Comparative Electoral Systems Research Paper

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I. Introduction

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II. Theory

III. Applications and Empirical Evidence

IV. Policy Implications

V. Future Directions

VI. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Elections are central to the functioning of democratic systems, and as such they have been the focus of extensive political science research for centuries. Scholars and practitioners seek to understand the variation in choices of different electoral systems cross-nationally. They also try to isolate the impact of those choices on a range of individual-, institutional-, and system-level outcomes. Those outcomes include the quality and breadth of representation; size and polarization of political party systems; citizen participation and voting behavior; and government, as well as system, stability. Much of the research conducted on electoral systems and elections has evolved from theoretical and empirical work on the United States and other established Western democracies (especially those in Europe), but considerable effort in recent decades has been devoted to understanding elections in transitioning and new democracies globally. Although elections do take place in nondemocratic polities, they usually fail to be free, fair, or competitive and therefore typically fall outside the domain of comparative research. What is clear is that the increasing sophistication of theoretical and statistical tools available to political scientists (along with an expanding universe of cases against which to test expectations) has resulted in important advances in our understanding electoral systems and elections. Because electoral processes and outcomes exert such profound effects on the real world of politics, such understanding is an example of the crucial connection between theory and practice in political science.

A first level of comparison identifies the different types of elections designed to determine national executive power. Presidents and other chief political executives may be elected through direct or indirect means. In direct elections of presidents and presidential-type executives, voters cast ballots for one of the eligible candidates. A candidate can win outright in a single round of voting by garnering an absolute majority of the ballots cast; however, when no one candidate captures 50% plus one of the eligible votes, a runoff round is held at a subsequent date, with the top two finishers from the first round squaring off. This model of direct executive election (exemplified by countries such as France, Russia, Poland, and Argentina) has the putative advantage of providing a wide range of candidates from which voters may choose in the first round. If a second round proves necessary, the system then yields a winner supported by an absolute majority of those turning out for the runoff. Indirect election of a country’s president or other executive leader, alternatively, entails voters’ selecting other persons (electors), who will then determine the winner. The United States, for example, uses an indirect mechanism whereby voters choose presidential electors, who then comprise the Electoral College, which then votes on who will become the next president. That process leaves open the possibility that the person chosen to be president by the Electoral College is not the same person who secured the greatest number of votes among the general population. Elsewhere, directly elected parliaments (either an upper house or both houses in joint session) constitute the arena in which presidents are indirectly selected; this occurs in Germany and Italy, for example. When Westminster style parliamentary systems (i.e., those modeled after the British House of Commons) use votes by legislators in plenary sessions to approve (or remove) prime ministers as heads of government, they are engaging in indirect elections of political executives. Taking the selection of national leaders out of the direct control of voters represents the skepticism that constitutional architects have for the general population, and it can provide an apparent elite-level check on the sentiments of mass electorates.

The second major dimension along which political scientists compare elections is the method of voting for legislative assemblies. Indeed, examining legislative elections across countries reveals considerable variation in such key dimensions as district magnitude, electoral formulae, ballot structure, and the use of electoral thresholds. District magnitude refers to the number of candidates who will be elected to a legislature from any given constituency, and the basic distinction here is between systems that rely on single-member districts and those that employ multimember districts. District magnitude is usually studied in tandem with the system’s chosen electoral formula, which represents the particular mechanism for translating votes into legislative seats. Such mechanisms are most frequently of the plurality, majoritarian, and proportional varieties. In the single-member district system, a country is divided into discrete electoral districts from which one individual will emerge as the elected representative. This system normally relies on a plurality rule, meaning that the candidate with the most votes wins (regardless of whether that candidate has captured an absolute majority). As such, single-member district systems are often deemed first past the post systems and also constitute a winner-take-all approach that provides no electoral prize for coming in second. The United States and the United Kingdom are among the countries where the single-member plurality system has a long-standing history; however, a range of countries elsewhere—including Canada, Ghana, and India—have adopted the same method. Others, most notably France, employ a single-member district system with two rounds of voting. In such cases, individual candidates can win outright in the first round with an absolute majority of votes cast, or they can secure the plurality of votes cast among eligible candidates in the second-round runoff. Single-member district systems are defended by their advocates as those that can enhance clarity of responsibility and democratic accountability by giving citizens in each district one individual to whom credit or blame can be assigned. The clarity and accountability that are supposed to accompany majoritarian governance should, according to this logic, produce more stable and effective polities. Detractors, however, find that aggregating district-level winner-take-all elections into a national whole can produce skewed representation in the legislature. For example, a party that runs a consistent and respectable second place throughout the country but that fails to win any single district would be excluded from taking seats in the legislature. Such a system, then, has the potential to underrepresent small parties in a democracy.

The alternative to single-member, winner-take-all systems of electing representative assemblies is one based on proportional representation (PR) in multimember districts. In PR systems, the goal is to have the percentage of a party’s seats in the legislature reflect the percentage vote share captured by that party in the general election. The party securing 25% of the vote would, accordingly, be rewarded with 25% (either exactly or approximately) of the legislative seats. Here ballot structure, which shapes how voters cast their votes, becomes critically important. Ballots can be categorical or ordinal. The categorical ballot structure allows a single either–or choice of one candidate. By contrast, the ordinal ballot structure gives voters the opportunity to vote for more than one candidate. In some ordinal ballots, political parties devise rank ordered lists of candidates to determine which persons ultimately claim those seats. In this closed party list system, citizens vote only for a party in a multimember constituency (often the whole country), whereas in an open party list system, voters can choose from a published list or select an individual candidate. The closed party list mechanism clearly vests considerable power in the hands of party leadership. Often, PR systems will set a minimum threshold (5% in Germany, for example) that parties must clear in order to win seats. Electoral thresholds are an increasingly common way for PR systems to limit the entry of minor (and sometimes extremist) parties into legislatures. Thresholds normally require a minimum percentage of votes or a minimum number of seats in order for a party to gain seats in a legislature. Thresholds vary, with some countries opting to set the bar low (Israel, for example, at 2%) and others raising it to high levels (e.g., Turkey, at 10%). Numerous varieties of proportional representation exist, each with different counting and procedural mechanisms. One such variety is the single transferable vote method. By this method, voters rank candidates preferentially, and if a voter’s first-choice candidate has already cleared a set threshold and does not need additional support to win, then that vote is transferred to a second choice. This process, exemplified most clearly by Ireland, is designed to avoid “wasting” votes.

Although there is a tendency among political scientists to classify electoral systems in democratic countries into either the majoritarian or proportional camp, the reality is that many hybrid or mixed systems exist in between those two types. The additional member system, for example, combines elements of conventional first-past-the-post systems with some characteristics of party-list proportional systems. In this combination, voters get two votes: The first helps allocate seats to single-member constituencies, and the second goes to a party list. The percentage of second or party-list votes won by a party determines the party’s overall number of representatives, and the number of seats won in single-member districts is “topped off” to match that overall percentage. This method finds use in elections to Germany’s Bundestag, New Zealand’s House of Representatives, and the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies in the United Kingdom. The presumed advantage of this mixed member system approach is that proportionality is ensured, and at the same time, a directly accountable representative for each constituency is also identified. It is also said to allow strategic voters to express support for an individual politician while not necessarily endorsing that candidate’s political party. Disadvantages are said to include the creation of two (potentially unequal) classes of politicians, with those elected under the second-ballot topping off beholden not to the voters but to party leaders instead.

While elections in democratic settings constitute the overwhelming preponderance of all voting processes studied by political scientists, it is important to note that nondemocratic systems (e.g., authoritarian and semiauthoritarian systems) can also employ electoral mechanisms. Such regimes may organize controlled and uncontested elections as a means of mobilizing mass endorsement of a national leader or a single-party legislature. Doing so can provide symbolic legitimacy for the ruling elite, and it may neutralize popular discontent by creating the false appearance of citizens having a say in the affairs of their country. For example, while the Communist Party monopolizes power and controls political processes in China, direct elections of village-level offices do take place, as do indirect elections for people’s congresses above the local level. The one-party Soviet Union held its own brand of uncontested elections, as did Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Brazil under military rule orchestrated compulsory voting in tightly controlled elections, even though the frequency of blank and spoiled ballots often suggested popular rejection of the process. Semicompetitive, hegemonic party systems such as Egypt’s hold elections in which there is little a priori uncertainty of the outcomes; there is, in such cases, some element of choice and voter expression. Although nondemocratic variants of the electoral process illustrate more about a regime’s methods of system control than they do about representation, responsiveness, and accountability, they clearly merit attention.

II. Theory

Some democratic theorists view elections as a central— if not the central—component of liberal democracy. Indeed, in this view, elections constitute the minimum necessary requirement for democracy. For Schumpeter (1942), democracy is “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” (p. 269). Likewise for Huntington (1993), democracy is defined most essentially by the fair and periodic voting procedures that select a country’s leaders. Przeworski, Alvarez, Cheibub, and Limongi (2000) also view contested elections—that is, those in which there is ex ante uncertainty and ex post irreversibility— as the litmus test for democracy. Others, such as Dahl (1971), counter that such a thin, minimalist, or procedural definition of democracy-as-elections fails to account for other necessary conditions, such as the protection of civil liberties and the actual responsiveness of government policies to voter preferences. Whether sufficient or not, elections typically figure as necessary conditions for the existence of democracy.

Theoretical work on elections and comparative electoral systems has largely focused on (a) the relationship between electoral rules and the size and polarization of political party systems, (b) the tendency of certain electoral systems to impact voter turnout and citizen participation, (c) the congruence between electoral verdicts and government policy, and (d) the potential for electoral systems to predispose new or transitioning systems to success or failure. Political scientists developing theory in each of these areas represent some of the main ontological camps in the discipline, such as structuralists, rationalists, and culturalists. As such, attention has been devoted to formal rules, voter preferences and behavior, and the contextual influence on system choice and outcomes.

The causal relationship between electoral rules and the nature of a country’s political party system has animated scholarly interest for decades. Perhaps the most famous proposition, tested repeatedly since its early assertion by Duverger in 1954, is that plurality elections using one ballot single-member districts will favor the creation of two-party systems whereas proportional representation rules with multimember districts will lead to multiparty systems. Duverger went further to posit that a majority vote on two ballots increases the likelihood of a multiparty system as well as the necessity of postelection coalition formation. It is rare indeed that causal relationships in political science theory elevate to law-like status, but in this case, “Duverger’s Law” has achieved considerable staying power. The logic guiding Duverger’s assertions depends on what are conventionally deemed mechanical effects and psychological effects. The mechanical effects highlight the underrepresentation of third (and fourth, and fifth, etc.) parties, which is likely to occur over time in a single-seat legislative district requiring an outright plurality or majority vote. Given the mechanical impediments to minor party success, voters who support minor parties then have psychological incentives not to “waste” their votes and may often cast ballots against their preferred candidate in a strategic effort to exercise some influence over the most likely winner in the two-party competition. Such claims have spawned much subsequent work, and not a little dissent. Sartori (1968) extended Duverger’s assertion of a link between proportionality and party system size, specifying that district magnitude (i.e., the number of seats in a district) is the single best predictor of the effective number of political parties in a district. Riker (1982) challenged Duverger’s hypothesis about PR and multipartism by contending that, if true, we should see a recurring increase in the number of parties over time rather than party system stability or modest decreases in the effective number of parties (as most frequently occurs in practice). Debate over the relationship between choice of electoral system and party system size is important, given the propensity to view two-party majoritarian countries as more stable than those with polarized multipartism.

If electoral rules biased in favor of two-party systems are theorized to bring gains in terms of system stability, then those rules favoring proportionality figure prominently in political science theories that attempt to explain citizen engagement, voter turnout, and representativeness of legislatures. According to Lijphart (1994, 1999), majoritarian and plurality electoral systems dilute citizen enthusiasm and voter turnout because so many supporters of minor parties conclude that casting their ballots will have little to no impact on electoral outcomes, government formation, or policy choices. Conversely, proportional systems with low thresholds for representation and large district magnitudes should increase the chances that smaller parties from across the ideological spectrum will be able to secure voice and seats in the legislature. With that greater likelihood of electoral success for minor and even fringe parties, voter efficacy and incentives to cast ballots should be increased. Voter turnout is “an excellent indicator of democratic quality” (Lijphart, 1999, p. 284), and PR systems are theorized to be superior to their majoritarian counterparts in generating democratic gains in this area. As part of an overall inclusive and consensual approach to democratic governance, proportional electoral systems should also improve citizen satisfaction with the political system, ceteris paribus.

A third major area of theoretical work on comparative electoral systems has evolved around the presumed correspondence between voting outcomes and public policy. If democracies are to be responsive to the preferences of the public, then periodic voting should work to translate the “will of the electorate” into identifiable policy choices. Scholarship in this area builds on the majoritarian– proportional dichotomy to examine citizen control over— and influence on—government policy making. Powell (2000) explores elections as “instruments of democracy” and distinguishes a proportional vision of “citizen influence” from a majoritarian vision of “control.” He contends that “proportional influence designs enjoy a surprising advantage” (p. 18) over the majoritarian alternative because they encourage broad cross-party bargaining to form a government and to pass legislation. Such bargaining should produce governments that include the median legislator, who is, in turn, close to the median voter. The median voter is located at the middle of a political system along most issue dimensions, such that one half of the electorate is positioned to the political left and the other half is positioned to the political right. The median legislator is likewise the elected representative located such that half of the other legislators are to the left and the other half are to the right, politically. Electoral systems that produce governments proximate to the median voter should, therefore, be more responsive to policy preferences. Proportional electoral systems should also give greater policy influence to opposition parties, making for a more inclusive process of policy making.

Theories underpinning our understanding of electoral rules and their consequences can have extremely important practical applications. While much effort is devoted to understanding how and why established democracies tinker with their electoral systems to enact reforms or alter a range of political outcomes, even greater attention has been directed in recent decades to the role of elections in facilitating regime change. Indeed, one of the growth areas in political science literature addresses the prospects for successful electoral engineering. Given that the last decades of the 20th century witnessed transitions from communism, apartheid, and other forms of autocratic rule, alternative theories about the prospects for implanting democracy through institutional engineering have become increasingly salient. Likewise, nascent post-authoritarian systems in early 21st-century hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan have emerged as testing grounds for the discipline’s theoretical assertions. Norris (2004) identifies two theoretical traditions—rational choice institutionalism and cultural modernization—that purport to explain the possibilities for electoral engineering on human behavior. In the rational choice institutionalism approach, political parties adopt discernibly different strategies based on the nature of electoral thresholds and ballot structures. Preference-maximizing citizens likewise should be expected to respond differently to alternative electoral rules. If correct, this logic would predict that rule-based incentives will shape consistent patterns of behavior; therefore, changing those incentives through electoral engineering “should have the capacity to generate important consequences for political representation and for voting behavior” (Norris, 2004, p. 15). By contrast, the cultural modernization approach suggests that deep-rooted cultural habits arising from processes of social modernization place real limits on the potential of formal rules to alter behavior in systematically meaningful ways. This culturalist argument is often employed to explain why wholesale introduction of electoral rules into culturally divided, post-conflict settings so frequently fails to produce short-term transformations of individual behavior.

III. Applications and Empirical Evidence

Political scientists have endeavored to assemble an abundance of empirical evidence in support of their theoretical claims. Perhaps nowhere has greater effort been extended than in tests of propositions about the linkages among electoral laws, party systems, and coalitional incentives. Countering an alternative hypothesis that underlying societal cleavages are the primary agents determining size and polarization of party systems, a literature has evolved (cf. Cox, 1997; Lijphart, 1994; Rae, 1967; Riker, 1982; Sartori, 1968; Taagepera & Shugart, 1989) to contend that electoral laws have their own independent effects. Duverger’s notions about first-past-the-post, single-ballot elections tending to produce two-party majoritarian systems find extensive application in the United States, as well as the United Kingdom. In elections for the U.K. House of Commons and the U.S. Congress, the evidence seems to suggest a compelling link between electoral rules and strong, stable, two-party government. Electoral structures in the United States, for example, help explain the consistent failure of third parties to mount successful campaigns. This winner-take-all system has, though, placed such significant importance on the drawing of district boundaries that the pernicious practice of gerrymandering—consciously redrawing the lines to ensure a majority for one party—emerged as part of American politics. Although smaller parties have been able to win parliamentary seats in the United Kingdom, their ultimate representation in the House of Commons is highly disproportionate to their overall support in the electorate, and they have little chance at becoming the party of government or forcing a coalition. To illustrate, the perennial third-party Liberal Democrats won 22.1% of the vote in Britain’s 2005 general election but secured only 9.6% of the 646 seats in the House of Commons. Tony Blair’s Labour Party, having won only 35.3% of the votes nationwide, nevertheless captured 55.2% of the seats in parliament and 100% of the cabinet positions in government.

Single-member-district plurality systems normally provide rapid certainty after an election about who will govern and who will constitute the opposition. However, systems that introduce even a modicum of proportionality likewise introduce an element of uncertainty into the government formation process. Proportionality (especially when combined with low thresholds in multimember districts) does increase the number of effective parties in the political system. When no single political party secures an outright legislative majority, the postelection period becomes one marked by formal negotiations as well as backroom deals between parties jockeying to join a governing coalition. The case of Belgium is illustrative. There a proportional representation system with compulsory voting and a 5% threshold for representation in the federal Chamber of Representatives produced enough support to grant parliamentary seats to 11 parties in the June 10, 2007, general election. The largest among those, the Christian Democratic and Flemish Party, claimed only 18% of the 150 seats in parliament and could therefore not form a government by itself. Protracted negotiations commenced after the election, and 196 days later, the best the Belgian parties could do was constitute an interim caretaker government. That interim government lurched along, with further negotiations taking another 79 days before the parties could agree on a full-fledged new government. That government, in turn, failed to finish out the year. Although electoral rules biased in favor of majoritarianism typically yield governments that combine certainty with disproportional representation, those rules favoring multiparty outcomes tend to better reflect the dispersion of political preferences throughout the country but may also add considerable uncertainty to the government formation process.

Evidence also exists on the relationship between electoral systems and the production of such democratic goods as high voter turnout and citizen satisfaction. Where the electoral rules reduce the costs (e.g., time and effort) to citizens of registering and voting, we should find greater turnout. Similarly, where party choices available to voters are more extensive we should expect to see elevated turnout. Finally, voter efficacy—the belief that casting a ballot can actually impact the government formed and the ultimate policy direction taken—should be directly related to turnout at elections. According to Norris (2004), “Institutional rules do indeed matter: voting participation is maximized in elections using PR, with small electoral districts, regular but relatively infrequent national contests, and competitive party systems, and in presidential contests” (pp. 257–258). There is also evidence to support theoretical contentions that the type of electoral system can impact the opportunities for women and minorities seeking to earn a legislative seat or executive office. Among established democracies, the countries that consistently sit atop comparative rankings of the proportion of women winning seats in national parliaments are Sweden, Iceland, Finland, and the Netherlands. Each country employs some form of proportional electoral rules with low thresholds, and in each it is routine for women to constitute more than 40% of national parliamentary representation. Findings such as this, it should be noted, must also take regional political culture and other potentially intervening factors into consideration.

In his study of democratic performance in 36 countries from 1945 to 1996, Lijphart establishes empirically that electoral systems favoring consensus-oriented governance yield gains in citizen satisfaction. When the rules of the electoral process encourage multipartism and coalition building, the policy preferences of the median voter have a greater chance to be represented in the government of the day. Lijphart’s data show that the distance between governments and median voters is highest in majoritarian systems (with the United Kingdom representing the high end of the scale) and lowest in more proportional systems (with Ireland and its single transferable vote system producing the narrowest gap). Because in PR systems electoral “losers” often have a chance to join postelection coalitions—and due to the frequent proportional representation of opposition parties on legislative committees— Lijphart is able to find a statistically significant difference between citizen satisfaction in countries with alternative electoral systems. Lijphart’s study corroborates earlier work by Klingemann (1999), who found that Danes and Norwegians—each with highly proportional systems— scored the highest levels of democratic satisfaction.

Given the volume of empirical applications of existing political science theoretical work on elections, it is not surprising that there is a foundation of cases demonstrating how changes in electoral rules actually impact voter behavior and system characteristics. Indeed, the lessons of major 20th-century electoral reforms in three countries— France, Japan, and New Zealand—are instructive. The French case illustrates how constitutional architects can try to contain what are perceived to be the excesses of proportional representation. Those designing the 1958 Fifth Republic sought to use electoral rules to avoid reproducing the fleeting and weak multiparty coalition governments that had plagued the Fourth Republic from 1946 to 1958 and brought the system to the brink of collapse. The new two-round, single-member district system established in 1958 encouraged broad political party competition in a first round and awarded National Assembly seats to all candidates winning an outright majority. Absent a majority, all candidates receiving at least 12.5% of first-round votes could then contest in the runoff election, in which a plurality would suffice for victory. In practice, this runoff mechanism encourages the weakest candidates to voluntarily stand down in favor of a better positioned candidate closest to them on the left–right ideological spectrum and to have their supporters cast their second-round ballots for that person. This system has effectively preserved France’s multiparty system while simultaneously creating a stable two-bloc system of parties on the moderate left and right. The runoff system often means that parties with meaningful support nationwide may still fail to secure national legislative seats, as has been the case with the far-right National Front party. Indeed, when the French tinkered with their electoral laws in the 1980s, it became apparent how decisive the rules can be for representation. In 1986, the Socialist government of President François Mitterrand opted to change from the two-round system to a single-round proportional one in hopes of dividing the right wing opposition parties. As a result, the National Front’s 9.6% of the vote earned it 35 of the 577 national legislative seats. When party strategy changed and France reverted to the two-round system for the 1988 parliamentary election, the National Front’s 9.7% of the first-round vote translated into only one seat!

In Japan, major reforms occurred in 1994, when the old system of single nontransferable votes (allowing one choice per voter in elections for three to five district representatives) was scrapped and replaced by a mixed-member system. The new Japanese system for electing the House of Representatives combines first-past-the-post single-member districts (for 300 seats) with PR party-list seats (200) in an “attempt to craft a competitive two-party, issue-oriented politics and a cleaner, more efficient government” (Norris, 2004, p. 5). Whereas Japanese politics prior to the reform consisted mainly of one dominant party (Liberal Democrats) regularly overwhelming a handful of opposition, the new hybrid of majoritarian and proportional approaches (most analogous to the system in Russia) aims to create a polity with alternating parties in power. In New Zealand, at roughly the same time, reforms to replace the long-standing first-past-the-post system came to fruition. There, a mixed-member proportional system now allows 70 of the 120 national parliamentary seats to be elected directly in single-member districts, with the remainder coming from party lists in a style similar to Germany’s. The addition of proportionality to New Zealand’s electoral system—endorsed by a majority of citizens in a binding 1993 referendum—has had a quick and dramatic impact. Whereas the average number of political parties gaining seats in New Zealand’s national parliament was just two during the 1946-to-1993 period, in the five elections since introducing the mixed-member system, an average of seven parties has secured representation. Electoral engineering, at least in this case, seems to have achieved the end envisioned for it.

Perhaps nowhere is political science research into comparative electoral systems more salient than in countries attempting to transition away from authoritarianism. The cross-national lessons available to architects of new systems are always imperfect, as transporting a model from one country to another without sensitivity to local conditions and histories is a formula for failure. However, such comparative learning does take place, and most new electoral systems today are adaptations and amalgams of those found elsewhere. When elections were held in December 2005 to constitute a post-Saddam Iraqi Council of Representatives, a proportional party-list system determined 230 of the total 275 seats in 18 multimember districts (governorates). An additional 45 compensatory seats were then allocated to political entities that did not win any seats outright in the governorates but that did clear a minimum national threshold. Also worthy of note is that Iraq’s electoral law requires at least 25% of the members of the parliament to be women. In Afghanistan, post-Taliban elections have struggled to secure domestic and international legitimacy. The 2005 elections for Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament employed the single nontransferable vote method in 34 multimember constituencies. Candidates, however, ran independently because parties and lists were not recognized by the governing law. As in Iraq, the Afghan system reserved a number of seats (at least 68 of the total 249) for women. At the executive level, the Afghan president is elected by absolute majority in a two-round system similar to that employed in France.

IV. Policy Implications

The choice of election system can potentially impact the quality and kind of policy pursued by an incumbent government. If elections are the essential ingredient in representative democracy, then presumably there should be some apparent connection between the will of the people as expressed through elections and the policies they receive from the subsequently invested government. If citizens are engaging in issue voting, as some research has consistently found, then it is important to gauge whether the governments they get are actually responsive to those issues. If our fundamental expectations about democracy require a close connection between elections and policy outcomes, then the reality may sometimes disappoint (Ginsberg & Stone, 1996). As Downs (1957) contended, political parties adopt policies in order to win elections rather than win elections in order to adopt policies. The achievement of public policy goals may actually be instrumental to the more power-seeking ambitions of parties and politicians.

Political scientists therefore examine the ways in which different electoral systems hold officials accountable for their fidelity to campaign promises once in office. Indeed, elections provide a kind of ex post accountability for policy pledges. The more a particular model of election creates the perception among elected officials that those they claim to represent will oust them for poor past performance, the stronger the democratic accountability linkage is said to be. Although several scholars (e.g., Lijphart, 1999; Powell, 2000) demonstrate that citizen satisfaction and the correspondence between median voters and the policy positions represented in a legislature are enhanced by consensual, proportional representation, there is also reason to find that majoritarian systems provide the kind of clarity that voters need to hold leaders accountable for policy choices. In a majoritarian, winner-take-all system, if a party campaigns on the basis of very clear policy pledges, wins the election, and then proceeds to depart dramatically from its public promises (what political scientists call engaging in moral hazard), the voters should be able to easily identify this lack of fidelity and then “throw the rascals out” at the next electoral opportunity. By contrast, in electoral systems characterized by proportional representation, the likelihood of multiparty coalition governments forming after protracted negotiations is great. In such cases, the translation of electoral verdicts into governmental policy becomes significantly more indirect. Moreover, the distribution of policy portfolios across multiple parties blurs the lines of accountability and increases the difficulties for voters who wish to reward or punish the incumbents. For example, the citizen asked to evaluate with one vote the performance of a three-party coalition government may find it hard to express support for that government’s fiscal policy (headed by a Conservative Party finance minister) while rejecting its policies on education (headed by a Christian Democratic Party education minister), as well as those on immigration (headed by a Nationalist Party interior minister).

If elections are central to the functioning of democratic political systems, then another set of policy implications can be found in the promotion of democratization through elections and electoral reform. The foreign policies of many established democracies, as well as those of intergovernmental organizations and donor agencies, are intimately tied to this kind of promotion. The conduct of free and fair elections is frequently the litmus test for legitimacy in the eyes of the democratic international community, and everything from diplomatic recognition to commercial relations can hinge on the successful holding of competitive elections. As such, governmental entities such as the United Nations or the European Union will regularly send election monitoring missions to observe voter registration and the casting of ballots to gauge openness, extent of fraud, and incidents of intimidation. Nongovernmental organizations, such as the Carter Center, have also played this monitoring role in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. International financial institutions, such as the World Bank, also incorporate elections into decisions about granting development assistance funds to countries in need. This process of political conditionality is the stipulation of the conduct of democratic elections as a necessary occurrence prior to the allocation of foreign aid. Such conditionality has been part of the Structural Adjustment Programs implemented by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in exchange for lower interest loans to developing countries. Critics of these policies contend that tethering development assistance to political reforms is tantamount to threats that will lead to the rapid importation of electoral mechanisms that ultimately fail to take root.

V. Future Directions

As democracy expands (and sometimes contracts) across the globe, research on elections likewise adapts. Political scientists continue to focus on formal rules and designs; on individual-level attitudinal and behavioral responses to those formal mechanisms; and on the connections among elections, party systems, and policy outcomes. One of the particular growth areas for future research in the area will be that addressing referenda and other forms of direct democracy. Referenda can take many different forms, with some being ad hoc and others constituting routine and regular procedures. They are advocated on the logic that circumventing the normal representative institutions in favor of direct votes by the entire electorate will encourage more citizens to become better informed and more involved in the democratic decision-making process. Singling out a policy choice for a decision by the people should, moreover, grant clarity to the direction desired by citizens; in contrast, the normal process of bundling multiple policy choices within legislative bills makes it hard to achieve such clarity. Finally, it is presumed that decisions arrived at through referendum elections will enjoy much greater legitimacy than those achieved through competition or cooperation of the political elite. With greater legitimacy, we should expect, in turn, the greater likelihood that those policies are successfully implemented. Referenda, plebiscites, and citizens’ initiatives take place in many countries: Switzerland uses the people’s initiative with relative frequency (more than 400 national referenda since 1945); French and Dutch voters were asked in their respective 2005 national referenda whether they supported a proposed European Union Constitution; and voters in East Timor chose to part from Indonesia in a 1999 referendum. Although the United States does not hold national referenda, some states and many localities do hold frequent initiatives and ballot propositions (for example, California’s 1978 Proposition 13 on property taxes and its 2008 Proposition 8 on same-sex marriage).

Future research should build on the increasing relevance of referenda and initiatives to explore the impact of question wording and ballot structure on voting outcomes. Assumptions about referenda being decided by informed and engaged citizens need to be tested thoroughly, across time and across countries. If empirical support does not emerge to substantiate that there are informational gains associated with referenda to a greater extent than in regular elections, then some normative red flags need to be raised regarding the utility of this form of democratic decision making. Fodder for further research comes with the varying turnout requirements that countries impose for the verdicts of direct democracy votes to be implemented: Why do different countries place the turnout threshold at different levels, and do high thresholds unfairly violate majorities that fail to reach them? Do voters behave differently when referendum elections are merely advisory rather than binding on the government? Most important, is there any empirical reason to expect that direct democracy elections are supplanting conventional political elections in any meaningful way? These trends and prospects clearly deserve the attention of 21st-century political scientists.

VI. Conclusion

The rules governing and guiding voting are central to the study of contemporary politics. Decades of comparing electoral systems have produced important findings about the impact of alternative majoritarian and proportional systems and the many hybrid models in between. Duverger’s early assertions about the influence of ballot and district type on the size and character of political party systems have risen to the status of “law” in the discipline and spawned subsequent and more sophisticated theorizing. A considerable body of evidence now exists to help explain how the choice of electoral system can influence the quality of a country’s democracy. Introducing or reforming electoral rules can alter citizen participation and satisfaction, can enhance or diminish the congruence between voter preferences and public policy outputs, and can have profound consequences for system stability. Electoral engineering as such is one of the clearest issue areas in which political science research speaks directly to decision makers. Indeed, given that for centuries revolutions have been fought and blood spilt for the right to live in a democracy, it is imperative to understand how elections can support or undermine transitions from authoritarian rule. Some of the most tenuous polities around the globe struggle with legitimacy and leadership transitions, and designing an appropriate electoral system shapes—if not determines—those countries’ futures. Theories and data assembled for study of the United States, western Europe, and other cases of consolidated democracy offer much to the electoral engineer, policymaker, and student observer; they cannot, however, be casually transported across the globe to nascent democracies without due consideration of the opportunities and constraints defined by a country’s individual context.


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