Written by Classical Liberal



Electoral systems for lower houses of selected Western liberal democracies


COUNTRY                                       ELECTORAL SYSTEM

Australia                                          Winner-takes-all-AV

Belgium                                           PR-List

Canada                                            FPTP

Denmark                                         PR-List

France                                             Winner-takes-all-2-Round

Finland                                            PR-List

Germany                                         PR-List

Ireland                                            PR-STV

Italy                                                 PR-List

Netherlands                                    PR-List

New Zealand                                  MMP

Norway                                           PR-List

Sweden                                           PR-List

UK                                                   FPTP

USA                                                 FPTP (in 41/50 states)


Proportional Representation (PR) characterises electoral systems in which divisions in an electorate are reflected proportionately in the elected body. The concept applies mainly to geographical and political divisions of the electorate. When X% of the electorate supports a particular political party or set of candidates as their favourite, roughly X% of seats are allocated to that party. The essence of such systems is that all votes contribute to the result – not just a plurality or a bare majority. The most prevalent forms of PR all require multiple-member voting districts, as it is impossible to fill a single seat in a proportionate manner. PR systems that achieve the highest levels of proportionality tend to include districts with large numbers of seats, as large as a province or an entire country.

The most widely used families of PR electoral systems are party-list PR, single transferable vote (STV), and mixed-member PR (MMP).

With party-list PR, political parties define candidate lists, and voters vote for a list. The relative vote for each list determines how many candidates from each list are elected. Lists can be ‘open’ or ‘closed’. ‘Closed’ lists are selected before the election. ‘Open’ lists allow voters to indicate preferences for individual candidates during the election.

With STV, voters can rank individual candidates rather than vote for a single ‘best’ candidate. During the count, as candidates are eliminated, surplus/discarded votes that would otherwise be wasted are transferred to other candidates in order of preference, forming consensus groups that elect surviving candidates. STV enables voters to vote across party lines, choose the most preferred party’s candidates, and vote for independent candidates, knowing that their vote will likely not be wasted if the candidate is not elected.

MMP is a two-tier mixed electoral system combining local non-proportional plurality/majoritarian elections and compensatory regional or national party-list PR elections. Voters typically have two votes, one for their single-member district and one for the party list. Additional members compensate parties that are under-represented by district elections. The total number of members of each party is proportionately based on the party-list vote.

Some form of PR is used for national lower house elections in 94 countries. Party-list PR is the most widely used, being used in 85 countries. MMP is used in seven lower houses. STV is only used in two lower houses: Ireland and Malta. However, STV is also used in the Australian Senate. Due to electoral thresholds and the use of small constituencies, and manipulation tactics such as party splitting and gerrymandering, perfect PR is rarely achievable. Nonetheless, they approximate PR much better than other systems.

The electoral threshold is the minimum vote required to win a seat. All electoral systems have thresholds, either formally defined or as a mathematical consequence of the parameters of the election. A formal threshold usually requires parties to win a certain percentage of the vote to be awarded seats from the party lists. In Germany and New Zealand, the threshold is five per cent of the national vote. However, the threshold is not applied to parties that win a minimum number of constituency seats: three in Germany and one in New Zealand.

PR tries to resolve the unfairness of majoritarian and plurality voting systems where the most prominent parties receive an unfair seat bonus, and smaller parties are always under-represented. An established party in UK elections can win majority control of the House of Commons with as little as 35% of votes: as witnessed by the 2005 General Election.

Plurality/majoritarian systems also benefit regional parties, like the SNP in the UK, that win many seats in the region with a strong following but have little support nationally. While other parties with national backing that are not concentrated in specific districts, like UKIP in the UK, win few or no seats.

The use of multiple-member districts enables a greater variety of candidates to be elected. The more representatives per district and the lower percentage of voters required for election increases the chances that minor parties can gain representation.

Critics, on the other hand, claim this can give extreme parties a foothold in parliament. Small parties can act as ‘kingmakers’ with very low thresholds, holding more immense parties to ransom during coalition discussions. But these problems can be limited by introducing higher threshold limits for a party to gain parliamentary representation. Which, of course, increases the number of wasted votes.

The election of smaller parties gives rise to one of the principal objections to PR systems that they almost always result in coalition governments. Supporters of PR see coalition governments as an advantage, forcing compromise between parties to form a coalition at the centre of the political spectrum, leading to continuity and stability. Opponents counter that with many policies, compromise is not possible. Neither can many policies be easily positioned on the left-right spectrum. So, policies are horse-traded during coalition formation, with the consequence that voters have no way of knowing which policies will be pursued by the government they elect. In this sense, voters have less influence on governments. Also, coalitions do not necessarily form at the centre. Most importantly, the ability of voters to vote a party in disfavour out of power is reduced.

In closing, the case for PR is probably best summed up with the following example: in the 2015 UK General Election, the SNP gained 56 seats, all in Scotland, with a 4.7% share of the vote; while UKIP only gained a single seat with 12.6% of the vote. Is this fair? Under PR, UKIP would have gained 12.6% of seats.

Photo by katybird

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