Choosing Electoral Systems - Norris
Taiwan have adopted 'mixed' electoral systems, believed to combine the best of both proportional and
Therefore during the 1990s, debate about the electoral system moved from margin to mainstream
on the political agenda. This shift produced growing awareness that electoral rules are not neutral: the
way votes translate into seats means that some groups, parties, and representatives are ruled into the
policymaking process, and some are ruled out. The core debate concerns whether countries should adopt
majoritarian systems which priorities government effectiveness and accountability, or proportional
systems, which promote greater fairness to minority parties and more diversity in social representation.
Those dissatisfied with the status quo have increasingly turned towards "constitutional engineering"
(Sartori, 1994) or "institutional design" (Lijphart and Waisman, 1996) to achieve these ends.
To examine what options are available, this article will briefly outline the main variations in
different types of electoral system. The article goes on to consider the normative criteria underlying
debates about reform, and then analyze the consequences of different systems. The conclusion weighs
the considerations, which are relevant in choosing an electoral system. The article compares the results
of elections held in the early to mid-nineties in all major democracies , including fifty-three countries (for
a discussion of the criteria used in selection see Leduc, Neimi and Norris 1996). This includes both
established and emerging democracies, at different levels of economic and political development, to
examine the effects of electoral systems under a variety of conditions. Although electoral systems can
be compared at every level of office - Presidential, parliamentary, state, and local - to compare like with
like we will focus mainly on national parliamentary elections for the lower house in each country. The
'electoral system' includes many different components, such as the regulation of candidacies, the facilities
for registration and voting, and the funding of party campaigns. But the heart of the electoral system is the
process of translating votes into seats, and this will therefore be the primary focus of the chapter.
The Classification of Electoral Systems
Ever since the seminal work of Maurice Duverger (1954) and Douglas Rae (1971), a flourishing
literature has classified the main types of electoral systems and sought to analyze their consequences
(see Lijphart 1994; Lijphart and Gorman 1984; Blaise and Massicote 1996; Bogdanor and Butler 1983;
Taagepera and Shugart 1989; Inter-Parliamentary Union 1993; Farrell 200X; Cox 200X). Systems vary
according to a number of key dimensions (for a discussion see Lijphart 1994) including district magnitude,
ballot structures, effective thresholds, malapportionment, assembly size, and open/closed lists, but the
most important variations concern electoral formula.
Electoral formula determines how votes are counted to allocate seats. There are four main types (see
• Majoritarian formulas (including plurality, second ballot, and alternative voting systems);
• Semi-proportional systems (such as the single transferable vote, the cumulative vote, and the
• Proportional representation (including open and closed party lists using largest remainders and
highest averages formula); and,
• Mixed systems (like the Additional Member System combining majoritarian and proportional
elements). [DIAGRAM 1 ABOUT HERE]
Majoritarian electoral systems
A worldwide survey found that 83 out of 150 countries were found to use majoritarian systems (Inter-
Parliamentary Union 1993). This is the oldest electoral system, dating back at least to the 12th Century,
and also the simplest. This category can be subdivided into those requiring candidates to win a plurality,
or an absolute majority (50+ percent) of votes to be elected.
Plurality systems, otherwise known as 'first-past-the-post, is used for election to the lower chamber in
43 countries including the United Kingdom, Canada, India, the United States, and many Commonwealth
states. The aim of plurality systems is to create a 'manufactured majority', that is to exaggerate the share
of seats for the leading party in order to produce an effective working parliamentary majority for the
government, while simultaneously penalising minor parties, especially those whose support is spatially
dispersed. In 'winner take all', the leading party boosts its legislative base, while the trailing parties get
meager rewards. The focus is effective governance, not representation of all minority views. The basic
system of simple plurality voting in parliamentary general elections is widely familiar: countries are
divided into territorial single-member constituencies; voters within each constituency cast a single ballot
(marked by a X) for one candidate; the candidate with the largest share of the vote in each seat is
returned to office; and in turn the party with an overall majority of seats forms the government.
One feature of this system is that single-member constituencies are based on the size of the
electorate. The United States is divided into 435 Congressional districts each including roughly equal
populations with one House representative per district. Boundaries are reviewed at periodic intervals,
based on the census, to equalize the electorate. Yet the number of electors per constituency varies
dramatically cross-nationally: for example India has 545 representatives for a population of 898 million,
so each member of the Look Samba serves about 1.6 million people, while in contrast Ireland has 166
members in the Dial for a population of 3.5 million, or one seat per 21,000 people. The geographic size
of constituencies also varies substantially within countries, from small, densely packed inner-city seats to
sprawling and more remote rural areas. (2)
Under first-past-the-post candidates usually do not need to pass a minimum threshold of votes ,
nor do they require an absolute majority to be elected, instead all they need is a simple plurality i.e. one
more vote than their closest rivals. Hence in seats where the vote splits almost equally three ways, the
winning candidate may have only 35% of the vote, while the other contestants get 34% and 32%
respectively. Although two-thirds of voters supported other candidates, the plurality of votes is decisive.
In this system the party share of parliamentary seats, not their share of the popular vote, counts
for the formation of government. Government may also be elected without a plurality of votes, so long as
they have a parliamentary majority. In 1951, for instance, the British Conservative party was returned to
government with a sixteen seat majority in parliament based on 48.0 percent of the popular vote, although
Labour won slightly more (48.8 percent) of the vote. In February 1974 the reverse pattern occurred: the
Conservatives won a slightly higher share of the national vote but Labour formed the government.
Moreover under first-past-the-post governments are commonly returned with less than a majority of votes.
No governing party in the UK has won as much as half the popular vote since 1935. For example in 1983
Mrs. Thatcher was returned with a landslide of seats, producing a substantial parliamentary majority of
144, yet with the support of less than a third of the total electorate (30.8 percent).
For minor parties, and for minority social groups, the spatial concentration of votes in this system
is critical to the outcome. Parties like the Greens with shallow support spread across a wide range of
constituencies do far less well than those like nationalist parties with a strong concentration in key
regions. Hence, for example, in the 1993 Canadian elections the Progressive Conservatives won 16.1
percent of the vote but suffered a chronic meltdown to only two MPs. In contrast the Bloc Quebecois got
18.1 percent of the vote but a solid phalanx of 54 MPs. The New Democratic Party won even less votes
(6.6 percent) but emerged with 9 MPs, far more than the Conservatives. In a similar way social groups
who can concentrate their support spatially, like African-American or Latino voters in urban areas, can
prove relatively more effective in getting their representatives into the US Congress than groups
which are widely dispersed across legislative districts (Rule and Zimmerman 1992).
Second Ballot Majority-Runoff Systems
Other systems use alternative mechanisms to ensure that the winning candidate gets an overall
majority of votes. In France the second ballot 'majority-runoff' system is used in elections for the
Presidency. Candidates obtaining an absolute majority of votes (50 percent+) in the first round are
declared elected. If this is not the case a second round is held between the two candidates who got the
highest number of votes. This system is used in 15 of the 25 countries with direct presidential elections
including Austria, Columbia, Finland and Russia. In the 1996 Russian Presidential election, for example,
78 candidates registered to run for election, of which 17 qualified for nomination. Boris Yeltsin won 35.3
percent of the vote in the first round, with Gennadii Zyuganov, the Communist candidate; close behind
with 32 percent, and Alexander Lebed third with 14.5 percent of the vote. After the other candidates
dropped out, and Lebed swung his supporters behind Yeltsin, the final result was a decisive 53.8 percent
for Yeltsin against 40.3 percent for Zyuganov (White, Rose and McAllister 1996). A majority-runoff is also
used in legislative elections in Mali and the Ukraine, and a plurality-runoff is used for the French National
Assembly. The aim of runoff elections is to consolidate support behind the victor, and to encourage
broad cross-party coalition building and alliances in the final stages of the campaign.
Another majoritarian system is the Alternative Vote, which is used in elections to the Australian
House of Representatives and in Ireland for Presidential elections. Australia is divided into 148 single-
member constituencies. Instead of a simple 'X', voters rank their preferences among candidate
(1,2,3...). To win, candidates need an absolute majority of votes. Where no one gets over 50 per cent
after first preferences are counted, then the candidate at the bottom of the pile with the lowest share of
the vote is eliminated, and their votes are redistributed amongst the other candidates. The process
continues until an absolute majority is secured. In the 1996 Australian elections, for example, there was a
close call on the first preferences, with both the Australian Labour Party and the Liberal party getting 38.7
percent of the vote. In the final preferences however the ALP won 46.4 percent compared with 53.6
percent for non-ALP candidates. Again this process translates a close lead into a more decisive majority
of seats for the leading party. This systematically discriminates against those at the bottom of the poll in
order to promote effective government for the winner.
Semi-proportional systems provide another option, including the cumulative vote where citizens
are given as many votes as representatives, and where votes can be cumulated on a single candidate
(used in duel-member seats in 19th Century Britain and in the State of Illinois until 1980). The limited
vote is similar, but voters are given fewer votes than the number of members to be elected (used in
elections to the Spanish Senate). In Japan, until 1994, voters used the Single Non-Transferable Vote
where electors cast a single vote in a multi-member district.
Single Transferable Vote
The system in this category, which continues to be used, is the ‘Single Transferable Vote’ (STV)
currently employed in legislative elections in Ireland, Malta, and the Australian Senate. Each country
is divided into multi-member constituencies which each have about four or five
representatives. Parties put forward as many candidates as they think could win in each constituency.
Voters rank their preferences among candidates (1,2,3,4...). The total number of votes is counted, and
then the number of seats divides this total in the constituency to produce a quota. To be elected,
candidates must reach the minimum quota. When the first preferences are counted, if no candidates
reach the quota, then the person with the least votes is eliminated, and their votes redistributed according
to second preferences. This process continues until all seats are filled.
Party Lists Systems
Where majoritarian systems emphasize governability, proportional systems focus on the
inclusion of minority voices. Proportional electoral systems based on Party Lists in multimember
constituencies are widespread throughout Europe, and worldwide 57 out of 150 countries use PR (Inter-
Parliamentary Union 1993). The principle of proportional representation is that the seats in a constituency
are divided according to the number of votes cast for party lists, but there are considerable variations in
how this is implemented in different systems. Party lists may be open as in Norway, Finland, the
Netherlands and Italy, in which case voters can express preferences for particular candidates within the
list. Or they may be closed as in Israel, Portugal, Spain and Germany, in which case voters can only
select the party, and the political party determines the ranking of candidates. The rank order on the party
list determines which candidates are elected, for example the top ten to fifteen names. Party Lists may
also be national as in Israel, where all the country is one constituency divided into 120 seats. But most
Party Lists are regional, as in Belgium where there are seven regions each sub-divided into between 2-34
seats. The electoral formula varies among systems. Votes can be allocated to seats based on the
highest averages method. This requires the number of votes for each party to be divided successively by
a series of divisors, and seats are allocated to parties that secure the highest resulting quotient, up to the
total number of seats available. The most widely used is the d’Hondt formula, using divisors (such as
1,2,3 etc). The 'pure' Saint-Laguë method divides the votes with odd numbers (1,3,5,7 etc). The
'modified' Saint-Laguë replace the first divisor by 1.4 but is otherwise identical to the pure version.
An alternative is the largest remainder methods, which uses a minimum quota, which can be
calculated, in a number of ways. In the simplest with the Hare quota, used in Denmark and Costa Rica,
the total number of valid votes in each constituency is divided by the total number of seats to be
allocated. The Droop quota, used in South Africa and Greece, raises the divisor by the number of seats
plus one, producing a slightly less proportional result.
Additional Member System
Lastly many newer systems, such as those recently adopted in Italy, New Zealand and Russia,
use mixed systems, although with a variety of alternative designs. The Additional Member System used in
Germany combines single member and party list constituencies. Electors have two votes. Half
the Members of the Bundestag (328) are elected in single-member constituencies based on a simple
plurality of votes. The remaining MPs are elected from closed party lists in each region (Land). Parties,
which receive, less than a specified minimum threshold of list votes (5 per cent) are not be entitled to
any seats. The total number of seats, which a party receives in Germany, is based on the Niemeyer
method, which ensures that seats are proportional to second votes cast for party lists. Smaller parties
which received, say, 10 per cent of the list vote, but which did not win any single member seats outright,
are topped up until they have 10 per cent of all the seats in Parliament. It is possible for a party to be
allocated 'surplus' seats when it wins more district seats in the single-member district vote than it is
entitled to under the result of the list vote.
The Normative Criteria of Evaluation
The debate about electoral reform has largely revolved around the practical consequences of
incremental changes to the status quo. But underlying these arguments are contested visions about the
fundamental principles of representative democracy (see Dunleavy and Margetts 1995). The heart of the
debate concerns the central criteria, which an electoral system should meet, and whether strong and
accountable government is more or less important than the inclusion of minority voices.
For proponents of majoritarian system the most important criteria are government effectiveness.
For admirers, the system of first-past-the-post in parliamentary systems produces the classic
'Westminster model' with the twin virtues of strong but responsive party government. ‘Strong’ in this
sense means single-party, not coalition, government. Cohesive parties with a majority of parliamentary
seats are able to implement their manifesto policies without the need to engage in post-election
negotiations with coalition partners. The election result is decisive for the outcome. Cabinet government
can pass whatever legislation they feel is necessary during their term of office, so long as they can carry
their own backbenchers with them. Strong government depends on an exaggerative bias in the
electoral system, which rewards the winner with a bonus of seats. A ‘manufactured majority’ is created
by translating a relatively small lead in votes into a larger lead of seats in parliament. In the postwar
period, for example, British governments have received, on the average, 45 percent of the popular vote
but 54 percent of seats. Even in a close election, where the major parties were level pegging, one
party has usually been able to form a government independent of any coalition partners (see Norris
Responsive and Accountable Government
Yet governments are also seen as 'responsive'. At the end of their tenure in office governments
remain accountable to the electorate, who can throw them out if they so wish. In a competitive two-party
system a small swing in the popular vote is sufficient to bring the opposition into office. This system can
be envisaged as a pulley-and-weights mechanism: a modest pull on the electoral rope produces a
disproportionate displacement of weight. For proponents the twin virtues mean power is shackled with
accountability. Governments are given enough freedom to carry out unpopular policies, if necessary;
during their full term in office and at the end the electorate can form a clear judgment of their policy
record. In addition, at the local level the link between citizens and their constituency MP is thought to
provide citizens with a voice in the nation's affairs, as well as making elected members accountable to
constituency concerns. Conventional wisdom suggests that there is greater incentive for constituency
service in single-member districts than in large multi-member constituencies.
Responsive government, and responsive members, depends upon the rate of potential seat
turnover, and a delicate two-party equilibrium. If substantial numbers of government backbenchers have
majorities of, say, fewer than 10 per cent over they’re nearest rival, a relatively modest swing of the vote
could easily bring the opposition into power. Although governments have a parliamentary majority to take
tough and effective decisions, they knew that their power could easily be withdrawn at the next election.
In contrast, proponents argue, in systems with coalition governments even if the public becomes
dissatisfied with particular parties they have less power to determine their fate. The process of coalition
building after the result, not the election per se, determines the allocation of seats in Cabinet.
Fairness to minor parties
For advocates of majoritarian elections, responsible party government takes precedence over the
inclusion of all parties in strict proportion to their share of the vote. In this view the primary purpose of
general elections is for parliament to function as an indirect electoral college, which produces an effective,
stable government. Proponents can see the way that the system penalizes minor parties as a virtue. It
prevents fringe groups on the extreme right or left from acquiring representative legitimacy, thereby
avoiding a fragmented parliament full of 'fads and faddists'. Yet at the same time if the electorate
becomes divided between three or four parties competing nation-wide, the disproportional of the electoral
system becomes far harder to justify. Smaller parties, which consistently come second or third, are
Rather than majoritarian governments, advocates of proportional systems argue that other
considerations are more important, including the fairness of the outcome for minor parties, the need for
Madisonian checks to party government, and the representation of minority social groups. For critics of
plurality systems, the moral case for reform is based traditionally on the 'unfairness' to minor parties
who achieve a significant share of the vote, like the Canadian Progressive Conservatives in 1993, or the
Alliance party in New Zealand in 1993, or the British Liberal Democrats in 1983, but who win few seats
because their support is thinly spread geographically. In addition, proponents argue, because fewer
votes are 'wasted' in a PR system there is a greater incentive for people to turn out to vote.
+1 anno fa
Materiale didattico per il corso di Politica comparata del prof. Marco Giuliani. Trattasi dell'articolo di Pippa Norris dal titolo "Choosing Electoral Systems: Proportional, Majoritarian and Mixed Systems" all'interno del quale sono analizzate le caratteristiche dei diversi sistemi elettorali in relazione alle esigenze di riforma del sistema britannico.
I contenuti di questa pagina costituiscono rielaborazioni personali del Publisher Atreyu di informazioni apprese con la frequenza delle lezioni di Politica comparata e studio autonomo di eventuali libri di riferimento in preparazione dell'esame finale o della tesi. Non devono intendersi come materiale ufficiale dell'università Milano - Unimi o del prof Giuliani Marco.
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