The Effects of Different Electoral Systems

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

ELECTORAL LAWS AND SYSTEMS have political consequences.
Some encourage greater citizen participation than others.
Some complicate the voting task while others simplify it.
Some provide greater representation of racial, ethnic, and
gender groups than others. Some encourage greater
accountability of legislators to constituents than others.
Two different electoral systems can produce very different
legislative bodies and thus different policies. Some electoral
systems foster greater decisiveness in policymaking
than others.
Single-member district majority (plurality) voting is the
most familiar electoral system. Also known as “first-pastthe-
post,” SMDV is currently used to elect representatives
to the Illinois House and Senate. All of the candidates
appear on the general election ballot—the list is typically
winnowed to two, one from each major party—and each
voter votes for one of them. The winner is the candidate
who receives the most votes, whether or not that candidate’s
votes are a majority of the total.
SMDV places few demands on voters. Faced with
choosing a state legislator, they vote for one (or none) of
the two candidates, whose names are clearly displayed
on the ballot. SMDV also promotes close ties between
legislator and constituents, since the legislative districts
are relatively small. Critics quickly note, however, that
SMDV wastes all votes cast for the losing candidate(s). It
also discourages voting among constituents whose party
candidate stands no chance of winning, denies representation
to third parties, and encourages gerrymandering,
which in turn reduces political competition. Currently,
more than half of all state House and Senate incumbents
face no competition in either the primary or general
A variation of SMDV is instant run-off voting (IRV).
Just as in plurality voting, all candidates are listed on the
ballot. Instead of voting for only one candidate, voters
rank the candidates in order of their preferences (“1” for
first choice, “2” for second, and so forth). The counting
also differs from SMDV. A computer tabulates the ballots.
First, all the “1” preferences are counted. If a candidate
receives over 50 percent of the first- choice preferences,
he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate receives
a majority of the first-place preferences, the candidate
with the fewest votes is eliminated. The ballots of supporters
of this candidate are then transferred to whichever
of the remaining candidates was marked as the “2”
preference. The vote is then recounted to see if any
remaining candidate now has a majority of the votes.
This process continues until one candidate receives a
majority of the votes.
Advocates of IRV point to two advantages over SMDV.
First, the winning candidate will have the meaningful
support of a majority of the voters, which increases his or
her legitimacy. Second, IRV ensures that an independent
or a third-party candidate will not play spoiler and throw
the election to one of the two major candidates who in
fact was not the electorate’s overall choice. On the other
hand, IRV is administratively complex. Summing the
continuing votes to identify a winning candidate can lead
to perverse outcomes when many voters do not identify
second and third choices. Finally, IRV encourages candidates
whose only purpose is to help another candidate
defeat the presumed winner.
Adoption of IRV has been a source of considerable
debate and controversy in Urbana. The controversy
nicely illustrates the close connection between politics
and choice of electoral system. A group of active
Greens, with the help of some non-Greens, attempted
to put a referendum on the November ballot regarding
changing from SMDV to IRV. The Greens believed,
probably correctly, that third parties would have a
greater chance to win council seats rather than just play
the spoiler role under IRV. The non-Greens who joined
them simply felt that the IRV counting system would do
better than SMDV at identifying the “true” winners in
council elections. When the binding referendum was
blocked, an effort was made to place an advisory referendum
on the ballot. Amid claims that the incumbent
city administration had packed the meeting with its
own people, the advisory referendum was blocked by a
vote of 43-98.
Cumulative voting has become a hot discussion
topic in the United States, especially with respect to
local elections. Illinois used CV to elect Illinois House
members until 1982. During the 1977-78 biennial
legislative session, lawmakers adopted pay raises for a
wide array of state officials, including a 40 percent
increase for themselves. Coming out of nowhere and
at a time when Alfred Kahn, then-president Carter’s
chairman of the Council on Wage and Price Stability,
had established a ceiling of seven percent on salary
increases, the increases incensed voters. Populist and
current Illinois Lieutenant Governor Patrick Quinn
led a drive that put a statewide referendum on the
1980 ballot reducing the size of the legislature and
eliminating CV. Only 44 percent of those going to the
polls voted on this so-called cutback amendment, but
69 percent of them approved it. The amendment went
into effect with the 1982 election cycle. Currently,
Illinois uses SMDV to elect both House and Senate
CV retains the first-past-the-post part of SMDV, but
candidates run in multi-member districts. Voters have as
many votes as there are legislative seats from their districts.
Illinois voters, for example, had three votes
because three candidates were elected from each district.
They could cast all three votes for one candidate, split
their votes for two candidates, or cast one vote for each of
three candidates.
Proponents of CV see it as an especially effective
way to ensure minority party representation. In Illinois,
most districts elected at least one candidate from
each party. Many also believe that CV increases the
chances for racial and ethnic minorities to win representation,
and thus see it as preferable to race- and ethnic-
conscious districting. CV also makes gerrymandering
more difficult. On the other hand, districts are
much larger under CV than under SMDV, making it
more difficult for constituents to develop ties with their
representatives. If one defines electoral competition,
simply, as the existence of more candidates than available
seats in a district, then competition in general
elections was no greater under CV than it has been
under SMDV. However, there was more competition in
primary elections. The large number of candidates running
in a district, especially in primary elections, can
overwhelm citizens’ capacities to make rational choices.
Critics of cumulative voting as it existed in Illinois
argue that party control over candidates was much
tighter than met the eye.
Although most Americans might not know it, most
democratic countries have adopted one or another form of
proportional representation. PR operates on a simple principle:
the number of legislative seats a political party or
group secures should be proportional to the electoral support
it garners among voters. So, if a political party or
group wins 30 percent of the total vote, it should receive
about 30 percent of the seats.
Party-list voting is an especially popular form of PR.
Under PLV systems, legislators are elected in large,
multi-member districts. Each party puts up a list, or
slate, of candidates equal to the number of seats in the
district. Independents can also run, and are listed separately
on the ballot. On the ballot, voters indicate their
preferences for particular parties, and the parties then
receive seats in proportion to their shares of the vote. So,
for example, in a five-member district, if Party X’s candidates
win 40 percent of the vote, the party is allocated
two seats.
PLV itself comes in two basic forms: closed list and
open list. Under a closed-list system, the party fixes the
order in which the candidates are listed and elected, and
voters simply cast a vote for the party as a whole. That is,
winning candidates are elected in the order that parties put
them on the lists. Most European democracies now use the
open list form. This form allows voters to express their
preferences for specific candidates, who often are listed on
the ballot in random order. So, in the same five-member
district, if Party X candidates win 40 percent of the vote,
and Joe and Mary receive the most Party X votes, they are
PR and PLV tend to be friendlier than other systems to
minority parties and to racial and ethnic groups. They also
waste fewer votes than SMDV. The district elections tend
to be competitive, encouraging turnout. PR and PLV
reduce gerrymandering and appear to encourage greater
discussion of issues. On the other hand, PR and PLV usually
require several legislative parties to build governing
coalitions. These coalitions can be difficult to forge and
often are unstable. Some critics feel that these systems give
minority parties too much power and allow them to make
unjustifiable demands. Open lists often become highly
complicated and thus difficult for voters to understand.
Imagine, by way of conclusion, that Illinois suddenly
replaced SMDV with PLV to elect its state legislators. In
reality, of course, this is not a likely event. Too many political
actors hold vested interests in the current electoral
system. Nevertheless, what changes would most likely
occur over the long-haul?
One can only speculate, of course, but the number of
parties slating candidates for office would almost certainly
increase. Some parties presumably would be to
the left of the current Democratic Party, some to the
right of the current Republican Party. Often, no party
would win a majority of legislative seats, thus requiring
several parties to form governing coalitions. The racial,
ethnic, and gender diversity of the state legislature
would increase. Conceivably, some parties would
become closely associated with one or another social
group. Legislators from any particular party would
rarely deviate from their party’s policy positions.
Arguably most important, the legislature would pass
policies that differ from current policies—it is impossible
to predict precisely what those differences would
be—and the almost-total power that the four leaders of
the state legislature currently hold over its members
would end.
How cities, states, and nations elect their public officials
matters greatly, perhaps more than any other single
institution. Not surprisingly, therefore, rapid societal
changes and the accompanying changes in political stakes
have brought the discussion of electoral change to the fore.
It is a discussion that citizens should take seriously.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.