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Electoral Systems

  Electoral systems are one of the most important social inventions, yet one of the least discussed by the general public. They are methods of translating votes (for candidates) into seats (or offices) for representatives, although they can also be used, directly and indirectly, to translate policy preferences into decisions in referendums or multiple-choice ‘preferendums’.

In principle, electoral systems are infinite in number, but are usually classified in three categories: as proportional, majoritarian or plurality-rule systems. Proportional representation systems are the most common in modern democracies. They aim to achieve proportionality between the share of the vote won by political parties (or candidates) and the share of seats they win in the relevant assembly, and some of their intricacies are discussed below. Majoritarian systems are designed to guarantee that a candidate can only be elected if she or he wins a majority of the vote cast (i.e. 50% + 1). If no candidate wins a majority on the first count, then, as happens in Australia under the alternative vote, the second preferences of eliminated candidates may be counted to ensure that one candidate has a majority or, as happens in France, a second (or run-off) ballot may be held between the two highest placed candidates. Plurality-rule systems are the crudest electoral systems, and award seats to the candidates with the most votes (which may well be less than a majority).

This classification of proportional, majoritarian and plurality systems refers only to the electoral formula used in each case, that is, the principle behind translating votes into seats. However, the impact of all these systems is decisively affected by the district magnitude (or ‘size’ of the constituency). Under simple plurality-rule, elections take place in single-member constituencies, but it is also possible, as in Japan, to combine plurality rule with multi-member constituencies. Majoritarian systems operate with single-member constituencies. By contrast, proportional systems normally operate with multi-member constituencies. It is possible to combine single-member constituencies with proportionality—as in the German ‘additional member system’—though such systems involve two sets of representatives being elected by different methods. Plurality, majoritarian and proportional rule systems obviously affect the way in which voters make their choices. In plurality rule systems voters are pushed towards choosing a government, and the system encourages two-party competition, although it is also compatible with long periods of dominance by one party. Plurality rule is criticized for under-representing minority parties which may be dramatically under-represented if their candidates usually come second or third in most constituencies. ‘The winner takes all’ is the logic of simple plurality rule. Majoritarian systems also push voters into choosing a government, but at least with their first-preference vote (or in the first ballot vote) they can safely vote for their most preferred candidate or party, even if they stand little prospect of being elected. Proportional systems, by contrast, normally encourage voters to express their authentic electoral preferences, and seek to ensure that the relevant assembly roughly mirrors popular preferences. They are therefore more likely to lead to multi-party systems.

Proportional systems differ in the manner and extent in which they achieve proportionality. No system achieves perfect proportionality and in real-world cases the number of parties (or candidates) winning seats is less than the number of parties (or candidates) winning votes. Proportionality is radically affected by whether or not thresholds exist (for instance, requiring parties or candidates to obtain a minimum of 5% of the vote before being assured representation); by the magnitudes of electoral districts; and by the mathematical formulae used for the allocation of seats (examples of which include the d\'Hondt, Hagenbach-Bischoff and Sainte-Laguë methods) which vary considerably in the extent to which they help large or small parties. The closest approximation to proportionality is achieved through having an entire country vote as a single district, without thresholds, and awarding percentage shares of seats directly in proportion to percentage shares of votes won by parties (with ‘rounding off’ to allow for the fact that legislators cannot be found in the form of decimal points).

The most basic division between proportional systems is that between list systems, which aim to ensure the proportional representation of parties, and the single transferable vote (STV), which aims to ensure that voters have greater choosing power than political parties and can express their preferences across candidates. The most extreme party list systems leave the rank ordering of candidates for a given party entirely in the hands of the party: so if you vote for party A you must accept party A\'s slate of candidates in the order it prefers. However, in practice most proportional list systems give voters some degree of choice, enabling them, in Switzerland for example, to vote for candidates from more than one party list (panachage). The single transferable vote (STV), by contrast, empowers voters to rank order their preferences across candidates (ordering them 1, 2, 3 …n on their ballot papers). Candidates stand in multi-member constituencies, and to be elected must obtain a quota, which is given by the Droop formula, that is,{V/(S + 1) + 1}where V is the total number of valid votes cast and S is the total number of seats to be filled. A candidate who obtains more than the quota after first-preference votes are counted is declared elected, and her or his ‘surplus’ votes are then transferred to other candidates, according to the voters\' second-preferences. If no other candidates are elected the bottom-placed candidate is eliminated the the second-preferences of his or her voters are distributed. These procedures, or counts, continue until the appropriate number of seats have been filled. STV enables voters to choose across parties, and to discriminate between candidates of the same parties. Plurality, majoritarian and proportional systems all have their exponents and critics. Plurality and majoritarian systems are defended on the ground that they produce strong and accountable governments, and, it is claimed that voters can identify who is likely to form a government. They are criticized for giving power to parties which actually lack majority support and under-representing opposition and minority parties; and are condemned as especially inappropriate in ethnically or deeply divided societies. Proportional systems are defended on the grounds that they produce fair outcomes which more accurately express popular preferences. They are criticized for allegedly leading to fragmentation of the party system and for encouraging multi-party coalition government.

Proportional systems have been chosen by most of the new democracies established since World War II: STV has not proven as popular as party-list systems, because, after all, it is usually political parties which devise and implement new electoral systems.

Plurality rule is used in countries like the UK and, with the exception of Japan, only by countries which were once governed by the British empire like Canada, India and the USA. All the member-states of the European Community, except the UK, use proportional systems. There also appears to be a general trend across many democracies to converge on a version of the German ‘additional member system’ which combines some of the features of single-member constituencies found under plurality and majoritarian systems with the proportionality of list systems. The political consequences of electoral laws remain a subject of heated controversy among politicians and political scientists although it is usually more difficult to engage the general public in the more arcane aspects of electoral studies. BO\'L

See also consociationalism; democracy; party system; representative government.Further reading A.M. Carstairs A Short History of Electoral Systems in Western Europe; , D.W. Rae The Political Consequences of Electoral Laws; , R. Taagepeera and , M. Schugart, Votes and Seats.



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