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Democratic Electoral Systems

What is an Electoral System?

An electoral or voting system is how votes are translated into seats. It determines how many votes and what kinds of votes are necessary to award seats to candidates and parties in an election. Different electoral systems produce different kinds of results, and give voters different kinds of choices.

The electoral system determines the “exchange rate” between votes and seats - that is, how votes are translated into seats.  How many and what kind of votes are needed to get a seat varies from system to system.  As a result, different electoral systems give politicians incentives to organize and campaign in different ways.  Some electoral systems may even create barriers for certain types of candidates.  Different electoral systems give voters different kinds of choices, which can then affect the decisions voters make.

Features and Characteristics of Electoral Systems

A democratic electoral system can be said to be one where:

  • elections are regular and fair
  • votes are of equal value
  • the will of the majority is achieved
  • the interests of minorities are taken into consideration
  • there is a high level of participation by the electorate
  • there is the maximum possible franchise
  • voting is accessible

There are three main characteristics of any electoral system that determine how it works:

  • District Magnitude – this refers to the number of representatives elected from the district or riding. These could be single member ridings or multi-member ridings.
  • Ballot Structure – this refers to the number of voting preferences given a voter on a ballot for them to mark. The range of choices includes a single choice for a party or candidate; a multiple preference between parties and candidates; and weighting preferences between candidates by rank-ordering them.
  • Electoral Formula – this refers to the method by which votes are turned into seats, given the district magnitude and ballot structure being used. It could include thresholds stipulating the percentage of votes necessary to get elected.

Types of Electoral System

There are several categorizations of electoral systems available. For simplicity we will recognize four categories here.

  • Plurality Systems
  • Majority Systems
  • Proportional Reprsentation Systems
  • Mixed Systems

We should however point out that even though the specific examples within each category may vary in a number of interesting ways all of them have common characteristics and appear to behave in similar ways with somewhat predictable consequences.

Plurality Systems

Also called “first-past-the-post” or “winner-take-all” systems, plurality systems simply award a seat to the individual candidate who receives the most votes in an election. The candidate need not get a majority (50%+) of the vote to win; so long as he has a larger number of votes than all other candidates, he is declared the winner.

The main features of plurality systems are as follows:

  • Based on the principle that the contestant with the most support ought to be elected.
  • Generally require simple and transparent voting and counting processes.
  • Candidates are elected with a plurality (i.e. not a majority) of votes cast.
  • Main models include: Single Member Plurality; Multi-Member Plurality (also called Block Vote).

First-past-the-post voting (FPTP)

This system of vote counting is the simplest - the voter only votes for one candidate and whoever gets the highest number of votes is elected. It is the easiest vote counting system to calculate results. The winning candidate is the one who gains more votes than any other candidate, but not necessarily an absolute majority (50% + 1).

FPTP is used in the United Kingdom, Canada, India, the United States and many other countries.

Block vote (BV)

When the FPP system is used in multi-member electorates where electors have as many votes as there are seats to be filled it is known as the BV. Once a candidate is elected, all ballot papers are returned to the count to elect the next member. The highest-polling candidates fill the positions regardless of the percentage of the votes they actually receive.

The BV is used in Bermuda, Laos, Thailand, Kuwait, the Philippines and other countries.

Majority Systems

Also called “second ballot” systems, majority electoral systems attempt to provide for a greater degree of representativeness by requiring that candidates achieve a majority of votes in order to win. “Majority” is normally defined as 50%-plus-one-vote. If no candidate gets a majority of votes, then a second round of voting is held (often a week or so after the initial ballot). In the second round of voting, only a select number of candidates from the first round are allowed to participate. In

The main features of majority systems are as follows:

  • Based on the principle that an elected representative should be elected only if she or he has the support of more than half of the voters.
  • May require preferential voting or more than one round of voting if there are more than two candidates, or a natural majority does not exist.
  • Candidates are elected with a majority (i.e. more than 50%) of votes cast.
  • Main models include: Alternative Vote; Two-Round Vote.

Preferential voting (PV)

PV is usually used in single-member districts and gives electors more options than FPP when marking their ballot paper. Electors must rank all candidates by placing the number ‘1’ for their preferred candidate and consecutive numbers from ‘2’ for their 2nd choice, ‘3’ for their 3rd choice and so on until all candidates are numbered. A candidate who has an absolute majority of votes (50% + 1) is immediately elected.

If no candidate has an absolute majority, the candidate with the lowest number of 1st preferences is eliminated, and their ballot papers are examined for 2nd preferences to be assigned to remaining candidates in the order as marked. The totals are then checked and this process is repeated until one candidate has an absolute majority.

PV is used in the Australian federal House of Representatives and in some state Legislative Assemblies. PV is also used in Nauru.

Optional preferential voting (OPV)

In OPV electors place the number ‘1’ for their preferred candidate and this is enough for a valid vote. They may continue numbering candidates in order of their preference to the extent they choose. All candidates do not have to be ranked.

NSW uses OPV for the election of representatives in the Legislative Assembly (Lower House) and in local government areas/wards for mayoral elections and when one or two vacancies are to be filled.

Two round system (TRS)

The TRS is conducted in the same way as an FPP election and if a candidate receives an absolute majority of votes, they are elected. If no candidate receives an absolute majority a second round of voting is conducted, often a week or two later and the winner of this round is declared elected. The 2nd round may be a contest between the two biggest vote winners (the Ukraine) or those who receive over a certain percentage of the votes of the registered electorate (France).

The TRS is used in countries such as France, Mali, Togo, Egypt, Iran, Belarus and Ukraine.

Proportional Representation Systems

Proportional representation is the general name for a class of voting systems that attempt to make the percentage of offices awarded to candidates reflect as closely as possible the percentage of votes that they received in the election. It is the most widely used set of electoral systems in the world, and its variants can be found at some level of government in almost every country (including the United States, where some city councils are elected using forms of PR). 

The main features of Proportional Representation (PR) systems are as follows:

  • Based on the assumption that parties are the real contestants and the principle that their seat shares should accurately reflect their vote shares
  • Requires multi-member districts (the bigger the more proportional the final result can be)
  • Counting and seat determination processes are generally complex and not immediately transparent
  • Candidates are elected based on the total percentage of votes cast for their party.
  • Main models include: List; Mixed Member Proportional; Single Transferable Vote; Single Non-Transferable Vote; Parallel.
List proportional representation (List PR)

Most PR systems use some form of List PR. List PR is used in multi-member electorates where votes are cast in order of preference for the parties which have registered a list of candidates. Parties receive seats in proportion to their overall share of the total vote and winning candidates are taken from the lists in order of their position.

Mixed member proportional (MMP)

MMP systems try to combine the elements of majority and PR systems. A proportion of the parliament is elected by majority methods, usually from single-member electorates, while the remainder come from PR Lists.

Under MMP systems, the List PR seats compensate for any disproportions produced by the district seat results. For example, if one party wins 10% of the national votes but no district seats, they would be awarded enough seats from the PR lists to bring their representation up to around 10% of the parliament.

MMP is used in countries such as Germany, New Zealand, Italy and Venezuela.

The single transferable vote (STV)

The STV system is used in multi-member districts with electors ranking candidates in order of preference on the ballot paper as in PV. Preference marking is usually optional where electors can mark as many candidates as they choose. After the total number of 1st preference votes is added up, the count begins by establishing the quota of votes needed for the election of a single candidate.

One of the most widely used methods is known as the Droop quota, named for the nineteenth-century thinker and mathematician H. R. Droop. The Droop quota is used to determine the minimal number of votes that an individual candidate must get in order to be awarded a seat. It is calculated using the formula:

                 [V/(S+1)] +1

where V is the total number of valid votes cast in the constituency, and S is the total number seats up for election in the constituency. Hence, if we have 1,000 votes cast for 3 seats, the Droop quota is [ 1,000 / (3 + 1) ] + 1 = 251. That means that any candidate who is able to get at least 251 votes will be assured of winning a seat. Once the Droop quota has been calculated and all the votes collected, we still have to allocate the seats. 

All Australian PR systems use the STV, although the South Australian, Victorian, Western Australian and NSW Upper Houses and the federal Senate may be thought of as semi-list systems as the ballot paper also provides for group voting above the line or in the case of Western Australia left and right of the line.

STV is used for national parliamentary elections in Ireland, Malta and Estonia.

Single non-transferable vote (SNTV)

In SNTV systems, each elector has one vote but there are several seats in the district to be filled. The candidates with the highest number of votes fill these positions. For example, In a 4-member district a candidate needs just over 20% of the vote to be elected.

The main difference between SNTV and majority systems is that the SNTV makes it easier for minority parties to be represented. The larger the number of seats in the constituency, the more proportional the system becomes.

The SNTV system is used for parliamentary elections in countries such as Jordan, Taiwan and Vanuatu.

Parallel systems

Parallel systems use both PR lists and majority (“winner takes all”) methods but, unlike MMP systems, the PR lists do not compensate for any disproportions within the majority districts.

Parallel systems are used in around 20 countries including Croatia, Japan and Russia.

Mixed Systems

The main features of mixed systems are as follows:

  • Involve combinations of the other four basic families within a single system
  • Generally designed to introduce an element of proportionality
  • May mix different types of electoral families across the entire country, or mix different types in different parts of the country
  • Can produce legislators with different mandates, different constituencies, different roles

Summary of Electoral Systems

The table below summarizes the range of different electoral systems.

Electoral system Districts Type Description
first-past-the-post (FPTP) single-member plurality The candidate that obtains more votes than any other is elected, even if that person only won a minority of votes cast.
two-round system (TRS) single-member majority A runoff election is held between the two top vote-getters, in order to ensure that the winner obtains a majority of votes cast.
alternative vote (AV), or instant runoff single-member majority Voters indicate an order of preference among candidates. If no candidate obtains a majority outright, the last-place candidate is removed, and the associated second-choice votes are added to the totals of the remaining candidates. The process is repeated until a candidate secures a majority.
block vote (BV) multiple-member plurality Voters may cast as many votes as there are open seats. If there are n seats to be filled, the top n vote-getters are elected.
single non-transferable vote (SNTV) multiple-member semi-proportional Voters can only cast a single vote among candidates for n seats. The top n vote-getters are elected.
single transferable vote (STV), also known as preference or choice voting multiple-member proportional Voters indicate an order of preference among candidates. Candidates whose first-choice vote totals attain the Hare Quota—(votes cast/n+1) + 1— are elected. The last-place candidate is removed, and the associated second-choice votes are added to the totals of the remaining candidates. The process is repeated until all n seats are filled.
mixed member proportional (MMP) mixed proportional The legislature consists of a block of seats that are elected by plurality or majority from single-member districts, and another block of seats that are elected in multi-member districts under a proportional system. The proportional seats are awarded in such a way as to compensate for disproportional effects in the single-member district outcomes.
parallel mixed semi-proportional The legislature consists of a block of seats that are elected by plurality or majority from single-member districts, and another block of seats that are elected in multi-member districts under a proportional system. The proportional seats are awarded independently of the outcomes in single-member districts.
party list multiple-member proportional Voters choose from among party lists, and seats are awarded in proportion to the vote received by each party. Candidates are seated in the order listed.

Electoral Systems in the Caribbean

Below is a list of the electoral systems used by other Caribbean states.

Country Electoral System Type Number of Reps.
Anguilla first-past-the-post plurality 11
Antigua and Barbuda first-past-the-post plurality 17
Aruba first-past-the-post plurality 21
The Bahamas first-past-the-post plurality 39
Barbados first-past-the-post plurality 30
Belize first-past-the-post plurality 31
Bermuda block plurality 36
British Virgin Islands first-past-the-post plurality 15
Cayman Islands first-past-the-post plurality 19
Cuba two-round system majority 612
Curacao first-past-the-post plurality 21
Dominica first-past-the-post plurality 31
Dominican Republic party list proportional 195
Grenada first-past-the-post plurality 15
Guadeloupe two-round system majority 43
Guyana party list proportional 65
Haiti two-round system majority 99
Jamaica first-past-the-post plurality 63
Martinique two-round system majority 45
Montserrat first-past-the-post plurality 9
Netherlands Antilles party list proportional 27
Puerto Rico first-past-the-post plurality 51
Saint Kitts and Nevis first-past-the-post plurality 15
Saint Lucia first-past-the-post plurality 17+1
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines first-past-the-post plurality 15+8
Suriname party list proportional 51
Trinidad and Tobago first-past-the-post plurality 41
Turks and Caicos Islands first-past-the-post plurality 19
United States Virgin Islands block plurality 15

Trends in Use of Electoral Systems

Certain trends may be recognised in electoral systems over time:

  • Early electoral systems were mainly based on the Plurality principle
  • During the 19th century Majority systems became more popular and more widely adopted
  • Proportional Representation list systems were widely adopted in the opening decades of the 20th century, often at the time the right to vote was being expanded. They were seen as a way of ensuring that no one group (for instance, working class socialists) would be able to capture a majority
  • Curiously, Proportional Representation systems made little headway in the democracies that were descended from the British parliament (with the exceptions of the adoption of the Single Transferable Vote by Ireland and Tasmania).
    • Australian upper houses began adopting Single Transferable Vote in 1949 and now over half have done so.
  • In the last decade of the 20th century there was a sudden revival of interest in electoral system change, reform and experimentation:
    • the creation of new democracies in once Communist parts of Eastern Europe
    • the decision of established democracies to try and change their politics by altering their electoral system.
  • Some went from plurality to PR (New Zealand), others moved in the other direction (Italy) while others moved to new complicated mixed systems (Japan)
    • the adoption by Britain of different systems for different elections
  • The recent past has seen a sharp growth in the interest in proportional electoral arrangements and the adoption of Mixed electoral systems in an attempt to reap the perceived benefits of more than one type of electoral family.
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