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Farrell, Chapter 1

Electoral Systems

Farrell, Chapter 1

David M. Farrell

Comparing Electoral Systems
(London: Macmillan, 1998)

Chapter 1: Why study electoral systems?

For people who do not specialize in this area, electoral systems are usually seen as a big 'turn-off. It can be difficult to instil much interest in the subject of counting rules; to enthuse about the details of how one electoral system varies from another. After all, how many wars were fought over whether the electoral formula was 'largest remainder' or 'highest average'? How many politicians have been assassinated over the issue of 'single transferable vote' (STV) versus 'first past the post' (FPTP)? Pity the student on a hot Friday afternoon who has to struggle through the niceties of the 'Droop quota'! Pity the teacher who has to burn midnight oil getting to grips with the issue of 'monotonicity'! It does seem fair to pose the question: why bother? What is the point of spending time examining electoral systems?

Several reasons can be given. First, a very large and growing number of people specialize in electoral systems, so somebody must think these systems are important! In the 1989 edition of his Inter national Bibliography on Electoral Systems, Richard S. Katz (1989) listed some 1,500 works 'dealing with the forms and effects of representation and electoral systems'. By 1992 this list had grown to 2,500 works (Katz, 1992). Among these some have made significant developments in the methodology of studying electoral systems. For over twenty years one name has predominated in all textbook treatments of electoral systems. The seminal work by Douglas Rae (1967) set the trend on how to study electoral systems and their political consequences. It is only in the past five years or so that Rae's work has come under closer scrutiny as scholars, like Michael Gallagher, Richard Katz, Mend Lijphart, Matthew Shugart and Rein Taagepera, have sought to develop and improve on some of his ideas. Their work (and the work of others) needs to be incorporated into the textbook treatment of electoral systems. This is one of the major functions of this book.

Second, electoral systems are worth examining because they have become politically interesting. With the process of democratization, first in Mediterranean Europe in the 1970s, and then more dramat ically in central and eastern Europe at the end of the 1 980s, important decisions had to be taken on which electoral systems to adopt in the fledgling representative democracies. As we shall see in later chap ters, in none of these cases was the 'British' system of 'FPTP' chosen; in only one case (and only briefly) was the STV system selected. It is interesting to speculate on the reasoning behind these particular decisions. Of even greater interest is the recent trend towards reform of existing electoral systems, notably in Italy, Japan and New Zealand-- all within the past three to four years. This contradicts the impression that electoral reform is rare, only occurring 'in extraordinary historical situations' (Nohlen, 1984: 218). These reforms also give evidence to a growing sympathy for the 'German two-vote (often referred to as the 'additional member') electoral system, as we see in chapter 5. Suddenly electoral reform looks possible, not just some theoretical notion of unrealistic, out of touch academics.

There is a third reason why it is important to study electoral systems and that is because they define how the political system will function. Metaphorically, electoral systems are the cogs which keep the wheels of democracy properly functioning. In almost any course on politics the following themes generally feature as important topics for consideration: elections and representation; parties and party systems; government formation and the politics of coalitions. In each of these areas, the electoral system plays a key role. Depending on how the system is designed it may be easier or harder for particular politicians to win seats, or for particular parties to gain representation in parliament, and it may be more or less likely that one party can form a government on its own. In short, there are important questions about the functioning of political systems which are influenced, at least in part, by the design of the electoral system.

Apart from their primary function of ensuring the smooth running and accepted legitimacy of the system, electoral systems are designed to fulfil a number of other--often conflicting--functions, such as reflecting the wishes of voters, producing strong and stable govern ments, electing qualified representatives, and so on. In selecting a particular design of electoral system, the 'electoral engineers' have to take important decisions about which function to stress most. As a result, no two countries have the same electoral system.


1.2 Electoral laws and electoral systems

It is important to distinguish between electoral laws and electoral systems. Electoral laws are the family of rules governing the process of elections: from the calling of the election, through the stages of candidate nomination, party campaigning and voting, and right up to the stage of counting votes and determining the actual election result. There can be any number of rules governing how to run an election. For instance, there are laws on who can vote (citizens, residents, people over seventeen years of age, the financially solvent, etc.); there can even be laws, such as in Australia or Belgium, obliging citizens to turn out to vote. Then there are usually a set of rules setting down the procedures for candidate nomination (e.g. a minimum number of signatures, a deposit). The campaign process can also be subject to a number of rules: whether polling, television advertising or the use of campaign cars is permitted; the size of billboards; the location of posters; balance in broadcasting coverage, and so on.

Among this panoply of electoral laws there is one set of rules which deal with the process of election itself: how citizens vote, the style of the ballot paper, the method of counting, and the final determination of who is elected. It is this aspect of electoral laws with which this book is concerned. This is the electoral system, the mechanism of determining victors and losers, which clicks into action once the campaign has ended. This is the stage where the political pundits take over from the politicians; where the television companies dust off their 'pendulums' and 'swingometers' and wheel out their latest computer graphic wizardry. Campaign slogans and electoral recriminations have ended. All attention is focused on thousands of people shuffling ballot papers in 'counting centres' throughout the country. (At least, this is the situation in Britain. In other countries,the counting and even the voting are done by computer.) Politicians, journalists and (some) voters wait with baited breath for the returning officer to announce 'the result'. TV presenters work long into the night, probing with their panelists the meaning of the results and assessing the voters' 'verdict'.

This scenario of 'election night coverage' is common to most political systems. There may be some variation in detail, but the basic theme is similar: we the voters have voted, and now we are waiting to see the result of our votes, in terms of who wins or loses and in terms of the number of seats won by each of the parties. It is the function of the electoral system to work this transformation of votes into seats. To put this in the form of a definition: electoral systems determine the means by which votes are translated into seats in the process of electing politicians into office.

Exactly how this translation occurs varies from one system to the next. In some systems great effort is made to ensure that the number of seats each party wins reflects as closely as possible the number of votes it has received. In other systems greater importance is attached to ensuring that one party has a clear majority of seats over its competitors, thereby (hopefully) increasing the prospect of strong and stable government. The first of these systems is said to be 'propor tional', in contrast to the others which are 'non-proportional' electoral systems.

This book deals with the five main types of electoral system currently in use (Figure 1.1). First, there are the two more common forms of non-proportional systems, FPTP and the variants of major itarian systems (alternative vote and second ballot). The distinguish ing feature these systems share is that they do not aim at a proportional result; instead, far more attention is paid to the question of governmental stability and--generally being based on single- member constituencies--to notions of constituency representation. By contrast, the far more common family of proportional systems do aim specifically at achieving degrees of proportionality in the elec toral result, although with mixed success, as we shall see. Chapters 2-6 deal with the operation of each of the systems in turn, describing how the system works, how it has adapted (if at all), and the political context in which it has operated. Having dealt with each of the systems in some detail, the book concludes, in chapter 7, with an assessment of the political consequences of electoral systems, dealing with such questions as: proportionality vs. stability; the role of representatives; party campaigns, and the potential for strategic voting.

Figure 1.1: The Five Main Types of Electoral Systems

As pointed out earlier, central to any discussion about electoral systems and their reform are questions of stability and the representa tion of minority interests. One is often seen as, at least partially, a trade-off against the other. A main contention of this book is that this argument is fallacious: that an electoral system can allow for max imum representation of minority interests without necessarily threat ening the stability of government. We will return to this point in the concluding chapter, having reviewed the comparative evidence in chapters 2-6.

Before proceeding to an analysis of the different electoral systems, it is necessary to deal with two issues central to the study of electoral systems: (1) the issue of representation, and (2) the attempts to, as it were, artificially' influence the effects of electoral systems.


1.3 Conflicting views on the meaning of 'representation'

The precise meaning of the term 'representation' can vary markedly. The basic distinction is between a 'microcosm' and a 'principal agent' conception of representation (McLean, 1991; Reeve and Ware, 1992). The first of these is associated with proponents of proportional electoral systems, the second with supporters of non-proportional systems. A classical exponent of the microcosm view was John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the USA, who said that parliament 'should be an exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large, as it should think, feel, reason, and act like them' (quoted in McLean, 1991:173). Taken literally this perspective is similar to the governing principle behind public opinion polls, i.e. the notion of a representative sample. In other words a society which is made up of distinct sets of ratios (e.g. men:women 50:50; urban:rural 70:30; middle class:working class 40:60; black:white 20:80), should elect a parliament which reflects these ratios in microcosm. To put it another way, parliament should be a 'representative sample' of the popula tion. Obviously it is impossible to achieve a perfect representative sample, but the aim should be to get as close as possible to it. On this view, as Lord Plant (1991:16) explains, 'the representativeness of a parliament is accounted for by its proportionality'. It is a sociological mirroring of society.

According to the microcosm conception of representation, there fore, it is the pattern of composition of the parliament that matters, but, according to the principal-agent conception, it is the decisions of the parliament that matter. The basis of the principal-agent concep tion is the notion of one person acting on behalf of another. The representative is elected by the people to represent their interests. h this case, even if the parliament is comprised of a preponderance of fifty-year-old, white, middle-class males, it is representative provid ing it is seen to be taking decisions on behalf of the voters. It is less important that the parliament is statistically representative of voters, and more important that it acts properly in the interests of the citizens, i.e. composition is less important than decisions.

In his excellent summary of these two positions, lain McLean (1991: 172) observes that each 'seems entirely reasonable, but they are inconsistent'. There is no reconciliation: either you support one perspective or you support the other. Either you are in favour of a parliament which is a microcosm of society or, instead, you have a view of parliament which stresses its ability to act properly in the interests of all citizens. Ultimately it is a normative judgment call: 'The PR school looks at the composition of a parliament; majoritarians look at its decisions' (McLean, 1991: 175). On this basis, therefore, we can see that it is not possible to draw firm conclusions as to which is better, a proportional or a non-proportional electoral system. There are, however, other more empirical areas where conclusions can be drawn. Some systems are apparently associated with greater degrees of governmental stability while other systems promote smaller parties better than others. There are effects on the nature of parliamentary representation (e.g. 'delegate' vs. 'trustee' roles), and on the organization and campaign styles of political parties. It is possible to be far more definitive in assessing these themes, and we will return to them in chapter 7.


I .4 Built-in distortions to electoral systems

As will become all too readily apparent in due course, no single electoral system achieves full proportionality: all electoral systems distort the election result, with some parties benefiting more than others. The best a proportional electoral system can hope to achieve is to minimize the degree of distortion.

Quite apart from the 'natural' distorting effects of electoral systems (which are the subject of chapter 7), there are instances where electoral engineers resort to added 'artificial' measures, seeking to direct the distorting effects in their favour. There are four such measures which merit discussion here: two which are most common to non-proportional systems, characterized as they are by constitu ency representation, and two which are generally found in propor tional systems where efforts are made to minimize the explosion of minor (and especially extremist) parties. Let us deal with each in turn.

First, there is the practice of malapportionment. This refers to a situation in which there are imbalances in the population densities of constituencies which favour some parties over others. This can happen as a matter of course, by population shifts not being compen sated for by a redrawing of constituency boundaries, but it can also be engineered on purpose. Take, for example, the case of a governing party reliant on rural votes which fails to redraw the constituency boundaries to take account of rural depopulation. Malapportionment was a serious problem in the USA prior to the 1 960s when the Supreme Court started to play a more active role in ordering the regular reapportionment of district boundaries.

It is possible to build in measures in the country's electoral laws to protect against such practices. The current Irish constitution, for example, which was ratified n 1937, contains a clause which ensures that each MP must represent between 20,000-30,000 voters. If the government does not meet this requirement it faces a constitutional challenge. In 1968 the governing Fianna Fail party (whose traditional electoral base is rural) sought to have this clause diluted in a constitutional referendum, but was resoundly defeated.

A second strategy commonly employed in non-proportional electoral systems is gerrymandering. This refers to the practice in which constituency boundaries are redrawn with the intention of producing an inflated number of seats for a party, usually the governing party. There are two ways of achieving this. The first method is to divide one party s supporters into smaller pockets across a range of con stituencies to ensure that they are kept in a permanent minority in each of the constituencies formed, thereby preventing this party from winning any seats. Wherever the party is too large to allow such a method to work, an alternative tack is to try to minimize the number of seats it can win by designing the constituency boundaries in such a way that where the governing party's vote is high it stands to win a lot of seats and where it is low it stands to lose a few seats.

The term 'gerrymander' came from the shape of a constituency designed by Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts in 1812. It was so long, narrow and wiggly that one journalist thought it looked like a salamander, and it was accordingly dubbed a 'gen-ymander'. Gerrymandering is a common phenomenon in the USA where the parties have perfected systems of 'redistricting' to their advantage in those areas where they are in power. For instance, Douglas Amy (1993: 44) refers to a case in the 1990 House of Representatives election in Texas where the Democrats won ten of the fourteen congressional seats despite the fact that the Republicans had virtually the same vote: the vote tally was Democrats, 1,083,351, Republicans, 1,080,788. Amy argues that, at least in part, this reflected a successful gerrymander. A more famous example was in California in 1982 where one constituency (or district) 'designed to protect the incumbent Democrat ... was an incredible 385-sided figure' (Amy, 1993: 46).

Gerrymandering is common to all non-proportional electoral systems, the UK included (Johnston, 1986). For instance, a frequent criticism of the Stormont government in Northern Ireland (in exist ence from 1920-72) was that it practised a comprehensive system of gerrymandering to protect the interests of the majority Protestant population (for a review, see Whyte, 1983).

Gerrymandering is generally associated with non-proportional electoral systems which have single-member constituencies. How ever, there are instances of its use in proportional systems, particu larly in the case of the STV electoral system which is characterized by multi-member constituencies (Mair, 1986). The most notorious example in recent Irish history was in the mid-1970s when the minister responsible for boundary revision, James Tully, sought to redesign the constituency boundaries to benefit the governing coali tion of Fine Gael and Labour. In the subsequent 1977 election the plan backfired badly largely due to the fact that the swing against the governing parties was much higher than anticipated. As a result, the loss for the governing parties was exaggerated by the effects of the attempted gerrymander. As Richard Sinnott (1993: 79) has noted, this 'incident has contributed a new term to the political lexicon. The minister responsible was James Tully, and a tullymander is a gerrymander that has an effect opposite to that intended'.

For established, mainstream politicians, one of the drawbacks of proportional systems is that they tend to produce proportional results! It is easier for smaller parties and for independents to win seats. There is a danger that counted among these will be political extremists, who in the eyes of the established politicians threaten democracy and give proportional representation (PR) a bad name. To try to minimize the risk of too many minor (and especially extremist) parties it is common for PR systems to include minimum electoral thresholds (usually a minimum vote percentage or a minimum number of seats won) which a party must pass in order to be granted any seats in the parliament. Therefore, even if under the electoral rules a party could actually win some seats, if it fails to surpass the threshold it is not awarded any. The most famous of these electoral thresholds operates in Germany. After the unstable experiences of PR under the Weimar Republic (1919-33) where successive governments were held hostage to the vagaries of minor parties, the German system operates a rule that a party must win either 5 per cent of the vote or three constituency seats in order to pass the electoral threshold (for further discussion, see chapter 5).

As we shall see in chapter 4, electoral thresholds are quite a common feature of PR systems. For instance, in Denmark a party needs at least 2 per cent of the national vote to gain parliamentary representation. In Sweden a party must either win 4 per cent of the national vote or else 12 per cent of the vote in one constituency to be eligible for seats. However, not all electoral thresholds are quite so onerous. In the Netherlands a party needs just 0.67 per cent of the vote to qualify for seats, and in other systems a party which fails to pass a minimum electoral threshold is allowed to keep the seats it wins, but is prevented from receiving what are known as 'top-up seats, thereby ensuring an in-built advantage to the larger parties. Such top-up advantages are enjoyed by larger parties in Austria, Greece, Iceland, Norway and for a time in Malta (for more details and discussion, see chapter 4).

A final means of distorting the translation of votes to seats is to introduce a range of party laws to restrict the activities of certain categories of parties. The most controversial of these laws are ones which seek to ban parties from running in elections or, at least, to make it difficult for them. Again Germany offers the best example with its party law banning 'anti-system' parties (Poguntke, 1994). Less explicit are the various legal restrictions on the operation of certain types of party. For instance, in the 1980s in Northern Ireland a full panoply of legal restrictions were brought into play which made life very difficult for the Sinn Fdin party. Its candidates were banned from the airwaves (until 1995), except during the final three weeks or so of the formal election campaign. (A similar ban in the lush Republic from 1973-95 was even more restrictive in that it included the election campaign.) Also a matter of some controversy for Sinn Fein candidates was the non-violence declaration which all Northern Ireland candidates were required to sign.


1.5 Conclusion

In general, however, there is relatively little the established politicians can do to try to influence the effects of electoral systems on the political process. Ultimately the main factor determining the influ ence an electoral system can bring to bear on a polity is the way in which it has been designed, whether in terms of the degree of electoral proportionality it produces, the type of party system it engenders, the degree of choice it offers to the voter or other such factors. These issues can only be assessed through an examination of the different electoral systems on offer, exploring how they operate and with what consequences. This is the function of the remainder of this book which examines each of the five main electoral systems in operation starting, in chapter 2, with the oldest and simplest--FPTP. The book concludes, in chapter 7, with an overall assessment of the political consequences of electoral systems.