Is a majoritarian or a proportional electoral system better?
At the centre of the debate of choosing between majoritarian and proportional electoral system concerns the issue of trade-off between having representative versus effective, accountable government. Whereas majoritarian systems tend to produce more accountable, stronger, and stable government, they offer poor representativeness. In contrast, proportional representation providing highly representative government usually leads to coalition which tends to be unstable and unaccountable. This essay will examine these strengths and weaknesses of majoritarian and proportional representation. In the final analysis, it is in fact the district magnitude that determines the better system (Hix and Carey 2009); Low-magnitude proportional representation1 seems to provide the better alternative to pure PR and majoritorian systems in the end. First it is necessary to distinguish between these two types of electoral systems. A majoritarian electoral system is one in which the candidates or parties that receive most votes win2. (some majoritarian systems only require a candidate to win more votes than others). A proportional representation (PR) is a quota or divisor based electoral system employed in multimember districts3. The advocates of the majoritarian electoral system emphasise largely on the importance of accountable and responsive government. Recall that accountability is the extent to which voters are able to reward or punish parties for their behaviour and responsiveness is how well elected representatives respond to changes in the preferences of the electorate4. These are relatively higher in majoritarian system than in PR. Since almost all majoritarian systems are employed in a single-member district, voters vote for one candidate in each constituency and the candidate who gains most votes wins that seat. Having one representative, it is easy to know who is responsible for the outcome of policies implemented. Consequently, majoritarian system is likely to produce a representative who provides high level of constituency service and respond to electorates’ needs because when the tenure in office ends, electorates can easily decide whether to vote for the candidate again or punish him by voting for another party’s candidate in the next election by judging his performance. Conversely, proportional representation provides lower accountability. As several representatives are elected per one constituency, it is difficult to the electorates to know who is responsible for policy failure because many representatives are responsible for one constituency. This can particularly be a problem if the district magnitude is large, for example, Brazil has average district magnitude of 195, meaning that on average 19 representatives are responsible for one constituency. If policy failure occurs, there is likely to be blame-shifting game between them. Consequently, when the next election approaches, a voter may not be able to punish or reward specific party because of low clarity of responsibility; voters do not know for certain who is truly responsible for policy failure or should be rewarded for policy success. Although the majoritarian system tends to produce high accountability, this advantage comes at the expense of disproportionality and unrepresentativeness. Since one seat cannot be separated in single-member constituency, this means the candidate who gets the most votes wins the whole seat. Thus, despite having gained some votes, a candidate will not gain any seat unless he comes first in the constituency. It is also possible that the winning candidate does not receive the true majority of votes. For instance, the 2005 UK legislative elections in which the Single-Member Plurality system was used, a Conservative candidate Philip Hollobone won the most votes (45.6%) in Kettering constituency. This means that actually 54.4% of voters did not vote for Hollobone6, yet he...
References: 1. George Tsebelis (1999) ‘Veto Players and Law Production in Parliamentary Democracies: An Empirical Analysis’, American Journal of Political Science 93(3): 591-608.
2. George Tsebelis, veto player theory: how political institutions work, Princeton University Press, 2002
3. John Carey and Simon Hix (2011) 'The Electoral Sweet Spot: Low-Magnitude Proportional Electoral Systems ', American Journal of Political Science 55(2) 383-339.
4. William Roberts Clark,Matt Golder, Sona Nadenichek Golder, Principles of Comparative Politics (1st Edition) Washington D.C.: CQ Press. 2009
5. William R. Clark and Matt Golder (2006) ‘Rehabilitating Duverger’s Theory: Testing the Mechanical and Strategic Modifying Effects of Electoral Laws’, Comparative Political Studies 39(6): 679-708.
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