Secondary menu

Electoral Insight – Review of Electoral Systems

Electoral Insight – June 1999

Criteria for Assessing Electoral Systems

André Blais
Département de science politique, Université de Montréal


peace tower

The choice of an electoral system hinges on two sets of judgments: empirical judgments about the likely consequences of the various options and normative judgments about how "good" or "bad," and "important" or "trivial" these consequences are. In this paper, I concentrate on the second dimension.

I follow two approaches. I start with a theoretical reflection. I ask: Why do we believe it is a "good" thing that legislators be chosen by the people in a fair and honest election? I identify two major benefits that are presumed to flow from democratic elections and I examine the conditions that must be fulfilled for these goals to be achieved. These conditions help us to specify criteria for assessing electoral systems. I then review the debate over electoral systems and point out additional criteria that have been invoked in that debate.

I define an electoral system as the set of rules which govern the process by which citizens' opinions about candidates and parties are expressed in votes and by which these votes are thereafter translated into the designation of decision-makers (see Blais 1988). An electoral system comprises the constituency structure (how many representatives are to be elected in each constituency?) the ballot structure (how are electors supposed to express their opinions?) and the electoral formula (what conditions must be fulfilled in order to be elected?).

What Should Elections Accomplish?

There are two major reasons why we may be better off with elected representatives than with a dictator. The first is that the policies adopted by elected representatives are more likely to reflect the views of the majority. The second is that conflict is more likely to be dealt with peacefully in a democracy.

We believe that the holding of elections increases legislators' sensitivity to public opinion and that, as a consequence, there will be congruence between what citizens want and what governments do. How and why is this congruence supposed to occur?

The first mechanism is accountability. If politicians attempt to maximize the probability of being elected (or re-elected) they will propose policies that correspond to the views of the greatest number of electors and they will implement these policies if they are elected in order to increase their probability of being re-elected next time.

Once elected, legislators are free to do what they want. But electors are able not to re-elect them if they feel their representatives have not done a good job. This creates an incentive for representatives to be sensitive to the views of their constituents. This suggests a first criterion for assessing an electoral system: Does it produce legislators and governments that are easily accountable to voters? The concern is that it should be easy for voters to determine who is responsible for the decisions that have been made and to dismiss those people if they have not performed adequately.

The second mechanism is representation by reflection. If electors vote for candidates who best represent their views, the legislature is likely to reflect the overall distribution of viewpoints and perspectives in society. If opinions in the legislature accurately reflect those in society, the decisions that legislators make should resemble those that citizens would have made in a direct democracy.

There is no guarantee that a legislator who shares my perspectives will not start behaving differently once elected. But it is reasonable to assume that our interests are more likely to be defended by legislators who are similar to us. Here is a second criterion for assessing an electoral system: Does it produce legislatures and governments that are broadly representative of the electorate?

The second major virtue perceived in elections is that they allow citizens to resolve their conflicts peacefully. Votes substitute for arms. This raises the question of why, or under what conditions, losers peacefully accept the outcome of the election.

There are three main reasons. First, because they believe that some basic rights will not be infringed upon by the government. This is why we have institutions such as a charter of rights and freedoms. Second, because they believe that even though they may have lost this time there is a real possibility that they will win another time (in the next election) or place (they may lose in a federal election but win in a provincial one). Third, because, even though they do not like the outcome, they recognize that the procedure is legitimate.

Consider a small minority group within a democratic polity that always finds itself on the losing side on the major issues of the day. Even though legislators may be selected through perfectly democratic elections, this group may well feel that electoral democracy is deeply unsatisfactory. Groups will accept the outcome of elections provided they feel that the process is fair, that it is not systematically biased against them. This leads me to enunciate a third criterion: Does the electoral system produce legislatures and governments that are systematically biased against certain groups or interests? I call this criterion fairness (and this is the concept that is most widely used in the literature) but in my mind what really matters is the absence of a systematic bias.

Losers in an election may finally accept the outcome because they perceive the electoral procedure to be legitimate. But what makes the election device legitimate? I would argue that what is most critical for an election to be judged legitimate is the perception that each vote counts the same. This is so because the most fundamental principle in a democracy is that each person should have equal rights. Hence a fourth criterion: In the election, does each vote count equally?

This theoretical discussion has led me to suggest four criteria for assessing electoral systems: accountability, representativeness, fairness, and equality. There is some overlap between the last three criteria. Those who are most concerned with these criteria wish to improve the quality of representation to prevent exploitation of some groups in society over others. Those who are more concerned with accountability give priority to citizens' capacity to "throw the rascals out," possibly because their greatest fear is "protection of individuals and groups from tyrannical exploitation by government" (Katz 1997, 309).

Reviewing the Debate on Electoral Systems

The four criteria identified above are prominent in the debate over electoral systems (see Blais 1991), but other values are also invoked. This suggests that the list of criteria has to be expanded.

The first two values that need to be considered are: effectiveness and accommodation. An important aspect of the debate over electoral systems is stability. A standard argument against proportional representation (PR), for instance, is that it may produce unstable governments. This raises two questions: Is stability always a good thing? and Why is it a good thing?

It is difficult to argue that stability as such is always good. We would be concerned, I think, if the same government were to rule over a very long period of time. Too much stability may be bad. This is why I do not put stability on my list of criteria.

At the same time, it is difficult not to agree that the state cannot adequately function if governments are reconstituted every month. We want an effective government, a government that is capable of effectively managing the state. Too much instability is (rightly) perceived to undermine government effectiveness. I prefer to talk about effectiveness than about stability because the former is a more inclusive criterion. A minimum degree of stability may be a necessary condition of effectiveness but there are others, such as a minimum level of cohesion within the cabinet.

Another value that is invoked, this time by proponents of PR, is that of compromise. The party(ies) in power must be able to implement the policies it (they) had promised during the election campaign. But we do not want the government to have too much power either; we do not want it to be able to impose its will all the time. We want a government that is both firm and open-minded, that is willing to make concessions to preserve social peace.

It is impossible to reach all collective decisions by consensus. This would entail a veto power for all groups and a most ineffective government. But we hope that governments will try hard to find compromises in order to prevent social conflicts from becoming too divisive. We want governments to manifest a sense of accommodation.

There is a tension between effectiveness and accommodation. A government that is effective gets out to implement the policies it had advocated during the election campaign. A government that seeks accommodation will consult widely before making final decisions and will look for compromises that will be acceptable to as many groups as possible. These objectives are partly contradictory. It seems to me that most people want to prevent extreme ineffectiveness and complete absence of accommodation. I thus propose a fifth criterion: Does the electoral system produce legislatures and governments that are both effective and accommodating?

The debate over electoral systems also raises issues about the role of parties in a democracy. According to most analysts, parties are absolutely essential in a democracy. As Schattschneider (1942, 1) put it in his famous defence of political parties, "The political parties created democracy and ... modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties."

For this reason, we want an election to produce a strong party system. This may create another problem. With "party government," the party decides and the individual legislator has to vote the way his or her party says. The consequence is that electors do not have any control over their representatives.

Here again, there is a tension. We want strong parties and parties are meaningless if they are not cohesive. But we do not want parties to be too strong. We want our representatives to be sensitive to our concerns and not to always cave in to the dictates of the party.

The upshot, again, is that we want to avoid the extreme situations where parties lack cohesion or where they entirely control the behaviour of their elected members. Hence my sixth criterion: Does the electoral system produce relatively strong parties and relatively strong representatives?

The final issue concerns the quality of the information provided by the vote. Let me start with a truism. The more precisely voters are allowed to express their views on the ballot, the greater the likelihood that what governments do will reflect what citizens want.

The truism may seem trivial but it has important implications. We should prefer a ballot in which voters are allowed to express not only their first choice but also their second or third choices, and a formula that takes into account these second or third choices. Likewise, we should prefer a system in which voters are allowed to express their specific views about the parties, the leaders and the local candidates over one in which those distinctions cannot be made.

In the same vein, we should prefer an electoral system in which there is strong congruence between vote choice and preferences. In other words, we would like voters to vote sincerely rather than strategically, because the more sincere the vote is, the more accurately it reflects voters' preferences. And representation by reflection works only if voters vote (sincerely) for parties or candidates that are closest to their views about what governments should do.

For all these reasons, we should look for an electoral system in which the vote reflects as precisely as possible citizens' preferences. But precision cannot be achieved without cost. The most obvious cost is complexity. Ranking the ten candidates running in one's constituency from one to ten is more demanding than just indicating one's first choice. In other words, we also like simplicity. This leads me to propose a seventh criterion: Is the vote both simple enough and a relatively precise reflection of citizens' preferences?

Conclusion

My reading of the literature on electoral democracy and on the debate over electoral systems has led me to formulate the following criteria for assessing existing and proposed electoral systems: accountability, representativeness, fairness, equality, effectiveness, accommodation, party cohesion, freedom for representatives, simplicity and precision.

It should be obvious that no electoral system can fully satisfy all of these criteria. I would argue that in such a situation we should aim for a solution that is satisfactory rather than optimal. A prudent approach is, in my view, to devise an electoral system that is devoid of serious shortfalls.

My presentation was meant to be theoretical. I believe it is important to distance oneself from the peculiarities of our situation and to reflect broadly on the bases on which we should assess democratic institutions. The arguments put forward by advocates of the various options are basically the same all over the world.

This being said, there is a special emphasis in Canada, and it is on the question of regional representation. It is no accident that the most important proposal for electoral reform in Canada, advanced by the Task Force on Canadian Unity, was meant "to contribute substantially to the building of national parties in the regions from which they are effectively excluded from Parliament" (Irvine 1985, 106-107). And it is no accident that, according to its author, the major advantages of a recent proposal "concern the incentives for nationwide political appeals and its strong tendency to reduce under-representation of some regions in the governing party" (Weaver 1997, 511).

Refrences

Blais, André. 1988. "The Classification of Electoral Systems." European Journal of Political Research 16: 99-110.

Blais, André. 1991. "The Debate Over Electoral Systems." International Political Science Review 12: 239-260.

Irvine, William P. 1985. "A Review and Evaluation of Electoral System Reform Proposals." In Institutional Reforms for Representative Government, ed. Peter Aucoin. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Katz, Richard S. 1997. Democracy and Elections. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schattschneider, E. E. 1942. Party Government. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Weaver, R. Kent. 1997. "Improving Representation in the Canadian House of Commons." Canadian Journal of Political Science 30: 473-512.


Note: The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.