September's referendum results are not binding; New Zealanders
will have an opportunity to choose between the status quo and a refined
version of the mixed system during the next general election, expected
sometime in late 1993.
a recently held referendum (18 April 1993), Italians voted to leave the
PR electoral system, which has given them 51 governments since the end
of the Second World War. Voters were asked to respond to questions dealing
with party financing and the system of proportional representation used
for elections to the upper and lower houses of parliament. The decision
will almost certainly produce a change in the electoral system; approximately
two-thirds of Italy's 48 million eligible voters cast ballots, many more
than the turnout required to make the outcome binding (50%).(34)
voted to move to a single-member plurality system, which, it is hoped,
will produce single-party governments and put an end to the power of party
bosses. Through their votes, Italians have approved a plan to fill three
quarters of their Senate's seats (238 out of the 315 seats) by the first-past-the-post
system. It is hoped that the same rules will be subsequently applied to
the Italian lower house. It will be the government's task to determine
the eventual shape of electoral reform.
electoral systems are a vital component of any representative democracy,
one should not overstate their importance. Even the best electoral system
will fail if other conditions are not met. Two Canadian political scientists
have written a thoughtful reminder of this. "Electoral systems,"
not determine the nature of party systems, nor the type of government,
majority or minority, single-party or coalition, in any country.
Governmental outcomes are largely a function of the balance of
party forces: the party system, in turn, is largely shaped by
a country's political culture and social structure and by the
electoral behaviour of its citizens. However, the electoral system
... is a powerful intermediary force, modifying the competition
among parties, distorting or faithfully reproducing the electoral
preferences of the voters. Since elections are key institutions
in modern democracies and provide the chief mechanism of political
participation for most people, the means of translating individual
votes into political representation is ... an important factor
in a country's political system.(35)
stated in the introduction to this paper, elections constitute the most
direct, and indeed for many the only, experience of what it is to be a
citizen in a democratic society. Perhaps it is for this reason that rising
levels of discontent result in demands for change in the way elections
are structured, as was seen recently in New Zealand and Italy, when a
change of electoral system appeared to be a convenient and effective way
of redressing the wrongs in the democracies as a whole. Canadians, beset
with many of the same doubts and discontents, may well begin to ask whether
they desire a similar change.
Andrť. "The Debate over Electoral Systems." International
Political Science Review, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1991, p. 239-260.
Andrť and Elizabeth Gidengil. Making Representative Democracy Work:
The Views of Canadians. Vol. 17 of the Research Studies. Royal Commission
on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Toronto, 1991.
House Survey Team. Freedom in the World: Political Rights and Civil
Liberties 1991- 1992. Freedom House, New York, 1992.
Union. Parliaments of the World. Vol. I. 2nd edition. Facts on
File Publications, New York, 1986.
William P. Does Canada Need a New Electoral System? Institute of
Intergovernmental Affairs, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, 1979.
Robert and Doreen. Politics in Canada. 2nd edition. Prentice-Hall
Canada, Scarborough, Ontario, 1990.
Enid. How Democracies Vote: A Study of Electoral Systems. Faber
and Faber, London, 1974.
Dick and Richard Natkiel. World Atlas of Elections: Voting Patterns
in 39 Democracies. The Economist Publications, London, 1986
Thomas T. and Richard Rose. The International Almanac of Electoral
History. 3rd edition. Macmillan, London, 1991.
Zealand, Electoral Referendum Panel. The Guide to the Electoral Referendum.
Richard, editor. Electoral Participation: A Comparative Analysis.
Sage Publications, Beverly Hills, 1980.
(1) Andrť Blais and
Elizabeth Gidengil, Making Representative Democracy Work: The Views
of Canadians, Vol. 17 of the Research Studies, Royal Commission on
Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Toronto, 1991, p. 79.
(2) Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, The Concept of
Representation, University of California Press, 1967, esp. p. 38
(3) See, for example, Alan Cairns, "The
Electoral System and the Party System in Canada, 1921-1965," Canadian
Journal of Political Science, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 1968, p. 55-80
and William P. Irvine, Does Canada Need a New Electoral System?
Kingston, Ontario, 1979.
(4) See, for example, William P. Irvine, "A
Review and Evaluation of Electoral Reform Proposals," in Peter Aucoin,
editor, Institutional Reforms for Representative Government, Volume
38 of the research studies, Royal Commission on the Economic Union and
Development Prospects for Canada, University of Toronto Press, Toronto,
1985, p. 71-109. Irvine provides an overview of the various kinds of electoral
systems proposed for use in Canada.
(5) The Special Joint Committee on a Renewed
Canada (Beaudoin-Dobbie Committee) recommended that the Senate be elected
on the basis of proportional representation. The later Charlottetown Accord
agreed only that the Senate would be elected (either by the populations
of provinces or by their elected assemblies) without specifying any electoral
(6) Simple majorities are pluralities or most
of the ballots cast. Absolute majorities are defined as 50% plus 1.
(7) In Canada, for example, Prince Edward Island
has a 32-member provincial assembly elected from 16 ridings.
(8) Thomas T. Mackie and Richard Rose, The
International Almanac of Electoral History, 3rd edition, Macmillan,
London, 1991, p. 503.
(9) Note that in some instances an entire country
can be considered as a single electoral district for the purposes of an
election held under PR. This is the case in Israel.
(10) Israel's low threshold has been criticized
because it fosters a multitude of small parties, most of which have no
difficulty in winning seats. The result is coalition government in which
small fringe parties may exercise an influence out of proportion to the
support they have received during elections.
(11) The arrangements in Germany were put
in place as a direct consequence of Germany's experience leading up to
the Second World War; the high thresholds were designed to discourage
the emergence of small extremist parties.
(12) Enid Lakeman, How Democracies Vote:
A Study of Electoral Systems, Faber and Faber, London, 1974, p. 28
(13) New Zealand, Electoral Referendum Panel,
The Guide to the Electoral Referendum, Wellington, 1992, p. 4.
(14) Andrť Blais, "The Debate over Electoral
Systems," International Political Science Review, Vol. 12,
No. 3, 1991, p. 240.
(15) Ibid., p. 241. On the basis of
earlier research, Blais reports that 72% of single-member district plurality
elections produce a one-party legislative majority, compared to 10% of
PR elections. He also indicates that the probability of a one-party majority
government is 40 percentage points higher in a plurality than in a PR
(16) See, for example, Cairns (1968). Cairns
calls the ability of Canada's single-member plurality system to produce
stable majoritarian governments "mediocre." It is argued that
democracy is better served by minority governments which must take a wider
spectrum of opinion into account when enacting legislative programs.
(17) Lakeman (1974), p. 57.
(18) William P. Irvine, Does Canada Need
a New Electoral System? Institute of Intergovernmental Affairs, Queen's
University, Kingston, Ontario, 1979, p. 11.
(19) Cairns (1968), p. 57.
(20) Blais (1991), p. 246.
(21) bid., p. 247; Blais points out
that the Gaullists formed the government of France in 1968 with 60% of
the seats in the National Assembly, but with only 36% of the national
popular vote. This result was repeated in French parliamentary elections
of March 1993, when parties on the right attracted 39% of the vote and
won 80% of the seats. The National Front, which was supported by 12.5%
of voters, won no seats at all.
(22) Ibid., Blais finds that extremist
parties' share of seats is lowest in majority systems, being typically
8 points lower than in a PR system and 2 points lower than in plurality
(23) See, for example, Douglas W. Raie, The
Political Consequences of Electoral Laws, Yale University Press, 1967,
p. 96-97 and Arend Lipjhart, "Degrees of Proportionality of Proportional
Representation Systems," in Bernard Grofman and Arend Lipjhart (editors)
Electoral Laws and their Political Consequences, Agathon Press,
1986, p. 170.
(24) Mackie and Rose (1991), devised an Index
of Proportionality to assess the electoral systems in 25 countries. This
index was calculated by summing the difference between each party's percentage
share of seats and its share of votes, dividing by two and subtracting
the result from 100. Mackie and Rose discovered that among PR systems,
the index of proportionality ranged from a low of 87% (Spain) to a high
of 100% (Malta). For plurality systems, the scores ranged from 79% (the
United Kingdom) to 94% (the U.S. Congress). Their results showed that,
on average, PR systems achieve higher proportionality than plurality systems
(94% vs 86%). Individual plurality systems, however, are empirically capable
(as the authors point out) of achieving higher proportionality than some
PR systems. The U.S. Congress, for example, achieves a higher score than
the Spanish electoral system. This may come about as a consequence of
the number of parties contesting the elections, rather than the structure
of the electoral system. Where plurality elections take place in a two-party
system, as in the case of U.S. congressional elections, seat allocation
is likely to be roughly proportional to the vote. However, when more than
two parties participate in elections under a plurality system, the degree
of proportionality is bound to plummet.
(25) Arend Lijphart, "The Political Consequences
of Electoral Laws, 1945-85" American Political Science Review,
Vol. 84, No. 2, June 1990, p. 481-496. Lijphart point outs that the degree
of proportionality depends on the particular quotas and divisors used
in seat allocation. His analysis shows that among PR systems using the
highest average method of seat allocation (which uses divisors), the Sainte-LaguŽ
method "approximates proportionality very closely," while the
modified version of the system does less well and the d'Hondt system least
well. In the largest remainder systems, use of the Hare quota "tends
to yield closely proportional results," while use of the Droop and
Imperiali quotas produces less proportional outcomes. Overall, the d'Hondt
method is judged to be the least proportional, while use of the Sainte-LaguŽ
highest average and largest remainder system using a Hare quota produce
the greatest proportionality. Lijphart bases his assessment on the degree
to which small and large parties are treated evenhandedly by the formulas.
(26) Canada, Royal Commission on Electoral
Reform and Party Financing, Reforming Electoral Democracy, Vol.
I, Ottawa, 1991, p. 20.
(27) Political scientist G. Bingham Powell
Jr. reports that turnout averages about 78% in PR systems and only about
71% in majoritarian systems. Powell adds, however, that some of the difference
can be attributed to the facilitated registration and compulsory voting
sometimes present in PR systems. See Voting Turnout in Thirty Democracies,
Richard Rose, editor, Electoral Participation: A Comparative Analysis,
Sage Publications, Beverly Hills, 1980, p. 12.
(28) Ibid., p. 18.
(29) Blais (1991), however, p. 249, observes
that for democratic purposes, "...the more information the ballot
reveals about voters' intentions, the better the procedure." In this
respect, ballots cast under a PR system could be said to serve democratic
purposes more effectively by conveying a broader spectrum of preferences.
(30) For example, in Italy, the Christian
Democrats have dominated all of the 51 governing coalitions formed since
the end of the Second World War.
(31) Lakeman (1974), p. 129.
(32) Blais (1991), p. 248-249.
(33) Lakeman (1974), disagrees that STV systems
are too complicated for the average voter and suggests that any relationship
between levels of ballot spoilage and STV is unproven.
(34) Globe and Mail (Toronto), 19 April
1993, p. A7.
(35) Robert J. Jackson and Doreen Jackson,
Politics in Canada, 2nd edition, Prentice-Hall Canada Ltd., Scarborough,
Ontario, 1990, p. 501.