Proportional Representation Research Paper

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As a standard for making political evaluations, ‘proportional representation’ implies that members of a group (Rg) participate in a governmental entity in numbers that bear the same ratio to the total membership of that body (R) as persons identifying with the group (Pg) have to the total population governed (P)—thus, Rg/R= Pg/P. The group in question may be supporters of a political party, adherents of an ideological or policy tendency, or persons sharing an identity based on race, ethnicity, religion, language, or gender. ‘Proportional representation’ also, and more commonly, refers to methods of electing representatives designed to achieve, or at least approximate, the ideal of proportionality in converting citizens’ votes into legislative seats. In this research paper ‘proportional representation’ (PR) will indicate electoral systems, while the standard at which they aim will be referred to as ‘proportionality.’ (For related articles, see Electoral Systems; Parliamentary Government; Political Representation; Voting: Tactical; Voting: Turnout.)

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1. PR Electoral Systems

There are two basic types of PR electoral systems—list PR and the single-transferable vote (STV). All PR systems require multimember districts—constituencies from which voters elect more than one representative. Thus, except in the trivial sense that the winner should have more votes than any loser, proportional representation does not apply to elections that choose a single winner, such as for executive posts or legislatures based on single-member districts (SMDs). The degree to which a PR electoral scheme can approximate perfect proportionality depends on the number of representatives elected per constituency, or district magnitude (M ). In the limiting case, the entire nation constitutes a single constituency, as in Israel and The Netherlands, where M = 120 and 150, respectively.

1.1 List PR

In the pure form of list PR, the closed list, political parties designate before the election a rank-ordered list of M (or fewer) candidates. Electors vote for a party, not for individual candidates. Parties winning seats select representatives from their lists according to the predetermined ranking.

The number of seats each party wins is determined by a formula that employs one of two basic mechanisms—quotas or divisors. In quota (or largest remainder) formulas, parties receive an initial allocation of seats equal to the number of quotas achieved in the vote for their list. The quota is determined by dividing total votes by M (Hare or natural quota), M + 1 (Droop quota), or M + 2 (Imperiale quota). Any remaining seats are assigned according to largest remainders—i.e., by the size of parties’ leftover votes after subtracting the quotas they have used. In divisor (or highest average) methods, seats are assigned sequentially. Each seat goes to the party which, at that point in the allocation, has the largest quotient after its votes are divided by a number that varies with the seats the party has already received (S). Well-known divisors include S + 1 (1, 2, 3, … ), the d’Hondt formula, and 2S + 1 (1, 3, 5, … ), the Sainte-Lague formula.

Formulas inspire political controversy, because different quotas and divisors favor large, medium, or small parties. Nevertheless, district magnitude has a more powerful effect on parties’ fortunes; small parties generally do better as M rises. Some list PR systems incorporate another element to exclude small parties—a threshold of votes (e.g., five percent) that a party must achieve to win seats.

List PR systems are employed for national parliamentary elections in most countries of Latin America and continental Europe.

1.2 The Single-Transferable Vote

STV, also known as the quota-preferential system, depends on a preferential ballot, in which voters rank individual candidates from most to least preferred. A quota of votes, Q, is established, usually by dividing the total number of voters by M + 1. All candidates receiving Q or more first preferences are elected. To determine the remaining winners, two types of transfers are carried out. In downward transfers, surplus votes (those above Q) received by winning candidates are reallocated to voters’ second (or, if necessary, subsequent) choices. In upward transfers, the candidate ranking last in votes is eliminated, and ballots giving first preferences to him or her are reassigned to the voters’ second (or subsequent) choices. Transfers are iterated until M candidates have achieved the quota.

Perhaps because of its complexity, both in balloting and selecting winners, STV is employed in national elections by just a few countries—Ireland, Malta, and (for the Senate only) Australia.

1.3 Parties And Candidates In PR Voting Systems

In its pure form, list PR assigns control over the fate of individual candidates to parties’ internal decision processes, whereas STV reserves that power for voters. In addition, list PR forces voters to choose just one party (or sometimes an electoral alliance of parties), whereas STV allows voters to move back and forth across parties while ranking candidates. Thus, list PR strengthens party organization and promotes party discipline in the legislature, whereas STV is conducive to intraparty electoral competition and individualistic behavior among legislators.

In practice, however, these differences may be blurred. Many list PR countries use open lists, in which electors are permitted (or, as in Finland, required) to indicate preferences for candidates as well as a party. In the panachage system of Switzerland and Luxembourg, electors may even distribute votes for candidates across different party lists. Conversely, in STV systems, unless district magnitude is kept low (on the order of three to five representatives per constituency), the task of ranking numerous candidates becomes so difficult that most voters will depend on instructions from parties. Thus, if it imposes excessive cognitive demands, a system intended to maximize the autonomous power of individual voters may end up functioning rather like list PR.

2. Mixed-Member Proportional

In an effort to combine the virtues of proportionality and local representation, Germany after World War II pioneered the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system. In MMP, a share of representatives (half in Germany) are elected from single-member districts, and the remainder are elected from party lists. Electors cast two votes—one for an individual constituency representative and one for a party. Seats that parties win from constituencies are subtracted from their list allocations to make overall delegations proportional to party votes. This crucial compensatory feature makes MMP a truly proportional system.

3. Semi-Proportional Systems

Another mixed type, easily confused with mixedmember proportional, is the parallel system. Like MMP, parallel systems elect some legislators from single-member constituencies and some from PR lists. Parallel systems diverge from MMP by not compensating for constituency victories in allocating seats to party lists. In effect, the legislature is chosen by an amalgamation of two separate electoral systems, only one of which aims at proportionality. If, as is usually the case, seats chosen by PR comprise no more than half the assembly, then the parallel system is appropriately classified as semiproportional. Japan and Russia adopted parallel systems in the 1990s.

The term semiproportional is also applied to electoral systems that are intended to achieve a degree of proportionality, but do not employ PR formulas to do so. These systems use multimember districts (of low magnitude), voting for individual candidates, and the plurality formula. The opportunity for proportionality arises from their balloting rules. The limited vote requires electors to cast fewer than M votes. In the extreme version case, the single-nontransferable vote (SNTV), electors may vote for only one candidate, even though M will be elected. Japan employed SNTV until 1993. Cumulative voting systems give electors M votes, but allow them to cast multiple votes for a favored candidate or candidates. Limited voting and cumulative voting, which have similar underlying strategic properties, enable well-coordinated minorities to win seats. However, because parties must avoid dispersing votes among too many candidates, these systems tend to reduce competition, and such competition as does occur tends to be within parties or voting blocs, causing internal conflict and factionalism.

4. Effects And Evaluations

The obvious intended benefit of PR systems is to establish what advocates consider an essential condition of electoral fairness—a close correspondence between parties’ votes and seats. The use of a PR formula, however, does not preclude significant deviations from proportionality when thresholds exist or district magnitudes are low, especially if parties have not yet adapted strategically to the parameters of the electoral system.

Although the immediate effect of list PR is to promote proportionality for political parties rather than underlying population groups, most parties will compete for votes of minority groups by placing members in electable list positions. If they do not, groups large enough to surpass the threshold can win representation by organizing their own parties. Consequently, list PR systems usually offer improved representation to minorities. The same incentives apply to electing women. Where they have become politically active and ambitious, women generally win more legislative seats under list PR than under singlemember district (SMD) systems.

Because PR is less likely than SMD to waste votes cast for smaller parties, it usually results in multiparty parliaments. The association between PR and multipartyism must be regarded as permissive rather than automatic. Within the constraints imposed by the electoral framework (district magnitude, threshold, and formula), the number of parties depends on the number of societal cleavages and on the willingness and ability of politicians to exploit them by organizing parties. Proportionality and multipartyism together make one-party majorities rare, so parliaments elected by PR typically form coalition governments or minority governments that must get support from other parties to pass legislation.

Critics of PR usually concede its representational advantages, but they contend that it produces a fragmented party system, unstable coalition governments, and excessive influence by extremist parties. Their favorite negative examples include Italy (before 1993 reforms), Israel, and Weimar Germany. In response, defenders of PR recommend ‘moderate PR’ with significant thresholds or districts of intermediate magnitude, rather than the pure forms those three cases exemplify. They defend the need for coalitions under PR as fostering consensus politics and stable policies, if not always stable cabinets.

5. Historical Development

Because PR methods are non-obvious and complex, their development stands as one of the key intellectual achievements in the history of democracy. The Marquis de Mirabeau enunciated the principle of proportionality in 1789, but methods designed to achieve it were not refined until well into the nineteenth century. In 1834 Victor Considerant devised a list PR system that Antoine Morin of Switzerland developed further in 1862. In 1885 an international conference on proportional representation in Antwerp recommended the list PR method proposed in 1882 by the Belgian Victor D’Hondt. In 1899, Belgium adopted D’Hondt’s system and thus became the first country to use list PR. By 1920 most countries of western Europe had adopted versions of PR (Carstairs 1980).

Beside the intellectual and moral appeal of proportionality, two practical motives spurred the turn to PR in Europe. In societies divided along linguistic or religious lines, such as Switzerland, Belgium, and The Netherlands, PR offered all groups a stake in democracy. For countries about to expand the franchise, PR assured ruling conservative parties that they would not be shut out of parliament, as might have occurred under existing electoral systems once previously disenfranchised citizens became a majority of voters. These motives also influenced later decisions to adopt PR, including the notable case of South Africa in 1994.

Perhaps because of their continuous history of elections predating the development of PR, the UK and the USA (as well as some countries they influenced) have clung to the older, simpler method of single-member districts and plurality rule. Proponents of PR in English-speaking countries have usually favored STV, reflecting its invention by the Englishman Thomas Hare in 1857 and John Stuart Mill’s enthusiastic advocacy. That tradition was broken in 1993 when New Zealand adopted MMP.

Agreement on a list PR system was often a key ingredient in democratizations during the late twentieth century, as in Portugal, Spain, South Africa, and Indonesia. However, in the 1990s the global trend shifted to mixed electoral systems, both the semiproportional parallel version and fully proportional MMP. By 1997, of the world’s 211 independent states or semiautonomous territories, 75 (35 percent) used PR systems (list, MMP, or STV) to elect the principal chamber of the national legislature. Countries using PR comprised 46 percent of states respecting political rights and civil liberties, and 59 percent of well-established democracies (Reynolds and Reilly 1997). In many other nations, PR is used for elections to upper chambers, regional and local councils, or supranational authorities, such as the European Parliament.


  1. Carstairs A M 1980 A Short History of Electoral Systems in Western Europe. Allen & Unwin, London
  2. Cox G W 1997 Making Votes Count. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  3. Lijphart A 1994 Electoral Systems and Party Systems. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  4. Reynolds A, Reilly B 1997 The International IDEA Handbook of Electoral System Design. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Stockholm
  5. Taagepera R, Shugart M S 1989 Seats and Votes. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
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